A day trip to the town of Idrija in Slovenia will take you through more than 500 years of UNESCO world heritage: the Idrija mercury mine, lacemaking and delicious dumplings called žlikrofi. Read on to learn more about:
- Touring the Idrija Mercury Mine.
- Where to eat traditional dumplings in Idrija.
- More UNESCO World Heritage in the town of Idrija.
- How to Get to Idrija.
- Where to Stay in Idrija.
Anthony’s Shaft: Life and Death in a Mercury Mine
The discovery of mercury in a local stream in 1490 determined the fate of Idrija and its people for five centuries. Buy your ticket for the Idrija mercury mine tour and get ready to enter the oldest preserved mine entrance in Europe. First, you’ll see a 20 minute movie (available in English and other languages) about the lives of local miners and their families.
Miners gathered in the assembly room to get their daily job assignments. They wore numbered medallions as they descended underground to begin their shifts on the “death clock.” Entering the mine, they wished each other good luck — “srečno” in Slovenian — for a safe return.
For your own safety, you will put on a helmet and overcoat as protection from the low tunnel ceilings and the constant underground chill of 13 degrees (55 Fahrenheit). Be prepared with sturdy footwear for slippery surfaces, steep inclines and stairs.
The tour is an exceptionally well-presented look at the working conditions of the mercury miners, as you can see in this video.
Dangers of Mercury Mining
Also known as quicksilver, Mercury is the only metallic element naturally occurring in liquid form. Its use in gold and silver refining, scientific instruments, and modern weapons manufacturing created boom times for Idrija. The mines here, along with Almaden, Spain, became the largest in the world.
Unfortunately, not much of the wealth ended up in the hands of the poorly paid miners. Safety equipment was not issued until modern times. And during long hours of backbreaking labor, lunch was usually little more than a sandwich they brought from home.
Our English-speaking guide was dressed as a mine foreman. He told us of the mine’s safety record: only about 300 accidental deaths in 500 years from mishaps such as collapsed or flooded shafts. I asked how many of the men died from mercury poisoning or lung disease.
Answer: all of them.
Strong Booze and a Tricky Pit Elf
The miners kept up their spirits with a 33 percent grain-alcohol drink called Geruš. Not surprisingly, they believed they saw a mysterious elf haunting the mine.
Miners believed the pit elf to be a trickster who could lead them to the mercury-rich ore called cinnabar — or worthless rocks. Miners also built an underground chapel, where they prayed to return home safely to their families in the town.
The mine in Slovenia has a connection with the ghost town of New Idrija in Central California, a mercury-mining center during the California gold rush. The end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s marked the end of the boom times for Slovenian miners. Operations at the mine were gradually phased out until it closed for good in 2008 and then reopened as the tourist attraction you can visit today.
Where to Eat Dumplings in Idrija
Idrija mine tours start at specific times. We had to wait 90 minutes for our 2 pm tour to begin. The ticket office sent us to Gostilna Pri Škafarju to taste the local dumplings called žlikrofi. Only a short walk from the mine, a friendly mailman pointed us down a side street.
We enjoyed our cheese-filled dumplings covered with hearty sauce. It would have been a hearty feast for the hardworking miners and their families. The goulash will satisfy meat eaters, while vegetarians can opt for the portobello mushroom version. We were lucky to find one of the three outdoor tables free on a beautiful day.
More UNESCO World Heritage: Lacemaking in Idrija
The women of Idrija became famous for their lace-making skills, a tradition that continues today. Look for boutiques selling “čipke,” the Slovenian word for lace. You can also find Idrija lace stores in Ljubljana and other Slovenian cities. It makes a beautiful gift or souvenir to take home.
For a deeper dive into the history of local lacemaking and mercury mining, visit the town museum. It is located in the Gewerkenegg Castle that looms over the streets of the friendly old town.
Terry’s Travel Tips
How to Get to Idrija: My son and I visited Idrija with a rental car on the way back from an outdoor adventure trip in the Soča Valley. Returning to Ljubljana, we braved the twisty mountain road until we reached the town of Logatec and the main highway back to the capital city. Save money by reserving your rental car through Auto Europe before you leave the United States. The drive from the capital city to the mining town takes about 90 minutes. Bus and train options are limited.
Where to Stay in Idrija: You might be tempted to stay overnight in Idrija to enjoy the scenic landscape and historic waterwheels in the hills around the town. Check out the hotels and vacation rentals on Trip Advisor. Expect scenic farm stays and humble hostels offering local food and hospitality. And read my top tips for planning your trip to Slovenia in this post.
Want more insider tips for planning your dream vacation in Slovenia? Like @strangersinthelivingroom on Facebook. Follow me on Trip Advisor @strangersblog. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel for some fun Slovenia travel videos. Pinning this post? Get more travel ideas from Strangers in the Living Room on Pinterest. And please let me know if you found this post helpful. Dobrodošli! Welcome to Slovenia.