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SLOVENIA'S SECRET

This nation, with its toehold of coastline, sits wedged like a middle child between the two giants of the Adriatic: Italy, the older brother, ancient arteries clogged with tourists, and Croatia, darling little sister, stretching her long legs down the coast all the way to Dubrovnik.

Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, commands the central plain that divides the coast and the mountains, the Julian Alps. It is a convenient train ride from so many of Europe's most-visited places: northern Italy, Vienna, Munich, Budapest and Split, in Croatia.

So Ljubljana (lyoo-blee-YAH-nuh) is situated geographically and _ more importantly, temperamentally _ as the perfect pit stop from tourist crowds.

The best feature of Ljubljana is its Old Town, centering on the Ljubljanica River and fanning out two streets in each direction.

The river is narrow, and its banks are reinforced, so it flows through town as though in a steep, giant gutter, except the walls are laden with ivy and terraces with flowers halfway down. From street level, weeping willows lean gracefully over the embankment.

Ljubljana doesn't get many tourists, not does it have many of the standard sites. The city's castle, looming over the Old Town on a high hill, is well-preserved and worth a look, if only for the view from its bell tower.

The National History Museum is well-cared for, but its main exhibits show unusual furniture and a humdrum view of the area's natural history. There is an excellent fruit and flower market, but that is hardly something around which to plan a trip.

But the lack of tourists is decidedly in Ljubljana's favor: Prices are low. And the city resists the urge to reference itself on T-shirts, magnets and coffee mugs, and block the gorgeous views while trying to sell them.

And the views are gorgeous. Together, the baroque facades on both sides of the river are marvelous. Painted yellow or purple or brown, they have the air of measured decay; a little age has added greatly to their beauty.

Five bridges span the river in this part of town, three of them pedestrian. The banishing of automobiles gives Ljubljana a peaceful feel. Diners at the sidewalk cafes and passers-by are serenaded by street musicians playing classical guitar or accordion, especially at night.

Ljubljana's cuisine is dominated by Italian cooking. Pizzeria Ljubljanski Dvor, a riverside place, has a menu with what seems like every known combination of toppings on a pizza; anything with the spicy salami is good.

Restaurant Julija, one street from the river on the other side from the pizzeria, serves pasta; the spaghetti with a creamy prosciutto and mushroom sauce is excellent.

For desert a good place is Slascicarna, a coffee and pastry shop down the street from Restaurant Julija. A slice of blejsna rezina ("It's typical for Slovenia," the server assures) is flaky on top and bottom with powdered sugar, and the middle bulges with a creamy filling.

The soft lights and beautiful music carry across both sides of the river, and the sounds of people enjoying themselves on a jaunt through it all give the place an alluring ambience.

This feeling is enhanced by the small signs of life in the city. Utilizing the wide bike lanes throughout town, young people come to the old district to visit with friends at the cafes and bars. They often use inline skates or bicycles; the bikes they tend to lean against the low walls and walk away from without locking them.

An older set of diners tends to fill the tables at the many riverside restaurants. Surely, some of them have been shopping at the nearby high-end boutiques, which feature brands such as MaxMara and Lacoste.

At dusk on warm evenings, a street stage is set up for poetry readings, sometimes with a bongo-drum accompaniment. Or American ex-pats may show up to play oldies on Cobbler's Bridge, which is adorned with tall pillars.

When it is time to get back on the fast track, hopping a train to Venice, Munich, Budapest or down the Croatian coast, it's about and eight-minute walk from the Old Town to the train station, a safe stroll even at night.

But keep an eye out for the beggar at the station: He's young, and he goes from person to person _ alms cup extended _ on his inline skates.

Tampa resident George Quraishi is a Yale University student.

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