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The green lungs of Ljubljana

Text: Marjan Žiberna Photos: Domen Grögl and Turizem Ljubljana archive

The title of Green Capital of Europe, which Ljubljana holds in 2016, has filled the authorities in Slovenia's capital city with pride. It is fair to say that there are good reasons for this pride.

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In the last decade the city has become a lot greener and friendlier – to both residents and visitors. Not that it was some impersonal concrete jungle before this. Numerous parks, green areas and pleasant river embankments. Drinking fountains. Bicycles available free of charge for short journeys in various parts of the city. A city centre closed to car traffic... There really is no shortage of reasons.

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Trees have long adorned the banks of the Ljubljanica but many new ones have been planted in recent years

One of the most impressive views of Ljubljana is the one you get when you see it from a frog's perspective.

Or, if you prefer, a duck's, since there is no shortage of wild ducks happily swimming along the Ljubljanica as it flows quietly through the centre of the city. Board one of the tourist boats from a quay next to the market, not far from the Triple Bridge, for a boat trip to the edge of the city and back, and you will sail under arches formed by the branches of willows, chestnuts and other trees. It is perfectly possible to forget for a moment that you are in the middle of a city with a population of a quarter of a million, since the abundant greenery means that from time to time the buildings disappear.

The sensation that you are in the middle of nature is especially strong if you come across a group of coypus – South American rodents the size of beavers – swimming along next to the boat with no sign of fear or placidly munching grass on the riverbank. These animals that were once bred on farms for their fur have in recent years become everyday inhabitants of Ljubljana.

From the centre of Ljubljana, where you boarded your boat and disembarked at the end of the trip, you can set off up the hill to get a different view of the city – a bird's-eye view this time.

One way to reach Ljubljana Castle, with its almost thousand-year history, is by funicular railway. But if you still have strength in your legs, it is nicer to climb up to the castle on foot, taking one of the paths that wind up to the summit of the castle hill. As you make your way upwards, pausing for breath as necessary, you can listen to the song of the many birds whose habitat this is. Not that this should be any great surprise, given that you are walking through a wood. There is no shortage of woodland in Ljubljana.

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Anyone who doesn't like greenery – it may be hard to imagine such a person but in today's modern world, in all its diversity, you never know – is going to feel very uncomfortable here.

Almost half of the city is covered by native forest, while as much as three-quarters of the city is green.

The view from the castle extends in all directions: to nearby Golovec, popular with walkers; to the extensive wetland known as the Ljubljansko Barje, slightly further away, with Krim rising above it; to the Polhov Gradec Dolomites; and to the distant Alps – which on clear days appear so close you could almost touch them. If you really were to try and walk to the Alps you would put some serious wear on your shoes, but Tivoli, Ljubljana's biggest park, is only a few minutes' walk from the city centre. The park was laid out more than two centuries ago, shortly after the city got its own botanical garden – which incidentally is also well worth a visit. But when in Tivoli there is another garden even closer at hand: the zoological garden at the foot of Rožnik.

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If you don't feel like visiting the animals in the zoo, you can always set off over Rožnik, a city-centre hill where you can surprise roe deer grazing in the early mornings. And provided you don't get lost on the paths over the hill, you will eventually reach the peak named after the writer Ivan Cankar and the little church that stands there. Which actually only serves for orientation, since less than a stone's throw away stands a popular inn. Keen runners pound along the path past the inn; those who see no particular pleasure in running prefer to sit at tables in the shade of the spreading chestnut trees. With a glass of cold beer or something similarly refreshing in front of them. From here, once you have gathered your strength, you can set off again along the green paths that spread throughout Ljubljana just like the capillaries that spread through the lungs and ensure that the organism is well supplied with life-giving oxygen. Go down the hill to the pond in the Koseze district. This former clay pit has in recent years become yet another of the city's popular green areas. From here you can turn back towards your starting point in the old town centre or, if you wish, strike out in another direction. The opportunities for contact with nature in the centre of the city are in fact far from exhausted.