From the Snowy Castle Not Made of Snow To The Largest Lake That Isn’t There
This time I was set to see the castle called Snežnik, which in Slovenian sounds something like the Castle of Snow. I’ve heard about it before and the name intrigued me. Was it really covered in snow? Did it sit on top of a mountain? Was it all white? What, I wondered. And since I love a good story, I went off, to find out.
As I was planning my trip, I calculated it would take about 122 km to make the round trip, from where I started at the marshes, over the karst plane of Rakitna, down the hill to karst field of Cerknica and then all the way to Castle Snežnik and back again. It was my farthest trip yet, but I had a whole day at my leisure, so I was not pressed for time and I’ve already packed my bike’s charger.
I started, as I have before, at the edge of Ljubljana Marsh. The steep mountain road took me through Preserje and pass the interjection to Mount Krim, but I kept straight on, due South. I couldn’t resist giving a herd of horses I met along the road a pat and offered them a fistful of grass, though they seemed a little perplexed with the strange lady with the giant white head.
I hurried along through the village of Rakitna right to its edge, where a small, artificial lake lies. In the summer, people from all over the area, including Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, which lies just some 25 km away, come here to … well, breathe. Rakitna is the highest lying karst field in Slovenia and the temperatures are about 5 degrees lower than those in the city. That makes a world of difference in the heated summer weeks, when the pine breeze renowned for its healing powers, sweeps over Rakitna taking off the edge of July.
There, besides the lake, where an old mountain lodge used to be, now stands a lovely little hotel, Hotel Rakitna. It’s mostly visited by bikers, who stop for a drink and the view. So, I did the same – I am a biker, after all. A cup of coffee and a formidable chunk of Gibanica later, I was ready to go.
I still had a few kilometres of uphill road left, before my bike could relax and ease down on power consumption. The woody serpentine road made for a lovely ride, as I quickly understood why this road was so popular among bikers. All bends, no one in sight and a scenic backdrop of dozen shades of green. My quiet little bike did not break the spell of Nature and I could hear the birds chirp all around me, despite the helmet. Almost too quickly I found myself back in the valley and entering the town of Cerknica. The traffic was not bad and a good half-hour later I was facing the narrow, paved bridge leading to the castle.
It was beautiful. White, indeed. I took my time admiring its front, which was heavily remodelled in the second half of 19. Century by Princ Jurij of the Schönburg-Waldenburg family. I was warmly welcomed by the castle’s long-standing keeper and curator Ms. Majda, who let me enter the castle walls riding my trusted electric horse. We left the “horse” in the “stable”, feeding, while we set off through the main castle gate.
I have seen many castles of different shapes and sizes, but entering one is always the same – you know you are stepping into a story. Centuries of history of families and their servants, of wealth and of devastation, of tradition and the inevitable change. Some eery, others inspiring, but all thrive, lodged deeply inside the sturdy bricks of the castle walls.
Snežnik was much the same. With its complete interiors intact, I couldn’t shake the filling of somehow intruding, as if that the royal family was just called away on a stately errant and shell return in a day or so. It was everything, starting with the 130-years old bear that guards the main hallway, to the colourful bed covers and white ceramic night pots and washing basins waiting to be used, that kept up that feeling of a live household. My favourite by far was the small, but well stocked library. I could easily imagine being curled up by the open fire, snugly covered with sheep fleece, reading The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola by Slovenian natural historian and polymath Janez Vajkard Valvasor – one of the most significant books that can be found in the castle’s library to this day. Of course, at that time you’d be reading it in German, but the Schönburg-Waldenburgs mostly understood Slovenian, even if they did not speak it very well. They even kept a book of Slovenian everyday phrases to be able to communicate with the local populace more naturally.
Photo credit: “The Study”; National Museum of Slovenia, Castle Snežnik
The castle had many owners, Ms. Majda told me, the first ones called the Schneberg family. “Oh”, I mused. “So, the name of the castle has nothing to do with snow?” “Well”, said Ms. Majda, “Schneberg does translate to a Snowy mountain, so there you go”. So, the owners were of snow, not the castle itself.
Anyway, I found many more stories at Snežnik, worth telling (see the bottom of the Article).
Full of new stories, I finally set off in direction of lake Cerknica. Soon I drove onto the long, straight road leading to the vast area of the Cerknica karst lake. I didn’t charge my bike fully at the castle, so I decided to stop at the Visitors center to possibly charge my bike, while I had a chance to snoop around.
The center is an airly, little museum in its own right, depicting the wonder of Cerknica lake. And it is wonderous – hiding below ground in hot summer months and popping up, as the autumn rains begin, taking and bringing back with it the life of Karst. Amongst other phenomenon, it was this mischievous lake, that inspired Valvasor (or in German Johann Weikhard von Valvasor) to write the Glory of the Duchy of Carniola that won him a Fellowship of the Royal Society. The book I saw at Snežnik castle was first published in 1689 as 15 books (four volumes), totalling 3532 pages and due to the enormous cost of printing such a book in 17. Century, Valvasor had to sell his own castle, Castle Bogenšperk and the house in Ljubljana, where he was born. That is some dedication to a project, I’d say.
