What to see and do, where to eat and where to stay in Slovenia's youngest city. Velenje may not look that exciting but scratch the surface and prepared to be pleasantly surprised.
by fizzytom on March 7, 2010
Velenje’s free bus service is the only one of its kind in Slovenia, and, as the helpful and friendly assistant in the Tourist Information Office there told me, everyone is very proud of it. There are four bus routes, each one designated with a different colour and between them the whole of the town is covered. Apparently the service is funded by the council but considering the fact that all supermarkets, retail parks and places of major employment (for example the Gorenje factory which makes domestic electrical appliances) I did wonder whether some of these businesses make a contribution other than through their business taxes. The routes take in the residential areas (very useful for those people living up the hill), schools and colleges and leisure areas such as the lake and tennis centre. We were delighted to learn that the red bus stops directly outside the coalmine, where the Slovenian Museum of Coalmining is located. When we travelled to Velenje we did so by train rather than by bus as originally planned. However, I had jotted down directions to our accommodation from the bus station, not the train station so we needed some help to get back in track. When a local man heard where we were staying he said we should take the bus. Now, people often tell you to get the bus when, in reality it’s not that far to walk, so we stood firm and said we were walking. Now, my Slovene is still at "beginners" level so we didn’t understand when the man told us that the bus was free. He tried German next "Ein Geschenk!" he said, excitedly. I was so embarrassed "Oh my God" I muttered to my partner "He wants to pay for us on the bus". After a few minutes trying to persuade us to take the bus the man eventually pointed us in the right direction. It wasn’t until later on, having checked into our accommodation and heading back to town to explore, that we found out that the buses were free. We were waiting at a bus stop, chatting (in a vague version of Slovene) to a lady who, it turned out, wasn’t queuing for the bus at all but just wanted to find out who the foreigners were) and when the bus was in sight I got a few coins out of my pocket. The lady shook her head and told me in Slovene that the bus cost "No Euro". So now we know why there’s a middle aged Velenje man telling everyone the story of the two crazy Brits who didn’t want to ride the free bus on a cold and snowy January day. Information on the bus routes is shown on every bus shelter so you can see not only which areas each route covers, but also the best places to change onto another route. Services operate daily until mid evening. Even if you have driven to Velenje, I would recommend using the free bus service – and not just because it is free; it will save you looking for a parking space in the centre of town and it also saves driving round in circles – like many new towns, Velenje is not always easy to navigate.
by fizzytom on February 28, 2010
The curiously named (for I haven’t been able to find any explanation for it) Pivnica Zoro is located in the centre of Velenje, in the main shopping area. Find the "Mlekomat" (a vending machine for milk), and Pivnica Zorro is off to the left in the corner. Pivo is the Slovene word for beer, therefore a pivnica is a beer hall (or as close as you get to one in Slovenia). Indeed, this isn’t like your usual café-bar as it does feel much more like somewhere for drinking alcohol only rather than coffee. There are no windows which I suspect may make you forget the time and spend longer here than you originally intended. The seating is a mixture of slightly raised booths around the edge of the room and a few tables on the floor level. Although the place wasn’t very busy when we visited, most of the customers preferred to stand near the bar. Pivnica Zoro also serves food but we chose just to have a drink on this occasion. The menu was already on the table along with a comprehensive list of the beers available (apparently they have beers from 30 countries). Pivnica Zoro is quite unusual for Slovenia in that it serves more than the two main Slovene brands of beer. Occasionally you might find Guinness available or possibly one imported lager but Zorro also has the distinction that it serves several beers from a Slovenian microbrewery. The only other places I can think of (Kratochwill in Ljubljana, and Stajerska in Maribor) sell the beer they make on the premises. The beer we tried at Pivcnica Zoro is made by the Humanfish Brewery which is based in Slovenj Gradec which is about an hours drive north of Velenje. I liked the name, which refers to the tiny albino creature that is only found in the karst caves of Slovenia and which is the subject of a permanent exhibition at the Postojna Caves in south western Slovenia (nowhere near Slovenj Gradec but hey ho). There are three beers – a pilsener, a red beer and a dark beer. I tried the pilsener and my partner tried the red beer. The pilsener had a slight floral taste and was crisp and sharp. It was really refreshing. The red beer had more of a hoppy taste and much more character but both were good in their own ways. Next time we’ll try the dark beer and at least one of the beers from the up till now unknown to use Bernard brewery (a Czech brand)The young lady who served us spoke excellent English and when we asked she told us about the micro beers. I was impressed that she knew so much about them. When she brought our drinks she brought a little wooden stand from which half a dozen bread rings were hanging. These snacks were very tasty but just a little too hard to enjoy properly. Another thing I found surprising was that when we were close to finishing our beers, the waitress came and asked whether we’d like anything else – it’s very unusual for Slovenian bar staff to be so proactive – and very welcome!We will definitely make a point of returning to Pivnica Zoro when next we are in Velenje. Although we both love the main Slovenian beers, it’s great to be able to have a wider choice now and then. The only downside to this pub is that it’s quite new and doesn’t have much character. It would be nice too if it had some outdoor seating – we were there in winter but while other nearby bars had outdoor seating, Zoro didn’t have any and I suspect this may be the case all year round. Saturday night is music night while Fridays are "culinary evenings" – I can’t wait to try both!Opening hours Mon - Thu 9am - 22h, Fri 9h - 24h, Sat 7 am - 24
