ŽALEC: The land of green gold

Žalec is the largest town in the Spodnja Savinjska valley west of Celje. It made its first appearance in the annals of history sometime in the late 12th century, receiving full market town rights around a century later.

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The period of the Renaissance was a difficult one for the town, as it was frequently the target of Turkish invasions, but by the late 17th century had settled into its role as a hardworking farming community and one of many places to stop on the road from Vienna to Trieste. However, its fate was forever changed in the waning years of the 19th century. The story of Žalec is a classic example of the most popular proverb amongst contemporary MBAs, namely that there’s no such thing as a problem, only an opportunity. After some kind of disease wiped out much of the region’s crops in the mid-1870s, Janez Hausenbichler, a local nobleman and resident of the mansion in Novo Celje, proposed that instead of replanting the same low-yielding crops they had grown before, the local farmers should try to sow the famed Wurttemberg hop seedlings that he had serendipitously smuggled back home after a recent trip to Germany. The farmers agreed, and it turned out that the climate of the valley was perfect for hops. The rest, as they say, is history.


ECO-MUSEUM OF HOP-GROWING AND THE BREWING INDUSTRY IN SLOVENIA: Known as the Valley of Green Gold, the lower Savinjska Valley is one of the world’s foremost hop-producing regions, and since 2009 it has also been home to what is surely one of the most well-organized, informative and interesting hop museums in the world. Set in a building that was formerly used as the drying and processing facilities for the freshly picked hops, much of the premises have simply been restored to their original state, so the building itself is actually part of the exhibition. Large rooms with aged wooden floors, a vertical drying shaft that runs the height of the buildings and vast furnaces have all been preserved.

The individual exhibitions combine ethnological collections, historical documentation and interactive elements, which together walk visitors through the story of hops, both in the Savinja region and in general. However, the highlight of the visit for us was the short video presentation upstairs. We’re not in the business of trying to build up unrealistic expectations, but the film that is screened here is easily the most entertaining of the countless museum films and multi-vision presentations we’ve watched over the years. An actual reportage made during the early 1960s and taken from the archives of Radio Television Slovenia, the music, humor and commentary are simply perfect, and you even learn a bit about the history of growing and harvesting hops in the area. The tour is not officially over until you’ve visited the degustation room on the ground floor and sampled a pint of the museum’s own brew, called Kukec. It’s named for the legendary Simon Kukec from Žalec, who bought and greatly expanded the operations of Slovenia’s Laško Brewery at the end of the 19th century. Info: Cesta Žalskega Tabora 2,  +386 (0)3 571 80 21, ekomuzej@siol.net, www.turizem-zalec.si.

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SAVIN’S HOUSE: The birthplace of Risto Savin (1859-1948) is the cultural (and geographical) heart of Žalec and the most logical starting point for any visit to the town. Savin, who was actually born Friderik Širca, was both a decorated officer in the Austro-Hungarian military and an accomplished composer. Although he took an active interest in music at an early age, he joined the army after finishing school. During his long and by all accounts successful military career he was stationed in various cities throughout the empire (Vienna, Sarajevo, Prague), where he received an informal education in the great musical movements of the day, and from time to time even performed in public, either on the piano or as a singer. Following WWI, he retired from the army with the rank of major general, and returned home to Žalec to pursue music full time (and marry a much younger woman!). On the first floor of the house there’s an exhibition of items that belonged to Savin, including furniture, photographs, artwork, military decorations, music sheets and other memorabilia as well as a gallery celebrating the works of the renowned Slovenian painter Jelica Žuža and a newly renovated gallery of Savinian artists. On the ground floor you’ll find the tourist information office, which is stocked with information not only about Žalec but also the other five municipalities that make up the Spodnja Savinjska region. During the summer the courtyard behind the building is the place to be, as there are frequent concerts and other events in the evenings. Info: Šlandrov trg 25, +386 (0)3 710 04 34, zkst.tic@siol.net, www.turizem-zalec.si.

