Coming to Slovenia last year was sweet but coming back a year later was even sweeter. Our initial meeting was filled with excitement but a little trepidation: we had not seen our cousins Vesna and Bojan since we were children, now a lifetime later who would they be? Would we get along? And what of their families that we had never met? Is blood thicker than water?
The answer was a resounding “Yes!” There were many similarities we discovered: belly laughs, ear-splitting sneezes, a turn of the head, and a mutual love of good food, wine, and times. Welcomed home we were indeed.
When we left last year – we did not know when we would be back again. It would end up being sooner rather than later.
Phase 2 of our journey to follow Marco Polo’s path in history required a visit to the Vatican. In 1271 Niccolò and Matteo Polo, Marco’s father and uncle had delivered a letter to to the new Pope Gregory X. The brothers had returned from their travels in Mongolia at the Great Khan Kublai request. The letter asked the pope to send a hundred missionaries, and some oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher, the reputed resting place of Jesus, to Mongolia with the Polo brothers, and 17-year-old Marco. This was a key moment in the Polo’s journey and we knew that our own travels would not be complete without seeing the Pope or at least a visit to the centre of power, the Vatican today.
This second phase of our trip would have us exploring Marco Polo’s Italy. And, with Slovenia so close by and a family member’s health problem, it was clear we were coming back. With two trips in two years —this would be the real test. Were our relatives just being polite last year or was there a genuine family connection?
We didn’t have to wait long. The answer would be found in a quiet countryside road.
Slovenia loves wine and there’s a road that proves it.
Maribor is surrounded by vineyards. These picturesque hillside family vineyards offer tastings and food and even lodging, among some of the most enchanting views you will find in the world, including the heart road, (the curve of the road makes a heart) that draws visitors from around the world. Maribor is the second largest city in Slovenia and the capital of the Štajerska region.
The city takes its wines seriously with the largest St Martin’s Day festival in Slovenia. Thousands come out to celebrate the blessing of the new wines on November 11. The local Mariborčani believe this is the most important day of the year – more important than any public holidays…It certainly must be the most cheerful. We sampled some of the white wines that this area produces: Laški Riesling, Rhine Riesling, Chardonnay, Rulandec, Green Silvaner, Traminac and Muscatel.
We also meet the reigning Wine Queen who poured us generous samples at Dreisiebner family’s winery – owners of the viewpoint of the heart shaped road. We dare you to NOT take a selfie!The Wine Queen is chosen every two years and acts as an ambassador for Maribor’s winegrowers and the traditions of Styrian viticulture.
A rich wine tradition, warm hospitality and the view of the most romantic road in the world had us happily sipping wines all day.
A surprise treat for us was Maribor’s Vinag Wine Cellar, which is one of the world’s largest and oldest classic wine cellars in Europe dating to the 19th century. The cellar takes up almost 5 acres and is under the city with over 2.5 kilometers of tunnels capable of housing more than 5 million litres of wine.
For a few Euros you can take a guided tour through this wine underworld and enjoy two tastings. We entered the cellar by descended the 23 steps that symbolize the 23 stages of wine making, and entered a wine lover’s paradise. Rows upon rows of barrels, century old glass piping spoke of the long history here. Our guide pointed out Europe’s largest wooden wine barrel. Built in 1862, it can hold over 1600 litres of wine. But the heart of the cellar is the Archives, where over 80,000 litres of wine worth over 300 € each are stored. Mmmmm. A priceless and tasty collection.
Our guide explained how in its heyday, Vinag produced 15 million litres of wine a year but in 2013 through mismanagement, the company went bankrupt leaving the cellar abandoned until recently. New investors have taken on the brand, the cellar, and vineyards, and are currently producing nine Vinag wines such as yellow muscat, sauvignon, chardonnay, welsch riesling, pinot noir, and the mariborcan. Hopes are that the Cellar will be revitalized to its previous glorious past.
The tour was a special treat as our cousin Bojan joined us. He had worked there as a cellar master for over 20 years…our interest in wines comes from a family gene!
If you are interested in wines, then we suggest you follow the Maribor Wine Road Vinska Cesta. Start at the world’s oldest vine, Stara Trta, almost 500 years old and still producing, vist the Vinag Wine cellar and follow the Maribor Wine Road over Kamnica with St Urban, Kalvarija, Mestni vrh, Piramida, Meljski hrib, Vodole, Malečnik and Celestrina all the way to Nebova. And of course you must see the heart road, while sipping a white wine.
In Maribor skiing is king thanks to Pohorje mountain. In the summer there are many hiking and biking trails that crisscross the mountain and while we were there we watched a steady stream of mountain bikers heading up for the adrenaline trip back down.
Getting to the mountain is easy. A 10 minute city bus gets you to the cable car that takes you up for a few Euros. The view is outstanding. As we looked down we saw many making the hike up. Physical fitness is a big part of the culture here, and both our cousins and their parents were accomplished skiers. One of the most famous events in women’s skiing takes place here, the Golden Fox – FIS Ski World Cup.
The air is fresh and we enjoyed the quiet walk admiring the scenery and the pretty chalets. And the beer tasted very fine indeed at 1545 meters altitude.
Following a delicious buffet dinner at one of the mountain resorts with Vesna, Bojan and their son Nick, we headed to Kalvarija a 375 meters high hill St. Barbara church at the summit. There is a beautiful view but the main reason people come here is to challenge the 455 stone steps.
I counted 100 before we retreated in defeat. This is a popular training spot for the athletes and we watched young people running up and down the steps with ease!
We walked Maribor’s historic centre eating roasted chestnuts. The main square is filled with historic sights and a great place to watch people. Chestnuts are a popular street food found throughout Europe. As we bite into the warm nutty centre we were tasting a little history. Chestnuts have been around for thousands of years in Europe with street vendors in Rome dating back to the 16th century.
The perfect day ended with a visit to Vesna’s son Tommy, his wife Bojana, and their son Timmy, where a taste of local flavours awaited us. Plates of various sorts of Slovenian cheeseand meattogether with mast, and pohorsko pizza (dough topped with svirke) and fabulous drinks. Amidst the laughter that evening I looked around at the warm smiling faces and realized that we truly were with family.
There was one more stop that we had to make.
We had heard about the world’s first beer fountain. Located in Žalec, the hop growing centre of Slovenia, the fountain opened in 2016 and offers six different beers on tap including their signature green beer. You purchase a mug that you get to keep, for 6€. A microchip at the bottom of the glass allows you to choose six of the beers to sample.
The price tag of €350,000 to build the beer fountain was a good investment. We met one of the councillors who said over 150,000 people had visited Zalec Fontana in the first year. Beer had put a small town on the world map.
Slovenia’s beer industry is gaining a name for itself. We’d already been sampling the wines, and the night before we’d had the classic local white blend Mariborcan accompanied with both meat and cheese burek before going to bed.
You would think there would be no room after coming home from a delightful birthday dinner for Jasmina. Fried chicken, French potato salad, a staple, and lots of sweets and wines… but one thing we learned is that we don’t always eat because we are hungry… but because it just tastes so darn good! And that my friends applies to many other areas of life! Dobri tek! (Bon appetite)
The last few hours are the hardest. As we pack our bags, we marvel on all that we have seen and done in just a few days in Slovenia. Our relatives had expressed delight in seeing us return, and some had suggested we should make this an annual reunion. The thousands of miles that stretched between the New World and the Old World would make visits difficult but ultimately not divide us again.