This past weekend saw the earliest opening yet of the Vogel ski resort, enabling the Bohinj based slopes to celebrate its fiftieth birthday in style.
In excess of a foot of powder snow awaited winter-sports enthusiasts, keen to make the most of an early season bonus which many higher-level resorts throughout the Alps have yet to receive. In keeping with all of Slovenia’s ski areas, Vogel’s snow record is volatile, particularly so considering artificial snow-making is prohibited. This leaves it at the capricious mercy of the weather, which can be exceptionally unpredictable even by Slovenia’s standards. I have known Vogel to be still knee-deep in snow in the middle of May but struggle to provide adequate depths in December and January to make the slopes viable. In recent years there have been some impressive amounts of snow considering its relatively low-altitude terrain but, the financial health of the ski infrastructure and area in general is heavily dependent upon the weather playing ball.
Vogel is perhaps though a unique case. Apart from a few weeks set aside each year for maintenance, the lifts are open for much of the year and therefore generate a healthy income spread across the four seasons. The top-station at Rjava Skala is an essential starting-point for many high-level routes across the chain of ridges tantalizingly on view from Lake Bohinj, giving day-walkers and hut-to-hut hikers access to the likes of Rodica, Crna Prst and Mount Vogel itself in a matter of hours. The terrain though is at times hard although, is it difficult sometimes to ascertain if this is due to the natural topography of the area or the hand of man who, has blasted his way through the area to create as diverse a ski experience as the mountain will allow. It is true to say that the immediate mountainscape encountered on arriving at Rjava Skala leaves a lot to be desired, completely at odds with the jagged, untouched peaks that frame the vista. Whilst being the gateway to some wonderful walks, it is sad to see an area that has been pummeled to this extent, looking far better in its winter coat that the bare-nakedness it exposes throughout the warmer months.
The Slovenia Times report that local tourist accommodation is reporting good numbers of bookings for the forthcoming winter season. This of course is good news for the area but as has been highlighted on innumerable occasions on this blog, the quality and quantity of overnight guest accommodation is sadly lacking and, seems unlikely to change in the short-term. Taking in isolation just the area close to Vogel’s bottom station in the hamlet of Ukanc, tourist accommodation is restricted to the likes of the bijou Hotel Park, the basic Pension Stare, Gostisce Erlah and a small amount of properties available for hire on a self-catered basis. The “big-hitters” in the immediate area amount to the once famous but now derelict Zlatorog, its hideous annex(also falling into decay) and the rebooted Hotel Ski Vogel, located next to the top-station at Rjava Skala. Put bluntly, this standard of accommodation and the lack of bed-space, not to mention the paucity of nightlife in the vicinity is only going to encourage day-trippers, a demographic with not the deepest of pockets. It is to remembered, appreciated and respected that Ukanc lies within the Triglav National Park and therefore prohibits any new-builds, a situation that I completely agree with. However, to have a hotel the size of the Zlatorog left to go to seed is not only visually detrimental to the area but also, a completely wasted opportunity for the area to bring in much needed revenue by working with what it already has. I do not though advocate retaining the Zlatorog in its current, outmoded guise. Notwithstanding the rapid onset of decay caused by neglect and storms from last winter, the building is ugly, reeks of a bygone Communist era(albeit not to the extent of the Brutalist architecture that blights nearby Lake Bled) and similar to the nearby Hotel Ski, requires a fresh approach only after complete demolition. A rebuild from scratch can be sympathetic to the local area; after all, it will be insisted upon. It is perhaps strange that the stakeholders of these two hotels haven’t sought out strategic partners from overseas, especially as the prevailing wind in Slovenia is bringing rapid change through privatisation, albeit by indecent haste, often involving foreign investors such as Fraport, Ljubljana Aerodrom’s new majority shareholder. Book-ending the cable-car at Ukanc, both the Zlatorog and Hotel Ski already benefit from being outstandingly placed for skiers and hikers; surely therefore they present an open-goal for would-be investors to bring them both into the 21st century.
Away from Ukanc, there are of course more options for the overnight tourist but for those wishing to have their accommodation adjacent to the ski runs and cable-car, the albeit well-regarded Gasperin, Kristal, Jezero and the hostel-style lodgings at Pod Voglom are not exactly on Vogel’s doorstep. Both the Bohinj Municipality and the Triglav National Park authorities have to be willing to accept that change is needed at both the Zlatorog and Hotel Ski locations, not forgetting an honourable mention for the now decrepit Hotel Bellevue, a once favourite haunt of Agatha Christie. I am not suggesting the rightly stringent moratorium on new-builds in the TNP is relaxed, far from it. I do though think the time has long since arrived where developers from international hotel-chains are given sufficient encouragement to purchase and redevelop the sites pertaining to the Ski, Bellevue and particularly the Zlatorog. A precedent will not be set by doing this as any new investors will be tasked with working what they have or, completely rebuilding to a size no greater than and using no further land than the previous edifices already sit on. Rebuilt in a manner wholly sympathetic to the aesthetics of the area, it is hard to see how any realistic objections can be raised. Can anyone really prefer the state the Zlatorog now finds itself in, over a new hotel rising from the ashes?
The ongoing 2864 Bohinj project in nearby Bohinjska Bistrica is not a prototype of things to possibly come, thanks to the protection the Ukanc area is afforded under the Triglav National Park aegis. It is in fact, through its plans to extensively use artificial snow-making machinery and the controversial loss of many trees to facilitate the development process, the complete antithesis to what is required in Bohinj. What is being called for is not a vulgar, flashy and financially risky development but an updating of infrastructure that has become stuck in a time warp. Whether this has happened due to a succession of unscrupulous owners sweating their assets with minimal inward investment or, the stifling criteria laid down by the TNP and Bohinj Obcina regarding the updating of properties in the protected area’s central core, I couldn’t say. It is perhaps though strange that on the one hand complete obliteration of the landscape for the purposes of creating ski runs has been permitted but conversely, using snow cannons at times of insufficient snowfall is outlawed.
Vogel is an important economic driver for the whole Bohinj area and with ongoing respectful stewardship, it can strike the right balance between environmental protection and providing a sustainable living for all those locally involved in the tourism sector. What happens regarding the future of its ailing hotel-stock will be interesting but I fear that unless a new, semi-radical way of thinking is entertained, the true potential of the area will forever lie dormant. Outside investors, those with knowledge of the local area and its traditions should not by default be viewed with suspicion. They can, along with the Triglav National Park and the Bohinj local authority form an unlikely holy trinity which would surely prove in the long-term to be beneficial for all parties.
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