St. Martin’s Day in Ormož, Slovenia

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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.

Last Day of October in Ljubljana

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Column topped by representation of the Virgin Mary in Levstik Square

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Although today is a national holiday (Reformation Day), flower vendors stayed late at the Central Market in anticipation of tomorrow’s holiday, Remembrance Day, when Slovenes traditionally visit the graves of their deceased loved ones.

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A view of Ljubljana Castle’s Belvedere Tower and the north side of the Ljubljanica River near Cobbler’s Bridge

Autumn on Ljubljana’s Šmarna Gora Hill

Most visitors to Slovenia head quickly out of the capital, in search of natural beauty. And they find it, in the Julian Alps, on postcard-perfect lakes, and beside turquoise rivers. But for those who linger in the city, Šmarna Gora offers pristine woods, impressive views, and a chance to spend a Sunday the way locals do.

smartno.JPGMore than a dozen trails rise the 2,100 feet (640 meters) to Šmarna Gora’s peak from the towns that ring the mountain. The longest begins in Šmartno, a place that on a misty autumn morning seemed more like a fairy-tale village than a Ljubljana suburb. The pastel houses that lined its quiet streets had red-tiled roofs, and geraniums bloomed from boxes in their windows. Vegetable gardens covered every available inch of yard. Goats grazed in a pasture beside the trailhead.

Many who live at the foot of Šmarna Gora are proud to climb it every day for exercise, but on this chilly Sunday morning, only a few people were beginning their hikes. An elderly woman in dress shoes and a suit started up the path, carrying a bouquet of sunflowers. A young couple, power walking with metal hiking poles, hurried past her.

The quiet of the woods was interrupted only by church bells that clanged for twenty minutes to announce morning mass below. If some Šmartno resident had lazily turned over in his warm bed when the rooster crowed that morning, here was his snooze alarm.

icon.JPGHalfway up the steep and rocky path, a family stopped to say a prayer before a small shrine to the Sorrowful Mother of God. The lady in Sunday best placed her yellow bouquet in a vase at Mary’s feet.

A few yards farther, the Šmartno trail met with two other, smoother paths at a life-size statue of St. Anthony. Above him hung a large bell, which a toddler girl rang for good luck, as people have been doing at this spot for nearly two centuries.

At Šmarna Gora’s peak stands a white Baroque church. Built in 1729, this is the latest in a series of churches that have stood here since at least the 15th century, when the hill was a lookout point against Turkish invaders.

Since the hill is no longer at risk, several of its old stone buildings are now used to entertain visitors. One houses a gallery, which displayed wildlife paintings by a local artist. In another, a restaurant serves hearty fare like potato and mushroom soup, homemade donuts, and brandy made from honey.

The doors of the churchyard opened onto a vista of the Sava River valley. Along the overlook, hikers stretched out with their beers and teacups to soak up the view, along with the warm autumn sun.

Away from the crowd, the path continued around the church’s former defense walls and along the mountain’s edge. It was midmorning, and the mist had cleared.

To the west, the Julian Alps came temptingly into view. But they’d be there to climb another day.

Crane Spotting: New Addition for Ljubljana’s Opera House

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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.