A Long Road and a Little Church

We are interrupting our regular programme from India to sort some bizarre issues with sharing our content on certain social media sites, and to tell you a story about how to bring a really long log from the forest to the sea.

‘Twas a rainy, but windy day, and in the quest of finding a place for a kite aerial photography session we drove southwest along the highway. The raindrops were adorning the windshield, the clouds lay low. A typical February day, gloomy and wet.

But somewhere past Postojna the rain ceased, and we spotted a cute little church on a hillock in the northwestern part of Postojna basin, a churchlette that just might have been a good KAP target – and might have been hiding a nice story.

It was. Both.

Welcome to St George church near Šmihel pod Nanosom.

It’s not really special – a Medieval church that was renovated and expanded in 1655, and again in the second half of the 19th century. Apart from its very pleasant location it doesn’t really stand out in any way.

But it is dedicated to St George, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, the dragon slayer, the protector. So what exactly is he protecting here, on this lone hill south of the village of Šmihel?

Well, George was a Roman soldier, and he is guarding a Roman road. A road that is all but gone and forgotten now, but in the old times it was a part of one of the most important industrial enterprises of the empire.


St George and the village of Šmihel

At the northeastern edge of the Postojna basin there is a pass that separates the Javorniki and Hrušica mountains, called Postojna Gate. It is 610 meters high and incidentally the very lowest pass between the Pannonian plain and the Mediterranean.

The pass was (and still is) of huge strategic importance, so when the Roman empire expanded, the road from Rome to the eastern provinces went right through it. The road followed the most natural path from Aquileia along the Adriatic coast to Tergeste (Trst/Trieste), to Postumia (Postojna) and Aemona (Ljubljana), where it split, going either towards the limes in Pannonia, or to Siscia (Sisak) and on to the riches of the East.

But this road had a problem.

Rome was a naval superpower, and one of the reasons for its expansion into the Illyrian lands was immense forests covering Nanos (Ocra mons), Hrušica and Javorniki, and the exceptionally tall oaks growing in the lower Sava river region, and the Pannonian plain. They were perfect for ship’s masts.

But the road connecting the shipyards of the Adriatic and the forests full of shipbuilding material was a winding road. The uphill portions from Tergeste up to the Karst plateau, and from Postumia to the Postojna gate couldn’t be traversed in a straight Roman way, so the road had a series of switchbacks and sharp turns.

They couldn’t transport the masts through them.

Back then a ship mast had to be made from one piece of wood, as it wouldn’t withstand the forces of the wind otherwise. So imagine a 30 meters long tree trunk on a cart – what is the sharpest turn it can negotiate? The lowest theoretical limit of its turning radius is 15 meters, but that doesn’t mean it can do a 180 degree switchback if the road is not also 15 meters wide.

But Roman roads were at most 7 meters wide, and even that only in places where the conditions and the costs allowed that. The road from Adriatic to Pannonia was important, but the cost of making it so wide was prohibitive.

So no tall oak trees could be delivered by it to the shipyards of the Adriatic.

The Romans, industrious as they were, set out to build another road, this time more Roman: as straight as possible leading from the Adriatic and the Friuli plain to the mast-producing forests of Illyria and Pannonia.

They chose the path from Aquileia to Vipava valley and then slowly up the Ocra Mons to Postojna basin, and from there slowly up the Hrušica plateau to the small settlement of Planina, where it met the main road to Aemona.

And they called it the Mast Road.

The little church we flew our kites over was built on the ruins of a Roman road post above this Mast road. There were actual Roman soldiers stationed there, guarding the road and protecting the travellers and their cargo.

So it is perfectly logical they chose St George – a Roman soldier, the protector, the dragon slayer – as its patron saint. And the dragon’s dwelling, Postojna caves, are just nearby!

The Mast road was later upgraded and moved further into the Hrušica plateau, bypassing the Postojna basin completely. Now only small sections of the original road are still visible (and some are still in use) …

So St George now guards the deceased people of Šmihel – and protects the story of a long lost thoroughfare that used to carry the masts of Roman ships that conquered the Mare Nostrum, the whole Mediterranean.

Kite aerial photos shot with Nikon P330 on The Original Blue rokkaku, and with Insta360 on Futura rokkaku; the kites made by master Janez of Dr.Agon kites.

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