By June, Slovenia is lush and shades of green. It begins to feel warm even in the shade, like true summer. From Ljubljana, it is just a short one hour drive to Idrija. Perfect for a day trip. I had traveled to Idrija once before, for the famous žlikrofi festival, but it was terrible weather so I didn’t leave the covered parking lot. Today I would be exploring Idrija’s culture, history, and food with local expert, Urban Šlabnik.
Urban has his hands in many pots when it comes to tourism and trust me, he is someone to know if you want to travel to this region. His tourism company offers culinary experiences, accommodation, and even fly fishing. He also helps to run ID20 an incubation and support program for cultural heritage projects.
We first met at ID20 headquarters. When you walk into their office there is this overwhelmingly large piece of machinery that dominates the room. It was once part of a pulley system that functioned as part of the mercury mines. Idrija is an old mining town, but not for the personally familiar anthracite coal, here they mined mercury.
Idrija is a joint UNESCO World Heritage site with Almadén (Spain). Together they represent the two largest mercury mines in the world. Throughout the town, you will find plaques on important buildings and structures sharing their significance. The text is presented in both Slovenian and English.
Table of Contents
Discovery of Mercury in Idrija
The story begins in 1490 when a bucket maker was soaking his buckets overnight to treat them. The next day he saw something shiny at the bottom of the bucket, when he reached in he found native mercury. This was at the present-day location of Holy Trinity Church (Cerkev sv. Trojice).
Urban explained that mercury was found in two forms in the mine: as native mercury and cinnabar ore. Native mercury is in liquid form often found in the cracks of rock or water. Cinnabar ore looks like a dark red rock and the mercury can only be extracted when it is heated to 800 degrees Celcius.
The discovery of amalgamation in 1554, in the US, gave rise to the mine’s importance. Mercury was used for acquiring gold and silver from ore. Over 700 kilometers of tunnels have been excavated, resulting in 13% of the current world production of mercury (107,000 tons).
Starting this story off with mining is important. After spending the day with Urban and learning about Idrija’s cultural heritage it became very clear how these mines shaped the environment and culture. Aspects of mining life are still experienced today in subtle ways. In Idrija when someone says goodbye they say “Srečno!” which means “Good Luck!” and was said during mining days as it was dangerous work. You will hear this being said throughout the area as well as being inscribed on buildings and objects.
Another way that mining shaped Idrija is around health. Mining mercury was very dangerous work and the miners began to have health complications. Most miners could only last a few years before falling too ill to work. An Austrian physician and naturalist, Janez Anton Scopoli (Giovanni Antonio Scopoli), was invited to work in Idrija.
He discovered that wormwood (pelin) tea helped bring an appetite which many miners were lacking. The miners had other plans, mixing this tea with local spring water and alcohol, and then consumed it throughout the day. Urban began our tour by letting me try the tea and then showing me exactly how they made Geruš (the alcoholic drink). I also then compared that to the modern-day version sold in stores. For the curious, it is very bitter (think of the Italian liquor Fernet).
Food and Heritage Walk in Idrija
Our tour continued outside where Urban took me to a viewpoint to see the lay of the land, explaining where the mine shafts were, how the mercury moved through the town, and how Idrija was developed. Then we progressed with our tour stopping at various sights and snacking on local delights.
The Anthony Mine Shaft (Antonijev rov) is 1.5 kilometers long, 600 meters wide, and 400 meters deep. Named after Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of miners and protector of mine accidents is currently one of the oldest preserved mine entrances in Europe. Today you can visit the mine for a guided tour. It lasts about one hour and a half and there are several tours each day. Check their site for daily tour times.
Our first stop for food was in a small shop called Bonmark in Trg Sv. Ahacija, where you will also find a small market. Here we met the lovely shop owner who excitedly cut various local cheeses and meats for me to try. He explained which farm each piece was from, how to test salami for freshness, and boasted only the natural elements of rain and sun could produce food like this.
I tried a few kinds of cheese and meats from Kmetija pr Kendu (Idrijske Krnice), sir Krnčan, dry sausage (suha klobasa), salami, and želodec from Mesnine Kraglej in Tolmin. Želodec is stomach but don’t let that scare you. It is a specialty of this region and has incredible flavor and depth.
Gewerkenegg Castle was built between 1522 and 1533 as a mining castle to house administration and even store mercury. It was to protect against the Venetians and Turks. Today it houses the local museum with exhibitions about the history of Idrija, mining, and lace. The museum is open every day from 9:00-18:00 (check hours). Tickets are 7.50 EUR for the full museum or 4.50 EUR for one exhibit.
After we walked through a few streets we stopped at a bakery across from the Lace School to get habanca. It looked like an oversized cinnamon roll but inside the layers instead of sweetness you will find pork cracklings (ocvirki). He explained that on rainy days or in the winter they sell out before 10 in the morning and are often eaten with soup.
Miner’s House (Rudarska hiša) is one of the last remaining 18th-century homes owned by miners. It contrasts typical Slovene homes as it is tall and narrow with small windows and made of wood. Even the shingles are still made of wood. The houses were typically several floors to accommodate animals and several families.
Time for lunch we stopped at Gostilna Kos for some smukavc with ocvirkovca. Smukavc is a cabbage, garlic, onion, and pork crackling soup. This might have been one of my favorite dishes of the day and I hope to learn to make it myself. Urban and I had ocvirkovca on the side, which is potica with pork crackling.
Walking the streets of Idrija you can encounter little moments whether you stumbled upon Scopoli’s Garden (Scopolijev vrt) or this beautiful apiary (pictured above).
