Everyone hates the winter. And not just these days, but even going back to ancient times the pagan people hated the winter so much they created elaborate festivals to scare off the dreaded, misery of the winter months and welcome in the warmer more fertile spring weather. The Celts were among many who created these rituals, and the Celtic people not only left these traditions in Ireland, but also spread many of their traditions across Europe. During the early Christian period when the pagans were converted to Christianity, many of these festivals became intertwined with Lent. And in Slovenia, this has become the annual Pust Festival (a lively, effervescent month of festivities that run from Candlemas to Ash Wednesday).
These celebrations run in a variety of forms with events scattered throughout the month, but the best are reserved for the last week, close to Shrove Tuesday. All across the country the streets fill up with people dressed in all sorts of costumes: children are fairies, devils, witches, bees, bears and more. Adults adorn themselves with all sorts of weird and wonderful creations.
The biggest and scariest costumes come in the form of the Kurentovanje (koo-rahn-toh-VAHN-yay). The Kurent is a tall, furry, feathered and long-beaked demon that dances through the streets with cowbells strapped to a thick leather belt, and brandishing wooden clubs to scare away the winter and call in the spring. In the town of Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest town, you’ll see the biggest kurent parade in the whole country. Ptuj lies in the eastern part of Slovenia.
In the west, the little town of Cerknica plays host to another of Slovenia’s biggest carnival parades. From Fat Thursday to Ash Wednesday the streets come alive with a host of festivities. The biggest parade is on Sunday, when the streets are packed with elaborate carnival floats carrying giant figures up to 10 metres in length. Local legend tells of witches who lived on the nearby hill of Slivnica and were responsible for the stormy weather and fog surrounding the hill. Mist rises from a cave on the hill (the witches cave), the result of condensation inside, but was once believed to be smoke from the witches’ cooking pot. These witches are now one of the main features of the Cerknica Parade, along with others such as: a dragon, the green man who lives beneath the nearby disappearing lake (a seasonal floodplain).
The capital city, Ljubljana, of course also plays host to the Pust parade, and over the same weekend. Here the local symbol is the dragon, and on the Saturday is the annual Dragon Carnival. Once again, among others, a giant dragon is pulled through the streets on a large float and the streets come alive with locals in fancy dress, music, food and dancing. It’s traditional to eat doughnuts around the time of Pust, so you’ll see them in all bakeries and shops, and will smell them cooking at the food stalls in the streets.
However, it’s not only the big cities and towns that offer the best celebrations. Even in the small villages locals arrange their own parades, don fancy dress and are often pulled around on a trailer by a tractor, stopping at all the houses where the old ladies will fill you up with food and locally made Schnapps. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to one in the little town of Fukovci, in the eastern province of Prekmurje, by an English family living there.
So wherever you decide to be around this time, you can be assured of a unique and fun experience. The kids will love it, and so will the grown ups…… I did.
Slovenia is small country, about the size of wales, and easy to get to. The capital, Ljubljana is in the centre and so most of these places are within an hour’s drive. There are regular flights from London Luton with Wizz Air, and London Stansted or Gatwick with Easyjet. Or Ryanair fly from Dublin to Venice Treviso, where it’s about a 2-hour drive to Ljubljana.
By Ian Middleton