Maribor & Ptuj: Old Vines, Ancient Festivals
Text & photos by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
I’m at a shrine to wine – the oldest grape-producing vine in the world, located in Maribor. Over 400 years old, the vine has been tested by numerous genetic and DNA experts to document its longevity. Even the Guinness Book of Records has corroborated and registered the “Old Vine.”
Nearby is The Old Vine House, a superb information center for anyone wanting to visit the many vineyards in the area – there are over 28,000 wineries – an astounding figure considering that Slovenia is the size of New Jersey.
The Old Vine House also serves up hundreds of Slovenian wines that are available to taste or purchase on premises. Additionally, there are exhibits and lectures on the extensive history of winemaking in the area.
More wine history lies beneath the streets of Maribor at the Vinag Wine Cellar – the largest wine cellar in Europe. Tunnels built in 1836 stretch over 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) and hold over 5.5 million liters of wine. The property’s Wine Library alone contains more than 250,000 bottles.
Rok, a wine seller at Vinag, takes me through the cellar. As we walk down into the inky-black, musty-smelling tunnels, I feel goosebumps and chills down my back. But Rok seems confident, leading the way with a drippy candle, while our footsteps echo down the long, long dark tunnels. We pass hundreds of old barrels, concrete cisterns and bottle upon bottle of cobweb-covered wine.
Vinag wines are produced from 17 distinct vineyards in the northernmost part of Slovenia. The vast number of vineyards helps, in part, to explain the incredible numbers of wine. As is typical in Slovenia, most of the selections are white, with everything from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling to Pinot Gris and Muscat.
Back upstairs in the bright Vinag Tasting Room, we sample a sparkling wine – Penina Royal Brut 2008, a cuvée composed of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Traditionally made in Méthode Champenoise, the wine has a delicate, floral nose and an equally light fruit finish.
The single varietals from the Classic line are light and refreshing. I taste the Chardonnay and Rhine Riesling, both from 2011.
Not surprisingly, there are dozens of wine bars in Maribor. Moreover, the city is the site of Univerza v Mariboru (University of Maribor). So a moderately large population base coupled with hundreds of university students all help to support the lively local café scene.
I stop in at Vinoteka Slovenskih Vin (Slovenian Wine Shop) for lunch. Located on the Drava River, the vinoteka is housed in a historic and picturesque old water tower that was part of the city’s defensive walls in the mid-16th century. And here too, yet another ancient cellar is used to store wine. The Vinoteka offers over 500 selections – just in case you had any lingering doubts about how serious Slovenians are about their wines.
PTUJ: SLAVIC FESTIVALS AND TRADITIONS
Pretty Ptuj (Pronounced “Ptooey”) is the oldest city in Slovenia and maybe the loveliest. It’s Medieval buildings, towers and rambling cobblestone streets have been painstakingly preserved – that alone makes it worth a visit. But Ptuj is also the center of the most celebrated Slavic festival, a ten-day-long carnival called Kurentovanje.
Well over 100,000 people pour into Ptuj in the spring to watch as local men and boys go from house to house dressed in Kurent costumes – horned masks with long red tongues and sheepskin cloaks. The Kurents shake bells and make noise with wooden sticks to drive away the last remnants of winter and any residual evil spirits that might try to hang on through the summer.
If you miss Kurentovanje, you can still see a number of costumes and photos of the popular festival at the Ptujski Grad – a castle in the center of town that’s been converted into a museum. Built in the 11th century, Ptuj Castle was occupied by the Lords of Ptuj until 1945, when Slovenia was forced into Yugoslavia.
The Castle Museum’s permanent displays consist of a number of distinctive items. A collection of over 300 rare musical instruments includes a Roman double flute from the 2nd or 3rd Century, known as a Tibia. The palace Armory has more than 500 weapons and armor spanning from the 15th to the 20th century.
The Museum also houses precious Brussels’ tapestries and one of the world’s largest collections of Turqueries (paintings with Turkish motifs) from the 17th century.
But the exhibit most frequently visited is, of course, the wildly unusual costumes from the Kurentovanje. How successful the Kurent are at vanquishing winter might be questionable. But they’re guaranteed to make you smile.