THE GREEN GOLD BEER FOUNTAIN: Žalec made international headlines in late 2016, when the world’s first ‘beer fountain’ was officially opened in a park in the city center, a fitting distinction given the long, storied hops growing and beer producing heritage of the town. After several years of discussion and planning, the final design is a hat tip to the hops flower, featuring two interlocking green semi-circles, one of which boasts six retractable beer taps. While not a fountain in the traditional sense of free-flowing liquid being spouted up into the air (that would be both dangerous and likely illegal), the taps are open to the public and of the serve yourself variety, thus the structure serves as both an eye-catching piece of public art and a functional bar. How does the system work? Visitors can purchase commemorative beer mugs specially designed by renowned Slovene artist Oskar Kogoj from a nearby shop, the TIC office or the Eco-Museum, and then choose up to six 100ml samples to taste from the local craft beers on tap. State-of-art-technology takes care of the details, as microchips inserted in the mugs do all of the necessary calculations. Info: Savinjska Cesta 11, www.beerfountain.eu


ŽALEC BY THE NUMBERS

Population (municipality): 21,503 / Population (city): 5,413 / Size: 117.1 km2 / Municipal holiday: September 6 / Postcode: 3310 / Mayor: Janko Kos / Known for: Green Gold Beer Fountain


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ROMAN NECROPOLISL Even in a place boasting so much in the way of history, a Roman Necropolis is special. No one knew the Necropolis was here until 1952, when it was discovered by accident. During work carried out in an orchard, the statue of a sitting woman was revealed. Knowing that something special had been found, the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts together with the Celje Regional Museum and the University of Ljubljana then took over the excavation, which lasted until 1956. In 1960 the archaeological park was opened with four completely restored tombs and many small tombstones. It is now considered one of the most important Roman remains in Slovenia and also Central Europe. The largest tomb is the 8m high Spectacius tomb. Gaius Spectatius Finitus, mayor of Celeia, had the tomb constructed for himself, his son and probably for his wife too. It’s thought the tomb dates from circa 161 to 211AD. On the tomb roof a head of Medusa faces forward, guarding the family. One of the most beautiful tombs belonged to the Ennius family. It looks like a small chapel and its statues and reliefs suggest that it was created around 138AD. The relief on the front side of the ash container depicts the god Zeus. The Necropolis originally grew near an important Roman road around 2,000 years ago. The road passed through Šempeter and connected several Roman towns. Many powerful Roman men lived nearby and some were buried here. During the excavation it was discovered that a part of the cemetery had flooded in the great flood of the 3rd century. The tombs that were closest to the river fell into the water. They ended up buried and the river sand helped to preserve them. Info: Šempeter, +386 3 70 02 056, info@td-sempeter.si, www.td-sempeter.si.

VRBJE POND: This nature reserve is a sanctuary for birds, and with more than 170 species here it’s a prime location for bird watching. It’s quite possible to spend a good few relaxing hours here, watching the clouds go by. But you can also be more active if you wish. Children can ride horses and the path around the lake is popular with joggers. The land covers some 13 hectares and the pond is also home to breeding warm water fish. The grounds are filled with wooden sculptures that have been created by a local sculptor Vinko Kovačec. There’s also an information center which is open from spring to autumn, which offers a rich programme of children’s and educational workshops. It’s also a good place to pick up tourism leaflets or rent Nordic walking poles. You can discover the lake and park on your own or take a more formal guided tour. If you call the TIC Žalec in advance, they can provide you with a local tour guide.

PEKEL JAMA: Pekel Jama is perhaps the best value of all the country’s numerous caves that are open for public tours, and easily has one of the best names of any cave in the world, which is literally Hell Cave in English. Don’t worry though, it was given the name because of the steam that can be seen rising out of it during the winter when the constant temperatures in the cave become warmer than the air outside. However, in a bit of ironic twist, the Hell Cave is also home to an extremely rare species of blind beetle that was named after Hitler back in the 1930s. A tour of the cave takes roughly one hour and covers a total of some 1,200m from start to finish, which includes a climb from the lower ‘water cave’ to the upper ‘dry cave’. Parts of the path are extremely narrow and can get slippery after heavy rains, so proper footwear is recommended. There’s a great variety of stalactites and stalagmites along the path (some of which resemble various animals, people and borderline inappropriate body parts that your guide may point out to you), and several large galleries. The most interesting sights for us are the silent gallery, where not even the water from the other part of the cave can be heard, and the 4m high waterfall, which is the highest underground waterfall in Slovenia and was only opened to the public in 1997. Info: +386 (0)3 57 02 138, www.td-sempeter.si.

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TOURIST INFORMATION CENTRE

Žalec’s tourist information center is located in the center of town on the ground floor of Savin’s House. In addition to stacks of promotional materials and maps for all six of the municipalities in the Spodnja Savinjska region, you may also find works by Oskar Kogoj on display and for sale.  This is also the easiest place to buy tickets for local events or rent bikes for the day. Info: Šlandrov Trg 25,  +386 (0)3 710 04 34, zkst.tic@siol.net, www.turizem-zalec.si.