After refusing everything that flew out of the the guy’s mouth in a heady cosmos of insurance jargon, I end up renting a really tiny car, a probable Abarth or Lancia, from the Padova railway station and drive off to Slovenia with Ily and Tim. A little basket of bread, fruit and marmelatta prepeared by Ate Laarni sits comfortably where Pearl is supposed to be. She called earlier and begged off as she needed to catch some sleep. I find out much too late that my little car is quite difficult to get used to. Besides it being stick shift, it also auto kills the engine each time I make a complete stop. The guy with the salt and pepper pompadour at the rental told me it’s European technology meant to save on petrol, and carbon footprint in general. Each time I foot the accelerator after a stop light, the ignition starts up again. The learning curve complicates further when I make a false exit from the A4 towards Venice. There is no ramp back to the highway and my GPS is Tim’s deference to a fold-out map, which, unfortunately, does not show rotatorias. So every couple of blocks, our haste meets a hiccup in the form of a charmless roundabout.
Crossing the border from Villa Opicina into Sežana, I stop the car to purchase a fifteen-Euro vignette, which is sort of like an I-pass without the tollbooth and the sensors–good for a week. All cars not found in the Slovenian registry must have this sticker on the windshield to prevent a three hundred Euro fine. It’s a fair deal for being able to use the country’s network of highways without having to worry about tollbooth change. Every now and then, Tim tells us which village we are passing through, pointing to a smoking chimney or a Hansel and Gretel hamlet just below the tree line. He also has a subtle way of telling me to hurry up by saying if we get to Ljubljana at a certain hour, we will have enough time to get to Bled.
I am pleased and surprised to discover my little car is a boon in downtown Ljubljana. Its tiny frame can easily navigate the narrow streets and parallel park like a Mini. The better to explore the compact city on foot. The friends we emailed earlier in the week to show us their hometown have rehearsals today and are not able to meet us, so we awkwardly walk around with our map and our cameras looking nervously at street signs that seem to miss a vowel or two.
I try to take the meager Slovenian I have learned from the back of my guidebook for a spin, asking a lady sitting outside a cafe where the downtown area is. She looks at me in astonishment at how impossibly awful I am in constructing and pronouncing sentences in her language, but acknowledges my effort nonetheless. She corrects me in better English by explaining I am actually looking for the old part of town unless I plan on taking pictures of a brick and mortar bank.
Ljubljanica River cuts through the city and divides the old east from the more modern west with the Tromostovje or triple bridges spanning the gap. Another bridge, the Smajski Most, is decorated by dragons, which is the city’s symbol. It’s hard to miss these winged critters as they happily populate bridges, sweatshirts, flags, heating vents, key chains, coats of arms, street lamps, dinner plates.
We walk farther east and enter a good sized square engulfing the Robba Fountain which reminds me of the Trevi without the elbows and arms jostling for an impossible crowd-less photo. I am pleased to hear the water. Something inside me is urging me to sit by a nameless cafe, order a cup of black coffee and pretend I occupy one of the apartments upstairs, but Tim reminds me we need to walk up an incline to make the last trip to Ljubljana Castle. I agree and drag my feet to the Open Market (not so open at this time) where we get on a funicular breathlessly pulling itself up a hill.
The Castle looks over Ljubljana and all three hundred something thousand citizens of it. If you squint hard enough, you might be able to see the Kamnik Alps. It begins to rain a little and the cold and damp funnel us and a handful of tourists into a quaint gift shop.
When it lets up, we are back in the city skipping over puddles that reflect rippled versions of nightclubs and bars, slowly opening up to welcome patrons. We grab a falafel/burger hybrid from a hole in the wall called Frks and compare phonetic versions of nearby store signs, under the watchful tsk-tsking of the now floodlighted castle.
At picturesque Prešeren Square, people begin to gather by the statue of its namesake poet and the salmon-colored Annunciation Church, giving audience to a pair of ballroom dancers. Some folks start to join in, teenagers stop forcing their skateboards down the church steps to watch, and in impassioned transformation, Prešeren Square becomes a dance floor. The older dancers flaunt ankles that defy the uneven cobble stone floors.
On the way back to my car, we pause at a tranquil bridge as Ily bargains for a couple more minutes with his camera. I walk in long, steady strides, promising to be back somehow. Along the bridge’s cables are hundreds, if not thousands of metal and bronze promises looking up at the damp moonlight. Hanging padlocks, hanging on to promises of faceless lovers and doting mothers and wishful students and hopeful immigrants. Promises no one knows are ever kept or broken.