The lush landscapes to the east of Ljubljana – where many of the country’s most reputable vineyards are concentrated – are generally less explored by travellers. But as host to Slovenia’s second city, Maribor, and oldest settlement, Ptuj, which lie on the main routes to Austria and Hungary respectively, the region can reward the passing visitor with its rich historical heritage, traditional culture and fine wine.
Top image: Maribor © hbpro/Shutterstock
Located 122km northeast of Ljubljana, Maribor is perched snugly on the Drava River between hillside vineyards and the Pohorje mountain range. Though beset by war and occupation, the old town’s beautiful architecture preserves myriad historical and cultural influences, and the nightlife is unrivalled outside of Ljubljana.
Maribor’s main attractions are condensed in a pedestrianized centre. Looming over Trg Svobode, the imposing, St Mary’s Franciscan church catches the eye first. Opposite the church, Maribor Castle houses the regional museum. Nearby delve into the labyrinth of underground catacombs that make up the Vinag Wine Cellar, stopping to sample some of the acclaimed vintages. On the western fringe of the pedestrianized zone sits the photogenic Slomškov trg, a serene, leafy opening surrounded by a few landmarks, including the university building and the elegant Slovene National Theatre. Opposite the university, and mimicking its distinct yellow colour, is the sixteenth-century Gothic Cathedral Church, with a bell tower that offers fantastic views to the edges of the city and beyond. South of Slomškov, another charming square, Glavni trg, epitomizes the hopscotch architectural styles of the city. Its centrepiece is the Baroque Plague Memorial, erected after the deadly disease wiped out a third of the town’s population in the seventeenth century.
Between Glavni and the Drava River, the streets become narrow and uneven, as you enter the oldest part of town, Lent, which hosts a myriad of open-air events during the Lent festival in late June and early July each year, comprising two entertaining weeks of street theatre, dance performances and jazz, rock and classical concerts. It is here that the world’s oldest productive vine, a protected national monument, grows majestically outside the Old Vine House. Inside, a small exhibition complements the range of top-quality, reasonably priced vintages from the area.
Just a short bus ride or cycle southwest from the centre is the sprawling Pohorje mountain range. Take the hourly cable car up the slope, where – depending on the season – you can hike, mountain bike, horseride and ski, or simply sit and admire the glorious views of Maribor and the countryside surrounding it. The website www.pohorje.org has detailed information on activities in the area.
Ptuj is arguably Slovenia’s most attractive town, rising up from the Drava valley in a flutter of red roofs, and topped by a charming castle. The streets themselves are the main attraction, with scaled-down mansions standing shoulder to shoulder on scaled-down boulevards and medieval fantasies crumbling next to Baroque extravagances.
Ptuj’s main street is Prešernova ulica, an atmopspheric thoroughfare which snakes along the base of the castle-topped hill. At its eastern end is Slovenski Trg, home to a fine-looking sixteenth-century bell tower and the Church of St George, dating from the twelfth century, with an interior distinguished by some spectacular frescoes. From here Prešernova leads to the Archeological Museum, housed in what was a Dominican monastery until the eighteenth century. Its likeably dishevelled cloisters now display medieval and modern stone carvings. At either end of Prešernova, cobbled paths wind up to the castle – featuring an agglomeration of architectural styles from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries – which now houses the carefully presented collections of the Ptuj Regional Museum.