Precious things usually have an unlikely existence, true beauty a dark underbelly and intriguing places have often been fought for. In Slovenia's capital of Ljubljana stands a former military jail where many inmates were political prisoners incarcerated, under an oppressive communist government, for speaking out on human rights issues. That building is now Hostel Celica, where everyone is welcome regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs or their sexual identity or orientation.
But the past hasn't been entirely expunged; you can still sleep in a cell.
Celica (pronounced see-LIT-zah) is the Slovenian word for cell and the structure's utilitarian shape and barred windows broadcast its original function. But exterior walls are now painted in bands of strong warm colours and, interiorly, a lot has changed too.
There's a cafe restaurant with sunroom seating, communal room and kitchen, lounge, art gallery and a place for meditation and prayer. Bedrooms built into the attic are for those who aren't fully committed to simulating incarceration, while 20 prison cells on the first floor are now two-bed and three-bed rooms.
Each renovated cell – the work of Slovenian, Swedish, Italian, French, Argentinean, American artists and designers on a budget of €2600 a space – is conceptually, creatively and physically distinctive. One has Leonard Cohen poetry on the walls, another represents the human eye. There are clay figures under a glass floor in 119, all the furniture in 101 was bought second-hand at markets and the round window in 110 is a reminder of past demolition attempts. Cell 118 has been restored to Yugoslav prison style with authentic beds from the era.
But Celica's story isn't the typical bargain-priced derelict building repurposed by financially advantaged outsiders with zero interest in the existing community. The symbolism of turning something oppressive and restrictive into a place of positive opportunity is taken very seriously by the hostel, as are its responsibilities to the local area.
Celica is located in Metelkova Mesto, formerly a military barracks built in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1991, following Slovenia's 10-day war into independence, the Yugoslav National Army abandoned the precinct and artists moved in. Since then, as Celica's project manager, Tanja Lipovec, explains, "it has always been a place for autonomous cultural expression". When the city tried to remove those communities "they protected this place with their own bodies". The Slovenian Ministry of Culture's museum district is now adjacent to Metelkova Mesto and Ljubljana's current and arguably most progressive mayor, Zoran Jankovic, publically recognises the squat as a valuable centre of urban culture. Metelkova now has six clubs, two bars, two galleries, the Peace Institute – Slovenia's biggest NGO – and Celica.
The hostel opened in 2003 after a decade of discussion between artists, historians, designers and architects – anyone who wished to be involved in fact – and another two years to implement the project. But Celica won't ever really stop evolving.
Ljubljana was named European Green Capital of 2016 – a first for Central or Eastern Europe – and Celica is the world's first certified eco-hostel. It supports green supply chains, names the farms of local suppliers on their menus, grows herbs and uses the fruit from its vintage cherry and apple trees. But the eco-friendliness extends well beyond mindful food sourcing, energy consumption and waste separation. As Tanja says, it's just as much about "doing things with purpose … thinking about the future and what you leave behind … how you promote your local environment".
Tanja, like many Slovenians I meet, is genuinely kind without being wishy-washy and is deeply committed to a cause but not in-your-face intense about it.
Celica also encourages hedonistic behaviour and regularly holds theme parties, all-you-can-eat dinners, art exhibitions, travel lectures and live concerts in celebration of free speech, artistic expression and high-spiritedness.
Of equal importance, though, is "preserving local awareness of the original concept". There are no plans to renovate the solitary confinement cells in the basement and the history of the building is told on the wall beside the staircase that leads down to those more confronting spaces. Cell rooms still have bars on doors and windows and Celica assigns those rooms, as it was for prisoners, rather than letting guests choose. But with a positive twist as "a nice element of surprise completely free of charge".
SWISS International, along with airline partners, offers flights from Sydney and Melbourne (via Hong Kong, Bangkok or Singapore) to Ljubljana with a transfer in Zurich. See www.swiss.com
Alternatively, travel by train to Slovenia from elsewhere in Europe. See www.raileurope.com.au
Hostel Celica has 29 cells, rooms and dormitories. One room is wheelchair accessible. Beds from €18 a person. Wi-Fi, breakfast and linen included. See www.hostelcelica.com
Druga Violina, in Old Town, employs people with special needs and serves traditional home-style Slovenian food prepared with their own greenhouse fruit and vegetables. See FB.com/drugaviolina
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Ljubljana Tourism.