Although relatively well known in Europe as Slovenia’s biggest festival, I had no clue what kurentovanje was until I started researching my trip to Slovenia in early January. The photos alone prompted me to book my accommodation: huge groups of people running down the street in full body sheepskin costumes, horns and feathers, wearing bells and shaking their groove thing to ring them.
I had to see this in person.
So on Saturday, February 10 I arrived in Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest city, home to a castle, famous spas, Slovenia’s oldest wine cellar and kurentovanje.
That day I made it up to the castle, where a phenomenally informative exhibit was on display about the masks of carnival that I was going to see the next day. This is what I learned:
There are more than a dozen types of traditional carnival masks, but here are some of the most important ones.
Spearmen: no face mask, these men are responsible for keeping the atmosphere light and merry; their name is from their accessory: a spear, which they toss into the air like a baton. The ultimate disgrace for a spearman is to drop his spear!
Cracker: another one of the most unique figures of the carnival, the crackers use whips to announce the arrival of the kurent. To hear many crackers working in a row, heaving the ropes back and forth so quickly that they snap the air, feels deafening.
Kurent/korant: most recognizable mask, their origin is uncertain but their purpose is to chase away winter to make way for spring; their masks are really full-body costumes made of sheep’s wool, feathers or horns, and the large belt of bells to cause a ruckus. Kurents carry wooden clubs with hedgehog skin.
Devil: Responsible for keeping the “round-going” (when kurents make their ‘rounds’ to the farms for their blessing) undisturbed. They dress in black and red, usually with painted faces or a mask with horns, and carry a pitchfork.
Cockerel: one of the few children’s masks, meant to assure productive poultry for the seasons. One child dresses as a cockerel, the other dresses as a man. Hens are almost the same, with a collector.
Rusa: with 2-legged or 4-legged variations, the rusa is for the success of horses and cattle; traditionally, the rusa comes to a house and its collector tries to sell it to the landlord; however, the rusa is mischievous so the landlord does not buy it and the collector and his naughty rusa leave, hopefully with some goodies in hand.
Gypsies: another of the more funny and bawdy masks (although definitively un-PC), the gypsies of the parade try to sell spectators goods and are general merry-makers.
Jurek & Rabol: Jurek, aka Green George, is a person wrapped in greenery. His battle with Rabol—representing winter—is always a triumph.
Like most big carnival festivals, Ptuj’s had many events going on throughout the week. Art exhibitions, musical performances, and presentations on Slovenian heritage are all part of the 11-day celebration. Parties are on all week, too! Saturday night sees a huge masked ball with fireworks at midnight. People dress up, eat, drink and are merry.
Sunday was the main event. I wanted to be sure to get a good spot along the parade route, since I knew how crowded it was going to get (event organizers estimate that 120,000 people visit Ptuj during carnival week) and I hadn’t traveled so far just to get a mediocre spot.
The parade didn’t start until 1 p.m., and it was clear walking through the town that most people were probably sleeping off their hangovers before the day’s festivities were to start. Other than the folks helping set up barriers and divert early traffic, hardly anyone was out on the street. After a couple hours, people started meandering the city. Some were dressed up in crazy outfits, some were just bundled really well (it was freezing that day) and since I had no costume, I decided to get my face painted.
A rock band started to play at the main stage, and I found a spot right against the barrier and across from the announcers—prime-o real estate.
What unfolded over the next few hours was one of the most unique travel memories I’ve had to date; I expect it’ll stay that way for a long time.
Rather than tell you about it, though, let me show you.
The parade starts with the prince of the carnival, who has already ceremonially received power from the mayor of the city for the week.
Traditional masks come first in the parade. These were my favorites, and I was so glad I had learned a bit about all of them beforehand.
Other than the kurents, my favorite masks were the crackers.
Check out how loudly these guys can whip it!
The kurents, though, were magical. It is clear that the people of Ptuj and Slovenians in general are really proud of this tradition, and it showed in the dedication the kurents had for their roles.
After the tradition masks, groups from other countries showcase their own. This group was from Bulgaria, I think.
Finally, the parade closes with floats and costumes that one might associate with more familiar carnivals. Some groups were really creative—I liked the Asterix & Obelix battle—and others were more commercial—like the M & M’s float, but everyone was having a good time, which is part of the spirit of carnival.
As an American, attending kurentovanje was special because not many tourists visit Slovenia, let alone Ptuj. I arrived totally ignorant of these ancient traditions, and left feeling like I had gotten to witness a truly important cultural celebration.
The essence of tradition is that idea of passage from one generation to the next. In Ptuj, I saw this in action when a father and son performed as spearmen, when boys no older than eleven cracked their whips like old hands, when a four-year-old in his kurent mask waddled by me, hand-in-hand with his mom.
And for a good idea of the ruckus these kurents can produce with those bells, check out this vid:
Have you ever seen or participated in a carnival abroad? What traditions are you glad to have? Share in the comments!