The Hapsburg empire crafted Maribor’s fate for hundreds of years. It was an industrial hub for over a century. It became the railway hub between the naval base at Trieste, Vienna, and the south-east of Mittel Europa. In Hitler’s war, it was a key marshalling point for the southern range in the enormity of the Russian Front. During socialist Yugoslavia, it built buses to supply all Eastern Europe.
Now it is post-industrial finding its way in the new Europe. It is the second largest city in Slovenia. So for my Australian readers think Geelong or Newcastle. For other readers, it’s a rust belt city with an ancient medieval core.
It’s proud of both its old and modern heritages. It made use of them to the full when it was the European City of Culture in 2012. The other change to Maribor is that before 1918 it was German in culture. The surrounding countryside was Slovene but Marburg an der Drau was Hapsburg German. Between 1918 and 1941 a lot of Germans retreated to Austria, the border is only twenty kilometres or so away. In 1941 Hitler arrived and said, “make it German again.” After the war, even fewer Germans lived in Maribor.
The point of the history lesson is that all this is in the streets and buildings of Maribor as you walk them if you look.
Where I am staying is in a block of workers apartments on the southern side of the Drava river (that cuts the city in two). It’s a kilometre walk north to the river. I walk past the Red Cross soup kitchen on the right, charming public gardens on the left. I cross a railway line; a teaching hospital is on the right followed by shops at the foot a large apartment block. All this (apart from the railway) is mid-sixties infrastructure. All a bit shabby, but efficient and well used.
Along the way are little roadside kiosks. They sell hot bread based snacks to commuters walking to and from work. I’d seen them in the taxi on the way from the station. I wondered why the serving windows were so small. Now I understood, it’s freezing, you only want to open the window to take the money and hand over the food.
Past the shops, you turn the corner. The buildings become old; then the river appears. The bridge and the medieval town laid out before you. The green hills behind covered with grapevines contrast with the steep red roves of the town.
The river banks on both sides are near ten metres high, quite steep, and terraced. The bridge, called the Old Bridge is another piece of Hapsburg engineering. Its pavements rest on a series of three steel half circles. As you step out from the south to the north, there open up clear views to the mountains, surrounding the city in every direction. The river has been a border for centuries; I step across it.

Wobbly in Maribor

One thing I remember from my last visit to Maribor was the cafe at the train station, the Koala Cafe. The sign is still there across the underpass, but shuttered, abandoned. I didn’t notice this on arrival. I thought it closed for the night. The taxi driver was quiet, efficient, used the GPS to get me to the address displayed on my Airbnb app. His face was swollen and scarred. So were his hands, none of the swelling or scarrings was fresh, he looked as if he had been born with them. The radio played bright Slovene Europop for the whole ten-minute journey. The AirBnB proxy host lets me in and gave me the keys and returned to her apartment. My hostess was away traveling. All I cared about was the bed. There it was, in a room with a desk, quite dark although it was still light outside. Asleep by 7:30 pm, 34 hours after closing my front door in Kensington, with six hours sleep on two flights.

Wandering the apartment at two in the morning, I discovered where I was living in for the next few days. Two rooms, a galley kitchen, an entrance lobby, and a bathroom a balcony. Sparse furnishing. I read another chapter of Simon Winder’s wonderful Danubia until I was snoring again.

When I woke at five, the weather had changed completely. It had been pleasant spring weather in Maribor for weeks. Now it was five degrees outside and a chill north wind blowing in from the Alps. I looked at my weather app, a week of this to come. I already knew I needed to buy good walking boots for the hiking days of the film shoot. Now I would need some serious warming and waterproofing. Time to go shopping after breakfast.

Breakfast! I could not organise to put on toast. Off for a walk and explore. First, raise the shutters on the lounge window to see the day.

Lilacs! Filling the window, filtering the view. Outside is a small triangular park shaded by towering trees, bright spring leaves. On each side of the park’s triangle were five story apartment identical to mine. Built in the late sixties, I imagine. I dressed warmly (as I could), stepped out into the street.

Of course, the first thing to negotiate when walking with peak hour traffic is which way to look. All the habits of looking left first to have to reverse. It’s Europe for god’s sake. I almost killed myself at the first two roundabouts. Only the alertness and courtesy of Maribor drivers saved me.

A piece of Australia in my face as I turn into the road to the river and city centre…