Velenje is a frustratingly difficult place to get to; in fact, when travelling by train, you must change to a slow train at Celje. In the end it took us about two hours to travel by train from Maribor and I guess from the capital Ljubljana it would be something similar.Getting around is simple and the local buses are free of charge (see separate review)There didn't seem to be any obvious centre and as a result we got a brief tour of the town and its environs, eventually getting off at the train station because it was a familiar point for us. We were looking for somewhere to have lunch but we decided aginst the only obvious place because we thought we might have to eat there that evening if we didn't find anywhere else. We scoured the streets looking for the centre, passing one high rise apartment building after another. Most have shops on the ground floor but there didn't seem to be anywhere to eat. In the end we bought prepacked sandwiches in the supermarket and ate them in a dark corner of a bar. Our next port of call was the tourist information office which is situated in the "Rdeca dvorana", a large indoor sports arena. The area around the hall is being redeveloped (as of January 2010) and access is confusing but we eventually located the office. The assistant in the tourist information office spoke excellent English and furnished us with a number of leaflets for various attractions as well as a useful map of the city. Velenje is, by Slovene standards, a "new town". Although there had been a small community there before the war, it really expanded in the post-war years. A coalmine (the biggest in Slovenia) had been opened at the end of the nineteenth century to exploit the large deposits in the area. Visitors to Velenje will probably notice two green pipes from Šoštanj reaching to and then circling Velenje. These pipes carry a bi-product of the power generation plant which means that the people of Velenje enjoy the cheapest heating bills in the country. During the first few decades, the miners lived in terrible conditions but gradually some improvements were made. The communists wished to develop Velenje as a shining example of what could be done as part of a great Socialist scheme. The main residential part of Velenje comprises large apartment blocks built initially for miners and their families. The individual flats tend to be more spacious than in older blocks because the idea was to give the families homes they would look after and be proud to live in. Rather than have a vast town centre, shops and services were housed in units on the ground floors of the buildings: while this is quite odd for visitors, it does give a certain feeling of community in each area. Unfortunately the apartment blocks tend to be high-rises and some are not in the best condition which can make Velenje look quite grim in parts. After a few minutes we stumbled on the main square where the statue of Tito is displayed. While the statue is by no means small, it is somewhat dwarfed because the square is quite big. There are lawns and some well established trees on the square but the highlights of the square were, for me, not the statue of my hero but two 1960s buildings, one housing a gallery and another a cultural centre. There’s also a statue of Nestl Zgank who became the managing director of the coalmine in the late 1950s and, after his retirement, became mayor of Velenje, becoming heavily involved in the planning of the new town. As well as a higher standard of housing, the citizens of Velenje enjoyed – and still do – lots of cultural and athletic pursuits. Right beside the castle is a ski jump – "plastic" a local man told us – and as I’ve already mentioned the tourist information office is housed in the Red Hall, a multi-sports indoor arena. There are numerous signposted walking trails, a velodrome, a large open air tennis centre (the Velenje Open is an annual international event) and indoor and outdoor football pitches at the NK Rudar (Velenje’s football team) site. Two large lakes have been created as a result of the mining around Velenje and these formed a focal point of the original plans for the new town with bathing beaches and holiday parks, boating centres and separate swimming areas for children. Sadly Velenje doesn’t have much of an old town and two old villages were submerged under one of the lakes (the villagers were informed in advance, rehoused and compensated of course). During this process an old church and some quaint cottages were lost. In town we followed the signs to "Staro Velenje" – Old Velenje – which is in fact just half a street of old houses at the foot of the hill on which the castle stands. There wasn’t much to see but those houses that have been so far restored are really quite pretty, painted in pastel shades so that the whole terrace is like a gentle rainbow of colour. The castle is built around a small courtyard which you must enter to reach the ticket office which is housed in a room that contains the furniture and fittings from a 1920s shop. The castle museum is covered more fully in a separate review so I shall just say that the castle contains a superb series of exhibitions including the work of Slovenian artists, a collection of wooden artefacts that was amassed by a collector who spend many years traveling in Africa, a sculpture exhibition presenting a good selection of the work of Ciril Cesar, a mock up of a 1920s gostilna (a traditional Slovenian inn) and an exhibition based around the partial skeleton of a mastodon that was found in the region. The whole visit was fascinating and we got a private tour with the English-speaking