Get to Know Slovenia's Cultural Heritage Through 17 Historic Towns

By , 30 Oct 2018, 16:23 PM Travel
Clockwise from top left: Kranj;  Radovljica; Škofja Loka; Koper; Novo Mesto; Kamnik Clockwise from top left: Kranj; Radovljica; Škofja Loka; Koper; Novo Mesto; Kamnik Clockwise from top left:Wikimedia - Andraz Muljavec fotomorgana CC-BY-4.0; Wikimedia - Johann Jaritz CC-by-3.0; Wikimedia - Bernd Thaller CC-by-2.0; Wikimedia - Sailko CC-by-3.0; Wikimedia - Julian Nitzsche CC-by-3.0; Wikimedia - Vojko Kalan CC-by-1.0

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Get to Know the 17 Historical Towns of Slovenia

There are many ways to plan a trip around Slovenia and lenses through which to view it, and one way to explore the country is through its historic towns. But how to choose these in a land that’s got so many? One way is by turning to the work of the Association of Historical Towns (and Cities) of Slovenia (Združenje zgodovinskih mest Slovenije), a group that includes 17 mostly medieval towns sited around the country, each of which has its own story to tell, with the full list being Idrija, Jesenice, Kamnik, Koper, Kostanjevica na Krki, Kranj, Metlika, Novo mesto, Piran, Ptuj, Radovljica, Slovenske Konjice, Škofja Loka, Tržič, and Žužemberk.

Towns that host and promote Slovenia's cultural heritage

The association itself traces its history back to 1993, when representatives from Piran, Ptuj and Škofja Loka formed the Community of Old Towns of the Republic of Slovenia, with the goal of restoring their historic town centres. Over time this group expanded from three to 17, and together these towns and cities work to promote their cultural heritage as part of the unique tourism offering that Slovenia presents to an increasingly curious world, one that provides another attraction in addition to the varied natural environment, outdoor pursuits, and flourishing gastronomic scene.

We thus present the 17 members of the association, in alphabetical order, along with their historical and other attractions. Some are big and some are small, but all have their charming buildings and squares, as well as rich history to delve into, and all will reward from a few hours to a few days exploring what the centuries have gifted to each site.

Celje

Celje was a significant town in Roman times, known as Municipium Claudia Celeia during the colourful reign of Emperor Claudius (41–45AD). However, the town’s fortunes declined along with those of the Empire, and the place fell into ruin in the 5th and 6th centuries, not being rebuilt until the 11th. In historical terms the town is most famous for the Counts who lived there, starting in the late Middle Ages and lasting until the death of the last Count of Celje, Ulrik II, in 1456, when his lands were inherited by the Habsburgs, a family with a long and colourful history of their own across Europe.

A visit to the castle is essential, and will give you a great view of the area, while there’s also an exhibition on Celeia in the cellars of the Princes Mansion, as well as a Museum of Recent History.

Celje Tourist Information Centre

Idrija

The history is Idrija is tied to the source of its wealth, the second largest mercury mine in the world. Indeed, the town’s castle, Gewerkenegg, was built in the 16th century to deal with running the mine, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In addition to mercury, the town is now best known it’s lace and its žlikrofi, the latter being kind of ravioli that you can learn how to make here. You can explore the history of the town in the museum and various exhibitions that can be found in Gewerkenegg Castle, you can visit the mercury mine, while details of Geopark Idrija are here. There are also, as in all these towns, some nice cafés and squares to enjoy when the weather’s fine.

Idrija Tourist Information Centre

Jesenice

jesenice stara sava.JPG

The Stara Sava complex, Jesenice. Photo: www.gmj.si

Jesenice is famous for its ice hockey team, but in more historical terms its known as a centre of mining and ironworks. In terms of settlement, the place traces its history back to the early 14th century, with the first mining rights to the iron ore being documented a few decades later.

Visitors drawn to the history of the place should head to Stara Sava, an area that developed in the 16th century when the ironworks moved to be closer to the River Sava, once smaller streams no longer provided enough power to drive the mills where features of the former ironworks settlement may still be admired. This complex includes the Bucelleni-Ruardi Mansion, Church of Assumption, workers’ residential block, blast furnace and mill, as shown in the picture above. Details of the various exhibitions at the museum based here can be found online.

One fun way to travel to or from Jesenice is the steam train that connect the town with Nova Gorica, a tour-ride alone the very scenic Bohinj railway, with details of planned departures here.

Jesenice Tourist Information Centre

Kamnik

At one time Kamnik was the most important town in Carnolia, and the wealth that was drawn to this market town sited between Ljubljana and Celje lives on in its the architecture, which includes two castles – Little Castle (Mali grad), from around the 12th century, and grad Zaprice Castle (grad Zaprice) from the 14th – as well as a Franciscan monetary. Another historical attraction is the fact that Kamnik was the birthplace of Rudolph Maister, who won Maribor and Lower Styria for Slovenia from Austria. You can learn more about the man and the town at the Zaprice Castle Museum.

