Story and photo by Derrick Koo
The castle is gated, the majestic Alps hidden behind an opaque shroud of blackness. The immaculate lanes of freshly paved streets bear no vehicles; the traffic lights blink at no one. Businesses stare blankly out of their white marble facades, their windows dark and still. This is midnight in Ljubljana, a city that definitely sleeps.
This quiet grid of a capital city, nestled in the Alpine center of Slovenia, is where my friend Andrew and I had an overnight layover. The timetables had lied; there was no direct train from Croatia to Germany. So we found ourselves with five hours to kill in a city seemingly frozen in place.
Trekking through central Europe by train and boat, we had heard accolades about Ljubljana from other travelers – it’s beautiful, it’s clean, the people are friendly, the prices low – and almost everyone mentioned two words: Metelkova City. Those who had been there spoke of it in wistful terms, and those who hadn’t expressed a deep desire to visit. Metelkova was a name whispered like a secret that everyone knew but no one wanted to give away.
With the tourist sites closed and the mountains off limits at night, we decided to find this semi-mythical place: a former Yugoslav army barracks now host to an autonomous artists’ community. Nestled in what was once an industrial zone that is now experiencing a slow invasion of glass office towers and luxury condominiums, this is the part of Ljubljana that is always stirring. (At any hour of the night, you will find people in open courtyards, beers in hand, discussing world politics or the previous night’s noise rock concert.) But it melts surreptitiously into the empty lots and garages around it, and it’s easy to bypass entirely.
The first thing you notice is the lighting. Colored floodlights spill out from the walled complex, bathing sculptures in the courtyards or murals on the walls. Crumbling sections of buildings are rebuilt as handmade glass and metal hybrids, adorned with paintings and sculptures and decorated with detritus. The main courtyard is laid out like a beer garden, with long picnic tables and benches and an outdoor bar underneath wooden roofs, sculptures interspersed throughout. Another courtyard contains a log cabin-like pub, smatterings of freestanding artwork and various hang-out spots: a circle of cinderblock benches, a three-story tree house, an elevated wooden ship.
We passed into another world when we walked through the gates of Metelkova City, one where it’s always night, the environment is an open-air museum and people from all over the world sit together on half-buried tires to discuss life. There was the duo from Spain, stopping in Slovenia on their way home from the Greek Isles. There was the quartet from Manchester, delighted to find a pub where the beer cost only a euro-fifty and last call simply did not exist. There was the couple from Australia receiving impromptu relationship therapy from a Metelkova resident. Andrew and I discussed favorite metal bands with Michael, a pony-tailed student from the University of Ljubljana who was eager to practice his English and impart a little knowledge of Slovenian culture.
Then there were the residents: the dreadlocked artists of all ages, the one with the fedora and the friendly dog, the sarcastic bartender, the quiet ones absorbed in the obscure art films being projected on the walls of the pub. Our nervousness at waltzing into an abandoned military barracks populated by crumbling buildings and phantasmagoric artwork vanished as soon as we met the people who lived there.
But we were interlopers in this world, and our own caught up with us. It was 4:45 by the time we realized our train departed for Munich in fifteen minutes. Our goodbyes were hasty, the exchanges of emails foregone in a haze of rushed chaos. We sprinted back to the train station, the streets around us still motionless, the darkness still impenetrable. As the train pulled out from the station, we looked beyond the rail yards to the walls of Metelkova City looming silently in the distance. A faint colored glow seeped from below, but nothing stirred, and Ljubljana continued to slumber.