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Is Ljubljana the Next Prague?

Seldom has the truism about geography being destiny rung truer than in Slovenia. This spring, as war broke out in Kosovo, 350 miles to the southeast, my wife and I were making our way to Ljubljana, the capital of what was once a republic in the former Yugoslavia. Although Ljubljana (pronounced "lyoob-lyah-na") wasn't at all touched by the ravages of war, the spirit of NATO was, one might say, in the air. During late-night strolls along the banks of the Ljubljanica River, we heard the dull roar of NATO bombers making their way from the nearby Aviano Air Base, in Italy, to targets in Serbia. Nobody seemed worried by the disruption; in fact, all eyes turned skyward and small smiles broke out on the faces of passers-by. The Slovenes' own armed struggle for freedom took place nearly a decade ago, but they are still wary of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and company. Having won independence in 1991 and recognition from the European Community and the United Nations in 1992, Slovenia is now busily preparing itself for the ultimate acknowledgment of its postmodern cosmopolitanism: membership in NATO.

Slovenes have always resisted being lumped together with their more tempestuous Balkan neighbors. Under Tito (the half-Slovene, half-Croat leader who held the former Yugoslavia together for 40 years), they prided themselves on being the most Western republic in a country that was, in turn, the freest and most Western part of the Eastern bloc. Unfortunately, Slovenia is still perceived as the northernmost region of the war-torn Balkans, a misconception that has resulted in a large number of cancellations by jittery European tourists. It didn't help when, for insurance purposes, Lloyd's of London declared the entire eastern Adriatic coastline—on which Slovenia has 28 miles of gorgeous resorts and beaches—a "war zone."

The terrible irony is that Slovenia is probably the most peaceful country I've ever visited—a bucolic micro-paradise about the size of Connecticut, almost half covered by dense forests (where the Slovene partisans spent World War II hiding from the Nazis) and surrounded by snow-topped mountains that rival anything in Austria or Italy. Although I'd traveled all around Central Europe in the early nineties trying to divine the shape of the post-Communist era, I don't think I could even have found Ljubljana on a map. Then, as now, it was one of Europe's best-kept secrets: beautiful, friendly, inexpensive, and manageable—a bona fide city, with less attitude than Vienna, fewer crowds than Prague, and better food and nightlife than Budapest. If, as conventional wisdom has it, the Muse took up residence in Paris during the 1920's, New York in the 1950's, and Prague in the 1990's, I wouldn't be at all surprised if she makes Ljubljana her next home. Awash in history, Ljubljana conveys a marvelous sense of as-yet-untapped potential. Were I a young novelist looking for an inspirational setting in which to complete my masterpiece, this is where I'd go.

Given the low-key nature of Yugoslavia's western Marxism, Slovenia didn't experience the post-Cold War culture shock of, say, Czechoslovakia or East Germany. Ljubljana already had a healthy café and restaurant society, and Ljubljancani—free from the restrictions imposed in more repressive Eastern bloc countries—commonly traveled throughout Europe; Slovenes were as likely to vacation in Paris as on the Croatian coast.

Reminiscent of Prague, the impeccably preserved Old Town slopes down from the castle, which is visible from nearly every point in the city (the café atop Ljubljana's 12-story "skyscraper" affords the best view). On the left bank of the river is the city's center as well as Parliament and Congress Square—home to the renowned university, where so much of Slovenia's history has unfolded (the abundance of good bars owes something to the fact that one out of 10 Ljubljana residents is a student). It was here that the first stirrings of the independence movement took place during the "Slovene spring" of 1988. Eight years after Tito's death, when the central government in Belgrade cracked down on Slovene nationalism by arresting four journalists for "spying," 50,000 protesters—remarkable in a city of barely 275,000—filled the square. "They arrested the journalists to frighten us, but it was perhaps the miscalculation of the century," says Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher and onetime presidential candidate, over lunch one day at the elegant P.E.N. writers' club. "We were transformed from a bunch of fragmented dissident movements that had nothing in common into a unified opposition, like Solidarity in Poland." As in Vaclav Havel's Czechoslovakia, intellectuals played a significant role in the "Slovene spring." Zizek became something of a national hero, both as a widely read columnist in the newspaper Mladina and as an informal adviser to the Liberal Democratic Party, which now runs the country.

