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A tale of two cities

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Two cities in Slovenia, each with its singular charm and ambience, combine to give Jonathan Knott a full-on flavour of the Balkans


"As soon as you get to Maribor, you can smell the flavour of the Balkans," says guitarist Igor Bezget, explaining how his home city epitomises the crossroads quality of the region. "To me, it always seemed part of the city belonged to the west, and the other part to the east."


Lying close to the Austrian border on the river Drava, at the intersection of the Julian Alps and the wine-growing hills of Štajerska (Styria), Slovenia's second city is as close to Vienna and Zagreb as to the country's capital, Ljubljana - and even Budapest is within striking distance.


Maribor may not be a household name, but as European Capital of Culture for 2012 (alongside Guimarães in Portugal), now is the ideal time for visitors to discover its resurgent creative spirit and roster of eclectic events.


For two weeks at the end of June and the beginning of July each year, the sprawling Lent festival attracts over 600,000 visitors, with hundreds of live performances encompassing everything from ballet, to jazz, to street theatre. Stephane Grapelli and Ray Charles are among previous performers, and this year Bezget, whose work combines Indian music, gypsy swing, jazz and more, will be playing a career retrospective series of concerts.

 

LAYERS OF INFLUENCE


The Lent riverbank, where the festival is centred, is one of the most pleasant spots in Maribor to linger: it's home to the world's oldest vine (450 years of age) and a good starting point for a walk across the centre.


The city sat within the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries - the legacy is evident in a network of elegant squares, courtyards and facades - but has been subject to many subsequent layers of influence. Nazi occupation, Allied bombing, and Maribor's rise and fall as a Yugoslav industrial powerhouse have all left their mark on its appearance and character.


Tildo's bar, on Slomškov Trg near Maribor's cathedral, theatre and university, is a good place to get a feel for this inclusive yet elusive identity. Squeeze into its crammed space and order a 'Fuzl' – an ironic take on the Cuba Libre employing low-budget local ingredients – and you're well on the way to understanding the easygoing wit that runs through city life.


"I don't call my friends – I go to Tildo's," says theatre director Matjaž Latin, who adds that the bar is often full of actors, musicians and other creative types. He also has many happy memories of after-performance parties at KGB bar, an atmospheric former wine cellar in a hidden courtyard (the initials stand for 'Culture and Music Den' in Slovene). The venue hosts regular live events, including stand-up, theatre and music.


There's a global tinge to much of the city's gastronomy - like the gourmet teas at Čajek cafe, or the world coffees at Huda Kava (on Poštna Ulica, one of the liveliest streets in the city). The ice-cream at Ilich cafe is reputedly the best in Slovenia, while for a swanky meal, Rožmarin, with its extensive wine list, is a good bet.


Vladimir Rukovina, director of the Lent festival and lifelong Maribor resident, says that he appreciates the city's closeness to nature. The popular viewpoints at the Kalvarija and Piramida hills are a 10-minute walk from the centre, and the Pohorje ski and activity resort can be reached in a short time by bus and cable car.


Rukovina adds that ultimately there is something intangible about Maribor's appeal: "People are just different here," he says. "They're lively and very hospitable."


Alongside Lent, major annual festivals include the Borstnikovo theatre festival and Maribor Festival, known for its innovative approach to classical music. In addition, hundreds of one-off events are being held this year: some of the most interesting focus on regional cultural heritage, like the 'Kiosk Samoprispevek' exhibition (April to October), preserving memories of classic Yugoslav design.


Continuing the city's constant reinvention, some recent projects follow the example of KGB in putting disused spaces to new use. For exciting no-frills live events and DIY festivals, Igor Bezget recommends the independent cultural centre Pekarna (formerly a military bakery), and the recently restored Udarnik cinema.

 

CITY ON A HUMAN SCALE


But if Maribor's charm comes packaged with rough edges, then Ljubljana is a different prospect altogether. With its pretty cobbled streets and iced-cake Art Deco buildings, the city could hardly be more exquisite if it tried: a pint-sized capital you might wish you could put in your pocket and take back home.


Much of central Ljubljana's appearance can be attributed to the vision of one man, modernist architect Jože Plečnik. Ljubljana-based poet and cultural critic Ales Debeljak says that Plečnik's genius was to integrate fully the winding river Ljubljanica into the city's design, reflecting Slovenia's close relationship with the natural world. "The straight line and the curved line - culture and nature - cohabit brilliantly in Plečnik's work," says Debeljak.


