Bitstamp of Approval: Slovenia’s Silicon ‘Dolina’

How a Slovenian crypto-exchange led to the rebirth of a legendary lakeside hotel.

Bohinj lake in Triglav National Park.
Bohinj lake in Triglav National Park. Photo: anderm / stock.adobe.com

When it comes to crypto, Slovenia joined the blockchain party early. Just two years after the birth of Bitcoin in 2009, two Slovenian students foresaw its potential and founded Bitstamp, a platform enabling people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. Starting in a garage with one server and a couple of laptops, the pair were pioneers, introducing security measures and forward-thinking features that quickly advanced its popularity.

In the wild west of blockchain startups that followed, Bitstamp not only grew, but brought trust and legitimacy to the turbulent world of cryptocurrency trading. In 2016, they became the first crypto exchange to receive a Payment Institution license in the EU, demonstrating compliance in all 27 EU Member states. In 2019, Bitstamp obtained a BitLicense from the New York Department of Financial Services. And in 2023, they were registered as a crypto asset business by the UK’s FCA.

Many similar trading platforms have since appeared and subsequently disappeared. Surviving the hacks, closures, crashes, and roller coaster rides of the crypto world, Bitstamp is now the longest-running cryptocurrency exchange in the world. It’s one of Slovenia’s business success stories, but perhaps an even greater tale is what one of Bitstamp’s founders, Damijan Merlak, did when he sold the company and became one of Slovenia’s first ‘crypto millionaires.

An entrepreneurial adventure

Inspired by the desire to help one of his favorite holiday locations, Merlak bought up four ailing establishments around Lake Bohinj in Slovenia’s one and only national park. His goal? Restore them in an environmentally conscious and socially responsible way.

Sadly, the hotels Merlak purchased had received little to no investment for decades. Indeed, for years, Slovenes had bemoaned their decline. In what is one of Slovenia’s most beautiful and pristine areas, it was a tragedy that the condition of the buildings had been allowed to decline so far.

Rather than seeing the purchase of the hotels as a purely financial investment, Merlak has stated he considers the move ‘an entrepreneurial adventure.’ Indeed, Bohinj holds a very special place in the hearts of Slovenians, and the news that a Slovene who knows and loves the area was investing in them has generally been received well. Merlak himself states that he has many fond memories of visiting Bohinj as a child and wanted to bring these places back to life.

Sadly, Bohinj’s most famous hotels were already beyond repair. The famed Hotel Zlatarog, a once beautiful hunting-lodge-style hotel on the shores of the lake, where Marshall Tito, Yugoslavia’s charismatic leader, hosted many visiting foreign leaders, had been neglected for so long that it had to be demolished. However, with Merlak’s investment, a newly designed Zlatarog will be built to modern standards, yet not forgetting the hotel’s illustrious history.

Slovenia’s ‘Silicon Dolina’

In addition to revitalizing some of Slovenia’s most loved hotels, Bitstamp’s success inspired other Slovenes to build blockchain companies. Nicehash – the ‘world’s leading hash-power marketplace’ – which enables anyone to mine bitcoin, was founded in 2014 and is now a global leader. The country pioneered the ‘Blockchain Alliance of Europe,’ a non-profit organization that connects European companies and legal entities that use or implement blockchain technology.

Even the Slovenian government has taken note of its homegrown talent, becoming the first member state of the EU to establish a blockchain test infrastructure, enabling it to actively participate in the development of use cases. And Slovenia was the first country in the world to install a permanent tribute to Bitcoin, a giant Bitcoin ‘₿’ symbol, enshrined on a roundabout in the town of Kranj, a short drive from Ljubljana.

Despite Slovenia’s small population, the country has punched well above its weight in digital gold, building world-leading companies that continue to serve millions and influence the blockchain industry today.

Sam Baldwin

is the author of For Fukui’s Sake; Two years in rural Japan, and founder of BregDesign.com – Slovenia-inspired designs. He has written for The Guardian, The Times, Men's Health, and numerous guidebooks and websites. He currently lives in Austria’s Deep South.

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