In Ribnica, centuries-old tradition lives on
The area around Ribnica, in southern Slovenia, has for centuries been known for its tradition of wood handicraft and travelling salesmen who ventured far and wide to sell the wooden kitchen utensils and farming tools.
Every year, the area celebrates its heritage with a fair on the first Sunday of September, and the record number of people who visited the fair this year proves that the tradition is far from forgotten.
"Suha roba", or dry goods, as the hand-crafted products Ribnica is known for are called, are a mainstay of every household in Slovenia, above all, wooden cooking spoons and flour sieves, the trusted helpers of many housewives.
Usually, around 30,000 people come to Ribnica for the fair, but on 3 September, the town was teeming with as many as 35,000 people to great delight of some 70 craftsmen who were selling their goods, and the many locals who are enthusiastically striving to keep the tradition alive, among them Ribnica Tourism Society vice-president Alenka Pahulja.
Of the 70 wood craftsmen and potters, 25 were locals, while the rest came from all across the country, Pahulja said. In the past, Ribn'čan, as the craftsmen are called, travelled across the country, often by foot, to sell their products, whereas today, they pack their goods into large vans, moving from one location to the next. They can often be seen in front of shopping centres or in village squares, but also at local fairs.
The wide array of items produced by the craftsmen was on full display at 330 stalls that stretched along the streets of Ribnica on Sunday: from toothpicks to brooms, wooden tableware, crockery and cutting boards, as well as pottery, and a variety of other products, such as step stools, pinwheels and a myriad of decorative items.
According to Pahulja, the craftsmen labelled the sales of this Sunday as "extraordinary", despite higher prices, some of which doubled over last year. However, some said that fair goers were more selective this year, and some products that sold out in the past did not go quite as fast this year.
But the salespeople adjusted their prices and buyers were able to get a considerably lower price if they bargained. "Bargaining is desirable, if not necessary. Sellers are used to it," said Pahulja.
Keeping tradition alive
Although the sellers usually make a nice profit at the Ribnica Fair, to many it is equally important that their craft does not die out. One of them is Franc Jaklič, who has had a stall at all but the first two Ribnica fairs in the 1970s, when he could not come because he was conscripted in the military.
The maker of wooden tableware and dishes said that "sales used to be better at the Ribnica Fair, but they are still good. It depends on your products. If they're interesting, they sell well."
Apart from selling at fairs and through other vendors, Jaklič has a regular buyer in Austria. "I'm working together with a cousin. I make wooden containers of different sizes that are used for storing grains, and he makes wooden mills, so that the grains are milled just before they are used. Freshly ground flour is the best, because it contains the beneficial components."
The fair in Ribnica is the biggest tourism and ethnological event in Slovenia, dating back to 1976. During this time, it was cancelled only twice: in 2020 due to the Covid lockdown and in 1988 due to poor weather.
But the roots of this tradition go back much further. The wood crafts in Ribnica started in the 14th century, but it really blossomed after 1492, when the local farmers were allowed by the Emperor Frederick III to sell their grains, linen and wood products freely all across the Holy Roman Empire.
In the past there was not a farm in Ribnica and its surroundings that did not make wooden products, but now their numbers are dwindling fast, according to ethnologist Polona Rigler Grm of the Ribnica Handicrafts Centre. The young generation usually opt for more lucrative lines of work, while the traditional craft is slowly being pushed out by machines.
In an effort to keep the craft alive, the Handicrafts Centre is organising workshops and courses, as well as exhibitions and demonstrations of pottery and wood craft.