guide; at only €2.50 each this was excellent value. The castle visit alone would have justified a trip to Velenje but the coal mining museum is also excellent and well worth a visit. It’s situated on the outskirts of town but the free bus stops right outside it. We were advised that we should have booked in advance but the staff kindly arranged for us to take a tour. In the meantime we were able to look around the excellent exhibition about the history of the mine and mining in Slovenia in general. (See separate review)Alas the gallery was closed when we tried to visit – yet another place that is closed on Mondays. We did sample a few of Velenje’s drinking places, such as the excellent Pivnica Zorro and Titovo Pub. (See separate reviews)A leaflet that can be picked up from the tourist office lists the events and festivals that take place in Velenje each year. These events are a big part of Velenje life and almost everyone takes part. One that appealed to me was the "Jumping over the Hide" which developed from an initiation ceremony for apprentices in the mines. Nowadays those taking part are high school graduates but the whole town comes to watch and enjoy the festivities. There are festivals all year round (would you believe the ski jumping competition takes place in the middle of summer!!) but it may be better to come in summer in order to better enjoy the outdoor activities and summer events. We visited in January and it was really too cold to spend much time outdoors so we weren’t able to spend much time at all by the lake which had looked quite scenic in photographs. Velenje may not be an obvious tourist destination but it is a great place to learn about how the country developed under the Communist regime. It may look on the surface like a menacing mass of concrete but if you look more closely there is much to admire and enjoy. Today Velenje is still growing - in spite of large scale redunancies in the coalmine and associated places of employment. In spite of the concrete and the industry I can see why people still wish to live in Velenje. It seems to offer a healthy balance between comfort, culture and practicality that makes you see past it's ugliness. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful, even if people couldn't speak English they made an effort and smiled politely when we replied in our slowly improving Slovene. Although we were clearly a curiosity we were made to feel welcome everywhere we went, not only in obviously touristy places.
by fizzytom on February 27, 2010
Although there has long been a settlement at Velenje, the town only grew with the development of the coalmining industry, particularly after the Second World War. Velenje was intended to become a flagship town of the new Yugoslavia led by the war hero of the partisan struggle, Marshal Josip Brosz Tito. Blocks of large flats were built to accommodate miners and their families and all kinds of cultural and leisure facilities were created to allow people to live stimulating and healthy lives. It seems particularly fitting, given the history of its development that Velenje should have a bar dedicated to Marshal Tito. I must admit that I became quite giddy with excitement when I discovered it and spent the first twenty minutes of the time I spent there wandering around inspecting the photographs and other items displayed on the walls.Titovo Velenje Pub is situated in the old part of Velenje which actually comprises only one street so the pub is easy enough to find. A collection of vintage radio sets fills the window space but beyond those the sight of those wonderful portraits of Tito caught my attention. On a cold Monday in January the pub was almost empty but for a sole staff member and a friend who was keeping her company. We were served quickly but I’m sorry to say the staff member wasn’t that friendly. A board outside the bar listed regular events that take place through the week, including a rock night and a dance music night; perhaps the bar is busier on those nights? One can only hope so. Wanting to come in from the cold we took the first seats we found just to the left of the door; these weren’t too comfortable, high wooden chairs or narrow seats built around the wall. We should really have gone to the seats on the right of the door which are lower and certainly look more comfortable. There is a DJ booth by the door and disco lights were flashing madly, competing with the large wall-mounted television that was showing a news programme. On top of this was the blaring sound of a radio station which was much louder than was needed so early in the evening (and because there was nobody in the pub!). The drinks hold no surprises; the usual two Slovenian beers Lasko and Union are served as well as a full range of spirits, soft drinks and hot drinks. No food is served but you can by tins of nuts from a vending tower. To me the disinterest of the staff and the unpleasant noise was worth putting up with to look around this tribute to Marshal Tito. There were several portraits I’d never seen before and some unusual quirky pieces such as a woven carpet of his image. There are several books about the great man on the shelves around the pub - alas for me my Slovene isn't yet up to this kind of book. This little Tito shrine revealed joy after joy for me - wall plaques bearing busts of Tito, prints of antique etchings of scenes of Velenje of old, and a giant black and white screen print of the Marshal looking his most dignified.This bar is open all day from early till late and I'd say it's a must for visitors to Velenje. If you go earlier in the day I am sure the music isn't so loud and you'll be able to take a look around this fantastic collection in relative peace. It is a shame that the staff weren't friendlier, perhaps the fact that we did communicate at a basic level of Slovene made us less of a curiosity?The good thing about bars in Slovenia is that they are very "age democratic" so even if you are older and want to look around, you shouldn't be put off by the event listings outside. I'd say this place is a little gem, but it does need some polishing to make it sparkle.
