Doing Time: A Night in a Slovenian Prison Cell
By Phoebe Hornby
The door shut behind me with a resounding clang. I put my bag on the floor and climbed up onto the bed. Then nothing. Silence. Light poured in through the bars of the window. I was left all alone with my thoughts, penned in between four very thick walls.
I’d landed myself a stay in the notorious Slovenian prison cum Ljubljana hostel, Hostel Celica. And far from being sent there against my will as punishment for my crimes, I was paying for the privilege of spending a night behind bars!
Ljubljana is a tiny city, dwarfed by most of its European neighbors. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in beauty. Although Celica is considered to be on the outskirts of the city, it’s an easy, ten-minute walk to the Triple Bridge and the delights of the Old Town.
Hauling my backpack towards it in the gathering gloom, the hostel/prison seemed in a less than salubrious setting, surrounded by graffitied buildings and close to the main bus and train stations (which, let’s face it, usually means trouble). In reality, though, few hostels in Ljubljana can match its location.
The hostel is right in the heart of Metelkova, an alternative area of metal and rock clubs, gay bars and art galleries. By day, the buildings are closed, with just a tantalizing taste of what lies behind – strange alien heads hang down, and the air is alive with the ghosts of the previous night.
Part cultural center, part commune, the area itself actually has a troubled past and an uncertain future: the city authorities have tried on several occasions to evict its many squatting inhabitants, only to be thwarted by their fierce resistance.
After dark, the quiet courtyards start to rattle and hum with energy, as the club doors are opened, and jam sessions start. The beer flows, the laughter echoes, and everyone from boisterous locals to backpackers join in for another night of defiant partying.
From the outside, Hostel Celica looks like it has a bit of an identity crisis – friendly and bright, yet menacing and more than a little haunted. But as soon as you step inside, it’s transformed into a cool hive of activity.
There’s a large bar and café, which spills outside into a sun trap and a fabulous Middle Eastern-style room where shoes are banned. Here, travelers recline on cushions like pashas – albeit cocktail- and beer-quaffing ones!
Upstairs no two cells are the same, each having been renovated by a different local artist in a different style. They range from having futuristic, suspended circular beds, to three single beds and a solitary table. Most cells are bright, airy and colorful; all have a heavy prison-style door, and retain their barred windows.
Back downstairs in the bar, locals and guests get together over a game of football in the bar area, each declaring their support for one side or the other. Friendly ribbing bounces between guests, but there are no bad feelings, even after the game has ended and losers are settled upon.
A Day in the City
On my first morning in Ljubljana, I woke up early (refreshed after a great night’s sleep in my cell!) grabbed a quick breakfast and set out for a day in the city. Wandering south from the hostel, it wasn’t long before I hit the River Ljubljanica, glinting in the morning sun.
The river is crisscrossed with bridges, some of which – like the Dragon Bridge – are worth closer inspection. Flanked on either side by a couple of striking looking copper-green dragons, it’s an impressive art nouveau affair, and one of the city’s most beloved landmarks.
A small city, Ljubljana is easy to get around on foot. Aside from its trademark red rooftops, much of the city is garnished with baroque fripperies and twiddly bits, which make its streets rich in fascinating little details to pick out.
Cutting across the river, I headed for St Nicholas’ Cathedral, a huge construction that’s nothing short of breathtaking. The origins of the cathedral stretch back to the 12th century and, like the city that unfolds around it, it’s an endearing hodgepodge of overwrought architectural styles.
After the Cathedral
After the cathedral, I decided to take on Ljubljana’s other major attraction: Ljubljana Castle. Sitting on top of its hill, much as it has done for the last few hundred years, it’s a daunting proposition, glaring out across the city at friend and foe alike.
After much puffing and panting (and a fair bit of cursing myself for not having taken the funicular) I made it to the top and surveyed the scene. The river sparkled in the spring sunshine, while away in the distance, the silhouettes of mountains wobbled in the haze… It was magnificent.
Beyond the castle and the cathedral Ljubljana is dotted with museums – none of which I managed to go to. I had a couple of ‘Burek’ (savory pastries) and a few deliciously strong local beers for a late lunch with a guest from the hostel whom I bumped into in the street.
After lunch I left my dining companion, intending to check out the cluster of museums to the west of the city. Instead I found myself in Tivoli Park. The spring sunshine was surprisingly hot as I lay down on the grass with my book, and it wasn’t long before I’d fallen fast asleep.
I woke up with a start. Evening had descended on the city, and birds were twittering in the trees around me. Getting up, and leaving the neat little imprint of myself in the cool grass, I strolled, somewhat sleepily, back across town.
It was getting dark by the time I got back to the hostel, and the lights were glinting in the murky light. Echoes of laughter rang out from inside the hostel. I had a good feeling about the night that lay in store…
A Lingering Feeling of Repression
Whichever way you come at it, Celica’s a remarkable place. It’s been over a decade now since the Yugoslavian army was holding prisoners here, and it’s hard to imagine its former life, as the hostel reverberates with the spirit of youth and freedom.
Only at night, after that heavy door has clanged behind you and you stare up at the ceiling, do you get a sense of it: a lingering whiff of imprisonment and repression.
Few and far between will be the guests at the hostel who don’t peer out of the tiny windows and wonder what life was like for those who lived in these small cells. Even now, with the space carefully laid out to make the most of the rooms, it still feels a little cramped, restrictive even.
I couldn’t even begin to image how bitterly cold and uncomfortable the prisoners would have been during the winter months. Nor equally, how swelteringly hot and smelly it would have been during the summer!
The walls might be bright and tastefully redecorated, but you can’t escape the overwhelming fact that these rooms were made to imprison people under grueling forced labor conditions – sometimes for the rest of their lives. It’s a sobering thought.
But those days are long gone, and for travelers, Celica offers something that’s totally different. At once modern, funky and artistic, but with an intriguing sense of its past, staying there is genuinely a hostel experience like no other.
Phoebe Hornby is a student and a freelance writer. In recent years (when her studies have permitted!) she has traveled far and wide across Europe, moving from place to place and hostel to hostel.
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