Five-day cycling of members of the Koloart cycling club through Zasavje:

Or rather: why yes.

But first let’s avoid the toponym Zasavje and use the more established term “Districts”.

When you mention to someone that you would go on holiday to the Districts, he looks at you a little amazed, saying: “Well, you have nothing to do there!”. The typical tourist does not think of Zasavje as a destination, as it is still established in the collective memory as a “degraded and polluted area”. Mining districts – coal, dust, black paint of the Sava river and the like – but not tourism! This was also reflected in our practical experience in finding accommodation for 40 people at the peak of the tourist season in late July and early August: local boarding houses close their doors due to annual leave in this period. This means that there are no tourists!

Therefore, it is not surprising the statement of my friend Dušan Kastelic, a local from these places, that our group of 40 cyclists who spent part of their vacation in these places »… were pioneers of Zasavje tourism. I am sure that so many tourists have not been to Zasavje at once. If the mayors knew about it, they would have to pay for your gala dinner! 🙂 ”

In order to “justify” the decision to choose the Districts as the location of the central cycling association of Koloart, it is necessary to break some established stereotypes in advance.

The first is the “pollution”, for sure. When we mention the name Trbovlje, we imagine in our head a picture of the chimneys from which the black smoke of coal from the local coal mines flows. Error. More than eight years have passed since the last mine in Zasavje was closed in 2013. In addition, the process of closing the mines began much earlier – as early as 1995. The excavation of raw materials, which was the main source of pollution, is therefore (more or less) a distant past.

The districts as the first Slovenian industrialized area were with the discovery of coal, in addition to coal dust from mining production and thermal power plants, “polluted” by many other industrial plants, The most exposed to the media was the leaching of coal ore, which turned the Sava River from Trbovlje downstream into a black cloaca, in which most fish did not survive, and those that did, were not suitable for consumption. The last attempt to place a “dirty” industry in this environment was connected with the Trbovlje cement plant, where a global multinational enterprise sent a multitude of carcinogenic gases into the atmosphere with so-called “waste co-incineration”. This was successfully opposed by the locals, connected in the ecological association Eko krog, and thus the last major source of pollution in Zasavje was prevented.

The huge 360-meter-high chimney of the thermal power plant, the tallest in Europe and the seventh in the world, which with its construction in 1976 only dispersed harmful flue gases in a not much wider area, ceased operations in 2014, only a year later than most mines. Many industrial plants were “shut down” in a row much earlier, most of them in the first half of the last century.

Thus, today we find ourselves in front of the term “districts” in a strongly changed image. Of the old “pollutants”, only piles of rusty iron, construction waste and dusty buildings remain, which are sold to landfills and other buyers. The Zasavje region is bursting with greenery and many shady paths through the forests offer pleasant protection even when the sun is hottest. The space of culture and ecology, on the other hand, occupies the voids of abandoned mines and industrial waste.

The second (false) stereotype is cultural emptiness, apathy and hopelessness.

Many striking personalities of Slovenian history and present come from the Districts. From the past, the most exposed is Ana Dimnik – a Slovenian mother, a patriotic activist, who was visited by almost all prominent Slovenian cultural figures. In addition to her, the brilliant choir “Trboveljski slavčki” also originates from the Districts, which in its period competed equally with the famous Viennese boys.

From modern times: who doesn’t know Laibach? But few know that the group comes from the District’s family and that their ideological leader, the painter Janez Knez, was from in village Dobovec under Kum. And if we continue: there is famous group Orleki, dancer Iztok Kovač, opera singer Ladko Korošec, translator and philologist Anton Sovre … and in Zagorje ob Savi there is still an active art colony with the longest career in Slovenia. No, no, it wasn’t just garage miners who lived here!

The third stereotype that falls when you arrive at a location, however, is people.

They are not reluctant and unsociable as one would expect because of their hard life. On the contrary – with them you always encounter a friendly reception, but above all a lot of humor. Over the centuries, they have remained the same – upright and fearless when it came to defending their own interests. They fearlessly defended their “right” centuries ago, when it was necessary even by cut down spruces to prevent the unpopular moves of the authorities. And it was the same when it came to resisting the exploitation of employers in the mine. It is therefore not surprising that in the 21st century they successfully stopped the global multinational Lafarge, which wanted to continue the “tradition” of Zasavje pollution. But at home and with friends they are cheerful and unstoppable jokers.

