In May 2010, I slept in a unique prison cell in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Here's how that came about...
Hostel Celica is an unconventional backpacker’s crash space. It was once a jail, a forbidding stone structure surrounded by barracks in the Metelkova district of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana.
It was built as a military facility by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then decades later was inherited by the army of communist Yugoslavia and used as a political prison.
Then, after the tiny Adriatic state declared independence in 1991, the Yugoslav army moved out and Metelkova became a slum, full of decaying buildings that were marked for demolition.
Then something unexpected happened - the abandoned military buildings were occupied by artists, freed from the confines of communism and keen to spark creativity by banding together. The squatters stood (literally) in the way of the bulldozers.
It’s a dramatic story of artistic David triumphing over establishment Goliath. And although its residents have since developed a better relationship with the city authorities, its future remains uncertain - and that’s what gives it such edge as an artistic and nightlife centre.
It’s hard to believe it was ever a prison - even from the outside, brightly painted, it looks welcoming. Inside are atmospheric corridors and dorms, along with a good cafe and art gallery.
Most fascinating, however, are its “cells”: private rooms which are in fact renovated cells, with their barred doors still intact.
Each cell has been individually decorated by artists, producing a variety of weird and wonderful designs.
Cell 116, which we're staying in, features a circular wooden bed suspended two metres above the ground, with a solar design beneath its frame.
There’s a circular table beneath with curved, segmented stools on a blue-green floor. The walls are covered with mystical characters and cryptic text, and there’s a lampshade above the bed that resembles the sun.
Although cell 116 is one of their most popular, cell 111 is also memorable. It has a window fashioned around a ragged demolition ball's hole, a reminder of what might easily have become of this historic building.
Metelkova is full of party-goers around midnight on a chilly Friday evening, the night of the week which locals say is the liveliest. What’s notable is the chatty, easy sociability of the scene – there’s even a bunch of people sipping beer high up on a multi-platform structure in the middle of one square.
Jalla Jalla is a bar that’s typical of the vibe, at a focal point of one square where it funnels into the next. It’s a tiny space with the weathered, bohemian, much-painted alternative look that’s the standard in Metelkova. Friday night is the bar’s reggae night, and a DJ behind a red-yellow-green flag is spinning tracks as the squeezed-in occupants drink, smoke and sway.
In the second square, long wooden benches snake at angles in front of the daytime-only art galleries, the most striking facade of which is Galerija Alkatraz, a cutting-edge gallery during daytime hours.
Above its door, the wall has been decorated in a riotous mosaic of broken crockery, with a classical statue at its centre. On the opposite side of the square, an African man has hung an array of sarongs, T-shirts, flags and drums for sale.
Nearby is Pri Marichi, a red-lit bar that’s an intriguing mix of styles - a DJ plays music from the 1930s while the clientele sits beneath posters of Metallica, Tom Waites, and Johnny Rotten giving the finger.
Scattered through the complex are the entrances to several nightclubs - the most memorable being Klub Gromka, an eclectic venue presenting a range of music genres along with theatre, film and talks.
Nearby there's Klub Tiffany for LGBTI revellers, and lesbian venue Klub Monokel. Another venue is Gala Hala, where you could hear ska, punk, rock, metal, reggae or funk.
Metelkova might well be the coolest part of Ljubljana. It's certainly the most offbeat.