A New Life for an Old Chimney

“Extreme Reusing,” aka the Slovenian concept of what to do with a non-working chimney, which happens to be the tallest in Europe.

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Janja Garnbret is climbing on the chimery
Janja Garnbret. Photo: © Red Bull Media House

The town of Trbovlje in the Slovenian region of Zasavlje has been historically associated with mining. In the early 1900s, most adult male citizens worked hard deep underground, mining coal. The city was covered in coal dust and contaminated with industrial pollution.

Black-gold rush

About 250 years ago, coal mining became a “goldmine” for the country’s economy. Raw material extraction was Slovenia’s primary source of income. The industry provided jobs for over 5,000 people.

In the 19th century, the Zasavje region became the main center of hard coal mining in the former Yugoslavia. The Zagorje Coal Mining Company was in charge of a glassworks, a lead foundry, a galvanizing plant, and other factories. Until the 1990s, when the mines began to close gradually. The last mine in Zasavje stopped working in 2015. A region once a center of heavy industry had to face the need for revitalization.

The abandoned town of Trbovlje had become a sad place of empty industrial buildings and former excavations. However, these very buildings were considered an attractive opportunity for new development in the idea of revitalizing the region. The Slovenian government and the European Union organized financial support to revitalize the place and restore its attractiveness and economic competitiveness. For example, the former Trbovlje Machine Factory (STT), which had an area of ​​28,000 square meters in the mid-1950s and was the largest mining machinery factory in the Balkans, was transformed into a shopping center.

The Trbovlje Combined Heat and Power Plant (Termoelektrarna Trbovlje), a lignite-fired power plant, was commissioned in 1966. Ten years later, the 360-meter Trbovlje Chimney (Trboveljski dimnik) was built, which became the tallest flue gas chimney in Europe. The solution was to ensure that emissions were removed from the deep valley, avoiding pollution.

But the era of fossil fuel exploitation was inevitably coming to an end. The power plant was phased out in 2000, leaving the chimney “jobless.”

Trbovlje Chimney: Transformation 2.0

The “remnants” of the region’s industrial boom have now become major tourist attractions and extreme sports destinations. The Trbovlje Chimney has challenged brave climbers to get to its top. The first to achieve this breakneck goal was a pair of Slovenes – Janja Garmbret and Domen Škofic. In 2020, they managed to free climb Red Bull’s “360 Ascent”, considered the highest artificial multi-pitch route in the world. The young athletes succeeded in their second attempt after more than seven hours of climbing, supported only by a rope in the event of a fall.

Since 2014, “Jamatlon” (*in Slovenian, cave = jama) has also been organized here. It is an extreme run through old mines from Trbovlje to neighboring Hrastnik. Twice a year, on Miner’s Day, observed on 3 July, and then again on 4 December, St. Barbara’s, the patron of miners, tough participants equipped with safety shoes and helmets must compete on a 5.5-kilometer route full of obstacles over 250 meters underground.

Young people who are more into digital entertainment can try their luck by escaping the mine gnome with the historic name Pekmandeljc – in a computer game designed by students of the Technical and Vocational School in Trbovlje (STPŠ).

Unforgotten heritage beneath Trbovlje Chimney

In addition to these extreme attractions, the descendants of miners aren’t letting the industrial past of Trbovlje be forgotten. There are museums, exhibitions, and workshops in the city. The region aspires to be the center of advanced technologies, and it trying to reach that goal by promoting the idea of Industry 4.0, the “Katapult” business incubator, and the Trbovlje New Media Setting Association (Trbovlje Novomedijsko Mesto Association, TNM). It is meant to promote a new media culture, combining technology, science, and art.

One perfect example of this is the DRITL Virtual Museum, where visitors can take a virtual tour of the Trbovlje Mine and learn more about the lives of the people who have worked there. On the more adventure-driven side, the museum also features a virtual escape room game giving visitors the chance to go on a “rescue mission” to find missing coal workers.

Another creative endeavor that has people talking comes from a young designer from Zasavje, Marjeta Hribar, who makes handmade carbon jewelry (under the brand name “Kuolmi”). She literally makes the coal of Trbovlje shine again. Her “green” message over the black treasure is: “Wear it, don’t burn it!” A creative interpretation of extreme reusing, indeed!

Agnieszka Sawala

Journalist, interpret, PR expert. Co-organizes travel festivals and meetings with interesting people. Addicted to (live) music. Vagabond and citizen of the world, currently residing in Slovenia.

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