Mining life, however, did not stop at the gates of mines, but have found its place in everyday life, too. Thus, Zasavje surprises with its original, almost unknown to the eyes of the rest of Slovenia, cuisine, with dishes such as granadirmarš, funšterc, krumpantoč, ajmoht, Zasavje bean goulash, onion soup, liver sausages, etc. The region fascinates by witty stories from life in the mining colonies, and above all by the original dialect, which was formed in constant contact with German-speaking employers.

In Zasavje you find many tourist attractions and the five days spent there by the members of the Koloart cycling club were far too short to see everything.

So let’s move on to the descriptions of our five-day cycling trip.

Day 1: From Litija to Trbovlje

Pogled na Litijo iz zraka

The starting point of the trip, as has been the custom for several years already, was chosen in a way that it could be reached by public transport – in this case by train. Zasavje is one of the few Slovenian places that has good and also fairly frequent train connections. And if last year only one of our members decided to use the train, there were many more this year.

After the introductory, due to the threat of covid infections a little less tight hugs, we refreshed ourselves with delicious pastries from a nearby bakery, rode our bikes and soon began to climb the hill in the direction of Bogenšperk Castle. The slope there is just a right lenght to warm you up well, but not exhaust you.

The castle, which used to be the home of the famous Slovenian polyhistor Janez Vajkard Valvazor, has been restored in an exemplary manner. It is home to a large collection of objects and documents from Valvazor’s life and work, a wedding hall and a prestigious restaurant. The team that takes care of the visitors has further enriched the castle garden with a collection of indigenous flowers from the home gardens.

After visiting the castle, we returned to our bikes and, after ascended to the nearby pass, descended along the steep but beautiful scenic road towards Velika Kostrevnica. We drove only a few kilometers along the main road between Litija and Mirna, and then we turned off into a traffic-free road connection, which was built for military needs in the valley of the river Sopota. We stopped there at the pleasant inn Pustov mlin, where we were served with delicious trout and a traditional walnut pastry named “štruklji”.

By the exit of the Sopota valley, at the Sušjek waterfall, has been waiting for us Mr. Jože Prah, a forester by education, and the “engine” of the forest area between Sevnica, Litija and Dolenjska. He is the president of the Charcoal Burners Association, coordinator of European footpaths and designer of several thematic trails, mentor, consultant… You could not want a bette

r guide, especially because Mr. Prah is also a brilliant and witty speaker. The time in his company passed too quickly, so we were already in time before the ascent to Podkum.

Fortunately, our next host, Mrs. Marija – the hostess of the Pr’Čop inn, was late, too, so we got it right. The Pr’Čop inn is famous as a place where the best Zasavje autochthonous dishes are prepared, but unfortunately it was closed due to holidays during our visit. But Mrs. Marija was happy (not to say pleasurable) to take the time to present the accommodation and catering specialties of their inn in her witty and original way. The bursts of laughter were Huron as she explained her approaches and solutions. English humor is lamentable compared to this “show” …

Our schedule was delayed again, but we were not worried, as we only had a descent into the valley ahead of us. We flew like “lightnings” towards Trbovlje, where we were already expected with a typical Zagorje “granadirmarš” in a friendly inn Mala mal’ca.

Before we went to bed, we only agreed on who would sleep in more comfortable beds in the youth hotel and who on a bit less comfortable beds in the only accommodation that was ready to offer us hospitality in these early August days – on the hayrack of Green Grass homested. Our host was one of the most interesting citizens of Trbovlje – Uroš Macelj, an ecologist who has the greatest credit for expelling the last polluting industry from the Districts.

Day 2: To Zagorje and to Zasavska Sveta gora

On the second day after breakfast, we cycled to the second “mining metropolis” – Zagorje ob Savi with happy anticipation, as a particularly interesting tourist guide was waiting for

us there. This mission is entrusted to the “frontman” of the popular rock band Orleki Vlado Poredoš. Although a Prekmurje native, he completely “merged” with the environment of the Districts, the h

eritage of mining and the locals. In the same way as we know him from the songs of his group Orlek, ie humorous and attractive in content, he introduced us to the history and sights of Zagorje ob Savi. In the first days of August, the city was still completely under the influence of the Olympic gold medal, which was won by their compatriot, cyclist Primož Roglič. We also took photos on the stage prepared for his reception.

