It was only having lived here for 7 years already, having travelled all around Green Slovenia discovering so many secret places to visit that we finally realised there is a totally unique catergory here and very probably, you don't have anything like this in your country! A Fortress Church..
What is a Fortress Church..
Quite simply, there are several very special churches hidden around Green Slovenia that are protected by a castle built completely around them.. so it is neither a castle nor a church.. but both!
Why did these churches need protection..
During the Middle Ages the Ottoman empire sent waves of Turkish troops raiding as far as central Europe and of course, Slovenia was in the front line of these raids.
The Turks appeared so quickly that villagers only hope was to flee up to a place of safety and this was often the church or the church tower. So churches got defensive walls and often small castles built around them to protect the people who could get inside these high walls to the church in time.
Raiders would often burn and destroy everything on the lower ground in their path, but they would generally not fight uphill.. they also wanted to leave some people around for the next time they raided of course!
Another reason for fortifying the churches was to safeguard towers to act as fire beacons.. a signal fire was lit to warn other localities and there were often networks of high towers and churches, where the invasion message could be passed very quickly and visually along the line.
And of course, churches often held valuable treasures, ancient manuscripts and amazing frescoes that the owners really didn't want to share with the invading armies!
So we are not describing a castle that happens to have a church inside.. most of them do.. these fortress churches had "made to measure" castles built around them and often very snugly indeed..
We think this is absolutely fascinating and quite unique. It adds an extra level of excitement, purpose and understanding to your visit, cos you know why the castle is there.. to protect the church..
Where are Slovenia's Fortress Castles?
Maybe the reason there are not so many fortress churches in Slovenia is because there were so many castles here in any case! Nevertheless, the fortress castles we have found are some of the very best castles in Green Slovenia and that is saying something..
So that makes these fortress churches even rarer and special for you to discover and explore.
Hrastovlje Fortress Church
A breath takingly beautiful church with castle set in a stunning location surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, with a huge limestone cliff in the background. This is an area in the coastal hinterland where many defensive towers were located and some can still be seen as part of the early warning system.. there is no better example than the nearby Black Pond tower, (Crni Kal) where the crumbled remains of a tower sit on top of a cliff stack.. only connected to the main cliff by a little bridge!
The village of Hrastovlje, (Oak tree village) and the church are just 25 mins from the Lodge on the way to the coast, but there is an even greater reason for coming here than seeing a fortress church.. inside on the entire length of one of the 4 painted walls is another fantastic secret, a very rare 500 year old medieval fresco called "the Dance of Death", explaining the medieval legend that all people are equal in death, regardless of your station in life.
It is unmissable and is often one of the secret places that our guests mention to us was their biggest unexpected surprise.
It won't take you all day to visit here and is a great stop off on the way to the Slovenian Mediterranean coast or if you are travelling from the Lodge down to Istria and Croatia.. more about Hrastovlje fortress church here.
Tabor Fortress Church
This fortess near Grosuplje, 20 mins south east of Ljubjana and just 45 mins from the Lodge was never breached by invaders and you will see why when you trudge up the hill to the thick castle walls and heavy metal door with arrow slits and towers greeting you.. All this protecting the beautiful chuch inside, with frescos, paintings and bats in the belfy (church tower)!
The green views from the bell tower here are amazing and this fortress has a real "Cowboys and Indians" Western fort feel about it. Explore the wooden battlements and walk around the castle walls to see how safe the villagers were and how organised the defence was.. there are a few little secrets to find here as well in an incredibly well preserved medieval marvel.. there is hardly a scratch on it!
This fortress church is really in perfect condition and one of those special Slovenian secret places that looks Hollywood, but feels the real deal.. you can sense the anticipation of an attack brewing outside and the air here is thick with history.. more about the Tabor here.
Zice Monastery Fortress
This is where the penny dropped for us and we finally realised that Slovenia does have this little squadron of completely unique fortress churches. We were walking around this monastery, hidden away at the back of a long deep green valley, with several "Harry Potter" like towers inside, all protected by these huge thick castle walls.. and we just realised.. this monastery would really not need the castle outside if there were no danger of attack..
So at Zice, which is 90 minutes direct from the Lodge, you get to know the story of the brothers at the monastery and all the time you have this reassuring presence of a huge thick wall with magical defensive towers circling the entire plot.. fantastic!
We also learnt here that the monastery was often visited by knights returning from the crusades and of course this adds to the story, but also makes more sense of these impressive castle walls.
Religion was the currency and driving force of war during the crusades.. the knights were supposed to be fighting for christ and so these religious buildings in the centre of Europe would also be targets for the oppostion knights if they were not defended well enough.. more about ZICE monastery fortress here.
Smarje Fortress Church
This enchanting site is nowadays far more church than castle, but it is fascinating to imagine how the one remaining tower now would have looked as part of a giant 4 tower castle defensive wall around Santa Maria's church. These high towers were very necessary as the church is on flat ground on the old Roman road to Ljubljana.. so a prime target.
You can go inside the high tower and see the defensive arrow slits and thick walls and a very interesting private collection with lots of religious paintings, articles, books and fascinating historic bricabrac put together by the priest who was tragically murdered here during the Slovenian War of Independence.
Smarje (Santa Maria) is just 45 mins from the Lodge and very close in location to the Tabor Fortress church, but a very different example of a fortress church with an intriguing story.. during WW2, St Mary's shrine was somehow protected from Allied bombs that flew just centimetres past the statue of our lady and crashed into the fresco on the wall.. You can still see where this miracle happened today.. more about Santa Maria fortress church here.
So there you have it, just 4 of the completely different fortress churches we have found so far and any one of these could be a big or small part of your adventures exploring the wonders and mysteries of Green Slovenia! You could mix a fortress church into your day out with a cave visit, the seaside, a disappearing lake or a hike up a mountain.. Green Slovenia is so small and packed with natural attractions.. the choice is yours!
Seperate Defensive Church Towers
And here is another unique historical feature to look out for on your Slovenian adventures and quite easy to spot.. Look for a tall tower next to but not connected to a church.. then look to see if there are any large bricked up windows that could be doors higher up the tower?
This might seem a strange thing to look for, but these tall church towers were also used as refuges from the invading armies as well.. The reason there would be a door or opening high up the tower was for the villagers to climb up to this door on a ladder, then pull the ladder up inside the tower and shut the door tight.. simple and clever!
So maybe there still isn't any door at the base of the tower or more likely a recent door has been built in below nowadays as there is no danger.. but look at about the height of a ladder at these towers and see if you can spot where a door may have been.. and now you will know the reason why!
We have seen several of these special towers all around Green Slovenia on our travels..
There is a really fantastic example of a ladder door half way up the tower of Kubed, just 30 mins from the Lodge and on the way to a day out in Istria.. but even more special is the fact that this tower has 5, yes five walls!