by fizzytom on February 24, 2010
As we were only planning to spend one night in Velenje we didn’t wanted to spend too much time looking for accommodation when we arrived there so we decided (unusually for us) to book something in advance. Eventually we came up with Prenocišca Mraz but not before a considerable amount of false starts and exchanged e-mails. The town council’s website has a useful section on accommodation but failed to show email addresses for the smaller concerns. The national tourism office has a site that listed the same accommodation but only provided a booking facility through the website and I wanted to make my initial enquiries directly with the owners rather than through a third party. After much googling I was able to find email addresses for several of the accommodations listed. One that had been listed as having rooms turned out to be only a restaurant. Another bounced back as unrecognised and two others responded. The first to respond quoted me a price of €60 for two people for one night including breakfast which, even by Slovenian standards (prices can be high for accommodation), I considered expensive for what is essentially a room in the owner’s home. I said I thought it was expensive and suggested that I would be happy to pay €50, especially as one of the more central hotels charged only €68 including breakfast and had additional facilities. The reply came back that the price of that hotel was of no interest to her and besides it was empty most of the year. Now, I don’t care how full or empty the accommodation is so long as the price is right so that information meant nothing to me. She offered a rate of €50 but that would not include breakfast and here our discussions ended. The other response came from Prenocišca Mraz; the friendly owner Zlatko informed me that, for a cash payment, the price of the room plus breakfast would be €50. I said that I would contact them by phone when I arrived in Slovenia and had decided which night I’d be staying in Velenje. The evening before we departed for Velenje I telephoned to let them know the approximate time of our arrival and was informed that there would be someone there to greet us. The house is situated on the outskirts of town on a quiet and secluded road on the edge of the forest and at the top of a fairly steep hill. If you come by car, there is plenty of parking. The house is a ten minute walk from the town’s bus station. The guest house is signposted just before you turn off the main road that climbs the hill but it is not clear where to go when you turn off. We telephoned the guesthouse and were told we were almost there and in just another thirty seconds we were ringing the doorbell. The house is situated on its own and is surrounding by trees; it is a traditional chalet-style house with steps leading to the front door. A reception desk was just inside the door but it was just a small corner of the large room which is predominantly the breakfast room although it does have a small seating area with television set in one corner. This room is homely with lots of wood panelling and it’s quite dated in the European ski chalet kind of way. Along one wall was a ledge on which were tens of pennants for volleyball tournaments held all over eastern and central Europe in the 1908s; I never got round to asking whether these belonged to the owner but I suspect they did. We were greeted by a young lady who was presumably the owner’s daughter; she was friendly and helpful and spoke very good English. We arranged a time for breakfast for the following morning and were given a key which would be for our room and also the front door. The rooms are situated off the breakfast room but they are arranged so that there is a small hallway between the door of the bedroom and the breakfast room thus minimising potential noise. Our double room was quite large containing just a large bed, a dresser on which stood a television set, and bedside tables. The wardrobe was in a small hallway as you came in off the corridor and our private bathroom was off this. Even during the day the room was quite dark because of the style of the building. However in January this didn’t matter much as it meant the room seemed cosier. We had a balcony which was shared with the next room although we didn’t use it as it was too cold. Looking out from the balcony onto the forest you really felt you were in the middle of nowhere, rather than on the edge of a large town. There were tables and chairs on the balcony and I’m sure that in summer this would be a lovely place to sit (though probably a place with plenty of midges!).The bathroom was small but not cramped and contained a shower, washbasin and toilet. It was spotlessly clean and the towels were lovely and soft and fresh-smelling. There were some sachets and shampoo and shower gel provided. Ordinarily we would be very unlikely even to turn the television set on but as Velenje is not the liveliest place on a Monday night we were back in our room quite early and were pleased of the distraction (of live English Premiership action!). We had brought beers back from the supermarket but what I would really have liked was a hot drink. There was a bar a few minutes walk from the house but it was freezing and, besides, I wanted a drink in bed not in a bar. As the place is a little way from town, facilities to make hot drinks in the rooms would have been nice. We had decided during the course of the day to leave early the next morning to visit the National Museum of Coalmining and so we wanted to change the time of our breakfast. It was only around 9.00pm when we got back to the house so we thought it was fine to phone and request this change. Unfortunately we didn’t know who exactly we should phone. The names of three people were listed with extension numbers but of course we picked the wrong one and ended up with a family member who didn’t speak English. The next number just rang out unanswered and the final