Eastern Slovenia is strangely ignored by many, so be one of the few to enjoy the charms of the country's oldest town and take a bike trip on the gorgeous wine road
Most visitors to Slovenia concentrate their exploring in and around Ljubljana and Lake Bled, little realising that in the east of the country there is a gem of a mediaeval town called Ptuj and a nearby valley of wine producing that is delightful to ride through on a bicycle. If you are planning a visit to this country it is worth considering putting aside two days to check out this corner.
Day one - Ptuj
Ptuj has all of the vital ingredients needed for a picture perfect mediaeval town. The usual suspects of castle, cobblestones, square with cafes, narrow and winding streets, merchant houses, and clock tower are all present and correct.
The place is so small that you would have to put in a lot of effort to get lost. The best advice is not to bother with a map and wander the streets at random. This allows the pleasurable sensation of being surprised by the wealth of architectural styles on the turn of each corner. Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and neo-Baroque can all be seen in this one small town. Highlights include the 1907 town hall, 13th century Minorite Monastery and my personal favourite, the Dominican Monastery. This latter building has a pink façade with glorious stucco work that will have you reaching for the camera. Inside there is an archaeology museum with the cloisters being used as a dumping ground for an impressive collection of statues and bits of statues.
The castle (http://www.pok-muzej-ptuj.si/index.php) towers over the town’s red rooftops and is the star attraction. It dates from the 12th century, but received a Baroque makeover in the 17th century which gives it more of a palatial character than that of a formidable fortress. The approach to the gate builds up the anticipation of great things to come as you must ascend through steep, narrow streets that will leave many out of breath.
The central courtyard is horseshoe-shaped with a three storey arcade housing several small museums. The best of these focuses on the Kurent, an annual folklore parade celebrating the arrival of spring. People are dressed up in costumes with frightening masks and go from house to house warding off evil spirits. Several of these colourful and weird looking masks, with their long red tongues, are on show. The museum about the history of musical instruments is also fascinating with the treat of pressing buttons that allow you to listen to recordings.
There are some great views from the castle looking over the town and the bridges across the Drava river. The cafe in the courtyard is a lovely place to take a break. This cafe has perhaps one of the most extensive hot chocolate menus I have ever seen and it will take some dedicated studying to decide which one to tantalise your taste buds with. This is certainly not powdered stuff, but gloopy and dark with high cocoa content.
Day two - Ljutomer wine road
The second day can be spent on the Ljutomer wine road. There is no public transport, so hiring a car or cycling are the only options. The two wheel choice comes highly recommended as the road is not used by many cars, and the slow pace allows you to really appreciate the scenery.
I had never travelled through a wine growing area before and I assumed that it would basically be row after row of vineyards and not particularly riveting. How wrong I was! I have done lots of cycling in many different countries and this was one of the most delightful routes I have been on. Rows of curving, terraced vineyards took on a new exciting look at each bend in the road so that I was at risk of spending more time taking pictures than actually pedalling. The road is narrow and flanked by tall and slim poplars, houses festooned with colourful window boxes and gardens that are straight out of one of those magazines that give you tips about achieving the perfect backyard. Another thing to look out for are the kloptec - wooden rattles on tall poles powered by the wind that are used to frighten birds and, some say, to keep snakes out of the vineyards.
The trip begins in Ormož, a short train ride from Ptuj, where you can hire a bike at the hotel. I met the friendliest man in Slovenia at the reception of Hotel Ormož. This part of the country has not yet attracted mass tourism, so he was genuinely happy to welcome me to his town and thrilled that I wanted to cycle the wine road. He explained that most visitors are from Austria on wine tasting trips, but the town is desperate to attract other nationalities. Hotel Ormož is two star and caught in a bit of a 1970s time warp, but he said that there were grand improvements planned. The problem was that the town itself has virtually nothing of much excitement besides it being the start of the wine road.
About three quarters into the route is the town of Jeruzalem with its cute little church and lovely location with views of the curving vineyards. During my visit Slovenia’s latest pop babe sensation was making a music video here, surely the clearest proof that this part of the country is considered one of the most attractive. Yes, you are right; the town was named after the holy city. The crusaders who stopped here had such a great time that they gave it this name.
The tourist office has a large wine shop attached which provides a convenient means to indulge in some tasting. The cellars along the route prefer you to call ahead, but I wasn’t that organised so this shop made up for my poor planning. I don’t pretend to know much about wine but I understand that Beli Pinot is a favourite in these parts and I ended up with a bottle of this in my rucksack. If you intend to purchase more than a couple of bottles then perhaps cycling is not the best way to go, unless you have some panniers. You can always take a note of your favourites and then pick them up in Ptuji.
After you are finished with Jeruzalem the options are to return to Ormož or continue the last short stretch to Ljutomer and then cycle back. Although Ljutomer is larger than Ormož, it too has little to delay you unless a horse racing fan as the town hosts about ten races per year. There is a train station in town allowing you the chance to return your bike to Ormož the easy way, although this will require careful planning as there are only half a dozen departures per day.
I cycled to Ljutomer and then back to Ormož. Usually I get bored covering the same ground in the opposite direction, but the route is so lovely that I enjoyed seeing it again and taking photos from a different perspective. At Hotel Ormož the happy man on the reception congratulated me on completing the ride and was delighted as I enthused about the route with clichéd adjectives. I promised him that I would tell as many people I could to come and visit this place.
How to get there
From Ljubljana it takes about two and half hours by train to reach Ptuj. The first direct train will have you there for mid-morning which leaves plenty of time to see everything that the town has to offer. Fares are very reasonable at around €10 for a second class single.
Ptuj to Ormož is around twenty minutes by train and will cost barely €3. The Slovene Railways website is available in English and easy to use for planning these journeys (http://eng.slo-zeleznice.si/en/)
Where to stay
As these towns are small and not yet frequented by large numbers of visitors accommodation options are limited. In Ptuj there is the Youth Hostel Eva (see the attached video to see what the hostel is like and for some nice shots of the town itself). The €13 dorm rooms were fully booked when I was there, but I struck gold with my second choice, Apartment Silak, a three hundred year old house with modern and comfortable rooms. The house is entered through large double doors into a central courtyard with staircases taking you to balconies and the rooms. A double room is €50 per night.
The owner, Vladimir, is laid back and friendly. He invited me into his office on my last night for a beer and make use of my English language skills to help him write to various travel publications to get Ptuj and his business more publicity.
There is also a classy hotel, the 25 room neo-Baroque Hotel Mitra. It features Turkish and Swedish saunas, massage treatments, and a wine cellar bar featuring many bottles from the nearby vineyards. A double room costs €90 to €100 per night.
Where to eat
Ptuj’s status as a relative newcomer on the tourist scene means that the restaurant choice is not extensive. Ribic has a riverside terrace and menu devoted largely to seafood. The Pike perch steak with lemon oil, Provencal herbs, mushrooms and barley is particularly satisfying.
Amadeus (Prešernova 36) is a good place to try štruklji, cottage cheese dumplings that are a Slovene speciality.