The plan was simple. I would take the 01.38 train from Salzburg, kip in a seat or a couchette for a few hours and then wake up fresh as a daisy in time for our arrival in Ljubljana at 06.05 and ergo my flight back to Poznań in Poland the following day. Not only would I get to my destination but I would also avoid paying any hotel fees for the night. Brilliant. What a plan!
The only possible flaw lay in the fact that the train, which had come from Germany, split into two parts at Salzburg. One part went on to Zagreb via Ljubljana while the other went to Budapest. This was not the first time I had encountered such an arrangement so I made a point of asking a porter which part of the train went to Ljubljana before boarding. “This one,” he said, pointing to the carriage directly in front of me.
“Do you know if there are any couchettes available?”
“You will have to ask him,” he replied, pointing this time to a guard standing in the doorway of the sleeping carriage immediately to our left.
Thanking him, I did just that, asking the guard, “Entschuldigung. Is this the sleeping car for Ljubljana?”
“Yes,” he affirmed.
“Jolly good. Are there any couchettes free?”
“No. I am sorry but you will have to sit in one of the other carriages.”
“OK. And that part of the train,” I pointed to the carriage to the right from whence I had just come, “is definitely going to Ljubljana?”
“Yes. That part of the train goes to Zagreb and Ljubljana.”
“It doesn’t go to Budapest?”
“No, it goes to Zagreb and Ljubljana.”
I then walked back to the first carriage that all agreed was going to the former Yugoslavia and hauled aboard my bulging suitcase. Finding a free seat opposite a snoring young couple, I parked my seat and waited for the off. About 10 minutes after leaving the station, the conductor came through. I handed him my ticket to Ljubljana, which he examined, stamped and handed back to me. Sleep arrived on swift wings soon after.
A Rude Awakening
We were stationary when I prized my eyelids open. A glance at my watch told me it was coming up for 06.00. Ah, Ljubljana, I thought, only to notice something amiss when I peered out the window. Hmm, we were in Vienna.
Still half asleep and unable to rouse the geographer inside of me, I put our location down to us simply being late, my hazy thoughts conditioned by years of unpunctual British trains. My eyes fell closed and I was once more back in the land of nod.
The next thing I knew, we were moving again and a different conductor was asking to see my ticket. “How long before we get to Ljubljana?” I slurred from my slumber.
“We are not going to Ljubljana. This train goes to Budapest.”
His words hit me like a bucket of ice water. I was now very much awake.
“They told me this was the train for Ljubljana. I even had my ticket stamped!”
“Where are you from?” he inquired impassively.
“No. Where are you from on this train? München?”
“Ah, I see. Right. No. Salzburg.”
I did, stewing in a broth of my own juices liberally peppered with profanities. Then, like a storm blowing itself out, a resigned calm befell me. After all, as Joshua David Stone once wrote, “Why panic when you can you pray?”
These words now took on a very clear resonance.
I mean, other than trying to commandeer the train with a set of house keys, there really wasn’t much I could do other than hope, pray and hatch an alternative plan. If it all went pear-shaped, I’d just have to blow out Ljubljana and my flight and instead get a train from Vienna via Katowice.
I had done a very similar trip from nearby Bratislava a few years earlier so I knew it was both feasible and affordable. This time, though, the journey would not only be long and tedious, but also marred with failure and annoyance. But if that was what I’d have to do then tough. It wasn’t the end of the world and certainly not worth having a heart attack over.
It was then, as I accepted my fate, that the conductor returned with a well-thumbed book of timetables. “To get to Ljubljana you will have to change at Bruck an der Leitha. This is the next station. Then you must take the 07.17 train to Wien Süd. You will have 15 minutes before the 07.57 leaves for Ljubljana. You must not miss this train. It is the only direct train today. You will be in Ljubljana at 14.10.”
“Will I have to buy another ticket?”
“No, this ticket is good.”
I thanked him in as many languages as I could muster and exhaled a sigh of relief. But I was not out of the woods just yet.
Ljubljana or Bust
After alighting the train at Bruck an der Leitha in the company of two handcuffed Romanis and a couple of local plod, I stood on the platform and waited in a Zen-like state for my train. Within 10 minutes, I found myself standing aboard a fairly crowded commuter train. From what the conductor had said, it should have pulled into Wien Süd at 07.42. However, at 07.45 we were still idling somewhere out in the sticks. The stress levels were rising again.
Increasingly unsure as to whether I had taken the right train, I asked a chap in a suit next to me: “Entschuldigung. Is this train going to Wien Süd?”