one led us to someone who spoke English. Our change to an earlier time was not a problem and in all likelihood probably better as another guest was having breakfast at the same time.We slept very well, perfectly cosy in our comfortable room. The following morning we found there was plenty of hot water but we did have to wait a couple of minutes for it to really heat up. Two tables had been laid out for breakfast and a selection of items such as cereal, yoghurts, fruit, bread, toast and jams had been laid out along with jugs of orange juice and flasks of tea, black coffee and coffee with milk on a separate table. The young lady who had greeted us when we arrived was cooking breakfast and we were offered a choice of fried or scrambled eggs. We chose scrambled and were presented with something more like a very thin omelette which had tasty pieces of ham mixed in with the eggs. It may not have been scrambled eggs as I know it but it was very good and our breakfast was certainly excellent fuel for a morning’s sightseeing. We paid our bill on leaving and found that the tourist tax had been added at the end; it’s only a couple of Euro but it’s worth asking when checking prices whether the price includes the tax. Some places specifically waive tourist tax if you are staying more than three nights while others offer a slightly cheaper nightly rate for stays of over three nights. A prenocišca is really just a place where overnight accommodation and (often) breakfast is offered. They don’t have additional facilities and sometimes you may need to wait until the owner comes home from work before you can check in. Mraz is slightly more formal than others I have used in Slovenia with its large breakfast room and dedicated reception. On this occasion we only wanted a bed for the night and for our purposes Prenocišca Mraz was ideal. This is reasonably priced, comfortable accommodation in a useful location and scenic setting. There is ample car-parking but it is easily accessible from town on foot. Having seen the hotels in the centre of Velenje they don’t appear to me to offer any special advantages other than an adjoining restaurant so I would recommend Prenocišca Mraz without reservation.http://email@example.com
by fizzytom on February 26, 2010
Usually the best Slovenian restaurants are in the countryside or the suburbs. Slovenes might eat in the city centre at lunchtime if they work there, but rarely venture into the town centre to eat in the evenings. Unfortunately when we visited Velenje we did not have the luxury of a car so we knew our options for our evening meal would be limited. We’d clocked Gostilna Sonce (pronounced "Son-seh") not long after arriving in town when looking for somewhere for lunch but we erred on the side of caution, opting for a supermarket sandwich instead in case Sonce was the only possibility in the evening. Later, in the tourist information office, we mentioned that we had seen the restaurant and asked whether it was any good. The assistant there told us that it was an excellent restaurant, notable not only for the quality of the food, but because it specialises in Macedonian cuisine. I didn’t need to ask any more questions; as we are both confirmed "Balkanophiles" we knew where we’d be eating that evening. (A Slovenian factoid - Gostilna Sonce is the only dedicated Macedonian restaurant in Sovenia)Gostilna Sonce (the name means Sunshine Inn) is a fairly new (or at least renovated) yellow building situated just off the main road in the Stara Velenje (Old Velenje) part of the town. It was a good thing that the word "gostilna" (A Slovene word meaning "inn") was on the outside of the building as otherwise, with the stylised design of a sun in neon, I might have taken the place for a tanning salon. Having only seen the restaurant from the main road, we thought we’d find the main entrance on the quieter street in the old town; in fact, there is a little lane at the side of the building which takes you to the side that can be seen from the road. There is a decent sized outdoor dining area and this has been nicely shielded from the noise and fumes from the road. Of course, on a cold January night, we were going to eat inside. Eating out in Slovenia can be a lonely experience; restaurants are often empty but that does not necessarily indicate the quality of any single restaurant. So we were not surprised to be the only customers when we arrived. Like most gostilnas, it has several adjoining rooms but we chose to sit in the first room. The interior is quite modern but still quite homely with warm yellow walls and colourful soft furnishings. At the opposite end of the room to where we chose to sit, there was a grill where some of the meat dishes are cooked. We managed to fool our waiter into believing we were Slovene for a few minutes but when he realised we weren’t, he gave us menus in English and spoke to use in English too which wasn’t really necessary but he seemed keen so keen it didn’t seem right to let him down. Both staff we encountered were friendly and there when we needed them to be. Balkan cuisine is centred on meat and those dishes tend to be fairly similar as far as the ingredients are concerned, with just the presentation differing. Most dishes are grilled but a few are done in the oven. Pleskavica is minced meat shaped into a pattie while cevapcici are tiny little rolled sausages of the same spicy minced meat. The traditional accompaniments for the grill dishes are sliced raw onions, and a dollop of bright orange ajvar (pronounced "I-var") which is a relish made from piquant red peppers and minced aubergine, or a dollop of kajmak (pronounced "kymak") which is a soft cheese made from sheeps milk. A traditional round bread called a "lepijna" ("lep-ee-nya") is served too. if you don't eat meat the choices are limited. There are some fish dishes. As we often eat these dishes we wanted to try something we hadn’t had before, or don’t have so often (not only in Slovenia