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In Slovenia, traditions passed down from father to son in the face of mass tourism

Union is Strength is a European journalism competition organized by in partnership with the European Commission. Forty journalists, French and European, have been selected to work as a team to write articles on projects financed by the European Union in Europe. A perspective on 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 8am on Lake Bled when Gregor Pazlar greets us with a firm handshake, while the swans are still sleeping. Patches of snow still cover the high mountains.

For the past seven years, Gregor has ferried 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”, notes Gregor cheerfully while paddling. As the mist lifts over the water, he rows effortlessly. After years of work, the technique comes naturally to him.

A cook by training, he became a pletnar, or pletna navigator, when his father retired. It’s not a job you can train for: you have to inherit it. The profession of pletnar is transmitted only from father to son. Gregor was prepared to rely on his two hands and not on diesel engines.

When the time comes, Gregor will also pass on his rights to one of his sons. “The first is 12 years old, the second 9 years old. They still have time to decide which one will be pletnar», he said, smiling. He will start teaching them to sail when they are 15 years old. “They have to build muscle first”he says mischievously.

A pletna, a typical boat from Lake Bled, in the port of Mlino. | Emma Challat

Gregor’s pletna is moored in the main port, Mlino, one of three places from which it is possible to reach the island of Bled. The castle’s boathouse, located not far from Mlino, has been renovated as part of a European slow tourism project. The aim is to provide visitors to Bled 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 philosophy of slow tourism. However, the island of Bled has always been perceived as a tiny world apart. It would be absurd, even disrespectful, to rush!

The first church on the island was built in the XIand century. Pilgrims began to arrive during the 16and century. The tradition of pletnas was already quite 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 had then been granted to twenty-three families. Today, Lake Bled still houses the same number of boats, a quota that will not change due to the rules of the profession.

Boats with women’s names

Daughters cannot inherit their father’s profession. “Of course, equality is essential. But the problem is that an empty boat weighs about 800 kilos and can accommodate eighteen people, a total weight of about two and a half tons., explains Gregor. The feminine gender is nevertheless present in the names of the boats: the pletnars baptize their boats with the names of their wives, their daughters or other inhabitants of the region.

Thus, on Lake Bled, the boats are called Larisa or Gorenjka. Gregor, meanwhile, named his boat after his wife, Barbara. We ask him ironically what would happen if he divorced. “I would just change the name”he replies jokingly.

Gregor says that the inhabitants of Bled have always lived from tourism. “But you still have to get used to it, especially when there are many, too many visitors. For example, during the high season, you have to do your shopping at 7 a.m. because, from 9 a.m., the stores are robbed. Visitors have changed a lot in recent years. Twenty years ago, they just took a picture. Today, they want active and varied holidays.”

Nevertheless, the Bled site seeks to resist mass tourism by encouraging slow tourism and sustainability. The boats are made of wood from the region by local craftsmen. They are painted with natural paints. Besides, Bled is part of the Triglav National Park, which means many commitments.

“Bohinj is changing”

About ten kilometers north of Bled, in the municipality of Bohinj, we visit the Rožič family. In their rustic guest house, 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, explains to us that in ancient Austria, a man with hunting trophies was considered rich. “The Rožič are hunters”he reveals to us, opening a cupboard full of hunting equipment.

Members of the Rožič family have been fishing and hunting for decades. | Emma Challat

“Yes, there are a lot of 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 8 and 10 a.m., locals come and drink coffee in our hostel, which they refer to as a “community center”.

Boris Rožič married twice. His first wife is “part”, so much so that he now manages the boarding house with his second wife. Aljaž, the “baby of the family”at 20 years. “He has finished high school, he is very diligent. Now he’s studying something, but I don’t know exactly what.”Boris tells us, laughing.

He proudly adds that his son does all kinds of work in the family business, including renting boats on Lake Bohinj. Indeed, the European slow tourism project has enabled the municipality to set up port facilities, particularly near the Rožič pension.

From Napoleon’s swords to tourism

Boris Rožič is from Bohinj. Its family roots have been anchored there since the 16and 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 Empire), a railway line was built there. “There were mills here, we forged swords for Napoleon”, he informs us proudly. His family owned the first boats on Lake Bohinj, which Boris’s father acquired for fun. Later, spa tourism developed in the region.

Since then, many things have changed: tourism has evolved, especially in terms of marketing. “Visitors have respectful attitudes. The main problem 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. The development of infrastructures, among others through European Union projects, helps 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 view, it doesn’t suit me”, explains Aljaž Rožič, the son of Boris. | Emma Challat

Aljaž feels a strong connection with Bohinj, nature and the lake. “There is something that keeps me here. If I don’t wake up with this view, which happens to me when I’m in Ljubljana where I study, it doesn’t suit me. The first months in Ljubljana were hell for me»he confides to us before adding that his father, too, will never leave the corner. “He is very attached to it. My older brother and I feel the same. For example, we didn’t go to kindergarten when we were kids. We went fishing and we did yoga with our father. We also helped him with the rental of boats when we were 8 or 9 years old”he adds, laughing.

We joke about the ban on child labor in Slovenia, although it is clear that a son helping his father does not fall under this. On the contrary, it is a tradition carried on by the inhabitants of Bohinj from generation to generation. A tradition today affirmed in the face of mass tourism.

Translation by Céline Michaud, Voxeurop.

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This article was produced as part of the Union is Strength competition which has received financial support from the European Union. The article reflects the views of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.

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