In the final part of a mini-series of blogs detailing the locations in Europe where I focus my alpine attentions, we turn to the least well known of the areas chronicled, Slovenia’s second city Maribor and its Pohorje massif:
Pros: One of my trio of stays in Maribor was at the Hotel Orel, perfectly situated in the city centre. Translated as Eagle, the Orel in name only gives a glimpse of Eastern Europe as those of my generation might remember it. In the days of the Warsaw Pact, Tito’s Non-Aligned movement, and the Iron Curtain prior to now ex-Soviet and Yugoslav republics seceding, names such as Orel, eagle, depict in my mind at least a strong Communist mindset which enveloped all aspects of society, including tourism. The modern-day Orel is a perfectly adequate place to stay, but the theme of where West meets East, or vice versa, is very strong in Maribor. Whilst Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana can at times feel to be and resemble an Austro-Hungarian city, Maribor whilst of course of the same country but near Slovenia’s eastern extremity feels more Eastern European. That is emphatically not a criticism nor a reflection on living standards but having travelled extensively within Austria and elsewhere in Slovenia there is something quite different about Maribor, undoubtedly pleasingly so both experiential and as a counterpoint. Slovenia is generally regarded as not being one the countries that makes up the Balkan region, although in recent years the pejorative ‘Balkanisation’ term has been increasingly used, to negatively describe government competency and standards in public life.
Maribor is compact and architecturally sound, perched on the river Drava which contains one of only two Slovenian islands; the other being at Lake Bled. With parkland, vineyards, including the oldest vine in the world, and fine shopping within the centre and out-of-town Europark complex, Slovenia’s second city is truly a city break destination in its own right. Its Pohorje range of rolling hills tops out at 1543 metres above sea level so hardly mountains of the vertiginous and craggy, but this heavily forested corner of north-eastern Slovenia more than punches above its weight as a hiking, biking, and winter sports destination. Its relatively unpredictable snow record is obviously linked to a modest altitude, but Pohorje is just as likely to have too much snow than not enough. Its geographic location is not ideal for receiving large amounts of snow but when the conditions are right, a range of piste are serviced by a gondola cableway, chair and drag lifts. The Golden Fox women’s Ski World Cup slalom event is held here every January, conditions permitting.
Cons: The tourist offering in Maribor does still have a tendency to feel a little behind the curve, and if anything geared towards the business market. Neither of these issues are necessarily a bad thing, but a number of stark, albeit sleek but utilitarian hotels have more of a corporate feel about them than being cosy, tourist boltholes. Despite the vast scope for a lengthier stay in Maribor and its immediate area, I am not sure that some of the city’s hotels are aimed towards or ideal for longer vacations. There are terme spa/wellness complexes where it is entirely possible to never leave the hotel, but these fall outside the scope of this blog and my interest.
Accessing Maribor, and indeed the rest of Slovenia, is a difficult proposition from for example the UK. With a lack of direct flights to Ljubljana in no small part precipitated by the demise of flag carrier Adria Airways, Maribor itself has a fit for purpose airport that has been left to wither on the vine. The location of what was thought to be a scheme dreamed up in cloud cuckoo land transpired as such, with plans by a Chinese operator to base dozens of wide body aircraft at Edvard Rusjan Airport a veritable flight of fancy. It is though no laughing matter when a fine terminal building, funded by EU munificence, sits idle for no good reason than a glaring lack of cooperation between pertinent stakeholders in the area, with the Slovenian government dragging its feet on the subject. A joined-up approach between accommodation providers, tourist associations, charter/package airlines, and tour groups would surely bear fruit that Maribor’s vineyard would be proud of, but an area of outstanding natural beauty replete with outdoor opportunities throughout the year and with genuine city break credentials is being ignored by those who simply do not know it exists because of an absence of collaborative marketing and initiative.
Although Slovenia is the only country within the European Union that does not receive flights from Ryanair, dial back to 2008 when the Irish low-cost carrier actually began flying into Maribor but soon pulled out when financial subsidies were allegedly not forthcoming. Whatever the whole truth is and how one views the need for state subsidies to attract and keep visiting airlines interested, nearly fifteen years have since passed where Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport has failed to get anywhere near fulfilling its potential, and that of the wonderful area of Slovenia it represents. As it stands the best way to access Maribor is by train from Ljubljana, assuming of course that one is able to fly directly in to Brnik in the first place. Otherwise, a low-cost flight into neighbouring Graz on the Austrian side of the border is an alternative, albeit less authentically Slovenian choice as a means to an end.
When reading the reviews of trips to lakes Bled and Bohinj, the mountainous Bovec and Kranjska Gora, cosmopolitan Ljubljana, and Adriatic coastal towns Piran and Portoroz, it is easy to see how Maribor keeps being overlooked by foreign tourists. I emphatically do not wish to see the city and its surrounding countryside overrun with thoughtless visitors, but there has to be a middle ground where it finally receives the recognition and the necessary joined up thinking from those who matter that the area deserves.
As ever, I do not seek through these blog posts to cover every positive and negative angle of what an area consists of. That is for readers to delve into after hopefully being encouraged to do so after reading, in what is of course a genre high in subjectivity and opinion.