It has been a few years since I last visited the Bohinj region, having been until relatively recent times a frequent vacationer to Ribcev Laz. As the hotel stock dwindled, precipitating a sharp reduction in available rooms which to some extent drove up prices, I found it easier to get my alpine kicks in neighbouring Austria, primarily within the Tirol and Salzburgerland.
As the Bellevue, Zlatorog, the eponymous Bohinj(former Kompas) hotels and the Ski Hotel Vogel fell into various stages of neglect and in some cases complete dilapidation, the area lost hundreds of tourist rooms, with the ones available at the Bohinj and the overall experience ‘enjoyed’ by guests being something far less than they might have anticipated. Other accommodation for example at the Eco Hotel in Bohinjska Bistrica and the Jezero in Ribcev Laz continue to this day to provide excellent service, but when demand outstrips supply, there will always be those who end up disappointed.
When many of the properties were purchased en bloc by former owner Zmago Pacnik there was little to suggest the damaging path on which he would take some of the most well-known hotel names in the former Yugoslavia. As an emblem of Pacnik’s apparent disrespect towards his own portfolio and the Bohinj region, the Zlatorog, a haunt of Marshal Tito and a plethora of fellow Non-Aligned adherents seasoned with a dash of controversial Communist-era figures, was as famous for its coffee as its discreet setting at the Ukanc end of Lake Bohinj. Separated but inextricably linked to its sister accommodation at both the Vila Zlatorog and depandansa(annex), the ‘Zlat’ represented as much a by-word for Bohinj as the nearby Vogel cableway, or even the famous stone bridge connecting Ribcev Laz with the road to Stara Fuzina.
It may never be known if on purchasing many of Bohinj’s prime tourist accommodation that Pacnik set out with the best of intentions but was perhaps stymied by the demands of tour operators, whose penchant for driving down costs and inevitably standards by buying rooms en masse for a heavily reduced price can often leave proprietors with little to show for high rates of occupancy. If though Pacnik’s idea was to sweat the assets with the bare minimum of inward investment into ageing properties undoubtedly affected by a climate offering the extremes of high temperatures and freeze-thaw conditions, at the same time assuming that Bohinj’s limit on building new hotels because of its location within the heavily-protected inner core of the Triglav National Park(TNP) would compel his ostensibly captive audience to accept conditions kindly described as rustic and outdated, it soon became apparent that 21st century travellers demand far more.
In what became a protracted battle between Pacnik and the municipality which even reached national level, little was nevertheless done for years with powers to compulsory seize the properties or force their owner to bring them up to code conspicuous by their absence. One wonders just what would have happened if Cryptocurrency millionaire Damian Merlak had not ridden to the rescue, purchasing four properties off Pacnik for a reported €8 million.
The Hotel Bellevue, famous in its own right by dint of the tremendous views it commands above Lake Bohinj and on a clear day of Slovenia’s highest peak, Mount Triglav, also had a notably claim to fame in the late sixties as novelist Agatha Christie opted for what she believed to be a remote hideaway for rest and reflection. As though word slowly seeped out of her stay even during this comparatively unsophisticated era of mass communication, her secret bolt hole was betrayed. Some photographs of her time at the Bellevue and a brief interview in which she said that Bohinj was too beautiful to figure in one of her books can be found online, but the ‘crime’ of what ultimately became of the building would surely have appalled one of Britain’s most famous exports.
I have pondered whether the Bellevue ever made as much of Agatha Christie’s visit as it might have done. Would it have been vulgar in the extreme to remodel the hotels appeal around the stay of a world-famous author, who in all likelihood visited dozens, if not hundreds of hotels during her life? Perhaps, but I also wonder if the Bellevue would have fallen into such inappropriate hands and ended up the way it has had more been made of a claim to fame that didn’t simply trade on its wondrous location and accompanying vista.
I understand that Pacnik divested himself of the Bellevue several years before offloading the remainder of his portfolio. Its now previous owner was the Jakopin family, proprietor of Seaway Yachts and who apparently used the Bellevue as security. As Seaway hit choppy waters resulting in bankruptcy, the Bellevue, and Hostel Pod Voglom, a fellow Jakopin property based in Ribcev Laz, were auctioned off to in part satisfy creditors of Finadria, another company formerly under Jakopin control. I cannot recall the Bellevue being open whilst under the control of Seaway/Finadria, it shamelessly being used as a make weight or guarantee in deals representing a cruel and cynical ‘use’ of one of Bohinj’s prime assets.
Over three years have passed since the Bellevue and Pod Voglom were purchased by a Pokljuka-based company concerned in forestry and wood products. An ironic and hopefully suitable owner for the Bellevue, whose situation in dense forest lends much of the appeal it previously held and that can presumably be used to attract future guests. There has though to the best of my knowledge been no progress in rebuilding the increasingly ailing main hotel building, with starkly contrasting security fencing heavily at odds with the surroundings reflecting the attractiveness an empty building has to those with malevolent intent.