When Milosevic revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, the Slovenes suspected they might suffer the same fate, and pressed for a sovereign state of their own. In April 1990 they voted out the Communist Party, and that December, 90 percent of the electorate chose full independence. Fearing (correctly) that such moves would eventually destroy the Yugoslav federation, Milosevic ordered the formidable Yugoslav army to attack the small Slovene Territorial Defense Forces, which responded with far more resistance than expected. (Never famous for their military prowess, Slovenes have had so few heroic generals that most of their army's regiments were named for poets.) After 10 days of fierce fighting, during which he threatened a massive bombing campaign, Milosevic withdrew his forces and turned his attention to both Croatia and Bosnia, which, unlike Slovenia, had large indigenous Serb populations for him to "rescue" in the name of Greater Serbia. The rest, as they say, is history—a violent and messy history that Slovenes are happy not to have been a part of.

Ljubljana is neatly laid out around the twists of the emerald green Ljubljanica River, whose graceful, willow-covered banks and open riverside market were designed by Joze Plecnik. A student of Otto Wagner, Plecnik, with his eclectic synthesis of Neoclassical, Byzantine, and Secessionist styles, prefigures the postmodern architecture revolution of the 1980's. His influence is everywhere: in the graceful Triple Bridge connecting Presernov Square to the Old Town, in the gorgeous National and University Library, whose imposing walls are a mosaic of red brick and ancient Roman stones that make the 1941 building seem at once ancient and completely contemporary.

Many restaurants are located in the Old Town's subtly renovated 15th- and 16th-century buildings. Florijanu is a muted, wood-paneled, halogen-lit space of the sort one might stumble across in London or New York. Here, "world cuisine" is served by a cadre of model-perfect waiters in linen mandarin jackets who are happy to suggest the appropriate bottle of Slovene Merlot to accompany your Jamaican jerk chicken. Meson Don Felipe, Ljubljana's only tapas bar, serves some of the best paella I've ever had. Perhaps the most thematically ambitious new restaurant is one just outside central Ljubljana: Casa del Papa, a Disneyesque homage to Ernest Hemingway that re-creates Finca La Vigia, his Cuban villa, complete with palm trees, wicker furniture, and fishing nets. One evening we joined Ljubljana's black-clad hipsters at the outdoor bar, sampling "revolutionary" drinks (such as the Fidel Castro) before going downstairs to the Cuba Club, where salsa and house music play until 7 a.m.

Long unable to assert itself as a political entity, Slovenia sustained its national consciousness through the works of poets, playwrights, and composers. The Slovene 1,000-tolar bill sports a portrait of the country's beloved national poet, France Preseren. And its best-known artists have always had a slightly subversive edge. In the 1980's, Ljubljana was the center of the Yugoslav punk movement, with such bands as Stray Dogs, the Bastards, and Laibach (which is German for "Ljubljana"). Laibach is part of Neues Slowenische Kunst (NSK), an absurdist conceptual art group; in a move designed to mock the nationalist fervor that is endemic to the region, it has recently begun issuing its own "passports" to citizens of the NSK "state."

