The Buzz on Slovenian Honey



By Jennifer Dorroh Special to The Wall Street Journal

Bled, Slovenia — IN SLOVENIA, WHERE ONE in every 250 residents keeps bees, the hills are alive with the buzz of honey making. On a hot summer afternoon at a sidewalk cafe; here, it is often a bee, rather than a fly, that alights on the rim of your coffee cup or beer glass.

The indigenous Carniolan gray bee thrives amid the diverse vegetation, pristine Alpine environment and forests that cover 60% of the country. The result is a mouthwatering variety of artisanal honeys, including fir, spruce, sweet chestnut, lime, maple and wild cherry — plus honey liqueurs and wines, and even beehive art — available everywhere from the stalls of Ljubljana’s Central Market to typical grocery stores and gift shops, as well as from the beekeepers themselves.

Base your hunt for honey in the town of Bled, about 60 kilometers northwest of Ljubljana in the Julian Alps. With its medieval castle overlooking a sapphire-blue lake with an island church, Bled is the perfect jumping-off point for buying gourmet honey from the beekeepers in nearby villages. (Bled’s tourist office has a free map that marks each village.)

The small artisanal producers’ patient attention to their hives yields thicker honeys with richer, more intense flavors than mass-produced honey. Slovenia‘s small apiaries refrain from harvesting honey until the bees build wax caps over the cells of their honeycombs, signaling that the honey is mature. Big producers, pressed for time, often harvest a more watery, unripe honey, which they then sometimes heat to reduce its moisture content.

You can get a good look at the process at the Cebularski Muzej (Beekeeping Museum), in the baroque Thurn Manor in the tiny, well-preserved 400-year-old town center of Radovljica, less than 10 kilometers from Bled. From May through October, the museum’s centerpiece is an active, transparent beehive.

The museum focuses on the Carniolan bee (prized for its gentleness — it won’t attack humans unless its home is threatened) and local beekeepers who, by the 16th century, had pioneered a form of apiculture in which wooden hives are stacked together in several rows and housed under one roof. Most Slovenian beekeepers today still group their hives this way, although their apicultural methods have changed, says Franc Sivic, vice president of the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association and a prolific photographer whose close-ups of bees are featured in the museum.

In the mid-18th century, busy hives inspired local artists who used the rectangular wooden front panels as their canvases. A single bee house offered dozens of panels on which to paint religious figures, scenes of bucolic bliss and illustrations of human weakness: On one, the devil sharpens a gossipy woman’s tongue on a whetstone; on another, soldiers sneak up behind their enemies. These open-air galleries made it easier for the queen bee to find her way home after mating.

The museum features nearly 200 panels of antique apiary-inspired art.

Beehive panel reproductions (19 euros) are found in the museum’s gift shop, along with sweet-smelling hive-shaped candles (3.30 euros), honey cookies (1.60 euros), jars of cinnamon- and chocolate-laced honey (2.50 euros), chestnut, flower, fir and forest honeys (4 euros-7.50 euros), apiculture books (4 euros-19.20 euros) and the children’s book “From Hunny-Bee’s Diary” (10 euros), available in English and Slovenian versions.

Across the street at Gostilna Avgustin, enjoy a hearty lunch of grilled trout served with spinach and potatoes for about 10 euros. On clear days, the restaurant’s Alpine view includes a glimpse of Mount Triglav, Slovenia‘s highest peak. (Call ahead to secure a balcony or solarium table.)

Next head to Bostjan and Anton Noc Beekeeping in the village of Zirovnica, about nine kilometers from Radovljica. Although the operation and shop are named for the father and son who head the business, the whole family is involved. Bostjan Noc’s wife, Vanja, makes award-winning honey wine and acts as the family’s English interpreter; his nephew Jaka, 11, already tends his own bees.

The family hives are mobile: A truck bearing a two-meter-high bee house stacked with up to 90 hives can be moved to catch the best pollen on any given day. (The local call-in farm report provides daily pollen counts.) Although no elaborate pictures grace the hives, their rectangular fronts are painted in eye-catching shades of blue, green, red, yellow, purple and pink.

