Etched Landscape

Strmca is a rather remote village below the high plateau of Hrušica, between Postojna and Planina – a small settlement far from the beaten path, away from most of the routes, even ancient ones. It rests dreamy in the middle of a concave field; a flock of houses settled in two rows, oriented perpendicularly to the only street passing through.

Strmca and its fields as seen from a kite

There is not much to see in Strmca. The houses are bland; they have a chapel in the village, there is a cross at the edge of the plateau, and an old little church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows, built at the foot of the Špilnik hill, humbly distanced from the village itself. A monument to the WWII partisans stands at the village ‘square’ where the streets gets a bit wider. That’s it.

Our Lady of the Snows at the forest edge just outside Strmca

But is it?

Strmca is remote and very old. It was first mentioned in the books of the Cistercian abbey of Stična in 1162. It seems it was an important allodium of the monastery, situated on the route to the Adriatic sea; it was a part of its officium ultra silvam, the ‘duties beyond the forest’. The fact that an important monastery held to this estate for over 6 centuries (Strmca was sold in 1784 when Joseph II dissolved the monasteries in the empire), and the fact it was already off the beaten path when the industrial era started, mean that the village and its surroundings are pretty much as they were back in the twelfth century.

Of course, the houses in the village are recent, the St Anthony’s chapel is from 1911, the cross was erected in memory of the soldiers of WWI. Even the church is not that ancient – it was rebuilt in 1630 – there is nothing that would bear witness to almost a millennia of human activities here. At least nothing that catches the eye.

Especially if the eye is on the ground. Because as soon as you lift it – say, with a kite – something interesting stands out.

Agriculture is a tough business, even more so on a clay soil almost 700 m high. The fields of Strmca were almost all recently abandoned, turned into pastures and meadows; the orchards are old and shrinking, the kitchen gardens turned into terraces and garages. But the field division is still visible, and it’s quite extraordinary.

Land plots of Strmca

The plots are pretty much as wide as the houses – a dozen metres or so – and they stretch all the way to the hills in the north, and to the deep forest in the south. There are hundreds of these narrow strips, as old as the village itself. See how they stand out on 200 years old maps of the Franciscan cadastre (1818 – 1828); the field division was ancient back then, and it is still pretty much intact. Just look at it!

Franciscan cadastre map of Strmca

This is a 12th century land management etched into the landscape for all times. Literally:

LIDAR map clearly showing the results of toiling in the fields for almost a millennium

But the fields of Strmca are not the only hidden mystery of history here. We know the village was formed before 1162, and back then every respectful village had to have a church, even more so if the village was an allodium of a monastery. The church of St Mary of the Snows has a year 1630 carved into the window sill, but that’s the year it was rebuilt (the arched presbyterium is probably from the 15th century) – but almost surely an older edifice was there before, dating all the way back to the 12th century. Does this cute little church hold some clues about its past?

Our Lady of the Snows, its bell gable (typical for smaller churches in southwestern Slovenia) and its octagonal apse

Turns out it does. It is oriented on the east-west axis rather perfectly, a bit out of step with the landscape; that’s the first indication of its much greater age. Then while the church bears the name of St Mary, a side altar is dedicated to an ancient cultic saint, St. Vitus. The other interesting thing is that the celebrations at the church were never held on August 5, the day of Our Lady of the Snows – but on June 15, the feast day of St. Vitus.

Celebrating St. Vitus is an ancient tradition in Slovenia, predating the cult of St. Mary, and in a way predating Christianity itself. Seems that Vitus was associated with the Polabian Slavic god Sventovit; the common folk just redressed their god into a saint and went on with their worship. Henry I of Germany brought the relics of St. Vitus to Prague – they are still held in the St. Vitus Cathedral there – and from Prague his cult spread through the Slavic people. Even the date of its feast is pretty close to the summer solstice.

So we have a 17th century church with parts dating to the late 15th century near a village that is at least from the 12th century; a side altar dedicated to an ancient saint, and a feast day not corresponding to the church patron (Our Lady of the Snows), but to that saint (St. Vitus). We can quite confidently conclude that the first church in Strmica was built at least in the 12th century and that it was dedicated to St. Vitus. 500 years later the old church was rebuilt or renovated, rededicated to St. Mary, and the old patron saint was quietly moved to a side altar. That didn’t really bother the villagers: they continued celebrating the feast day of their favourite saint as if nothing happened, working their narrow strips of land for hundreds of years, and they still do.

Hidden stories from long ago like these are what makes history so interesting; here we have a church that speaks softly of its past, and an etched landscape that bears witness to the work of hundreds of generations of people, visible only from high above.

Strmca and its field system – the cultural landscape – is now a protected cultural monument, cared for by the Institute of the Republic of Slovenia for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. And it is guarded by a heart! 😉

The heart above Strmica

All kite aerial photos shot with Insta360 on Cindy delta kite.

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