but all over the countries of the former Yugoslavia you can find simple grill restaurants just serving cevapcici and pleskavica alone). I chose a dish from the grill: it was described spicy little balls of minced meat combined with cheese. My partner chose an oven cooked dish, a pork and mushroom stew that had a layer of melted cheese over the top. We asked for a portion of "roasted potatoes" to share and a mixed salad to share which arrived before the main courses. We also munched on the complimentary bread while we waited for our food to arrive.The portion sizes were generous and the food was nicely presented. The stew came in a simply decorated earthernware pot with a lid. It was delicious but quite difficult to eat because of the melted cheese. The sauce was lovely and rich and flavoursome and contained sizeable chunks of tender pork. My "meatballs" were very similar to cevapcici so weren’t what I was expecting but there were delicious all the same. We know in Slovenia that the style of cooking of things like eggs or potatoes often differs from our expectations from the name so we weren’t surprised to find that "roast potatoes" turned out to be somewhere midway between mashed and crushed. Whatever it was, it was very tasty and almost certainly loaded with butter. We decided against desserts but there were several choices available including simple fruit salads and ice cream to rich creamy confections which are almost always filled with nuts and therefore off limits for me. We made do with Turkish style coffees instead which were very good. Towards the end of our meal some customers came into the restaurant for a drink which made us feel only slightly less conspicuous. I’d like to go back in summer and eat outside, preferably on a Saturday or Sunday so there is a chance of having some fellow diners. The total cost of our meal including beers was around €25 which was pretty good value. Mon.-Thu.: 7.00-23.00, Fri-Sat.: 7.00-24.00, Sun.: 10.00-20.00
by fizzytom on February 25, 2010
Rare is the Slovenian town that does not have a castle. Some of them are referred to as castles but look more like a rather grand house; Velenje’s is very much a castle. It is situated on a rocky outcrop that looks over the city, it has defensive walls and it is composed of a series of connected towers that encloses a courtyard. The great thing about Slovenian castles is that you never know what is going to be inside them. Each one is quite different, housing a variety of collections, many of which were formerly private collections and have been bequeathed to the local municipality. This means that the displays are rather eclectic, ranging as they do from quite academic to pretty frivolous (but still very interesting). Some might be related in some way to the local area, others may have no special connection other than the fact that the collector was local.Velenje’s castle houses such a collection of exhibitions. You can see some or all of it: the choice is yours. There are a couple of ways to get to the castle entrance. There are steps running from just beside the bottom of the ski jump to the castle entrance or you can take the winding footpath at the other end of the old town, just opposite the yellow church. By car you take the road that runs past the yellow church but there is limited parking at the top. The first mentions of the castle in any documents date from around 1270 but, as is usually the case, subsequent owners of the castle have renovated and extended it resulting in what we see today. Essentially the castle as it stands today is a sixteenth century renaissance structure.Going under the stone arch you walk into the castle complex and then right back on yourself, up the steeper slope to the courtyard entrance. On your right is the ticket office which is also a reconstruction of a 1930s general store and the museum gift shop. The fittings are all period pieces which came from stores all over Slovenia; the highlight of the collection is the apothecary cupboard with its myriad little drawers. Some of the walls are decorated with enamel advertising signs and there are lots of examples of goods in their original packaging too. The gentleman who sold us our tickets, also turned out to be the guide. He gave us a printed sheet that listed the main exhibitions and he also gave us a booklet of colour postcards which included views of the castle – both photographs and paintings – and photographs of some of the collections. He started by explaining some of the exhibits in the shop and then we followed him across the courtyard as he started to unlock the doors to the first rooms. He told us which route to follow and we were left to explore the rooms alone. For the later part of the tour the guide accompanied us and not only told us a great deal about the exhibitions but answered our questions too. The first exhibition comprised several rooms containing a collection of wooden tribal masks and other handmade items from different parts of Africa. This collection had been amassed by Frantisek Foit, a Czech professor who went to Africa to learn about African art in 1947. It’s a brilliant exhibition, the highlight of which is the room where the masks cover the walls from floor to ceiling – fascinating and sinister at the same time. (I forgot to ask how the collection of a Czech professor ended up in Slovenia!)There’s an exhibition of the work of sculptor Ciril Cesar which was notable not only for the skill of the artist but also for the interesting variety of materials he worked in. The castle also holds a gallery of modern Slovenian art, not all of it to my taste (far too abstract for my liking) but there were a couple of works that really caught my eye. One was a depiction of the assault on a Slovenian village by Nazi soldiers during the Second World War, painted by Tone Kralj. Having last year visited a museum not too far away from Velenje that describes the occupation of Slovenia, I found this very