Map of Gorenjska (shown in green)
Bled is located in an Alpine region that the Slovenes call Gorenjska, a name that appears to be based on gora, the common Slavic word for ‘mountain.’ Together with the neighboring region of Goriška, it forms the northwestern corner of the country, bordering Italy and Austria, as you can see by clicking the map at the right. (The inset at the upper right shows Gorenjska’s location within the country as a whole.) The German name for this region, Oberkrain (which has come into English as “Upper Carniola”) contains a reference to Kranj, Gorenjska’s principal city. At 53,000, it’s the third largest city in Slovenia, after the capital, Ljubljana (265,000), and the industrial city of Maribor (115,000). Apart from Kranj, Gorenjska is mostly a region of small towns, villages, and farms. We hadn’t yet been outside it, since the Brnik airport, where we’d landed, is just within its boundary.

The plan we’d made with Tina for Sunday was to see what we could of the countryside around Bled and to visit some museums in the vicinity. She picked us up after breakfast and we headed first for Lake Bohinj (that’s Bohinjsko Jezero on the map), about 16 miles from Bled. The guidebooks had praised its pristine, tranquil contrast with the touristy bustle of Bled, and going there was our idea. Pristine and tranquil the lake surely was, but the ambience was no match for the drizzly weather. (The name, by the way, is pronounced ‘bo-HEEN.’ The j at the end once indicated a special pronunciation of the preceding n, but fortunately for English-speakers this is no longer true, except in some regional dialects. Similarly, the name of the region is pronounced ‘go-REN-ska,’ much easier than it looks.)

St. John the Baptist Church
We saw two pretty churches near the lake. Holy Spirit was originally built by survivors of the Black Plague in the 14th century to express their gratitude at being spared, but the present church dates from the early 16th century, and has been added to since then. The bell tower has the date 1744 painted on it, just below the roof. The church itself is tiny and can hold only a few worshippers. St. John the Baptist, not much bigger, was built only a couple of kilometers away. Its bell tower is also dated: 1738. (According to the Rough Guide, this church’s porch is paved with stones, some them arranged to spell 1639.) Tina told us that St. John’s is where all children born in the Bohinj Valley are christened. People from the area make pilgrimages to both churches and also to the many roadside shrines built to express gratitude for favors and granted prayers.

In the village of Stara Fužina (‘Old Glassworks’) near the lake we stopped at a little museum dedicated to dairying, which has always been the main support of alpine regions like this. The young woman in charge knew some English, and got help from Tina when she needed it. We saw handmade dairying and cheesemaking implements, and heard how a part of each village drove cattle to the high alpine pastures every summer and lived up there in cabins until it was time to come down in the fall. (This kind of seasonal migration — transhumance, as anthropologists call it — used to be common throughout the higher and cooler parts of Europe.)

During the summer the village was split in two, though frequent caravans ran between its year-round location and the highland pastures, taking up food and supplies that couldn’t be replenished on the scene and bringing down the cheese that was made up there. It was much more efficient to carry back cheese than milk. Late in the 19th century, a local priest went to study cheesemaking in Switzerland and brought the efficient Swiss techniques back to the Bohinj valley, with economically beneficial results. Summer cheesemaking in the high meadows continued through the 1960s and declined only after a modern dairy was established in the area in 1971. According to the museum’s brochure, “Now only a few aging villagers keep alpine dairy farming alive.”

Leaving the museum, we drove past some hillside pastures where Tina pointed out the vertical hayracks that, she told us, are regarded as a symbol of Slovenia. After being mowed, hay needs to dry to a certain point before it’s safe to put in a barn: if it’s too moist, the weight can cause spontaneous combustion. But thunderstorms are frequent in these mountains during the summer, and every time the hay gets wet, its eventual value as fodder is reduced. Repeated soakings can cause it to rot.