In addition to the castles and architecture, which in the Old Town is in the Austro-Hungarian style, Kamnik has a great view of the Alps. Nearby there’s also a wonderful Arboretum and a little further there’s the scenic area of Velika Planina, where there’s a museum set in one of the distinctive herdman’s huts.

Kamnik Tourist Information Centre

Kostanjevica na Krki

While Lake Bled has the most famous and most photographed island in Slovenia, Kostanjevica na Krki is the only town on an island in the country, a fact that’s earned it the name the "Venice of Lower Carniola" (Dolenjske Benetke). With a history going back to the 13th century the place has seen a number of ups and downs over the years, at one time being a flourishing commercial centre, and on other occasions suffering Ottoman attacks, then falling into relative rural obscurity, while eventually gaining city status in 2000, although don’t expect a huge urban centre.

The Božidar Jakac Gallery and Museum can be found in a former Cistercian monastery that dates back to the 13th century, while nearby the city there’s Kostanjevica Cave, Krakov forest – with some 300-year old oak trees – as well as a number of vineyard to look at and sample the fruits of.

Kostanjevica na Krki Tourist Information Centre

Koper

One of the two great coastal towns on this list – the other being Piran – Koper is just 5 km from Italy, something you’ll hear in the local accent as well as see on all the street signs, with both Slovene and Italian being official languages. It was already a town in Ancient Greece, when it was known as Aegida (“Goat Town”), and in the 13th century it became part of the Republic of Venice, something that can still be seen in its architecture.

The main historic sites in this regard include the 15th century Praetorian Palace (Pretorska palača) and Loggia Palace, both in Tito Square and built in Venetian Gothic style, the 12th-century Carmine Rotunda church, and the Cathedral with its 14th-century tower.

Koper Tourist Information Centre

Kranj

Kranj, sat between the rivers Sava and Kokra, has a history that stretches back to prehistoric times, but is famous for its watchtowers, the Gothic Church of St. Cantianus, and beautiful old townhouses. One key building is the Kieselstein (Khislstein) Castle, built into the city walls and dating back to the 16th century, with more recent renovation work being in the 1950s by the great Jože Plečnik, so look out for echoes of his work in Ljubljana here.

Nearby is the Brdo Estate, with 500 years of history in its walls and grounds. Another building of interest is Leopold Layer’s House, now the site of art events and exhibitions.

Kranj Tourist Information Centre

Metlika

The town of Metlika, on the banks of the River Kolpa, first appears in written sources in 1228, while the castle that sits above the Old Town was built in the 15th century and played a key role in resisting the Ottomans. The structure you see now is one that was substantially rebuilt in the 18th century and more recently transformed into a museum, where you can learn much more about the history of Bela Krajina.

Another big part of the town’s cultural heritage is wine, and specifically Metliška črnina, a dry red that you sample there or at least pick up a bottle of to enjoy at home or in your hotel (always remembering that Slovena has a zero tolerance policy on drunk driving)

Metlika Tourist Information Centre

Novo Mesto

Novo Mesto, or New Town, hasn’t been new for a long time, with the first written records being in 1365, after it was founded by a Habsburg archduke, although it was settled in prehistoric times and was one of the sites of the Hallstatt culture, as attested by the many situlas found in the area (a kind of decorated bucket). Nearer to the present day is the Cathedral, a 17th century Baroque building, while not far from the town is Otočec Castle (Grad Otočec), dating from the 13th century and now the centre of a spa resort.

Like Metilka, this town is also known for its wine, which in this case is cviček, a blend of red and white that’s light, sour and refreshing, and typical of Lower Carniola, and you can learn more about what makes this region unique at the Dolenjska Museum.

Novo Mesto Tourist Information Centre

Piran

Piran, the second coastal town on the list, has some obvious similarities with nearby Koper, although to my mind its small size and position on a peninsula make it a more charming proposition, especially if you time by the Adriatic is limited.

The area was settled in the pre-Roman era, and joined the Empire in 178 BC. After this collapsed in came under Byzantine rule in the 7th century, followed by periods under the Franks and Slavs before joining the Holy Roman Empire in 952. Like Koper, Piran was for a long time part of the Republic of Venice, from 1283 to 1797, with this influence still seen in its streets and squares, along with some more modern structures. One of these is Tartini Square, named after the composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), who was born here under Venetian rule, although the square that bears his name was in fact a dock until 1894, when it was filled in. The statue to Tartini was placed there two years later.

Things to see in Piran include the square, St George Cathedral, Venetian House, and the Saint Francis Monastery, as well as museums such as the Sergej Masera Maritime Museum (Pomorski muzej).

