“What do you want to go there for?” “Where’s that?” “Isn’t it dangerous?” “Didn’t that you use to be part of Czechoslovakia?” were just some of the incredulous responses I got when I stated my next holiday would be taken in Slovenia. I was 23, the year was 1999 and Slobodan Milosevic had just been bombed – well, to be precise Belgrade and Novi Sad – into submission over the vexed Kosovo question. You might well ask what all this has to do with Slovenia – with justification.
Slovenia was deemed to be guilty by its relative proximity to Serbia and Kosovo and it previously forming part of the now defunct Yugoslavia. Unperturbed by the ignorance of others and somewhat emboldened by it, I ventured to Lake Bohinj in the north-west of Slovenia. Everybody had heard of Lake Bled, even me, mainly due to its popularity in the 70’s and 80’s with the package-holiday masses travelling with Yugotours. Bohinj was though hitherto a mystery, somewhat ironically being a favourite with Agatha Christie and travellers seeking a genuine alpine-experience, rather than the Bled’s touristy and at times tacky feel, albeit framed by a majestic backdrop.
On arriving in June, I virtually had the run of the resort. How things change: when at Lake Bohinj in June this year, it was at times unbearably busy during an equally unbearable heatwave. Back though in 1999 it was eerily quiet, which from a selfish point-of-view I prefer but of course it was unsustainable for local traders and hoteliers. Having holidayed at the lake seven times since 1999, I feel it pulling me back time-after-time even when I sense I’ve exhausted what it has to offer.
Hiking and a base-camp for conquering the 9000+ feet peak of Triglav are Bohinj’s bread-and-butter, with it now also seemingly on every continental coach-companies itinerary as a stopping off point. If you are staying at the lake at the weekend, get as far away into the mountains as you can. Don’t misunderstand me: this is no Blackpool or Las Vegas when it gets busy but like many alpine resorts, it wasn’t built for large influxes of people or vehicles, even if its denizens do behave impeccably compared to the visitors to the aforementioned. Even the yobs put their litter in bins and have Doctorates, but then Slovenia is one of the most educated countries in Europe.
The resort is not called Bohinj, with the name being an umbrella-term for the collective of villages that make up this spectacular valley. No, you cannot see 23 glaciers at any one time like you can above Obergurgl but the juxtapositioning of raw, rugged beauty with an active, diverse and thriving farming community lends a genuine, organic feel to the area, completely contrasting with many of the purpose-built French resorts and to a lesser extent, Bled. Ribcev Laz is the predominant tourist-hub, abutting Bohinjsko Jezero(lake) with a supermarket, post office, pizzeria, post and tourist offices.
The area has insufficient holiday accommodation, both in quantity and quality. Being an integral part of the Triglav National Park severely restricts property-building which of course is a good thing, meaning the lakeside area is untouchable. If the current overnight stock afforded tourists with the sufficient quality of accommodation expected, the quantity would be irrelevant. The eponymous Jezero Hotel though justifies its four-star tag, where I would suggest you negate the ‘tourist-menu’ and head straight for the a-la-carte restaurant. Other overnight accommodation such as the Rozic and the Bellevue have seemingly gone backwards over the years, with the Bellevue sadly missing a trick in not styling itself as the hotel Agatha Christie drew great inspiration from. Despite enviably sitting atop a crag above the lake it is now little more than a 2 star hostel, with a grim looking depandansa(annex). Similarly, the Hotel Zlatorog at the far end of the lake and pleasingly away from the Ribcev Laz hubbub has equally clutched defeat from the jaws of victory previously having had it all, including presidential visitors. Now, it sits empty and looking like likely prey for the nearest wrecking-ball.
To have one such dilapidated hotel in a prime position would be unfortunate, two would be careless but three? Yes, there is a third. Situated at the top-station of the Vogel cable-car and yes, would you believe it, party to an embarrassment of riches of untapped potential and astonishing views, is the Ski Hotel Vogel. I ask myself how is it possible that a country like Slovenia that relies so heavily upon tourist-income cannot get its act together when it comes to accommodating wealthy-tourists? Equally, although I digress, the inadequate amount of flights from regional-airports in the UK to Ljubljana means the country will never, as things stand, get the exposure it deserves. I don’t advocate the country being destroyed by building projects or bastardisation of its natural resources but simply, make the most of what you already have. Never can this be more pertinent than in considering the case of the Ski Hotel Vogel: what a location and array of vistas but yet, IT SITS EMPTY. Yes, it needs refurbishing to take it away from its Communist, brutalist-architecture towards harmonising it with its immediate surroundings but surely, it can be done. I would also advocate dropping the word ski from its title, which otherwise gives the incorrect impression that it only opens or has potential to do so between December and April. Bohinj is not a Winter resort, nor a Summer one. It has that rare quality of being an all-year-round destination and yet as Slovenia’s premier Alpine-resort, it has three prominent hotels going to seed. It would never happen in Austria or Switzerland, nor would it be allowed to do so. There are no such things as problems, only solutions and despite having written to the Tourist Minister 5 months ago on this particular subject, I am yet to receive an acknowledgement or reply.
