The midnight hour never felt so desolate.
Eerie silence mingled with the smell of distant mountains, filling my lungs and my mind with questions. The promise of soaring slopes and vast fields was beyond view; all we saw was the concrete jungle of a bus station, long after its attendants left for home.
Behind us, a low rumble, as the van that bore us here, part of a hastily stitched together plan, started up again, disappearing into the shadows. We were left alone, with silence and lamplight to guide us.
“Which way?” I whispered to Tara, feeling as though raising my voice may wake the dragons that supposedly slept here. My question was met with a rustle of papers as she sifted through a stack of documents, squinting at street maps and hostel reservations.
“This way — I think.”
We set off together, keeping close, still uncertain. The streets were deserted, and similar doubts were scampering through our minds. What have we gotten ourselves into? In the light of day the plan seemed harmless, if not ambitious: Start the day by catching the train from Rome to Venice, spend a few hours exploring the sinking city, head to the Marco Polo airport and finally catch a van that would take us over the border, to Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana.
Never mind that we knew nothing about Slovenia; could barely even pronounce Ljubljana. Never mind that we had been walking all day, since 6am, with our heavy backpacks on, navigating the narrow, tourist-choked canals of Venice. Never mind the paper maps, hastily printed and diagramming a city we knew nothing about, maps that we were trusting to guide us safely to a bed.
As we turned down an alley, following our paper compass, we began to take in the details of our surroundings. At the late hour, nerves on a razor’s edge, they were not encouraging.
Macabre images, unsettling symbols, and foreign words leered at us, painted on every conceivable concrete surface, turned sinister in the darkness. Street art defined the alley, and it was hard to take our eyes off of the never-ending cascade of faded color. Living in a city where graffiti was synonymous with gangs and violence, the sight made my stomach clench and my palms begin to sweat.
It was no longer silent. From off in the distance, growing steadily louder, there was a growing cacophony, and a blaze of light. Curious, we continued forward. When the noise reached its loudest, rekindling memories of college parties gone awry, we reached a hole in the graffiti-laden wall, the gap blocked off by no more than a single chain.
Beyond the chain was what looked to my terrified, exhausted eyes like a massive riot. Flames leapt from fire pits, creating ghastly shadows, making faces seem to leer and twist, turning the street art into moving, living things. The smell of beer was thick, and music competed with shouting voices. Frozen in place, Tara and I stared, then glanced back at our map, which had diligently guided us to this spot.
“Maybe it’s further down,” one of us whispered.
Slowly, not wanting to draw attention to ourselves, we backed away. Quickening our pace, we continued down the alley, our hearts clamoring up our throats and fingers locked together, clinging to one another for dear life.
What the hell had we gotten ourselves into?
Continuing onward, it quickly became evident that there was nowhere to go. Our hostel was behind us, tucked among the shouts of revelry.
Realizing we had no other option, we found ourselves reluctantly retracing our steps, following the sounds of laughter to the hole in the wall. Battling with exhaustion and fear, exhaustion finally claimed victory, and we stepped over the chain, into what we later learned was Metelkova, an autonomous section of Ljubljana filled with bars, artwork, and independent creatives looking to transform what was once the site of prison barracks.
By firelight, and with our addled brains in charge, the district looked less like a social center and more like the location of a ritual sacrifice to us.
We caught sight of the sign for our hostel, Hostel Celica, and made a beeline for the building, desperate for the safety within.
Sudden light, and quiet stole over us. The tension eased from our muscles and we relaxed, giggling a little at our own anxiety. Reassured that no one was going to come after us with a machete, I stepped up to the front desk.
“Hi, I have a reservation,” I said, giving what I hoped was a winning smile as I pushed the paper across the desk. The girl behind the counter took it, frowning, then glanced up at me.
“One second.” Her fingers tapped away at a keyboard as she looked up the number, and her frown deepened. My momentary sense of relief vanished, stomach dropping as she turned back to me, expression apologetic.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You arrived too late. We gave your beds away to someone else.”
I stared. Tara stared. On the verge of hysteria, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the news. What would we do now? We had nowhere to sleep, nowhere to go. We were stranded in a city we knew nothing about, farther from home than I had ever been.
Desperate, I said the only thing that I could think of. “I–um–we can sleep on the basketball courts?” I winced, sensing the stupidity of my comment as soon as I said it.
The receptionist blinked in surprise, but her response was cut off by the man behind her. “We’re just messing with you,” he said, sliding keys across the counter and flashing us a smile. “Welcome to Ljubljana.”
That first night in Ljubljana was one of the most harrowing of my life; a fact made almost comical when, the next day, I found out that the city one of the safest capital cities in the world.
By the light of day, everything changed. The terrifying graffiti transformed into intricate artistic (albeit sometimes profane) expressions, the rioters showed themselves for the benign, friendly bar patrons they were, and the hostel itself proved to be a quirky wonderland. The source of all the noise? Turns out, we had inadvertently arrived the night of Slovenia’s Independence Day.
We spent the day exploring Ljubljana’s Old Town, taking a free walking tour and ascending the funicular to the castle, which allowed for a stunning panorama of Slovenia, including the distant Julian Alps.
By day, we were able to appreciate amazing food, friendly people, and one of the most culturally unique cities I have ever been to. Slovenia, it turns out, is an absolutely wonderful place.
In fact, it has become one of my favorite destinations in the world.