Single and double hayracks in the Bohinj Valley
Slovene farmers deal with this problem by draping their hay over rails in tall fencelike structures, ten or twelve feet high, with a little roof along the top. The “fence rails” are thinner and much closer together than on a real fence, to get as much hay off the ground as possible. The rows, 10 or 12 on a rack, looked about a foot apart. Some hayracks are double, with two parallel “fences” supporting a wide roof overhead. This makes a space to store equipment or shelter field workers during one of those sudden thunderstorms. There’s even enough room for a wagon, with the team or tractor still harnessed to it, under the roof. Tina told us that double hayracks (toplarji) are built only in Slovenia, though single ones are seen in other parts of Europe. A single hayrack (kozolec) is narrow, like a tall fence topped by a roof three or four feet wide — a design that’s more practical to build on steep slopes. But even on a double hayrack, the hay hangs on the two “outside walls,” so both types of hayrack protect hay from the elements with an eave that overhangs it by only a couple of feet.

We asked Tina how such narrow eaves could keep the hay dry when wind-driven rain came slanting in, but she told us that the rain always comes straight down, and we could see that this must be true, for otherwise the hayracks wouldn’t work and no one would build them that way. I don’t know whether such consistently vertical rainfall is a mountain phenomenon (since I suppose that most of Slovenia’s dairy farming is carried on at fairly high altitudes) or a summer phenomenon. I’ve noticed that, in Massachusetts, summer rainstorms don’t always fall vertically. Perhaps some other aspect of Slovenia’s unique climatic and geographical situation explains it.

Village council tree in Vrba
We left the Bohinj area, and Tina drove us back over rural roads past Bled to the district of Žirovnica, where we first drove through the village of Vrba, birthplace of Slovenia’s national poet, France Prešeren (pronounced FRAHNT-seh preh-SHARE-en), who lived from 1800 to 1849. Tina drove us past his family’s house to the middle of this village, where she showed us a linden tree — something that was in former times found at the center of every village in this part of Slovenia. A circle of stones, big and flat-topped enough to sit on, surrounded the tree, one stone for each of the village’s principal families. By local tradition, at the end of the day the head of each family (male, of course — this is an ancient tradition) would take his seat on the appropriate stone, and together the gathering would settle matters of village business. The stone circle around this tree was very well preserved, perhaps because Vrba, as the poet’s birthplace, is especially conscious of its cultural heritage. But the nightly council of patriarchs is past history now.

In the slightly larger town of Zabreznica, where Tina and Sašo live, we saw two St. Michael’s churches, one on the valley floor and one on the side of the mountain that overlooked it. She told us that such twin churches (and we were to see others besides these) were common in the area, which was sometimes raided during the long struggle between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. The mountain churches were a place from which approaching armies could be spotted, and to which the villagers, warned by the church’s bell, could retreat until the invaders had tired of their depredations and moved on. In tranquil times, the valley churches were of course more convenient.

Anton Janša's beehive in Zabreznica
In the 18th century, Zabreznica was the home of Anton Janša, a pioneer in the science of beekeeping, who traveled to Vienna at the invitation of the Empress Maria Theresa to lecture on apiculture in the University, and wrote two books on the subject that are still consulted. Janša invented a method of building hives so that they could be stacked together like blocks, and the first one he built is still preserved in Zabreznica — Tina took us to see it. The pioneer apiculturist had been trained as a painter and decorated the front panels of the hives with small pictures. Though he probably wasn’t the first to do this — the oldest preserved example is dated 1758, when Janša would have been 15 years old — the art flourished in his native region during his lifetime, and he may have had some influence on the tradition.

It was time for the midday meal, and we were heading for Radovljica, home of an apiculture museum that is dedicated to Anton Janša. On the way we stopped briefly in the adjacent village of Begunje to see a ruined castle (Grad Kamen: ‘Stone Castle’). It was once a stronghold of the overlords of the district, the noble family of Ortenburg, then (when they died out around 1420) to the Counts of Celje, whose turn it was to die out about 30 years later. The Habsburgs then granted the castle to their supporters, the Lamberg (or, to Slovenes, Lambergar) family. Gašper Lambergar, a famous winner of knightly tournaments, held the castle during the late 15th century and may have engaged in combat, on behalf of the Habsburg emperor Frederick III, with Jan Vitovec — a Czech who began as a mercenary captain serving the Celje family, but later became a nobleman in his own right and an ally of the King of Hungary. On this tenuous historical basis rests a body of Slovenian folk tradition describing an epic single combat between Lambergar and “Pegam,” a monster-like figure thought to be based on Vitovec. Pegam (in some versions a three-headed giant) loses the fight to Lambergar, whom the Slovenes claim as a local hero. The community owns the castle and is trying to develop it as a venue for weddings and so on, perhaps hoping to earn enough for further restoration work, but in the rain the ruins looked merely ruined.

