The first time I understood the magic of a city festival was back in September 2007 on a chance visit to Aarhus in Denmark. A friend and I had picked the city from a £10 Ryan Air sale. We didn’t know where it was or what we’d do there, but by potluck we found ourselves in the midst of its annual fiesta. We saw the city in its party frock and fell in love with its joie d’vivre. Festivals are like birthday parties for the places in which they take place. They infuse everything and everyone with a sense of celebration, spreading smiles and goodwill through the streets. From then on, I always looked out for festivals and tried to coincide trips with their dates – so when we were invited to one in Ljubljana, a city we were already keen to visit, Steve and I leapt at the lucky chance.
The festival we were to visit was called Nights in Ljubljana Old Town, a celebration of the city’s art scene and all the many cultures that play a part in it. Over three nights, an eclectic mixture of performers take to nine stages that are dotted around the city’s picturesque old town. The evenings are balmy and crowds gather in cobbled squares, or take a table at a local restaurant to enjoy dinner with a festival view. It’s a civilized affair with a lively, convivial buzz, reminiscent of a small scale Edinburgh fringe. One minute you may find yourself listening to the sounds of a digeridoo, and the next minute watching tango dancers strut in an open square. The focus is on music, but there are also performance art pieces and seminars during the day.
We went to the opening concert in front of the grandeur of the baroque town hall, and were taken on a journey around the world’s music. A young group of violinists charmed us with the sounds of classical Europe, dancers swirled to the music of Japan, and – my favourite – the Sankofa choir had everyone mesmerized and swaying to the tune of Ghana. Other highlights over the nights included a jazz band with a blind pianist dressed in homage to Mozart, and a haunting flautist playing by candlelight in a hidden alley. Most of all, we enjoyed wandering and seeing what music we might stumble upon next.
Alongside the Nights in Ljublana Old Town, it was also the tail end of the city’s summer music programme as well as the artsy Young Lions (Mladi Levi) festival. When we were there, one of Slovenia’s top jazz players was playing as part of the Ljubljana Festival – adding some more formal options to our festival pickings. Mladi Levi, on the other hand, is an innovative theatre-based festival celebrating original talent from all across Europe. You can take part in performance art pieces or watch progresseive plays – the line-up is diverse and as many events take place in the daytime, it’s a great compliment to the nighttime fun.
Ljubljana itself is a charming backdrop to all the events. Street cafes, riverside walks, colourful baroque architecture and a medieval castle overlooking it all – you couldn’t want for a more pretty stage. This is a city that would look good in any dress – come rain or beautiful shine – but its party frock is something special and I’d recommend visiting when you know it’s on.
More on Ljubljana, a city that enchanted us, coming soon…