Getting ready to be hip in the city of squares

The cultural spotlight is about to fall on Maribor. Adrian Mourby explores a little-known jewel

'Only one month to go!" says Branimir when we meet in Glavni Square. Few people could easily name Slovenia's second city, nor remember that it's one of Europe's twin Capitals of Culture next year. (Probably even fewer can name the other one, Guimaraes in Portugal.)

Besides very low public profiles, the two cities have something else in common: neither can boast an airport with direct passenger flights from the UK. "So will all Europe's eyes be upon us? I doubt it, don't you?"

Branimir has a German surname but a Slovene sense of humour. It was he who, on my first visit three years ago, introduced me to the dual nature of Maribor. Europe's new cultural capital is in fact two cities reflecting contending cultures.

From 1254 to 1919 German-speaking Marburg was a pantiled, fortified border township, founded to keep Hungarian and Ottoman armies out of Habsburg territories. Marburg rewarded itself richly inside these sturdy whitewashed fortifications, by creating baroque churches and rococo palaces. In 1851 it even built the sweetest little Italianate opera house that you have ever seen. Branimir loves the old opera house and laments that it's used only for theatre productions these days.

Then came the 20th century and at the end of the First World War; Marburg an der Drau transmuted into Slovene Maribor. It wasn't an easy transition. As Branimir reminds me, 80 per cent of the population was German-speaking. "Not surprisingly they wanted to be part of the new Republic of German Austria next door. My grandfather's family were German; my grandmother's family were Slovene. The Slovenes were in the minority in the city but not in the countryside."

A peace commission organised by the Americans was despatched to adjudicate. "The day it was due to arrive, our German population organised a demonstration to show that this was a city under Slovene occupation. We settled the matter with a shoot-out. Much quicker than a plebiscite, particularly as only the Slovenes brought guns. It happened in this square."

The leader of the Slovene partisans, Major Rudolf Maister, won that day in 1919 and Marburg became part of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. No wonder Maribor was on Hitler's wish list once he'd achieved the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia. "Make these lands German again," he decreed in 1941, after he marched in with his troops unopposed on 8 April that year.

After coffee at Huda Kava, Branimir walks with me as far as Maribor Castle, where the Wehrmacht gave a big dinner for the Führer prior to deporting the city's Slovene and Jewish populations. The castle has been under refurbishment for years to coincide with the beginning of Maribor's cultural year in the sun. Will it be ready? "What this city has done in the last three years is impressive," says Branimir. "But it's nothing compared to what we've done in the last two weeks."

Maribor's re-Germanisation phase did not last long. The Allies bombed the city in the closing years of the Second World War and in 1945 it became part of Tito's Yugoslavia. Now it was time for what remained of the city's German population to be expelled and for whole city blocks of Maribor to be rebuilt according to the architectural ideals of Soviet Brutalism.

North of the castle, Branimir shows me the statue erected to Major Maister in Mestni Park. "My father had German relatives who left in 1945. He used to say that sometimes he wished the Major had not been such a good shot. Our Soviet economic miracle never quite happened, you know."

In 1991, independence came almost peacefully to Slovenia, which simply slipped out of Yugoslavia, taking Maribor with it. Branimir rearranges some flowers at the base of the statue with his foot. "You try talking to kids about this. Independence has created a very passive generation. Materialistic. No spirit of any kind. I can't understand them – and I'm a teacher!"

He leaves me, with promises to meet up tomorrow. "I have paid work this afternoon," he tells me with a bow.

I call in at the opera on Slomskov Square to collect my tickets. I can understand Branimir's reservations. The lovely little opera house with its glass and gilt casino has been spoiled by a 1980s foyer with low ceilings and sputnik chandeliers. Sharing the foyer with the opera house is the Hall of the People, built in 1992 in the first flush of independence. Here the residents of Maribor will see in 2012 with a revival of Verdi's La Traviata. The capital of culture is an odd mix of old and new, German and Slovene.

