Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, has all the cadence of a nursery rhyme. On the page the js stutter the name into a confusion indecipherable by any foreigner at first glance. But it’s riddled itself clear at this point, copious Wikipedia phonetic guides later—Lyoo-blee-yah-nah. When someone in the hostel stumbles over their itinerary, I dive in victoriously to the rescue. We’re a week in but it might as well be a day or an hour or a month. It’s always once upon a time now, a new border, a new city, getting off a little dizzy, a little disoriented.
I love pronouncing the uplift of the Eastern European j, proof of a land far, far away. Here there be the Dragon City, after all. They stand profiled against the city emblem and football jerseys; over the river winding through the cobblestoned plazas stretches a bridge statued with them. The main square immortalizes the country’s most famous poet. There’s a castle on a hill watching over it all, complete with watchtower, foundations dating back to the Romans.
Melanie has begun teasing me about words I overuse in descriptions. After picturesque and postcard, fairytale is at the forefront.
Our first day in Slovenia we stay with Tajda from the platform Couchsurfing, where people open up their houses to itinerant visitors. We sit in her comfortably crowded living room, swaddled in blankets, sip tea and eat grapefruit. We ask about her experience with Couchsurfing. It’s her idea—she convinced her parents into it. “I just take in anyone who asks for a night,” she says, and shrugs. “I don’t look for much.”
The next morning we sign her guest book before we leave. We spend a few minutes paging through the thank yous and see you agains that lay before us. So many wayfarers on so many paths. As we tie our shoes, preparing to walk out into the rain, her cat curls against my ankles, purring low, warm as hearthfire.
On our way we stop at our hostel for the next few days. The wild-haired woman sharing our dorm has a pot of instant soup and congealing eggs on the stove when we come in, sopping, to drop our bags. She insists we have a bowl each before we leave, even though it’s clearly her breakfast, and we sip gratefully. “Sorry I don’t have too much—I just arrived. I might be here a month or more,” she says. “I’m a refugee. Someone in Croatia tried to kill me.”
I gulp down a spoon too fast and burn my tongue. She shrugs. “Do you want some more soup? Some eggs? Are you sure?”
But we have to make our guided tour, where our tour guide explains almost immediately that Slovenians drop the js when they say it. “So, Loob-lah-nah. It just gets too long otherwise.” Lublana’s dragons turn out to be shadowy spectres barricading the former swamp and the poet is a paedophile who still watches his sixteen-year-old unrequited love across the plaza.
In the castle, an ATM machine eats my credit card and refuses to spit it out. I climb the barricades and watch two kestrels duel through glazed eyes.
By evening, Melanie’s friend Hannah arrives from Germany. We’re travelling with her for the next week, and collect her from the train station tumbling over each other for words after hours of you should have and why didn’t I and several more tense coordination with my parents across two different oceans before finally I entered a bookstore and became immediately calmer.
We try to parrot to Hannah everything the guide told us while waiting in line for apparently the best ice cream in the world, if not Slovenia. Here’s the market modeled after a Greek forum, here are the statues of Adam and Eve—it was Adam and Eve, right? And this is the Triple Bridge. “Ljubljana‘s a small place,” I tell her over a dark chocolate orange gelato, “but it’s really lovely, it’s like something out of a—”
Melanie turns to look at me. “I’m going to punch you.”
“I can’t help it!” I exclaim.
I really can’t. It’s reflex, ingrained; I’m just repeating what I’ve read in copious research, all the Lonely Planets and lists: These Fairytale European Cities You Must Visit Before You Die. Top Ten Undiscovered European Capitals Straight Out of a Storybook. Open it, and Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is unimaginably… The hyperbole stacks up and calcifies unavoidably into perception. The next morning, full and drowsy from a late night laughing over a chicken stir-fry, we wake too late and have to sprint two kilometres in mild and uncomfortable drizzle to the bus. It takes halfway across Slovenia to near the Austrian border, where you can find Lake Bled, i.e. This Eastern European Lake is a Real Life Fairytale.
But as we arrive, I can believe that. The sky, just brightened, is streaked with necklaces of glowing cloud. As we drive past, circling the lake, the castle glistens its mirror into the water. The wind hasn’t picked up yet, though it’s cold enough for comfort, and so the lake is yet still and the reflections hold in impressionist steadiness.
We get down at the next bus stop and start walking. There’s a trail that runs the perimeter of the water; we first pass a five star hotel lurking Secret Garden-esque behind a cast-iron fence shrouded in trees, and then the overpriced camping site, where boats radiate out from a pier. We’ve arrived too early for anything—even the public toilets—to be open. The only people out are runners and dogs loping amiably behind.
In the far distance you can see snow-capped mountains—the Julian Alps, rising up to former Yugoslavia’s largest peak, Mount Triglav. The lake grew from the range’s Bohinj glacier, hollowing the bedrock before collapsing to fill it. In the center a small outcropping was left behind—now Slovenia’s only island, sprouting an inordinate amount of buildings for a tiny area.
We pass by rows of buoys bobbing placidly in the water after the camping ground: in the summer you can swim in areas strictly designated after Europe adopted Bled as its private spa. But now, in April, it’s too chilly. Instead we stand at the edge where the branches clear and watch them sink unbroken into the crystalline water. A male merganser, comical black and white, takes flight, and etches a thin string of silver into the distance.
A path breaks off to the side and we follow it up through the woods to Bled Castle. On the other side of the limestone cliff the castle balances on the lake drops abruptly away.
I video-call my mother and rotate the phone around. In the pixellated image, I can see her frown. “It’s not that pretty,” she says. I peer down. The clouds the weather forecast promised me have rolled in the last half hour; it’s not raining yet, but it promises to, and the lake’s blue waters have turned a sort of murky teal in response. The mountains in the distance have folded their heads into the mist as well. Behind us, I can hear a bus full of Japanese tourists disgorge at the castle’s car park.
But it’s chilly and the valley is vast below. We’re kind of tucked off the main path, sitting with our backs to each other on a rock looking out on the many-spired island and the town sprawling from the lake shores, up into the green hills. I hang up on my mother, open my journal, and write, The castle, the lake: these are fairytale images and they exert a childlike fascination. At least the notebook can’t get sick of me.
Back in the hostel that night, our dormmate gasps when she hears about our trip. She goes to the windowsill and shuffles some papers around, coming back with an extremely blown-up photograph of Bled Island and a half-finished acrylic approximating its shape. “I studied tourism back in Croatia,” she tells us. “I went to the lake a while ago and took this photograph—isn’t it nice?” And when she’s not selling magazines given by the local homeless shelter or waiting for the response to her asylum application to the Slovenian government, or busking on the bridges for tourists, she paints that view—the turrets, shoreline, brightened on a forgiving day.