Building new hotels in the Triglav National Park is impossible due to the strict rules governing the built-environment – good. I am not advocating new builds but bring back into use what you already have, the assets that have been mercilessly sweated. If the properties lie within the hands of individuals or private companies, buy them out and sell a vision to international hotel-chains, whilst stipulating strict developmental-criteria ensuring sensitive renovations. Be bold, spend money and for sure you will be rewarded. To circumvent the problems with being unable to build within the TNP the Bohinj Park Eco Hotel in Bohinjska Bistrica have done just this, to stunning effect. A modern, no make that futuristic but environmentally-sound hotel has been cleverly created just outside the TNP’s inner-boundary, fifteen minutes by road from the lake. Bistrica is also the starting-point for many valley and mountain-hikes so its location need not be and isn’t an impediment to enjoying the valley. I therefore am pleased to endorse it and the Hotel Jezero as the places to stay whilst exploring Bohinj. The BPEH is also a good base if for some reason you prefer Bled, being roughly equidistant between the two lakes.
Hiking is what Bohinj is all about. Again, it does it well but it could be better. I know one cannot change the topography or the challenge that the mountains present but whilst there are walks in the area that I will never tire of doing, just to get to the start of some of the more rewarding treks can be tedious in itself. My favourite walk in the area is to a hill called Rudnica, along with its smaller sibling, Pec. To encapsulate the allure of this walk is hard but like with many a journey and mountain hike, to say it is the arrival and not the journey that rewards is too simplistic. True, the views of Bohinj Jezero and the Upper and Lower Bohinj valleys are your undoubted reward but the hike to the modest 3000 feet summit is like returning through time, when tourism, let alone mass-tourism had not yet reached the Alps. Traversing meadows and dreamily meandering through thick forest lends itself to another era, and yet it is astonishingly close to civilisation. Expect, as I have done, to come up close in this primeval paradise to Buzzards, Chamois and Foxes, who do not presage human-interlopers entering their precious piece of Eden.
I cannot detail all the walks the area has in its armoury but visitors with limited time will benefit from Rudnica, as they will to doing a circuit of the lake, which benefits on its northern side as being traffic-free, with the path being the preserve of walkers and cows, although I was unpleasantly surprised this year as to the amount of cyclists who flouted the prohibition of any form of wheeled-transportation. The northern section of the lake-walk is the ‘wildest’, as you would expect with it being the furthest away from traffic; lucky hikers will spot snakes and hear Cuckoos. Whilst being a relatively gently introduction to walking in the area, there are a couple of tricky sections with one in particular being impassable after heavy rain when the water cascades from, off and through the limestone that towers above. A continuation of the northern flank leads walkers to the imperious Savica waterfall which is locally, nationally and internationally renowned for its beauty and even drove Frances Preseren, Slovenia’s poet of all poets to pen his seminal work on it. The walk though to the waterfall from the lake is a drudge and has little merit. I would therefore advocate taking the bus that runs rom Ribcev Laz to Ukanc and finally to the base of the walk to the waterfall, assuming the local authorities decide to provide more public-service buses to the waterfall than they currently do! There is the normal souvenirs and pseudo-mountain hut at the start of the walk up to the ‘falls although again, expect crowds and endless streams of schoolchildren on the steep walk up, although I will say that Slovenian schoolchildren are unfailingly polite when they and there teachers are encountered on the walking trails.
It is not all about the lower-level walks. Having taken the previously mentioned Vogel cableway to the top station to Rjava Skala at 1535 metres, continue your progress past the aforementioned Ski Hotel and along the vaguely marked trails, which have been obliterated by what could be attributed to environmental-vandalism to create ski-runs. Truly, the walk between the cable-car top station and the summit of Vogel is a miserable experience, and not an aesthetically pleasing one. The paths are gashes gouged out by the powers- that-be who hope that this environment will look far better in its Winter coat than it does in the warmer months. Be your own judge but it is impossible to take your mind off the terrain beneath your feet and immediately around by casting your eye along the stunning vista above you. If there were once trees here – they’ve gone and replaced by scree that due to its vast amount alone does not feel like it is in its natural environment but quarried from another location. Reaching Vogel is a drag but if you are fortunate views of the Adriatic will be yours and a pleasing ridge-traverse is then your prize for endeavouring to persevere. The mountain-hut Crna Prst is a realistic goal should you have set off early enough although I would recommend reaching it from Bohinjska Bistrica through the hamlet of Zlan, undertaking a steep route to the top but one that denies your eyes and limbs of being offended by man’s intervention.
This does not in any way pretend to be an all-encompassing guide to the Bohinj area and has been typed purely from ‘the top of my head’. I will post more snapshots of my time in this glorious corner of Slovenia as and when their relevance comes to me. Don’t take my word for it though – just go and see for yourself. Please then feel free to tell me what a wonderful time you’ve had.