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.