Sometimes we are in a rush and assume that it is possible to see, experience and understand everything in only a couple of hours. Contemporary tourism marketing makes us think that it is just a matter of money and we can become somewhat locals in a city or country and have a short overview of its culture. We are also wrong when stating that it is not worth visiting a small, unknown place or one that we have already seen before.
The truth is that if we really want to catch the spirit of a foreign world and gather some valuable inspiration, it does not work if one does not take their time. My current trips have not only taught me this lesson, but also the fact that even if many of us have daydreams about the distant horizon of the sea or gigantic ice peaks of mountains, sometimes there is much more if we look around and start appreciating what we are surrounded with. It is not enough to plan some financially expensive, but spiritually cheap, exotic ideas, if we do not learn how to really open our minds.
One of these pleasant surprises for me was Celje (Cille), the third largest city of Slovenia, that I have already mentioned due to its charming and famous old castle. After going to the old town I assumed that there were only a few things to see and Celje is a relatively modern city, which is rather for living, not for history or sightseeing. Well, I was completely wrong, and I had to learn that this place was far more than just a beautiful castle sitting on a hill.
First of all, I have to talk about the city museum, which is located in a fascinating palace with its gorgeous balcony and loggias, most probably built by a noble family from Italy. The original reason of the building is not clear: most probably it was also the home of the local lords, but later on it was turned into a court and then a school for a while before becoming a museum.
The variety of exhibitions there is incredible: downstairs you can see different rooms dedicated to particular people who were important to the city or the country, such as Juro Hrašovec, the first prefect (mayor) of Celje. Apart from the developments he did for the city, his everyday property and heritage, such as furniture, official documents, pipes, tobacco, board games and so on also demonstrate the nearly one hundred years-long period when he used to live.
Another exhibition is dedicated to Alma Karlin, a famous journalist and traveler from Celje, who had visited many places all around the world including Africa, South America, Japan, China, India, Tibet and many islands on the oceans. She wrote many books about her adventures in German and used to be one of the most popular authors of this genre back then, while the objects she collected still provide us a short overview of her amazing journeys.
However, my favorite was the room of Anton Perko, a sailor and painter who made plenty of breathtaking pictures, mostly of the sea, the Adriatic coast, harbors, cliffs, the sailing ships and port cities with their fairytale-like Mediterranean streets. His style was mostly romantic, but I could also notice many impressionist, realist and historist elements, that made the observer get inside the universe of the painting and feel the vibes of the moment, which is frozen on its canvas.
The last time when I felt something like that was the gallery of Ca' Rezzonico in Venice, which city, by the way, is called Benetke in Slovene.There were artworks about naval battles as well, like the sinking of Ré d´Italia, a famous Italian battle ship attacked by the Monarchy's admiral Tegetthof, the legendary hero who was, as a matter of fact, born in Marburg an der Drau, today known as my current city, Maribor.
The upper level of the museum is also keeping some gifty for us. Namely, we can discover the huge halls and rooms of the palace where the original owners actually lived. There the different exhibitions represent different eras in the history of art, starting with the sometimes scary religious statues of the middle ages and followed by Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo exhibitions with many paintings and frescos, and while watching them I had the feeling that the Italian family really tried to create an environment that reminded them to the laughing hills of Tuscany and the green fields in the valley of Po here, in the heart of Slovenia...
The palace is only one part of the museum though. The other collection is located in the Prince's Palace (Knežji dvor), a medieval castle which was built down in the old town. Just as Maribor used to have two castles, Celje still does: one on the hill and one in the city centre. Apart from being a very genuine sight, this castle was established exactly above the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Celeia, that is why the exhibition is referred to as mesto pod mestom, so the city under the city.
Going down on the stairs to the dark showed us a completely different world: paved streets, altars, columns, statues and a necropolis (graveyard) with many tombs including engraved epigrams and texts, that were carved by people who lived thousands of years ago. The spiritual, intimate, wonderful and eerie moment I felt while walking in the middle of a dead city made me think about the transience in the past, but also in the future, while I tried to imagine how the life looked like when Celts, and later on Romans came here.
Our tour guide had a funny saying that Celeia is like Pompeii but without a volcano, but we also got the information that Slovenia had queens both from Poland and Hungary (Barbara Celjska, aka Cillei Borbála, wife of Emperor Sigismund). Well, as we know and I mentioned before, Slovenia was never a country until 1991, but I guess she meant that there were queens coming from or being connected to Celje and nowadays Slovenian territories somehow.
By returning to the sunlight from the depths of the lapidary, we should also enter one of the great churches of the city while walking on the boulevards, such as the Saint Daniel Cathedral (Župnija Sv. Danijel).
If you need some treasure hunt, feel free to find the other great monuments of the city, that are a bit spread all around, but it is worth to look for them. One of them is Kvartirna hiša (Billet House), but Celje also has a Vodni stolp (Water Tower) just as Maribor, and also a Gledališki stolp (Theater tower) at the theater (gledališče), that indeed has very authentic and antique shapes and curves.
