I have known about the Slovenian town of Ptuj for years, and it has always been for me a symbol of travelling frustration. Driving from Split to Austria used to involve a prolonged stretch of non-motorway road through northern Slovenia, with Ptuj a constant on the signs. Having slowed from the 130 km/h on the motorways to the national speed limits in Slovenia, Ptuj just never seemed to come. And when it finally did, there was still a large section of slow road to negotiate once one had passed Ptuj. It was a town I decided I would never visit.
Years passed, and after I moved to the northern Croatian town of Varazdin, Ptuj was on the road to Ljubljana, complete with motorway once we passed Ptuj. This time, the hard-to-pronounce town looked a lot more appealing, as I saw a magnificent castle perched on a hill, overlooking the Drava. My years of frustration with the slow transit through Slovenia were passing. Less than an hour by car, Ptuj looked like a very interesting day trip for the family.
A little research online showed that Ptuj was not only the oldest town in all Slovenia but surely one of the prettiest as well. This drone video was an excellent introduction to the charms of the town, and we decided on a day trip this weekend.
Getting the kids on board for trudging around historic old towns is never easy, but then I came across this video of the Terma Ptuj waterslides, just part of Ptuj's booming wellness and spa tourism industry, I knew I had the hook to get them in the car. While we wouldn't go to the aquapark that day, there was the possibility of returning soon if we all liked the town.
I love living in Varazdin after years on a Dalmatian island, for there are so many things which are accessible. Hungary is 30 kilometres away, Slovenia just 20, and a weekend in Graz is just 2 hours by car. Ptuj was about 40 minutes away, closer than Zagreb, and if it was as cute as it looked, perhaps it could become a more frequent part of our lives.
It was a LOT cuter than any of us expected, this despite the fact that it was a cloudy Saturday afternoon in October, hardly the liveliest time of year to explore. First impressions were of the obvious pride that had been taken in the destination. Colour coordinated flower arrangements were everywhere, adding another level of quaintness to the historic streets.
Spectacular towers, churches and castles at every turn, and we had the streets pretty much to ourselves for much of the afternoon.
First stop the Ptuj Tourist Board to get a map and some orientation. The VERY helpful lady in the tourist office was keen to help, pointing out a few things to visit on the bilingual map. Yes, she confirmed, Ptuj is indeed the oldest town in Slovenia, dating back to 69 AD, which means... 2019 will be quite a celebration in Ptuj, as the town turns 1950. I was already feeling a little seduced by our western neighbour.
The tourist board website does an excellent job of explaining the many historical sights, so there is no need to cover them all here, but Ptuj's Roman heritage is most publicly demonstrated with the Orpheus Monument above, a second-century tombstone for the Mayor of Poetovio, Marcus Valerius Venus. The tombstone took on another use in the Middle Ages, when it was used for public punishment.
Tourism in Ptuj dates back to the second half of the 19th century, with visitors attracted by the mild climate, rich tradition, great wines and healthy waters of the Drava - the very same reasons many visitors are attracted today.
“Citizens of Ptuj invited travelers to come and see the remnants of the city’s glorious past, they praised its mild climate and good wines, and recommended bathing the rapid and clean Drava.” (Marija Hernja Masten, Staro mesto ob Dravi)
I knew about the wellness and spa tourism around Ptuj, but not about the vibrant birdwatching - according to the tourist board:
"The largest Slovenian lake is at the same time also one of the most attractive ones, as over 230 bird species can be found nesting in the protected area around the water. These include rare and protected species, such as cormorants, common terns, and black-headed gulls, and birdwatchers from all over Europe migrate here to observe them."
And while Ptuj Castle majestically dominates the Ptuj skyline, it is not the only castle in town:
The Turnišče castle park is a protected monument due to its importance. The garden designed in the baroque style was expanded together with the castle complex at the beginning of the 19th century, when English garden features were added. The park still boasts its remarkable specimens of the red birch, oak, linden tree and sycamore. Next to the park, stream Studenčnica flows into natural lakes, whose banks became important nesting ground and habitat for a number of birds due to overgrowing.
The waters of the Drava have played an important role in the life of Ptuj since Roman times, as has another liquid for which the region has become rightly famous - wine.
The Ptujska Klet is Slovenia's oldest existing winery, dating back to 1239, with its oldest current vintage from the 1917 harvest. The cellars look magnificent, and a tasting of their Pullus wines is high on the list for our return visit.
In the meantime, this lovely tour of the Pullus wine story behind the scenes should be enough to whet the appetite.
Wine tasting options seem to be all over town, as well of course in the local restaurants - there are several walk-in options in historic buildings in the centre, such as this one above.
And so the short walk up to Ptuj Castle. Magnificent views of the Drava, and it is not hard to understand how Ptuj has been an important trade point over the centuries, with its commanding views over the Drava. And if there is a chance to grow some grapes... The orange-tiled roofs were a joy to behold.
There was a very natural feel about Ptuj, which descends into fields almost immediately on the other side of the castle, and various herbs were in abundance within the castle compound.
It was a very short walk from the centre of town, and typically charming.
The views were fabulous, and the city tower was most impressive of all, with its onion-shaped rooftop. One of the tower's curiosities is that there are only three clocks on the four sides of the tower, with a clockless wall facing the castle. This is due to the fact that the castle owners decided not contribute to the building of the clock, and so Ptuj's citizens decided not to place a clock facing the castle.
Did I mention how helpful the tourist board was? Having spent a lot of my time in tourist board offices of the former Yugoslavia over the last 10 years, Ptuj's was mightily impressive indeed, both in terms of information and organisation, as well as the exhibits on offer, including the costumes of Ptuj's best-known festival
Lonely Planet singled out Kurentovanje as one of the ten best carnivals in the world, on par with those in Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and New Orleans. Kurentovanje features a number of folk and carnival parades, the carnival promenade, presentations of traditional costumes, concerts, masquerade balls, exhibitions, and so much more, divided into ArtFest, EtnoFest, and KarnevalFest. Kurentovanje 2019 will be from January 28 - March 5.
And then we found it. A truly fantastic arty cafe called Musikafe which was an oasis of colour and creativity, with fabulous seating both inside and out.
And a drinks menu which oozed healthy options and creativity - this family of four was in heaven. Musikafe is also a bed and breakfast, and a mental note was made for a romantic getaway in the future.
But above all, it appears, Musikafe is a location which celebrates the arts. Days of Wine and Poetry being one of the festivals hosted there.
A look back at this increasingly international event via YouTube, above.
The more we looked and talked to people, the more this gorgeous town of just 18,000 people, seemed to be punching above its weight with its cultural offer.
In fact, it seemed that there was something cultural going on throughout the year. With Christmas fast approaching, I wondered how romantic this superb old town might look with the addition of some festive cheer. I will be back to find out in a couple of months.
Ptuj, I forgive you that decade of travel frustration as I waited for the motorways to be built. You are simply magnificent, and I am glad to have found you. Better late than never, and with my favourite beer in all the cafes, I am losing count of the reasons to return.
For more information about Ptuj, visit the official Ptuj Tourist Board website.