Maribor: Get off the piste, explore this Hapsburg gateway to the snow

New flights to Maribor will deliver skiers to Slovenia's slopes. But what about the city itself? Adrian Mourby takes a look

Ryanair's big new destination this winter is Maribor; three flights a week freight-lifting UK ski parties out of Stansted in search of cheap downhill thrills. Like everyone else, my first reaction was Mariwhere? The world has not heard much of this Slovenian city, even though it's pushing hard to be European Capital of Culture in 2012.

Red-roofed, sitting beneath vine-covered hills, Maribor is one of those Germanic ghost towns to be found all the way across Middle Europe, from the Baltic to the Balkans, from Stettin in Poland to Hermannstadt in Romania (now known as Sibiu). It used to be called Marburg and was famous for churning out textiles when it wasn't defending Austria from Hungarians and Turks.

Like all these Hapsburg border towns, Maribor/Marburg still has its share of faded baroque palaces, sturdy brick Gothic churches and affluent villas where the German-speaking lite entertained each other. Unfortunately, three things spoiled the city's Middle European idyll. During the Second World War, Marburg was formally annexed by Adolf Hitler, along with the rest of Slovenia.

Worse followed when the Allies carpet-bombed 45 per cent of the city, and worse still when the Communists reconstructed it in the 1950s.

As I stand on the banks of the Drava river I can see the gorgeous harbour district of Lent looking like a fortified and turreted medieval village composed of Playmobil, while above it sits the Maribor of Tito's time, made out of rusty Meccano and chewed Lego bricks. You just have to shut your eyes to all that "future of the proletariat" stuff.

However, there are still plenty of picturesque older buildings to see. Anyone who comes down off the slopes of Maribor Pohorje for a day will find the old Teutonic centre, give or take the odd 1960s concrete monstrosity, fundamentally intact. The castle, which formed part of the medieval city wall, has been given Renaissance and rococo makeovers, and is now a most curious shape, as though it were not quite sure of its purpose. It was here at a dinner in 1943 that Hitler proclaimed that he would make this land German again.

I presume the Fhrer, a notorious teetotaller, had not been at the local wine. This is a shame because immediately opposite the castle sits Vinag, an old complex of wine cellars running two square kilometres under the city. Maribor is the centre of a delightfully fecund wine-producing area. Look north from the castle and you can see Piramida, a hillside staked out in vines. In the 19th century there actually was a pyramid up there because such things were fashionable. Unfortunately it was struck by lightning and burned down. Now there's a chapel in its place.

Old Maribor has so many squares that walking across town is known as "square-hopping". In a particularly leafy one next to the castle I noticed a statue of General Maister, who fought to keep Slovenia from being absorbed by Austria after the First World War.

For many years he was considered a great Yugoslavian hero, but then the Austrian economy outstripped the Slovenian one and people began to wonder if they might have done better had Maister fought less well. Nearby grows a linden tree planted in 1991 to commemorate Slovenia's successful bid for independence from that same Yugoslavia. To a Slovene the "Lipa" is the tree of democracy.

Beyond this, on Ulica heroja Tomsica (the street of partisan hero Tone Tomsic) is the National Liberation Museum. It is housed in a faux-Renaissance villa built in the 19th century by an Austrian called Scherbaum who made his fortune baking Maribor's bread. The villa was nationalised after the Second World War, but Herr Scherbaum is not forgotten. To attract customers to his first bakery, he tethered a monkey, the first ever seen in Maribor. To this day if someone is unable to sit still, locals say, "Don't be like Scherbaum's monkey".

In Slomsek Square the city's German-speaking population left another unexpected legacy in the form of Maribor's very own opera house, an amenity not many ski resorts can boast. This one was constructed in 1851 and has an Italianate horseshoe-shaped auditorium.

Upstairs there is a bijou casino decorated with gilt and mirrored glass. The Slovene National Theatre, as this building is now known, also has a modern annexe with a grim Hall of the People that doubles for large-scale opera and symphony concerts. It was added in 1992 after independence but still looks uncannily like a Communist convention centre. Still, lovers of Soviet kitsch should not miss the 1980s foyer with its low ceilings and spiky, glass chandeliers.

The opera house shares Slomsek with the Cathedral of St John, whose exterior is a routine and harmless enough piece of ecclesiastical baroque, but beware of entering. In the 19th century some worthy idiots had the idea of gothicising the interior. Alas, they didn't get much further than ripping out everything that makes the baroque fun. Today the nave looks empty even when it's full.

The modern statue of Bishop Slomsek himself (1800-1862), just in front of the cathedral, commemorates the local hero who moved the seat of his Bishopric out of Austria and into Maribor. At a time when the Hapsburgs were trying to Germanise all their territories, this bold move was hailed as a great act of Slovene solidarity.

You can spend a day in this city and not run out of surprises. Head down to the quayside area of Lent and you're soon in front of a low medieval whitewashed gasthof called the Old Vine House. On its faade grows the oldest vine in Europe: 400 years old and still producing Modra Kavcina wine. Look the other way across the Drava river and there are the ski slopes, the best in Slovenia.

I hope the Brits who pile over here for cut-price skiing this winter will stagger off the slopes for a day and find out where they are. The ghosts of Maribor will make them welcome.

HOW TO GET THERE

Adrian Mourby flew to Maribor with Ryanair (0871-246 0000; ryanair.com), which offers return flights from 20.

FURTHER INFORMATION

He stayed at Hotel Piramida (00 38 62 234 4400); piramida@termemb.si), which offers double rooms from 116 per night. The Piramida has a sister property, Habakuk, in Maribor Pohorje, where doubles start at 176 per night.

Further reading 'Slovenia and the Slovenes: A Small State and the New Europe' by James Gow, Indiana University Press (16.50)

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