interesting. Another painting that captured my attention was an almost Cubist work called "Girl and Masqueraders" by another Slovene artist Maksim Sedej. In another room a collection of mainly landscapes by Lojze Perko is an absolute gem; if you want to see some terrific paintings that capture the beauty of Slovenia, use ‘google images’ to look at this artist’s work.The ancient history of the region (the Saleska valley) is covered and there are reconstructions of a peasant’s house and a smokehouse. The guide showed us an interactive map on the floor on which he could light up different types of landmark. It was amazing to see how many castles there had been in this valley alone. As we made our way from one collection to the next we enjoyed the photographic exhibition about the development of Velenje as a "New Town" which was displayed on the walls of the colonnaded courtyard. It was so interesting to see first the photographs of Velenje before development began, then the artists’ impressions for a modern city where happy families would live and work and later, the reality as the project started to take shape. I also loved a room that was devoted to the modern history of the town, set up as an official meeting room containing the obligatory portrait of Marshal Tito and the Yugoslav flag. There’s some stuff on Nestl Zgank the one time director of the mining operation and subsequently mayor of Velenje who was heavily involved in the development of the city. Another room contains a collection of Baroque church art which was moved here from St George’s church in the village Skale, which was lost due to subsidence caused by the coal mining. The unearthed remains of a prehistoric mastodon are housed in the former stables along with a life-sized model which stands against a painted backdrop of what the Salek valley would have looked looked at the time this enormous beat was wandering around. In another building there is an exhibition covering the period of the Second World War, a time when Slovenia was occupied by the Nazis. Finally we visited the recreated gostilna (a gostilna being a traditional Slovenian inn); this one represents a gostilna from around the 1930s and includes such as exhibits as a refrigerator this is essentially a large box for ice and a nineteenth century music box. Here the guide explained what some of the pieces were which was helpful as some are far removed from their counterparts today.We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the museum, especially as we had the undivided attention of the guide for the most part. The various exhibitions are really well put together but there is a lack of information for some sections so a guide’s help is really useful. While there wasn’t really anything that didn’t interest us, I would recommend looking at the museum’s excellent website before visiting so you can identify those parts you are most interested in, especially if you are short on time. What is particularly exciting about this museum (if you are interested in history) is how it joins up the things you learn about the town in other parts of Velenje. There is a huge sense of civic pride in the town and the exhibitions here help visitors understand what Velenje has been and what it’s all about now. Visiting the museum meant we found out who the figures in statues around the town are and why they are important to Velenje. It also complimented what we had experienced earlier at the mining museum. Visitor facilities are few. You can get refreshments in summer, but you are so close to the town itself that you don’t have to go far to find shops and cafes. There are decent toilets. Unfortunately not all the exhibits are wheelchair accessible (not obviously so anyway) but it might be worthwhile contacting the museum in advance to verify that.We spend a couple of hours here but could have spent longer had we more time. The price for all this? Would you believe it’s just €2.50 for adults? I think that this is incredible value and would happily have paid double for the experience. This varied collection of art, history and culture is one of the best visitor attractions I have so far visited in Slovenia and one I am certain to return to. I don’t think I can praise it more than that!Velenje Museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Closed MondaysVelenje MuseumLjubljanska cesta 54SI-3320 Velenje Slovenia
Velenje is primarily a new town, developed after the Second World War but that development was centred on an existing coalmine which had opened at the end of the nineteenth century. In its heyday the mine employed many thousands of men (not to mention those in associated industries) but these days the mine is a shadow of its former self, partly because of the development of machinery that does the job quicker and more efficiently and partly because there is only one very limited market for the material that is extracted here. The problem is that Velenje mines lignite which is, after black coal and brown coal, the third grade of coal and the most inferior. The only place that will take the lignite is the power generating station in the next town, Sostanj; while this means that the people living in this part of Slovenia enjoy very cheap heating it also means that the mine at Velenje is something of a Communist-era relic, keeping a few thousand people employed to produce something nobody really wants. If the coalmine were to close, it would have a devastating effect on the local economy. The museum is located at the mine site on the edge of the city. It is well sign-posted and there is car parking available but the red line of the council’s prestigious free bus network stops at the gates. You need to walk all the way to the museum building past the old mining machinery on display in the grounds. There is a huge banner at the entrance so you can’t miss it. When we asked about a tour, the assistant asked if we’d booked – we hadn’t. The museum had been closed the day before