Little did I realise in May 2004 that my eight day stay in Lake Bohinj’s Hotel Bellevue was in effect the nascent stages of its own ersatz funeral wake, that would only conclude over a decade later.
I had previously vacationed in the Bohinj region three out of the previous five years, all within the lakeside settlement of Ribcev Laz. Travelling as I did at the time with UK Lakes & Mountains package tour operators the options for someone travelling alone were limited, a stigma that has prevailed and intensified to this day. Pay dirt is to be found in hiring out rooms to couples and families, although the second week of May did offer some out of season deals that the subsequent Instagram-age of ‘must see’ tick list locations has all but brought to an end.
Located at the end of a steep 800 metre road linking with Ribcev Laz via the side of the eponymous Hotel Jezero, the Bellevue sits – I still use the present tense even though it now only exists in its fenced off emptiness – in dense forest and is the starting point for several hikes, including a precipitous trek through the trees to the Vogel cableway’s Rjava Skala top station, 1535 metres above sea level. An altitude of 5,065 feet does not sound to be anything but modest compared to countless Slovenian peaks and is over 4,000 feet lower than its highest, Mount Triglav, but elevation is frequently confused with steepness, and therefore the difficulty of the terrain. Walking down from Rjava Skala to the Bellevue, including passing by some very busy beehives once took me a very taxing 2.5 hours; I can only imagine the torment attached to trekking uphill on a path whose markings at time were faint to conspicuous by their absence, often due to the tree on which the red and white circle was painted had been chopped down, not only throwing walkers off the scent but also placing a significant barrier to their progress.
A situation of solitude, in touch with the forest’s abundant nature and abstract from the lake’s milling crowds was a perfect match for my need for peace and reflection. There was also a feeling of being transported back to another era, when alpine tourism was predicated on quality experiences for the few, without today’s assault on the senses and mountainsides by apres ski bars, unsympathetically designed winter-only cableways, and dance music festivals. Built around the mid-1930’s, the Bellevue, although hardly retro-fitted did at least offer my kind of bolthole, where only those staying at the hotel or walking by would venture. Although Ukanc, located on the western extremes of Lake Bohinj translates as “the end”, the Bellevue represented both a natural and manmade terminus, successfully sequestering away those who sought anchoritic isolation. This is what drew novelist Agatha Christie to the hotel, but more on that later on.
Despite mentally preparing for what was a very different place to stay than my previous stop offs in Bohinj at the Hotel Jezero and Pension Rozic, I was still taken aback on my arrival that portentously gloomy Wednesday afternoon by just how quiet it was, and by a feeling that the hotel had only opened up for me and a handful of other UK travellers. This was one of the few occasions I have paid a single supplement for a double room – a total of £56 – and was done to secure a lake view and that of Triglav, the latter, due to varying cloud cover, being more a possibility than the former’s certainty. I was though fortunate on several occasions, usually early morning and even from a bathroom without frosted glass, to espy Slovenia’s three-headed highest peak.
The only sounds heard from my room were created by the Bellevue’s creaking woodwork, and incessant chiming by a family of Great Tits (Parus major). Aside from a library and some tennis courts this was not a hotel known for its facilities but instead for location, and withdrawal from the outside world. When first constructed I doubt it was as difficult to find peace as it is in a modern era of mass and inconsiderate tourism, but even in the 30’s Bohinj’s extremely modest infrastructure and the guests it attracted would still have been too much for some. Catering for those seeking a world away from reality and living up to a name that must deliver on its promise, the Bellevue offered a standalone getaway in such a secluded location but only minutes from the action that is rarely found elsewhere in the Alps.
I recall from my stay that the hotel was clean but tired, but with no negative issues aside from the bland, unimaginative food served by weary staff. I would attach the blame for this squarely at the door of the package operators of the time, driving down the unit prices of bulk bought rooms far lower than those sold at the rack rate to ‘walk up’ customers and to a point where it was barely worth opening at all. The bar area was small, which drove those seeking further cheap but good Slovenian beer down the road to the Jezero, albeit with a caveat of having to stumble back to the Bellevue on a very dark and steep road surrounded by a brooding forest.
