Almost nobody will arrive in Slovenia thinking, "brilliant, I'm here at last.. now for Lake Bled, the mountains, the coast and some amazing mines!"
But you should know that Slovenia has such a rich mining history and some spectacularly good days out underground on offer that are every bit as good as the amazing natural caves here. so we just had to include these special places in our beloved "Daytrips" section!
We are going to tell you about just 3 brilliant mines, we have visited 2 of these man made caves already and can't wait to visit the third. The experience is a bit like going down a huge cave, but totally different! On a hot day you can cool off down a mine and you also learn so much about the history of that particular mini region. You can also combine a visit to one of these mines with maybe a castle, a river for a bit of swimming or pretty much anything else you want to do or see here in Green Slovenia
We absolutely love the Idrija Mercury mine (50 mins), which was the second largest mercury mine in the world. Whichever way you travel to Idrija it is a beautiful ride along country roads, surrounded by rocks, water and greenery. The nearer you wind to Idrija the more you get a feeling of going into a remote, isolated place as the rocks turn into mountains and you arrive in the pretty little town seemingly cut off from the rest of the world.
As with many of these special places around Slovenia it is always worth taking a moment.. looking around you to see a place that is obviously in Europe, but you have to pinch yourself to remember you are in Green Slovenia!
At the mine you get a really good idea of what life was like for the miners. It was tough. What's more you get to wear miners overalls and a great hat with light to go down the mine and if you are lucky, you might be accompanied by an ex miner, but some don't speak English, so you may get a slightly younger guide, who are also very good. The mine closed down a long time ago, but walking around the underground shafts you really get the feeling it could have closed just yesterday.
Every mine has a thick atmosphere and in Idrija the history of this pretty little isolated town is also thick all around you. There is so much to learn and touch and feel and smell. You get a video in the main reception hall to give you the historical background you need and then, just like the miners going onto their shift, you go into the cavernous mine. The walking is not so bad, just a few ladders to climb to access different levels.
There is a great local restaurant above the mine as well, serving very local dishes. In this mini region of Slovenia they specialise in a pasta/ meat dish that is completely unpronounceabubble and begins with "Z". It's yummy.
The whole town of Idrija is like a big museum. You feel like you are in a rock bowl, surrounded by high cliffs, but always near is the living heartbeat of the town, the crystal clear Idrija river which bursts down from the hills, bringing life, energy and in the days of the mine, essential supplies of thick Slovenian timber for building new shafts.
In fact you will learn about the importance of the river at the mine museum and can also find out more in the wonderful museum in the castle, (of course Idrija has a castle.. this is Slovenia!) If you know anything about the British Victorian engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel, then you will be impressed by the amazing stone castle-like lock that was built up river in the forest hills to control the water flow down to the town. It really looks like something Brunel could have built himself. The lock was opened when required to flood the river and transport logs down the river to the mine.. wow.
We also highly recommend taking a trip by car or bike up the steep forest stone road along the river to see the huge lock and also to go swimming in this beautiful river along the way. There is a car park and absolutely stunning swimming area before the tarmac road gets steeper and turns to stone. You can park up here and really enjoy the beauty of the river, maybe have a pick nick or go hiking.
We mentioned that the town itself is like a big museum and there is a micro museum miner's house so you can see how the miner's families lived and in another shed next to a park you can find the largest wooden water wheel in Europe! (You need to go to the local TIC.. tourist office to get access to see it). The museum in the castle which towers over the town has more rocks of every type to see than the moon and on the top floor is a Lace museum which explains how Idrija also became a Europen centre of excellence for lace making as the hard working local women specialised in this cottage industry while the men were down the mines.
Honestly.. would you ever expect you could have such an amazing, different and fascinating day in such a beautiful, isolated location in little old Slovenia!
Sandwich Stealing Pixies: You will not find any of these mysterious little creatures down Slovenia's caves, (more likely a dragon or a bat down a cave), but you need to keep your eyes open when you go down a Slovenian mine. Probably best to keep looking over your shoulder too. The miners used to take a sandwich and a cake on their shift, but often, when deep down under the earth their food would go mysteriously missing, often when they looked away for just a second! Well it was always the sneaky little pixies who live down Slovenia's mines who got the blame! In fact those sandwich stealing pixies seemed to get the blame for quite a lot of other things!!
We only found another amazing mine last year in a place called Mexico, (actually Mezica) (2 hours 20). We had heard about a mine where you can go mountain biking inside, which sounds fun, so were desperate visit it and decided to combine our trip with a tour of the nearby amazing Hunter's valley, (the Logarska valley).
The mine is in a stunning mini region in the Karavanke Alps, (Slovenia's second of three Alpine regions) being mountainous & very rocky with very pretty shaped mountains and when we arrived we had a huge surprise that actually there are 3 incredible options you can take to explore the mine! There are plenty of shafts to explore here.. if they were all stretched out they would reach Berlin!
1: By foot.. you go down the mine in the original Indiana Jones style wooden carriages used by the miners, packed into the boxes like sardines fearing for your life in the dark.. absolutely fantastic! You would pay the very reasonable entrance alone just to do this amazing ride!
2: By bike.. guided mountain bike trips exploring another part of the mine. (You get driven to your starting spot in the modern minibus below with the bikes on a trailer).
3: By kayak.. Oh yes indeedy, when the mine was decommissioned, large areas were flooded with water so the mine would not collapse and now lucky visitors can explore them exclusively by kayak!
This is the ONLY mine in Europe you can explore by bike in the morning and kayak in the afternoon!
We were absolutely gobsmacked to find out how much you can do here and we made the mistake only to have a half day available, so we chose to explore the mine by foot on a guided tour, put our bright orange overalls on and jumped into one of the tight wooden box carts! Next time it will be bikes and kayak in the same day.
The noise is absolutely terrific going down the Temple of Doom, ooops sorry, the mine and it is truly terrifying. The tour is fascinating and very different to the Idrija tour as you see how mining changed over the decades and how new ways were found to extract the lead and zinc. Machinery and tools are scattered around every corner and underneath one shaft in particular the guide cheerily explains that if the miner felt tired on a long shift and didn't close the wooden shutter filling his cart with rocks in time then he would be buried alive!
The mine is also under the Peca mountain (2,126m) where Slovenia's last king is sleeping in a hidden chamber, waiting to come back and save the country when called upon.. or alternatively when his beard grows to a certain length. For fids and big kids there is a really great wooden maze in the mine's grounds that explains the legend of King Matjaz, yet another Slovenian legend completely missed by Hollywood. More traditionally, there is another more conventional micro museum next door showing a miner's house and how the families lived in this region, quite different to the mercury miners of Idrija.
Each activity, walking / biking / kayaking is a half day activity, so in one day you would have to choose 2 of them, the bike and kayak combo is truly breath taking.
And there is more! Read soon about the Velenje coal mine tour.