I am though hopeful that the company, whose convoluted ownership ultimately resides within the Ljubljana Archdiocese, have the best of intentions at heart for both the Bellevue and Pod Voglom, the latter which has continued to operate with the same thoughtful tenants it had prior to its change of ownership. In a call for ideas as to what the future Bellevue might resemble, I have though been somewhat concerned by some of the outlandish depictions dreamed up in the minds of several Slovenian-based architects. I am of the mind that there does not need to be too great a departure from the current stone buildings, all though I accept that they will be sacrificed when the project finally breaks ground but in effect starts from scratch. Again, its location must be fully utilized but without being detrimental to the surroundings, with a building or a development if an annex is to be included that must harmonize with the landscape. It should be remembered that the Bellevue can be seen from Lake Bohinj’s rocky northern shoreline but only because you know it is there, not because it sticks out from afar as a sore thumb.
The Zlatorog and Ski Hotel Vogel represent the most taxing of the projects in Merlak’s in tray. Tapping into the former’s history should not be overlooked but done so respectfully. It is though painful to me that had hubris/greed/incompetence* (*delete as appropriate) not allowed the Zlatorog to plumb the depths of decrepitude wholly at odds with Bohinj’s stunning surrounds, the original main building could have not only been spared demolition but tastefully updated for the modern era. It is not an endorsement, denial of, or condemnation of the Tito era for the importance of the Zlatorog to have been remembered for the small part it played in the Communist and Non-Aligned schools of thought, but an opportunity to recall that era within the very building that received many of the pertinent characters of the day has now been lost.
As with the Hostel Pod Voglom the Ski Hotel Vogel situated adjacent to the Vogel cableway’s top station has over recent times been successfully tenanted by the same operators of Camp Zlatorog, a lakeside camping and caravan site close to the Hotel Zlatorog. Built in a similar design to other local hotels the Ski Hotel’s unique use of wood and stone does though hark back to a Communist era of Brutalist structures that cut a swathe through most of Eastern Europe. There is something incredibly stark and striking about the Ski Hotel, but I concede that its appearance will be adjudged by many as at best rugged, but as ugly as sin to its harshest detractors. In its current form it is though synonymous with Vogel, the cableway, even the Bohinj region itself. I am not aware, despite it being precipitously perched some 3,000 feet above the lake, of any structural issues which might precipitate the demise of its current form, but despite its brutal appearance I feel it is highly in keeping with what is a harsh, rocky landscape above, beyond, and in its immediate vicinity.
Access is though undoubtedly an issue, with vacationers wholly reliant on the cableway to access the Ski Hotel. There is the infamous Zagarjev Graben ‘run to the resort’ which is used by experienced skiers and intrepid hikers but would require extremely competent all-terrain vehicles, and operators of, to make the arduous ascent. What therefore Merlak decides to do with the hotel is the most intriguing aspect of his entry into Bohinj’s tourist market, but I hope it remains as a hotel but with the option to stay in the summer, to exploit such an advantageous head start for hikers and climbers. There is also a great deal of potential for guests and passing trade to use the terrace for refreshments, although this will tread on the toes of those in the immediate vicinity who already provide such services. As the hotel is not atop the Vogel peak which sits nearly 400 metres higher than the top station of the cable car bearing its name, a more suitable name for the hotel might be the Rjava Skala, the moniker of cableway’s adjacent top station.
The pandemic has undoubtedly bought time for the visionaries hoping to bring the likes of the Bellevue, Zlatorog, and Ski Hotel Vogel back to life, but will also have delayed construction and the vital decisions to be made by Bohinj’s municipality and Triglav National Park authority, without which nothing can be achieved. In an obvious desire to see fallen giants once more back on their feet the powers that be must not compromise on standards and the potential for adverse environmental impact, but on the same token it is not envisaged that Merlak will push for anything that isn’t sympathetic and sustainable.
The alpine regions of Slovenia do not enjoy levels of investment even a mere fraction of their Austrian counterparts and this in many respects is to be celebrated. Employment and educational opportunities can be harnessed by a landscape that should not be exploited as if it is represents all the economic eggs in the Julian Alps’ basket. The Director of Tourism for Bohinj, Klemen Langus, is entirely correct in saying that Bohinj is not a resort, and must dovetail its tourist provision with the needs and sensibilities of not only the landscape but the area’s citizens. Farming and the rearing of livestock remain pivotal to and synonymous with Bohinj, but only will continue to do so if agricultural buildings are not converted into holiday accommodation.
Despite being an important aspect of its economic mix Bohinj will not any time soon fully give itself over to tourism, nor act as an open-air museum of times gone by. This approach is to be applauded and has perhaps tacitly been arrived at by observing the many mistakes made in other alpine countries, who can at times feel as if they were simply purpose-built for the tourism sector and never existed in simpler form prior to the advent of mass vacationing. Bohinj continues to call it right, and will hopefully persevere with such an approach once Damian Merlak has fully shown his hand for both the Zlatorog and Ski Hotel Vogel.
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