Despite since staying a further three times in Ribcev Laz I was never tempted to return to the Bellevue. Perhaps the deal was not right, a lack of availability made the decision for me, or simply I could see that the hotel’s ultimate selling points were being undermined by a lack of inward investment by then owner Zmago Pacnik. The location and views remain constant, but the fabric of the hotel and its depandansa(annex) were integral to the whole experience. When those started to inexorably deteriorate because of an insidious strategy of sweating the asset until it had little more to give, without new ownership the Bellevue became holed below the waterline.
And yet, a change of ownership did occur, that promised to revive a unique but neglected piece of Bohinj history. It is moot as to whether the Jakopin family and founders of the now bankrupt Seaway boat development company ever had any intention of bringing the Bellevue up to code, or simply kept it within their portfolio of interests to use as a bargaining chip or collateral. If the object of the exercise was to sell on what became a derelict and looted property for profit, then such a flawed strategy from owners with no obvious experience in the hotel industry fell at the first hurdle.
In 2017 the Bellevue was finally secured by owners who it is hoped, and presumed, that their intentions are honourable and authentic. The GG Bled forestry company, owned by the Ljubljana Archdiocese through its Metropolitana vehicle have added the Bellevue, and the nearby Hostel Pod Voglom, to its diverse portfolio. Although a business centred upon forest management and the timber trade GG Bled does operate several modest holiday facilities in alpine Slovenia and tourist apartments in Croatia. The Bellevue project will though be a large step up for the company, although its expertise working within forests and the use of its products cover many angles of the Bellevue’s renovation. The Pod Voglom, the sort of no frills hostel popular with school parties will continue to be operated for at least the next five years by the current tenants, although it is hoped that this will go hand in hand with significant, and necessary, reinvestment in the whole site.
I have been startled, perplexed, and at times appalled by many of the artist’s impressions offered by several Slovenian architectural consultancies of what the Bellevue 2.0 could resemble. Far from being offered speculatively, these suggested outlines for the hotel’s next life were in response to a call for ideas, in effect a competition to secure the winning design. Having contacted the CEO of GG Bled, Marko Matjasic, to request the proposed start and completion dates of the build, and if a final design has now been chosen, I was simply told that the project was on standby, although it was hoped that construction would begin in the summer. Although many hoops will have to be jumped through before spades can go in the ground, the designs that I have seen in the public domain are of some concern. It is anticipated that the Bellevue will become a boutique hideaways with only a cursory nod to times past and will need to pay its way twelve months of the year, but veering too far from its original exterior design and ideals will surely not be tolerated by the Bohinj municipality and the Triglav National Park authority, on whose territory the hotel sits.
What would Agatha Christie make of what became of the Bellevue? When finally tracked down at the hotel in 1967 and reluctantly agreeing to a brief interview, the novelist stated that Bohinj was far too pretty to ever feature in one of her murder stories. The subsequent tale of the Bellevue’s demise would make it a fitting location for a criminal drama which sadly played out in real life. Now territory more familiar with urban explorers and those who view low grade US horror films, it is difficult to reconcile the Bellevue which Christie experienced with what remains of it now hidden behind security cameras and metal fencing.
I will watch the future development of the Bellevue with interest and hopefully get to its location this autumn, by when its reboot could finally be under way. A part of me had hoped to see it for a final time in its current, albeit abject state, as a ‘one for the road’ but unless reconstruction is delayed, the original buildings will soon be consigned to history. As a paean to another era marked by gentility, respect, and modesty, whatever form the future Bellevue takes it will never be able to reflect a time when life was simpler and less about the bottom line. Those tasked with the significant responsibility of its sympathetic redevelopment will only have one chance to get it right, although what that constitutes is highly subjective.
Some artistic impressions of what the Bellevue could resemble:
Further source material and information:
Bellevue owners GG Bled: http://www.ggbled.si/