In the end, we walked all together to a somewhat unusual monument that has recently adorned Zagorje: a statue of the mining dwarf Perkmandeljc. It was computer-illustrated by illustrator, screenwriter and director Dušan Kastelic, also Zagorje ob Savi citizen. With Perkmadeljc in the lead role and accompanied by Orlek’s music he created a brilliant creation, so extraordinary that it

was cast in bronze and “for forever ”decorated the city with it.

From Zagorje we continued along the Medija River towards Izlake. Unfortunately, passing by Kisovec, we did not had enough time for an interesting mining museum and the mining “bathroom” Vashava. We also missed a thermal spring in Izlake, used in past by J.V. Valvazor already, as the thermal complex has been closed for some time and is sadly decaying. We stopped only at the location of the former castle of the Valvazor family near Izlake. Unfortunately, the castle itself has eroded the ravages of time, but the chapel in which our famous polyhistor suppose to be buried, has been preserved.

Not far from the remains of the castle, our road branched off towards Zasavje Sveta gora (Holy Mountain). The slope was quite a bit, but it was not too steep. In any case, it was much easier for all of us who had the help of an electric battery. When we reached the top, we were “rewarded” with a snack in the form of extremely tasty bean goulash. After dessert, filled with fresh energy, we went to the top of the mountain, where in the camp fortress around the Church of the Mother of God an important religious and pilgrimage center exists. In the time of the Turks it was an important refuge from these aggressors. Legend says that they came here only once, but were frightened and driven away by Christ, who, when they arrived, begged and raised his head bowed to heaven. The scene is depicted in the chapel below the church, and was shown to us by the caretaker Marija. Otherwise, the history of this location, which offers beautiful views on all sides, goes much further back in history, when an ancient religious shrine was here. Tombs discovered not far below the walls testify to its existence.

We returned to the valley along a scenic slope inhabited by farms. We ended the evening at the Green Grass Homestead, where we were served for dinnerby a traditional ajmoht and krumpantoč. Later we had some presentations: in the first one the organizers of the journey presented the history and important personalities of Zasavje, and then our host presented his homestead, which is primarily engaged in sheep breeding.

Day 3: Attack of the Kum mountain

To visit Zasavje, but to miss the Kum, would be, so to speak, a sin. The 1220-meter-high peak dominates the surroundings, and offers views across Slovenia, from the Julian Alps and far to Croatia. It is deservedly called Zasavski Triglav.

Unfortunately, the meteorologists did not predict anything good for us that day, so we decided to cancel the ascent. Since the morning was not the same as the weather forecast, a handful of the bravest ones although took a bite up the hill. The fastest of them returned to the valley still dry, while the others were soaked to the bone due to heavy rain, but still satisfied. Dry clothes and a warm shower were at hand, so there were no problems.

The rest of us used the morning to visit a retrospective exhibition of paintings by Janez Knez, a local from Dobovec under Kum, who was at the same time the mentor and idea leader of the Laibach group. After lunch, we decided to spend the afternoon in a nearby spa in Laško. We used vans to get there, as the weather was still sour. We returned at late afternoon for dinner and later informal socializing.

Day 4: Čebine and Sveta planina

On the penultimate day, we cycled northeast, in the direction of the Savinjska Valley – of course again up the hill.

First, the path led us to a hamlet Čebine with only three farms, where in 1937 in the Barlič homestead the Communist Party of Slovenia was founded. We also stopped at the nearby Church of the Holy Cross, which according to the story also played an important role at the event. Today, the homestead houses a museum, which is cared for by a local woman, who also opened and showed it to us.

From here it was not far to the top of Sveta planina. The mountain has several names, like for example Partizanski vrh – partizans peak. During the heyday of mining, all the surrounding peaks were popular excursion points, and mountain huts were built everywhere. Most of them are today decaying – some have passed into private ownership, while others, including the mountain hut on Sveta planina, are unfortunately closed. Just below the top we were greeted by the parish church of the Name of Mary, and at the top again wide views, especially of the Savinjska Valley, the hills behind it and the Savinja river basin.

