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There are lots of people who can’t name the capital of the little central European country of Slovenia, never mind its second city, my adopted home of Maribor. By the end of 2012 I’m hoping a lot more people have heard of Maribor and perhaps that some of them have visited the city.
Maribor is one of two cities (the other being Guimaraes in Portugal) to hold the title European City of Culture for 2012. I’ve visited several cities that have previously held this title (though not in the year in which they held it) but what I have noticed is that, as well as celebrating established cultural traditions and institutions, the City of Culture award has a long lasting effect. Having been already disappointed when the Newcastle/Gateshead bid for the title for 2010 was won by Liverpool I was delighted when Maribor’s bid was rewarded.
I'm biased, of course, but Maribor is - at least in terms of what the city has to offer culturally - an excellent candidate for the title. There's a thriving arts scene with a number of annual arts festivals scattered through the calendar, an outpost of the Slovenian National Theatre, loads of galleries both publicly owned and independent and numerous venues that cover a full range of musical genres.
For two weeks every summer the city is abuzz with the Lent Festival, an international arts festival that draws performers (dancers, folk musicians, lots of world music acts, etc) from around the world. Lent takes place over several stages, some outdoor, some indoor and some in partially restored old buildings that are used only for this festival. Many of the events require paid for tickets but there are lots of free fringe events and lots of free street performances as well as a rock music stage on the north bank of the Drava which is lined for the duration of the festival with fast food and beer stalls. Young and old come out each evening during the festival (the youngsters stay a bit later to see the headlining acts which are usually well known names in Slovenia and the former Yugoslavia) and have a stroll through Lent.
In 2011 various venues around the city staged a mini wold music festival which I'm hoping will be repeated in 2012. It's rare that really big names that would be known to mainstream audiences come to Slovenia at all, let alone to Maribor, but there are often visits from some of the biggest names in genres like world and folk music.
'Festival Maribor' takes place during the first two weeks of September (more or less) and is essentially a classical music festival which attracts visitors from all over Slovenia as well as many visitors from neighbouring countries. At the other end of the spectrum there's an annual rock music
Pictures of Everything that starts with C ...
dancing at the Old Vine Festival
festival at Mariborski Otok, an island in the Drava just outside the city while the Magdalena Festival is (to quote their website) "an international festival for designers, copy writers, illustrators, directors, web hackers, mobile freaks, young professionals, amateurs and students - essentially all creatives under the age of 30 acting in the world of public communication." I have to also mention 'Pekarna', the city's 'alternative quarter'. Pekarna means bakery and the old buildings of what was once a bakery are now used as venues and rehearsal spaces for alternative bands. Graffiti art is encouraged and all of the exterior walls look really colourful. If you've ever been to Ljubljana you might be aware of Metelkova Mesto which is that city's equivalent to Pekarna. Rock and metal acts from all over the world (though obviously not the biggest ones) play at Pekarna and kids from all over eastern Slovenia come to the shows. A brand new hostel has been built on the site, ideal for kids who can't get home after concerts.
In Autumn we hae the Old Vine Festival, a week long celebration of wine and wine culture, as well as quality locally produced food. At the same time there's also Performa, a festival covering all of the performing arts. All of these festivals will take place as usual during Maribor's hosting of the City of Culture but I hope that the accolade brings more people to enjoy these, and all of the other events that take place year in, year out regardless of the City of Culture status.
Special additional events are planned for 2012 though information about them has been slow in being announced. Finally we are starting to learn what's in store but foreign visitors need to plan in advance and I don't think the information is being publicised early enough.
Since I first arrived in Maribor in 2007 I’ve thought that the regional tourism office could do a lot more to promote the city and the region. Don’t get me wrong, we get our fair share of tourists but most come for specific events during the year but trying to do something outside of the immediate event can be frustrating mainly because there appears to be an over-reliance on the main event and little thought given to the extras. This is a trait of not just the tourist office but entertainment venues and other attractions. This can be a case of incomplete information being given on websites or programmes for major events not being available in other languages, or not being available at all.
