During the last two months I had a chance to explore the Eastern part of Slovenia, which mostly included plains, hills, river valleys and a couple of mountains. After becoming familiar with the characteristics, traditions and culture of Podravska and Styria, I had decided to go deeper inside the heart of the country, and check some remarkable towns and cities that could show me a different face of these lands. High peaks, endless forests and tempting roads were floating in my imagination, while I was preparing for this adventure, and as always, I did not have to get disappointed at all.
Although Velenje is the fifth biggest city of Slovenia and an adorable gem in the middle of the country, some guidebooks forget to mention it among their recommendations. Well, in many European countries most probably it would be considered as a town due to its population, but it has way more miracles than many huge metropolises in the old continent, and it is definitely worth it to spend at least one day in this lovely place.
Actually, there are so many distinct sights in the city, that it is difficult to choose what to start with, especially that whatever your reason is to go to Velenje, you will surely explore some unexpected wonders. So you should really follow your instincts and look around with your eyes, because this place is a real open air museum.
The journey to reach this city is a magical experience on its own: particularly the second part, when you try to get there from Celje, because the whole way is accompanied by dozens of mountains sitting next to each other, and they are all waiting for the travellers and inviting them to conquer their cones one by one.
In general Velenje is not as historical as Ptuj, Ljubljana or Maribor regarding the city centre. It does not have a very extended and conservative old town as many other places do in Slovenia. Yet it is completely full of the spirit of centuries, and serves as an eclectic exhibition of different eras within the region.
If you arrive in the main square, you might notice a huge, epic statue of a man: it is the Monument of Josip Broz Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia, who is still related to the most peaceful periods of the Balkans in many locals’ eyes. Maybe that is why there are still many streets and locations in Slovenian cities, where you can meet his name, even though others claim that he was a very controversial person.
Besides, he especially has a strong connection to this city, which was called Titovo Velenje for his honor through a long time and was designed to be the example of the perfect socialist city in the country. If we have a look at the buildings, many of them recall socialist-realist, futurist, modernist or functionalist elements, and the observer can experience how the socialist ideologists and urban architects pictured their utopist and prospering world.
The choice was not a coincidence, because Velenje is an important industrial city due to its lignite mining, and nowadays it is a home for a thermal power plant and many famous electronic companies too: first of all Gorenje has its headquarters in the city, which's washing machines, fridges and other houshold facilities can be found and purchased all around Slovenia.
It is very visible that the hugest development of the place is connected to the 20th century, especially the Yugoslav epoc, but it is a heritage that Velenje, just as Katowice in Poland or Ostrava in Czechia can use quite wisely. The city is proud of its diverse history and dedicates a lot of resources to preserve the local culture and be attractive for tourists, and the best is the fact that it is also a favourite holiday destination for the locals.
Thus, if you want to get some authentic vibes and see something spectacular, which is not overhyped, yet extremely fantastic, Velenje will be an exotic and friendly adventure for you.
If you want to experience the weight of this long and rich history by going only to one museum, it should be the castle of Velenje (Velenjski grad), which is a charming fortress with white walls, elegant windows and is decorated with bright colors. Although the noble and cubic curves of the complex can be seen from many spots in the city, it is not that easy to find the route to the top.
As I had this overall experience in Slovenia before, looking for the castle also showed me that sometimes the signs and given information are not satisfying here, and if something is not among the most popular places for foreigners, you usually have to figure everything out for yourself.
However, it was all worth it to climb and see the whole area. Namely, Velenje lies in the so-called Šalek valley (Šaleška dolina) or, with other words, Velenje Basin (Velenjska kotlina), which is an extended flat karstic land, completely surrounded by mountains from every possible directions.
By watching the sunny, open fields with thousands of roofs and trees everywhere, I felt that I was inside one of the illustrations in my high school geography books, and that I had most probably arrived at a sort of place I had been dreaming about.
I was also thinking how many small pieces, such as leaves, bricks, woods or stones are needed to create that amazing view all together in one’s eyes, while I could admire the Šalek Castle (in German: Schallegg) from the distance: the oldest ruins ever excavated in Velenje.
However, nothing can be compared to the gentle atmosphere and harmony of the main castle, since it is already a pleasure to walk in its marvelous park or walk among the 700 years old walls discovering myths: one of them is about Kunigunda, a young girl and sorceress, who used her powers to help the people of Velenje, but eventually she was accused of being a witch and was thrown to the well of the castle yard.