Regarding further clerical buildings, cross the bridge above the clean, running waves of river Savinja at the city park (Mestni park) and start climbing upon the hill on the other side. First you will find a Capuchin monastery (Kapucinski samostan) that you can approach on the stairs.
Then there is something from a completely different culture: the Herkulovo, Roman temple of Hercules, which is remained in its ruins until today. Although there are only a few wall foundations and coloumns left and the place is completely abandoned and covered by the vegetation, it nearly takes you to the same time travel and gives you the same spiritual vibes as the underground city of Celeia.
If you go ahead deeply into the forest, and walk among the pines, ferns and mosses, you will see some boards guiding you to the church of Saint Nicolas (Sv. Miklavž) and Saint Cecilia (Sv. Cecilija), which are both located in an amazing area on the top of the hill. However, the greatest visual magic you can get will find you if you arrive at Razgledni stolp, the View tower.
To be honest, the place is rather some sort of platform or truncated tower and is not quite tall, but actually it should not be, because it provides a 360 degrees experience on the valley where Celje sits, while on the other side there are some billowy slopes and hills.
It is also very special about the city that it is not built around, but next to the river, thus it is in the edge of the centre, which is totally visible from our spot. And of course, you can also admire the legendary Old Castle in the distance that seems to be like a fantasy world left on earth. The majestic rocks and proud towers of the castle hiding in leaves and bushes are always full of the sounds of eagles and hawks, as it has to be.
Last but not least, I would like to mention the natural environment a bit more. Namely Šmartinsko Lake, which can be found north from the city, but Jama Pekel, the famous cave is also nearby. The town of Šentjur is waiting for us with some enchanted, dark and scary pine forests, just as in the old Slavic and Teutonic myths, while we can get to the ruins of a castle if we are able to find the way (good luck, because honestly I could not).
This wood is indeed a place, where one needs to hear some human sounds, even if they run away from the civilization, because after a while a world full of loneliness, beasts and evil spririts can occure in our minds, it is such an intact nature. Another popular town may be Žalec, which got its original German name, Sachsenfeld after the saxon tribes.The similarity of the names with Czech town Žatec is maybe not a coincidence: as many beerlovers know about žatecký chmel, a famous Czech type of hops, the Slovenian Žalec also has its agriculture and industry connected to this plant.
Yet probably the most famous town close to Celje is Laško, that one can also approach by bikes. The original reason is the fact that the well-known, iconic beer of Slovenia, Zlatorog (named after the mythical chamois from the tales) is produced here in a local factory.
However, since the name of the town was also included in the trade mark, people started calling it simply as Laško. That is why there is also a festival of beers and flowers in the city every summer, but it is also known as a location for spa and there are many nice churches, chapels and monasteries in the surrounding hills like almost everywhere in Slovenia.
Laško is much more than the capital of a beer company: the lovely town, which lies in the valley of Savinja, gives you a friendly, cozy welcome with its bridge and riverside full of colors and flowers.
In spite if its small size, there are some (mostly German speaking) tourists and some cultural life here all the time, and it is also a pleasure just to walk in the streets and forget about the everyday rush for a moment. The forests and mountains are also incredibly unbelievable: again, like being in a fairyland or a romantic painting.
Although the genuine castle of Laško is not a museum and it is sort of private, you have the chance to approach it, but you can also continue to get to the very top of the hill where it stands. A hill, that exactly looks like the way how children usually draw mountains, since it is getting narrow towards the top and points directly to the sky with its pointy peak. Pure imagination, becoming true.
I also had the chance to, let's say, explore the missing parts of the daily panorama I can see from my home window. Namely, besides Pohorje and Boč, the third significant mount in the more extended area, which I can observe everyday from my flat, is the faraway cone of Donačka Gora (Mount Saint Donatus), that looks like an ancient volcano or a witness tip - a remain of ancient mountains from the beginning of times.
I almost gave up my hopes to get to the beautiful giant standing close to villages like Rogatec. The public transportation is so rare and complicated in Slovenia that I did not have any chances at all to get there by train or bus, but fortunately we could rent a car and approach the place from Sveti Jurij, which belongs to the municipality of Rogatec as well.
Due to this trip I could realize that although it is very annoying, maybe it makes sense that this places are completely isolated, just as I saw it by Slovenska Bistrica (Vendbeszterce). The frequently changing landscape with its many hills, valleys and fields makes it difficult to have regular transportation, while it is also a fact that the population is low and almost everyone needs to have a car anyway.
In spite of that, these rural lands are not only very mesmerizing, but they are very developed as well. Everything is clean, modern and the locals take care of the environment a lot, which makes the countryside not just idyllic and attractive for hikers, but also very productive and precious in terms of farming. Vineyards, wheatlands and bright, emerald grass everywhere, like in an ancient Greek or Roman epic story, especially if you can visit it in summer.
It is exemplary what kind of connection the Slovene farmers must have with the fields and how they treat and respect nature, and it is also visible that they practice a very intensive kind of agriculture supported by technology that can also find the harmony with the wilderness instead of destroying and expelling it from the earth.
