If you want to sample the excellent Rizlings, beautifully sweet Rumeni Muskat and the sparkling sipon, then you really have to come to Podravska.
Ormož (pronounced "Or-mohj") is the main hub of the wine making industry in this part of Slovenia. It’s a small town right on the border with Croatia but it doesn’t have the coming and going buzz that many border towns have. Instead, it’s rather quiet for most of the year, sitting just below the Slovenske Gorice hills and just overlooking the Drava River which winds through the Pannonian Plain.
Ormož is a sociable town that is based around the handsome main square; it has a small number of shops, a few bars and a large hotel that has a large restaurant that is open to non-residents. Historically Ormož was situated where several important trading routes crossed (the train across central Europe to Budapest still passes this way) and so it became quite a wealthy and significant settlement but over the centuries it was, at various times, attacked by the Turks, Hungarian rebels and the Kruci, and ravaged by fire on several occasions.
The castle does survive but at the time of our visit it was closed to visitors due to restoration works. Although the castle is practically in what is now Ormož’s town centre, it was originally separated from the rest of the town by high walls. The original castle was built towards the end of the thirteenth century and, like most of the castles in this part of Europe, it was partially destroyed then added to over the centuries. Looking at the ownership of the castle the usual names appear – the Herbesteins, the Szekleys and so on. The castle museum contains and exhibition on the history and cultural traditions of Ormož, and some classicist frescoes which are regarded as among the best in Slovenia. The castle is usually open to visitors on weeks until three and on Saturday mornings, but not on Sundays. However, I have been told that if you contact the tourist information centre for Ormož which is based in the castle, you may be able to arrange a private visit at other times.
If you aren’t able to gain access to the castle you can still enjoy the castle park which is said to contain 140 species of trees, some of them quite exotic ; there's a 'tulip tree' from North America and a 'gingko' tree which is described in local tourist literature as a "living fossil" as it is supposedly the oldest tree in the world. There’s a lovely alley of lime trees which leads to the family vault of the Wurmbrands, the last family to own the castle. You can also take a look at the monuments around the castle; just near the entrance there’s a row of plinths, each one holding a head and shoulders bust of an important local figure – writers, philosphers, architects and theologians among them. There’s also a striking monument commemorating Ormož’s victims of the Second World War.
Another monument to Ormož and its traditions can be seen just across the carpark in front of a petrol station, but only in late summer. It's a little decorative wind rattle (in Slovene a 'klopotec') which may look insignificant but it's an important cultural icon in this part of the country. Wind rattles are erected usually in mid August when the grapes are almost ripe; the loud clattering noise it makes scares off birds looking for sweet grapes. Traditionally the wind rattles are believed to have special powers and the most traditional and ornate ones are made so that each of the four paddles is made from a different wood.
Winemaking is at the heart of Ormož life and the slopes of the Slovenske Gorcice are covered in vines. If you enjoy touring holidays and wine, this is a great place to holiday; however, it should be noted that Slovenia now operates a zero tolerance policy when it comes to drink driving so you'll have to either put on those walking shoes, or take turns as the designated driver if you want to get out to the countryside vineyards.Fortunately, there are quite a few you can get to within reasonable walking distance of Ormoz but if you don't have much time you could always visit the Jeruzalem Ormož wine cellar in the town where you can have a guided tour and tasting session.
Another Slovenian tradition that is common in this region is that of the "turisticni kmetiji" or tourist farm. You can stay overnight at some of them, but the main point of such a concern is that you can go there to sample traditional cuisine made with local ingredients; if you are really interested in the traditional fare of a region, you need to visit a tourist farm, you won't find any conventional restaurants offering such authentic food. You can just roll up and take a chance but it's better to contact the farm in advance, or liaise with the local tourist office who know most of the farmers personally and can advise you on which are currently open.
A small factory situated by the River Drava, that presses pumpkin seeds to make oil, is an unusual but worthwhile diversion. Slovenians - particularly in the eastern part of the country - love pumpkin seed oil and at this factory (or 'oljarna' as it is known) you can learn about the process, taste some oils and buy some to take home.
Due to the flat or just gently rolling landscape this is a popular area for walkers and cyclists and there are plenty of designted walking and cycling routes. Such is the passion of Slovenians for the great outdoors that this region even boasts the world first specially designted hiking path for disabled people all fifteen kilometres of which are suitable for wheelchair users, while the several of the farms on the route that offer accommodation and refreshments, also have appropriately adapted toilet facilites. What's particularly lovely about this part of Slovenia is that you only have to walk a minute or two from the town centre to be in the countryside with only the sound of crickets and the occasional clatter of wind rattles to break the silence.
One of the best places to walk around Ormož is the Ormož lake; it's situated about two kilometres to the east of the town. The lake is surrounded by a combination of marshy woods, reed beds and squelchy bog and its unspoilt nature makes it a popular winter migration destination and migration stopover place for a wide variety of birdlife. To give an idea of the importance of Ormož lake in the bird world, a mind boggling statistic is that up to five thousand geese at a time can overnight at Ormož lake , though around two thousand is more usual. The season starts around late October and the birds stay until mid to late February. When we went in late September there were some birds, but we were too early to see the lake at its busiest. A good time to visit Ormož is mid November as you can see the birds but also get to enjoy the celebrations for Martinovanje or St. Martin's Day, which is when the fermenting wine can officially be called "wine". The celebrations in Ormož are, understandly, particularly fervent.
If you are only passing through the area and don't have time to go walking or wine tasting, Ormož still makes an pleasant and scenic place to stretch your legs and perhaps stop for a glass of wine (not for drivers, remember!) at one of the cafes on the main square (if you have time you should also buy an ice cream from the excellent slascicarna, or ice cream parlour on the square).
There's not a huge number of sights in the town itself but the solid looking church of St. Jakob just behind the main square is worth a quick look.It was originally built in the early thirteenth century but there have been many alterations and aditions since then. Usually you have to contact the museum in the castle if you want to see inside the church but we were fortunate to see a lady going into the church with some flowers and asked to go inside to see the frescoes, which were painted in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Although Ormož is a relatively small place it is well connected and easily accessible although you will need a car or willing legs to explore the beautiful surrounding countryside. Ormož can be reached by train from Maribor and Murska Sobota (and trains from Hungary heading for Slovenia, Italy and beyond), or by local bus from Ptuj.
While you probably wouldn't make a special trip just to see Ormož, it's well worth stopping off if you are in the region and is a real treat for those who like the great outdoors and for gourmets and wine enthusiasts.