Ptuj – the city of history and carnival

Ptuj – the city of history and carnival

Located in the northeastern part of Slovenia, Ptuj is Slovenia’s oldest town. About forty minutes south of Maribor, Ptuj is a lovely Slovenian town filled with rich history, activities, and great food. The first settlement in the area dates to the 4th millennium BC, and the city first flourished during the period of the Roman Empire. Take a trip through history when you visit Ptuj.

At that time, it was called Poetovio and had even more inhabitants than Ptuj has today. Today, Ptuj has just over 24,000 inhabitants, and at the time of the Roman Empire, some historians estimate that the city had 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants, including the surrounding area. Ptuj had a well-developed trade and extensive pottery manufacturing.

In the 5th and 6th centuries, the city was destroyed by the Huns and Langobards, who destroyed it on their way to Italy. Many of the inhabitants moved away, and only a small minority remained. Thus, in the 5th and 6th centuries, the Slavs came to the area and rebuilt the city. In the Middle Ages, in the 13th century, Ptuj became the first mainland town of Slovenia to be granted city rights. The legal action, which enshrined all the rights and duties of the townspeople, was renewed in the 15th century, and the town received a second town statute, which enabled the town and its trade to flourish.

The medieval town was well fortified. So well-fortified, in fact, that even the Turks never managed to take the city. In the 16th century, Italian builders were invited to the town and the castle to strengthen the town walls further and connect them to the castle walls. Ptuj was thus defended against attack. In the 17th century, the town suffered several fires, and two major fires burnt down as much as 2/3 of the town. At that time, the houses were covered with wooden shingles, and the roofs connected or touched each other. All this caused the fire to spread rapidly through the town, which suffered much damage.

A walk through Ptuj will take you on a journey through history. Not many cities have been as successful as Ptuj in preserving their medieval architectural design, visitors can enjoy ancient Roman monuments and magnificent medieval facades. Cobbled streets and squares will lead you to one of the most majestic castles in Slovenia that offers a view over the roof tiles of medieval monasteries, churches, and other buildings.

Ptuj is lovely to be enjoyed in any season, the summers, for example, offer the contemporary art festival Art Stays, the Arsana music festival, and Days of Poetry and Wine, as well as the Roman games, medieval reenactments, and traditional fairs. But all the magic happens in winter, around Shrovetide, when Ptuj transforms into one of the biggest carnival experiences in Slovenia. Their Shrovetide carnival, called Kurentovanje, was selected as one of the top 10 carnivals in the world.

For centuries people have believed that the use of masks could help to make connections with the world beyond, with demons, gods, and ancestors’ spirits. Their driving force was to understand and influence natural and social phenomena. The carnival celebration goes back to the pagan period when people celebrated the forthcoming spring and the inevitable end of the winter by performing fertility rituals and the magic of masks. Although later Christianity felt disinclined to this pagan performance, it could never really uproot the masquerading. Shrovetide represents a bridge between winter and spring. Traditionally, it lasts from Epiphany to Shrove Tuesday. The Shrovetide date changes annually depending on Easter, which is tied to the date of the first full moon in the spring. Although it is commonly connected to the arrival of spring, its name reveals another meaning altogether – ‘pust’ and the international word ‘carnival’ both mean ‘leave meat’. The main day during Shrovetide is Shrove Tuesday, and the Shrovetide celebrations end on Ash Wednesday, which marks the 40-day Lent period of fasting before Easter. People wear different masks for Shrovetide – from traditional ones to masks that reflect modern social life. Shrovetide is connected to various traditions, dances, carnival parades, fun, and tables laden with delicious Shrovetide dishes.

Kurent is the most famous carnival character in Ptuj and holds the most prominent traditional and cultural significance. Kurents’ door-to-door rounds are one of the best-known carnival traditions in Slovenia, and Kurent is one of the most common and famous carnival characters, first documented in 1880. According to popular belief, Kurents chase away everything terrible and bring good luck and happiness. They are also one of the symbols of Slovenian identity, and up to one thousand Kurents perform their rituals at the Kurentovanje carnival every year.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) added door-to-door rounds of Kurents to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017.

Kurent’s origins are not entirely known, but there are several theories. Some say they are related to the Illyrian-Celtic tradition. Some mention the mythological companions of the goddess Cybele, who was worshipped in the Roman Poetovio in late antiquity. Some equate the Kurent with the ancestors of the Slovenes, others with the settlement of the Uskoks in the 16th century.

Only young men could dress as Kurents in the past. Between Candlemas on 2 February and Ash Wednesday, groups of Kurents walked through their home and neighboring villages in the company of the devil, who stole a sausage or two from the house. Their visit brought luck to the house in the coming year. If Kurents rolled themselves on the ground in the homestead’s yard, that brought a year of bad luck. In the second half of the 20th century, they started frequenting Ptuj in greater numbers and appearing at Kurentovanje and other organized carnival and folk events in Slovenia and abroad. Today, about a thousand Kurents form several village and town groups – most of them are young men, but some young women have joined them recently.

Of course, Ptuj is not only a place for history and cultural heritage buffs. Its location and surrounding nature offer a variety of outdoor activities, and Ptuj also takes excellent care of the wining and dining needs of its guests. But more on that some other time. Subscribe for more Slovenian travel.