Monday, September 3, 2012

Slovenia: Trip #2

Tuesday August 14th, 2012

I got up early to catch a train to Ljubljana. It is about a 1 and 1/2 half hour train ride to Ljubljana from Villach and I arrived in Ljubljana a little after 8 am.

Map of Slovenia; Villach and Ljubljana are circled. Stara Vrhnika is marked approximately with an arrow (above Vrhnika) and Hotedršica is shown by the red marker w/ an A (courtesy of google maps).

The reason I decided to go back to Slovenia was to visit with family I had discovered in Slovenia (read the 'Beautiful Slovenia' post for more information). Also during my first visit to Slovenia I had met my great grandmother's family but not my great grandfather's (who also immigrated to the U.S. from Slovenia) family. A couple days before I left for Slovenia I manage to get in contact with my great grandfather's side of the family (family grapevine of information operating at its best, one of my mother's cousins had an email).

Thus I was heading to Slovenia for three days and two nights to meet/stay with family and try to get more genealogical information for the family tree (my family uses to keep family records however Slovenia does not have any of its birth/death/marriage records available online, you either have to know someone who can speak English and Slovenian, and is willing to go into Ljubljana where the records are stored to look at them or have contact with your Slovene family directly to gain more information). One of my third cousins (i.e. we share the same great grandparents, although I wouldn't know our exact relation until later in the day) picked me up at the train station in Ljubljana and drove me to Stara Vrhnika, my great grandfather's village.

It is always a strange feeling to walk around in an area where your ancestors lived. I suppose its true that if you go back far enough in your family you can find a connection everywhere. However my great grandparents are still alive in my mother, aunt, and their cousins' memory so the connection seems that much closer. Not to mention my family still has old postcards and photographs of my great grandparents and their siblings in Slovenia.

My third cousin took me into Vrhnika first. He showed me a park just a little bit outside the main town.

Church of Vrhnika.
We climbed a hill and saw both a bit of Vrhnika and Stara Vrhnika. If you are curious what the difference is between Stara Vrhnika and Vrhnika is I learned that 'stara' means old, so 'Stara Vrhnika' would mean Old Vrhnika. I also learned while I was riding in the car with my third cousin that unlike Austria, Slovenes watch American movies with no dubs, only subtitles in Slovenian (Austrians watch American movies that have voice overs in German). This helps Slovenes learn English as well as the added benefit that they can hear the original actor's voice. Apparently he had just recently watched the new 'Dark Knight' movie and mentioned that there was some national pride that an actor from Slovenia had a one liner in the movie (he thought this was somewhat ridiculous because people were saying the actor made it big in Hollywood meanwhile I had never heard of the actor's name).

After touring the park, I was then driven through Vrhnika to get to Stara Vrhnika.

Vrhnika was also the birthplace of Ivan Cankar (considered one of the most important Slovene writers) and they town nods to his importance by a statue in the main town.

I ended up in the house of my third cousin and his father (also a relation) where we sat down and figured out how we were related. I also showed them some photos of my family and tried to get some old photos identified.

They decided to take me to Stara Vrhnika's cemetery to get more accurate death dates for genealogy. For those of you who do genealogy you are already familiar with the fact that tombstones can provide valuable information about birth and death dates. I learned later during my trip, that in Slovenia older tombstones are eventually phased out for newer ones. This is because only immediate family cares for the gravesite and eventually when that family is no longer around either the gravesite is taken back by the church (because payments have stopped) or the descendants start burying other family members and replace the tombstone with a new one reflecting the new burials and not the old ones. Because of this, the death dates marked in the cemetery only go back so far (for me could only get as far back as my great grandfather brother's generation and below).

Street view in Stara Vrhnika

Church in Stara Vrhnika

View in cemetery of Stara Vrhnika
Another church view
Another interesting part of Slovenian history that I sometimes catch glimpses of is its post WWII history. If you ever have anytime you should read up on WWII and post-WWII history of Slovenia. During WWII Slovenia was split into three sections and was separately controlled by Italy, Germany, and Hungary. Simultaneously while this was going on there was a civil war within Slovenia for power between the Catholic party and the Socialist party. Each party had there own army which for the Catholics was the Domobranci and for the Socialists was the Partisans. Now depending on who you ask you can get vastly different stories about what exactly occurred between these two parties during WWII. According to the Partisans they were defending their country from the invaders (Italians, Germans, and Hungarians) while the Domobranci claim that the Partisans were attacking Slovenian villages for supplies so they had to side with the invaders to protect themselves. Obviously this is a very convoluted issue and because at the time members from the same family or village could join different sides (it was described to me that armies were mostly formed of men looking for something do to or because they knew a friend who was already part of that group, that people initially joined not so much because of rigid political stances) this grew to be an issue that split families and villages.

