This story appeared in International Traveller, Nov/Dec 2016.
At the foot of a hill castle in the centre of a small chicken-shaped country is what, on first impressions, appears to be a typical medium-sized Central European city. Slovenia borders Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and the Adriatic so its compact capital has long been overshadowed by Venice, Milan, Vienna, Salzburg, Zagreb. But this year Ljubljana has quietly achieved something to set itself apart from, and even be an inspiration to, these better-known centres.
Under a visionary mayor and after a decade of ambitious goal-setting, Ljubljana was named European Green Capital of 2016 – a first for Eastern or Central Europe and any of the countries petalled around Slovenia. Striving for the award created such momentum that, now, being green and getting greener is a way of life in Ljubljana, and visitors not only reap the benefits but are invited to get in on the action.
What’s initially most striking about this 290,000-person city, aside from being so darned pretty, is that its paved centre is closed to motorised traffic. There are no fumes, no engine noises, no horns, no congestion. The banks of the Ljubljanica are dominated by café tables, gelato stands and people socialising in the sunshine. A handful of electric people-movers meander around the centre picking up anyone who wants or needs a lift, but pedestrians and cyclists essentially own the squares and streets of Old Town, the Central Market, Triple Bridge, Prešeren Square and the grittier graffitied Trubarjeva Street.
Ljubljana is built on a plain, its parks and forests account for nearly three quarters of the city and there are over 220 kilometres of managed bike routes. For getting around town, riding along the river or travelling out to the city’s ‘lungs’ of Ljubljana Marshes, cycling is really the best way, in every way, to explore the Green Capital. Bikes are available for hire at the Tourism Information Centre near Krek Square or through the self-service bike-sharing system Bicike(LJ).
At the town hall I meet with Kristina Novak, who’s part of the 8-person European Green Capital 2016 team. We drink espresso and Ljubljana’s untreated tap water while discussing the government’s ‘vision 2025’ and some of the “1700 projects already implemented in relation to green capital”. These schemes have improved air quality, expanded green spaces, reduced light and noise pollution, revolutionised waste and water management, inspired outdoor exercise, increased urban beekeeping, improved accessibility, made businesses more socially responsible, encouraged sustainable tourism. Mayor Zoran Janković puts his head in the door during our meeting just to say hi.
The mayor “meets with people all the time to see how the projects are affecting people’s lives,” Kristina explains after he leaves. In order for Ljubljana to practise sustainable consumption and become a more circular economy, innovative solutions are encouraged and supported. An urban electric train, re-establishment of the castle’s vineyard, paper production using invasive weeds and outdoor libraries are examples.
Summer reading sites for Library Under the Treetops include Tivoli Park, Ljubljana Castle and the Mala Ulica Family Centre where there’s a vertical garden technologically controlled to stay green through winter. When Slovenska Street was recently refurbished to become a shared pedestrian, bike and bus mall, the ash saplings chosen to line this road for nearly half a kilometre were picked for their bee and butterfly attracting flowers.
Outside the town hall is a dual converted shipping container space with up-to-date information, interactive displays and regular workshops to “encourage residents and visitors to make Ljubljana even more green, clean, hospitable and friendly” says Kristina. It’s called Point. For. You.
In a completely different part of the city, but only a five-minute cycle from Old Town, is the world’s first certified eco-hostel. Celica is a repurposed military prison within the former Yugoslav National Army military barracks of what is now the autonomous cultural zone of Metelkova Mesto.
As Tanja Lipovec shows me some of their creatively renovated cells, she stresses that the hostel’s eco-friendliness relates to far more than separating waste. It’s about “doing things with purpose… thinking about the future and what you leave behind… how you promote your local environment”. Guests, she says, can actively participate in this by being mindful of energy consumption during their stay and buying local products when out shopping.
Dotted around the city are stores dedicated to selling Slovenian-made goods: Idrija lace, Prekmurje black pottery, Polona Polona porcelain, Smetumet bags, Carniolan bee honey and Adriatic sea salt products. Particular restaurants employ, as part of their staff, young people who’ve had limited education, people with disabilities or mental illness, immigrants struggling to find work.
Thrift store Stara Roba, Nova Raba – ‘old goods, new use’ – only employs people who’ve experienced homelessness or unemployment, and all profits go to paying their wages. Luna Jurančič Šribar has just completed her PhD on “how to bring alternative economics into a capitalistic system” and she and her staff show off some Yugoslav coffee sets and Slovenian ceramics no longer in production. There’s also a portrait of Tito for sale.
CurioCity’s From Ljubljana With Love tour focuses heavily on these types of socially responsible businesses. “We didn’t want to talk about dead people, we wanted to talk about things that are happening here now,” says Uroš Trauner as he and I walk the revitalised Trnovo embankment then though another of the city’s oldest suburbs, Krakovo, where Ljubljana Summer Festival events are held within the medieval walls of the Križanke Outdoor Theatre. Back in the city centre, we step into Galerija Emporium to admire the gloriously restored fin-de-siècle staircase.
When I return to Point. For. You. at the end of the week, I recognise all the places in the before-and-after photographs on display. I realise I’ve filled my water bottle at historic fountains that, a few years ago, were treated as traffic roundabouts and I’ve been freewheeling diagonally across squares previously packed, by day, with parked cars.
I bump into Kristina Novak who’s been attending a workshop and is about to cycle home. We get chatting about a mobile app currently being developed for locating the nearest drinking water when biking or walking the 34-kilometre Trail of Remembrance and Comradeship. Seven thousand trees line the circular path and there’s an adjoining orchard where everyone’s encouraged to take fruit for free.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, almost shaking with excitement.
Then someone rips past us on an ear-splitting motorised bike, but Kristina doesn’t flinch. Slovenian are generally pretty chilled people and “kindness” is something Ljubljana residents tell me they miss when they’re travelling away from their safe little city. Appreciation for all the improvements to quality of life seems to be a far more typical local response to the green city movement than petty criticisms of others or narrow-minded fanaticism. And, because Ljubljana is being greened and not sanitised, the technologically-advanced upgrades and the restoration of historic infrastructure continue to co-exist with graffiti, street art and two major urban squats so the place still feels interesting, edgy, real.
As we’re about to part, Kristina confesses she’d always hoped to be able to look back on her life and feel she’d done something worthwhile, and now knows for certain she will. As Tanja said, in the shade of Celica’s cherry tree, “when you live the story, only good things come of it”.