By Jana Petkovšek Štakul and Carsten Frederiksen, Dewesoft 

Nothing can stop development and change, and the former mining region in Slovenia, Zasavje, is once again undergoing a transformation. Until the early 1990’s it gave bread to thousands of miners, and most of the industry in the main town, Trbovlje was tied to the mines. 

At the turn of the millennium when the brown coal began to run out only some 300 people still worked for the mines, but since then new municipal and government initiatives have been taken and technology companies like Dewesoft are emerging - and transforming the region.

A final greeting of the miner before going into the mine tunnel
A final greeting before entering the mine: Srečno - Good luck! (Photo: AFO)

The Mining Region - Transformation Ups and Downs

Today, the pulse of life in the town that once seemed to be almost strangled by polluted air and coal dust is shaped by the children and grandchildren of miners. They pursue completely different professions. While miners used to walk to work in their work uniforms, heavy boots, and helmets, their successors use computers to change the world, though some still carry the same values as their elders and know how to wish a miner’s "good luck!" from their hearts.

Trbovlje valley from aboveThe narrow valley of Trbovlje in the Slovenian Zasavje region (Photo: Savus)

The Zasavje region is located in central Slovenia – 264 square km with a good 40.000 inhabitants - an hour’s drive from the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. A hilly world of three parallel narrow valleys adjoining the Sava River squeezed in by numerous hills and mountains. Trbovlje in the middle valley is the largest town and the main center of the region flanked by the somewhat smaller towns of Zagorje ob Savi and Hrastnik.

The town of Trbovlje from the hillThe town of Trbovlje in the Zasavje hills. (Photo: Jana Petkovšek Štakul)

More than two hundred and fifty years ago the region experienced an economic boom thanks to the black gold – coal and became a prime center for Slovenian industry. Companies with more than 5,000 people in total were excavating the coal and producing excavators, gearboxes, molding tools, and many other products based on its energy.

Industrial center

The first mining license was gained on the 11th November 1755 and marked the official beginning of coal mining in the Slovene national territory. In the middle of the 19th century, Zasavje became the center of the coal mining industry in former Yugoslavia. The glass factory, the lead foundry, the zinc plant, the lime kiln plant, and the stamp mill were all under the wings of the Zagorje Coal Mining Company. It was decades of dense and buzzing activity - the whole region was covered in smog and dust, the landscape scarred by excavations and spotted with large industrial structures.

In 1910, Trbovlje had become the 5th largest settlement in Slovenia with almost 9000 inhabitants. In 1991, the town had grown to around 19.000 inhabitants, but when the mines started cutting down through the ’90s, more than 4000 well-paid jobs in the mines and mine dependent industry were lost and the Trbovlje rate of unemployment was topping in Slovenia. Many local people started to go to distant Ljubljana to work or to live, and the population has now fallen to around 16.000 inhabitants.

In 2015 the last mine in Zasavje ceased to operate. Today, the region is facing a difficult situation left behind by coal mining and the associated heavy industries - cement, machinery, glass - and a large power plant. Only a few mining facilities, such as housing units – so-called colonies, are reminiscent of the mining activity in Trbovlje. The challenge is to revitalize this town and region of former heavy industry.

Road between Trbovlje and Hrastnik with the signpostsA winter view from the hills between Trbovlje and Hrastnik (Photo: Carsten Frederiksen)

In the limbo

In the local online newspaper, Savus, in December 2020 Manja Golec, a retired language and literature teacher, and poet from Dol near Hrastnik expressed the overall sentiment:

Oh, my Zasavje! It is much less polluted now, but there are no jobs. Only when you fall ill, you realize that health is the greatest value. I want the people of Zasavje to open new plants, ones that do not pollute the environment. We have been exploited for too long and now forgotten.

The image of Trbovlje town is a sad one of desolate dilapidated industrial buildings. However, the empty industrial buildings and former mining areas in the Zasavje region represent an opportunity for development. A variety of financial incentives for regional development is now available by which the Slovenian government promotes economic competitiveness of the region, in the form of grants and reimbursable funds, tax incentives for investment, employment, and similar.

Now, a shopping center will be built on the site of the former Trbovlje Machine Factory (STT) spread over 28,000 square meters in the mid-1950s, the largest mining machinery factory in the Balkans, making 1,000 jobs in the region. And though the 360-meter chimney, the tallest in Europe of its kind is still pointing to the heavens, there are already many plans on how to bring new life to the chimney area of ​​the Trbovlje Thermal Power Plant. 

The Mine Closure – the End of an Era

In 1993 and 1994, a law prepared the closure of the mine in Zagorje, and the merger of the still-operating mines in Trbovlje and Hrastnik. The gradual close-down of the Trbovlje-Hrastnik Mine (RTH) began in 2000, and the first deadline for turning the key was the end of 2015 - this has since been extended until the end of 2020. Today, the one remaining employee is taking care of the procedures for the complete abandonment of mining works and the liquidation of the company as a legal entity.

Trbovlje classroom with the sign which states importance of the coalThe heyday of mining - on the classroom wall, it says: Let us be aware that coal is gold! With knowledge, you ease the work! (Photo: Weiss)

"Since 2000, we have been aware that the extraction and exploitation of fossil fuels are a thing of the past and that the mining story of Zasavje is coming to an end", says Anton Lisec, the former miner – or ‘knap’ or “knapsack” as they are named in the special Zasavje mining language strongly influenced by German. Since then, the number of employees was slowly declining, and in 2012, during an economic recession, mine financing began to stop.

The miners’ strike

All according to a staffing and social program, which in my opinion was not fair,

 Anton states. "150 employees were left without any compensation - and the mine was threatened with bankruptcy or immediate liquidation. We didn’t deserve such a conclusion", Anton says. "A good 200 years of mining in our valleys should not end like that - without severance pay, without closing funds, without the possibility of retirement or re-employment", Anton Lisec, trade unionist of the Trbovlje-Hrastnik Mine concludes: "We couldn’t allow it. We decided to go on a strike."

Anton became the leader of the last mining strike in the Zasavje mines - and the first in independent Slovenia. In March 2014, the knapsacks descended into the caves to wait for their demands to be met. Four days later - after the intervention of the then Prime Minister Alenka Bratušek and prolonged negotiations, the demands were met, a solution was reached.

Tone Pangeršič in front of the Trbovlje mine entrance with his helmet in his handsTone Pangeršič in front of the Trbovlje mine entrance with his helmet marking the final strike in 2014 to achieve better retirement conditions for mine workers. (Photo: Jana Petkovšek Štakul)

I never imagined the mine would close. That's why I couldn't understand the rumors that the mine was closing and that we would have to leave,

says another former miner, Anton Pangeršič, mostly called Tone. He came to work in the Trbovlje mine from the Machine Factory Trbovlje (Strojna Tovarna Trbovlje, STT) and brought knowledge and management skills to his new job. “The Zasavje region has grown from coal mining, that cannot be erased”, he ascertains.

The Machine Factory Trbovlje produced equipment and machines for the mine, and only to the mine, and due to its great dependency, sank along with it. “When I started working at STT in the late 1980s, I worked on machines that were among the most developed in Europe”, Tone recalls - having a spark in his eyes when he talks of the devices used in the pits.

