I first saw them through the window of our train as it pulled into the station at Pragersko, on the way from Ljubljana to Ptuj. There they were, strange, woolly creatures with scary masks, jumping and whirling, the cowbells on their belts creating a cacophonous symphony.
These were the kurents I'd read about.
I was on a rattly old train — all smoking, all the time, for 2 1/2 hours — bringing me to Ptuj, the oldest town in Slovenia, for Kurentovanje, the annual pre-Lenten carnival at which the demonic kurents rule.
My introduction to Ptuj was the dismal one-room train station. There was not a soul about except a ticket agent who was kind enough to call a taxi to take me to Garni Hotel Mitra. As we drove up the narrow main street through the town's medieval center, another group of kurents appeared like woolly apparitions.
Over the next few days, I would see them here, there and everywhere, yet they would never fail to startle me. And Ptuj, population 15,000 in northeastern Slovenia and little known to Americans, rarely failed to surprise me.
Slovenia, which shares borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, was part of Yugoslavia but declared its independence in 1991. Unlike some of its sister states, its conflicts were confined largely to a 10-day period in 1991, and it suffered few casualties, escaping the horrors that plagued Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Although Slovenia is a member of the European Union, this country of 2 million has not yet adopted the euro as its currency. (But hotels may quote prices in euros.) It still uses the Slovenian tolar, which goes considerably further than those euros in Austria and Italy.
If there is something daunting about visiting, it may be the language. It is loaded with bumping consonants and can seem unfathomable to first-time visitors. "Goodbye," for example, is na svidenje.
The influence of neighboring countries is evident in the cuisine, which includes Wiener schnitzel, pasta and risotto. If you're not careful when ordering — and not all Ptuj restaurants have English menus — you may find yourself face to face with blood sausage or mystery meat.
But perhaps the most important thing to learn about Ptuj, about 95 miles northeast of Ljubljana, the capital, is how to pronounce it. "Pa-too-ee" is close.
"When people come from England, they say it like they [are] spitting," said Sasa Krajnc, a law student who was my guide for a day.
Hints of Roman historyOur day together began with a hike up the hill to Ptuj Castle, from where we looked down on the medieval town that sits snugly on the northern bank of the Drava River. (Modern Ptuj is across the river.) Through a haze, we could see the red roofs and the centuries-old town tower with its onion-shaped dome.
Krajnc told me there are Roman tombstones built into the base of the tower, and it's rumored there are buried riches, "but no one wants to go dig because they're afraid of being disappointed."
Later, we strolled the streets of the largely unspoiled old town, stopping at the Church of St. George to see the 14th century wooden statue of Ptuj's patron saint, and the Orpheus Monument, the carved marble tombstone of a 2nd century Roman mayor.
In the Middle Ages, it was a "shaming stone," Krajnc said. "They would tie people to it and throw eggs" as the judge and the mayor watched from the balcony of the town hall.
As we paused at the statue that stands in Mestni Trg, the town square and former marketplace, she explained the curious figure at the base: an angel with a bucket of water.
After a fire in 1744 destroyed much of the town, the people turned for help to St. Florian, patron saint of firefighters, and erected this monument to him.
We walked Presernova Ulica, old town's main street. Some of its centuries-old patrician houses, reminders of Ptuj's prosperous past as a center for trade, have intriguing courtyards and ornately carved doors. Walk slowly and you'll find serendipities such as the grinning 14th century mask at No. 1.
For the fun of itOn the streets, we passed little kids in costume and big girls in glitter and makeup. Buildings were decked out with balloons and streamers. Kurentovanje is definitely party time. The desk clerk at my hotel was dressed as a court footman, the bartender as a serving wench.
Although the kurents' role is to scare away the spirit of winter and usher in spring and bountiful crops, judging by the frigid temperature they weren't doing such a hot job with the spring thing.
Today, Kurentovanje is mostly about having fun. There's precedent for that too. In Slovenian folk mythology, Kurent is the god of hedonism, revelry and high spirits, kind of the Dionysus of Slovenia.
