Is Ljubljana a town or a city? It’s a contentious question yet commonly asked. We’ve been through this with a number of experts and just as many smart arses and can’t get a definitive answer. Most dictionaries define a city as “a population, commercial and cultural centre; a town of significant size and importance”. Many people lean heavily on the second part of this definition to deny Ljubljana’s claim to city status, saying “No way… with such a small population and no skyline to speak of or any other indicators of real urbanity, Ljubljana is just a town”. Others self-indulgently claim that Ljubljana’s administrative and cultural functions accord it city status. So, depending on the context, we can use either label.
In Slovene, the word “mesto” could be translated either way, so a place such as Škofja Loka, which is an administrative, economic and cultural centre of a wider area, could end up being mentioned in the same breath as Moscow. Of course, the entire Slovene-speaking world (estimated at 2.2 million people) would barely fill a few suburbs of a “town” like Moscow.
Anyway, according to our government, a “mesto” is any settlement that has more than ten thousand inhabitants and Slovenia has 67 of these, including Ljubljana. Definitions aside, according to common sense, one thing is certain: Ljubljana is the most city-like place in Slovenia.
Even more obviously, Ljubljana’s urban attributes are getting a boost in a very modern sense. Even without a metro system or a larger airport, Ljubljana has many urban attributes to show visitors, but its compact size makes it very accessible.
The definition of the term is flexible. We have consulted Helena Peterlin, chief editor of City Magazine, Ljubljana’s lifestyle freezine, who thinks of it as an urban subculture with a variety of different groups with particular common interests, styles, views etc.
“To me, the real representatives of urban lifestyle are people who enjoy their urban life, meaning they follow the trends, love to socialize, go shopping and attend cultural events. Ljubljana folks are indeed adopting the urban lifestyle, which is still developing and slightly behind other European cities due to the lack of choice in certain styles.” Peterlin also thinks that Ljubljana is in a way too young to become a trendsetter.
Still, despite its small size, Ljubljana is well aware of its search of urban identity and thus making effort to become more recognizable as “we still lack our own Sachertorte…”
When it comes to critics, most agree that Ljubljana has potential in many ways, still waiting to develop. Expecting a metro might be a bit utopian, but the ideas of making the centre a pedestrian-friendly public space, offering all a metropolis, are well within a reach. Also, a decent airport with a good transit link to the city centre is not a demand too high.
Ljubljana does indeed have monumental public buildings, a good choice of bars and restaurants, plus – of course – a vibrant cultural life. Solid, but not enough to be completely satisfied.
“Maybe another ten years will bring a unique culture that others will see and want to become a part of it. Ljubljana, the way it is, remains small, yet lovely city with an ambition to become a metropolis in the future,” concludes Peterlin.
A Collection of Mix Tapes
The place you choose to live is a gift you give yourself. For me, Manhattan is a largely ignorable, hyperactive show dog on a costly special-needs diet. Dallas is a pleather wallet full of photos and customer rewards cards. And Ljubljana is a well-decorated, well-documented parcel of mix tapes.
At times: sentimental, oddly industrial, rambling and inefficient, DIY, totally self-contained, Ljubljana has all the watermarks of a fantastic mix tape. And, it’s a city filled with music: from the sonic spillage pouring out of Križanke to the “čefur” sports cars in Rakova Jelša to the audio smorgasbord you’ll find at Metelkova any given weekend.
Its architecture colludes in this symphonic bearing. Stara Ljubljana sings jazz standards. Bežigrad grunts Oy! through distortion. Vic rehearses scales. The low, old relic buildings give every neighborhood that proper sky-to-structure ratio where sounds can disappear. Ljubljana more than anywhere I’ve lived culls its musicality from its silences, like some high-flown John Cage experiment.
This collection of mix tapes, Ljubljana possesses a beautiful economy of scale. In these days of iTune playlists that quickly get out of control through their excesses, Ljubljana keeps it limited to the bare necessities. This is partly because it’s a small town, and partly because the people living there know the rest of Slovenia has to come to them. Whatever it offers will be locally revered.
Because it’s populated with Slovenians, Ljubljana lacks a certain amount of confidence. A place this picturesque and sociable should not be standing as consistently in its own shadow as it does. I always imagine Ljubljana being hit by some social earthquake—like the one in the 1500s that defined its current physical look. In my mental stereo, I turn up the bass and wait for the rumbles.