Radovljica was once the chief town of the district and home to the local petty nobility (at least after they no longer needed the security of the Stone Castle). The bee museum is in their former mansion, located on a little square surrounded by old buildings and kept free of motor traffic. Our first stop was at a restaurant named Gostilna Lectar, in a 500-year-old building on the same square. A gostilna is a country-style inn with an emphasis on simple and hearty Slovenian food. Not all of them are in the country; Ljubljana has some too. But the name comes from the style.

Lectar artist at work
The restaurant’s other name, lectar, refers to a little cake traditionally made in the shape of a heart. It’s usually translated ‘gingerbread’ or ‘gingerbread heart,’ but this doesn’t denote the soft, cakelike product we call gingerbread in the US. These small cakes, more like hard cookies, are made to be given and even kept as gifts — eating seems a secondary consideration. We saw the little hearts in the “gingerbread museum” downstairs from the restaurant, being brightly decorated with messages of love by women in traditional costume. Some of those written in Slovene were wry and witty (I was told), but all the English ones were sappily romantic. There were other shapes as well: birds, good-luck horseshoes, and so on. We bought a couple of small examples as gifts and souvenirs. The cake beneath the icing was firm, all right, but it was far less dense than a similar cake (not iced, but picturesquely molded) that I once bought in the Belgian town of Dinant. I was under the illusion that this was meant to be food, but found that I couldn’t get my teeth into it.

The restaurant’s name and museum are based on its history: it had at one time been a bakery specializing in these tasty little keepsakes. Gostilna Lectar’s history as a restaurant goes back to 1822. The small, low-ceilinged dining rooms are above the museum, at street level, and we found them crowded with diners. Slovenes, Tina told us, still consider the midday meal the principal one of the day, though participation in a modern economy has of course made inroads on this custom. She quoted us an old proverb to the effect that you should eat breakfast with your family, (midday) dinner with your friends, and supper — obviously a perfunctory affair — with your enemies.

Gostilna (and Museum) Lectar
This being a Sunday, people were free to indulge the old tradition of eating the main meal in the middle of the day, but despite the crowded conditions the folk-costumed staff, who knew Tina well, found us a table. Before we ordered, the waiter brought us an aperitif flavored with blueberries. The three of us shared one of Gostilna Lectar’s specialties — a huge platter of traditional country food called the Peasant’s Feast. Local sausage, blutwurst, white beef, two kinds of sauerkraut, štruklji (two layers of pasta stuffed with creamy cottage cheese and sliced like a strudel), tripe, mashed potato, dumplings, pickled turnip, and buckwheat mush competed for space on the platter, and all of us were thoroughly satisfied before it was empty. I drank Union lager, and we all shared a liter of Radenska. At the end of the meal, we received another complimentary drink, this one flavored with Teran, a hearty red wine from western Slovenia. (I should probably call it earthy, since the name comes from Italian terra.) Like our pre-dinner drink, this was a schnapps-like cordial. Similar drinks are made in homes and restaurants all over the country, flavored with whatever the maker’s ingenuity may suggest. (Click here for more information about Slovenian cordials.)

We paid our visit to the downstairs museum after dinner, then walked a few doors up the square to the Apicultural Museum, where nicely laid out exhibits illustrated the lives of bees and the long history of beekeeping in Slovenia. The honeybees native to Slovenia, a variety called “Carniola” after the old duchy that comprised Gorenjska and neighboring districts, is renowned for its high productivity and comparatively peaceful nature. (They are also called “gray bees” because the yellow rings around their abdomens are a more grayish yellow than those of other European bees.) Slovenia exports many of these bees, as does Italy, and they are also bred on other continents.

Not being involved in beekeeping ourselves, we were (like most visitors to the museum) most captivated by the big exhibit of painted beehive panels like the ones we had seen on Anton Janša’s hives. This art form flourished from his time in the 18th century and was at its peak between 1820 and 1860. It disappeared early in the 20th century as newer types of hive were adopted.