Tickets in hand I wander from square to square trying to get my bearings. Crossing the city is known locally as "square-hopping" because you're never far from one. One of the most impressive is the triangular Grajski Square, with its view of the bizarrely truncated castle. Part of this comprises the north-east bastion of the medieval city walls. But the rest of the castle – a Renaissance palace constructed by the Counts Khiessl – can never be completely restored.

In 1871 it was sliced in two to build Grajska ulica, a new street running in from the demolished north walls. Two of the castle's four inner courtyards now gape open into the street. Fortunately the "new" staircase, built in 1727 by the Count of Brandis when he took over the castle, survived that crazy demolition. It's looking good now, ready for 2012, with a fresh coat of pink paint highlighting niche after niche of rococo statuary.

I continue, improvising my route and noticing that the pedestrianisation of Leon Stukelj Square has finally been completed. Stukelj was an Olympic athlete and Slovene partisan during the Second World War, but he was persona non grata under Tito because he fought with the royalists against Germany, rather than with Tito's communists. He died in Maribor in 1999 at the age of 100 and only now is being honoured as a hero. Unfortunately, the square – said to be the largest in Slovenia – is in a section of the city that had to be rebuilt after the Second World War. It may be big, but it lacks the charm of Slomskov Square, with its cathedral.

The next morning I hop my way to the Vetrinjski Dvorec, headquarters for the year as European Capital, where Branimir has been helping out.

I remember this building from when I was last in Maribor. It was looking a bit tired and graffiti-strewn then, but is now gloriously restored.

After an hour, word comes that Branimir is delayed, so I set off to explore on my own. There is a lot to see in Maribor and much of it has been polished and repainted since my last visit. The elaborate gilded Plague Memorial on Glavni Square is a splendidly over-the-top monument to the year 1680, when a third of the city was carried off. I take a peek into the cathedral too, but it's impressive only on the outside. Most of the Baroque ornamentation was removed in a lame 19th-century attempt at Gothic (about the same time that Maribor demolished half the castle).

Down in the old riverside trading district of Lent, I find a number of medieval buildings that were spared the worst of the allied bombing.

The Old Vine House, on Vojasniska ulica, is a former inn that boasts the world's oldest wine-producing vine clamped to its walls. There is a free exhibition about Slovenian wine inside. Nearby stand two impressive 16th-century defensive towers, both white, both roofed in Maribor's obligatory orange pantiles. The larger of the two is the formidable Judicial Tower bristling with cannon ports and overlooking the river at the city's western edge. At the south-east end, Jewish Tower, a similar structure built in 1465, is now an art gallery.

Maribor's synagogue, one of only two remaining in Slovenia, is another simple whitewashed, pantiled building. It might easily be mistaken for a part of the southern line of fortifications were it not for the Holocaust memorial outside: three blackened figures standing on a block of wood. Maribor deported just about everyone in the 20th century. The Slovenes drove out the Germans in 1919 and the Germans threw out the Slovenes in 1941. The Slovenes drove out the Germans again in 1945 and those who were left rebuilt it badly.

When Branimir finally finds me, we sit and reflect that Maribor today is not quite as picture perfect as Tallinn, the current European Capital of Culture.

"But you are a fitting capital because you remind us that Europe must never again destroy itself as it did in the 20th century," I tell him.

Branimir puts his hand on my knee. "Very good," he says. "You know, I think I told you that three years ago."

Compact Facts

How to get there

Adrian Mourby flew to Graz, 60km north of Maribor, with Austrian Airlines (0870 124 2625; aua.com) from Heathrow via Vienna. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; rynair.com) serves Graz non-stop from Stansted. You can catch a bus or rent a car to reach Maribor; Holiday Autos (0871 472 5229; holidayautos.com) offers a week's hire from Graz airport starting at £169. The alternative is to fly to the capital Ljubljana, which is served by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com).

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