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Zale Cemetery (Ljubljana, Slovania)

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Address: Med hmeljniki 2 Ljubljana / Imposing cemetery designed by the noted Slovenian architect Joze Plecnik

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      01.04.2012 20:27
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      Another of Plecnik's Ljubljana highlights

      Spending a freezing January afternoon in the company of the dead might not be everyone's idea of a good time but Ljubljana's Zale cemetery is a wonderful work of art and design that is worth a visit at any time of year; in fact, the attention and work that has been invested in the design of the gardens and walkways almost demands that you see it at different times of the year.

      Designed by Slovenia's best known and most prolific architect Joze Plecnik, Zale was completed in 1940 as a re-working of the older cemetery attached to the Church of the Holy Cross. Examples of Plecnik's work are easy to spot in Ljubljana and few visitors leave the city, even after just a short break, unaware of who Plecnik was and the contribution he made to the way Ljubljana looks today. For people who are interested in architecture and who want to see some more of his work, the cemetery of Zale is highly recommended.

      Zale is right on the edge of the city proper, on the edge of the Nove Jarse district and a stone's throw from the popular BTC shopping centre and the new national stadium, Stozice. From the main station it's a twenty to twenty five minute walk to Zale: with your back to the main station building, turn left and keep walking until the signs for the BTC direct you to take a left turn. Keep following the signs for the BTC and a big traffic junction the signs for Zale will appear. Cross the road and follow the signs for Zale. You pass the hospital on your right and some bars on your left. When you approach the roundabout the wonderful snow-capped mountains will be ahead of you and the cemetery is at two o'clock. (Alternatively take bus number 2 destined for Nove Jarse)

      The cemetery is still in use; Slovenians take the duties of grave-tending very seriously and the cemeteries are always flickering with the light of votive candles, real and electronic. You rarely see a bunch of dead flowers in a Slovenian cemetery, they are obviously tied up and replaced before they get to that point. I suppose there are two main reasons for this Slovenian habit of honouring the dead so well. One is that Slovenia is a small country and people tend not to move very far away from their families; even if you were to move to the other end of the country you'd never be more than a couple of hours away from the last resting place of your loved ones.

      The other reason is to do with the national psyche which is summed up in a Slovenian word 'pridem'. It's not easy to give a direct English translation: pridem describes the serious way in which Slovenians pursue certain responsibilities, tending their gardens, keeping the outside of their property maintained and generally doing the right thing. Tending the grave of a deceased relative is not something you do when you have time, but something you make time for and Slovenians execute the task with the same diligence they attend to all responsibilities.

      Plecnik's Zale is arguably the highlight of his catalogue of work. The imposing white columns of the entrance colonnade look stunning against the dark green cypresses while the cluster of chapels behind them are eclectic in their design and detail. There's a sense as you walk between the chapels of being in a fairytale land. The walkways are paved with crisp white chippings that look like the purest snow when the sun shines on them.

      At the entrance to Plecnik's Zale is this curved two tier colonnade of columns (known as the 'propyleum'),. This is pure Plecnik, his trademark if you like. The details used for the chapels (known as 'valedictory halls') are taken from across the architectural dictionary. The colonnade is said to act as a gateway between the world of the living and that of the dead; standing on top of it are statues of Jesus and St. Mary (the protectress of the dead). The reason that there are so many architectural styles (there are elements of everything from classical Greek architecture to Byzantine and oriental) used in the buildings and also on the types of crosses used to decorate them, is that Plecnik wanted to show that this was a cemetery for all the major religions. At the earlier cemetery there had been graves for non-Slovenes, but these were situated just outside the boundaries of the main cemetery. After the First World War the policy changed and many Italians were interred there and today visitors will see that there are little clusters of graves of non Slovenes and also a small Jewish section.

      Many notable Slovenes are buried at Zale, among them Joze Plecnik himself and his memorial bears many of the design trademarks that make his work so distinctive. Plecnik believed strongly that man is an individual even in death and the variety of architecture is an reflection of this belief. The main cemetery includes some very ornate tombs and monuments, many made in the rather stylish workshop building at the back of the Plecnik complex. At the time we visited work was ongoing to restore the decorative detail on the exterior of that building.

      The work of many important Slovenian artists and sculptors can be seen in the main cemetery. One of my favourite's is "the Fountain of Life' by Zdenko Kalin. It comprises a hexagonal pond surrounded by 6 figures that appear to be dancing around it. Kalin's work can be seen around Ljubljana, and the piece that most visitors will recognise is the naked boy playing a pipe outside the RTV Slovenija building near the City Hotel. There's another version of the sculpture in Tivoli Park.

      Far from being just a place to bury the dead, Zale is an important reflection of Slovenian history and culture. Running through the cemetery is the 'Pathway of Memory and Companionship': this commemorates a 30 kilometre babred wire fence that encircled the city between 1942 and 1945. Today a foot- and cycle-path marks the location of the fence (if you're up to it, hire a bike and cycle the whole path, it's a great way to see more of the city).

      You can easily spend a couple of hours at Zale but even a flying visit is worthwhile to see the Plecnik element of the complex. The most notable of the larger tombs are situated just to the right of the main cemetery entrance near the church. The cemetery is open daily but I find that Saturday afternoons are an ideal time to visit a Slovenian cemetery.

      Zale is, in my opinion, Plecnik's masterpiece. Ironically it came near the end of his career; his work was going out of favour and he was only asked to design it after the initially commissioned architect's designs were rejected. Many tourists 'Ooh' and 'Aah' at the Plecnik pieces in the city centre but this is the one visitors should make an effort to see.

      There are infrequent guided tours run by volunteers. If you are interested you could contact the Ljubljana Tourist Office before you visit to find out whether any are planned for the time fo your visit.

      Note: due to Dooyoo formatting I can't insert the correct spelling of Zale. The name comes from an old Slavic word for cemetery but was adopted for the whole complex. The easiest way to describe the pronunciation is Zhar-lay' (with the 'zh' as in 'zhivago')


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