Written by Tine Verbič.
The phrase “a town in the middle of nowhere” tends to be overused nowadays, but you can’t help but choose those very words to describe Idrija. It lies roughly 40 km west of Ljubljana as the crow flies and although it’s seemingly close to our capital city, it’s actually one of the more isolated towns in Slovenia.
Due to its remoteness and small size, many people give Idrija a miss, which is a shame because it is home to many historical, cultural, technical and natural gems. It even won the 2011 Alpine Town of the Year award and made its way onto the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2012. Not bad for a town of about 6,000 people! Idrija sits in a narrow basin, nestled between the numerous hills that dominate the area. Geologically, it lies near the Idrija fault, which is responsible for the town’s rich mercury reserve – the reason Idrija exists.
In 1490, the basin was very sparsely populated, but that changed overnight when a local tubmaker discovered a glittery substance in one of the streams. As it turned out, it was mercury and soon people were pouring into the basin, eager to join the “mercury rush”. In 1500, Anthony’s Main Road was built, one of the oldest preserved mine entrances in the world, which tourists still use today when they embark on a journey into the depths of the former mine. In 500 years of mining, 700 km of tunnels and shafts were built, reaching the depth of almost 400 metres, and enough material was excavated to build the Keops’ Pyramid and half of a second one. 13% of all the world’s mercury was mined here, making Idrija the second largest mercury mine in the world. It was so influential that they even named a little mining town in California New Idria in the 1850s. The mine finally closed in 1995, but people claim that Perkmandlc, the mischievous elf, still roams the underground and plays pranks on visitors.
Thanks to the prosperous mining industry, Idrija boasts a number of impressive historical buildings. In 1533, the Gewerkenegg castle was built to store mercury and to accommodate the mine’s administration. In 1770, after a grain storage building had been completed, the resourceful locals used the leftover material to build a theatre house – the oldest one in Slovenia. The feat can best be described with the words of a Viennese official who exclaimed: “This is only possible in Idrija!” School buildings were also funded by miners, the most notable being the Jurij Vega high school, built in 1901. It was the first high school in the Austro-Hungarian Empire where Slovenian language was used more frequently than German. Impressive remnants of Idrija’s rich mining history are also the “Klavže” – 18th century stone dams that were built on local rivers to aid the transport of logs to the mines. They are also known as the Slovenian pyramids due to their massive size.
Mining is also responsible for the development of the other industry Idrija is famous for – lacemaking. This fine art was brought to Idrija by the wives of German miners in the 17th century and helped them earn some extra money. Local weavers soon developed their own special technique, which gave birth to the typical Idrija lace. The town also has its very own lacemaking school, which was established in 1876, and an abundance of lace shops, where local master weavers will be happy to demonstrate the difficult technique required to create the Idrija lace. If you want to combine lacemaking with a festive atmosphere, make sure to visit in June during the annual Idrija lace festival.
Another good time to visit would be late August, when the people of Idrija put on a culinary festival to celebrate their iconic dish idrijski žlikrofi. Making these specially shaped dumplings with a potato and vegetable filling is no piece of cake, and being crowned the best maker of žlikrofi is a big thing in Idrija. If you prefer your food in liquid form, then you should try the local cabbage and potato-based stew called smukavc. To complete your culinary adventure, make sure you try a shot of geruš, a bitter spirit made from wormwood, the miners’ drink of choice.
After you’ve sampled Idrija’s local food and drink, it’s time to hit the road and discover what the town’s surroundings have to offer. Just a few kilometres away from the town centre, you can find two intriguing natural features. The first one is Divje jezero (Wild lake), the deepest lake in Slovenia with a depth of 160 metres. The lake is actually a karst spring that spews water after heavy rains, creating a bubbling surface, which is how the lake earned its name. The lake is also the northernmost habitat of the endemic “human fish” and the birthplace of Jezernica – the shortest river in Slovenia, which only runs for 55 metres before it joins the Idrijca river.
Finally, if you’re up for a scenic drive or two, you can journey back into the time of the Second World War. The impenetrable wooded hills in the town’s surroundings were very popular with the Partisan resistance movement and just 15 km from Idrija, hidden away in a narrow gorge under the Vojsko plateau, lies the “Slovenija” partisan printing works. It was operational from September 1944 until May 1945, producing nearly 1.4 million copies of newspapers and pamphlets in order to counter German propaganda. Partizanski dnevnik, which was printed there, was the only daily newspaper printed by a resistance movement in occupied Europe.
The second incredible site, which serves as a monument to the Slovenian liberation struggle, is the Franja partisan hospital. It is located 25 km north of Idrija, near the village of Dolenji Novaki, tucked away in an almost impassable Pasice gorge. The hospital treated nearly 600 soldiers in complete secrecy from December 1943 until the end of the war and, just like the printing works, was never discovered by the Germans. It was the biggest of the 120 clandestine hospitals, which were unique to Slovenia. The hospital’s breathtaking location and the sense of camaraderie that permeates its grounds will surely leave a lasting memory.
As you leave Idrija, you cannot help but be impressed by this isolated piece of land, which has so much history and keeps so many amazing secrets. It makes you wonder how many times you’ve already missed similar gems on your travels just because you were too busy racing towards the main attractions.