The last years of mining

For our early afternoon meeting in front of the Sava drift - where we also met some miners leaving the cave – the tall slender man is again proudly dressed in his mining uniform and greets the camera with joy and energy - “Srečno!” - the same way the miners once wished good luck before entering the shafts.

Miners helmets on the shelf with chunks of coalThe miners’ helmets have now all been put on the shelf - these old ones along with some coal in the Trbovlje mining museum, 4. Dritl. (Photo: Mija Licar)

Tone talks with some bitterness of the last years of mining: "Coal had already started to be depleted in Trbovlje. So, we went to work in Hrastnik. For many of us, the move was a big shock. The atmosphere there was somehow different. In Trbovlje we were connected and helped each other, we worked as a family. In Hrastnik, everything was like a nightmare. The attitude of the management towards the co-workers was bad”, says Tone. “We experienced injustice - not everyone was treated equally kindly”.

With great strain, he went to work in the Hrastnik mine for four years. The coal deposits in Hrastnik lay much deeper than in Trbovlje and consequently everything was more dangerous. “Going to the Hrastnik or Trbovlje pits was like night and day. In Trbovlje, I was never afraid to go to the cave. The feeling in Hrastnik, however, was very different due to the greater depth - and the security measures were not as good", says Tone.

The Miners – Together in Good and Bad

Working in the mines was tough and even dangerous - the miners needed the wish of good luck - Srečno - stated above the mine entrance. They developed strong relationships, with each other and even their tools. 

Person operating a drilling machine inside a narrow tunnelOperating a drilling machine inside the narrow mine tunnel (Photo: AFO).

Through their union, the miners organized summer vacations at sea, thermal spas, and holiday homes in the mountains. Social gatherings, sports competitions, bands, and events became part of their special culture. Today, even the names of municipal holidays in June reminds of mining - Anduht and Nohšiht - celebration, and night shift.

Jumping the skin

“At the end, there were no youngsters in the mine”, says Tone, “the mining story in our region was unlike that of Velenje - they still have the ‘Jump over the skin’".  Jumping over the skin is a Slovenian miner tradition to celebrate their holiday on July 3rd - Miners' Day, in memory of the five-day hunger strike started by Zasavje miners on this date in 1934.

According to this custom dating back to the 16th century, the mining novices initially had to skip the mine shaft. When the shaft openings became too wide, the jump over the shaft was replaced by a jump over a skin. The skin used is a piece of calfskin with a strap and belts that the miner wore to cover his back, providing him some protection when sliding down the slides on his back into the caves.

Still today, TD Ruardi, Ruardi Tourist Association in Zagorje ob Savi organizes a Perkmandelc March and performs the protocol of jumping over the skin. At the end, the participants take a group oath, which reads: “I swear that I will respect the tradition of miners who helped each other underground and were comrades in good and bad even when they came to the surface. I will use the greeting Srečno!"

Miners working in a narrow tunnel ful of dustWorking In the mines space was tight, machines noísy and the air heavy with dust. (Photo: AFO)

Tone Pangeršič retired in 2016, and what he misses the most is his former colleagues from the Trbovlje coal mine: “We were together in good and bad” – and the Trbovlje gang of machinists, still strives to meet as regularly”. Tone understands that Zasavje is becoming a different region. However, he is convinced that the traditions of the miners, which have existed in the valleys for more than two centuries, by no means will die out: “History will not be erased, even if Zasavje is changing significantly”.

Miners having a lunch brake in the mineMiners during their lunch break inside the mine. (Photo: AFO)

The machinery

We weren't too happy about the machines. The machines ‘dug’ even more work for us, as the volume of production increased, but they did not bring full automation. Most of the work still had to be done by hand,

says the former miner Anton Lisec. “As a young kid, I weighed just 60 kilograms, every day I carried 90 kilograms of segments on my shoulders – or rings and stamps, the supports made of wood or metal to stabilize the tunnels. No machine could do that for me, and such jobs were countless in the mines”.

Anton Lisec recalls the tunnel boring machines: The one made in Ukraine, we called it the ‘Ukrainian’. It was clumsy, loud, and rattled like the devil, while ‘Ta mal hajer’ - the Swabian – a machine made in Germany, was more friendly to us, the knapsacks. It was small, more agile and the rings used were smaller as the profile of the track was narrower”.

It was very important for the knaps, who were on duty to maintain the machines, Anton explains: “Some machinists were in a hurry to repair the broken machinery immediately, while others only eliminated machine faults after several shifts - these were more popular with the miners. Actually, the knaps occasionally sabotaged a machine so that they could rest and have fun".

Accidents were an integral part of the life in the mine tunnels - the caves also claimed the lives of the miners. Accidents left different marks on each of the knapsacks but scared everyone. In the periods after an accident, playfulness and mischief disappeared from the mine, everything fell into silence, everyone retreated into themselves for a while, until time had healed the wounds.

“I am very reluctant to talk about accidents because the last one still brings tears to my eyes”, says Anton with some sad bitterness. “The friend, ‘Kumrat’, with whom I took the afternoon shift at Hrastnik, lost his life there. I was returning home alone in the evening”.

The Miner Community – Real Men and Survival

The knapsacks regarded beautiful events such as having a child as significant - this was how the knapsack proved to be a ‘dec’ - a real man. A lifestyle of solidarity in strikes and drinking – but maybe times are changing.

Miner in the small train ready for driving into the mineMiners ready to ride a small train into the mine (Photo: Weiss)

“After the shift, we all drank to the baby. Not to hiccup, it was necessary to drink as much beer as possible - in reverence of the new dad, of course”, explains the former miner Anton Lisec. “In our younger years, when we were still in shape, we didn't think much about our health and the times were more favorable, so we dragged the tour of the Trbovlje bars until the next shift”.

“Naturally, such nonsense subsides over the years. As the mines no longer employed young people, the births of children in the knap families also stopped", says Anton. "The last years of uncertainty brought tension and discord to the knapsacks, but the last act - the strike - reunited us in what the knapsacks have known best throughout history - in rebellion against injustice", recalls the trade unionist.

Miner solidarity

And his mining colleague, Tone Pangeršič adds:

As comrades, we helped each other all the time. When, for example, you were covering the roof on your house, the co-workers were happy to lend a hand. I had a gang like that - always coming to my aid. Even now, though I have been retired for six years.

“We were in solidarity, helping each other with heavy or more difficult tasks - building a house, harvesting or other agricultural tasks”, explains Anton Lisec: “In Trbovlje we lived as urban knaps, city people. Knapušna, mining, was our profession, otherwise, we lived our everyday life like all the people of Trbovlje - we did not separate so much from other citizens. But I found some comrades for life among the knapsacks, we were connected by the hard work, the danger, and accidents that we experienced. We survived together”.

Times are changing

 “That is no more. The dynamics of life have changed and young people do not take the time to help each other. Even personal communication is almost non-existent, as they manage everything via a computer. Relationships between people are changing rapidly due to the development of communication tools - in my opinion, for the worse. Young people look at themselves too much", Tone comments.

Group of young miners hiking in the hillsGroup of young miners hiking in the hills (Photo: Weiss)

And Anton Lisec agrees: “Apart from hiking the Trbovlje inns, we also went together on mountain hikes, skiing tours, trips, mushroom pickings - in short, out in nature. We liked the fresh air and the sun, which we were missing while working underground”.

