Hrastovlje, Slovenia

In the village of Hrastovlje, near where Slovenia, Italy, and Croatia meet, the Church of the Holy Trinity, above, was first built in the 12th century. Its defensive wall was added in the early 1500s against Ottoman attacks.

In the 1950s, the church caretaker scraped away the whitewash inside and found breathtaking Biblical frescoes dating to 1490. The most impressive and chilling is the Dance Macabre (above, courtesy of Slovenia’s Tourist Board), which depicts humankind–child and adult, pauper and rich man–making a slow but steady march to the grave.

Photography isn’t permitted inside, but this virtual tour is worth a visit.


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.

Survivors of WWII Children’s Detention Camp Tell Their Stories in Slovenian Documentary


Photo courtesy of Miran Zupanič

DURING the months after Germany surrendered in WWII, the Yugoslav government separated more than 90 children from their mothers and fathers at camps northeast of Ljubljana. While the children were detained at one camp, many of their parents were executed as enemies of the state at another one nearby.

Sixty-two years later, a dozen of these survivors speak out in the poignant documentary film “Otroci s Petrička” (Children of Petriček Hill). The winner of the best picture award (the Vesna) at last month’s 10th Festival of Slovenian Film, the documentary aired this week on national television.

The children, who at the time ranged in age from toddlers to teenagers, were held at Petrička Hill while their parents were imprisoned at another camp near the town of Celje.

In the fall of 1945, the government released the children, sending some to orphanages or adoptive homes, and others to live with extended family. A few were sent with the Red Cross to Austria and Germany. Only one of the children left the camp with both parents alive.

The filmmaker, Miran Zupanič, says secrecy surrounded the camps until a Slovene newspaper published a story about them in the early 1960s. “If you are without your parents and for fifteen years you are not allowed to speak about your trauma, this is awful,” he says. “They are in awful trauma for all their lives.”

Zupanič felt compelled to tell the children’s stories after reading survivor Ivan Ott’s memoir, “Ukradeno Otroštvo” (“Stolen Childhood”).

“The subject was very sad, very tragic, very strong, and absolutely unknown to people in Slovenia,” he says.

He shot the film in black and white to focus more purely on the survivors who shared their stories. So far, it has appeared solely in Slovene without subtitles, but it is being sent to film festivals in Berlin and other cities, where it may find an international distributor. Zupanič says that if there is enough interest, his producer may be able to arrange a Ljubljana screening with English subtitles.

The filmmaker says he wanted to tell the story not from an ideological point of view, but from an artistic and personal perspective. “When you see other people in one ideological uniform or another, you see them as enemies or in some stereotypical form,” he says. “But you must look deeper and find what is human.”

Crane Spotting: New Addition for Ljubljana’s Opera House


Ljubljana Opera House (photo courtesy of SNG)

VISITORS to Ljubljana during the next year or so won’t get to peek inside one of the city’s most unique buildings, but they may want to take up a favorite local pastime: Watching the construction site.

crane320.JPGLjubljana’s Opera House has been a jewel in the crown of the city’s architecture since it opened in 1892, when Slovenia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But with its intricate façade and auditorium growing careworn, the gem needed polishing, as well as a major new addition, the government decided. This year, Slovenia broke ground on an estimated €25 million ($35 million) project to renovate the old building and to construct a new annex that will more than double the building’s size, from 3,640 square meters (39,200 square feet) to 10,000 square meters (107,600 square feet).

atrij5.jpgAs the home of today’s Slovene National Theatre Opera and Ballet companies, its facilities had become “inadequate and obsolete,” according to the national Ministry of Culture. (During the renovation, the opera and ballet companies will perform at other venues, including the Ljubljana Fairgrounds and Cankarjev Dom.) Tickets are available at Cankarjeva ulica 11.

Slovene architects Jurij Kobe and Marjan Zupanc designed the solution, which is unfolding in three parts:

First, ramps will descend from the streets on either side of the building to a new public entrance and atrium beneath the auditorium. (Above is a sketch of the approach to the atrium. Image courtesy of SNG.) The new space will include a restaurant, cloakroom, music shop, and space for socializing during intermission.

back-corner-better.JPGNext, a new stage will take shape. The old stage was already removed by hollowing out the back of the building, while leaving its “skin” (seen at right) intact. The design then adds height and depth to accommodate larger backdrops and updated technology for rotating them.

annexcaption.jpgFinally, a glass-and-steel wing will rise behind and connect to the original building. It will include the opera and ballet companies’ rehearsal halls, dressing rooms, and administration offices. (Sketch of the annex, right, courtesy of SNG.)

detailresize.JPGBefore work began on the addition, the Opera House’s 500-seat auditorium was sealed to protect it. But when the building work is stable, artisans will analyze the ornate façade (seen at right) and auditorium, then decide what to simply clean or repaint, and what to replace.

The plan has faced criticism from some residents that the annex to the beloved old building is too different and too modern.

“We respect the old building,” Zupanc says. “It reflects the time that it was built, but this will reflect the time that it is being built.”

“We can’t build a new, old building,” Kobe says.

The neo-Classical Opera House was designed by Czech architects Jan V. Hrasky and Anton Hruby between the years 1890 and 1892. Although the country was then under Hapsburg rule, the building was one of the first constructed by local authorities, at “a romantic time of growing national consciousness,” Kobe notes. Its architectural style sets it apart as well, since it and the National Gallery are rare examples of Classicism in eclectic Ljubljana.

Those who’d like to watch the new wing take shape and judge for themselves how it blends with the old can stroll past the construction site, which is visible on two sides (from Cankarjeva ulica and Tomšičeva ulica). Work is tentatively scheduled for completion late next year.