Ljubljana … a delightful surprise

Over the course of four days and nights in early May, I fell in love with this charming little city; though two years earlier, when my husband first mentioned it as a possible destination, it wasn’t exactly on my “top five list.”  Our Adria Airways flight out of Istanbul, filled to the brim with an odd mix of sleepy Turkish truck drivers and boisterous school-kids on some sort of field trip, departed at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am and arrived at the equally ungodly hour of 6:10 am.  After being the last one’s through the slowest and most inhospitable of all immigration lines I’ve ever encountered, we were greeted by our driver and whisked off to our hotel.

The road from the airport to the city center was mercifully empty and in no time at all we were transported to the Antiq Palace Hotel and Spa.  Still half asleep, we sat in silent awe for most of the smooth ride, captivated by views of the Alps and lush alpine forests.   Our hotel, a former “noble residence” built in the 16th century, confused us at first glance – the nondescript exterior gave no hint of the palatial suites, apartments and public spaces awaiting us inside.   Located on a quiet street around the corner from a lovely square overlooking the river, and within easy walking distance to boutiques, restaurants, cafés, art galleries and the daily central market – we couldn’t have been happier.

Ljubljana, the largest city in Slovenia, is relatively tiny when compared to other international capitals, and yet – that’s probably one of its greatest assets.  The historic city center, or Old Town, is a car-free zone, making it remarkably easy to get around.  High up on a tree-covered hill stands the castle while down below, the river Ljubljanica winds it way through town, lined with scores of outdoor cafés and a newly built riverside promenade.  With a mix of Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture, the lovely Old Town is something out of a dream.  Home to The University of Ljubljana, with over 63,000 undergraduate and graduate students, it seemed as though everywhere we looked, cafés were filled with students and young families.

As inviting as the outdoor cafés initially appeared to be, it soon proved challenging to find one in which we weren’t enveloped in a haze of second-hand smoke.  Thankfully, we quickly learned to adapt.  We began paying attention to the prevailing wind patterns and demographics; cafés popular with students and hipsters were out, while those frequented by families pushing strollers were in.  We looked for end tables as well as those next to fellow non-smokers.  In the end, it wasn’t too bothersome.  The more welcome difference we noticed proved to be the complete lack of loud talkers and cell phone addicts.  In California, coffee shops and sidewalk cafés are treated like remote home offices with laptops, tablets, e-readers, gadgets and phones strewn everywhere.  In Ljubljana, people actually meet up for drinks and concentrate on the people they’re with rather than the texts or tweets they might be receiving.  Sitting at one outdoor café while waiting for JP to join me, I was delighted to see the people around me absorbed in animated conversation rather than obsessively checking their phones.  So yes, I had to put up with some minor second hand smoke, but it was utterly refreshing.

Old Town is chock full of things I adore:  spacious squares with bubbling fountains and cobblestone streets lined with interesting shops, beautiful old churches, gelato stands and a multitude of charming restaurants and cafés with comfortable alfresco seating.  But the daily market took my breath away.  Fruits, vegetables and plants were the stars of the show and an absolute delight for anyone who loves the cook, eat or garden.  Vendors made it clear where their produce originated, making it easy for anyone to differentiate between locally grown produce and products brought in from Italy or Spain.  Asparagus season was in full swing and salad greens were both inexpensive and abundant (¼ kilo for one Euro), making me positively giddy that our suite came with a nicely equipped kitchen.  One vendor in particular came to recognize us over the course of our stay; he and his wife were selling nothing but their own locally grown, small organic strawberries – some of the best I’ve ever tasted.  Their price dropped if you were willing to buy three or more containers, so each day we bought three baskets and either gobbled them up or shared them with friends.

We fell in love with the 24-hour mlekomat – vending machines selling “daily unskimmed fresh raw cow milk” for just one Euro per liter.  We purchased clean plastic containers from the vending machine, but you also have the option of filling your own.  Amazingly, it’s even possible to purchase as little as one deciliter for just ten cents (that’s just under a half cup for 13 of our pennies)!  On our first visit we each pounded down a full liter of icy cold, delicious milk and immediately went back for more. We were instantly addicted.