He is happy that there are good companies in Zasavje. Companies that also place great emphasis on making their employees feel good, that their knowledge can be expressed and that their work makes sense… "I am optimistic about Zasavje. Things are going in the right direction”, says Tone, “However, we need socially responsible people that have an impact, such as Jure Knez, the president and CTO of Dewesoft. We need people who dare and who know-how”.

“Probably the situation won't be like it used to be when bread or work was no problem. If you lost your job, you could easily get another in a short time. The young people of Zasavje will certainly be able to be a kind of draft horse, but the region cannot change into a growing region overnight - it will certainly take some years.”, says Tone Pangeršič.

The Spirit of the Miners – Pride and Preservation

The spirit of the hardworking mining people lives on in Zasavje – a pioneering pride mixed with an attitude of “let’s do it” and “what the hell”. This spirit lives on in housing colonies, is memorized in exhibitions, and celebrated through sporting events

Dewesoft's employee sitting on the top of the Trbovlje power station chimneyIn August 2020, a Dewesoft team climbed to the top of the 360-meter chimney of the Trbovlje power station - and enjoyed the bird’s view of the Zasavje landscape. (Photo: Elina Komlanc)

An employee at Dewesoft - not living in Zasavje - jokingly expressed the mood of the region like this: “There is nothing much to do here. Either you go into extreme sports, caving, climbing, paragliding, mounting biking – and risk to die doing it, or you sit at home and drink – at risk dying doing it”. Daring and guts are parts of the soul here - and actually, producing alcohol at home is quite common in these parts.

Talking about extreme sports, the now shot-down Trbovlje Power Station features the tallest chimney in Europe rising 360 meters allowing its smoke to leave the narrow Sava river gorge. Today, daring people a climb to the top, a short part inside the chimney and the rest on the outside. In October 2020, two young Slovenian climbers, Janja Garmbret and Domen Škofic were the first to make a free climb on a new route on the chimney, the tallest artificial multi-pitch route in the world. But, take it easy, this route has been removed since then.

Cycling champion

Another example, embodying the local love for tough sports is the Slovenian cycling champion Primož Roglič. Primož was born in Trbovlje in 1989 - today, he has his home in the small town Kisovec, near Zagorje ob Savi – and his father worked as a miner. Roglič started to compete in Nordic ski jumping in 2003 and became Junior World Team champion in 2007. After a dramatic fall in 2007, he took up road cycling in 2012 and is now a pro cyclist riding for Team Jumbo-Visma.

Primož became the first Slovenian to win a Grand Tour, one of the three major three-week cycling races. In 2019, he came in 3. in Giro d’Italia, in 2019 and 2020 he won Vuelta a España, and in 2020 second place in Tour de France. At the end of 2020, he was the best cyclist on the official list of the International Cycling Federation. Primož Roglič has been awarded the title of honorary citizen of the municipality of Zagorje ob Savi. 

Two runners in the mine doing the Jamatlon runJamatlon - the annual run through the mines of Trbovlje and Hrastnik (Photo: Branko Klančar, Savus).

Run in the caves

Today, the younger generations can apply some of the miners' fighting spirit to experience the mines at the Jamatlon sports test. Since 2014 the Savus Institute, the publisher of the local newspaper Savus, in cooperation with the Trbovlje-Hrastnik Mine, has organized the Jamatlon – a run through the mines from Trbovlje to the neighboring town, Hrastnik. Overcoming tricks and obstacles below the earth sportspeople in helmets run the 5.5-kilometer length of the coal pits more than 250 meters below the ground.

“Jamatlon” – after the Slovene word for cave, jama – is part of the preservation of mining heritage, and is held twice a year. A summer run on 3 July, Miners Day, and the winter run on the 4th of December, the day of St. Barbara, the patron of miners and all who face the danger of sudden and violent death at work.

Old postcard with a view of TrbovljeOld postcard with a view of Trbovlje - the line of small houses in the center is a miner colony, (Photo: Weiss)

One of the most recognizable signs left behind by the mining era is arguably the colonies, the clusters of housing with many small flats built for the miners - built to have enough space for everyone. Once, they were more than just residential units, more like extended families, communities to which the individuals belonged. If necessary, they were prepared to fight for the honor of their colony. Some of these are now well over 120 years old, but still serve their purpose - and somehow it is still easy to feel the knap colonial spirit. 

The mining museum

With the closure of the mine, we became increasingly aware that neglecting the colonies would cause a great loss to all of us - to our town and our identity. It is sad that the Njiva colony in the center of the city is deteriorating so badly and just seems to be waiting for collapse,

says Bogdan Šteh, curator of the local mining museum, 4. Dritl – the 4th shift.

The 4. Dritl is located within the main cultural institution in the municipality of Trbovlje, the house of culture, Delavski dom Trbovlje (DDT). The virtual museum preserves the story and traditions of the mine in Trbovlje and the lives of the people around it. Modern communication technologies recreate the story of the mine and guide visitors through an authentic reconstruction of the mine environment with original exhibits. Visitors can even join an interactive mining adventure in which they help rescue injured miners.

The colourful facade of miners on Delavski dom TrbovljeThe region is full of artistic references to mining - this one decorates the facade of Delavski dom Trbovlje, the House of Culture in Trbovlje. (Photo: Carsten Frederiksen)

"First and foremost, the museum is a place of remembrance for more than 200 years of mining in Zasavje. Not just to rekindle nostalgia, but for a real experience of mining and the miner’s life”, says Bogdan Šteh. The main ambition of the 4. Dritl is to connect modern technology with the mining tradition to preserve the cultural heritage: “Humans are visual beings; the visual message makes a bigger impression on us than words. If the technology used allows us an in-depth and personal experience, we remember the information even better".

The Trbovlje House of Culture (DDT) has also included its laboratory, DDT-RUK Research Laboratory, in the tourism activities. "This is how we can connect tradition with the future and show the transformation from mining into a new media city", says Bogdan.

The drilling head infront of Drill mining museumThe drilling head of a tunnel boring machine in front of the 4. Drill mining museum in Trbovlje. (Photo: Carsten Frederiksen)

Bogdan Šteh remembers meeting his first group of post-war generation high school graduates, among whom were quite a few mining engineers; "They quickly took the lead in the exhibition, as they were able to discuss matters from personal experience”. Also, Bogdan recalls, some experienced miners who came by that provided some useful help; ”We were convinced that the working head of the tunnel boring machine standing in front of the museum was the head of a ‘Ukrainian’, but we were wrong. They explained that the head of a Ukrainian would be bigger and that this belonged to a ‘swab’”.

The Words – the Tongue of the Miners

The jobs, the mining, and the industry brought people from different parts of Slovenia to the Zasavje region. In just under two hundred years, they formed a special language, the Zasavje dialect.

Miners are having a smoke brake infront of the mineA smoke and some talk - knapsack kumrats enjoying a hard-earned break outside the mine. (Photo: AFO)

This mining language of Zasavje is loaded with terms originating from German. Words that have been integrated into the Slovenian language - picked up from foreigners employed in the mines and miners, who had worked in the mines elsewhere in Europe.

Among the new words were both professional terms related to mining as well as more general terms. Initially, they filled the word gaps in Slovene, but gradually they adapted in voice and form to the laws of the Slovene language. From mining caves, plants and colonies, the terms slowly spread to the wider environment and became part of the Zasavje dialect.