so we couldn’t have booked and we’d hoped to tour the museum early in order to fit in a visit to the castle too before we left town. We were asked if we could come back at lunch-time but this was not practical for us. After a short phone call we were informed that a tour in English would be possible soon and the assistant suggested we take a look around the exhibition and come back in fifteen minutes. The exhibition is captioned in English as well as Slovene and the information provided is quite comprehensive. The first room is where the miners used to change from their outdoor clothes into their work gear. There were wooden hangers attached to a pulley mechanism and it was explained that the miner’s working clothes would be damp due to perspiration when at the end of a shift so they would hang the clothes and raise it towards the ceiling to dry overnight ready for the next day’s shift. The exhibition then went onto explain how conditions slowly improved, with the introduction of bathing facilities and so on. The exhibition focuses mainly on the social history of mining in Slovenia with examples of different rooms from a miner’s home and a really interesting section that covers a custom known as "jumping the hide". Jumping the hide started as an initiation rite for apprentices in the mines. It is thought to have started in Slovenia but was also later practised in Austria and Czechoslovakia. The apprentices would have to demonstrate their courage by leaping over mine shafts but as the shafts became bigger and bigger it was not really a viable activity and so they would leap over an animal pelt instead. Today the tradition is still followed but as a high school graduation ceremony rather than an initiation ceremony. Our guide came to introduce himself and took us to lockers where we could stow our gear. Digital cameras, mobile phones and other electronic items are not permitted in the mine so you are asked to lock those items away. He explained that the temperature in the mine is quite warm so that we need not take coats. However, we did have to choose a miner’s jacket and a hard hat. After this we were directed to the counter to collect our lunch (a bread roll and sausage wrapped in paper) and a carton of juice which we stashed in our pockets. Before descending in the lift, we were told the most important piece of information. When miners who are arriving pass miners who are leaving they bid them "Srecno" (Pronounced "srechno") which translates more or less as "Good luck". A group of miners entered the lift before us and then it dropped down a few feet to allow us to enter the second cage which is directly on top of it: such "double decker" lifts are common in mines. Your passage through the mine is mostly flat with only the occasional uneven section. It is lit but it takes a minute or so to become adjusted to the dimness. Our guide spoke excellent English and told us lots of interesting facts about the mine and the area around Velenje. However, the main part of the experience is presented as a series of "scenes" which look at a particular aspect of mining. Each one has a recorded narration which the guide sets running as you approach. These were really fascinating and used an interesting selection of historical sources, such as the diary of a nineteenth century clergyman, to tell visitors about the people who worked in the mines and how the conditions were. Halfway through the tour you get to sit down and eat your "miners' lunch" (which is really quite tasty!) As we ate, our guide showed us some plans on the local area that showed how the mine has grown and he pointed out the locations of the villages that had to be abandoned due to subsidence and later creation of lakes caused by the collapse of mines that have finished producing. Having arrived in Velenje by train it was interesting to see how much of the land beneath the places we'd stooped at or passed through was being mined. After a few more "scenes" we arrived at a tiny train where we were met by a driver. We climbed on board and should have been taken almost to the gates but due to a problem with the points we had to walk the last twenty metres or so. Our tour over we called the lift, the lift operator wishing us a final "Srecno" as we went. The National Museum of Mining is a brilliant attraction and is an ideal mix of education and fun; children will love going in the lift, riding the train and having their meal but they'll also get a lot from the way the information is presented. The idea of presenting different scenes is really engaging and gives the guide a break from speaking continually. Our guide was really friendly and was able to answer questions too - he didn't just regurgitate information - and he seemed genuinely interested in what he was presenting. At €9 each for adults this is the second most expensive visitor attraction we've been to in Slovenia (the show-caves at Postojna were much pricier) and while it seemed at first expensive to us (being now attuned to the generally lower prices) it is certainly excellent value for money given the length of the tour and what is involved. You need to allocate at least two hours to visiting the museum, perhaps more depending on how long you want to spend in the exhibition upstairs. While we were lucky in getting a tour at the time we wanted, I would advise calling in advance if at all possible. We visited in winter when it was quiet but it is likely to be busier in summer. If you happen to be in central Slovenia I would thoroughly recommend a visit to this museum. It is promoted as part of a network of underground attractions (some natural, others manmade) in Slovenia and Austria and is only an hour or so across the border from the Austrian towns of Klagenfurt and Villach so it could be visited as part of a holiday in Austria as well as Slovenia. Recommended so long as you don't have a phobia of being deep underground!
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