The last two years have been a serious reality check for globetrotters, frequent fliers, and those who usually got away as often as they could. Travellers now inhabit that rather uncertain no man’s land between unrestricted movement and outright lockdown, with day to day pandemic-related uncertainty impacting upon decision-making of whether to venture forth, and how much pre-departure, ‘whilst there’ and on arrival testing will cost.
Not withstanding the emergence of the Omicron variant it is still, at the time of writing, technically possible to journey to the majority of the world other than to nations that have been placed by the UK government on to the alarmingly titled Red List. Transiting through airports wearing masks and demonstrating one’s current vaccine status isn’t for everyone, and how much arriving justifies these and other means will be purely subjective to the individual. I for one am unsure how I feel about these new/reprised provisos built into the terms of carriage, and am admittedly concerned as to what would happen should the rules change whilst abroad, especially if they marked another deterioration in ‘the situation’.
I for one do not have an issue with adhering to local rules, something which I have always respected long before the onset of the pandemic. It is though with the memory of winter-sports vacationers’ being physically forced out at a minute’s notice of several Austrian ski resorts in March 2020, when the virus really took hold in the likes of Ischgl and St. Anton am Arlberg, which gives me more reason to be reluctant to travel than the existence of Covid-19 itself.
For the time being at least I will have to draw upon the countless memories of my visits to the Alps, and plan theoretical itineraries for times when relative normality has prevailed, although it must be said that after nearly two years of the novel coronavirus – since when do pandemics last this long? – I did not expect to be still speaking along lines that insinuates that the world is still far nearer to the beginning of the virus than its denouement.
The basis of this post and a forthcoming series of similar musings is to highlight the things I miss about certain areas of the Alps and ergo their component parts, both in situ and in the pipeline, which I am looking forward to seeing in person. We will kick off with Slovenia’s Bohinj region, quite probably my favourite alpine location:
The northern reaches of Lake Bohinj represent a primeval characteristic which all alpine lakes would hopefully have, but which few now do. It is by topographical happenstance that the lake is hemmed in on its northern side by towering limestone cliffs, and not somewhere that can be pockmarked by man’s dubious hand. This is real back to nature stuff, where crowds are left behind and cycling is prohibited – that doesn’t though stop some defiant and/or illiterate bicyclists from trying – not just to give hikers a free rein, but also to highlight that rugged terrain and impromptu flooding makes such a form of otherwise sustainable transport wholly unsuitable.
I am not an identikit writer who cribs the ‘best of’ somewhere to produce a generic, poorly researched piece of writing and this is no exception: Lake Bohinj is recommended to all thoughtful, respectful, and nature-loving travellers but I am not purely saying ‘come to Lake Bohinj’. As synonymous as they are with the area, this is not a post about the Savica Waterfall, the bridge at Ribcev Laz, or the statue of the four pioneers who first scaled Mount Triglav, but aspects of its overall brilliance which are often overlooked, or purely unknown to the vast majority of travellers.
It is therefore to the northern side of Bohinj where I (re)cast my mind, to the impromptu Govic waterfall, something that is only evident after heavy or even extreme rainfall that has filtered through the extensive cave system above the lake. It is perhaps perverse to wish for heavy rainfall whilst visiting the Alps, and I have known thunderstorms last in excess of 24 hours in the Bohinj region, but notwithstanding the possible barring of the way along the northern side by a lake swollen with precipitation, the Govic waterfall is an eerie sight that lends far more unpredictability to its appearance than its comparatively permanent Voje and Savica counterparts.
Cryptocurrency millionaire Damian Merlak has, it must be said, bailed out Bohinj’s tourist accommodation offering. Without the thirtysomething’s intervention the likes of Hotel Bohinj, the Zlatorog, and Ski Hotel Vogel would have continued to wither on the vine along their respective stages of deterioration and dereliction. Wresting control away from the bafflingly absent and seemingly uncaring Zmago Pacnik was the obvious solution, but not before the local municipality had sought ways within local and national ordinances to bring about a lawful end of what became a ruinous stewardship of some of Bohinj’s prime, if albeit man made, tourism assets.
