The city of Idrija, with 12,000 inhabitants, lies in a basin between hills at the confluence of karst and subalpine landscapes. The half-millennium history of mercury mining in the city has left an extremely rich and valuable technological and cultural heritage.
In the summer of 2012, the city was also a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its mercury mines, which, together with the Spanish Almadén, were the world’s largest producers of mercury. And mining has impacted not only the city’s economy but also its social life and traditions.
Map - Where is Idrija located?
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- Distance to Ljubljana: 1 hour / 60 km
- Distance to Cerkno: 30 minutes / 20 km
#1 Mining and quarrying
Idrija is easily accessible from Ljubljana, yet it makes one feel as if one is arriving in a city far from the world. Tourism occupies an increasingly prominent place in the city’s economy, and in 2011 it was also chosen as one of Slovenia’s top destinations.
Anyone visiting Idrija will surely visit the mercury mines that have made the city's name internationally known. Those who come here today as tourists can see the former main entrance to the mine, a section called Antonijev Rov Road, the oldest section of Idrija’s almost incomprehensibly underground world.
You can see where mining started in 1500, and the museum also provides much interesting information.
More about the mining
History and luck contributed to the fact that the world had the second-largest mercury mine.
The discovery of the liquid metal, Zivo Sebro, is said to have taken place in the 15th century, when a master making buckets, as he tried the new bucket in a small stream, noticed that something was dripping from the mountain.
This was something mercury that had formed 235 million years earlier due to intense volcanic and tectonic activity. The discovery brought great changes: 1,500 smaller mines and a smelter were established. Extraction began, which for half a millennium completely defined the city's and its inhabitants' lives.
Cinnabar ore is of outstanding quality here, with a mercury content of up to 78%. The mine produced an astonishing amount of mercury, accounting for about 1% of the world's total mercury production. 13% came from Idrija.
The most productive era of the mine was the end of the 18th century when Idrija alone accounted for 5% of the total economic output of the Habsburg Empire. This was an amount that would be impossible to implement in proportion today.
However, international demand for mercury began to decline, compounded by certain environmental problems, resulting in a two-decade slow decommissioning process at the mine. In doing so, 700 km of mining sections were filled, from which 107 tons of mercury were extracted.
#2 Mining House
One of Idrija’s most interesting sights is also related to mining. This is the 18th century Mining House, which still retains its original form. It intertwines the architectural and mining culture of the city. It was renovated in the 1990s and is now a protected monument.
On the ground floor, the furnishings embody the style of the early 20th century. Much of the building is made of wood, with its many tiny windows giving the impression of a truly monumental building. Most miners did not have their own house and vegetable garden.
This building was home to several mining families who lived here in very cramped conditions. In the 19th century, 16 people lived within the walls, very modestly. It wasn’t even easy to find a place for the beds in the small rooms, so in the summer, the kids usually slept in the attic.
The locals jokingly said the miners had so many children because they could do nothing in the small rooms other than hide with the woman.
#3 Divje Jezero
It is 2 km from Idrija at the foot of Divje Jezero, the Wild Lake, a 100 m high, steeply rising rock wall. The surroundings are especially beautiful in spring, when fragrant flowers cover the bottom of the forest. People here believe the lake is bottomless - and there hasn’t been anyone to prove otherwise.
Several experienced divers were killed here as they tried to find the deepest point of the lake. All we know for sure is that it is at least 150 m deep. The lake, which has been protected since 1967, is fed by several springs. The flora and fauna on the shore are also interesting, sitting on a bench we can wonder what the depths of the water can hide.
Visiting Idrija, it would have been a sin to miss the award-winning City Museum in Gewerkenegg Castle. Built in 1533, the castle, named after a foreign sound, was christened the name of the German mine or mining company (gewerke) and the name of the governor of Habsburg, Yuri Egg.
At the time of construction, he was responsible for the operation of the mines. The building was at first an ordinary warehouse, holding wheat and mercury. Later, mining offices operated in it, and then other companies and schools, but also residential areas, were built in the building.
