I step out of the bus into the bright light and look around. In front of me is the railway station; a good example of Austro-Hungarian architectural style. Across the busy dual carriageway is a tree-lined park with minor streets and avenues leading to the old city centre. Nothing looks familiar: I look around hoping that some kind of recognition will take place, but I have no memory of this place – neither the station nor any of the streets.
Usually when I return to a city my memory clicks into place as smoothly as a child’s jigsaw puzzle. Not today though. I sigh. The smells are all wrong, the noises are wrong and the colours are definitely wrong. As the sun burns down on my skin and the noise of the buses and cars fill my ears I remember the last time I stood in this spot…
I stepped out of the lorry and into the gloom of a wet late autumn afternoon. The driver clasped my hand, grinned and bid us goodbye. A part of me was relieved to have reached this little border town of Ljubljana in northern Yugoslavia. The journey through the Austrian Alps with its hairpin bends in torrential sleet and rain, was not the most relaxing, but as the heavy rain ran down the back of my neck and soaked through the shoulders of my jacket I craved the warmth of the cab. We headed to the information booth inside the railway station to try to find a room to stay the night. Camping was definitely out of the question.
A grey-haired woman in the booth gave us directions to a house nearby with a room to let. When we reached the address we looked up at the multi-storey building in dismay. Its concrete façade was black in the rain and the huge solid door seemed quite forbidding. Paul raised the heavy brass knocker shaped like a fish and let it fall. The noise was like a gunshot and startled me. After an interminable while we heard the sound of a key being turned in the lock and the door slowly opened. A diminutive grey-haired woman dressed in black stood before us, unsmiling. We asked her about a room for the night, speaking hesitantly in German and miming laying our heads on a pillow. A brief movement of her head indicated for us to step inside. As we stood dripping onto the tiled hallway floor we heard her locking the door behind us. I shivered: this did not feel good.
The woman beckoned us to follow her up the wide staircase with intricate wrought-iron balustrades to the second floor where she unlocked a drab brown door and waved us inside. The room was huge with high ceilings and a large sash window on one wall. Despite the size of the window the room was very gloomy mainly due to the still falling rain, but also the furnishings – a very large old-fashioned dark brown wardrobe dominated the main wall, twin metal beds with thin brown blankets faced the window, with a small worn rug between them on the brown linoleum floor. The only decoration was a dull painting of a castle in dark browns and greys in a dark wooden frame. My heart sank – but at least it was dry – and cheap.
Not wanting to go back out into the storm, we heated some soup on our little gas stove; glad of the warmth it gave out and then climbed into our sleeping bags to keep warm. It was not a great night for sleeping. The rain lashed down onto the windows, which rattled in their sashes. The beds were hard and uncomfortable and someone in the next room had a hacking cough. Eventually an overcast dawn broke through the darkness and we could get up and get on our way. The rain had stopped and a watery sun attempted to shine, but the wind was blowing from the Alps and was tinged with snow. Standing at the side of the main road to Belgrade we shivered in this grey unwelcoming communist country…
Then was October 1973 and we never did get that lift. By mid afternoon we abandoned our vigil and returned to the station to get a train through to the capital city of Belgrade and on into sunny Greece. Neither of us wanted to spend another damp, cold night in Ljubljana.
Now is June 2012: a cloudless azure blue sky, the sun caressing my skin and the light so bright it makes my eyes hurt. Walking into the centre of the city I find it to be filled with charming cobbled squares, baroque churches and brightly decorated art nouveau architecture. It is vibrant with pavement cafés lining the riverside and young people sit and drink their coffee and beer. A lot has changed in this region in the intervening years – Yugoslavia is no more and Ljubljana is now the young capital city of Slovenia and even the station got a face-lift in 1980 and the only grey-haired lady appears to be me!