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Maribor Castle (Maribor, Slovenia)

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Castle and museum in the city of Maribor, Slovenia

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      20.06.2011 20:24
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      Maribor's handsome castle and museum

      Surprising as it may seem to you and I (mainly, I'll concede, to me), there are people who have no particular desire to view the famous white jacket of the late Yugoslav President, Josip Broz (Tito) so it must come as welcome news for those people, to know that they can visit Maribor Castle without having to see it. On the other hand, for those people who would like nothing more to see this stylish and historic garment, the feeling of disappointment must hang as heavy as a leaden shroud. Three times have I now visited Maribor Castle and three times have my hopes been dashed. Why, then, does the promotional literature relating to the museum collection in the castle continue to boast that the jacket is on display? Is the rest of the exhibition so dull that they feel the need to lure in visitors with the promise of this memorial to the man who united the southern Slavs? Let's find out.

      "Zakon" as we say in Slovenia. It's the law. In this case it's the law (kind of) that a Slovenian town must have a castle or, at the very least, some castle ruins. Maribor's Castle is in pretty fine fettle, I'm glad to say, and is located in the very heart of the city. It's a striking white building with some castle-esque features but it's not in a traditional fortress style. The castle dates back to the 1470s and was originally built to reinforce the defensive walls of the town. Over the centuries parts have been knocked down and new parts added, usually according to the architectural fashions of the day and the result is that it now looks slightly less castle-y and a lot more like a feudal manor house.

      Entrance is via the door on the right of the front façade as you look at the castle. You pay in the small bookshop/ticket office. There's usually some member of staff available that speaks English, or if not, German. The first time we visited back in 2007 there was nobody who spoke English or German and I was forced to ask in rudimentary Russian where I might find Tito's jacket. At that time the museum was undergoing re-organisation to coincide with some works taking place in the castle and the jacket, as well as some significant parts of the castle such as the Great Hall, was not able to be seen. If you are short on time and wish to see a particular part of the castle or exhibition, you should mention this because there is a set route and the doors of the various sections of the castle are kept locked and only opened when you are ready to move on to the next part. (This is quite common east of the old Iron Curtain; if you ever go into a museum in Russia or Ukraine it's likely that some elderly museum attendant will deliberately not open the next door for you until you have spent as much time as she thinks appropriate being deferential before some exhibit of limited interest to most normal people, thankfully Slovenian museum attendants are generally more flexible).

      There are occasional guided tours but I've never yet been able to coincide my visit with one, I should really as I think I'd get a lot more out of my visits. A good deal of the various exhibitions are, however, captioned in several languages including English though dim lighting in places makes the text difficult to read. As we embarked on our self-guided tour we were given leaflets that gave a brief overview of the collections on display in the museum. On our recent third visit (a friend visiting from England was keen to see the museum) we were also given leaflets describing the special exhibition being held in the great hall (the original figures from the Plague Column that stands on Glavni trg), and another celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's moon expedition.

      The first room gives an overview of the museum collection showing a small sample, a sneak preview if you like, of what is to come. The problem with this is you don't "get" what it is they're trying to do until you start going round the museum proper: if you don't realise that they're just giving you a taster, it just looks like a disjointed and disappointing collection. This room is also badly lit but don't let it put you off, there is better to come.

      As we came to the end of the first room a man appeared, as if from thin air (almost) and ushered us out into the courtyard and asked us to wait while he unlocked the door to the next exhibition. This is one of my favourite parts of the museum: a reconstruction of a nineteenth century apothecary's store complete with a wall of cupboards and drawers and the accompanying painted ceramic jars, rescued from an old pharmacy in some part of Slovenia the name of which escapes me now. While this is by no means a unique display it has been put together well and the highlight of it is a section of drawers labelled with the names of various ingredients used by the apothecary: open the drawers and you can smell and see the ingredients for yourself. Brilliant fun!

      Next we were led into a large hall that contained an eclectic exhibition relating to the history of Maribor and the Stajerska region; it's a lot more interesting than it sounds because it looks at several aspects of Maribor (and Slovenian) history and tradition that you're sure to come across if you spend anytime here. For example there's a scale model of a kozolec, a very particular design of hayrick you'll only find in Slovenia: the kozolec is a kind of talisman to Slovenians and, according to numerous sources, the very thought of a kozolec makes Slovenian exiles all misty-eyed. (In a macabre and slightly tenuous aside, the leader singer and founder member of perhaps Slovenia's biggest rock music export, Laibach, committed suicide by hanging himself from a kozolec).

      Like most municipal museums there are the usual collections of coins, arms and armour, art, costumes and so on. When we last visited we arrived in the last hour of opening so the staff we re keen to steer us through quite quickly. I didn't mind too much because I was intent on seeing three things. One was the Festival Hall (also known as the Knight's Hall) with its painted ceiling (painted by a prominent Graz artist in the 1760s): I was not disappointed (well I was a little disappointed that photography is prohibited in the hall). The ceiling is magnificent even if its subject matter (a battle between Christian soldiers and invading Turks) is a little grim. There are other portraits on the walls of members of the families that have owned the castle over the centuries. In 1874, Franz Liszt gave a concert in the hall - I hope they gave him more time than we got. At the time of our visit the Knights Hall was home to an exhibition of the fabulous orginal figures from the town's plague column on Glavni trg. Due to environmental damage the figures were replaced with replicas and removed to a loal church but they are now displayed here in the castle pending the opening of a permanent exhibition space in the castle next year as part of Maribor's tenure as the European City of Culture for 2012.

      Another part of the castle I got to see this time which had been off limits previously was the wonderful Baroque staircase which reminded me of an ornately iced pink cake. The staircase is decorated with extravagant sculptures and is a great example of rococo design.

      I was thrilled to have seen the staircase and the great hall at last but there was one thing remaining for me: that jacket. Tentatively I pointed to the place in the brochure that mentioned it and asked if there might be time to see it. The attendant shook her head "It is in storage. We have so many things we can't show everything." I resisted the bitter urge to suggest thay shelve all existing copies of printed literature boasting of their great treasure and comforted myself with the memory of my visit to the great man's tomb in Belgrade - now they know how to commemorate a hero!

      Admission is Euro3 for adults - an absolute bargain if you arrive with plenty of time to see as much as possible. Had we visited just a day earlier admission would have been free (it's free of charge between February and mid May). The castle is closed on Mondays throughout the year. Guided tours are possible but must be arranged in advance.

      Although wheelchair access is limited, there are only a few stairs at a time for those who have some mobility

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