Sometime during our first visit to Maribor we noticed some people out on the tower of the cathedral but we couldn’t find any information about being able to do this ourselves. We asked at the tourist information office and were told to ask at the cathedral. At the cathedral we were told it was not possible. The next time we visited we saw people up the tower again but we were busy house viewing so we asked again in January. A lady in the tourist information office made a phone-call and told us it wasn’t possible to climb the tower because it was too dangerous in winter. The next time we asked we were told again to go to the church and someone would be there to help. There was nobody. Another time they took our number and said they’d make the arrangements and call us back. We waited so long that we’d left the town centre and gone home when we eventually got the call telling us to go at once to the cathedral. It took until 2011 to finally climb the tower. This is just one example of how difficult things can be in Maribor.
In 2009 we were there during Lent and dropped in at the tourist information office to pick up a programme only to be told they didn’t have any, we’d have to walk round to the Lent ticket office to get one. Admittedly it’s not far but surely the tourist office should have plentiful supplies of the programme for one of the Maribor calendar’s most popular events?
Some of the tourist information staff are brilliant but some appear to be unable to think outside the box. There have been occasions when we’ve gone in for information about something and the staff member dealing with our enquiry has referred to a leaflet. When we’ve asked to take the leaflet with us we’ve been told ‘But it’s not in English’. Our Slovene is slowly improving but English is far easier to use when asking for information in the tourism office, that’s not to say, however, that we can’t understand basic information like opening times (usually written in a way that transcends language barriers) and besides, we’ll only learn more by reading things like this in Slovene. Credit where it’s due, though, one lady working there did dredge up from some dark corner of her mind the name of a brew pub that has become our favourite Maribor haunt and another told us about an English stand up comedy night which we now always go to if it coincides with our stay.
We'd been going to Slovenia regularly for three years when Ryanair introduced flights to Maribor in 2007 and we thought it was about time we got ourselves over to the eastern part of the country. Unfortunately Mr. O'Leary got greedy, demanded more money from the local government and when it wasn't forthcoming he used the plane to fly to Zadar in Croatia instead. By then we'd bought our flat and we were in love with Maribor. At the end of 2011 we heard another airline was going to run flights from London to Maribor putting down in Vienna en route. I was dubiuos about booking with them because I'd never heard of the airline and I was concerned that we'd get an email telling us the flight was cancelled due to low ticket sales. A daily service was advertised on their website and flight after flight was cancellled due to low ticket sales; finally one flight was due to take place but was cancelled at the last moment when it transpired that the airline did not actually own any aircraft and had been unable to charter one.
Now we fly from London Stansted to Ljubljana or to Graz in Austria. It;'s a two hour train journey from Ljubljana to Maribor, or one hour from Graz. The problem with flying into Graz is that unless the flight arrives very early you just miss the Maribor train and the next one is not for another three hours. Wouldn't it make sense for Slovenian railways to run a small shuttle service to meet the train and get people into Slovenia quickly? We tend to hit the pub in Liebnitz while we wait for our connection across the border but surely the Slovenians would prefer that we spent our money there rather than in Austria?
We are aiming for 2012 to be the year we move to Maribor for good. Mentally we've already made the move. It's a wonderful friendly city that has the best of urban facilities and countryside right on the door step. On the edge of the Pohorje Massif it's a ski town but it's also well known as a wine growing city. Every year we play host to the Zlata Lisica - the Golden Fox - a prestigious slalom and giant slalom event on the womens' FIS tour (we're also hosting the University Winter Games in 2013) while the largest classical wine cellar in Europe lies under the city centre and visitors come from all over the world to see the harvesting of the Stara Trta, the oldest living grapevine in the world. We have smart city centre hotels including a really swish new one on the Drava riverside, gorgeous chalet style hotels and guesthouses at the Maribor Pohorje ski resort and numerous hotels that specialise in spa therapies. Wine tourism is popular with many wine producers and tourist farms offering lovely accommodation in the countryside.
Culture? We have it in abundance and, what's more, the people of Maribor do take part in it. I haven't personally heard anyone from Maribor grumble about the European City of Culture; on the contrary people are excited by it as I am sure they are in the partner towns (Ptuj, Velenje, Murska sobota, Slovenj gradec and Novo mesto) that will also host events.
Maybe you'll come to see Maribor for yourself. 2012 is going to be a great year in Maribor and I can't wait to share it. As we say in Slovenia 'Srecno novo leto!' (Happy new year!)