Plečnik's Tromostovje ('Triple Bridge') across the river is arguably the centrepiece of the whole city, while his colonnaded market building on its bank hosts stalls each day except Sunday. Ljubljana's market extends into the square above the river, where colourful arrays of flowers, berries, fresh bread and dried meats provide a visual, if not an actual, feast.


The buzz of activity spills along the river into the boutiques, craft shops, restaurants and cafes of the old town – under the watchful gaze of the hilltop castle.


Ljubljana resident Zoran Predin, one of the best known singer-songwriters in Slovenia, says the castle's restaurant is a memorable dining experience: "They serve traditional Slovene food and excellent wine," he explains.


The medieval castle can be reached either by a funicular railway or on foot: opt for the latter and on your descent you'll certainly deserve a coffee or glass of wine outside one of the many riverside cafes. Beneath overhanging willow branches, the temptation to become as languid as the green Ljubljanica may be hard to resist.


The city's human scale is a big part of its appeal. Other peaceful spots are the expansive Tivoli Park and the botanical gardens. But with a large student contingent (one-fifth of the city's population), it also has a lively air, and punches above its weight in contemporary culture: the Druga Godba music festival is renowned across Europe, and frequent events are held at venues like Španski Borci, Kino Šiška, and within the Metelkova Mesto alternative cultural centre.

 

COSMOPOLITAN AND COSY


Zoran Predin, originally from Maribor, says Slovenia's top two cities are locked in a friendly rivalry, "like the one between England and Scotland." Capital dwellers see Mariborians as rowdy and boisterous; in return, their rivals jibe that if you spend any time in Ljubljana – which is built on a marsh – you should check that you don't develop webbed fingers.


Standing next to the cathedral and Triple Bridge in Ljubljana's central square is a statue of Slovenia's national hero: not a statesman or a general, but rather a romantic poet, Dr. France Prešeren, whose writings stirred patriotic sentiments in the 19th century. It's a reminder of how this small and remarkably diverse country views its history. "We have survived because of our language and our culture," says Predin.


Take a trip from Slovenia's Mediterranean coast, via the Alps, to its flat eastern plains – which can be done in only a few hours – and you begin to appreciate what an unlikely achievement this is. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of this year's Capital of Culture as not the title of one city, but rather a whole country, one whose defining characteristic is to combine the cosmopolitan and the cosy.


"Maybe it's because I look for connections rather than differences, but I don't feel like we are separate," says Bezget. "Somehow it all belongs together."

WAY TO GO

Four other Slovenian experiences…

Slovenian Istria – Piran and Portorož

Part of the Venetian empire for hundreds of years, Piran, at the southern end of Slovenia's 46 km stretch of Mediterranean coast, has a strong Italianate feel. The composer Tartini was born here in 1692: his statue is in the main square, and his violin on display in his old house. After losing yourself in the maze of narrow streets, try one of the fish restaurants on the 'punta' spit - then walk to the end, from where on a good day, you can see Trieste. Just south of Piran are the luxury hotels, spas, and beaches of Portorož.

 
Wine tasting

 

Slovenian wine is superb, and its many varieties a reflection of the country's diverse landscape. A peculiarity of the western Karst region is the deep-coloured, iron-rich Teran (Vinakras is a major producer), made from the Refosco grape grown in clay soil; the light, tart, pink-coloured Cviček is from the southern Dolenjska region; while sweet whites are the traditional Štajerska speciality. For tastings in and around Maribor, try the huge Vinag cellar in the city centre, or the medieval Ptujska Klet in Ptuj, 30 minutes' drive away. Otherwise, the 'wine roads' through Štajerska and elsewhere have many shops and vineyards. Check out Vinakras (www.vinakras.si/); Vinag (www.vinag.si); and Pullus (www.pullus.si).


Bear spotting


As the third most forested country in Europe, with natural gifts including the spectacularly beautiful alpine lakes of Bled and Bohinj, Slovenia is home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, boar, and an estimated 600 brown bears. For an experience that's out of the ordinary, Just Slovenia (www.justslovenia.co.uk) arranges bear spotting trips in Javornik forest in the southwest of the country. Packages, including flights, meals, accommodation at a family-run tourist farm and an overnight excursion, start at £523 per person.


Ice Breaker


Or head even further north on the world's largest nuclear-powered icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, a ship strong enough to break through ice many metres thick. At more than £14,000 a head, this certainly isn't a cheap option; you fly from Helsinki to Mumansk, board the icebreaker and essentially head north, returning 12 days later, having ridden in the ship's helicopter to view the incredible sight of the ice pack, landed on the ice by Zodiac, toasted the North Pole with champagne and even a dip in the sea, and with luck, watched polar bears hunting. Tel. 0845 805 9286, www.exodus.co.uk.

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