Some common mining terms

  • aufcuk - elevator
  • bagr - excavator
  • bagrli - pit carts for mine or cement factory
  • bencinerca - cave lamp, cave locomotive
  • bremz - brake intruder
  • cajg - tools
  • cajkgkišta - toolbox
  • cicka - a wagon for transporting wood to the cave
  • dec - a tough man
  • deputat - coal that has been assigned to you
  • donfrca - steam locomotive
  • drot - wire
  • ferpruh - crash in the cave
  • filat - shoveling
  • fuert - mined coal
  • gverk - the whole mine complex on the surface
  • hajer - miner
  • holc plec - cave timber warehouse
  • hunt - cave cart
  • južna - lunch
  • kajla - wedge
  • kišta - crate
  • kolm - coal
  • knap - miner
  • knapušna - mining
  • kumerat - friend
  • kumpresrca - pit air locomotive
  • magacin - mining shop, also warehouse
  • ofnat - to open
  • pelegat - to deploy
  • pan - rail
  • šafla - shovel
  • šibice - matches
  • šiht - shift/working day
  • šlosar - locksmith
  • šoht - shaft
  • štajgar - barn
  • štolm - tunnel / hole
  • šveler - railway sleeper
  • trigl - a container for carrying coal and ash
  • vahtar - guard or watchman
  • vashava – bathroom
  • zimrhajer - cave carpenter
  • žlajf – brake

Some terms from work- and everyday life:

  • ajmuht - canned or potted (food)
  • ashenpeher - ashtray
  • beštek - cutlery
  • cajt - time
  • cuker - sugar
  • dihtunga - sealing
  • fajfa - smoking faucet, manual glass blowing device
  • fajercajg - lighter
  • fedrehamer - blacksmith's hammer
  • floheisen - flat iron
  • forschribe - written work plan
  • laufat - run
  • lojtra - latter
  • luft - air
  • peglat - ironing
  • faznprifer - voltage tester with light
  • ponk - work table
  • prener - burner in cement plant, the burner in welding
  • prutfon – baking pan or sheet 
  • raubupava - cave site, or excavation site
  • ruor - pipe or oven
  • rust - rust
  • šafla - shovel
  • šajba - windowpane
  • šnicl - cutlet or schnitzel
  • šparat - save or save up
  • špohtl - spatula
  • špuktrigl - spittoon, home-made sled
  • štrajt - quarrel
  • štunf / fuzetl - sock
  • švicat - sweat or perspire
  • sweis steba - welding rod
  • tištuh - tablecloth 
  • trahter - funnel
  • trinkgeld - tip
  • urlaub - vacation
  • vaservaga - spirit level

The Trickster – Perkmandeljc, the Cave Gnome

Through all times the miners believed that good and evil spirits reside among them in dark caves. One such spirit is said to be Perkmandeljc, a gnome, the size of a child.

Ilustration of the cave trickster PerkmandeljcThe cave trickster – Perkmandeljc as seen through the eyes of the Trbovlje illustrator Jože Ovnik.

Perkmandeljc - literally the little mountain man - is a mischievous mining dwarf who accompanied the Zasavje knapsacks on their work in the trenches - for better or worse. As an invisible companion he teases the miners, while on the other hand, he watches out for them and warns them against dangers. 

Bogdan Šteh, curator of the local mining museum, 4. Dritl explains: “One of the miners told me, the knapsacks didn’t need physical proof of Perkandeljec's presence. He had never met or seen him, heard him ... but he was 100% sure he existed''.

The painter Jože Ovnik painting in his officeThe painter Jože Ovnik, a founding member of the Perkmandeljc Mining Heritage Preservation Society, with one of his paintings of mining gnomes. (Photo: Mitja Licar)

Helper and trouble-maker

This cave gnome was imagined with a long beard, a stocky hat, big red, bulging eyes, and a green lamp in his hand. Dressed with green jackets and wearing red caps, such gnomes could be good-willed, bring good luck and show the miners ore deposits, even prevent cave accidents or warn the miners where the earth layers would split.

However, such gnomes were also really annoying tricksters, hung themselves on the racks, which the workers carried into the tunnels, broke the wheels on the coal carts, and even threw workers into the shafts. Their overall aim was to secure their own presence in the cave.

The tales of these cave dwarfs are numerous and known in all European countries with deep mining. In Germany, the miners depicted Perkmandeljc in small figurines and placed them in the mines for protection. These are said to be the model for garden gnomes that are often depicted with lanterns, shovels, or pickets – mining tools. “In Zasavje the miners set up statues of Saint. Barbara, an ally of the miners, to help ensure their safety”, Bogdan says.

Today, Perkmandeljc has become an iconic figure in the Slovenian mining towns and still appears in stories and books, songs, and animated movies. Most notable is a famous image of the dwarf made by Jože Ovnik, a Trbovlje painter, cartoonist, and illustrator. He even published a picture book in 1997, telling the story of the mischievous mine dwarf, whom Ovnik knows from the stories of his father and other former Trbovlje knapsacks.

Recently, at the Trbovlje Secondary Technical and Vocational School (STPŠ) some students even made a computer game, named Pekmandeljc. The objective of the game is to escape from the gnome in the mine and find an exit before running out of oxygen.

The Miner’s Son – From Pickaxe to PC

Today, Andrej, the 33-year-old son of Tone Pangeršič, is putting his skills into practice at Dewesoft, but he also experienced his father’s mining career. Though they both have a heart for mechanical engineering, their working lives are nothing alike.

Andrej Pangeršič, mechanical engineer at Dewesoft, sitting infront his computerAndrej Pangeršič - Pangi - is a mechanical engineer at Dewesoft. (Photo: Jana Petkovšek Štakul)

Andrej is a smiling person - a tall, slender young engineer, who is most often seen walking around the company in his slippers. He is nicknamed Pangi - actually, this is also a nickname of his father and the nickname for all the guys in the family due to the surname Pangeršič - the nickname travels from generation to generation.

At first, Pangi’s father worked at the Trbovlje Machine Factory (STT), and after that in the mine.

As the oldest son in his family, he had to take care of the farm, and could not go to high school. However, my father made rapid progress in his mining jobs, acquired knowledge and exceptional leadership skills.

And then later on, besides doing his regular job at a mine, taking care of a small farm, building a house, and taking care of the family he eventually also finished what he could not when he was younger - technical high school.

Learning at the workshop

In 2007, when Pangi graduated from high school, Dewesoft already had the first CNC machine in its workshop located on a farm on the hill above the HQ. Tone, his father regularly went to help the workshop manager, Boštjan Petek, especially with the welding - and Pangi went along: “I was very interested in the CNC machines so my father asked Boštjan if I could do a holiday job there. I started at Dewesoft with a broom in my hands, and then later started programming the machines with Boštjan”.

The Pangeršič family was in many ways connected to the family of the Dewesoft founder Jure Knez - we were family friends and that’s what brought me to Dewesoft. My mother worked in Rudis Trbovlje, a leading Slovenian engineering company, where Jure's father also worked. I enrolled in technical high school, not knowing that mechanical engineering is what makes me happy”, Pangi says.

