May 1 update: Cafes and restaurants in most of Slovenia are open again for outdoor service between 7 am and 7 pm. While some are only serving beverages, we were finally able to sit down for a pizza for the first time in months. Hotels and indoor food service is limited to guests with a negative test or proof of vaccination. Hotels are limited to 30 rooms, so some large properties have not reopened yet. The remaining restrictions didn’t prevent thousands from turning out for a protest on the April 27 holiday, but large outdoor gatherings are still theoretically banned. Keep checking back for updates!
After a year of postponed travel plans due to the Covid 19 pandemic, I arrived in Ljubljana in late March 2021 — just in time for another lockdown. Starting on April 1 like a cruel April Fools joke, the Slovenian government claimed the 11-day “cessation of public life” would buy time for more vaccines to arrive and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by yet another wave of the virus.
Slovenes are preparing to celebrate Easter Sunday with mandatory masks in public and gatherings limited to two households. Church services are only online. Movement outside of your home region — similar to a county in the USA — is not allowed for most people. Special circumstances are required for crossing the border to all neighboring countries, still classified as red danger zones.
This is not the Ljubljana you might remember from a past trip or dream of visiting in the future. All restaurants are closed, except for takeaway or home delivery by the insane bicyclists of E-Hrana and Wolt. One of them slammed into me on Trubarjeva Cesta in the pedestrian zone and didn’t even slow down to see if I was OK.
The robust cafe culture barely hangs on in the form of takeout windows, where the masked and socially distanced customers line up for coffee in disposable cups and then linger in the street to discuss the news of the day. I’ve met some people who say they’ve had the virus and recovered; only two who were vaccinated like me.
The EU’s approach to vaccine development and distribution has left a small country like Slovenia with spotty supplies and some grim statistics. As I write this, the positivity rate of coronavirus tests in Slovenia is nearly 26%, far above the 5% benchmark for anything like a return to “normal” life. Most of Slovenia’s Balkan neighbors in the former Yugoslavia are in even worse shape. Only time will tell if the “11 days to slow the spread” will be extended. A popular joke goes like this: the government saying the lockdown is only for 11 days is like me going to the pub and saying I’ll only have one beer.
Plečnik’s architecture is still breathtaking, but there are no tourists to admire it. Except for essential business travel, nearly all hotel accommodations, short-term rentals and tourist attractions are closed. My local guide friends are trying to survive with the tips they get for conducting virtual tours online. Billboards advertise cultural events that have either been cancelled or gone “virtual.”
The Farmers’ Market remains the beating heart of the Old Town, with socially distanced Slovenes stocking up on farm-to-table products for their Easter celebrations. Bars are closed — alcohol sales are forbidden except in grocery stores, which are open, as are pharmacies. Slovenes make do, by grabbing takeout or their favorite beverage from a grocery store and finding a riverside bench. A year of on-and-off restrictions has led to a few more empty storefronts for “non-essential” businesses.
The students who give this city its youthful energy are home for the holidays and mostly studying online. Earlier attempts to reopen classrooms have been blamed for the latest surge, along with a highly contagious British strain of the virus.
As the lockdown started, a small crowd gathered on Slovenska Cesta chanting, “Maske dol!” Masks down. On the surface in this fairytale country that has seen its share of dark history, people seem to be coping with sheer Slavic determination; young families and fitness buffs are filling the paths of Tivoli Park and turning to nature. A springtime excursion to the woods to forage for čemaž (wild garlic) provides a welcome escape. Other side effects of the lockdowns — loneliness and despair — remain hidden behind the masks and the closed doors.
Here are some practical tips for anyone like me, who is considering essential travel to Slovenia for business and/or family reasons. And I look forward to helping you plan an unforgettable vacation for when conditions improve.
Traveling to Slovenia in a Pandemic
Huge disclaimer: the rules are constantly changing. Here are some observations based on my personal experience in March 2021.
Can Americans travel to Slovenia right now? No. Keep checking the Covid 19 page of the US Embassy in Ljubljana for updates. I’m a dual citizen of the USA and Slovenia through ancestry. Slovene citizens are permitted to enter the country for any reason. However, you will be asked to self-isolate, even after presenting a negative Covid-19 test result. The testing and quarantine requirement does not apply to vaccinated travelers. My Slovene passport and my US vaccination card, showing the minimum required 14 days had passed since my second dose of the Moderna vaccine in Florida, was enough to get me through the checkpoint at Ljubljana airport.
You may have seen the House Hunters International episodes about my family’s purchase of an apartment in Ljubljana. Having a place to stay when you arrive is also essential; the Austria Trend, the Radisson and the Hotel Slon are the only hotels that are open, and are reserved for only “essential” government and business travel.
The bigger problem may be finding flights to Ljubljana. In the past year I’ve had several reservations that were cancelled and refunded on LOT, which has not yet resumed flights into LJU. I was able to board a United flight from the USA to Germany without a test and transit through Frankfurt on Lufthansa. The return trip will be a different story; my current reservation is for a Lufthansa flight that has not yet resumed regular service. And as I write this, US regulations require me to have a negative test result in order to board any flight back to the United States. Keep checking back on this post and I’ll update with more information when I have it.
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