Piran Tourist Information Centre

Ptuj

Ptuj is the oldest town in Slovenia, with the first written record of the settlement – then known as Poetovium – being in 69 AD. It then remained a Roman town until 450, when it was attacked by the Huns, before, like Slovenia in general, passing through various hands for the next millennium. More specifically, the town was run by the Eurasian Avars, Slavs and then the Franks, before being ruled as part of the Holy Roman Empire and then joining the Duchy of Styria in 1555.

Today, a walk through Ptuj will take you passed the ancient Roman Orpheus Monument (Orfejev spomenik) in the town square and then the façades of medieval buildings, while the whole scene is watched by one of the grandest castles in the country. Other things to see are the Basilika Mariahilf, with a wonderful interior, and the colourful Presernova Street, easy to spot if only for the tower of the Church of St. George.

Ptuj Tourist Information Centre

Radovljica

Radovljica, the capital of beekeeping and chocolate in Slovenia, received market rights in 1333, when it was ruled by the Counts of Ortenburg, before passing on to the Counts of Celje in 1418 and then, like that town mentioned earlier, ending up in the hands of the Habsburgs. Today the historic centre of Radovljica is Linhart Square, surrounded by 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century mansions, some of which contain museum where you can learn about the area’s heritage in terms of apiculture and gingerbread discover behind their painted façades the heritage and art of beekeeping and making honey cakes.

Radovljica Tourist Information Centre

Slovenske Konjice

Slovenske Konjice was first mentioned in 1146, when the Old Square (Stari trg) was first laid out, while another structure that remains from the 12th century, albeit partially in ruins, is the Gonobitz Castle (Grad Konjice), aka the Old Castle (Stari grad).

The main building in the medieval part of town is St. George’s Church, with the oldest parts built in the 13th century, although with significant additions in the 18th. There’s also a 16th church dedicated to St. Anne. Other things to see in include the 12th century Žiče Monastery or Charterhouse.

Slovenske Konjice Tourist Information Centre

Šentjur

Šentjur is on land that was inhabited in prehistoric times, with many objects from the Neolithic having been found in the area, thus giving rise to the Archaeological Park to the south of the town. Paired with this is the Rifnik and It’s Treasures museum to be found in Zgorni Square (Zgornji trg).

If the charm of the streets isn’t enough, then you can also visit the Museum of the Southern Railway, or go behind the doors of the Ipavčevina, the house that belonged to the Ipavec dynasty of composers, one of whom wrote the following:

Šentjur Tourist Information Centre

Škofja Loka

Škofja Loka is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Slovenia, and one of the most-visited of its towns, having first rose to prominence around 1,000 years ago. It’s also home to the Škofja Loka Passion Play, a medieval morality play, the first Slovenian dramatic text and the country’s largest outdoor theatre performance. It’s on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and will next be performed in 2021.

Among the many picturesque sights that beg for a photo is the Capuchin Bridge, which was built in the mid-14th century and renovated in 1888, while the biggest is Loka Castle. This was first built in 1202, although almost totally destroyed in by an earthquake in 1511 and then rebuilt. Visitors can enjoy not only the architecture and views, but also the museum the castle now contains, with collections covering everything from archaeology to ethnography, art to natural science.

Škofja Loka Tourist Information Center

Tržič

Tržič has a long tradition of shoe-making, perhaps because of its position by a road that was already being walked in Roman times. The Old Town is still best enjoyed on foot, with a camera and eyes open for those small details that show the age of the place.

One of a number of buildings of interest is the Kurnik House, where the poet Vojteh Kurnik was born, and which is now a small museum showing how people lived hundreds of years ago. Those looking for something more expansive should visit the Tržič Museum, which covers the history of shoemaking and skiing in the area, as well as various local crafts and figures. A much darker part of the town’s history can be seen at the Ljubelj Concentration Camp, a subsidiary of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

Visitors looking to get away from history in the area can consider, hiking, skiing or cycling in the beautiful surroundings.

Tržič Tourist Information Centre

Žužemberk

Žužemberk is dominated by a striking castle that’s believed to have been built around a thousand years ago, although the town itself only turns up in written documents from 1246 on, gaining market rights in 1399. The castle you see today, sometimes referred to online as a chateau, had its distinctive towers added in the 16th century. More recently, it suffered significant damage during WW2, when it served as an Italian fort and was thus attacked by allied bombers. If you find evidence of this hard to see, that’s because restoration work has been going on since the 1960s. Another important historical building is the 13th century Saint Nicholas' Church.

In addition to the architecture, part of the living cultural heritage of the town, and the wider area, can be seen in the vineyards by the banks of the River Kolpa. As ever, if you enjoy a glass of wine you’ll enjoy it even more if drinking it not far from where the grapes were grown, pressed, fermented and bottled, and so – unless driving – do take the chance to sample some of the local produce.

Žužemberk Tourist Information Centre

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