At that time Jure's mother, Alenka Knez, ran the technical high school and I became fascinated by mechanics. Also, Boštjan Petek was a teacher at the technical grammar school and also ran a 3D modeling club, which impressed me. Jure's brother Sašo Knez taught physics at the school and has a lot of credit for directing me to the top of the class. They all - Boštjan, Sašo and Jure's mother Alenka Knez - had a great influence on the fact that I acquired the knowledge and got a job at Dewesoft,

 says Pangi.

Design engineer

Pangi worked as a holiday worker until college, got a Dewesoft scholarship at college, and then began working as a mechanical design engineer for Dewesoft. Boštjan did the first product, but later Pangi took over. “If you compare my work today with the work in the mines, I use for my work a PC and a mobile phone while the miners needed more or less shovel and pickaxe”, he says.

Miner in the mine tunnelPick and shovels or mouse and keyboard. Working in the mines was quite different. (Photo: Mitja Licar).

A major difference, however, is the working time - the level of freedom. “My father was working from 6 am to 2 pm. My working hours are very different. I can work from home, at night, on the plane, or at the hotel … The advantage is that I to some extent can adjust the working time to suit me. Still, after all, my coworkers, back in the office, may need me to support some projects”.

When things went wrong

The closing of the mine-affected everybody in Trbovlje. The whole town had grown based on the coal mine and all the supporting industry around it. “Times were different compared with today. There was always a job for everybody and everyone. What could go wrong?”, says Pangi. “At one point, Trbovlje and Zasavje represented the peak of the Yugoslavian heavy industry. Can you imagine that? Such small valleys and such a large potential”.

Pangi remembers:

They started closing the mine when I was still in high school. Some miners were put on hold and paid severance pay, but they did not want to lose my father - even though he already had the conditions for retirement.

Many workers lost their job. Some were able to start entrepreneurial work but others stayed with almost nothing. “It’s hard to get a new job if, on one side, you’re not so young anymore, and on the other side, also not old enough to retire”, says Pangi.

His father was almost left without severance pay and had to pull through. “However, he didn’t give up. My dad turned 60 last year, and the mine has depleted him, but he will always be a role model for me - he immediately grabbed each job and has a lot of knowledge in the field of mechanical engineering. And with that, he somehow infected me…”, Pangi explains.

The love of Trbovlje

The miner’s son also loves Trbovlje and Zasavje and its mining past: “It’s hard to not feel good about it. Like all the other regions, it had its ups and downs'', says Pangi. "While still in primary school and high school, I was not aware that we lived in an extraordinary area, a mining region, but in college, I was addressed several times as someone notably from Zasavje or Trbovlje - and with a positive connotation”, says Pangi: “We were seen as tough and hardworking people''.

To him, the hardest thing was the bad air quality through the whole valley because of the Lafarge Cement and Thermal power plant Trbovlje (TET). But the power plant is now closed and in the last years the cement plant has invested to reduce emissions - the air in the valley has changed. 

“Many people lost their jobs, but the valley can finally start to breathe again”, says Pangi, “The region is by no means able to breathe with full lungs yet, but very little is missing to make it more dynamic and positive, at least in Trbovlje”.

The environment in the Zasavje valleys was heavily affected by mining and industrial activity. One of the most important tasks during the closure of the mine has been the restoration of the natural environment - an overall clean-up.

Lately we can see that a lot is happening in Trbovlje. New buildings, some new companies, … It’s turning from something bad to something good,

Pangi concludes.

The Rebels – From Exile to Cultural Icon

The transformation of Trbovlje and the region of Zasavje – the radical change from Yugoslav socialist industrial stronghold through economic and social decline into the challenge of rebirth, a new order, and identity – is in some way expressed through the phenomena of Laibach.

Old picture of the Laibach groupIn the 1980s the art group Laibach provoked combining militarism with heavy rock and punk (Photo: Andrew Catlin).

In 1980, during the time of communist Yugoslavia Trbovlje gave birth to the worldwide renowned Slovenian alternative music group called Laibach. "Laibach" is the historical German name for Ljubljana – a name often associated with the Nazi occupation of Slovenia during World War II. The group’s provocative mix of elements from nationalism, totalitarianism, and militarism in both text and symbols, and a sound combining punk, heavy rock, and pop led to censorship and ban - and ultimately drove the band members in exile.

Product of industry

As the band sees itself as a product of industry, they erase themselves as individuals and always talk as a collective. In an interview published by the online cultural magazine The Quietus, the band stated:

We were industrial socialist children… We ourselves worked in different factories as kids occasionally, so we could earn some money and understand what's happening in the factories. Our grandparents worked in the mines.

And their debt to the town of Trbovlje is clear - in an interview on the culture and art blog Excuse the Blood they say: “This city, with its socio-political background, with its revolutionary and industrial environment, with numerous factories - not only coal mining, aesthetically, politically and culturally controversial and full of contradictions, was absolutely the initial inspiration for the establishment of the group. In the beginning, all that we wanted was that we looked and sounded just like Trbovlje”.

Poster of the Laibach groupStrong symbolism is still applied by Laibach  - but today accepted and exhibited at prominent places.

After the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Slovenian independence in 1991 Laibach has become a national cultural icon. In October 2012 they paid homage to the mining history and delivered a concert in a coal mine at the Coal Mining Museum of Slovenia in Velenje - nearly 200 meters underground. True to their roots they named the show in German “Kohle ist Brot”, which translates into coal - or money - is bread.

In the manifesto-like song WAT from 2003 it says:

… We are time
from Moses to Muhammad,
from Kapital to NATO
acropolis to Opus Dei,
from Marx and back to Plato
from the golden age to the age of steel,
from the beginning to the end
from zero to infinity
the first to the seventh continent
from no solution to revolution,
the red star to Star Wars
the turning point to the point of no return,
new order to a brave new world
mechanical to digital… 

The Designer – Giving New Life to Coal

A young designer from Zasavje, Marjeta Hribar, makes sure that the mining tradition and the value of coal do not disappear. Making handmade coal jewelry she shares the eco-friendly message: “Wear it, don't burn it!” Under the brand Kuolmi, the rock, coal is now even embedded in bottles, wall clocks, book indexes, tie pins, and adorn footwear.

Marjeta Hribar mining the coal for her jewelry collectionDressed for the job - Marjeta Hribar is designing jewelry and accessories with coal.

The small smiling young mother and creator of coal jewelry from Izlake is the granddaughter of a miner. Now she is breathing new life into the more than 10 million years old material, which shaped the development of the region for more than two centuries. She feels at best in her workshop, where she only invites very few visitors.

Shining coal

A lot of people ask me, how is it that coal shines so brightly? Basically, it’s its natural glow, like stones glow when we wet them. So, I will bring it back. The first attempts at coal design were a failure,

says the designer. She immediately realized that simple varnishing would not work. “The material is alive, still breathing, and has the properties of wood and stone”.

Finding the right way to prepare it so it could shine with the sun took her almost two years. She tried freezing and heating - everything possible to make friends with coal. “It can still surprise me today because each piece was created under slightly different conditions”, she says. “Now I treat the coal with natural resins, which gives it the opportunity to one day go back to where it came from - to Mother Nature. This ecological way of designing is an important guideline for the vision of the future I stick to”.

Bookmark with a heart of shining coal Made by Kuolmi - a bookmark with a heart of shining coal (Photo: Marjeta Hribar).