“Yes,” he said.
“When does it get there?”
“At four minutes past eight.”
My heart sank. Katowice here I come.
Just what happened next is anyone’s guess but I’m more than happy to put it down to the power of prayer no matter what old Dick Dawkins or Derren Brown might say. For at exactly 07.55 we were pulling in to Wien Süd.
From what I recall, it’s not the most beautiful train station on Earth, utterly paling in comparison to Antwerp Centraal, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji or even Bodmin Parkway, but man was I glad to see it. Launching out the doors like an Exocet, I threw myself behind the weight of my 40-tonne suitcase, using its momentum to pull me onwards as I ran like a loon to the main building.
A quick glance at the departures board told me the platform I wanted was up a flight of stairs, which I somehow hurdled in 8.3 nanoseconds, propelled no doubt by the stream of obscenities issuing from my gob. A further dash through the upper concourse and suddenly the back end of my train was in sight.
Then it was within reach.
Then I was grasping up and swinging open the very last door of the very last carriage. By the power of Grayskull, I yanked my suitcase up above my head and hurled it onto the train, my body flying up the metal steps behind it like a jet-powered salmon. Crashing to the floor beside the still smouldering wheels of my suitcase, I was joined by two other kung fu masters who came leaping aboard in my wake. Then the door slammed shut and the train jerked forward. We were off!
With seconds to spare I had somehow made it. But judging from the pain in my gut I’d also given myself a hernia. A line from Zappa’s Billy the Mountain flittered through my head: “Oh [flip], I’m gonna need a truss.”
Brewed with Love
Fortunately, I didn’t. Neither did I die a few hours later from some hideous disease passed on from the huge great tick I found gorging on my stomach when I showered in my hotel. Admittedly, other than watching Green Wing, I have had very little in the way of formal medical training. Notwithstanding, it is with all confidence that I put both my rapid recovery and redoubtable resilience down to the health-giving qualities of Pivo Laško, a pleasantly strange 4.9% Slovenian beer heralding, weirdly enough, from the eastern spa town of Laško, where, the label said, it has been “brewed with love since 1825”.
I had stumbled upon this miraculous cure-all while sitting in the salubrious comforts of the train’s restaurant car. From overhearing a heated debate between two ticket inspectors as I lounged there, I also discovered that Slovenian, a Slavic language, sounds a lot like Polish spoken with an Italian accent.
Furthermore, I soon learnt that just like in Poland no one understood me when I tried speaking Polish to them, even when I combined it with my best Joe Dolce impersonation. Luckily, though, being a born linguist I was soon able to deduce that the Slovenian word for ‘beer’, viz pivo, is pronounced exactly the same as its Polish counterpart, piwo.
I was now fluent and I’d only been in the country 20 minutes.
Ljubljana at Last!
After winding our way through some stunning scenery and the small Styrian town of Pragersko, where, on a station wall, someone had taken the time to scrawl “Ela love your Denis”, a statement of such profundity that I was immediately driven to verse1, we eventually arrived in Ljubljana.
The old capital of Carniola and for many years known as Laibach, Ljubljana straddles the Ljubljanica River, a fairly short watercourse that ultimately empties into the Black Sea via the Sava and the Danube. Although not quite in the same league as Hamburg, Venice or Stoneybridge, Ljubljana is nonetheless something of a city of bridges, deriving much civic pride from such functional art installations as Čevljarski most (the Cobblers’ Bridge), Šentjakobski most (the St James’s Bridge) and, of course, Biffinski most (the Biffin Bridge). However, the city’s two most notable river crossings are without doubt Tromostovje (the Triple Bridge) and Zmajski most (the Dragon Bridge).
Indeed, so notable are these latter two structures that when I asked the hotel receptionist for a freebie map, he automatically circled them in ballpoint for me. Admittedly, I’d never heard of them before but rather than parading my ignorance by saying something like “What are they, then?” I instead feigned delight. “Ah, so that’s where they are!” I said, making a point of checking them out to see what was so special about them.
As it transpired, these two bridges are both aptly named. While the former consists of three rather tasteful balustraded bridges that connect Prešemov trg with the heart of the old town, the latter is adorned with four bloody horrible dragons (one of which is pictured top).
Opened in 1901 in honour of Emperor Franz Josef I, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire (of which Slovenia was a part) from 1848 to 1916 and who was presumably some sort of reptilian shapeshifter, this particular structure was once one of the largest reinforced concrete bridges in the world. Today, it is still fêted by many as a prime example of the Vienna Secession, an artistic movement that listed among its ranks such luminaries as Gustav Klimt and the architect Otto Wagner.
