One day I visited Ptuj Wine Cellar, Slovenia's oldest, started in 1239. An employee led me into the dark 500-year-old cellars along a path between huge fermenting barrels. He flipped a switch and on came a sound and light show, complete with the gurgling of wine being poured. He showed me the archive of 7,000 old bottles, including a 1927 white valued at $10,000. (Tours, by appointment, are available in English.)
On my last day, I hiked back up castle hill to keep an appointment to tour the Ptuj Regional Museum that now occupies the castle, part of which dates to the 11th century. Slovenia is a country of castles (there are 600 with at least walls standing), and this museum is caretaker of treasures from some of them, as well as from some of Slovenia's 3,000 churches.
Some history has been lost along the way, however. "Some of the pieces we have are a complete riddle to us," said Irena Bezjak, my guide that day.
You'll see some Biedermeier furniture; an impressive weapons and arms collection; and a fine assemblage of vintage musical instruments, including a 2nd century Roman flute found in Ptuj in the 1980s.
One hall is devoted to Kurentovanje and the kurents. Pausing in front of a group of costumed figures, Bezjak explained that a costume weighs as much as 80 pounds and is as "hot as a sauna" inside. "If you drink alcohol, it is not possible to even walk around," she said.
The costumes, she added, must follow tradition. The wool leggings may be red or green, but the feet must be shod in black boots, "not sneakers." Kurents from the right bank of the Drava River tend to wear horns; those from the left bank, feathers. "Don't ask me why," she said. "Nobody knows."
For a taste of local culture, Kurentovanje is the ideal time to visit Ptuj — but bring your long johns.
The town also has three annual fairs dedicated to saints. St. George, who was a soldier, is celebrated April 23 and St. Oswald, also a soldier, on Aug. 5; St. Catherine, the patron of philosophers and preachers, is celebrated on Nov. 25. Merchants from throughout Slovenia and from Croatia set up stalls, and people flock to the old town to eat, drink and socialize, as they have since the Middle Ages.
If you're visiting Ptuj, it would be a shame to bypass Ljubljana. Although the capital has been touted as "the new Prague," that's a bit of an overstatement. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable two days there on the way to Ptuj, but I felt that was long enough. The lovely old town is decidedly finite, the new town decidedly uninteresting. Besides, there wasn't a kurent in sight.
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Ptuj dressed up and ready to party
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Ljubljana, the capital, is offered on Air France, Air India, Air Tahiti Nui, Lufthansa and US Airways. Restricted round-trip airfares begin at $1,534.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 386 (country code for Slovenia), 2 (city code for Ptuj) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Garni Hotel Mitra, 6 Presernova Ulica; 787-7455, http://www.hotel-mitra-fm.si . The best choice, with perfect location in historic old town building. No-frills rooms, no elevator. Inviting bar-cafe. Doubles from $85, including full breakfast.
Hotel Poetovio, 5 Vinarski Trg; 779-8201, fax 779-8241, http://www.memoria.si . Modern hotel with cafe, bar and casino near train and bus stations. Doubles about $48, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
Gostilna Ribic, 9 Dravska Ulica, 749-0635. Ptuj's finest. Seafood is the specialty at this riverfront restaurant in a vintage house. Three-course dinner menus, about $13-$18.
Gostilna Amadeus, 36 Presernova Ulica; 771-7051. Pleasant, moderately priced old town restaurant serving struklji (filled dumplings) and other regional specialties. Good salad "boutique" (bar) at lunch. Dinner main courses, about $9.50.
Gostilna Pri Tonetu, 13 Zadruzni Trg; 788-5683. On south side of river, opposite the old town, an unpretentious local favorite known for authentic Slovenian fare. Dinner main courses, about $7-$8.50.
TO LEARN MORE:
Ptuj Tourist Information Center, 3 Slovenski Trg in old town; 779-6011, http://www.ptuj-tourism.si .
Slovenian Tourist Office USA; (954) 491-0112, http://www.slovenia-tourism.si .
— Beverly Beyette