Risking My Life

Idrija (16 May 2013)

The bus driver who was going to take me to Idrija looked annoyed when I boarded his bus at the bus station in Ljubljana. Then he saw my ticket and realised that I was on the right bus. Is Idrija really that off the beaten track?

Idrija was an important mercury mining town producing mercury for about 500 years and was producing mercury up until the 1990s. It has the second largest mercury mine in the world and produced enough mercury in its time to fill a cube with 20-metre sides.

The weather was atrocious when I reached the town. I got to the Gewerkenegg Castle, previously the administrative headquarters and warehouse of the mine and now the Idrija Municipal Museum, in the annoying drizzle and was glad to be dry and warm for a while. The museum was an interesting one showcasing the history of the town and mine. The guy looking after the museum was really friendly and knowledgeable. He showed a British couple and I (we were the only visitors then) around the whole museum and explained many of the exhibits to us simply because there was nothing better for him to do.

Gewerkenegg Castle with its pretty courtyard

I was pretty fascinated by the different mercury ores exhibited in the museum. Some of them even oozed mercury.

Mercury-oozing rock

Bowl of mercury

There was a bowl of mercury in the museum with an iron ball floating in it to show the density of mercury. I had never seen so much mercury in one place before and I did feel like a schoolboy again. The sight of the bowl of mercury also for some reason reminded me of what I had heard from an old ex colleague. Decades ago, doctors in Singapore apparently prescribed mercury for constipation. Their patients were told to eat the mercury and their constipation problem would be solved. I told the guide that and he said that the bowl used to be uncovered and some kids on a school excursion had dipped their fingers into the mercury and tasted it. All who had tasted the mercury shortly after found themselves rushing for the toilet. The guide did not know what mercury tasted like though. By this time, I was grateful that the bowl of mercury was covered up because I had suddenly developed an almost overwhelming curiosity about the taste of mercury.

I was actually also curious about whether the mercury in the area affected anyone’s health. The guide said that the air in town was indeed higher in mercury than in other places. Nevertheless, I have to say that after more than an hour in town and breathing the mercury-laden air I still felt fine. The guide had been living in town all his life and he looked very healthy. In fact, he looked much healthier than I was. But all the same, although the vegetables grown in the area could be eaten, he would not recommend the same for the local fishes.

There is also a section in the museum showcasing the history of lacemaking in the town. In the past, while the men went out to mine mercury, the women made lace at home to supplement their family income. Lacemaking is still a big thing in Idrija and there is an old lacemaking school in town.

Idrija Lace School

It was at the municipal museum that I learnt to admire the talent of lacemakers. I had always considered it to be no more difficult than knitting which I had tried before and had found to be relatively easy. At the museum however, I found out that makers could use more than 100 bobbins to create those delicate and intricate designs. I am quite sure that I would be confused 5 seconds into the design if I had to do it.

The Antonijev Rov Mine Shaft (named after St Anthony of Padua) is the oldest section of the mines in town and a small section of it is open for guided visits. The mine shaft is called Anthony’s Main Road. I did not think that a visit to a mining town could ever be considered complete without actually seeing the mine itself and so I booked myself on a 3 pm tour. As luck would have it, I was the only person on that tour.

Building at the Antonijev Rov Mine Shaft

The fact that they continued the tour even though I was the only person on it was absolutely amazing to me. I remember the day when I was turned away at the castle in Telč because they only allowed guided tours and I was the only person who wanted to go on the tour that day. It was a huge disappointment for me. But here in Idrija they believed that the show must go on whether or not the audience size was worth the effort. The people running the tour have truly earned my respect.

It was not the first time I had visited a mine, but it was definitely the first time I got to have the mine all to myself. The visit was guided (no independent visit allowed) and I had to wear a coat and a helmet. I felt almost (only almost) like a miner except that I did not feel completely comfortable in the get up. I could pretend somewhat that the coat was alright since I had my own clothes under it. But the helmet was something different altogether. How many other people had worn that particular one I had picked before? I also doubt that the equipment is washed after every use. The one I took did not smell funny (yes I took a sniff before I decided to take it) and it did look clean but there were plenty of things in this world that were odourless and could not been seen with the naked eye. I may not have sterile clean skin but the idea of coming into contact with the remains of strangers never fails to creep me out.

My (personal) guide was really amazing and he gave me a brilliant introduction to the history of mercury mining in the town and how the miners used to work.

Miner at work (someone who saw this picture said she hoped that the person in the picture was not real since he looked rather green)

Miner at work

Miners at rest

Mine shaft

Mine shaft

Chapel of the Holy Trinity in the mine (insufficient exposure because the light at the chapel was apparently down that day)

It has always been fascinating to me what people had to go through just to extract metals and minerals from the earth. I doubt that the workers at the mines enjoyed their work and just to put food on the table they had to risk their lives, or at least damage their health, to help other people make profits.

Speaking of risking lives, I was quite concerned to learn that the area was seismically active. I had this impression that the town was in real danger of collapsing into the earth with all the tunnels under it. My (personal) guide however said that because of all the gaps in the earth the intensity of earthquakes was reduced, and therefore the town was quite safe. It all sounded very logical to me thanks to those years of lessons in Physics long ago but somehow psychologically I was not able to accept the reasoning completely. I am sure that he was right but I have never had a truly scientific mind to begin with.

I had tried visiting the other sights in the town, for example this pump or kamšt that was used to pump water out of the mine shafts, but they were closed by the time I decided to grace them with my arrival. The rain was also getting heavier as the day went by and I was drenched by the time I decided that I had had enough of having the giant raindrops pounding me all the time. I will have to try seeing these other sights another time assuming I am in the area and it is not difficult to get to Idrija from wherever I may be in. I really do not mind visiting the municipal museum or the mine again too although the nice guy at the museum may not be there anymore by then. From my chat with him, I learned that he was ready for a new job as he did not see any future working there. I had asked why not and he said “look around you”. There was hardly any visitor. The museum did receive tour groups even from Asia sometimes but Idrija was still not a popular tourist destination. I wonder if I was the first Singaporean the guy had met.

I did enjoy the fact that the town was quiet that day. In fact, it was so quiet that it felt as if everyone had gone away to work somewhere else. This was a far cry from the time when the mines were still operating I am sure. However, I think that Idrija has so much potential to become a famous tourist attraction as it is so interesting. It is unfortunate that not enough people know about it. Well, not yet anyway.

By the way, I do not feel like I suffered any ill effects from breathing that mercury-laden air all day. The delicious lunch I had in town also gave me no problems as far as I am aware. To think that there is actually a standing safety protocol in Singaporean laboratories that has to be complied with even for spilling a drop of mercury.

Road to Gewerkenegg Castle

Idrija street

Building housing a kamšt (the one I was not able to visit)

Slovenia’s first high school

The Miners’ theatre (apparently the oldest theatre in Slovenia)

The Magazin or Mine Granary (miners were partly paid with food and here the grains used for payment were kept)

By the river

Air pump for mine ventilation

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