Marjeta is also an advocate of cooperation and co-creates new projects with other like-minded entrepreneurs and companies that support a local and sustainable economy. In 2017, working with More Than Beauty, organizing the national contest Miss Slovenia, she created a new crown, giving a special dark shine, to be worn by the winning beauty queen, and in cooperation with the Slovenian footwear manufacturer, Alpina, she created coal-based jewelry to adorn a selection of new boots.

Coal is home 

"My emotional attachment to coal is focused on coal as the material we love and which in the past represented bread and heart", says Marjeta. “For me, coal is above all something that is readily here, but I point to new qualities, look at different angles, and draw from them the best to connect the past and the future”. When she was little, she liked holding warm coal in her hands - coal means home to her: “Everything about it was home to me, and my grandparents taught me that it was worthy of respect".

We must not deny our past, but we can transform it. Instead of discovering new things, we can find additional value in what we already have,

says Marjeta Hribar.

The Miner Hero – Honoring the Heritage

The miner Prometheus, an eight-meter-high monument in remembrance of more than 200 years of mining is now erected in Trbovlje to be officially revealed later this year. A monument to the generations of Zasavje people who worked hard to ensure the survival of families and the development of the region.

Sculpture of the miner called PrometheusA miner Prometheus sculpture designed by sculptor Zoran Poznič is placed in Trbovlje and looking to the mine.

This the largest commemorative sculpture in Slovenia is made by the sculptor Zoran Poznič and his assistants. The initiative was introduced years ago by Ivan Berger, a longtime director of the mine. With the Trbovlje-Hrastnik mine definitively drying up, it seems a good time to erect a monument.

The icon of fire and  knowledge

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is punished by Zeus for stealing the fire and giving it to humans to help them in life’s struggle. Zeus tortured Prometheus - bound him with chains, and sent an eagle to eat Prometheus' immortal liver every day, which then grew back every night. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles, with Zeus' permission, killed the eagle and freed Prometheus from this torment.

Sketches of the sculpture PrometheusSketches of the miner Prometheus sculpture.

Prometheus became a god of fire and a representation of human striving, the skills of civilization, such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science. He is seen as a representation of the quest for knowledge and revolutionary defiance - but also of the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. In Trbovlje, the impressive mining Prometheus sculpture will shine self-sufficient solar cells - illuminated from the inside. His headlight will shine across the valley to the entrance of the mine shaft, where it will illuminate the mining coat of arms on the tower.

Marjeta Hribar has made the heart of this Prometheus – naturally of coal.

For me, it’s personal satisfaction to be a part of this project. The more I thought about him, the more I wanted to embody the duality of this life in our ends. There was always talk only of male heroes suffering underground. However, these heroes were only able to survive thanks to their wives. That is why this heart has two halves - which are connected and beat with the same rhythm,

Marjeta explains.

Marjeta Hribar working on her coal heart of sculpture PrometheusMarjeta Hribar working on her heart of coal for the miner Prometheus.

New identity for Trbovlje

"With blisters and sweat, our ancestors laid the foundations for three towns, which are changing from former mining towns to high-tech and advanced cities," says Karel Vukovič, head of the group for the erection of the monument within the Trbovlje New Media Setting Association (Trbovlje Novomedijsko Mesto association, TNM).

TNM was set up in 2009 as a comprehensive and wide-ranging program intended to establish a new-media-arts-sensitive culture in the former industrial town of Trbovlje and the wider Zasavje region. It aims to create a network featuring various central people in the arts and heritage scenes as well as with those working in science, technology, and tourism. "We did not ask anyone for money, the people of Zasavje funded and erected the monument themselves", says Karel.

TNM relies on a strong tradition of technical intelligence on the one hand and cultural and artistic avant-garde on the other. The goal is to achieve a breakthrough in all these areas through the synthesis of technology, science, art, and economic initiative, and in the long run, to offer the residents of Trbovlje a new identity - the first association with the name Trbovlje shall no longer be of mining past and failed industry, but high technology, robots, new media art.

Marjeta thinks the statue will appeal even to the younger generation:

Prometheus will not need an explanation, because it skips time frames. Given that the basis of work is from the past, it is driven through the present, and with all the virtual technology, it connects all time frames. Everyone will look for the part of the story that is closest or most related to them.

The Entrepreneur – High-Tech and New Business

In December 2000, Trbovlje saw the birth of Dewesoft. In 20 years, the company has achieved the status of a leading global developer of data acquisition hardware and software – the success, experience, and resources are now shared in support of a business incubator, Katapult.

Jure Knez is having presentation of the Dewesoft company in the conference room of KatapultJure Knez presenting at a seminar in Katapult. (Photo: Dewesoft)

Dewesoft is a limited liability company that is primarily active in the fields of computer programming and the production of electronic components, measurement instruments, and measurement systems supplied to major customers in the automotive, aerospace and defense, transportation, power and energy, industrial, and civil engineering industries. The range of applications is also wide: data recording, NVH testing, power, and energy testing, structural dynamics, vibration analysis, acoustic testing, and monitoring

Today, Dewesoft is one of the greatest feats of Slovenian technological knowledge. Despite the global success, the heart of the company and production remained in Trbovlje. Jure Knez, president and co-founder of the company, also wanted to help other creative people in his valley with their seemingly unrealizable ideas.

Space for startups

The business incubator, Katapult, was created in 2016 when one in five people in Zasavje was unemployed, and almost one in two young people. One of the main motives for Dewesoft, which then invested two million euros in the premises for the business accelerator, was to encourage and support the development of entrepreneurship and consequently generate high-quality jobs, which should stop the outflow of young people to work in other parts of Slovenia and abroad.

Man assembling ultralight aircraft in the Katapult startupThe high-tech aviation company AformX, one of the startups housed in Katapult, manufactures and assembles ultralight aircraft and composite parts for the aviation industry. (Photo: Luka Knez)

“We wanted Katapult to attract mainly companies that already have a product. Given what we do at Dewesoft, to help such companies the easiest. A great example is the story of Chipolo«, says Jure. Chipolo is a local company making small Bluetooth trackers that help customers find keys, wallets, bags, or phones. “On Kickstarter, these guys raised $ 300,000 to make 15,000 pendants, a great success, but at the same time they found themselves in a dilemma - they had not completed development, they were without production facilities, they had a lot of questions about the purchase of materials, export documentation, they needed test instruments…“

And Dewesoft provided the solution. “We had some space available at the time, and in just a few hours we remodeled a few rooms at Dewesoft so that young enthusiastic guys could start working in them, Jure explains; “While they were involved in product development, we helped them with seemingly simple answers to questions such as who is the best nickel supplier, how to regulate soldering technology, how to export to Russia, how to regulate export tariffs… “

This gave birth to the idea of an entrepreneurial accelerator where young entrepreneurs can make their dreams come true, under Dewesoft auspices. Jure then initiated the first - and so far only - hardware accelerator in Slovenia, Katapult. “We help entrepreneurs or teams develop in all phases - from prototype to final product“, Jure says.

Working in the Chipolo officesToday, Chipolo is offering small-size Bluetooth trackers that help people locate things like phones, keys, or bags. (Photo: Chipolo)

And he goes on: "We also differ from other accelerators that have grown under the auspices of an established company or corporation in that Dewesoft does not expect an ownership stake for its support, but we support all products, even if they have nothing to do with measuring technology, which is our core business".