After lunch, we stopped in the Idrija Lace School and a small lace shop. Lace seems like a very strange topic when I spent the past few minutes going on about mercury mines, but of course, the women had to do something during these times. Lacemaking techniques made their way to Idrija from other parts of Europe and were first mentioned in 1696.
Idrija lace (idrijska čipka) is a special type of bobbin lace that developed in Idrija. By 1876 they opened a lace school to teach this technique. It is possible to attend workshops or even a full program at that same school today. Idrija lace is also awarded UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage (just like the Kurenti).
Walking around Idrija you will see small lace shops with women twisting and spinning their bobbins around pins stuck in a pillow. They craft beautiful designs for jewelry, clothing, and decor. The newest designs are created with metallic threads and sometimes they are so delicate it looks like woven gold or silver. Traditional pieces are done in white with cotton thread, if you walk through town you might notice windows adorned with white curtains with accents of lace, each one different from the last.
Idrija Lace Festival has been held in Idrija since 1952 and takes place every June. The town fills with exhibits and activities around this beloved craft. Check the official site for more information.
UNESCO Sites in Idrija
Besides the Anthony Mine Shaft, the Holy Trinity Church, and Idrija Lace there are a few more sites that are encompassed under UNESCO World Heritage.
Kamšt – Hidden in a stone building (pictured below) is a wooden waterwheel referred to as kamšt. The largest preserved wooden water wheel in Europe, it measures 13.6 meters in diameter and was used to pump water from the mine for 150 years.
Hg Smelting Plant – The original smelting plant for the mercury has been turned into a museum. Here you can learn about the entire process from extraction to export. Tours last 1 hour and 15 minutes and are conducted in English, Slovene, or Italian.
Klavže – Found in the UNESCO Global Geopark Idrija you can find four stone water barriers called klavže. They were built to help control the water flow to assist with transporting logs. The logs were used as support in the mine and for fuel to burn the ore to extract mercury.
Foods of Idrija – Idrija Cuisine
The food of Idrija reflects the hard working-class life of a mining community. The old classics are still favorites today. In almost every dish you will find pork cracklings (ocvirki) and chives (drobnjak).
The most famous dish of Idrija is the Idrijski žlikrofi. They are often referred to as dumplings but I think a stuffed pasta is more applicable. They are small and almost pillow-shaped, filled with potato, onion, and bacon, and can be served with meat and sauce or on their own. It is a blend of Mediterranean pasta with a hearty Alpine twist.
Idrijski žlikrofi are the first Slovenian dish to be awarded protected geographical status in 2010. This means that if you want to eat proper Idrijski žlikrofi then it must be prepared exactly; the correct ingredients, size, shape, and end result. No need to stress as many žlikrofi are not certified but they are still as delicious.
We ended our tour with this generous helping of žlikrofi z bakalco at Gostilna pri Škafarju and zeljševka as dessert.
Žlikrofi z bakalco – žlikrofi with lamb stew
Smukavc – A soup prepared with the young outer leaves of cabbage or other similar plants with potato, garlic, and herbs.
Ocvirkovca – A potica filled with pork cracklings. Often served with smukavc
Zeljševka – A dessert potica filled with raisins, chives, and mint sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Luštrkajca – potica with lovage (an herb) and onions. It is most common in the Cerkno area.
Habanca – a rolled dough with pork cracklings. Very popular in colder days as it is often eaten with soup.
Where to eat in Idrija
Gostilna pri Škafarju – Ulica Sv. Barbare 9 – The place to try žlikrofi, perfect for dinner! I had žlikrofi z bakalco and finished off with zeljševka.
Gostilna Kos – Tomšičeva ulica 4 – Open in the morning and afternoon, the place to get an authentic lunch. I recommend ordering smukavc with ocvirkovca.
Traveling to Idrija
The best way to travel in Slovenia is by car but if this is not possible you can also take advantage of the extensive bus network throughout the country. From Ljubljana, you can take the bus to Idrija. The route takes around 1 hour and 15 minutes and a bus leaves Ljubljana at least once an hour.
Check timetables for AP Ljubljana here.
Check timetables for Nomago here.
Where to stay in Idrija
Hostel Idrija | Perfect for backpackers and budget travelers. Hostel Idrija has a great location for those without a car and is very affordable.
Hotel Kendov Dvorec | A five-minute drive from Idrija is the luxurious Kendov Dvorec where you can stay in a piece of history while indulging in food from top chefs and sip wine from incredible producers just moments away.
Idrija on your Slovenian itinerary
Idrija is great for a day trip but it also can occupy two or more days on an itinerary. From here you can reach Cerkno, Vipava Valley, Predjama Castle, and Postojna Cave, all within an hour drive or less. Below are a few more activities in the region that are worth considering for your trip.
Divje jezero – Wild lake – A short walk or drive can bring you to Divje jezero. While it may appear small, you can walk around it under 20 minutes, it is incredibly deep. Divers have lost their lives attempting to find the source at the bottom. 164 meters is the lowest anyone has ventured so it is still a mystery.
Partizanska tiskarna Slovenija – Partisan Printing Works – the tour I took was focused on the cultural history around mining but you can easily spend another day or so learning about the history of WWII in the region. In 1944-45 a newspaper was run out of this space, hidden in the woods, published by a resistance movement. More info.
Partizanska bolnica Franja – Franja Partisan Hospital – A great pairing with the printing works this hospital can only be visited with a tour. During World War II it was run by Slovene Partisans. It is hidden in the woods, reached by bridges that could be raised if discovered and served as a central point of resistance in German-occupied territory. More info.
Map of Idrija Sights
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Thank you for taking the time to read this article, please feel free to leave any questions or comments below. If you are planning to visit Idrija and you would like to do a similar tour feel free to get in touch and I can help you arrange it.