ain fell from the night sky—more than a spittle, but less than a downpour—adding volume to the streams already flowing through the streets of Ljubljana. We stood under an awning at the train station, debating whether we should brave the 15-minute walk to our apartment or take a cab.
I knew the city well and was confident I could route us. I fell in love with Ljubljana when we visited in 2019 and didn’t care that it was raining. I wanted to be in the city. If it was raining, I’d bathe. I spent several minutes laying out my case to Shelby.
“Ok, but Skutull and I are going to be grumpy with you for a bit,” Shelby declared, finally conceding to my insistence that we walk, “and you have to carry both suitcases.”
Skutull squinted up at me through the rain. He hates rain.
I clipped the belt of my hiking pack around my waist, slung my leather city backpack over my shoulders so it faced forward against my chest, and grabbed one suitcase with each hand.
“You remember the streets are cobblestone?” Shelby asked as I stepped out into the rain.
I smiled, Ljubljana is one of my happy places. “Why does that matter?” I replied.
“It won’t be easy to roll them,” she said, nudging her eyes at the suitcases.
“Just let me worry about them.”
“Okay, we’ll follow you,” she said in a condescending tone.
I strutted across the parking lot to the first crosswalk, Shelby and Skutull in tow, and pressed the button to cross. It was covered by a sticker that read, “Press to restart the world.”
I laughed and turned around to point out the sticker to Shelby, “Look at—”
I was interrupted when a bus flew past us, barreling through a massive puddle in the street and sending several gallons of water flying at Shelby, Skutull, and I. I saw the spray just in time to close my eyes and seal my lips before it hit me directly in the face.
“My God, Zack!” Shelby shouted at me through a half-hearted laugh. Her arms hung slack from her body as she shook water off her raincoat.
I wasn’t sure if she was mad or not. Skutull shook off, then pulled his ears back and looked up at me—he definitely wasn’t pleased. I assessed the state of myself. Whether it was lucky or not, the water sprayed from the street at a consistent height, like a fan unfurling. I was hit in the face and chest, which mostly deflected off my rain coat. My jeans and shoes were dry. “Okay, we can go get a cab,” I said, still smiling.
“Well we’re committed now!” Shelby declared. The light turned green and we crossed.
My biceps were burning by the time we entered old town Ljubljana, where the sidewalks turned from concrete to cobblestone. Pulling the suitcases became difficult. I alternated between pushing them upright on all four wheels in front of me and dragging them behind me. Heat built inside my raincoat, making my face flush and skin perspire—one way or another I was going to get wet. Nothing spoiled my mood, though. I had Shelby and Skutull pose for a grumpy-faced picture on the famous Triple Bridge with Ljubljana Castle peering down from the hill above. It’s clock tower was illuminated with bright lights and I could see the silhouette of flags whipping in the storm’s breeze.
Once we made it to our apartment, I dropped off our bags and skipped back outside, this time with an umbrella we found in our rental. I picked up pizza from my favorite pizzeria about a mile away. The food was cold by the time I made it back home, but each bite was nostalgic heaven. Just like I remembered.
Ljubljana Castle sits perched on a hill in the center of the city and flies both the Slovenian flag and the Ljubljana flag from it’s clock tower. The Ljubljana flag is red, green, and white and bears a shield on the right side which frames a dragon atop a castle tower.
Much of what I recognize as dragon lore originated in Slovenia—dragons living in castles and heroes who slay them.
It’s said that the Greek hero Jason was roaming the area when he came upon the first dragon and slayed it. Dragons have been a symbol of Ljubljana since ancient times, and today, Slovenians still proudly display them throughout the city—from the Dragon Bridge that crosses the Ljubljanica River and is guarded by eight green copper dragons, to the manhole covers scattered throughout the city that are molded into the shape of the dragon-castle crest from the Ljubljana flag, to the chocolate shops that sell dark cocoa dragon eggs.
The Ljubljanica River parts near the castle, hugs the hill’s ridge as it meanders around it, then merges back with itself, forming a 360-degree natural moat. The historic downtown lines both sides of the river and features architecture that blends Slovenian, Italian, Austrian, and Slavic styles.
In the early 20th century, Ljubljana entrusted the Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik with the architectural future of the city. Plečnik constructed his city creations with limestone mined from a nearby quarry, which gives Ljubljana a Roman feel. The famous Triple Bridge begins as one walkway on the inside bend of the river and fans out into a trio as it crosses the water. The river embankment, which descends on either side at a steep angle, guides vibrant blue-green water around the hill and looks more like an aqueduct than a natural feature.
While Ljubljana is one of the most visually charming cities I’ve ever visited, it’s the people that make it truly special. There’s an energy in the streets. I’ve felt similar energy in New York City and London before, but each city has its own flavor. The best way I can describe it is that Ljubljana feels like a blend of efficient, hard-working German/Austrian culture and laid-back Italian culture. People are timely, they queue properly, and each morning shop owners dutifully scrub the streets in front of their doors. But on the flip side, it sometimes feels like anything goes in Ljubljana. It’s not that you can get away with things, it’s that there are fewer rules than most places.
One of my favorite aspects of Ljubljana is that dogs are allowed just about everywhere.
They can go inside restaurants. Skutull ate out many times with us. At first, he thought it was really cool, but I think he eventually realized that “going out to a restaurant,” meant he’d have to nap on cold, hard floors while Shelby and I ate yummy food without sharing. He was especially upset with us one night when we ate at a pizzeria and another couple our age let their two dogs sit on chairs at the table sampling their food while Skutull laid hungry under the table.
