I am struggling to decide whether it is either extremely difficult to define why empty buildings are so fascinating to those with no prior knowledge of their interiors, or incredibly straightforward. Therein lies the issue: are we drawn to abandoned edifices through what might lie beneath, or because of what we expect to find? Is there a fine line between basic curiosity and a form of criminal intent that separates entering occupied properties with an ‘it won’t do any harm’ attitude to being what is now regarded as an urban explorer?
As an alpinist and advocate of all that is good, decent, and proper within Europe’s alpine region, over the years I have stayed in many hotels at various altitudes. The few abandoned properties I have inadvertently or otherwise discovered – in other words, I already knew they were in such a parlous state – all share similar fascination but also significantly contrast with each other.
The Hotel Schneeweiss, a rather literal translation of a famous Disney character but also the type of weather one might expect during an alpine winter, occupies a prominent position just outside the main centre of Seefeld, in the Austrian Tirol. Indeed, situated next to a well-trodden hiking path there is little escaping this crumbling tourist mainstay of yesteryear. There is also little information to go on how and why the hotel has got to this point but it doesn’t seem to be an overnight story, with the first knockings of abandonment occurring perhaps two decades ago.
It is said that ownership is within the hands of foreign investors, who are allegedly caught in a loop of being stuck with a hotel they perhaps cannot afford to demolish, nor replace with a facility of similar size. That does not though say that what must be a prime spot with a price tag to match cannot be sold to someone with greater vision and deeper pockets, but hotels that are allowed to descend to such depths are sometimes, and I am not saying the Schneeweiss falls within this category, heavily mortgaged against, with a straightforward sale not representing an immediate option for the owner.
The back stories of the Hotel Bellevue and its counterpart the Zlatorog in Slovenia’s Bohinj region run along very similar lines. Both occupy enviable positions – the Bellevue high above Lake Bohinj set amid deep forest; the Zlatorog in the quiet hamlet of Ukanc, cowering under the precipitous presence of the Kormarca cliffs – and count amongst its former guests some very notable patrons.
Whilst it cannot indefinitely be traded on that Agatha Christie sought peace and solitude at the Bellevue, and that Marshal Tito entertained fellow members of the Non-Aligned Movement within the Zlatorog, these moments whilst framed in time and representing the eras in which they took place, are nevertheless significant to local and indeed Yugoslav history.
Both properties bit the dust as functioning hotels the best part of a decade ago but didn’t actually have the same owner when they did, although did so for a time prior to closure. Whilst both have only relatively recently been bought, by different investors, the Zlatorog and Bellevue were sweated by their respective former owners until unless invested in using money not generated by guest income they had no choice but to close their doors for the final time in their then guises. It appears that the Bellevue had become an unwitting pawn within a wider web of business intrigue, and most likely acted as security in unrelated deals. The Zlatorog was owned by a proprietor who counted several other Bohinj properties including the Ski Hotel Vogel within his portfolio, but all were either closed or on the brink of doing so.
The Zlatorog and Bellevue reeked and groaned with history which if anything made them more fascinating when closed than during the years of their respective inexorable deterioration as so-called functioning hotels. The Zlatorog is no more, demolished along with its depandansa (annex) and villa but only since plans have been approved by the local municipality and Triglav National Park authority for its sympathetically designed replacement. Whilst the Bellevue is also in new, presumably more benevolent hands, plans for its reactivation are perhaps more at the embryonic stage but whatever design eventually gets the nod, and I have seen some shocking artistic interpretations, the existing iconic building will to a significant degree be included within an inevitably more aesthetically contemporary facility. Quite how the such modernity will dovetail with its ecologically sensitive surroundings and stunning vista is perhaps the biggest challenge for all those involved.
Perhaps the most intriguing property I have seen on my travels is Kitzbuehel’s Hotel Kaiser. Not to be confused with the town’s luxurious Hotel Kaiserhof, the Kaiser occupies a site on the outskirts of Kitzbuehel and well away from its glamourous, well-heeled centre. It is though prominent insomuch that the town’s railway station is quite literally a minute’s walk away, and most who use the railway will have to pass the Kaiser.
When I first saw the Kaiser I presumed it was a recently abandoned hotel, as although its exterior is exceptionally formulaic and undoubtedly grim, it could hardly be described as crumbling. It just looked silent, shut, and deeply depressing. Several years later it appeared to be exactly the same, albeit with some of the windows on the highest floor looking far more modern than those at ground level. I have since learned that the Hotel Kaiser is/was more a hostel than a hotel, and whilst I have never seen any evidence of it being open it isn’t impossible to suggest that it only receives guests in the winter, when Kitzbuehel is one of the buzzing alpine capitals of Europe.
It is fair to say that Kitzbuehel is an expensive place to take your vacation, especially during the wintertime. Not everyone who visits the town drives an Audi and shops at the town’s Louis Vuitton emporium, but for skiers there is budget accommodation, and then there is budget accommodation. I have yet to see if the Hotel Kaiser is indeed open for business during the Tirol’s white gold season, but am surprised that Kitzbuehel’s municipality haven’t intervened regarding the Kaiser’s exterior appearance. Perhaps they have, but their hands are tied. Either way, and whatever standard of accommodation the Kaiser does or did provide, this is not what one expects to see in Kitzbuehel.
Perhaps in a similar way to pondering the existence of extra-terrestrial life it is better to be interested, to even create or buy into conspiracy theories, than be regaled with or party to the actual truth. Some abandoned hotels are monuments to a glorious or infamous past not just for the property, the immediate area, but maybe even the nation where it is based, but others have few if any redeeming features and as such should act as welcome fodder for wrecking balls.
Whilst there is nothing glamourous about abandonment such examples of the vicissitudes of human life, decision making and even tragedy perhaps highlight the frailty of our existence, where calculated risk, greed, being out of one’s depth, and unforeseen events can arrive at anyone’s door. Perhaps that is why abandoned buildings of any designation are enduringly intriguing; whatever happened to the person or people involved could theoretically take place in our own lives. As ever, life is a fine line between extremes.
*All photographs were taken by me, and are the copyright of Charles Bowman.
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