Slovenes tell us that a few years back, Celje, the country's third-largest city, was the fastest growing in Europe. Whether or not this is true, it suggests just how much room for growth there is east of Ljubljana. Though Celje itself does not hold much to interest the first-time visitor, it's worth setting aside a few days in July to visit neighboring Lasko, a gorgeous town that holds a weeklong celebration in honor of its main product: beer. Don't miss this lively festival if want to witness Slovenia's penchant for polka bands, street parades, and all-night merrymaking. Other than this, three destinations beckon in Slovenia's northeast: the salubrious riverside university town of Maribor, whose citizens seem entirely given over to idling in cafes and soaking up the atmosphere along its tiny waterfront; Ptuj, once a Roman stronghold; and, farther east, the vineyards along the peaceful Jeruzalem Wine Route (easily taken in as a day trip from either Ptuj or Maribor).
Not yet on the beaten tourist trail, but an important historic town in Slovenia's little-discovered southeast, is Novo Mesto, at the heart of some of the country's most pristine countryside and a good base for exploring a number of gorgeous villages or setting out to discover the region's unique wine vintage, Cvicek. A visit here is also an opportunity to stay in a gorgeously restored 13th-century castle, in one of the most luxurious hotels in the country.
Maribor & Ptuj
There's a congenial air about Maribor (www.maribor-tourism.si), Slovenia's second-largest city. Straddling both banks of the River Drava, with its historic center to the north, Maribor evolved as a market town in the early 13th century. Today Maribor is a pleasant university town; its position at the foot of Pohorje Mountain, garlanded by winegrowing hills, gives it an idyllic aspect. The Drava itself has plenty of spots for swimming, fishing, and even sailing, while south of the center, Zgornje Radvanje is a base for mountain activities in the Maribor Pohorje ski resort.
It's worth climbing to the top of the Cathedral Tower, located in the historic center, to get a bird's-eye impression from the wraparound viewing platform, then exploring Vinag Wine Cellar, Trg svobode 3, behind the renovated city castle (tel. 02/220-8111; www.vinag.si); comprising 2km (1 1/4 miles) of subterranean caves that run right beneath the city, the cellar provides storage for up to 5 1/2 million liters of wine. South of the castle is Grajski trg, a pedestrian cafe haunt, where flea marketers operate at weekends. Head south past more shops and bars to reach the city's main square, Glavni trg, fringed by lovely architecture and centered on Straub's majestic 18th-century Plague Monument. For many, the highlight of Maribor is a ramble along the waterfront promenade, centered on a small, salubrious area known as Lent, the city's principal docking port before the arrival of the railway in 1862. Lent is defined by its pleasant bars and cafes, but the most famous attraction here is the Stara Trta, at 400 years supposedly the world's oldest living vine, and the June Lent Festival.
From Maribor, Ptuj (pronounced pit-ooey) is a short drive along bucolic back roads. Called Poetovio by the Romans, Ptuj (www.ptuj-tourism.si) became a town in 977; with its hilltop castle and cobblestone streets, it feels every bit the medieval stone-walled fortress. Like Maribor, Ptuj straddles the banks of the River Drava; the Romans put greater Ptuj on the map when they grew the population to 40,000, transforming it into one of the largest provinces in the empire, an important trade point along the road linking the Mediterranean and Baltic seas. Today, the population has dropped to 20,000, but its Roman and medieval heritage continue to lend it considerable charm. Ptuj's Gothic-era City Tower marks Slovenski trg, at the heart of the old town. Near the foot of the tower is the Orpheus Monument, a 2nd-century Roman tombstone used as a medieval pillory to which wrongdoers were tied and ridiculed by the townsfolk. Behind the tower is the Gothic St. George Parish Church. Just beyond the church is the market, and nearby -- on Mestni trg -- the century-old City Hall. Beyond the square, along Kremplijeva ulica, is the Minorite Monastery; ring the buzzer marked ZUPNIJSKA PISARNA, and a monk will arrive to take you on a tour. In summer classical concerts are occasionally held in the large open courtyard. Several routes lead up to the town's main attraction, 11th-century Ptuj Castle (www.pok-muzej-ptuj.si), overlooking the city and affording panoramic views of the surrounding landscape; you can drive or walk up the steep cobbled pathways, or take the signposted steps from Presernova ulica. Call ahead to book a guide (tel. 02/748-0360).
Usually quiet, even empty, Ptuj comes to life each year on Shrove Sunday, when 50,000 people gather for the Kurentovanje Festival, when revelers take to the streets in their startling Kurent masks and fantastical traditional costumes in an outrageous pagan celebration that is traditionally an attempt to magically stave off winter, but is today an awesome excuse for a raucous party.
Where to Stay & Dine
In the northeast, you'll probably want to bed down in either Maribor or Ptuj, preferably in the historic center, where there aren't a whole lot of options. Note that you can also stay along the Jeruzalem Wine Route.
In Maribor -- Hotel Piramida (tel. 02/234-4400; www.termemb.si; 120€-136€/$152-$173 double) is a bright, modern, professional business hotel just a few minutes' walk from Maribor's main drag. The room rate includes access to a recreational spa (pools, Turkish baths, saunas) just outside town. Hotel Orel (tel. 02/250-6700; www.termemb.si; 110€/$140 double), entirely renovated in 2006, is a well-located, simple hotel in a historic building overlooking the main square.