Nearby, a handful of vendors were offering dried herbs, honey products, beeswax candles and woven baskets. A wonderfully creamy lip-balm made from beeswax and shea butter saved the day when I realized I’d lost the my tube of ChapStick, but the item that stopped me dead in my tracts was something I couldn’t eat, drink or bring home – an entire market aisle devoted to plant seedlings and vegetable starts.

Sure, I can buy these at home, in six or eight cell packs, but this market allows home gardeners to buy as few or as many individual plants as they wish!  And the varieties offered seemed infinite; I counted eight types of lettuce starts alone!  How perfectly wonderful it must be to have the option of buying eight types of lettuce, but just one plant apiece!  I’m typically faced with the choice of buying six cucumber plants when all I really want is just one or two.  Our backyard vegetable patch isn’t terribly large; besides, I crave variety. The Ljubljana market had me drooling with envy!  And yes, those sentences do deserve exclamation points! So yeah, along with the strawberries and milk, the seedlings had me ridiculously excited and envious.  I’m quite certain there are vendors who are still talking about the crazy American who behaved as if she had never seen a tomato plant before.  But can you blame me?  Ox heart tomato seedlings were just 65 cents apiece!

Here in bat-shit-crazy California, I foolishly paid some guy on Craigslist $6.00 for a Paul Robeson tomato seedling after having missed the plant sale at Love Apple Farms.  The jerk quoted me $2.00 over the phone and when I arrived, after having driven twenty minutes in traffic, he upped his price to six bucks!  I stood there dumbfounded, torn between wanting to read him the riot act and not wanting to drive home empty handed.  Clearly, I should have walked away, but I tend to lose my head when it comes to rare and unusual plants.  And here’s the worst part:  the plant ended up dying a few months later with unripened fruit still on the vine.  I was crushed.  So to a gardening fanatic like me, the Ljubljana market looked like heaven.

I jealously stood by and watched as people all around me picked out plants for their gardens.  You’d like just one eggplant seedling?  No problem!  Fork over 77 cents and the nice lady will wrap your little plant in a sheet of newspaper and send you on your way. Obviously, you need to pot it up when you get home, or better yet, stick it in the ground straight away, but regardless – this is golden.  Trust me, I know better than most that not every plant survives, but it’s one thing when a 65 cent seedling dies, and something else entirely when the dead plant cost $6.00 plus gas and forty minutes spent stuck in traffic.

So here’s my next favorite thing about the seedlings at the Ljubljana market . . . because they wrap your newly purchased plants in recycled newsprint, you don’t have to deal with umpteen million plastic containers piling up in the garage.  An exaggeration perhaps, but when viewed on a global scale, it isn’t that far fetched.  I realize for some, this may not seem like a big deal, but for me, it is.  I love that the end-consumer isn’t stuck with a bunch of six or eight cell plastic containers.  Although I often reuse them for starting my own plants from seed, they ultimately end up in the recycling cart (and sadly, since not every town in the States has a recycling program, many of these “recyclable” plastic containers actually end up in the waste stream, buried in landfills and in all sorts of places they don’t belong).  I don’t want or need plastic containers to start my own seedlings; I’d rather improvise.  Instead of worrying about how to recycle or reuse plastic containers, I’d rather just eliminate them whenever possible.

So, vegetable starts purchased at the Ljubljana market are brought home in compostable recycled newspaper and the vendors reuse their Styrofoam trays over and over again.  And although I don’t love Styrofoam, I do love the small-scale simplicity of this system.  In effect, one tray replaces hundreds, perhaps thousands, of plastic cell-packs.  The consumer buys directly from the producer and as a result, no plastic containers are needed and prices are lower.  I realize that this model may not work everywhere, but it sure seems like one that should be celebrated, embraced and copied, if at all possible.

I’m a big fan of small-scale farming.  It allows us to see where our food comes from, it reduces waste and it keeps food production safe and sustainable.  It links consumers directly to producers and creates meaningful relationships. It’s why I go out of my way to shop at farmers markets and farm stands and have been doing so for the past fifteen years.  It’s why we eat meat sparingly and prefer to buy humanely raised, 100% grass-fed beef and pasture raised chicken and pork, straight from the source.  It’s why I took a backyard chicken-keeping class and it’s one of the reasons we turned our backyard lawn into a vegetable garden.  It’s why, before I even began unpacking boxes, I bought and planted two dwarf lemon trees within days of moving to California.  And finally, it’s why I got so excited at Ljubljana’s outdoor central market.

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