In summer, the family brings customers to their hives to watch as they collect and process the honey. Visitors can even don mesh-covered beekeeper’s hats and gear to help remove it. The family shop, nearly wallpapered in prize certificates, sells chestnut, spruce, fir, acacia, blossom, forest, lime, and flower honeys (1.60 euros-14.60 euros), as well as propolis, the bud resin that bees use as glue, which is valued for its healing powers (2 euros), deliciously sweet honey wine (6 euros) and honey liqueur (6 euros).

In the nearby village of Begunje na Goreskem, near the striking yellow 18th-century St. Urh’s Church, Janez Luznar’s colorful bee house hums against a backdrop of snow-capped Alps. A third-generation beekeeper, he sells a dark, rich-tasting fir honey, plus lime, chestnut, dandelion, spruce, forest, and blossom varieties (3.50 euros-7 euros) and beeswax crafts such as a nativity set (30 euros).

Back in Bled, you can stroll around the lake, cross it by boat to reach the baroque Church of the Assumption, hike beside the turquoise river of the nearby Vintgar Gorge, or visit Bled Castle, whose museum will reopen this spring with a new exhibition on the history of the frequently beleaguered region.

Though hardly seen as a weapon of destruction today, invaders once felt the sting of Slovenia‘s beekeeping tradition. In the 16th century, locals defended their fortresses from invading Turks by hurling angry hives on their heads. Fortunately, today’s Slovenian beekeepers can afford to be much more welcoming to visitors.

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National Museum of Slovenia-Metelkova Opens

Slovenia unveiled its new National Museum of Slovenia-Metelkova (Metelkova cesta 25) Thursday in a redesigned Yugoslav Army barracks in a grungy-but-hip neighborhood near the Ljubljana train station. Its first exhibition celebrates Primož Trubar, the 16th-century Protestant reformer who penned the first Slovene-language book. The museum’s permanent collection will debut this fall, featuring works of applied art such as iconic 20th-century Slovenian architect and designer Jože Plečnik’s dining room set and one of the lampposts he created for Ljubljana’s Tivoli Park.

Renovation Planned for Ljubljana’s Urbanc Store (Centromerkur)


AFTER decades of neglect, an art nouveau landmark in Ljubljana is poised for a renovation.

The owners of the 104-year-old Urbanc store, known in most travel guidebooks as “Centromerkur,” hope to restore the building at Trubarjeva 1, at the edge of Prešeren Square, the heart of Ljubljana.

statue.jpgThe building impresses with its statue of Mercury on top, a statue of Commerce inside (right), an ornate staircase, and a hundred little flourishes. Still, it suffered from incongruous additions and inadequate upkeep during the Communist era, and it will take a lot of work–and money–to return it to its original glory.

At the turn of the last century, local businessman Feliks Urbanc commissioned Graz architect Friedrich Sigismundt to design the building that would become home to the city’s first department store. When it was completed in 1903, Urbanc’s name appeared on the building’s side.

img_3964.jpgThe Yugoslav government took possession of the store in 1948, painted over the Urbanc name, and called it “Centromerkur,” the name which now appears above the entrance (right). After denationalization, Urbanc’s grandsons, Ljubljana businessmen Hubert and Jorg Kosler, took possession of it in 2002.

Because the building is a historic landmark, the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia is giving advice to the Koslers, who want to restore the 4,000-square-meter (43,055 square-foot) building and expand and modernize its department store. (Its current dark and cluttered retail atmosphere seems anachronistic in bustling Ljubljana Center.) The Institute’s Restoration Centre prepared a detailed plan for the building, says project manager Boris Deanovič.

The plan calls for a €600,000 ($881,000) renovation that would return the building, last renovated in the 1980s, as close as possible to its original appearance.

