A trip to one of Europe’s most unusual celebrations helps a traveler beat the winter blues.
I heard the demons before I saw them. Although it was midmorning on a Saturday, the streets in the Slovenian town of Ptuj were empty except me with my blue rolling suitcase, just disembarked from the train. I froze. Raucous clangs and tinny jangles overlapped and collided in a not-unpleasant din, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Butterflies erupted in my stomach as if I were eleven again and the Hanson brothers were about to appear onstage. (What? They were cool!) I hadn’t expected to see these creatures so soon. The cacophony approached.
The flock of wooly monsters appeared from around a corner, as if the cast of Where the Wild Things Are were filming up the road. Their bodies (maybe seven feet tall? Eight?) were shaggy, and red tongues fell to their waists. Horns or feathers and streamers topped their heads. They brandished wooden clubs wrapped with hedgehog spines. As they hopped along the pavement, performing a sort of prehistoric twist, the large bells each wore on their belts rang and rang and rang. They turned another bend, and were gone. A burst of laughter escaped me, the first in what seemed like a long time. The kurents had come!
I had come because I was on a quest: to travel solo for a gap year. By the time I arrived in Ptuj, I’d been chased by Italian barnyard animals, made Irish hostel beds, and seen Hagia Sophia’s towering Turkish spires. My trip had been fantastic, but entering month eight I was feeling the travel burnout. Moving between hostels every week, becoming friends with anyone for only the duration of a bar happy hour, and having the stilted robot voice from my Kindle read George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series aloud to me at mealtimes was getting old.
Plus, I was starting to feel lonely. (Few travel experiences reminded me of this than a stop in Salzburg, home of The Sound of Music, where I yearned to ask strangers to snap dorky picture after dorky picture of me at filming locales while humming “How Do You Solve a Problem With Maria?”) Snow covered the ground everywhere, and my boyfriend had to cut short our portion of the trip together due to a family emergency; I was ready for winter’s gloom to end. So, as any millennial might, I looked to the Internet for something new and unusual to do. When I saw photos online of humans dressed as furry beasts for Kurentovanje, a traditional Slovenian springtime carnival that culminated in a massive parade, I thought, How nice! Which is how I ended up agog with my wheelie bag in a town whose name I could barely pronounce.
That afternoon, I went to Ptuj Castle, a 12-century affair perched on a solitary hill above town. It included a display of antique musical instruments, as well as a foreboding collection of weapons and armor that grew more foreboding when I thought I was locked in. (A security guard let me out with a chuckle when she heard me pounding on the very heavy but unlocked door.)
The final exhibit I saw was about kurents. All I knew from my brief Googling before I arrived was that they were ancient demons meant to scare away winter to usher in spring. At the castle museum, I learned that their origins are pagan and mysterious. Kurents are the headliners of the festival that, in its modern iteration, evolved to mesh with Carnival of the Christian calendar. But at least a dozen other “masks” have become part of the tradition, each with its own symbolism for springtime fertility and merriment. For example, “devils” accompany the kurents to make sure their rounds go smoothly; spearmen keep the mood light by throwing colorful spears in the air as tricks. But in the dimness of the exhibition hall, even the masks meant to be funny were eerie in their emptiness. The security guard was the only person I saw at the castle all afternoon. That night, a heavy snow began to fall.
I woke the next morning to confirmation that the kurents had a daunting task ahead of them if winter was to end anytime soon. Undeterred, I set out. By 9 a.m. I had eaten two krofi (traditional Slovenian doughnuts; 100 percent recommend) and bought a plastic cup of hot, spiced wine in a plaza where people were starting to congregate. Most of them wore costumes, and I remembered that Carnival in many places looks akin to Halloween in the United States. I also discovered that my Slovenian, limited to “Hello,” “Please,” and “Thank you,” was less serviceable here. A couple tried to chat with me, I think out of pity. “Ruski?” they asked. “Deutsch?” Gestures indicated that there was more going on elsewhere. I followed.
Someone in a cop outfit wearing a monkey mask was smoking a cigarette next to a closed door. When it opened, chattering voices and sounds of a brass band spilled out. I felt like I had stumbled onto a kind of surreal secret; inside was a courtyard where a crowd attired in medieval garb ate and drank. When a herd of kurents arrived and began to boogie, a cheer rose. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I liked it.
Soon after, all of Ptuj seemed to be milling around: children in cartoon character costumes, parents wearing kooky hats. A teenage band dressed as mad scientists rocked out onstage. I couldn’t learn Slovenian in a day, but I could blend in otherwise. Down a side street I spied a tent where three women were painting children’s faces. One was becoming a lion, another a ladybug, Spiderman, another. When a pair of grown men passed me with their faces painted, too, I decided this was the best way to suit up for the holiday. I emerged, a blue butterfly emblazoned across my cheeks.
I joined the human throng along the route, comforted to be part of that captivated mass. The parade began. It was as if all the hollow costumes from the castle museum had come to life overnight. Hundreds of kurents danced; their every dip and step and twirl, every sound, every bell prompted shouts and points and claps from the crowd.
Some 12,000 people from 15 different countries passed in the parade that day; thousands more spectators surrounded me. And the kurents were what had made it so special. Nowhere else could I have seen those prehistoric figures confronting the age-old need for blue skies and warmer days at a time when I needed it. They were a small reassurance, not only that this impulsive weekend had been worth it but that my whole year had been, too. I was ready for spring.
Note: In 2017, UNESCO designated the kurents’ traditions on its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It turned out that the same year I attended Kurentovanje in Ptuj, the kurents also made their United States debut in Cleveland, Ohio. Since then, I’ve been reunited with my fuzzy friends—twice. Brave the cold on February 10 for Cleveland's sixth annual Kurentovanje parade, or head to Ptuj from February 2-13.