Category Archives: Slovenia

• Heritage of Mercury. Almadén and Idrija

Visit: 20th July 2015

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I must preface this post with the fact that this WHS consists – quite absurdly – of two separate towns: one in Slovenia and one in Spain. Idrija is the Slovenian one, and it is there that Natalie and I visited the day after seeing Slovenia’s only other WHS, Škocjan Caves.

We did not overnight in Slovenia, but in fact returned to Trieste for the evening before heading back across the border toward the town of Idrija, tucked away in the rugged and undulating Slovenian countryside. Since we were travelling on their motorway network we were obliged to purchase a €35 permit, which seems unfair given that we don’t levy charges on Slovenians to drive in the UK. An hour’s drive found us snaking along a road following the bends in the Idrijca River, eventually arriving in Idrija a couple of hours early for the 3pm mine tour.

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So what’s all this mercury business in the title? When I first read it I assumed it had something to do with a historical worship of the Roman messenger god, but it turned out to be the liquid-at-room temperature metal, Hg. For hundreds of years the two towns in the title dominated the global mercury market, since they were the major sources of the element. It served several purposes, but one of the major ones was amalgamation – a process by which liquid mercury is poured onto an area of recently mined specks of gold, creating a lump of amalgam (gold and mercury). The processor would then simply heat the lump elsewhere and watch the mercury drain away to leave pure gold — or something like that.

The demand for mercury boomed when the Spanish conquistadors struck gold and silver in South America and there was a mining frenzy. Later in history the price of mercury came to be determined more by demand for its use in weaponry. Our guide told us several times that during the Vietnam War in the ’60s the price of a canister of mercury was equivalent to that of a car, whereas in the ’80s – when the mine at Idrija was finally closed – it was as low as US$66.

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The mine we visited is known as the Anthony Shaft and does a couple of tours a day. It was not busy; we went around it in a group of four, including ourselves. The guide took us along some tunnels and then down a load of stairs to some lower level tunnels. Like in the caves the day before, the temperature was a cool 12°C, giving us a respite from the stifling Slovenian summer. We stopped every now and then along the tunnels to see an exhibit of how they mined the mercury back when the site was operational. One notable sight was a small miners’ chapel, carved into the rock.

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Aside from having a beer and going into a Slovenian Aldi (branded as “Hofer” over there), the only other thing we did in Idrija was to visit the Gewerkenegg castle, below. It contained exhibits on the town’s history and on the process of mercury mining. A small highlight is a bowl of liquid mercury.

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Gewerkenegg castle

Since mining finished in the town it has not gone the way of the former coal mining towns of Wales and northern England. Jobs have been created in manufacturing, since an electronics company moved into the town to capitalise on the supply of labour. This means Idrija does not have a run-down feel to it, which is nice to see in a post-industrial World Heritage Site town.

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View of Idrija from Gewerkenegg castle

Many of the residents suffer from diseases related to mercury exposure, typically from either working down the mines or from improperly-treated run-off. This is the sad side of the poisonous metal’s legacy – indeed it was not until the mine’s final decade of operations that full-face respirators were provided to the miners.

Most of the world’s mercury today comes from Asian mines in such countries as China and Kyrgyzstan. Whether they one day get added to this transnational World Heritage Site remains to be seen, but until then I still have Almadén to visit before I can properly ‘tick this one off’.

• Škocjan Caves

Visit: 19th July 2015

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The Škocjan Caves are located in Slovenia, a short drive over the border from the Italian city of Trieste – where Natalie and I stayed for the first two nights of our summer holiday this year. The site is classified as a natural WHS, making it the first such natural site we have completed together (I have also been to the Dorset and East Devon Coast – but that was with Ross – whilst Natalie has been to the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve in Madagascar – but as part of a college group).

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We went there on a Sunday and found the visitor centre thronged with people – mostly Slovenian tourists it seemed. The temperature was blisteringly hot, which made the caves an attractive refuge, no doubt. It cost €16 each for the main tour, making it the most expensive WHS on our trip, but it ended up being well worth it. We were led down to the cave’s entrance in a huge group of at least 70 people, so it was a relief when the guides announced we were going to be split into three groups, by language. We English-speakers were to go around with the Italians, and our guide delivered explanations in both tongues.

The tour set off along a narrow concrete tunnel, which wasn’t very promising. But it quickly opened up into the first cavern: an area of thousands of stalactites and stalagmites millions of years old.

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We proceeded into what is known as the Silent Cave, so-called because it has no river rushing through it – unlike the noisier parts of the cave complex that we were to come to later. This is where the rock first opens up and gives you the sense of being in a grand space. As we snaked our way downwards on a beacon-lit path we felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings, journeying into the bowels of Mount Doom.

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The caves are located in the northwestern tip of the Italian/Slovenian Karst region, which refers to a geological area of soluble rock. Some of this rock dissolved over time, leaving these wonderful caves, holes and underground rivers that we see today. Our guide told us that the Škocjan Caves had been discovered long ago, and first properly explored and documented in the 19th century. They were inscribed on the World Heritage list relatively early, in 1986 – which is normally a good sign. They were further placed on to a list of Wetlands of International Importance in 1999, where the wetlands referred to at Škocjan are of course subterranean.

The cave opens up into a much larger cavern as the tour proceeds to link up with the underground Reka river (one of the many tautological river names in the world). As we were visiting in the middle of summer the water was at a seasonal low, so it didn’t project the sense of power that one must feel when it is gushing through the caverns at up to 400 cubic metres per second.

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The path snakes around the walls of the Great Hall and includes an impressive bridge. As we neared the exit to the caves we began to notice the air becoming warmer before we sensed the any inkling of natural light. It had been a cool 12°C in the dry areas, but as we got closer to the rapids where the Reka sloshes into the caves’ entrance the temperature began to resemble more the outside air of 35°C. Here we encountered bats. Despite it being daytime, they flitted in and out of their nests in the semi-darkness, lending the cave a suitably macabre atmosphere.

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The tour ended once we were fully ensconced in daylight at a large cave mouth. The guide offered visitors the option of either taking a funicular up to the high point from which we had descended or of walking up along the park’s trails. We went for the walk, and enjoyed the delights of the park’s surface rivers and woods. It was a sweaty endeavor, of course, but most pursuits are in that kind of climate when you are dressed in a most temperate fashion of jeans and a shirt.

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After disappearing into the caves here in Slovenia the Reka flows underground for 34km until it emerges near the Italian town of Monfalcone to before flowing into the Gulf of Trieste.

I have seen caves like these on the TV, perhaps on Attenborough-type nature shows. But never have I been inside on myself, so it was a real first-time experience for me, and one I certainly won’t forget.