No one is certain about the origins of Kurentovanje, traditionally a 10-day event leading up to Shrove Tuesday, a bit of revelry before the privations of Lent. Some think the festival evolved from Greek and Roman rituals, others from ancient Slavic tradition. Celebrants dress in costume, much as we do at Halloween. A big costume ball was taking place in a carnival tent across the river the second night I was in town.
A few hours beforehand, I stopped by the Café Europe on town hall square, where a bartender in a green wig and oversized spectacles was pouring drinks for early celebrants. Couples spinning around the dance floor included Julius Caesar with a motorcycle mama and Santa Claus with a woman wearing tiger ears and a bowtie. I drank a glass of wine poured by Mr. Green Wig before ducking into the Pizzeria Sloncek in the old town for a quick bite. There, I encountered a travel first: ketchup offered as a pizza topping. The proprietor said most people hereabouts go for the ketchup.
By 9 p.m., the carnival tent was wall-to-wall people. I elbowed my way through a sea of bumblebees, nuns, Indians, geishas, toga-clad Romans and toreadors, all dancing a polka, and came face to face with eight two-legged sunflowers with petal headdresses and green capes.
Something in a red wig and white mask showered me with confetti as it danced by. Just then the polka musicians gave way to a rock band in glittery boots. As the crowd was really getting into "Dancing Queen," the music was drowned out by a chorus of cowbells.
The kurents had arrived, a large flock waving jezevkas (wooden staffs). Feathers and colorful streamers sprouted from the tops of their sheepskin headdresses, and they peeped through eyeholes circled in red on their leather masks. Long red tongues hung over their sheepskin chests, and they had comically big noses and twig whiskers; teeth made from white beans gleamed inside the mouth holes in their masks.
After they'd danced back out and shed their headdresses, making them much less ominous, I stopped one, Samo Budju, and asked about the kurent mystique.
"It's a way of life," said Budju, 27, whose day job is in water heater installation. "It has to be a heart wish, to have your entire life turned around. Once you become one, you can't stop being one."
His kurent group included a butcher and a woodworker.
For starters, Budju explained, the costume — "very hot" —costs about $750 and "there are only two people in the world who are making [it]," both in Ptuj. Historically, "a kurent had to be a single man, but nowadays even old men can be, even women. Each village has its own. They go door to door to bring luck and vanquish winter."
One single-man tradition endures: Admiring young women give the most popular kurents handkerchiefs to tuck under their belts.
Back inside the smoke-filled tent, people were dancing on the tables. At midnight, I ducked a Raggedy Ann waving a lighted cigarette as I made my way to the exit. I was relieved to find that the taxi that had brought me here had come to pick me up.
Village paradeIt was a public holiday, the last day of the carnival, when Krajnc and I drove to the nearby village of Bukovci, where the kurent tradition originated, joining the crowd lining both sides of the street in anticipation of the parade. Vendors were selling hot mulled cider and cotton candy and a sound truck played Slovenian folk music with a sort of turbo-folk beat.
Then came the kurents, maybe 60 strong. Krajnc, stepping back, warned me, "Sometimes they want you to give them your hand and jump a bit." But eager to snap a photo, I stepped forward. Just then one of the ferocious-looking but playful, woolly creatures seized me and, jumping up and down, we briefly became part of the parade.
As is traditional, costumed residents of neighboring villages had come to the parade. There was a coven of witches and a little band of chimney sweeps carrying tiny ladders. A burlap animal with eight legs — a horse, I think — frolicked.
After the parade, we drove along a narrow road through the wine country, which stretches to the Croatian border. Wineries, scattered through the gently rolling hills, open to visitors each fall for tastings. Winemaking in the region dates to Roman times and was revived in the Middle Ages by monks who established monasteries that still stand.
A Slovenian legend tells of a man saving himself from raging floodwaters by clinging to a grapevine, much to the delight of the deity kurent, which caused the waters to recede in return for the man's promise that he and his descendants would always cultivate grapes for wine and buckwheat for beer.