Whereas Havel recognized Frank Zappa as a minister of culture and fêted Lou Reed at the presidential palace, Slovenia embraced contemporary culture by way of NSK. As a sign of the kind of official whimsy that is the birthright of newly born states, the then foreign minister of Slovenia, Zoran Thaler, announced with great fanfare how pleased he was that NSK had recently decided to "recognize" Slovenia's independent status. "The NSK state is not a state in the geographical sense, but a state in time," explains Vadim Fishkin, a conceptual artist who designs the sets for elaborate performances choreographed by his girlfriend, Mateja Bucar. Fishkin is a puckish fellow, with an aesthetic sensibility that often expresses itself in his interactive art projects: in 1997 he attached himself to a machine that transmitted his heartbeat to the lit cupola of Vienna's Secession building so that, wherever he was, the light pulsated along with his heart. He also works on a more personal scale. Last year he designed a display in Ljubljana that invited the viewer to speak his or her name into a microphone. Minutes later, a computer-generated voice would announce that the exhibit had been dedicated to the viewer (mentioning him or her by name), and a miniature fireworks show would explode in the background.

This winter, Fishkin will inaugurate his most ambitious project yet, an "art hotel" consisting of a single hotel room in which he will curate shows—the idea being that visitors will be able to check in and actually live amid artwork. "The place of art in our culture is increasingly precarious," he tells me during a tour of Ljubljana's Museum of Modern Art. "Most travelers spend very little time in galleries, but lots of time in hotel rooms. I wanted to create a refuge for artistic contemplation by bringing the two together."

Whether I were staying in Fishkin's art hotel or in the plushly refurbished rooms devised by Ljubljana's hoteliers to attract high-end tourism, I couldn't imagine spending all that much time indoors. In the afternoon everyone takes a lengthy stroll. Within minutes you can go from wandering among stalls stacked with fresh vegetables, cut flowers, and homemade cheese at the glorious open market to window-shopping for shoes on funky Trubarjeva Street.

Lined with cafés, tiny galleries, and boutiques, Trubarjeva is Ljubljana's answer to New York's NoLita or Paris's Marais. The yellow-and-blue furniture at the always-packed Truebar could serve as a backdrop for the next Austin Powers sequel, as might the Extravaganja boutique, where the moisturizers, makeup, and shampoos are all derived from hemp. Its logo is an enormous marijuana leaf—an icon that might have more countercultural resonance if the store weren't run by a pair of sweet babushka-wearing matrons. Farther along Trubarjeva, sullen waifs tend to customers at trendy dress shops with names like Kaos and Cyber Fashion. Nearby, at the Cyber Café, I ordered a beer and looked around for a terminal at which to check my E-mail. Although Slovenia is reputed to be one of the most Internet-friendly countries in Central Europe, the waitress informed me that, despite the café's name, the only way to get wired there was to order a double espresso. "No computer," she said apologetically, "just cyber." Uh, okay.

Even if Ljubljana's closeness to the Balkans is creating an image problem at the moment, it is precisely its proximity to so many different countries and terrains that is its greatest lure. One might think of Ljubljana as the San Francisco of Central Europe: simultaneously an urban mecca and an outdoorsman's dream. As in San Francisco, people seem to spend the better part of the week chatting in cafés and generally enjoying themselves (mysteriously, Slovenians are considered the workaholics of the former Yugoslavia). Then on weekends they all strap boats and bikes to their cars and head out to the country or shore to hike, swim, climb, row, and ride.

One weekend my wife and I drove one hour north to Bled, a vacation spot on a pristine lake that has attracted pilgrims since the 16th century. There we stayed at Hotel Vila Bled, the monumental Plecnik-inspired mansion on the lake's south side. Its 15 acres of gardens, miles of marble staircases and floors, and 20 enormous suites made Vila Bled the perfect place for Tito to play gracious host to some of the greatest monsters of the 20th century. The Central African Republic's Bokassa, Romania's Ceausescu, and even North Korea's Kim Il Sung (who took a bed home with him to Pyongyang) were all fond of Lake Bled's natural splendors. With its breathtaking views of the lake from more than half the rooms and many of its original fifties socialist-chic furnishings, Vila Bled has cleverly mastered the balancing act of wrapping European-style luxury within an intriguing Communist past. When the politics of the region are resolved, I don't doubt that Ljubljana will be able to play the same game. Until then, I hope it remains something of a secret.

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