Personally, I wasn’t much taken by it. In fact, every time I looked at those dragons and their really arsey expressions, I just wanted to slap ’em round the chops with a cricket bat. Damned ugly buggers if you ask me2. Which, to be frank, is somewhat at odds with the rest of the city.
As is the case with Salzburg, Ljubljana’s grander buildings are heavily indebted to the Baroque tastes of the big-chinned Hapsburgs, who, with a brief Napoleonic interlude, lorded it over the place in one form or another from 1278 to 1918. However, Ljubljana is not just some twee time capsule filled with touts dressed like Citizen Bidet or the Duc de Pommfrit as is the case with Mozart-obsessed Salzburg3.
Instead, it casually marries the aesthetic qualities of a Mr Kipling French Fancy with some well-worn, peeling crumbliness, giving this generally laid-back place the down-to-earth feel of a fully functioning city in a manner similar to Poznań or Wrocław in Poland. Indeed, akin to Poz, Ljubljana is a fairly low-rise place, with few buildings that I saw going much over four floors and an attic.
There are, of course, exceptions to this in the form of commie-era tower blocks and the 13-storey Nebotičnik (the Skyscraper) on Slovenska cesta, which when built in 1933 was not only the tallest structure in the Balkans at just over 70 metres, but also Europe’s tallest residential building and its ninth tallest building overall.
Predating these, there are also the numerous Baroque churches that abound in this largely agnostic metropolis. A classic example is the Catholic St Nicholas’s Cathedral, the big green dome of which resembles a giant Chad gazing down onto the 10-metre high obelisk of the Robbov vodnjak (the Robba Fountain)4 on Mestni trg, the city’s main square.
Again like Salzburg, Ljubljana nestles beneath a hillcrest castle (Ljubljanski grad), although exactly how old it is remains moot. What is not in question, though, is that these days it can be accessed via a funicular railway should you not fancy the march up the mount to take in the views of the city below and the Balkans beyond.
After doing just that, I wound my way down via a leafy stretch of parkland to Krekov trg, which not only played host to a dribbling fountain and some kind of puppet theatre, but also a number of old-skool bars. Here I wasted no time in expanding my knowledge of Slovenian further. Indeed, from my waiter I quickly learnt that ‘I don’t understand you’ is ne razumem, which is very much like the Polish nie rozumiem. Fortunately, he could also speak English.
Feeling hungry, I walked to the river and ate a duck, after which the sun called it quits and the elegant esplanades of Hribarjevo nabrežje and Cankarjevo nabrežje began thronging with drinkers. Never one to shy away from first-hand geographical inquiry, I selflessly threw myself into the mêlée, conducting a series of rigorous transects to determine the nature of the city’s nightlife. And yes, it was pretty good and not too pricey.
Bedtime for Bonzo
However, by the time midnight arrived, my thoughts had moved on to the practicalities of catching my flight the next day. After a streetside pint opposite the arches of the central market, I decided that my best course of action lay in finding an offie and procuring a couple of nightcaps to be drunk while bidding Ljubljana fond adieu from my hotel window.
As I wandered back, though, it soon became apparent that if there were any such emporia around then they were exceptionally well hidden. It was then that I encountered a group of male and female youngsters aged between 18 and 21, all clutching bottles of red wine that they were caining via disposable plastics cups. Our paths crossed and they beseeched me to stop.
“We want to open wine bottle,” one of them explained. “Do you have…?” He paused and mimed the use of a corkscrew.
“Sorry, not on me,” I said.
His face dropped.
While they had opened their first few bottles with door keys, they were understandably keen to find a more ergonomic implement by which to open the rest. As none was forthcoming, out came the keys again. I sympathised with their predicament. “Is there a shop near here where I can buy beer?” I asked, hoping they would feel the same about mine.
“No,” one of them replied. “You can only buy beer in city centre.”
“Have some wine instead,” said another, pulling out a fresh cup and filling it to the brim with grape from one of their already open bottles.
It tasted pretty good.
“We are going to Orto,” someone else chipped in.
“Otto? Otto Parts? What’s that?” I asked.
“It is late-night bar.”
“It is not far from here.”
“Come and join us. We walk and drink!”
“Yes, you can buy beer there. We show you Slovenia!”
“Hmm,” I said. “OK then.”