The traditional Slovenian beehive built according to Janša’s model was an apian metropolis, a large rack holding many individual hives in shallow drawers arranged in a regular grid from side to side and top to bottom. The front of each drawer, with a narrow entrance hole just beneath it, was painted differently, a feature that helped the bees to navigate and the beekeeper to keep track of which hive was which. Instead of relying on varied colors or simple patterns, the beekeepers began painting pictures on these panels. They were small pictures, 4 or 5 by 10 or 11 inches, and often showed religious subjects like the Madonna and Child or the sufferings of Job, whom Slovenian beekeepers regarded as the patron saint of their profession (at least, according to some accounts I read, though St. Ambrose is more commonly assigned this responsibility in other countries). One panel shows Job lamenting on his dungheap, while his wife weeps and a couple of musicians in Slovenian peasant costume try to cheer him up. Other panels show the Emperor’s soldiers on the march, or engaged in battle with the Turks.

But many beehive paintings are examples of folk humor, often quite broad (and quite masculine — it seems clear that, whether or not beekeeping was an exclusively male affair, the decoration of beehives must have been). Married couples are seen in some panels sitting peacefully at their table, but in others they hurl crockery at each other. A man is shown standing helplessly in his shirttails while a young woman and an older one — presumably his wife and his mother — conduct a tug-of-war with his breeches. Another man sits on a bank dangling a pair of breeches from a pole while three women in the stream grab eagerly at them. (Somebody with a deficient sense of peasant humor described this picture, on a website, as “a man, with the aid of some women in a river, retriev[ing] his breeches with a pole.”) One popular theme shows devils sharpening a woman’s tongue on a grindstone. Another shows old women being run through a mill and coming out as sprightly young things at the far end, where prospective husbands wait eagerly.

Not all the humor involves “gender issues.” A very popular theme shows a hunter’s funeral. He is being carried to the graveyard by a procession of game animals, followed by his tearful dog. But all the other animals wear happy smiles.

We were unable to take adequate pictures of the panels in the museum, which were exhibited behind glass, but I found a few from its collection on the Web. Click here if you’d like to see them.

After our museum visit, we crossed the square to a pastry shop, where Tina introduced us to her husband Sašo, who works there on weekends. She bought us two traditional pastries associated with Bled, both of which we split. Kremna rezina (‘cream layer’) has a layer of thick cream on top of a layer of vanilla custard, sandwiched between two layers of flaky, buttery strudel pastry. Grmada (‘bonfire’) is a trifle-like mixture of cake pieces, custard, milk, and rum, topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. According to tradition, it was invented at one of the Bled hotels as a way to use up yesterday’s leftover cake.

Upstream in Kropa

The rain had held off while we were in Radovljica, but it was sprinkling again when we made our last stop of the day. We were in a narrow valley with a fast mountain stream running down the middle of it and the narrow town of Kropa clinging to the slopes on either side. The tumbling stream gives Kropa its name — krop means ‘boiling water’ in Slovene — and in turn gets its name from the town: Kroparica. The town is an exception to the rest of Gorenjska (and to most of Slovenia, for that matter) in that for over five centuries it has made its living through iron work rather than agriculture. The combination of elements that made this possible were local deposits of iron ore, plenty of wood for charcoal, and the swift-running stream, whose harnessed power could operate bellows.

The ironworkers of Kropa mostly specialized in a single product: spikes — more than a hundred varieties of them, ranging from some the size of small nails to others we saw in the museum that were almost 30 inches long. These were used in building dams.

Spikes were loaded into wooden casks and hauled out of the valley on the backs of pack mules and horses. Most were sold in the nearest big cities, Trieste and Venice. The most common type had a “two-wing” head that looked like the roof of a tiny house and was used in construction all around the Mediterranean. According to the local guidebook we got at the Kropa museum (the source of most of the information here), spikes from Kropa were traded widely, and reached many places from the Atlantic to the Black Sea and from Scandinavia to Ethiopia.

