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Slovenia's Ljubljana Weathers Centuries of Turmoil With a Relaxed Attitude

Former president George W. Bush called Slovenia "a little slice of heaven" during his first visit in 2001 and after a few days in its capital city, you'd be hard-pressed to disagree.

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By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009

You will no doubt recall that long ago time (2006, I mean) when everyone thought that Slovenia was about to catch on. Sure, it was a great place, especially on magical summer evenings in the capital, Ljubljana, when the streets filled with music, young lovers and only the occasional tourist gawking at the city's architecture never crumbled by war. But for that very reason Ljubljana would soon catch on, and that would be the end of everything. Dilettantish hordes were preparing to descend upon the burek sandwich shops and leave Slovenia in ashes (as dilettantish hordes by definition are wont to do) before decamping to the next hot destination, the place, say, where Brangelina holed up in the south of France while awaiting the twins.

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Thus would Ljubljana, which had somehow survived the Romans, Napoleon, the Soviets and more, be ruined once and finally.

That didn't happen, of course. And while such bullet-dodging might be convincingly attributed to a host of factors, I'll arbitrarily single out one: Unlike every other beautiful city in Europe, Ljubljana (pronounced "Lee-oob-lee-AHN-uh") is genetically incapable of marketing itself aggressively.

"Aggressiveness has been bred out of us," agrees freelance tour guide Jan Orsic with a smile as we stroll through Preseren Square in the city center. We are tempted to call this charming, auto-free zone "a little slice of heaven," as former president George W. Bush called Slovenia during his first visit in 2001 (site of his first meeting with Vladimir Putin) or perhaps "a big slice of heaven," as he put it during his second visit last spring. But we tell Orsic that Ljubljana is neither of these things. It is almost certainly a medium slice.

"Ljubljana is the only place in the world where the American and Russian embassies sit side by side," he says, continuing to beat the drum for Slovenia's aggressive non-aggressiveness. "Even our bears avoid conflict."

We'll discuss the ursine paradox in a moment, but first, a reminder of where we are: Preseren Square. Three years have passed since the city, despite a public outcry, closed the square to vehicles. (The country is home to several major auto plants, you see, and Slovenians love their cars.) In consequence, an impossibly quaint public space is now doubly so. The coral-colored Franciscan church, which dates to the 17th century, still stares half-disapprovingly at the art nouveau buildings across the plaza, but it appears that feud was abandoned long ago. Leading out of the square we encounter several distinctive bridges traversing the city's beloved Ljubljanica River, a charming but almost comically slow emerald waterway. ("The river had a stimulating influence on the city in the past," says a tourist office brochure, to our utter stupefaction.)

Cafes line the Ljubljanica's banks, and even the barest hint of sunlight is enough to send the city's 300,000 residents streaming to outdoor tables. That pizza you smell, by the way, is from Ljubljanski Dvor, a restaurant and take-away place with slices more than good enough to justify Slovenia's western border with Italy. I make a mental note to get one with a duct-tape-wide bacon strip running down the middle.

"It's true," Orsic says. "Our bears are shy. That's why we still have them."

Oh, right. The bears.

"Germany used to have bears, too, but they were aggressive bears," the sort that apparently thought nothing of wandering down city streets in broad daylight and terrorizing the populace. German bears, consequently, were shot to extinction. Slovenian bears, on the other hand -- don't worry, we're almost done -- had the good sense to stay in the forest and not provoke conflict. And so they have lived long and prospered.

"The ones we have left are teddy bears," Orsic says. Indeed, during our entire stay in Ljubljana, never once do we see a bear wandering down the street.

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