This would include a €270,000 ($397,000) restoration of the façade and its decorations. In preparing the plan for the exterior, restoration specialists took samples of multiple layers of varicolored paint to find its original color: cream with gilded flourishes.

img_3933.jpgA €215,000 ($316,000) restoration of the interior would include removing the linoleum that covers the original oak floors (right) on the upper levels and tearing down the walls that were added in the 1960s to fill the building’s inner courtyard.

The plan also involves a €30,000 ($44,000) cleaning of metal elements such as the front door decoration, and the €75,000 ($110,000) replacement of several etched windows.

img_3907.jpgAs originally designed, the building’s ground and first floors housed a department store which sold mostly textiles, since clothes were then homemade or tailor-made. (The original wooden shelves, seen at right, are still in use, and the plan calls for their preservation.) The 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors were private apartments, several of which have spectacular views of Prešeren Square. The new plan would make all five floors part of the new store, allowing the public to enjoy the views.

light.jpgThe plan would restore the original globe lights (right) and allow natural light to enter from the windows. (Fluorescent tubes now illuminate the interior.)

On the ground floor, light once came through 12 etched windows with a flower-and-vine design. Only one of the 2m X 2.7m (6.6′ X 8.9′) window panels still exists, but craftsman Aleš Lomberger, who reintroduced the etched glass technique in Slovenia after independence, will likely reconstruct 11 others.

img_3952.jpgBut not all of the fixes need to be expensive or elaborate. Restoration can also mean something simple, like moving the ATM (at right) from its position beside the building’s central staircase to a less conspicuous spot.

With luck, this will be the last overhaul needed for a long time. “It is always easier to keep a building in good shape on an everyday basis than to restore it after it has been neglected,” Deanovič says.

Ljubljana Codex named a UNESCO “Memory of the World”

codex.jpgUNESCO has included the sacred document Codex Suprasliensis, held in part by Slovenia’s National and University Library, to its worldwide register of valuable archive holdings.

Created in Bulgaria in the 11th century, the document is now shared by the national libraries of Slovenia, Poland and Russia. A rare surviving example of the Old Church Slavonic language, the codex is Slovenia’s first entry on the “Memory of the World” list.

St. Martin’s Day in Ormož, Slovenia


THE fermented juice of this season’s grapes officially became wine last weekend, and Slovenia marked the occasion with the traditional Martinovanje (St. Martin’s Day) feast, wine tasting, and general merry-making (all before going off to vote on Sunday).

In the town of Ormož, in eastern Slovenia, residents celebrated at a four-day fair on the grounds of the 13th-century Ormož Castle.

Under a big white tent on the castle grounds on Saturday, a “bishop” and his friends had fun baptizing the must (new wine), and then, of course, tasting it.

In another tent, local wineries like Jeruzalem Ormož, one of the fair’s sponsors, offered samples. Visitors could also try honey mead, fruit brandies, pumpkin seeds, and more. It was hard to save room for the feast.

The feast itself, found in local homes and at restaurants like Gostilna Prošnik, features roasted goose, sweet red cabbage, and mlinci, a baked noodle dish. Monika Ivanuša, a local tour guide, said she’d be preparing her family’s spread the next morning, using a goose that family friends gave her as thanks for help picking grapes.

Inside the castle were handicraft exhibitions (including a demonstration of how to weave bottle-shaped baskets in which newly christened vino can wait its turn) as well as folk musicians:

pour.jpgDown the hall, Miroslav Kosi (in grey suit at right) poured for visitors a blend of white wines from several wineries in the region. “Taste it all at one time,” he advised.

For those who preferred to experience their wines one by one, wineries sprinkled throughout the area offered tastings.

vino.jpgIn the cellar of the small but impressive Čurin-Prapotnik winery, vintner Stanko Čurin (seen at left) stood among the oak barrels as he poured white wines for guests. He specializes in semi-sweet and sweet wines, including the 2004 Šipon Ledeno Vino (Šipon Iced Wine), a medal winner at the London International Wine Fair. Čurin says Šipon got its name when Napoleon visited the region. Upon tasting the wine, the Slovene speakers listening to him thought they heard him say “Šipon.” But what had he really said? According to Čurin: “C’est bon.”

It still is.