The Hotel Bohinj has since been fully renovated in a spectacular but at the same time sympathetic manner, and more than respects its location close to but at same time tucked away from the lake and madding crowds. My earliest memory of the hotel was its previous iteration as the Kompas, a rather rudimentary but serviceable edifice straight out of the Communist area prior to Slovenia’s secession, complete with a circular and rather chilly looking outdoor swimming pool. It later became the admittedly uninspiringly named Hotel Bohinj and saw a marked change in appearance, which it has once more for the modern era. I am looking forward to witnessing first-hand its complete transformation by an owner with Bohinj at heart.
A walk I would often undertake to book end my visits to Bohinj, either the first hike on arrival or the one to finish off my time in the area, is to Rudnica. This is not a mountain, but to describe it as a hill with a stunning set of views does in no way do it justice. Accessed from various locations on both sides of its situation, I would recommend journeying from Pecs, its forerunner that affords incredible views of Lake Bohinj only minutes after stepping off the path/road to Stara Fuzina. With some undulations and the occasional steep section, the trail to Rudnica is generally easy for those with stamina and who are used to hillwalking within the UK. As with the northern side of Lake Bohinj, Rudnica and its surroundings have a palpable feeling of being away from it all, where nature can flourish unmolested by the thoughtless, and man’s tawdry encroachment. I have seen a red fox guardedly stalking Rudnica’s slopes, a rare daytime sight that exemplified such a secluded and peaceful setting. Atop its 964 metres above sea level situation the views of both the upper and lower Bohinj region are outstanding, and lend altitudinal definition to the many small settlements that make up the area. It is just before the summit, within a clearing that has a refreshment stop which I am yet to see open for business where the most astonishing view of Lake Bohinj can be espied. As they say about a particular fine piece of team or individual skill on the football pitch, this vista is worth the admission price alone. I have even seen a snake in the undergrowth of Rudnica, but not of a type to worry about unless you bother it first!
Despite grandiose plans to redevelop it which I assumed would have already come to fruition, I am intrigued to see the sadly derelict Hotel Bellevue before it succumbs to modernity. Having stayed in this incredibly located hotel back in 2004, the first signs of its demise were already in evidence. It did not though help that the tour company I was travelling with had obviously secured a deal through hard bargaining that might on the surface have been advantageous for vacationers, but left the hotel with little to show from the tie up. It is another tourist hotel with a chequered history ranging from Agatha Christie being beguiled by its remote, forested location above Lake Bohinj, to ownership which had little interest in the building itself apart from what could be gained by using it as security. Now in the hands of a locally-based forestry and wood products company who at least will have the materials with which to bring about the Bellevue’s resurrection and who will be mindful of how important its future iteration blends in with the immediate surroundings, it has to be said that I am not enamoured with the ‘winning’ design of how the hotel is slated to look. At least the original building, protected insomuch that it cannot be demolished, will form more than a cursory nod to the past within the overall development’s footprint, although it is moot as to whether it can withstand many more alpine winters without being renovated or remediated. There is though something about the sorry state of abandonment which the Bellevue now finds itself behind Heras fencing and signs warning of CCTV being in operation that fascinates, as do the red bespoke Union brewery signs hanging from the exterior. Call it rosy retrospection or a ghost of my past, but edifices that groan with history from the post-war Tito era are so achingly interesting to a point of being indescribably so.
There are many parts to what make Bohinj special that I could include within this post, but my final choice would have to be the ridge walk that takes in the likes of Rodica, Crna Prst, and Mount Vogel. Accessible by the Vogel cableway which does not take its users to the summit of Vogel, but merely acts as a jumping off point at Rjava Skala next to the Ski Hotel Vogel for walkers to walk up the ridge, or use the attendent chairlift for a very useful head start. A head for heights is a must, as is some experience with limited exposure, and the need for reliable stamina in an area known for lightning strikes. It is therefore imperative to plan ahead by checking the weather forecast, and taking appropriate clothing, sunscreen, and refreshments. My greatest memory was of espying the Adriatic Sea from the ridge, which resembled a shimmering almost otherworldly diaphanous palette of turquoise completely abstract from my immediate surroundings but looking as if it was within touching distance.
Bohinj is there for all to enjoy, time and time again – I doubt anyone goes there without a yearning to return – but it should be remembered that a fragile environment and the area’s residents, both human and otherwise, come first and foremost above the demands of modern day tourism. All who visit will do well to remember that they are guests in someone else’s house, but should behave with the same amount of respect as they would hopefully afford their own surroundings.