In 1944, the Partisan group joined Tito's forces ( and when WWII ended (and the Italians, Germans, and Hungarians left Slovenia) Tito came in with his forces to take control of Slovenia (and would include Slovenia as part of Socialist Yugoslavia). When Tito gained control of Slovenia, of course this meant that the Domobranci had 'lost' (although according to the Domobranci they weren't too keen on the invaders either). Almost all the Domobranci fled to Austria however British forces in the area sent them back to Slovenia. And then, thousands of Domobranci 'disappeared'. For Tito the disappearances of Domobranci mostly went unacknowledged. However over the years mass grave sites have been discovered where it is obvious mass executions occurred (estimated that more that 11,400 were killed as part of these executions; Domobranci who were not part of the mass executions were sent to concentration camps). More recently in Slovenian history it has been acknowledged that these mass executions occurred but that still doesn't mean it is a very comfortable topic for Slovenians to discuss. Slovenia only recently became independent from Yugoslavia in 1990 and the memory of WWII and post-WWII is still very painful (not to mention that the Socialist years for Slovenia were not always easy). It would also be a mistake to think that just because Slovenia is independent and is now part of the European Union, that all the political issues that existed for the last 60 years are no longer there and that Slovenia has moved beyond them. Even today in Slovenia, during the political season, the issue of who was right in WWII (the Domobranci or the Partisans) is still brought up and argued over. The younger generation seems very tired of this discussion though, so perhaps one day Slovenia can move beyond this painful part of their history. One of my relatives put it this way, "No one is right in war."

I wanted to explain this part of Slovenia's history to you so you could understand the context of the photos I have posted next (not to mention I found the history interesting, I hope you did too; if I wanted to further burden you I could start going into how Slovenia was once a part of Austria before WWI, and then split between Austria, Hungary, and Italy between WWI and WWII with Yugoslavia forming somewhere in there but I think you can look that up on your own.....).

Domobranci Memorial in Stara Vrhnika at the (Catholic) Church for the 'missing' or dead during WWII (from this village). Notice the majority died in 1945.

And right across the street from the Church in Stara Vrhnika..... A Partisan memorial for those who (from this village) died during WWII (the red star was often used as a socialist symbol in Slovenia).

After observing the memorials and getting a perspective on it from my third cousin, I was then taken to the house that they believed my great grandfather was born in and I learned a little bit about my great grandfather's brother (how that side of the family is related to me). Sitting in a house that a great grandparent was born in is always a peculiar experience. I had already done it once before in Hotedršica when I had sat in the kitchen of the house my great grandmother was born in. Of course the houses aren't exactly the same as the ones my great grandparents lived in since they have gone through rebuilding and refurbishing but I think that there are many architectural/planning elements that are similar.

My second cousin once removed (if you really want to be technical about it) seemed to enjoy visiting the older relations in the main house but his son (my third cousin) seemed a little impatient about it because farming and general town chit chat was involved. I was rather amused by this because it is a pretty typical response of my generation when confronted with 'old-timers' and farming.

We then went to go look for a relative out in the field who ended up not being out there although it led to an interesting walk through the town.

I was told that this is a particular style of barn that is almost only found in Slovenia (occasionally found in Austria, I would guess most likely in the region Carinthia where the border between Austria and Slovenia has often shifted). In Slovenia they dry the hay by layering it between the wooden slates on the barn (as opposed to rolling up the hay).

Another view of the traditional Slovenian barn.
After walking around a bit, my great grandfather's family drove me to Hotedršica (I guess you could also spell it Hotedrzica because the accented 's' sounds like a 'z' and you may see it spelled that way in some records, but officially I think it is spelled Hotedršica) where I met with my great grandmother's family. My third cousin on that side of the family decided to take me sight-seeing and I was then driven to Idrija.

Idrija shown by the red marker (courtesy of google maps).

Idrija is a well known town in Slovenia because it was where the main entrances for the local mine were located (in operation since 1490). Slovenia is in fact dotted with a network of caves but the Idrija mines are special because they were mining mercury (eek!). Idrija still remains today as a wealthy town, which my third cousin says is remnant of the money from the mining days (the mine is no longer in operation).

