On the way to Ptuj (pronounced P-too-ee, in case you’re interested) we stop for lunch in Celje, a small town with another castle. For a quarter of the entry price to the one in Ljubljana we get a delightful hour exploring ramparts, climbing towers and enjoying views over the countryside. A large courtyard is set with a stage to host concerts and there are some virtual reality screens (Neil declines his picture with a medieval knight) but it’s much more tastefully done than in the larger city. We even get a voucher for the cafe!
The land flattens as we travel east and, as it always does, a part of me stays in the hills and mountains we drive away from. I was born amongst hills and have lived in them all my life – I will never be a flat earther. Ptuj is a bump in the flat, a wide river flowing beside it, low hills in the distance. A large building surmounts the hill – the castle, we later learn, although there are no turrets and it looks merely a large house.
A tower pokes above the roofs, its red bulbous top glowing bright against the blue sky. It seems almost purple in the setting sun. We arrive at our accommodation and the host shakes our hands and introduces himself as Vladimir. I manage to stifle my seriously? If ever anyone looked like they would turn into a bat overnight it is this man. (You’ll need to have seen What we do in the Shadows to get this.) He is charming and helpful, chatting to us for half an hour, suggesting a walk around the town (which takes less than an hour) and things to see in the area. His wife Lydja, is the same, constantly asking if we have everything we need. It’s a lovely place to stay.
The rolling hills, their slopes lined with vines, draw us towards wine country. But wine tasting in Slovenia proves more challenging than in New Zealand. The advertised wine trail meanders along scenic, narrow country roads through vines heavy with fruit. But cellars marked on the map appear to be homes, no obvious signage and no obvious signs of life. Eventually we find one that has a welcome sign and a young woman answers our knock. She leads us to a small tasting area under the house and pulls a few bottles from the fridge. It’s very nice and the cheapest cellar door wine we’ve ever come across.
Maribor is the centre of the local wine industry and home to the world’s oldest vine, apparently 450 years old. How they know this I have no idea and the helpful lady in TIC can’t answer when I ask. Maybe it’s the size – it climbs up the side of a building and creeps along it for almost a hundred metres.
A couple of streets away is the largest wine cellar in the country. Dating from the late nineteenth century, corridors – lined with enormous barrels and concrete tanks, some newer stainless steel – stretch under the buildings. It’s cool and damp, mould covering the arched ceiling, and smells of must, of age. Somewhere in the depths there’s a steady drip, drip. Our footsteps echo and my shivers aren’t merely because of the cold. It’s been unused for nearly a decade, its location in the centre of Slovenia’s second city proving too difficult for access.
Back in the warmth of daylight we sit for a wine tasting. For eight Euros we expect the standard couple of sips in the bottom of the glass but have to stop the pour as it becomes obvious we are about to get a glassful. Despite our insistence that we only want a small taste we get a 100ml glass with each of six wines we are tasting, then the hostess insists on only charging for one of us as we ‘had such small pours’.
I’m sad to leave Slovenia; I’m not sure we’ll ever come back. With every kilometre we drive I bank another memory and, having been away from home for nearly two months now, I already have a lot to look back on. Probably the only thing we won’t miss are the insects. We seem to be tasty morsels for all the locals and both resemble a Yayoi Kusama artwork. (Something was clearly trapped in my bra at one point – I now have a cluster of bites the shape of a dinosaur on my left breast. Despite Neil’s entreaties, no photo exists of this phenomenon.)
Slovenians have an unsmiling face as a default demeanour (which I share). But they are some of the friendliest people we’ve met on this or any other trip, right up there with Kiwis. They smile when you talk to them, and they clearly appreciate that you choose to visit them, keen to ensure you have a good experience. They have some strange habits, but don’t we all? It seems normal for young men to remove their shirts at every opportunity and walk around bare-chested, even in cities. Older men don’t remove their shirts, but they will roll them up under their arms to expose their stomachs. The Slovenian diet being rather heavy (originally, I imagine, to sustain a hard outdoor lifestyle that most people no longer have) you can imagine how attractive that sight is.
On that subject – we’ve had some lovely meals here, especially delicious fish on the coast, but there comes a point when you’ve simply had enough sausage or pork and you want something a little less stodgy and a bit more, well, green. There are many stews and soups I would have loved to try but it’s simply been too hot and not the weather for a hearty bowl of Slovenia’s finest. Come winter in a few months I’ll be ready for it but, for now, I’m looking forward to a fresher diet with fewer potatoes and less cabbage. Other than that, I’ll miss Slovenia and its people.