Worth a Trip: Hrastovlje's Dance of Death
The tiny Karst village of Hrastovlje is one of southwestern Slovenia's most rewarding excursions. The small Romanesque church here is a dramatic sight, surrounded by medieval stone walls with corner towers, and covered inside with extraordinary 15th-century frescoes, including the famous Dance of Death. Getting here involves a few twists and turns – you'll really need your own vehicle – but it's worth it many times over.
The Church of the Holy Trinity is the biggest drawcard of the village; what attracts most people to this little church is the famous Dance of Death or Danse Macabre, a fresco that shows 11 skeletons leading the same number of people forward to a freshly dug grave. A 12th holds open a coffin. The doomed line-up includes peasants, kings, cardinals, and even a moneylender (who attempts to bribe his skeletal escort with a purse): all are equal in the eyes of God.
The church was built between the 12th and 14th centuries in the southern Romanesque style, with fortifications added in 1581 in advance of the Ottomans. Its sombre exterior is disarming in the extreme.
The Dance of Death is not the only fresco; the interior is completely festooned with paintings by John of Kastav, painted around the 1490s. The frescoes helped the illiterate to understand the Old Testament stories, the Passion of Christ and the lives of the saints. Make time for the 12-minute taped commentary (in four languages, including English) that guides you around the little church.
Facing you as you enter the church is the 17th-century altar, the central apse with scenes from the Crucifixion on the ceiling and portraits of the Trinity and the Apostles. On the arch, Mary is crowned queen of heaven. To the right are episodes from the seven days of Creation, with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel on the right.
On the ceilings of the north and south aisles are scenes from daily life as well as the liturgical year and its seasonal duties. Christ’s Passion is depicted at the top of the southernmost wall, including his Descent into Hell, where devils attack him with blazing cannons. Below the scenes of the Passion is the Dance of Death.
Elsewhere in the village, the quiet Galerija J Pohlen exhibits works by sculptor Jožeta Pohlen (1926–2005), who hailed from the village. It's one of a number of small galleries to have opened in Hrastovlje in recent years. Opening hours often vary from the official schedule, but someone with a key is never far away; ask at the church if all else fails.
Gostilna Svab is a welcoming little country inn with a surprisingly diverse menu of seasonal local specialities and a good selection of Slovenian wines. Dishes include local cheeses, Istrian soups, grilled meats, pasta dishes with truffles and mountain trout. In winter, the fireplace is the place to be.
Hrastovlje is 30km southwest of Divača off the main highway to the coast; Koper is 18km to the northwest. It is hard to reach without a car or bicycle. There is a weekday afternoon train from Koper (€1.95, 16 minutes), but there is no return train. The church is about 1.5km northwest of Hrastovlje's train station.