Downtown Idrija

We went first to the local Idrija museum where they had a fabulous exhibit on the mine and worker conditions. The local river was used to transport logs down the 'hill' to use in the mine and a special damning system was used to accomplish this. The life of a miner looked exceptionally hard and while the mine itself was very wealthy, most of that money went to executives and people keeping the books and not the miners themselves.

The building the museum was located in use to be a 'castle' built and owned by the mining company. I think originally the mining company was Austrian (government owned?) however after WWII it was under control of Yugoslavia's government (for a short period in the 1920s it was also owned by the Italians). In 1986 they began to close the mine (right around when they were actually starting to get proper safety equipment) and finished closing the mine in 1995. The 'mercury mining heritage' and other historical buildings in Idrija were just recently declared a UNESCO world heritage protected site (in fact was declared within a couple weeks of my visit).

Local Slovenians still remember the mining days. For my third cousin, her grandfather worked in the mine and I met another woman later whose father worked in the mine. You also heard a lot of stories about men dying from work in the mines. Mercury is very poisonous and many died from mercury poisoning (however I learned that since the men were sweating so much while they worked it protected them a little from mercury poisoning because they were sweating it out faster then their body could intake it). Another common cause of death was a type of lung disease that could be caused from the dust the miner's breathed (essentially irritated and scratched up the lungs). I was also told on the side that the miners were heavy drinkers (homemade schnapps a favorite) because the alcohol helped sooth the irritated feeling they had in their throats from all the dust they breathed in. Thus it wouldn't necessary be unusual for a miner to die from alcohol poisoning either.

The 'castle' of Idrija. It looks like the paintings on the walls are a newer addition. This building contained the museum.

The entrance to the mines (and the mine tour) was in a different location in the town and since we had some time my third cousin took me around to a few of the lace shops. Idrija is well known for lace and many girls in the area use to know how to make lace (from schools that started in mid 1800s).

Woman in lace shop showing me how to make lace

Looks like a very difficult process. I was told that it usually takes 1-2 hours for 1 cm in length.

We wandered over to the entrance of the mine and I was surprised to see a regular looking building. However once walking into this building you can see the entrance to the mine right away.

Entrance to mine.
We bought our tickets but since we had some time we wandered outside.

View of church, which seems surprisingly far away. Most churches in Slovenia are directly in the town centers.

River through Idrija. Apparently this is the same river used to help carry the logs down from the woods to the mine.
Break for ice cream. Also ran into some of my third cousin's school friends.
Apparently the Idrija mine tours do have a guide who can speak English if it is needed. So the people who spoke Slovenian started out watching the movie while my group (me, my third cousin, and a French family) suited up to go into the mine (would do the movie after the tour).

Before heading into the mine. Why do I look so incredibly short in this photo?

A phrase that means 'good luck' in slovenian above the door leading into the mine. The miners would say this to each other each day as they started work.

My third cousin in front of me with the guide. The tunnel into the mine starts out rather small because men 500 years ago were shorter. The more recent tunnels are considerably larger because men were taller and they had to fit in machinary. Also the electricity you see now would not of been present then. Most of the mining that went on was by lamp/candle light.

A chapel in the mine before the miners would descend down approx. 90-100 stairs into the actual mine that are to just the left of this photo. Apparently the only chapel in Slovenia not owned by the church (it is/was actually owned by the mining company).

Mining looked like hard miserable work. In the 'old' days the miners didn't have separate uniforms to wear to work but just wore regular clothes. Two man were often chipping into the rock (one turning the 'chisel' with the other hammering). And of course one the rock fell out with the ore it was collected then heated to collect just the core. Apparently though the ore here was quite pure and didn't require as much effort to extract the mercury as in other places.

The larger area of the mine where the tunnels are more recent.
I learned a lot about the mine on the tour although there was one nerve racking moment when the guide pointed out droplets of mercury (native mercury) in the wall.

guide: "These droplets are highly poisonous because they can evaporate in the air and poison people in a matter of seconds."
group: O_O
guide: "That is why the air circulation is so good in here, to whisk any gas away."
group: "..."

Following the mine we watched about a 40-60 minute movie in English on the mine.

Back outside the mine

Ahh, such a pretty view

I was driven back to Hotedršica and spent some time going over some family tree stuff. I had mentioned I wanted to visit my great grandmother's chapel again and so we headed back over to the chapel, stopping by the church so I could look at the death dates on the tombstones (and also to visit one grave).

