Imagine Ljubljana in the summer: Fancy Art nouveau buildings painted in bright colours, opulent Baroque fountains splashing water in the heat and very few, tranquil Slovenians strolling around. The almost 50 000 students who usually inhabit the city during the academic year have abandoned it and most likely migrated temporarily to the sunny coasts of Italy or Croatia. Ljubljana is a great destination for some Europeans, like my mum, who enjoy peacefulness and art. However, for the average backpacking European in her/his twenties, what I just described sounds, let’s be honest, deadly boring.

But this would be a rather hasty verdict because inside the quiet and picturesque Ljubljana, there is a second city, which refuses to comply with the summer hibernation: Metelkova mesto.

Metelkova mesto (mesto means city in Slovene) is an autonomous cultural centre situated in the ex-Yugoslavian army barracks in Ljubljana and a place where locals and tourists, straights, gays and lesbians, anarchists and hippies, Europeans and non-Europeans meet to enjoy concerts, admire the eccentric art all around the place, listen to philosophic readings or, as Goran, our Slovene expert on Metelkova, says "to have fun and be creative." You might not be able to fly straight to it and have a Coke but it offers many more crazy and unique things to enjoy.

Photo: Kina Markova
Kina, E&M's alternative travel journalist, admiring the graffiti art in Metelkova.

And that's exactly what I did when I spent 3 weeks in Ljubljana, participating in the local Summer School of Economics. After the initial shock caused by the realisation that, even though it was called a 'summer school,' the study load didn't quite adapt to my vacation mood, it was time to engage in the favorite hobby of the majority of young Europeans: exploring the local nightlife (often encrypted in CVs and LinkedIn profiles as "gaining insights about other cultures").

Exploring the nightlife in Ljubljana turned out to be tricky. After a first failed attempt to enter an exaggeratedly posh rooftop disco, where already the lift seemed to be exclusive, we almost abandoned the project. However, asking a stranger on the street for tips always helps and that's how I found out about the existence of Metelkova. Not even completely sure what it precisely was, together with a few friends I engaged in a quest to find it.

I had the feeling that I had just been on a crazy 'Alice in Wonderland adventure' without even slightly expecting it.

After passing the central station of Ljubljana, we started noticing more and more walls covered with graffiti and knew we were on the right track. Few moments later, we found an opening through the walls and entered a rather industrial looking yard. The first building we entered was called "Jalla Jalla;" a small wooden house painted with stars and space ships. Once inside, I had the feeling that I had been transported to Jamaica because of the reggae beats, exotic guys with dreadlocks, dim light and aquamarine colored ceiling. Only the typical Slovene beer called Lasko reminded me that I was still in Ljubljana. Inside however, there was a beach party going on with people dancing in their swimsuits and playing with inflatable toys. Soon the heat of the party rose to such extents that some French guys decided to that it made no sense to be prudish at a beach party and went nude instead.

Trying to remove the image of the dancing naked French guys from my mind, I sought seclusion at the nearby heavy metal bar called Bizarnica at Mariča. Entering a metal bar with skulls painted on the walls was initially a bit scary but everybody sitting there despite their harsh looks appeared to be incredibly friendly and open to talking to lost foreigners. After some chitchatting with locals, I looked for my friends, who in the meantime had managed to attend a Goan trance party. Back in my dormitory I had the feeling that I had just been on a crazy "Alice in Wonderland adventure" without even slightly expecting it. I was perplexed that in a quiet and neat city like Ljubljana, something so chaotically colourful and diverse could exist.

In order to solve this riddle, I got in touch with Goran Medjugorac, a Slovenian artist who has been actively involved in Metelkova almost since its start. Talking about beginnings, people say that they are never easy and this was very true in the case of Metelkova.

In the past, the area was filled with soldiers and political prisoners rather than the current joyful and friendly visitors and inhabitants. The barracks where Metelkova is now situated were built at the end of the 19th century and till the 1990s served different armies coming from Vienna, Beograd, Rome or Berlin. The Yugoslav People's Army upgraded the barracks by building a political prison, which now houses the world's hippest hostel, Celica hostel, where you can book yourself a cell instead of a standard room.

Photo: Kina Markova
Making use of every available square metre for art.

In 1990, around 200 local cultural and student organisations formed the Network for Metelkova, whose aim was to propose a creative and peaceful use for the former military barracks. After the last Yugoslavian soldiers left Slovenia in 1991 and a new democratic Slovenian government was formed, the Network for Metelkova petitioned the government asking for the permission to make use of the barracks for cultural purposes. Even though the Slovenian officials promised to respect the inhabitants' wishes, in 1993 the municipality of Ljubljana started to illegally demolish the barracks in order to sell the space to the highest bidding businessmen. To prevent the demolition, on the night of 11th of September about 200 activists and artists squatted in the garrisons and refused to leave. The government and city officials' reaction to the "occupation" of Metelkova was to cut off the electricity and water and file charges against the squatters. This continued for about 2 years and the inhabitants of Metelkova were forced to live without running water and electricity. In the winter only the bravest squatters stayed and the rest left.

Metelkova is a little microcosm where art and culture are crafted and revered.

However, in 1994 after a change in government, the situation stabilised and charges were dropped. Still, the legal status of Metelkova remains questionable, which leads to many complications even today. Several bars and clubs do not posses any legal and health permits, circumstances which, quite logically, sometimes lead to police raids and checks.

Even though the first part of this story was mainly about parties, Metelkova is much more than a party place. It is a little microcosm where art and culture are crafted and revered. That's why after the first night of partying, I went back to Metelkova the next day and was astonished by the unconventional beauty of each building, statue or piece of graffiti. And even if you are not a huge fan of parties or weird architecture, I am sure you will find a cinema evening, lecture, debate, art exhibition or a concert among the endless possibilities offered, which will fit your taste. Goran for example found something even more valuable: his wife, an Argentinian Erasmus student, who was selling empanadas (stuffed bread traditional for Latin America) at Metelkova. So be sure not only to stare at the bright night sky and sparkling stars, which you can clearly see from Metelkova in the summer, but also take a look at your neighbour and maybe even wink at him or her.

Teaser Photo: Kina Markova

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