Shakespeare should have visited Celje. The town’s dramatic history is worthy of an epic play. It’s all on display in an easy day trip from Ljubljana. Here’s how I did it:
Storm the Old Castle
Arriving on a Sunday morning by train from Ljubljana, we hailed a taxi to go to the Old Castle, on a hill outside of the town. We didn’t have to sack the place to get in. Tickets are 4 euros for adults, and you get 1 euro credit to spend in the Cafe Veronika when you’re ready for a break. Kids 6-17 are only 1 euro and free for under 6 at this very child-friendly attraction.
While the views are magnificent, the partially restored ruins are a far cry from the mighty fortress this must have been in centuries past. Built in the 1200s, the fortunes of the castle rose and fell with the Counts of Celje. There isn’t much royal splendor to see and most of the rooms are empty. The highlight is climbing the four-story Frederik’s tower, with a dungeon at the bottom, storage levels in the middle and a defensive platform — with more expansive views — on the top. There’s a performance area where Celje’s own Romeo and Juliet story is played out in an elaborate musical on various dates in the summer. Although it’s in Slovene, the music and staging are still impressive. Here’s the trailer:
According to legend, Prince Frederik II’s father disapproved of his marriage to a local woman, Veronika of Desenice. The Count had Veronika tried for witchcraft and the son locked up in the tower. She was acquitted but murdered by drowning.
Meet the Royal Skulls
If you want to learn more about the Counts of Celje, you’ll need to head back to the museums in town. It’s a pleasant walk down the hill. One ticket includes two museums. The Princely Palace is notable for the basement excavations of the ancient Roman town of Celeia — a city beneath the city. Upstairs, the displays of natural history and early civilizations seem chiefly aimed at school group visits, but when we visited on a Sunday afternoon in July we felt as if we were the only visitors there!
There’s much more background on the intrigue surrounding the family who built the Old Castle on the hill. Their skulls are on display in glass cases. It’s a creepy tribute to a dynasty that accumulated wealth and power through the heroic deeds of the men and the strategic marriages of the women into the ruling families of Poland, Bosnia and Serbia. Barbara of Celje married the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund of Luxemburg, King of Hungary and Bohemia. The Counts of Celje successfully fought the Hapsburgs but made a lot of enemies. Hungarian rivals assassinated the last count in 1456. Without an heir, the dynasty died out to the cry of “Counts of Celje, today and never again!” The three stars of their crest can still be seen on the Slovenian flag.
A Splendid Ceiling and More
The second museum on your ticket is the Renaissance palace a short distance away. Do not miss the spectacular ceiling painted on canvas and the delicate room frescoes in the old count’s residence. There are a number of other objects and paintings identified only by number, requiring a scramble to locate an information card in your language to know what you are seeing.
Celje does not shy away from other dark aspects of its history. Another museum in town is the former World War II Nazi jail, but visits must be arranged in advance. Suffice it to say that the population suffered greatly and hundreds of “stolen children” were taken by the Nazis for a “Germanization” program. After the war, collaborators were killed in a notorious Communist prison camp nearby.
The atmosphere of Celje today is relaxed and safe. Wandering the streets you’ll discover several pleasant squares and lovely churches. It’s a car-free pedestrian zone with tons of charm.
A Solo Travel Story
Another awesome discovery is the story of Alma Karlin, a local woman who traveled around the world alone for nine years in the 1920s. Constantly battling tropical illness and writing articles to prevent running short of money, her adventures would make an epic movie! The souvenirs she brought home are on display in a permanent museum exhibit in the Renaissance Palace. There’s a charming statue of her about a block from the train station and a more elaborate memorial in the nearby town of Pečovnik where she spent her later years.
My son, an author who features many Slavic myths in his young adult novels, is currently working on a new trilogy with characters inspired by the true stories of the Counts of Celje and Alma Karlin. Search for Andrew Anzur Clement on Amazon, iBooks or your favorite ebook platform. And don’t forget to take along your Kindle.
And the Food…
Choices were limited on a Sunday afternoon, but we had a delicious Italian meal at Pizzeria Koper, which is attached to the #1 ranked hotel in Celje. We washed down our salads and pizza with frosty mugs of Laško beer, brewed in a neighboring town. Our friends at Let’s Go Slovenia also recommend a fine Slovenian Inn called Pri Kmetec on the hill near the Old Castle for more elegant, traditional dining.
Terry’s Travel Tips
From the Ljubljana train station, you can buy a return ticket and choose from several departure times that will get you to or from Celje in about 90 minutes. You’ll pass through the scenic Sava River gorge and a town called Kresnice where my grandmother was born! You’ll also pass by the spa and spring at Radenci, the source of one of my favorite things in Slovenia: Radenska mineral water!
Make sure you tell the taxi driver you want to go to “STARI Grad”, meaning Old Castle. Grad is the name of an actual town in eastern Slovenia and our non-English speaking driver thought we wanted to go there. Pointing up at the castle should make your meaning clear, even if you don’t speak Slovene.
A helpful website in English will help you plan your visit to Celje (pronounced Sell-yuh).