One day I visited Ptuj Wine Cellar, Slovenia's oldest, started in 1239. An employee led me into the dark 500-year-old cellars along a path between huge fermenting barrels. He flipped a switch and on came a sound and light show, complete with the gurgling of wine being poured. He showed me the archive of 7,000 old bottles, including a 1927 white valued at $10,000. (Tours, by appointment, are available in English.)
Before leaving, I was persuaded to sample a dry Haloze label red and a sparkling grand cuvée — strictly to brace me for the minus-11 temperature.
Castles galoreOn my last day, I hiked back up castle hill to keep an appointment to tour the Ptuj Regional Museum that now occupies the castle, part of which dates to the 11th century. Slovenia is a country of castles (there are 600 with at least walls standing), and this museum is caretaker of treasures from some of them, as well as from some of Slovenia's 3,000 churches.
Some history has been lost along the way, however. "Some of the pieces we have are a complete riddle to us," said Irena Bezjak, my guide that day.
You'll see some Biedermeier furniture; an impressive weapons and arms collection; and a fine assemblage of vintage musical instruments, including a 2nd century Roman flute found in Ptuj in the 1980s.
One hall is devoted to Kurentovanje and the kurents. Pausing in front of a group of costumed figures, Bezjak explained that a costume weighs as much as 80 pounds and is as "hot as a sauna" inside. "If you drink alcohol, it is not possible to even walk around," she said.
The costumes, she added, must follow tradition. The wool leggings may be red or green, but the feet must be shod in black boots, "not sneakers." Kurents from the right bank of the Drava River tend to wear horns; those from the left bank, feathers. "Don't ask me why," she said. "Nobody knows."
For a taste of local culture, Kurentovanje is the ideal time to visit Ptuj — but bring your long johns.
The town also has three annual fairs dedicated to saints. St. George, who was a soldier, is celebrated April 23 and St. Oswald, also a soldier, on Aug. 5; St. Catherine, the patron of philosophers and preachers, is celebrated on Nov. 25. Merchants from throughout Slovenia and from Croatia set up stalls, and people flock to the old town to eat, drink and socialize, as they have since the Middle Ages.
If you're visiting Ptuj, it would be a shame to bypass Ljubljana. Although the capital has been touted as "the new Prague," that's a bit of an overstatement. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable two days there on the way to Ptuj, but I felt that was long enough. The lovely old town is decidedly finite, the new town decidedly uninteresting. Besides, there wasn't a kurent in sight.
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Ptuj dressed up and ready to party
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Ljubljana, the capital, is offered on Air France, Air India, Air Tahiti Nui, Lufthansa and US Airways. Restricted round-trip airfares begin at $1,534.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 386 (country code for Slovenia), 2 (city code for Ptuj) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Garni Hotel Mitra, 6 Presernova Ulica; 787-7455, http://www.hotel-mitra-fm.si . The best choice, with perfect location in historic old town building. No-frills rooms, no elevator. Inviting bar-cafe. Doubles from $85, including full breakfast.
Hotel Poetovio, 5 Vinarski Trg; 779-8201, fax 779-8241, http://www.memoria.si . Modern hotel with cafe, bar and casino near train and bus stations. Doubles about $48, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
Gostilna Ribic, 9 Dravska Ulica, 749-0635. Ptuj's finest. Seafood is the specialty at this riverfront restaurant in a vintage house. Three-course dinner menus, about $13-$18.
Gostilna Amadeus, 36 Presernova Ulica; 771-7051. Pleasant, moderately priced old town restaurant serving struklji (filled dumplings) and other regional specialties. Good salad "boutique" (bar) at lunch. Dinner main courses, about $9.50.
Gostilna Pri Tonetu, 13 Zadruzni Trg; 788-5683. On south side of river, opposite the old town, an unpretentious local favorite known for authentic Slovenian fare. Dinner main courses, about $7-$8.50.
TO LEARN MORE:
Ptuj Tourist Information Center, 3 Slovenski Trg in old town; 779-6011, http://www.ptuj-tourism.si .
Slovenian Tourist Office USA; (954) 491-0112, http://www.slovenia-tourism.si .
— Beverly BeyetteCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times