The church in Hotedršica.

The cemetery; you can just see the chapel in the background.

My great grandmother's chapel (you should read my previous blog post on Slovenia if you want to know the story behind it)

The statue of Mary inside the chapel. I was told that this is the original statue that was used when the chapel was originally built. The statue is simply repainted and her clothes replaced over time.
We then walked over to the house that my great grandmother was born in and the relatives talked to each other. Eventually I got back to the house I was staying at and had a late dinner and then went to bed.

Wednesday August 15th, 2012

The next morning we got up early to go the Postojna cave (system; or also known as Postojna Jama).  The Postojna was until recently one of the biggest caves in Slovenia (Migovec was just recently declared longer; like two days before I visited).

Map of Slovenia with Postojna marked (courtesy of google maps).

I find the history of the Postojna cave (system) rather interesting because tours have been provided in the cave as early as 1819 to the general public. In 1872 the first rails were laid for a cave train for tourists. Initially the trains were pushed by the guides but by early 1900s human power was replaced with gas locomotives (in 1945 there would be a switch to electric motors). The cave got electrical lighting in 1884 (the capital Ljubljana didn't get public electrical lighting until 1898). Today "5.3 km of the caves are open to the public, the longest publicly accessible depth of any cave system in the world."An additional fact that amuses me is that recently I was looking at my great aunt's photos of her visit to Slovenia approx. 30 years ago and noticed she was also taken by the Slovenian relatives to Postojna Jama.

Ceiling of part of the cave on the train ride

Another ceiling view on train ride.

Photography is only really allowed on the train part of the tour. Once you get off the train and are separated into tour groups (by language; Slovenian, German, Italian, and English) they ask that you take no photos. I think this is mostly because the flash from the cameras helps create algae in the cave (another reason why they turn off the lights in different parts of the cave after we go through it). The smart people in my group took photos without flash (also less noticeable to the guide) however I didn't want to tempt fate by trying to take photos because it became quite obvious that the Slovenians were much more inclined to enforce their rule on no photos (unlike the Italians). Many people in my group couldn't seem to help themselves or didn't take the initial warnings seriously as they were taking many photos with flash. My group mostly consisted of Chinese tourists (I heard complaints later that the Chinese tourists never follow the rules; I'm not sure if this is true or just the impression Slovenians have of Chinese tourists. Its an impression though that the Austrians seem to share with the Slovenians) and a smattering of other nationalities.

After three warnings our tour guide stopped our group and told us that after this point he would start taking cameras away from people. Right as he said this a woman took a photo with flash (the rest of us slowly backed away from her). There were general grumblings but most people put away their cameras (or switched to 'no flash' and took photos on the sly). Not many people though seemed to notice a second cave employee specifically trailing our group to make sure we stayed out of trouble. Because of my lack of photos of the cave I have provided a link the Postojna Jama's website where you can look at a slideshow of photos that are quite fabulous and really highlight the beauty of the cave ( Simply hit the gallery link you see on the first photo and it will bring up a gallery of some interesting stalactites.

After doing the cave tour, we got back into the car and went to the other touristy spot in the area, Predjama Castle. Predjama is actually connected to the Postojna cave system but you are going to want a car to drive there from the site where you do the Postojna cave tour (although you can buy both tickets at the Postojna cave ticket office).

Predjama Castle is marked, you can just see Postojna below it (courtesy of google maps).

Predjama Castle site not only on a cliff side, but partially in a cave. Because of this apparently the castle was cold and drafty but I rather thought it was nice inside.

Me with my third cousin in front of Predjama Castle.

Me in front of Predjama Castle

Getting closer to Predjama Castle.

Predjama is probably most known for one of its past inhabitants, the knight Erazem (who owned the castle sometime in the 1400s). Apparently Erazem annoyed the Habsburgs (he killed the commander of the imperial army). This probably wasn't a good idea because the Habsburg family had been/would be elected as all the Holy Roman Emperors between 1438 and 1740 as were also the rulers of the Austrian Empire and Spanish Empire and several other countries (check this link, the green was what the Hasburg family use to control although this doesn't show "all the lands of the Holy Roman Empire over which they rule, or the vast Castilian holdings outside of Europe, and particularly in America". Apparently the Hasburgs also split into Austrian and Spanish lines and "The Austrian Habsburgs held the title of Holy Roman Emperor after Charles' death in 1558, as well as the Habsburg Hereditary Lands and the Kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary. The senior Spanish branch ruled over Spain and its colonial empire, the Netherlands, the Habsburgs' Italian possessions, and, for a time, Portugal. Hungary was partly under Habsburg rule from 1526