Dewesoft renovated the building formerly holding company Iskra and arranged offices, coworking space, and conference halls. 2000 square meters and a symbiosis between an established global company and young entrepreneurs who are just beginning their journey. 

A growing success

Today, more than a dozen promising startups are so far housed in a now renovated former factory building making products such as rocket engines, smart pendants to find stocked or lost items, non-binding laces, flight simulators backed by virtual reality, bikes with three skies, and smart devices for measuring baby breathing, heart rate and temperature – a small scale Slovenian Silicon Valley, where the best innovations are sprouting.

Dewesoft and its staff are now closely connected with Katapult and also offer to mentor colleagues from abroad, and together they have developed a series of workshops called Mosaic of Entrepreneurship. It is essential to Jure, that in Katapult, young people mature in entrepreneurship: "If someone fails, they can continue to work in another company within Katapult or at Dewesoft - there have been many successful transitions of this kind. With Katapult, we were able to spread a positive mindset and encourage entrepreneurship in our valleys".

In 2021, the Katapult will be expanding its activities to Ljubljana. The premises for interested startups and already more established innovative companies will be offered in the Industrial Zone along Letališka Street. And how does Knez see the further transformation of Trbovlje and Zasavje?

There are quite a few of our employees whose fathers still worked in the mine. They are adorned with solidarity, respect, diligence, and perseverance - all that their fathers had and which is also the foundation of our organizational culture, even if we are a high-tech company.

With the content, Dewesoft and Katapult will support the creation and operation of the new municipal incubator, the Zasavje business incubator,  and the company constantly thinking about new projects. "Zasavje can be an example of how to transform the region from a mining region to a region with high added value, which is the foundation for a high quality of life and social development," says Jure Knez.

"Dewesoft will continue to support innovative development projects in the local environment, as we have to give something back to the community in which we grew up and were educated", Knez emphasizes; "Isn't this the most we can leave to our descendants in the long run".

The Artist – Humanizing Technology

An excellent example of connecting the past and the present, tradition, and modernity is perhaps Zoran Poznič, an academic sculptor, painter and politician, former Minister of Culture, and now an independent entrepreneur. He knows the transformation of Zasavje and Trbovlje exceptionally well - as he also co-creates it.

Artist Zoran Poznič on the bike above TrbovljeThe artist Zoran Poznič sees the Zasavje region as a beacon for the implementation of modern technologies. (Photo: Jana Petkovšek Štakul)

Zoran Poznič is a man with a restless spirit and exceptional creative energy. Born in Trbovlje 1959, and in 2008, he became the director of the main cultural institution, the Delavski dom (Worker’s Home) in Trbovlje, located in a modernist building in the center of the town, and since 2017 he has also functioned as the vice-president of the Association of Slovenian Fine Artists.

As an artist, Zoran always uses modern communication tools, such as holograms, and as part of a network of arts and culture centers his institution has launched the DDT-RUK Research Laboratory. Under the header of humanizing technology, it researches in the field of cybernetics, virtualization, BCI systems, and robotics. The purpose of the laboratory – part of which operates in Katapult - is to produce projects that are at the intersection of art, science, and new technologies. 

No more brain drain

Zoran Poznič is convinced that the trend of brain drain from Trbovlje has stopped and that young people have better and better conditions and reasons to stay and live in the region.

"At the beginning of the 21st century, it turned out that everything that human society was supposed to bring with it through the 1st, 2nd and possibly also the 3rd industrial revolution, somehow comes to the fore and is valid”, he says. “Concepts such as curiosity, empathy, solidarity, new socialization… All these fundamental values that make us meaningful as social beings, in fact, with the development of all new technologies, come to the imaginary, which we as a society cannot afford”.

Zoran’s vision is that Zasavje and Trbovlje, as a kind of turning point, can be a good example that; ”the failed phase of the industrial age from old patterns, with one quantum leap, can be brought into the 21st century through the principle of humanization and user-friendly technology that benefits us all - not only economically, but also socially and emotionally”.

He explains: “Fifteen years ago, we began to build a new option on the hearth of the declining. New opportunities began to open up, not only in the economic field where Dewesoft stands out but also in the field of culture, which is probably most important for human society”.

A boy is wearing virtual reality glassesVirtual reality in the DDTlab. The lab is part of the RUK network - thematic creative labs - a hub for innovative explorations and responses to modern time challenges. (Photo: RUK) 

On a good path

New technologies establish new relationships and lead in new directions, which people as social beings sometimes do not even know how to evaluate or know how to use in the right way to their advantage. “The new media city of Trbovlje has led to the fact that Trbovlje is one of the more advanced environments in terms of understanding and implementing modern technologies for the development of society”, Zoran says. “Much of what is happening in our region already represents a kind of beacon and a good path that is worth following, an experience that is worth using elsewhere”.

What we started is already bearing fruit. An ecosystem of young companies and young creative people has sprung up around Dewesoft. We have Katapult - and the creation of a new regional accelerator is being prepared, for which the municipality of Trbovlje has obtained European funds.

The changes also involve Zoran’s institution: “A new media culture is flourishing in Trbovlje - we are preparing a large project for the renovation of the Zasavje Museum, which will thus become the first intermedia and new media museum in Slovenia and perhaps even in Central Europe”.

Zoran genuinely believes that better times await the region: “There are many projects. The purpose of all this is not only to follow the spirit of the times but above all to enable and make sense of young people and professionals to stay here in our beautiful valleys”.

Zoran Poznič sees a brighter future: “An advantage of the collapse of the mining industry is that our valleys are now much cleaner and more livable. In recent years more and more young families from Ljubljana are moving to Zasavje”.

The Mayor – Shaping the Transformation

Change has come about. A young lawyer, Jasna Gabrič, became the mayor of Trbovlje in November 2014 and she set out to transform the forgotten, less developed old mining town into one of the most developed in Slovenia. 

Young mayor of Trbovlje in her officeThe young mayor of Trbovlje, Jasna Gabrič, has set out to transform the former mining town. (Photo: Municipality of Trbovlje)

By the time Jasna was re-elected in 2018 with 68 percent of the votes, the unemployment level had dropped from 22 percent to 13 – now it is under 10. 

The conspicuous mayor of Trbovlje explains her vision: "Trbovlje will be a developing city that will follow all new development guidelines. An economically strong town with low unemployment and a modern environment. A place where people want to live because they recognize a good environment for themselves and their family. A town that will provide enough housing and building plots for young families, and a town that will cultivate economic and social development".

Times change - values remain

Is this possible? "Yes, after all, we have been innovators many times in the past - and we should bring this capability into the future. In 2030, I want Trbovlje to be a successful, technologically developed town, friendly to all residents and visitors," says Jasna Gabrič.

Times change, but values ​​remain. Our mining heritage must not be forgotten.

During her first years as mayor, Gabric reformed the municipality to make it more efficient and responsive. She says: “The city started changing its image. We cleaned it up and it immediately started looking more orderly. With EU funds we began to improve infrastructure and tackle unemployment. In the first couple of years, we focused on our task and ignored the pessimism.”

Leading the transformation of a forgotten, less developed old mining city into one of the most developed cities in Slovenia also includes building a multicultural community. During the most prosperous decades of its mining and industrial past, the municipality became home to workers from all across former Yugoslavia.

