There are more trees lining the roads than cars that drive on them, giving new meaning to “urban jungle.” A turquoise-blue river bisects the city, spanned by a series of scenic bridges that connect idyllic cobbled walkways. With red-tiled roofs, imposing cathedrals and a 15th century castle, it looks like a destination from a Disney movie.
It’s hard to believe this city is a metropolis, but Ljubljana is the capitol of the small Eastern European country of Slovenia. It’s a city with a name many people are hard pressed to pronounce, let alone pinpoint on a map.
Slovenia was the first country to leave Yugoslavia in 1991, and the first to join the European Union. Citizens are cosmopolitan and approachable, with a great grasp of English compared to their neighbours. Outgoing and helpful, they make a backpacker’s life much easier.
Anya Žibert is one such citizen. She moved from the countryside to Ljubljana in 2002 for a state-paid university education and never left. “For Slovenian people, it’s the city where you can find most jobs,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s not that good because it’s very small and everything is in the capital.”
Living in Ljubljana does not seem to have hindered Žibert. She said: “It’s stunning. I love it. I like showing people around because the nature is amazing.”
Those who take the time to travel to this pocket-sized country are offered striking views of mountains, forests and glacial lakes. But being half the size of Switzerland, Slovenia is often overlooked on the European backpacking trail. The small, beautiful country that your neighbour has probably never heard of has recently made a name for itself on an international level – one that residents such as Žibert is not proud of.
A recent Ernst & Young Fraud 2013 survey revealed that Slovenia’s business sectors are at the top of the list in using bribery to win contacts. Out of the 36 countries across Africa, Asia and Europe, the country beat places such as Kenya, Greece and Nigeria for business bribery and corrupt practises.
“We were the most advanced country in all the Balkans,” Žibert said. Although she can’t exactly explain the downfall of her country’s economic integrity, she believed that “when the recession started in the world, all the bad things came to the surface.”
As is the case in many small European countries, the recent global recession has caused a lot of damage. In Slovenia’s case, the lucrative business deals are hindering a recovery: “Nobody really wants to invest in Slovenia at this point,” she said.
“I’m working in a good company, I’ve got a great boss, great coworkers,” she said about her role as a regional sales manager in IT.
Not all Slovenians are as lucky as Žibert though. As she said, “I have a job, [my partner] has a job, we’re happy, so we don’t really feel what other people feel, but a lot of people are without work at the moment.”
In July 2013, The Slovenian Press Agency recorded an increase to 12.9 per cent in unemployment rates after four months of decline. For the 283,000 people living in Ljubljana, this means more people are unable to find jobs in a dwindling economy.
“I hope it’s going to get better,” Žibert said, “but nobody in Slovenia really believes that. A lot of people have been doing really bad stuff but only a few of them have gone to jail because they’re all protected by higher forces.”
As a visitor, it’s hard to feel the level of business corruption on the streets. Most of those who come are overwhelmed by remnants of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, preserved from destruction of the two world wars. Instead of seeing the effects of bribery, visitors see multi-coloured sunsets over the Ljubljanica River from benches sat alongside the water while eating Slovenian cheese-filled pastries called bureks.
Even with all that the economy is going through, this small country still has a lot to offer. A determined traveller can see all of Slovenia in a week. “It’s special because in a very small place you can find everything: caves, mountains, hiking, skiing in the winter,” Žibert said. “I would definitely say they should come visit.”
“If they travel to Slovenia, they aren’t affected by all the stuff going on here – at the moment,” Žibert said, insisting that travelling to Slovenia is still worth it: “It’s not fake yet.”