The museum is an authentic and huge collection of various topics and faces of the city, and thanks to the extremely number of smaller and bigger rooms, it is like a real labyrinth, and you can have an encounter with many different worlds through time and space, from the basement to the balcony and the towers.
There is an exhibition of contemporary art including both wonderful paintings of different styles and impressive sculptures, mostly from the last century for instance. Many of them draw attention to wars and genocides, and by watching the pain and the passion of the works, it was interesting to take into account that these artists still did not know about a lot of events in history that were about to come later…
Besides, there are rooms presenting the medieval life of the people who lived in the castle before; others show clerical reliquevies, the vibes of the socialist era including everyday objects, maketts of Velenje, and archive movies from the period.
There were other exhibitions about guns, photography, the tragic chapters of Slovenian Styria in the Second World War, and also on life of the miners in Velenje, which was a reconstruction of a pub, furnished with authentic tools and equipment. Although my grandfather was a coal miner as well, some of the things and habits the staff explained were also unknown and new for me, like the climate they used, or chewing tobacco leaves instead of smoking cigarettes (due to security measures).
One of the most fascinating themes was definitely the heritage of Czech traveller František Foit, who spent many decades in Africa and collected many pieces of art from different tribes and communities, including sculptures, totems, shields, pots, musical instruments, reliefs, jewelries and obviously some scary, painted wooden masks expressing a huge variety of emotions.
I had never expected to see such an art exhibition on African culture in a medieval castle in Europe, so the experience was somehow surrealistic at first, but later on I just let the whole adventure happen.
There was another remarkable treasure of Velenje I learnt about: the bones and fossils of an ancient mastodon: an elephant-like creature from millions of years ago, with remains found in the 1960s.
Although finding one of the most miraculous mammals ever lived could be a legend without anything else, the people of Velenje went further: the tusks and teeth that they explored were thought to be the parts of a dragon that used to live in the lake: that is how the myth of Pozoj was created. Even though science already reconstructed the prehistoric giant, it is somehow beautiful when fairy tales and true manifestations of nature can co-exist peacefully like that.
And now we have come to the point to discuss the other important sight of the city besides the castle: the Velenje lake (Velenjsko jezero) which is not just the biggest lake out of the three ones in the city, but it is also the deepest one in the country with its 54 metres of depth, while it is surely among the largest lakes in Slovenia.
Thus, it is no wonder that many tourists and locals go to the beach (Velenjska plaža) of the lake to have a sunbath or they go to swim in the cool waves of it, that actually reminded me to a tarn: a natural lake high in the mountains with crystal clean water, that is called ‘sea eye’ in many Slavic languages (morsko oko), and in Hungarian as well (tengerszem).
As it turned out, the lake was rather artificial and was created due to the mentioned lignite mining and industry of the area. Therefore it had a similar story to the one of Palatinus (Pala), the most famous lake in my home area in Hungary, close to Dorog. Yet the romantic and idyllic environment it offered to the visitors was more like another lake of my country, the Old Lake (Öreg-tó) in Tata, where I gained many nice and unforgettable memories during my high school years.
The fact that Velenjsko jezero was created by humans does not change the fact that it looks like a pure piece of sea in the heart of the continent.
While you are swimming with the swans and fish together, jumping to the deep foams, walking by the coast or simply sitting on a pier, you just can’t stop admiring and appreciating the golden yellow meadows, light green slopes, vineyards, distant hills and you will feel that you must be in a forgotten paradise or in a sentimental painting, as in the case of many other miracles of this incredibly gorgeous country. Additionally, the beach is completely free and a lot of services can be found on the spot.
The surroundings of the lake are waiting for you with further opportunities: if you like hiking or biking, there are many trails and routes you can use for this purpose, and if you have more time, you should explore the region lying between Celje and Velenje, where you can find Jama Pekel (‘Hell Cave’), a significant stalactite cave of Slovenia, as well as many other peaks and forests.
Maybe I was lucky many times, have a taste for interesting locations or I am just too biased already, but I really do feel and think that wherever you want to go in this country, you cannot make a big mistake. The only mistake you could make just not to see all of this.