It gained its present appearance in the 18th century, when it was renovated in Baroque style. Its next restoration took place in the early 1990s. It has also been home to the City Museum and the School of Music since 1953.
His exhibitions can be viewed in a total of 26 rooms. His highlighted pieces are the petrological and mineral collection, as well as the lace exhibition, which showcases the local traditions of lace blending from the 17th century to the present.
The Idry Lace
Mining and lace-making have not only defined the city’s history, but they are also intertwined. As we can see in the Mining House, the wives and daughters did lace-making in addition to the housework while the miners worked.
The Idrija lace, which has now become a treasure and symbol of folk art, was first mentioned by a source in the early 17th century, but by this time it already had a strong tradition in the countryside, it was one of the most important commodities.
What used to be just a pleasant pastime soon became the second main source of income for families. The first lace-mixing school was opened in 1876 in the town.
It was founded by Ivanka Frejancic, who raised money for the school from Viennese aristocratic families. The school is still in operation, with 400 people learning the traditional tricks of lace-making.
Many of Idrija’s museums and galleries showcase the laces, but the most beautiful can be seen at the City Museum. The Lace Festival, which has been held for more than 30 years, pays homage to one of Idrija’s prides in June each year.
The traditions of Idrija lace making
Within Slovenia, the name Idrija is synonymous with mercury mining and lace-making, and more and more tourists from abroad are already aware of this. For centuries, Idryian lace has meant prestige, quality, and the reputation it deserves.
It is not known exactly when and how the tradition of lace-making began, but it is probable that the wives of the miners brought with them the art of lace-making from the Czech lands from which they came.
Tablecloths, bedding, clothes, shawls, napkins, gloves, earrings, necklaces and everything else you can make from lace can be found here. The women of Idrija have not been idle over time, and their work is also recognized by tourists for visiting the city of Idrija, largely because of its lace.
Lace-making began in the 16th century. Frescoes have been found in some churches to prove that the craft was already widespread at the time, but Slovenian historian Janez Vajkard Valvasor also mentions lace in 1689 as one of the characteristic activities of local women.
The first written source, specifically on Idryian lace, dates from 1696. The first laces were made of thick yarn, mainly for the church, but they were also favored by the richer peasantry.
The first lace shop in the town was opened in 1860 by Stefan and Karolina Lapanje. A few years later, the family made Idryian lace known not only in Slovenia but also in Central and Western Europe. They then initiated the establishment of the first lace-making school in Vienna.
Because the science of lace-making has been passed down from generation to generation, they wanted to give its education a more organized form.
The first lace-mixing school was opened in Ljubljana in 1764 with the support of Maria Theresa, but it closed a few years later. Another attempt took place in 1876, now in Idrija, where lace-making was a native “genre,” unlike in the capital.
Probably a factor as to why they're doing so poorly. Its first leader was the local Ivanka Ferjancic, who introduced a completely new method of lace making to girls and women in Idria. Lace with 7 pairs of spools soon became popular and spread throughout the countryside.
A number of talented lace-makers, who have become internationally known, came out of the school in Idria. Some of them remained in the area to pass on their knowledge to the younger generations, while many in Europe spread the fame and science of making Idria lace.
Several sub-institutions of the Idria school have been set up in Slovenia to further preserve this technique. It was also possible to learn how to make special elements that were rarely used in lace mixing.
The first lace exhibition in Idrija opened in 1970 at the Gewerkenegg Castle Museum. However, this was not yet worthy of the presentation of Idria lace, so in the 1980s an ethnologist was asked to present the history of lace in a new, higher-quality exhibition.
Many occasional exhibitions have also opened, prompting more and more people to search for old laces in their homes. From the donations of the locals, enough material was collected for a museum exhibition, which could already be presented abroad.
One of the most important events in Idrija is the Lace Festival, which has been held every year for more than three decades, with more and more foreign visitors. The city is doing its best to make the lace not only a piece of Idrija’s past, but also the city’s future. Their goal is to make Idryian lace a protected product.