A Very Quick Exit
My new companions, it turned out, were “the only seven drama students in Ljubljana”, some of whom were no doubt destined for great things playing the Dane. What became of them that night, though, I shall probably never know as on reaching Orto I immediately lost them amid the upstairs mosh pit. Rather than grappling the night away with the Wreckin’ Crew to the tunes of Slovenian punk and psychobilly in Orto Club, I opted instead for the slightly less crowded Orto Bar downstairs, where I found a suitable perch at its very long and very red bar counter.
The place stayed open until 04.00 but at about 03.00 my pipe and slippers were dropping hints about check-in, so I decided to call it a night. It was at this point that I realised that I didn’t have a clue where I was other than some place called Otto Maddox, or something. Fortunately, the friendliness shown me by the numerous Ljubljanans I’d encountered during my brief time in the city extended to the barstaff, one of whom very kindly called me a cab on his mobile phone. “Najlepša hvala,” I thanked him.
“No problem,” he replied.
My flight the next day departed at 12.40. The gate closed at 12.25. I woke up at 11.15. The airport, I had previously been informed, was a good 30 minutes’ drive away. Strangely enough, I didn’t bother with a shower.
I rarely if ever unpack my bags for just such a situation where a quick exit is needed, but even free of the faff of repacking I was clearly cutting it fine. Part of me wanted to panic, to flap my arms about and berate my foolish self for not hitting the hay sooner, but it is precisely at those moments when emotion most seeks control that we simply must not succumb.
Unclear thinking only makes dealing with a situation more difficult than it already is and unless you’ve got access to a time machine there really is no point wasting energy on what you should or should not have done. The past is unchangeable and you need all the friends you can get, so don’t start turning against yourself. Instead, stay Zen and focus on only what you’ve got to do now and how best to do it.
Fortunately, what I needed to do was really quite clear as I careered into the foyer. “I’ve gotta check out, I’ve gotta get a taxi and I’ve gotta get a plane,” I informed the two receptionists in less time than it would normally have taken me to say “Good morning”.
Immediately, a voice to my left announced: “I am taxi driver.”
I turned to look.
“You are lucky,” said one of the receptionists, rapidly totting up my bill. “He is very good.” And by crikey was he right.
I can honestly say that I have never seen anyone drive so fast yet so competently and intelligently in all my life. In Poland, it is generally considered cool to drive like a tool, viz as fast as physically possible without any regard whatsoever for anyone or anything, passengers, pedestrians and brick walls alike. This man, though, was not like that at all.
Yes, he drove fast, very very fast, but at no point did it ever feel that he was anything other than in full control of his vehicle and fully aware of what was going on around him. I don’t know whether he was an ex-copper, ex-military or simply channelling the spirits of Roland Ratzenberger and Colin McRae, but it was obvious to me that he had done a defensive driving course. “Don’t worry,” he said as we tore it out of the city and onto the long stretch of freeway to the airport. “You will get your plane and still have time to buy your girlfriend Slovenian wine!”
And thanks to him that’s exactly what I did.
Notes and Credits
This article recounts a visit made in 2008. Words and pictures © Ignatius Rake.
1) The poem in question went as follows:
Ela, love your Denis. He's the greatest Denis around. You've searched for a Denis all your life And he's the best one that you've found. He may be squat and ugly, Stupid and mean to boot, But at least he washes once a month And eats pond slime like a coot.
2) As with so many other places around the world, the dragon is the chosen symbol of Ljubljana. But why? Is David Icke right or has the world simply been populated by dullards with absolutely no imagination whatsoever since time immemorial? Why not some puppies in an old boot or something? Why this global obsession with dragons? Answers in the comments, please.
3) Two characters (played by Peter Butterworth (1919–79) and Charles Hawtrey (1914–88), respectively) from Don’t Lose Your Head (1966), which along with Follow That Camel (1967) is one of only two Carry On films not to have ‘Carry On’ in its title.
As the birthplace of Wolfgang “Cold Hand” Mozart (1756–91), Salzburg, when I was there, was awash with touts dressed in period costume replete with mobile phones and cigarettes who mercilessly hassled passersby to part with their cash. “Hey, wanna but some Magic Flute?”
4) Actually, it’s a replica. The original fountain was moved to the National Gallery in 2006. Officially named Vodnjak treh kranjskih rek (the Fountain of the Three Rivers of Carniola), it was designed by an Italian chap called Francesco Robba and constructed between 1743 and 1751. It is largely modelled on the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers) in Rome’s Piazza Navona. So there.