Donačka Gora itself was one of the most adventurous trips I had ever had in Slovenia, but it was totaly worth it. The landscape, vegetation and the forest (mostly consisting of oak, beech and pine) were nearly the same as everywhere in Styria, and the level of difficulty as well, but we had to cope with the rocks and stones everywhere much more than in the other mountains I visited.
What is more, we even had to climb on a thick, strong metal wire for the last few metres, and sometimes the signs were not clear (as usually in this country), so it turned out only in the end that there was another, easier way to the resting point with the Slovenian flag and the stone coloumn having a cross on the top.
First we got to the literal peaks of the mountain, which were large pieces of rocks growing towards the heavens, and while holding them, trying to take some photos safely and observing the blurry view with all of its blue, green and white shades, I really felt that I was hanging on these stones and floating somewhere in the air, defeating the laws of physics.
It does not matter if the stones were formed and planned by the forces of the universe or carved by the careful hands of a forgotten culture, because they are equally the manifestations of eternal wisdom; that is what I realized there, on the rocky peaks, at the border of sky and earth.
Then we found the official view spot of Donačka Gora, that showed all the Styrian woods of the area between us and Boč, the place I had been to some months ago; this way I could see the same valley compeletely from the other side, that somehow gave me the illusion, or vision of wholeness and wisdom.
Descending from the top on a different trail was not less interesting either, especially with all the mystical caves, trees, slopes and eternal silence we could experience under the leaves. The last part of this path revealed the greatest and most original Slovenian countryside sight I had ever seen; like if someone had put together all the ingredients of bucolic villages from the illustrations to create the perfect recipe.
On our road back, we will find a very tiny, special place in the half way between Maribor and Ptuj. It is Vurberk: a little, hiding town surrounded by ancient forests and some lovely hills. The settlement is mostly famous for its castle that was like a small combination of the one of Ptuj, Celje and Piran to me.
The castle yard, having an amazing open-air stage and grandstand is also a host of many cultural events, while it is used to be a sanitarium before, due to the fact that there are many beliefs about the healing power of the place. Additionally, there is an adventure park in the woods and the view from the top is something that I can only compare to the panorama of Slovenska Bistrica.
Last, but not least, Maribor never gives it up either to let me discover something new in her kingdom. Since it turned out that there is another castle (a nobleman's mansion or palace to be precise) far away, on the other side of Drava, I had decided to get there and figure it out by myself. My trip led me along brooks with hunting egrets and corn, wheat and pumpkin fields at the foot of Pohorje, and it also made everything more complicated that the bus did not go until the stop of the castle because of some weird reasons.
Anyway, finally I arrived and saw the pinkish walls of Betnava Castle (Betnavski grad or Dvorec Betnava) at the end of the trail and I knew that I was in the right place. The building itself resembled the castle of Murska Sobota (Muraszombat), but also the famous hunting castle in Gödöllő, Hungary, where Emperor and King Franz Josef spent a lot of time with his beloved queen, Princess Elisabeth, better known as Sisi in the popular culture.
My first observation was the fact that the elegant, fancy palace is truly abandoned, which was very visible on the condition of the walls. Unfortunately there are many similar examples from my country that such wonderful monuments from the past are not taken care of.
The good news is that the old shining and honor of Betnava Castle is intact, and some parts, such as the windows, are already renovated. Maybe there is no museum, cultural centre, restaurant, hotel or anything else inside right now, but there is a hope that the building will get back to its former glory someday.
The facade with its entrance gates, balcony, coat-of-arms and statues (especially the guards with watering cans, I am not kidding) are extraordinarily charming and beautiful, but the forest or park by the castle garden is also very fascinating. An old oak, who had recently won the beauty contest of Maribor trees according to its medallion, also lives in this wood.
Maybe there are no flowers and nothing is organized all around, but it is also a good point that this area is not artificial at all and we can just get lost in the shadow of oaks and plane trees, that gave me the impression of the lakeside of my high school city, Tata.
The fields close to the castle are not just remarkable due to their glamorous beauty, but also because of the fact, that there were important archeological discoveries in the area including Stone Age and Iron Age tribes and ancient Roman presence with coins and other objects.
The findings from Betnava and other villages close to Pohorje and Drava can be seen in the Castle Museum of Maribor today, where one can explore urns, vases, pots, axes and other tools from the ancient times, exhibitions from the Roman times and the middle ages, and also wonderful paintings and furniture from the early modern times, such as Renaissance, Baroque or the late 19th century.
If you want to know how an ancient man, a noble knight, a local peasant or a bourgeois used to live, the museum is the perfect place for some time travel besides its amazing walls and sculptures.
It was a pity that there was no water currently in the streambed, but still, the small forest of Betnava was an island of peace to run away from the world, meditate and get united with nature.
The sound of leaves touched by the breeze and the wind is a way more magical, spiritual and almighty language than anything else you could hear, and when you feel the lightness and heaviness of time at the same moment, something begins to grow inside your soul. Something much greater than you had ever thought.