At the word »Idrija« most of Slovenians first think of žlikrofi (typical local dish), laces and mercury. The latter had a crucial impact on the creation and development of Idrija where it all revolved around mining and production of this heavy metal for a number of years. Nowadays the mine is shut, none the less you can visit parts of shafts and try to identify with the tough mining life. In the castle Gewerkenegg you can check out a remarkably interesting museum that shows the historical and cultural heritage of these places and an extensive part of the exhibition is, of course, dedicated to mercury. Visit of Idrija Kamšt (antique pump for pumping water from the mine) and Francis' Shaft is great for technical enthusiasts and you can also take a look at a typical miner's house, however, don't forget about the mysterious natural sight of Idrija – the Wild lake.
It all began at the end of 15th century when a local farmer noticed something glimmering in a bucket of water. He meant to shift the bucket but it was too heavy. They figured out that was mercury, so mining and production of mercury were launched in the region of Idrija shortly. Little by little Idrija's mine grew into a modern and second largest mercury mine in the world (700 km of tunnels, to the depth of 400 m below surface!), which affected the appearance of Idrija's surrounding area radically.
Where you can see extensive forests these days, it used to be a lot barer some time ago because supporting the shafts and heating the stoves for melting cinnabar ore required enormous amounts of wood. The wood was transported into the valley by means of water. Even today you can still discover the water barriers (klavže) on the rivers Idrijca, Belca and the stream Klavžarica in the Kanomlja valley. Wood was stacked underneath the barriers, the gates were then open and the water carried the wood all the way to Idrija.
I suggest you start your tour of Idrija in Anthony's shaft - one of the first entrances to the mine, part of which is arranged for tourist visit. At first they show you a video projection which is a marvelous and moving introduction in getting to know Idrija and the tough mining life before the departure into the underworld. After visiting the shafts let’s turn towards the castle Gewerkenegg which used to be an administrative building of the mine and a mercury warehouse, but nowadays it hosts an interesting museum dedicated to Idrija, mercury and lace. Technical enthusiasts will also gladly take alook at Idrija Kamšt – an extremely interesting water-powered pump that served for pumping water from the mine. It is the topmost technological achievement from the year 1790 and was functioning all to 1948! The more modern mining technical heritage is displayed in the Francis’ Shaft.
Inspite of the enormous amounts of mercury and modern equipment, Idrija and Slovenia themselves weren't having exactly a lot of profit from the mine. If we somewhat simplify: at first the money was flowing to Vienna (capital of Austro-Hungarian empire), then for some years to France and Italy and finally to Belgrade (capital of former Yugoslavia). The price of mercury fell radically on the market in the 70’s, production was temporarily terminated, the number of employees reduced. The independent Slovenia had only tremendous costs with gradual closing of the mine and preventing the subsidence of the ground.
When you have experienced all the mercury legacy to its fullest, took a stroll through the compact center of Idrija and had a 'žlikrofi' lunch (typical local dish similar to ravioli), go to the Wild lake aswell (3 km along Idrijca). It is fairly small and trapped by steep walls from three sides. At the bottom it hides a siphon which is a big challenge for numerous cave divers and is not yet fully explored. The lake itself is actually a karst spring. In drought it is not that wild at all but after heavy raining the water practically erupts from it.
Idrija is also the cradle of Slovene lace-making tradition and an interesting base for discovering a diverse, green and slightly less touristy part of our country.