The lake Cerknica is an intermittent lake in the southern part of the Cerknica polje, a karst field in Inner Carniola, a region in southwestern Slovenia and it typically stays on the karts plain for about eight months a year. When full, it becomes the largest lake in Slovenia. But there’s a catch – you never know when it will fully emerge, so see it at its most magnificent glory is tricky. The lake is an important wildlife resort, especially as a nesting place for many bird species.
I would love to spend more time at the lake, but it was getting late in the day, and I had to head home. At two thirds of the way uphill to Rakitna I stopped at a natural spring at Ogrsko, called Sweet water. An endearing forest-y pit stop welcomes you with two cups, ready for you to quench your traveller’s thirst with an icy drink. There’s no sweeter water on Earth, than that which springs straight from the bosom of the rocks.
That was it for me, I was tired and hungry. My trusted companion still had enough power to get me home without another charge. We’ve seen a lot today, starting with the snowy castle, that was not made of snow and completing our quest with the largest lake in Slovenia, that isn’t really (all) there. Slovenia really is a land full of wonderful little oddities.
‘Till the next adventure!
Once in early 19. Century the castle was won by a local blacksmith as a main lottery prize. Of course, owning a castle might seem like a dream, but sustaining it can be an absolute nightmare. And as the story goes, that lucky, but also smart, blacksmith chose the cash equivalent, instead.
Many times, the burden of keeping the Snežnik castle weighed heavily on their owners, until they finally had to sell it (or even put it up as a lottery winning). The last of the royal families to purchase it were the Schönburg-Waldenburg family.
Fortunately, they had the means, the knowledge and above all the will, to transform the castle to its present glory. Princ Jurij was a well-educated man, of course, but it was his inclination towards technological innovation and progress, that wasn’t a given amongst the tradition-loving royalty folk. Jurij’s progressive ideas had a significant impact not just on the castle itself, but its wide surroundings.
Jurij, or Georg in his native German, was the one to introduce electricity to the nearby wood processing factory and surrounding villages, which must have felt like sorcery. Just imagine – to have electrical power in the middle of a countryside village, when many cities were still illuminated by gas street lamps at the time. He insisted his castle staff were well educated, from the governess, the cook, the gardener to the forester. He founded a forestry school to share the current discoveries and practices on how to sustainably use the forests as a natural resource.
The Schönburg-Waldenburg family even kept a lively orangerie besides the castle vegetable gardens, were oranges, lemons and other otherwise exotic fruits for these parts, could grow all through the year. It gets quite cold in the Snežnik area in winter months, with temperatures dropping well below zero. But that did not stop the royal family on insisting on having a gartroža, a castle’s own signatory woody rose bush, as the beauty standards of the time implied. It was bred specifically for the area and it sprouted lush, fragrant white blossoms in June and July.
When the castle was first nationalised in 1945, it became a hunting lodge reserved for the high state functionaries.
With the change of ownership came the shift in priorities. Everything that has not served the purpose of hunting, became unnecessary. So, the vegetable and herb gardens were left to overgrow and the orangery was demolished. The same fate befell the white castle rose which was lost to the area for almost a half of the century. Until the current castle keeper, Majda, and her husband set on a mission to discover if there was any truth to the local rumour, that the rose still existed somewhere near, in the garden of a friend of a friend of a friend.
A few years and a few false leads later, the keepers of Snežnik did discover a rose that could possibly be the lost gartroža. In collaboration with Matjaž Mastnak, the assistant director at Arboretum Volcji Potok and the team at the famous Europa-Rosarium Sangerhausen, with the approval of the National Museum of Slovenia, they have confirmed the identity of the giant white rose as the lost rose. It officially became known as the Rose of Snežnik. The castle now offers its cuttings to the public, to help fund the castle’s keep. It is a lovely modern detective story that has become the latest piece of the castle Snežnik history mosaic.
Foto credit: Rosa × alba, Arboretum Volčji potok
I would like to thank the people who made this trip possible:
Curator of Snežnik castle, Ms. Majda Obreza Špeh
The Snežnik castle technical keeper, Mr. Janez Špeh
National Museum of Slovenia
Tourist guide of Visitor centre Lake Cerknica, Mr. Miha Jernejčič
Owner of Debeli Bar, Mr. Miha Mele
Managers of Hotel Rakitna, Ms. In Mr. Šimenko
To read more about the wonderful places I visited and things I learnt about, go to:
Snežnik Castle, Snežnik rose and the National Museum of Slovenia:
On Karst, Cerknica Lake and Johann Weikhard Valvaror:
On Hotel Rakitna: