It has now been several years since I first wrote on the plight befalling many of the Bohinj region’s foremost accommodation providers, and how their descent from icons of yesteryear to sweated assets by apathetic owners finally bottomed out into closed down dereliction and decay.
One of the many articles I authored about this collective of rusting hulks that includes the hotels Zlatorog, Bohinj(formerly the Kompas), Bellevue, and Ski Hotel Vogel remains to date by far the most read of any of my work. The interest in Bohinj and its hotels, many of which have a fascinating backstory, is enduring and considerable, in particular from the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and of course within Slovenia itself.
Although the fortunes of the aforementioned hotels and the almost lakeside Hostel Pod Voglom would seem to be inextricably linked, it is many years since they were all owned by the Alpinum group. It is my understanding that the only remaining hotel within the Bohinj region still held by Alpinum is the Hotel Jezero, an eponymous epithet deriving from its lakeside situation. Notwithstanding its recovery a few years ago from a potentially devastating fire, the Jezero, whilst always somewhat less than the sum of its considerable parts, has otherwise remained a fully operational constant.
After the turn of the millennium the other constituent parts of the Alpinum empire were sold off. Businessman Zmago(Victor) Pacnik hived off the Ski Hotel Vogel, Zlatorog, Kompas(Bohinj) and the Stara Fuzina-based Triglav Apartments from Alpinum but traded on their previous popularity and past glories, without any apparent desire to maintain the respective properties and businesses beyond the bare minimum. In many ways these hotels became victims of the package holiday industry which sought to drive down unit costs through the bulk buying of rooms, which in theory at least would increase occupancy rates but generated less revenue than selling rooms individually at the rack rate.
Whether this business model was entered into willingly or through expediency is moot, but we will never know if the intention was established from the outset to pile the hotels high and sell them cheap or simply seen as the only way to guarantee custom without adopting an imaginative marketing strategy. Perhaps the original motivation was far nobler than the subsequent material and operational collapse of Pacnik’s empire, and his hold over the Bohinj tourism sector, would suggest.
The Hotel Bellevue, once patronised by Agatha Christie, and the Hostel Pod Voglom both suffered similar issues of a lack of inward investment, but their cleaving from Alpinum ownership took a more circuitous and intriguing route which ultimately brought down the Bellevue before it and its stablemate were acquired in 2017. Aside from the many artists’ impressions of what Bellevue 2.0 could resemble, many of which are too dreadful to contemplate, the hotel, set amongst dense forest high above Ribcev Laz, remains boarded up and surrounded by security fences. Its position demands a high-quality design that not only acknowledges but incorporates the main Bellevue hotel, although not its utilitarian and generic annex(depandansa). Located within mature forest and the carefully managed Triglav National Park, the site of the near-derelict Bellevue must not become a proving ground for outlandish architectural experimentation that seeks to realize designer whims; it is though inevitable that an element of modernity will have to be introduced to the hotel’s wider site that become outmoded some time ago. I hope to write further on its future, and that of the Pod Voglom, as and when I receive the requested pertinent information.
It is though to the famous Hotel Zlatorog where I concentrate the remainder of this article.
Of my seven visits to Lake Bohinj I never stayed at the Zlatorog, preferring, with hindsight perhaps against my better judgment, to lodge at the eastern side of the lake where all the ‘action’ took place. Couched not inconsiderably in relative terms, the action in Ribcev Laz consists of a post office, Mercator-type supermarket, tourist office, and a smattering of restaurants. As a solo traveller my younger self obviously required this security of certainty as to where my next evening meal would come from and being able to obtain supplies for a day’s hiking, but with a bit more planning a stay in Ukanc, at the Vila Park, Pension Stare, or the Zlatorog itself would have been achievable, and preferable.
It is therefore with some regret that I never followed in the footsteps of Nikita Khrushchev and Kim Il-sung, both among many other world leaders that were entertained at the Zlatorog by President Tito and who encapsulated his pragmatic rule. There cannot have been many other hotels that groaned with the weight of history from the Non-Aligned Movement amidst a backdrop of the Cold War quite like the Zlatorog.
My last encounter of the Zlatorog was in 2013, by when the hotel had to all intents and purposes drawn its last breath. Aside from who I presumed to be a caretaker the hotel was empty and was obviously not a setting for a faint-hearted custodian to superintend on his own. Situated in the sparsely populated settlement of Ukanc(translated as “the end”) the Zlatorog was obviously attractive to those who craved an extra layer of peace away from the madding summer crowds. It is though a lonely spot, and not somewhere to spend a night on one’s own within an abandoned, creaking, and crumbling hotel. It is little wonder that metal and other prized items were stripped almost within plain sight from the buildings.
The lack of attention given to the hotel combined with freeze-thaw weather conditions ensured that the building’s viability was soon brought into doubt. If the Zlatorog had been updated in 2013-2014 it would have been an expensive job, but at that point the hotel was retrievable. After that time, the roof fell in on the swimming pool, critically weakening the skeleton of the building and giving further ingress points to those with criminal intent, urban explorers, and the unforgiving meteorological conditions. The game was then up.
It was though in this deteriorating state that the hotel was allowed to exist, without the state or local municipality having the power or will to intervene. It was with some surprise that an otherwise powerful Triglav National Park(TNP) authority failed to act on what was happening in its own territory. One theory suggests that the TNP would rather that tourism be phased out or at the very least be heavily controlled, and therefore would not encourage a resurrection of the Zlatorog. That though does not explain how it would be content for a rotting building to remain in situ within such a fragile environment of outstanding natural beauty.
Only when cryptocurrency millionaire and Slovenian wunderkind Damian Merlak purchased the Zlatorog, along with the Triglav Apartments, Ski Hotel Vogel and Hotel Bohinj in 2019 has the prospect of a new dawn for Bohinj’s tourist accommodation sector felt tangible, although there will be a mixture of apprehension and sadness now that the veil has finally been fully drawn over a key period of Yugoslav history, and that of Slovenia’s story both within the former federation and since its 1991 secession.
As with the Hotel Bellevue, there are many interpretations to be found online of what a rebooted Zlatorog could look like but it now appears that a final design by a Ljubljana architectural company, subject to local authority and TNP approval, has been approved by Merlak for submission to the Obcina Bohinj. Whether this is only the start of a very long road to shovels going in the ground, or an expedited exercise minded that that the site has been allowed to fester for too long already, it is unclear how long due process will take. It has though been formally established, if indeed over the last five years it was ever in doubt, that the Zlatorog in its current form will soon be no more.
When the bulldozers begin the process of sweeping away the remaining stone, wood, and glass this won’t merely be the deletion of just another building past its use by date, but a monument to an era that in many ways engendered fear and uncertainty, and arguably presented through contradictory bucolic surroundings and carefully choreographed photo opportunities the unacceptable face of Communism robed in Non-Aligned finery.
The Zlatorog was built before Yugoslavian Brutalist architecture cut a swathe through the federation and resembled more an alpine chalet or hunting lodge than a paean to Communist pragmatism. Perhaps stuck in limbo between both schools of thought, the Ski Hotel Vogel adjacent to the Rjava Skala top station of the Vogel cableway suggests its designer was trying to keep everyone happy, without actually quite managing it. Buildings can be ionic for their design, what occurred within their walls, or both, but also because they represent material references to eras which hagiographic reinterpretations compare to the modern day. It is though vital to understand the crimes and injustices of times past should not be watered down or viewed more sympathetically, even if it seems that humanity never learns from its mistakes.
I will miss the ailing Zlatorog, for not only its historical context within a different time, but also as the only building I have ever known to be sited within its current footprint. There is also something morbidly fascinating about abandoned hotels that are frozen in time, and with a thousand untold stories never to be heard.
Damian Merlak’s vision for the Zlatorog’s reincarnation will take Bohinj’s municipality and the Triglav National Park authority into uncharted territory, having never previously had to deliberate over the demolition and appropriate rebuild of such a prominent edifice. If the design is right, I cannot wait to become one its first visitors.
Source material and further information:
Zlatorog plans submitted to Obcina(municipal) Bohinj: https://obcina.bohinj.si/files/other/news/23/235999Izhodi%C5%A1ca%20za%20pripravo%20OPPN%20za%20hotel%20Zlatorog.pdf
Gorenjski Muzej(Gorenjska Museums) story of Hotel Zlatorog exhibition: https://www.gorenjski-muzej.si/odprtje-razstave-blisc-in-beda-u-konc-sveta/