Union is Strength is a European journalism competition organized by Slate.fr in partnership with the European Commission. Forty French and European journalists have been selected to work as a team to write articles on projects funded by the European Union in Europe. A perspective of what the EU can do in its regions.
In Bled (Slovenia).
Bled, a small mountain town in northwestern Slovenia, is surrounded by peaks on three sides. It’s 8 a.m. on Lake Bled when Gregor Pazlar greets us with a firm handshake while the swans are still asleep. Patches of snow still cover the high mountains.
For the last seven years, Gregor has been taking tourists to the lake’s only island aboard his Pletna, a typical Lake Bled watercraft. Due to the early hour we are alone on the lake. “We will officially be the first on the island today”, Gregor happily states while paddling. As the fog lifts over the water, he rows effortlessly. After years of work, technology has become a matter of course for him.
He was a trained chef and became a pletnar or pletna navigator when his father retired. This is not a profession that you can train, you have to inherit it. The profession of pletnar is only passed from father to son. Gregor was willing to rely on his two hands and not diesel engines.
When the time comes, Gregor will also pass his rights on to one of his sons. “The first is 12 years old, the second 9 years old. You still have time to decide which pletnar will be»‘ he said smiling. He will teach them to sail when they are 15 years old. “You need to build muscle first”‘ he says mischievously.
A pletna, a typical boat from Lake Bled, in the port of Mlino. | Emma Chalat
Gregors Pletna is located in the main port of Mlino, one of three places from which one can reach the island of Bled. The castle’s boathouse, not far from Mlino, was renovated as part of a European Slow Tourism project. The aim is to provide Bled’s visitors with modern infrastructure to encourage them to spend more time there. Improving the accessibility and use of water-related tourism resources is part of the slow tourism philosophy. However, the island of Bled has always been perceived as a small world unto itself. It would be absurd, even disrespectful, to rush!
The first church on the island was built in the XIand Century. Pilgrims began in the 16thand Century. The tradition of the pletnas was already quite well developed at that time. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria had ordered local farmers to transport pilgrims to the island free of charge in exchange for tax exemption. This right was then granted to 23 families. Today, Lake Bled still hosts the same number of boats, a quota that will not change due to the rules of the trade.
Boats with women’s names
Daughters cannot inherit their father’s profession. “Of course equality is important. But the problem is that an empty boat weighs about 800 kilos and can hold eighteen people, for a total weight of about two and a half tons., explains Gregory. However, the feminine gender is present in the names of the boats: the pletnars christen their boats with the names of their wives, their daughters or other residents of the region.
That’s what the boats on Lake Bled are called Larisa or Gorenjka. Gregor, on the other hand, named his boat after his wife Barbara. We ironically ask him what would happen if he got divorced. “I would just change the name”he replies jokingly.
Gregor says that Bled residents have always made their living from tourism. “But you still have to get used to that, especially when there are too many visitors. For example, in the high season you have to shop at 7 a.m. because the shops are robbed from 9 a.m. onwards. Visitors have changed a lot in recent years. Twenty years ago they just took a picture. Today they want active and varied holidays.”
Still, the Bled location tries to resist mass tourism by promoting slow tourism and sustainability. The boats are crafted by local artisans using locally sourced wood. They are painted with natural colors. In addition, Bled is part of the Triglav National Park, which means many obligations.
“Bohinj is changing”
About ten kilometers north of Bled, in the municipality of Bohinj, we visit the Rožič family. Inside her rustic guesthouse, stuffed animals adorn the walls, at the risk of surprising the modern traveler. This is the legacy of past generations. Boris Rožič, the head of the family, tells us that in old Austria a man with hunting trophies was considered rich. “The Rožič are hunters”he tells us and opens a cupboard full of hunting gear.
The members of the Rožič family have been fishing and hunting for decades. | Emma Chalat
“Yes, there are many tourists, and locals, including my friends, notice that Bohinj is changingtells us Aljaž, the youngest son of Boris. Infrastructure and new hotels no longer look like “traditional Bohinj”. But our father appreciates these arrangements. Every morning between 8am and 10am, locals come to our hostel, which they call the ‘community centre’, for coffee.
Boris Rožič married twice. His first wife is “Part”, so much so that he now runs the boarding house with his second wife. Aljaz, the “Baby of the Family”at 20 years. “He graduated from high school, he is very hardworking. Now he’s studying something, but I don’t know exactly what.”Boris tells us with a laugh.
He proudly adds that his son does all kinds of work in the family business, including renting boats on Lake Bohinj. In fact, the European Slow Tourism Project has enabled the municipality to set up port facilities, especially near the Rožič Pension.
From Napoleon’s swords to tourism
Boris Rožič comes from Bohinj. Her family roots have been there since the 16th centuryand Century. The Rožič family closely followed the development of the region and observed its changes. Until 1900 Bohinj was very isolated. Then, in 1902 (under the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy), a railway line was built there. “There were mills here, we forged swords for Napoleon”, he proudly tells us. His family owned the first boats on Lake Bohinj, which Boris’ father bought for fun. Later, spa tourism developed in the region.
A lot has changed since then: tourism has evolved, especially in terms of marketing. “Visitors have a respectful attitude. The main issue is instructions on how to handle the boatstestifies Aljaž. Most of the time it is the Slovenians who break the rules!”
According to him, the modern tourist does not have much time to devote to a single place. Infrastructure development, including through European Union projects, is helping to attract them. Thus, the construction of port facilities for ships encourages visitors to stay longer in Bohinj.
“If I don’t wake up with this prospect, it doesn’t suit me”, explains Aljaž Rožič, Boris’ son. | Emma Chalat
Aljaž feels a strong bond with Bohinj, nature and the lake. “There’s something that keeps me here. If I don’t wake up with this prospect, which happens to me when I’m in Ljubljana, where I’m studying, it doesn’t suit me. The first months in Ljubljana were hell for me»he confides in us before adding that his father will never leave the corner either. “He’s very attached to it. My older brother and I feel the same way. For example, we didn’t go to kindergarten as children. We went fishing and did yoga with our dad. We also helped him with boat rentals when we were 8 or 9 years old.”he adds with a laugh.
We joke about the ban on child labor in Slovenia, although it is clear that a son who helps his father is not covered. On the contrary, it is a tradition carried on from generation to generation by Bohinj residents. A tradition that is confirmed today in the face of mass tourism.
Translation by Celine Michaud, Voxeurop.
This article was produced as part of the Union is Strength competition funded by the European Union. The article reflects the views of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.