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A Cultural Tour Of Ljubljana

Ljubljana's fairytale-like visage is well matched by the treasure trove that lies within.

As mythical origins go, it's a fitting beginning to a city that appears straight out of a Grimm brothers' fairytale.

Although I've never been on holiday to Slovenia before, legend has it that Ljubljana was founded by mythical warriors Jason and the Argonauts who, carrying the golden fleece they had stolen from King Aetes, fled across the Black Sea and up the Danube and a desolate, undiscovered river to safety.

Today, if you venture on holiday to Ljubljana, street cafes line this river, the unusually green Ljubljanica (pronounced Lyubyanitsa), while brass musicians in pinstripe suits entertain the crowds and self-conscious young Ljubljanians parade their tans through the fashionable Stari Trg, the main square.

The Baroque city came to represent independence and the birth of a new national consciousness as the Slovenians broke away from oppressive Yugoslav control in1991, concentrating all their creative energies on their new capital – which as a result seems to ooze philosophy and artistic ideals from its brickwork.

Lying in a basin, the city stops abruptly where the forests begin, albeit softly mediated on one side by a carefully-tended green park which houses the Tivoli mansion, surrounded by sculptures of (slightly bizarre-looking) tongueless dogs.

Giant photographs of artistically shot landscapes are suspended amid the trees while paved-stone streets hide a myriad second-hand bookshops, miniscule galleries and bars, where bearded Slovenians chat animatedly over bitter coffee – a favourite local pick-me-up. For art in action, the nearby International Centre of Graphic Arts has its own printmaking workshops and a 3,600-strong collection of fine art prints.

Devastated by earthquakes several times throughout history, Ljubljana's 100-year-old architecture, from the gingerbread-house appearance of official buildings to the optically illusory triple bridge – three rows of crisscrossing white skittles – gives a deceptively young feel to a city that has long represented the heart of the Eastern European country.

Whilst on holiday, even if you learn nothing about Ljubljana's history, spend a minute brushing up on Jose Plecnik. The architect responsible for almost all the city’s memorable architecture – the tromostovje (triple bridge) municipal hall and cathedral – his vision for the city is painted unmistakably on every stone of note.

The Slovenian capital served as Mr Plecnik’s sketchbook before he moved on to the serious grandeur of Prague cathedral – one reason why the two cities are so often compared. Today, Slovenia is a tourist hot spot attracting holiday-makers from all over the world.

Climbing up to the grad, or castle, dungeon is being re-fitted as a trendy bar, and the dizzyingly spectacular views of a green river snaking through a patchwork of terracotta roofs, out into the Kamnik, Triglav and Akravanke Alps.

Although not as cheap as its Eastern European neighbours, the deliciously undiscovered Ljubljana is definitely on the affordable map for tourists and backpackers alike, with nightly rates in the many central hostels and hotels often negligible and offering a welcome worth a thousand tolar, the local currency.

Slovene cuisine is an appetising meeting of Mediterranean – pizzerias abound – and heartier Germanic fare. Try a traditional dish of sheep's cheese rolled in egg pasta parcels, a simple garlic-infused fish cooked in paper, or one of the 70 different struklji dumplings – savoury or sweet – available across the town.

In the relaxed capital, your holiday will have everything on offer, the nightlife generally means bars not clubs, although many offer live jazz and play late into the night, meaning the city is mercifully bypassed by the stag-weekenders haranguing its oft-compared big brother, Prague.

The Argonauts may long since have left, but Slovenia's best-kept secret remains a legendary cultural experience – and you no longer need to sail up the river to arrive.