Slovenia is a small country in Central Europe. Small it might be but it has natural beauty, with mountains (Slovenia’s highest mountain, the three-peaked Triglav, is depicted on the national flag), vine-strewn hills, thick forests, historic cities and a 46 km long coast on the Adriatic. It is, in some regards, Europe in microcosm.
Slovenia was the first former Yugoslavian republic to join the European Union, in May 2004. Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia was almost bloodless, unlike Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
At the end of World War I in 1918 the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed, and turned into a multinational state named Yugoslavia in 1929. Slovenia became a republic after the Second World War in the renewed Yugoslavia, which although communist, was independent from the Soviet Union. Slovenes succeeded in establishing their independence in 1991 after only a few days of conflict.
One of the most attractive towns in Slovenia is the old city centre of Maribor. It’s famed for its oldest living resident – a more-than-400-year old vine. This elderly but well-documented plant still grows in front of the Old Vine House, which once formed part of the ancient city wall. The confirmed age is nearly 500 years and it’s in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest vine in the world still producing fruit.
It was planted towards the end of the Middle Ages and one can see paintings dated around the mid-1600s, showing the Old Vine leaning up against the same building as it does today. It has lived through invasions, fires, bombing, and pests which killed much of Europe’s vines. The Old Vine’s roots were so deeply embedded within the banks of the nearby river that the devastations of phylloxera could not take hold, as they had done throughout most of Europe.
There are more vines and wineries to visit outside Maribor and one can even get some exercise while touring them. There is a local company called Kulebike and they might offer a solution. One can hire bikes for short or extended periods. These bikes are power-assisted so even those of us who are less than perfectly fit can enjoy a comfortable ride. Helmets should be worn. The company provides set routes but they can also arrange tailor-made itineraries for individuals or groups, and even stays at some of the wineries, where you will be able to sample some interesting vintages and also home-made local culinary specialities. Some estates breed their own animals and make their own meat and cheese products, as well as traditional baked sweets and savouries. This is country living at its finest.
Slovenian cuisine is, unsurprisingly, greatly influenced by the food cultures of its neighbours Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary. Pork is big here and the animal is used in its entirety, producing succulent stews, flavourful soups and, best of all in my opinion, “ocvirki” which is cracklings or scratchings. I had them served as a topping for pizza. Sounds unlikely but that pie was the best I have ever tasted …and addictive. The most famous dessert from this region is called Pohorje Omelette, which is a beautiful light confection topped with cream, jam, fruit and mint liqueur.
But Slovenia isn’t just about rustic dishes. It has many contemporary and refined restaurants that offer traditional plates but also ones that show innovation and flair. The fine-dining establishments still take pride in local products but they are just as cutting-edge as one might find elsewhere in Europe, and the final bill will likely be a pleasant surprise.
Restaurant owner David Vračko has made his mark with Mak in Maribor. There isn’t usually a menu here as David is driven by what’s best at the market on the day. His only questions will be “Have you any food allergies?” and “What’s your favourite kind of food?” Mak is not only a restaurant but a culinary lab and is an oasis for those with a passion for food; and the wine list is excellent, with both local and international bottles.
So you have eaten well and enjoyed some rather good wines. Time to take a healthy hike. Slovenia covers just over 20,000 square kilometres, and has almost 10,000 kilometres of signposted paths. They start on the outskirts of Maribor – or drive a few miles and find another, more rural, landscape.
Hotel Habakuk is a celebrated Spa Hotel and Thermal Centre. Visitors can enjoy the indoor and outdoor pools after long walks in the hills behind the grounds. Warm whirlpool baths with thermal water will help ease those aching muscles. The water in the pools ranges from 29 to 35°C and is rich in minerals. A stay here offers a relaxing environment and fresh air. Winter sports are popular when snow covers the ground. The Spring tempts with walks through wild flowers, and Summer has balmy days and a slower pace.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018