Now coming back from my Hasburg detour, I should mention that Erazem decided to go to his castle Predjama to hide from the Hasburgs' wrath, however he also decided to align himself with the Hungarian King and attack Hasburg estates and lands. This didn't make him very popular with the surrounding lords and knights in the area and earned him the name "robber knight". The imperial forces sent a local governor (from Trieste, a Italian town) to capture and kill Erazem. Thus the governor began a long siege of Predjama castle. Unfortunately for the governor he was unaware that Erazem had a secret tunnel from the castle, which meant that Erazem was able to comfortably sit in his castle with a constant stream of fresh supplies from neighboring towns. Erazem flung cherries and other fresh food over his castle wall to taunt the soliders laying siege to his castle.

However Erazem's arrogance seemed to be his downfall because one of his servants was finally bribed by the soldiers laying siege to help kill Erazem (after about a year of siege). The servant but a little piece of white cloth in the window of the outhouse (which is located on the top floor and edge of castle) and told the soldiers that when they saw the window light up (from a candle) that meant that Erazem was using it. So one night when Erazem went to go use the toilet and took his candle with him, the soldiers saw the window light up and sent a cannon ball at the window pretty much killing Erazem instantly. After the siege the castle was in ruins and went through several reconstructions. The reconstruction from 1560 is what we see today.

A nice bedroom (?) in the castle

A chapel in the castle

A pretty window

Steep stairs leading up into the upper cave part of the castle. Why the steps were half a meter high I don't know. I thought people in the middle ages were suppose to be shorter.

Warning bell for the castle and lands surrounding it

View of town from inside the cave. Many of the buildings you see though would not of been present during Erazem's time. Mostly just valley.
After touring the castle I was taken back to Hotedršica for some lunch. It was actually quite good and I felt a little embarrassed when I asked if I could take a photo but my slovenian relatives were game.

Me eating lunch

From left to right: a type of dumpling, sausage, potatoes w/ cabbage.

Since my Hotedršica relatives were doing something else in the evening I decided to back to Stara Vrhnika and visit with another third cousin from my great grandfather's side of the family that I hadn't gotten a change to see before. As we looked through more photos in Stara Vrhnika we realized that her father was actually in one of my great aunt's photos as a teenager although he doesn't remember the visit today. It was actually quite funny because he looked very similar to his son (the third cousin who picked me up at the train station).

They then decided to take me to the top of a local hill where I could view the surrounding landscape. Usually my relatives would walk up the hill but since it was starting to get late in the evening we drove up the hill instead. At the top of the hill there is a wooden tower you can climb. The tower was rebuilt recently because the previous tower had been there a extremely long time and would sway when you were at the top of it.

The tower

The view from the tower. Stara Vrhnika and Vrhnika are below but you can kind of see Ljubljana in the distance to the left.
Me and my third cousin and her father on top of the tower. We were facing towards the sun which was probably not the best idea but it seems like it turned out okay.

The surrounding hills.
There was a little place to eat on top of the hill and although it was about to close we managed to order a few things to eat/drink. I believe I went with the Robidova Pita.

I'm terrible at pronouncing Slovenian words although I know form this list I can manage Gibanica, Palacinke, and Limonada.

My robidova pita (cake)

Where we ate
We headed back to the house and talked some more. My third cousin's father made us some pumpkin soup (from pumpkin in his yard) and I was also given some homemade honey liquor to take back with me to Austria.

The pumpkin soup
It was nighttime by the time I managed to get back to Hotedršica. I packed to leave the next morning and then went to sleep.

Thursday August 16th, 2012

I caught an early bus from Hotedršica to Ljubljana (around 9 am) to catch a 11:20 train back to Villach (I had to meet a friend who had been working in Italy at the Villach train station at 1 pm so I couldn't really stay in Slovenia longer than that).

I had a great time in Slovenia and while I think it is a beautiful country, I think what struck me most was the kindness and warmth of the people of Slovenia. I was treated very well by my Slovenian relatives and they were very considerate considering that they had either met me briefly during my first trip to Slovenia or hadn't met me at all before. I'm glad that I took the time to visit Slovenia and hope that I can visit again.


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