Jasna explains. “They brought their families along with them. New building complexes were built to create homes for these newcomers. However, many years later, their descendants still live in these blocks. Despite being born in Trbovlje, they did not always manage to integrate well and even today feel marginalized in their environment”. As a mayor, she has set the objective to revive these neighborhoods.

In 2016, the Slovenia government initiated a 6-year program to foster competitiveness and development support measures in Zasavje, the problem area with high unemployment. The program includes grants to encourage investments, favorable development credits for investments, subsidies for start-ups, microcredits, promotion of the area to attract foreign and domestic investors.

Project for the future

The transformation also involves funding for an inter-municipal project through the European Regional Development Fund to revitalize industrial heritage towns and activate them through sustainable tourism. The town is rich in unique industrial cultural heritage - desolate mining shafts, the extremely tall chimney, former miners’ lodgings, the remains of, for those times, innovative factories and workshops, and diverse cultural happenings.

Despite these riches, the town faces a negative public profile, brain drain, high unemployment, and utterly dispersed approaches to servicing visitors. The project’s objective is therefore to build up the towns’ appeal both for the locals and visitors by reviving its unique industrial heritage and offer visitors an all-in-one sustainable culture tourism product based on interactive media, visitor inclusion, and digital presentation.

Mayor opening the local history collection at the public library in TrbovljeIn 2018, Jasna Gabrič opened the local history collection at the public library in Trbovlje - in memory of the late Tine Lenarčič, the author of more books on Trbovlje and its mining history. (Photo: Municipality of Trbovlje)

The European Union will also allocate funds to smart villages to attract more people to live in the Zasavje countryside. Smart villages are defined as those rural communities that use innovative solutions and digital technologies to tackle economic, social, or environmental challenges – supporting local initiatives and local potentials used to solve everyday challenges, while connecting with other communities in rural and urban areas. 

Turning the tide

Currently, two of the remaining major industries have plans to expand. TKI Hrastnik will receive state funds through a tender for the creation of new jobs in the municipalities of Hrastnik, Radeče, and Trbovlje. The company develops and produces industrial and laboratory chemicals, such as phosphates, sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid, hypochlorite, and chlorine, and produces a wide range of consumer products. The company will invest in the production of a new product using a more technologically innovative granulation process.

Also, the sole remaining glasswork, Steklarna Hrastnik will carry out an expansion developing a super-premium segment of glass. The company estimates that this will create high-quality jobs in Hrastnik, and help attract qualified staff. Furthermore, a new production plant is planned in Hrastnik, an investment of estimated 45 million euros. It will include a new mixing plant, bottle production, and automatic quality control, and product packaging, an expansion of its decoration plant. and new storage facilities - all expected to be completed in 2022.
The municipality of Trbovlje will also receive European and state funds for an Infrastructural modernization of the craft and industrial zone Nasipi - it will be an environment equipped to provide appropriate conditions for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

Jasna has also embarked on the development of Industry 4.0 technologies with a new business incubator, Zasavje business incubator, located on the premises of the company Papaja, which the municipality bought for this purpose in 2018. The project is worth over EUR 2 million and will receive the support of EUR 1.2 million from the European Regional Development Fund.

The new incubator focuses on providing the relevant infrastructure in the economic business and high-quality space for the start-up of new high-tech companies as well as for learning and research - association and sharing of knowledge and experience.

The Tunnel – Connecting to the Outside

One of the major projects facing the municipality of Trbovlje in the years to come is a joint project with the neighboring municipalities of Hrastnik and Prebold - the connection of Zasavje to the A1 motorway between the major cities of Ljubljana and Maribor. A tunnel through the mountain to replace the step winding road across it.

Light at the end of the tunnelAt the end of the tunnel is light. A major project to connect Zasavje with the highway through a tunnel is in progress. (Photo. Shutterstock)

“I am saddened by the fact that we had companies in Trbovlje with domestic knowledge and hardware that we’re able to penetrate the mountains and the whole world, this knowledge of theirs was not used for the physical opening of Trbovlje to the world… However, I believe that the sons of this valley are already being born, who will dig a tunnel...”, commented Jože Ovnik, the Trbovlje painter and writer in 2016 to the local online newspaper, Savus.

Inferior infrastructure

Although Zasavje lies in the heart of Slovenia and fairly close to Ljubljana, the road infrastructure and access to motorway connections are poor. The distance from Trbovlje, the regional center, to Ljubljana is only about 60 km, to Graz 160 km, to Vienna 345 km, to Trieste 160 km, and to Budapest 400 km. However, the region is rather peripheral owing to inferior transport infrastructure, e.g., there is only one highway junction in the region.

The Trbovlje Mayor Jasna Gabric explains the need for a better and faster road connection:

This is extremely important if we want to attract companies, businessmen or startups to Trbovlje. Such a connection will facilitate cooperation with customers and enable faster development of our companies.

A large proportion of Trbovlje residents still commute daily to work in other municipalities. According to data from the Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia (SURS), the labor migration index in 2019 was 63.8 which places Trbovlje as a moderately residential municipality. However, Trbovlje companies, including Dewesoft, are looking for an influx of employees from other municipalities and driving should not be too much of an obstacle. Therefore, they are vigilantly monitoring the progress in establishing a connection to the motorway through a tunnel.

A new road connection between Trbovlje via a tunnel to Prebold through the mountains would enable much faster and safer access to the Ljubljana-Maribor motorway. The idea of ​​building a tunnel is half a century old but has been revived by the mayor in Trbovlje - even though it is state infrastructure. The tunnel should be about two kilometers, and currently, a dossier is prepared.

A plan for a new tunnel

Gateway to the outside

The tunnel is proposed to be about two kilometers long, but the project is still in its conceptual phase, as it has to be very carefully considered and outlined due to the high financial burden, the impact on the environment and the local community. This long-term project requires the cooperation of the state and the municipalities of Trbovlje, Prebold, and Hrastnik.

Today, the distance from Gabrsko via Podmeja and Prebold to the highway is around 20 kilometers (12 miles) on stretches of serpentine road with narrow bends – around half an hour’s drive crossing mountain 700+ meters and with a height difference of more than 400 meters. The air travel distance is equal to 11 kilometers (around 7 miles). The new road connection is supposed to measure a good 19 kilometers, and include a tunnel the length of 2020 meters.

In recent years, a lot has been done regarding a better connection of Zasavje to the motorway. Currently, a tender has been published for the selection of a contractor to prepare a study of various solutions and provide other documentation. This is a big step in this project and will be even bigger when the contractor is selected and starts working within the next months.

“We are optimistic about the tunnel and we have set a goal of six years if we take an active approach to things,” says Gabrič, and makes a comparison: “Project documentation for the renovation of an existing road section in the length of 1 kilometer can take more than a year. In the case of a connection between Zasavje and A1, we are talking about more kilometers of road, which is not even given by nature. For the 30 years we were just talking about this project in inns, so what is 6 more years? Nothing - it will be a great success if we succeed in this within 6 years".

Let us not forget the fact that in our region corn will not grow as fast as in other parts of Slovenia, where the most fertile areas of the country are now being destroyed to build industrial zones. Why not make good use of these areas in our region for the development of the economy,

the mayor thinks.