On 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.
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.
It 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.