The only decoration on the building that houses Slovenia’s legislature is an astonishing modernist sculpture of men, women and children. Naked. The statues can be viewed anytime, except when access is restricted due to official events.
The inside of the building is almost always closed to tourists, but there is an easy way to get a look at the history and artwork inside. On the second Saturday of each month (except August), the National Assembly (Državni Zbor) opens its doors for free tours of the legislative halls, conference rooms and ceremonial chambers.
Open Doors at the National Assembly
Simply show up in Republic Square (Trg Republike) across from the parliament building on Šubičeva street on the monthly “Open Doors” day. I joined a group of about 50 Slovenian senior citizens waiting on the sidewalk. At 10 am, the doors opened and a tour guide beckoned us inside. We had to pass our bags through a metal detector upon entering, but cameras were welcome. My son and I were offered a tour in English. A visitor from the Czech Republic joined us.
We climbed the stairs to the gallery, located on the top floor of the 5-story building. It offered a commanding view of the National Assembly chamber. The chairs are arranged in a circle, a tribute to the tradition of democracy among ancient Slavs of Carinthia, where a circle of wise men gathered around the fire to make decisions. Thomas Jefferson is said to have been inspired by these tribesmen when he wrote the constitution of the United States. Our guide explained some of the customs; the elected leader would be slapped around by the others to show that he remained their equal. Fortunately, today’s political proceedings are perhaps much more civil.
There are 150 seats, but only 90 members of the lower house of the legislature. Because there are so many unassigned empty seats during the televised proceedings of the National Assembly, viewers sometimes complain about elected officials not showing up to do their job. Each occupied member’s seat is equipped with a microphone and electronic equipment for recording their attendance and their votes. The seats at the front of the room are reserved for the current government including the prime minister and heads of the various ministries. Our guide filled us in on the details of how bills become law in Slovenia, and those interested can read more on the National Assembly’s website in English.
About those Naked People
Ljubljana’s famous architect Jože Plečnik unsuccessfully submitted a plan to build the parliament atop the Ljubljana castle hill. His proposal for a grand building with a dome and steeple was also rejected. In 1954, construction began according to a plan by one of his students, Vinko Glanz. The emphasis is on a simple design of stone, wood and other materials that are locally sourced in Slovenia. And those naked people.
Look closely at the figures. You’ll see a woman holding a mask to symbolize the arts and a man holding a wheel to symbolize industry. Other activities range from child’s play to scientific discovery. Some figures join hands and form the outline of Triglav, the mountain on the Slovenian flag.
Visitors are left to ponder how the sculpture’s meaning might have changed since the building opened in 1959 under Yugoslavian communism as the meeting place of the People’s Assembly of Slovenia. “We are born with nothing but our God-given talent,” one local tour guide explains, updating the socialist realism aesthetic for the dynamic democracy that emerged after Slovenia gained independence in 1991.
The figures by sculptors Karel Putrih and Zdenko Kalin are made of copper. A plan to cover the statues in gold leaf was rejected by the Yugoslavian higher-ups in Belgrade. The artwork inside the building also had to be approved by the ruling Communists. A mosaic, made entirely of stones from the Sava River, uses modernist imagery to portray Ljubljana’s liberation at the end of World War II.
Slavic History and Partisan Pride
A splendid fresco in the Great Hall by painter Slavko Pengov depicts the history of the Slovene people, beginning with the Roman city of Emona and those ancient Carinthian wise men. It covers the various eras of domination by foreign powers, including Napoleon and the Austrian-Hungarian empire.
The Slovene language is celebrated, with writer Primož Trubar and poet France Prešeren holding places of honor. The final chapter is written by the partisans who emerged victorious from World War II. Students of Yugoslav history may find it odd that there is no image of the country’s leader, Josip Broz Tito.
A glass panel was added below the fresco to show key events in Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia, the ten-day war, membership in the European Union and the introduction of the euro. You can get a quick look inside the smaller and less impressive senate chamber as you conclude your tour.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Getting there: The National Assembly building is only a short walk from the pedestrian center of Ljubljana. Just about every bus line in the city stops a few blocks away near the Post Office (Pošta) on Slovenska Cesta. Parking is available under nearby Congress Square (Kongresni Trg). Ljubljana offers a wide choice of hotels if you book early. You don’t need a car if you stay in or near the pedestrian zone in the center.
Mark Your Calendar: Tours are given on the second Saturday of each month, except in August when the entire country of Slovenia is on vacation and Ljubljana fills with more tourists than locals. The free one-hour tour is offered at 9, 10 and 11 am.
Well-Kept Secret: Except for the three people in my English-speaking group, all of the other participants in the Open Doors event were Slovene-speaking senior citizens. Groups can arrange tours on other dates. I’m guessing that there were few young people on this tour because they might visit with a school group.
Recommended Reading: I visited the National Assembly with my son, writer Andrew Anzur Clement. He was researching a novel that is set during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Tito’s Lost Children follows an adventurous band of teenagers in the events leading up to Slovenia’s ten-day war. If you’re looking for something fun to read during your trip, download the book on Amazon here and read on any ebook device.
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