Our continued journey took us during these 2 weeks to the outlying
Slovene provinces of Koroška
in the north bordering Austria, and to Prekmurje
in the far east bordering Hungary.
The present province of Koroška is just a small part of the ancient Duchy of Karantanija, the earliest Slavic Slovene state dating back to the 7th century. From the 14th century, the whole area became part of the Austrian Habsburg empire which lasted until the end of WW 1. Few visitors venture this far north, but it is a fascinating area with a unique history and culture. We were pleased to find that the only campsite was almost deserted, set in pine-woods next to a small airfield near the town of Slovenj Gradec. We enjoyed a delightfully peaceful 3 days here, in the evenings having a ringside view of light aircraft taking off and landing, and of glider aerobatics.
The town of Mežica set in a now tranquil Alpine valley, was in the past a heavily industrialised mining, iron-working and timber-producing area. This has now virtually all gone, and the massive lead and zinc mine finally closed in 2000, leaving a lot of unemployment. Part of the mine is now open as a mining museum - the Podzemlje Pece Turistične Rudnik in Muzej - and the rickety mine train took us 3.5 kms into the heart of the mountain, which is riddled with old workings on some 20 levels. From here we were guided around 2 of the levels by an ex-miner who showed us working conditions and mining techniques; the fact that he, and his father before, had worked the mine gave his commentary extra poignancy. It was an amazing experience.
Before leaving the airfield camp, we asked one of the staff about life in Slovenia pre- and post-independence. His view was that older people generally felt a sentimental nostalgia for life as it was in former Yugoslavia (we rarely heard people talk of the 'Communist régime'), when life seemed more settled and ordered: the state looked after you in terms of education, healthcare, job, apartment, car (even if it was a Yugo!) and pension. Now life was much less certain; individual responsibility was the order of the day, prices continually rose, and market economy resulted in more unemployment as former state-industries were compelled to shed excess labour to remain competitive. We found among older people an almost reverential regard for Tito in holding together what was seen as the Slavic family of nations under the Yugoslav Federation. Independence had blown all this away, but younger people tended to admit that at least Slovenia had been spared the costly and destructive wars which had torn Croatia apart and all but wrecked its economy.
Before leaving Koroška, we stopped briefly at the village of Muta near the market town of Dravograd, to visit the rotunda church of Sv Janež Krstnik (John the Baptist), one of the oldest Slovenian churches dating from 1052. It was starkly beautiful, with its round structure, slatted wooden roof and narrow steeple, set against the backdrop of wooded hills and Alpine meadows (Photo 1).
Further down the Drava valley, we visited Ptuj (pronounced P-too-ee), a charming old town with a Roman pedigree, but also back on the regular tourist route. The campsite was therefore crowded and noisy, an unwelcome contrast with Koroška. Sun 15 August was the Feast of the Assumption, a public holiday in Slovenia and also a day of religious celebration, particularly at the 15th century pilgrimage church of the Virgin Mary (Župnijska cerkev sv Marije) at Ptujska Gora 12 kms to the south. 100s of local people attend the festival of the Virgin Mary. The church has outstanding Gothic architecture, but the centrepiece of the celebrations, and most treasured religious work of art in Slovenia, is the 15th century carved wooden misericordia above the main altar, showing Mary and infant Christ sheltering some 80 smaller lifelike figures representing rich and poor under a wide mantle held up by angels. We joined the overflowing congregation, queuing to file around the altar for a ritual touch of the marble base of the misericordia (Photo 2). Now call this idolatry if you will, but it was a breathtakingly moving experience, and, whether you believe in miracles or not, Sheila's leg which was still causing pain from a slip 2 weeks earlier returned to normal from this point - remember, you read about it here first!
We moved on eastwards to Prekmurje, a region set apart from the rest of Slovenia, isolated geographically by the River Mura (there was no bridge until 1924), and culturally having been under Hungarian domination for 1000 years until after WW1, when it was at last incorporated into the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The province has a very different topography with the rich agricultural Pannonian plain and vine-clad hills, and a markedly distinctive culinary tradition reflecting its Hungarian heritage: bograč (sounding like something to clear blocked drains, but actually a paprika goulash of mixed meats, onions and potatoes) and gibanica, a sweet pastry filled with apple, walnut, poppy seeds and cottage cheese. There is still a sizeable ethnic Hungarian population; Slovene and Hungarian flags fly side by side, and all the signs are bi-lingual. The largest town is Murska Sobata, where a huge monument in the park recalls the town's liberation by the Red Army in April 1945, and where we enjoyed our first taste of bograč, to the accompaniment of street musicians playing distinctly Magyar music.
The rest of Slovenia regards Prekmurje as something of a rustic backwater, and the only reason that most visitors come here is to wallow in the spas. We camped at the spa complex of Moravske Toplice, as the base to explore the regions picturesque villages, distinctive churches and, most importantly, taste and buy wines from local producers in the Goričko Hills. At Hodoš, right in the NE hard against the Hungarian border, we visited Mr Zdravko Kovač's farm and bought his polsuho (semi-dry), fruity Renski Rizling (as they spell Riesling). On another hot afternoon, we sat on the vine-covered shady terrace at Mr Franc Puhan's vinotoč (vineyard) near the beautiful village of Bogojina, and sampled his Laški Rizling and his exceptionally luscious Modri Pinot (as they call Pinot Noir) - Photo 3 inspecting this year's grapes. We thanked him profusely for his hospitality (gostoljubnost), leaving with arms full of his bottles.
Before leaving, we had at least to try the spa. The spas' origins stem from an attempt to boost the ailing economy of this impoverished region by drilling for oil. Only 1 refinery ever succeeded (and as a major employer, this is now in financial difficulties) but instead of oil, the drilling struck another source of 'liquid gold' - geothermally heated mineral water - hence the spas. Immersion in buoyant 38° C murky water, smelling of hydro-carbons, was certainly a novel if dubiously health-giving experience.
Near to Prekmurje's other town, Lendava, we got our first sightings of another of the region's distinctions - storks. In most of the villages, you see storks' nests perched up on chimneys and telegraph poles. Velika Polana is officially designated as one of Europe's Stork Villages - a settlement with 10 or more storks' nests. The birds are attracted here by the abundance of food, mainly frogs, in the nearby marshes. Nesting and rearing of young birds is almost completed this year, but we did see the stork in Photo 4 perched atop the power pole.
It was now time to move again, south-westwards (re-crossing the Mura river was like coming in from the cold, if that is not being unkind to Prekmurje and succumbing to Slovene prejudices), for the next stage of the trip - to another wine region, the Ljutomer-Ormož hills, and the region of Dolenjska and Bela Kraina, bordering on Croatia in the south - more of this coming next on this channel.