The castle which marks the city

Ljubljana Castle from the Congress square. Photo: Ljubljana Castle archives

February 2012

The city's coat-of-arms, which features a green dragon sitting on top of the castle tower, under which the greenery of the castle hill can be seen, has made Ljubljana Castle a hard-to-miss symbol of the city and its most popular attraction. Both the castle and the dragon have an ancient tradition that goes back to the twelfth century, which is when the first references to the medieval town of Ljubljana were recorded. History tells us that, at that time, a small wooden fort was already located on the hill, which was then replaced by a stone building soon afterwards. However, the first explicit mention of the castle itself dates back to the thirteenth century. The location of the castle, on a steep hill right above the City Hall and the Ljubljanica River, was so prominent that ancient travellers referred to Ljubljana as "the town below the castle". The basis for the symbol used, now widely known, seemed obvious at the time.

Turbulent history

Photo: Ljubljana Castle archives

The castle's history has always been in harmony with the purpose of its function: the first relatively small fortress, whose owners were the Spanheims, a German family, was additionally fortified in the fourteenth century when a new tower was added; the fortress was almost completely torn down in the fifteenth century and replaced with a larger castle. Throughout the following century, the castle was progressively furnished with the majority of the facilities we can admire today. These include a pentagonal tower, St Jurij's chapel, a duke's tower formerly known as Padav (now known as Šance), which is connected to the castle by a separate wall, and the rest of the buildings, of which the most attractive are the Estate Hall and the Palatium, the only premises which served as residences for the nobility. An even more bitter fate befell the castle after the seventeenth century: the fort was neglected and used to store large quantities of gunpowder, which posed a fatal risk to the town. In the eighteenth century, the castle was to be demolished but Napoleon, who had conquered Ljubljana, saved it from doom. The castle was then converted into a penitentiary and the only improvement worthy of note during that time was the erection of the present day lookout tower, which was knocked down and replaced as part of the general renovation of the castle in 1980. After the Second World War, several socially disadvantaged families lived in the castle; the neglected grounds deteriorated even further until they became a major disgrace to the city. However, by 1960, this period came to a close when the city authorities decided to undertake a thorough reconstruction of the castle, largely financed by Ljubljana's inhabitants directly.

Social centre

Photo: Ljubljana Castle archives

Today, the castle is a major cultural, social, tourist and catering hotspot, which strikes just the right note of exclusivity to attract business people and distinguished visitors who come to Ljubljana to attend important conferences and meetings, for all kinds of people interested in culture and, of course, a great many tourists for whom a visit to Ljubljana Castle is a must during their stay in Ljubljana. Particularly at the end of the week, the castle is visited by people from all parts of Slovenia and Ljubljana, who consider a walk to the castle to be a mandatory part of their leisure time.

Last year, 260,000 tickets were sold for the collections and exhibitions. Twice as many visitors as tickets sold are thought to have been attracted by other interests to the castle. This means that the number of visitors today is close to 800,000 people! This increase has been largely boosted by the funicular, which has now been in operation for five years and has made visiting the castle possible for many who otherwise would have been unable to do so, either owing to a lack of time or for other reasons. Around half of the castle's visitors take the funicular, which has become a special attraction, especially for children. Given the ambitious programmes and energy of the castle's management team the figure of one million visitors is a realistic target and will soon be reached.

One of the most frequented tourist destinations in Slovenia

Photo: Ljubljana Castle archives

The range of services on offer at the castle is rich indeed. There is nowhere else in Ljubljana that offers so many cultural and other events in one place. The permanent exhibition of 310-million-year-old rocks, which contain fossils, and the permanent exhibition on Slovenian history are joined by a new virtual exhibition on the history of Ljubljana Castle; these exhibitions satisfy the wishes of visitors who might have expected to see the castle museum, and serve as the foundations of a programme that make it worth paying a visit to the castle at any time. Particularly during the summer, the above events are supplemented by at least two or three exhibitions featuring the artistic opuses of prominent cultural figures, frequent events taking place in the most exquisite part of the castle – the Estate Hall – not to mention the excellent catering service, which numbers probably two of Ljubljana's best restaurateurs amongst its staff.

Saturdays in particular are reserved for weddings, which have become one of the trademarks of the reconstructed castle. The two wedding halls have been used for over twenty years and the director is concerned about the autumn wedding rush, as this is when the wedding halls will require refurbishment after all these years of service.

It is in fact quite surprising how deeply the castle has become entrenched in Ljubljana and Slovenian daily life. Today, it is one of the most frequented tourist destinations in Slovenia, because it has become a must-see destination for many. Several events offering quick but informative insights into the history of the city have found their home at the castle.

Text by Jože Osterman, Sinfo, February 2012 

Photo: Ljubljana Castle archives