We have been returning to the valley through dense forests, but first to the Hunting Lodge in Predmeja, where we were treated to a delicious bograč. It is not an autochthonous Zasavje specialty, but it convinced with its taste anyway. The hunting lodge is the starting point on another important hill of the Zasavje, named Mrzlica. These were also given the name “Triglav”, namely “mining Triglav”, as it was on holidays regularly and en masse visited by mining families. Koloart had his social gathering on Mrzlica years ago, so this time we missed it and descended back towards the valley through the hamlet of Čeče above Hrastnik.

On the way, we stopped at the picturesque church of St. Catherine, where the witty and sociable pastor of the Trbovlje parish Tomaž Šojč received us and showed us its richly furnished interior. The church has a long history. It has survived many upheavals, but we can still admire three extremely beautiful baroque altars and the Stations of the Cross by the Slovenian artist France Gorše. A part of a Roman tombstone is built into the façade, and legends speaks of an important ancient religious shrine in which the golden calf was worshiped.

We descended to Trbovlje along the local road by Hrastnik. We passed the Trbovlje swimming pool, which is adorned with an Olympic swimming pool. Our fellow cyclist, who trained in swimming, said that the pool was very “fast” and that state records were always set in it. Since we had some free time left until dinner, we visited the latest Trbovlje landmark – an 8-meter high statue of the miner Prometheus. The statue made of scrap mining iron is the work of sculptor Zoran Poznič. From the lamp on his helmet, a laser beam shines on the entrance to the mine on the opposite slope. Although Prometheus is clearly visible on the hill above the city, it is not easy to access, as there are no signs yet. Without the help of our friendly guide Anja from the Workers’ Home in Trbovlje, we would, especially as pedestrians, wander somewhere deep in the forest…

The last evening of the main cycling trip of the members of the Koloart cycling club is traditionally dedicate to the “closing ceremony”. We have found a place for it in the same hayrack on the Green Grass homested, where we also had accommodation. Our host prepared a great feast for us “from under the lid” with home meat and other products from his farm. The cultural program ended with the performance of the part of Orlek group, consisting of members of the Poredoš family. The witty, locally colored lyrics made us laugh and cheer again.

Day 5: The sights of Trbovlje

The last day we booked for sightseeing Trbovlje. We rode our bikes in the morning only, but not further than to the entrance to the (former) Trbovlje thermal power plant, within which stands the famous 360 meter high chimney. The chimney was built in 1976 as a replacement for the previous, only 80 meters high one. Its purpose was to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution, but it only dispersed it over a wider area of the Kum and Savinjska Valley slopes. The thermal power plant was financially buried by TEŠ 6, so in 2014 it was finally shut down. Today it is being dismantled, which was also presented to us.

The focus, of course, was the giant chimney, which is entered in the register of immovable cultural heritage and as such, we hope, will avoid the danger of collapse. Today, the giant is a challenge for top climbers and various sports extremists, especially resounding is the rise of our climbing aces Janja Garnbret and Domen Škofic. The interest in the venture is huge, but the Trbovlje Energy Company, which manages it, issues access permits for security reasons (let alone ascents) to only a few.

We were “saved” by the size of our group. Nobody had a particularly great desire to ascend to the giant, as we had opportunity to do it virtually – in virtual reality. We have been helped by virtual reality experts from Delavski dom and special 3D-glasses. Members of the acrobatic group Dunkin Devils climbed the chimney live instead of us and recorded all the breathtaking views opennig from it. With this solution we were all satisfied, as we were not tempted by the live experience from a height of 360 meters from the narrow perimeter of the chimney coil without a protective fence.

We took a look at what was left of the premises of the thermal power plant, which is now slowly being sold out, also, and then returned by bicycles to Trbovlje and stored them safely in the premises of the Youth Hostel. This was followed by tours of Trbovlje’s sights, for which we no longer needed bicycles.

First we all went to Delavski dom (Workers’ Home) to watch Dušan Kastelic’s animated films, and then to the basement of the building, where they keep a model of a crusher, device from his last animated film Celica (The box), with which he reaped many successes at world festivals. Next, we were divided into three groups, the first of which went to visit the Virtual Museum of Mining, where mining everyday life was brought closer to visitors with the help of modern technology, the second virtually experienced the mine while it was still alive, and the third walked around the town itself, from the mining residences in one of the many colonies to the monument to Orjuna and the Delavski dom.

We ended the day and the five-day gathering at the same time with a joint lunch in our pleasant Mala mal’ca inn , said goodbye to the next trip together and ran in all directions.