Tales from a wonderful week cycling in the vineyards and wandering in the forested mountains of Maribor, Slovenia. We drank blueberry brandy, rafted in style and made friends with a small skunk.
Maribor itself is a charmer of a city, relaxed and easy to walk around. Katie and I wandered in the centre past flower shops, inviting-looking little pubs and locals zipping about on bikes. The narrow streets and egg-yolk yellow houses, topped by red rooftops, lead down to the river front, where swans bob on the water. In keeping with Maribor’s wine-loving vibe (the locals here say even the air is 2% alcohol. That’s my kind of city), you can even visit the oldest vine in the world, now a museum and wine tasting bar serving up local vintages. Who says museums are dull?
The best way to explore Maribor doesn’t involve pounding the city streets at all – Mariborian raft cruises on traditional wooden platforms are my new favourite way to drink ever. Taking cues from the log rafts which once thronged the Drava river, transporting timber north, rafts are now an excuse to get a little bit merry of a morning as an accordion band play silly songs and ladies in dirndls ply you with bread and cured meat. The raft meanders lazily along the river and into the heart of the city, with all aboard clapping their hands and singing (well, we tried to sing but mainly we just chanted nonsense that sounded a bit like Slovenian).
The day after our boozy Maribor adventure it was time for something a little more rugged. The sun had disappeared and the skies loomed grey for our mountain biking trip in the mountains of Pohorje National Park, but that didn’t scare Katie and I. We togged up in waterproofs and took a cable car high up above forests of pine trees cloaked in mist to meet our guides, the lovely Gregor and Alen, who took us on a muddy but delightful tour of the little lost paths of the forest, carpeted with blueberry plants. This whole mountainside is a skiers paradise come winter, but summer and autumn are perfect for hurtling down the grassy slopes and twisting roads on bikes or horseback.
As we puffed our way up higher we met cheery locals out collecting mushrooms who showed us the beautiful fat porcinis they’d collected and gave us glugs of wine from their backpacks. I do like Mariborians. Suitably refuelled we cycled on, past a beautiful still lake, perfectly mirroring the line of dark trees fringing it.
We stopped for lunch at a little mountain chalet, or Koce, for some local delicacies – rich mushroom soup served with buckwheat, following by ricotta pie and a few healthy measures of blueberry brandy (borovničevec), which is my new favourite drink. Three or four shots of potent liquor at lunchtime, right before a massive mountain bike ride, is the kind of thing that seems totally normal in Slovenia, and we were definitely all very warm despite the now driving rain as we hurtled back down the little winding roads towards the valley.
Halfway down Gregor suddenly stopped us. “Quick! Come and look at this!” he said with an air of equal excitement and mystery, and we followed him with baited breath towards a beautiful old wooden house tucked beside the road. Gregor led us into the garden and pointed dramatically at a little skunk, looking back inquisitively at us from his hutch. Meanwhile, the old lady living in the house watched quizzically from her doorway at the four mud-splattered cyclists standing in her yard in torrential rain giggling a little too loudly. We all made it back to the bottom of the mountainside in one piece, and the hotel staff were very nice about Katie and I dripping all over their posh carpets.
Katie and I were staying at the Hotel Habakuk, a modern and friendly place with a gorgeous pool and spa – manna from heaven after an autumnal bike ride in the rain. Even better is the hotel’s location – at the bottom of the Pohorje hills, in winter Habakuk is ski-in ski-out, which means that the rest of the year you can hike out into the hills in about a minute. Suitably restored after a dip in the pool I walked halfway up the mountains side and looked out at Maribor in the distance – the sun even came out to bath its red rooftops in a warm glow.
All the Slovenes I met were unusually fit and healthy (especially considering they’re surrounded by vineyards and honey farms), and we had a taste of the Slovenian Good Life the next day at the Drava Water Centre, nestled on the edge of the river outside Maribor. Our lovely guide, Tania, took us down to the jetty where we collected brightly coloured kayaks and launched off into the water. We took it easy, paddled gently down the wide river in warm sunshine, exploring little inlets and making friends with curious swans.
Their creative nous is reflected in the weirdest and most charming local tradition – the winter spirits, who come out on the streets to dance during Carnival every year. These costumes of leather, bone and sheepskin are traditionally worn by young men once they come of age. I was completely mesmerised by their odd masks and enormous, heavy coats – I am totally coming back in February to watch them cavort in the snowy streets, bells clanging, as they scare away winter and welcome a new spring.
I wasn’t sure there was much more loveliness to be squeezed out of Maribor, but our last day was a beaut. Our friend Jernej introduced us to a new scheme for the area – KULeBIKE. This genius company combines two of my favourite things by renting you electric bikes and then giving you a map of local vineyards to visit. You can go for the day or for a few, and there’s little more relaxing than cycling (not very hard) past windmills, fields of waving corn, sunflowers and brightly painted old cottages from one winery to the next.
We had a pitstop at the Mulec Winery, where Katie and I helped pick the sunsoaked grapes hanging from the vines, before wolfing down their homemade sweet cherry jam with fresh bread. And, to my extreme excitement, we got to say hello the farm’s semi-wild deer, who came up inquisitively and nibbled grass out of our hands.