Dogs can go into stores. They can walk off-leash down the cobblestone streets. They can even go to the zoo. We took Skutull to the zoo on Halloween because I thought it would be a fun “dog haunted house.”
Dog admission was €3. Much like how the zoo in New York City sits inside Central Park, the zoo in Ljubljana is nestled on the outer edge of Tivoli Park. We explored other parts of Tivoli Park with Skutull throughout our stay, but only scratched the surface because it spans a staggering two square miles (larger than Central Park).
Skutull wasn’t the only dog at the zoo, not by a long shot. He made friends with a white bolognese and a german shepherd puppy just inside the entrance while Shelby searched for a bathroom. Up and down the paths I saw families pushing strollers with their dogs trotting next to running children.
We entered a small building with a concrete room secured behind a layer of clean plexiglass. This enclosure is where the lions were supposed to live. A giant hip bone covered in red meat lay on the floor, teeth marks torn through its flesh, but there were no animals.
We waited for a while, then mosied further up the path, disappointed that Skutull didn’t get to see a lion. Small shrubs and vines partially obscured the view through a chain link fence that ran along the left side of the trail.
“What’s next?” I asked.
Shelby unfolded our paper zoo map. “The giraffes are up here.”
Then I noticed something move about ten feet away in the corner of my left eye. It was large and golden. Skutull sniffed the air, but was calm. I turned my head and was surprised to see a lion lounging in the grass! It gazed at us through half-open eyes. I’ve never been that close to a lion before, let alone with my dog. I couldn’t believe how big he was—his head was as large as a trash can lid. Skutull saw the lion and was interested for about ten seconds, then he turned back up the trail and put his nose to the ground. He’s always been more of a smell guy than a sight guy.
There was a second plexiglass viewing area around the corner and built into the chain link fence. A female lion rested near the male, flicking her tail at flies. If you were compelled to stick your hand through a hole in the fence, you could have pet the lions. Skutull was interested, but didn’t mind. The male lion approached the female and groomed the back of her neck while we snapped a selfie and moved on.
We saw an elephant playing with a large ball that hung from a post by a chain. There was no fence to contain the elephant, only a wire about a foot off the ground. Even though the elephant was maybe fifty feet from us in plain sight, I had to point it out and tell Skutull that the elephant was playing with his ball to get him to look. Skutull sat and watched the elephant, cocking his head from side to side as it swung the ball back and forth.
Then we turned around and noticed two leopards perched in a tree platform just ten feet away. One of them watched Skutull and pawed at the air while laying on its side. Skutull whined and pulled on the leash toward her. He wanted to be friends with her.
Skutull isn’t the biggest fan of cats. He didn't mind them as a puppy, but a few years ago he met one of our friend’s cats named Shithead, but pronounced “shith-eed.” Skutull tried to make friends with Shithead, but during their socialization he stuck his head out the cat door and Shithead bopped him on the face with her paw. Ever since then Skutull has been at war with every cat in existence. Lucky for us, Skutull didn’t instinctively categorize lions or leopards as cats. To him, they were separate animals and were a much smaller threat than house cats.
Even the bears, giraffes, and chimpanzees weren’t scary to Skutull. They were interesting for a moment, but then he was like, “Meh, they’re behind a fence and seem chill.” My haunted house was turning out to be much less scary than I had anticipated.
Then we came upon the wolves. Their enclosure was large and we could see three or four through the scattered tree trunks of the forest, scavenging under pine needles and autumn leaves. One wolf made brief eye contact with Skutull, then stuck its head back to the ground and dug. A second wolf threw up green bile.
The small, white bolognese dog Skutull met by the entrance walked up the path. I was holding Skutull back a few feet from the fence, but the owner of the white bolognese let her dog stick its entire nose through the holes in the fence. One of the wolves approached, laying down on the other side of the fence wagging its tail. Then another came. And another. And another. Soon a dozen wolves swarmed the fence, jumping over each other in excitement. Some had playful body language like they wanted to make friends with the tiny dog, others crouched like they were hunting it.
Skutull has never been in a dog fight. We regularly walk past dogs who lunge at their leash toward him, growling and showing their teeth. Skutull never cares. He strides past and ignores what he would categorize as “childish behavior.” The wolves were different, though. I think he was worried about his friend, the small, white dog. As a group of five or six wolves ran toward the fence, Skutull snarled and lunged at them. It was very out of character, but at least my haunted house finally scared him!
The wolves weren’t intimidated by Skutull. Two of them turned their bodies toward us and whined, but the rest didn’t seem to notice. I pulled Skutull aside and scolded him. “You think you can take a whole pack of wolves?” I asked him. He gazed up at me wagging his tail in shame. We returned to the fence and he was a good boy, though I could tell he was not entirely comfortable with the wolves. They were massive and behaved erratically.
I think Skutull might be a bit conceited and think he is more sophisticated than wolves. Those dogs sleep outside while he sleeps belly-up on a warm bed between his Mom and Dad. In Ljubljana, he knew where the gelato store was and tried to steer every walk in its direction. He went to the bakery each morning to pick up a pastry for breakfast. He ate out at pizzerias, taquerias, and pastarias where the owners knew him. These dogs were too wild for posh Skutull.
The next morning we saw two men walking their pet emu through old town Ljubljana. Skutull strutted past the giant bird, hardly turning his head, while I ogled in amazement.