Maribor has two excellent restaurants. Novi Svet pri Stolnici, Slomskov trg 5 (tel. 02/250-0486), is a top choice for seafood from the Dalmatian coast; try the sole (morski list) with truffle sauce or share the Fish Feast (ribja pojedina "Novi Svet"), a seafood platter for two. Toti Rotovz, Glavni trg 14 (tel. 02/228-7650; www.mednarodne-kuhinje.com), has a massive subterranean cellar that dates from 1874. The international menu has a strong Slovene bias, highlighted by great choices like filet of red scorpionfish with truffles, roast veal, escalope of wild boar, and grilled squid. Finish with sour-cherry strudel, and be sure to order a bottle of local Vinag wine.
In Ptuj -- Occupying a prime position on the town's oldest street, Park Hotel Ptuj, Presernova 38 (tel. 02/749-3300; www.parkhotel-ptuj.si; 108€-126€/$137-$160 double), is a welcome addition to Ptuj's accommodations scene; the neat guestrooms are furnished with antiques. Until the Park opened its doors, Hotel Mitra, Presernova 6 (tel. 02/787-7455; www.hotel-mitra.si; 61€-81€/$77-$103 double), occupying a historic building on the same street, was for many years the only place to stay in the center; at this writing the hotel was closed for extensive renovations, hopefully looking significantly improved, although this is likely to drive prices up. Reserve a room on the second floor; those higher up have ceiling windows preventing you from seeing out.
The nicest place to eat is Gostilna Ribic, Dravska ulica 9 (tel. 02/749-0635; www.gostilna-ribic.si), where a seat on the riverside terrace is an ideal place to enjoy a bottle of wine and some excellent freshwater fish. Particularly good is the trout (postrv), but you can fearlessly try the mixed seafood stew, served at the table.
Touring The Jeruzalem Wine Road
Drive 30km (19 miles) beyond Ptuj, to Ljutomer, where you can pick up a Jeruzalem Wine Road map from the tourist office (tel. 02/584-8333; www.jeruzalem.si). Then head off for gorgeous vineyards and their accompanying cellars; 20km (12 miles) from Ljutomer is the hilltop village of Jeruzalem, so named by the crusaders. From here, set off for Kog for a memorable tasting at Hlebec, Kog 108 (tel. 02/713-7060). Owner-sommelier Milan Hlebec will pour noble vintages produced by his family -- responsible for some 18,000 vines, including local favorite, sipon. You can enjoy a hearty lunch, and if you're not up for driving back, stay the night in the guesthouse, which has good en suites.
Slovenia's Undiscovered Southeast
Less than an hour from Ljubljana, in Slovenia's little-known Dolenjska region, Otocec Castle Hotel, Grajska cesta 2, 8222 Otocec ob Krki (tel. 07/384-8900; www.terme-krka.si), offers perhaps the finest overnight opportunity in the country, with 16 stylish, contemporary rooms and suites within the fabulously restored thick, solid walls of a distinctive castle built as early as 1252. Enjoying a romantic position on a pristine patch of green in the middle of the River Krka, it is the only island castle in Slovenia; I'm pleased to report that standards of comfort and service (which is friendly, intelligent, and personable) do justice to the aristocratic theme. While staying at the castle, you're able to use the facilities at the nearby Hotel Sport, including all kinds of spa treatments. But the piece de resistance is the excellent restaurant (in summer, the courtyard is magical) where you can sample the region's famous -- and reputedly unique -- light red wine, Cvicek, accompanied by impeccable cuisine. Doubles cost 260€ ($330), including breakfast.
While Otocec may not be the most famous destination in the country, it's a perfect base from which to explore the nearby town of Novo Mesto (just 10 min. away), where one of Slovenia's best museums shelters a fascinating archaeological collection. Unraveled at the Dolenjski Museum is the country's ancient history, traced from the Stone Age through to the early medieval period. A particular obsession here are the "situla" (urnlike vases); an ancient people buried their dead in these urns, large numbers of which have been unearthed hereabouts. The Dolenjska region, of which Novo Mesto is the center, was especially well endowed with princely Situla gravesites, where the urns are especially decorated. Not far from Novo Mesto, you can visit a small, private open-air museum, Musej na prostem Pleterje (tel. 041-63-9191; www.skansen.si), where you can take a peek inside a traditional wooden house; with prior arrangement, it's possible to sample wines made at the strict Carthusian monastery just across the road. You can then visit part of the monastery to buy more wines to take home; just don't subject yourself to the punishing audiovisual presentation about the monks. Alternatively, hire a bike from the museum and explore the surrounding hills and countryside.
Incidentally, more budget-conscious travelers will be thrilled to learn that Novo Mesto recently saw the opening of one of the finest hostels I've laid eyes on. Hostel Situla (tel. 07/394-2000; www.situla.si) has been fashioned from a historic building right on the town's main square and features designer dorms and private rooms with immaculate shared bathrooms. Mattresses are thick and firm, and even the linens have been specially designed to keep with the theme -- the integration of archaeological heritage with modern design -- that's suggested in eye-catching motifs throughout the building. There's a restaurant, bar, and wine cellar, and an on-the-ball staff with round-the-clock reception. Dorm beds go for 17€-19€ ($22-$24), whilst private singles are 22€ ($28) and doubles 44€ ($59). If there's a place that's likely to set a new standard for desirable budget digs, this is it.