A Kropa foundry house
The houses of Kropa are big and square, three stories high, and sit with their backs against the steep slope of the valley. They are a local type known as “foundry houses,” where the owner and his family occupied the first floor (European style; it would be the second in America) and workers from the mines, foundries and forges would rent quarters on the second, top floor — one family to a room, with a common cooking area in the central hallway. Sometimes two or three families shared one room, so it isn’t surprising that some members had to sleep in wooden compartments squeezed, with the firewood supply, into the attic above. The ground floor might house a shop, a tavern, or just a storage place for finished or half-finished spikes. Some workers also lived in little cottages clinging to the slope above the foundry houses.

Tina parked the car and led us through the light drizzle to the only surviving spike forge or smithy, which is now maintained as a historical exhibit. It’s built next to the stream, and its waterwheel still powers the bellows. This forge was a smallish building by local standards, and contained four or five “workstations” each consisting of a stone platform about waist-high and several feet across. Five or six smiths could work around it, each at his own anvil, and all using a single fire in center. Outside, the waterwheel turned a shaft that led up into the top of the building, and under the high peaked roof, we could hear the thumping of the gears that worked the bellows.

Ducts from the overhead bellows had once delivered a stream of air to the fire in the center of each workstation. On this day, it was providing that service to only one of them, where a craftsman stood ready to show us how spikes used to be made in the old days. He heated a little bar of iron no bigger than an 8-penny nail until it glowed yellow, put it on the anvil, and, turning it constantly, pounded several flat planes into the sides, at the same time narrowing and lengthening the shaft until it came to a point. When this was done, he reheated the dull end, put the body of the spike in a hole in the anvil so that only a little of the red-hot top was sticking out, and pounded this flat (producing a round top that looked more familiar to us than the house-shaped Mediterranean spikes of Kropa’s past). I declined his offer to try this last operation on another spike, suspecting that it would require more strength and skill than it seemed to. Dorothea verified this by taking him up on his offer; she couldn’t finish the job, though in trying it she did demonstrate more courage than I did.

The ironworkers who used this forge in the 1700s and early 1800s worked as family groups. Parents and children entered the dark, smoky building early in the morning and stayed there until night. Both men and women did blacksmithing, while the children could feed the fires charcoal and keep the iron bars coming and the finished spikes going. In one corner, an area big enough for another workstation held a big stove (whose fire was also served by the water-powered bellows) and here the women prepared midday meals for their families, which were eaten on the job; neither cooking nor eating was allowed to interrupt the workday more than necessary.

It seems a grim life from a modern point of view, though it may have been no more so than the life of a farmer. True, the farmer got to see the sky, but he saw the cold and the rain too, and felt them. The museum guidebook didn’t tell us how many foundry and forge workers suffered from respiratory diseases — it seems to me that it must have been many — but in those old days plenty of diseases could be caught in the fields as well. Still, it may be significant that, according to the guidebook, the name of the forge we visited was Vice [VEET-seh], which means ‘Purgatory.’

Kropa’s ironworks flourished into the early 19th century, but then collapsed rather suddenly. Two circumstances were responsible: the Industrial Revolution happened in the world outside, and suddenly machine-made nails and screws overwhelmed handmade spikes in a marketplace that they had to be hauled a long way just to reach — and at the same time Kropa’s iron deposits ran out. By 1881 the two local smelting furnaces had shut down. Some iron masters and smiths got jobs in an industrial nail factory, run on cooperative lines, that was started in the town. This was succeeded by a screw factory that held out until 1997; it has since been converted to manufacture automobile parts.

Dorothea and Tina outside the Kropa museum
The only survival of Kropa’s long ironworking tradition (outside of the museums) is a shop where artisan smiths, working by hand, produce quite beautiful ornamental ironwork (including the bracket that supports the lamp above the museum door in this picture). Much more of this was on display in the museum, lodged in one of the old foundry houses squeezed up against the slope, which we visited after leaving the forge. We also saw exhibits on traditional ironworking processes and the daily lives of iron masters and workers.

From Kropa, Tina drove us back to the Mayer Penzion in Bled, where we found ourselves too tired to go out looking for a restaurant, and so for the second time we were glad to be staying two floors above one of the best in town. Shamelessly ignoring the heroic size of our “lunch,” we dined in fine Slovene style on pork with mushroom sauce and potato dumplings, with apple strudel for dessert. (This was a vacation, after all.)