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Uphill on Foot, Downhill Old Style
By Ivan Merljak

Excerpted from Slovenia Magazine 2003

When a trendy yuppie sees them, a slight grin forms at the left-hand corner of his mouth. Should a die-hard fashion victim see them, the grin becomes a full sardonic sneer. A reaction from a simple-minded person is a loud laugh full of derision. Only one with an eye for inner beauty would stop to ask: “Where are you coming from, boys and girls?”
“From all over the country,” they reply. “We are all true ski enthusiasts joined together in the Rovtarji Ski Club in Škofja Loka.” The club meets in Javorje, a village below Blegoš. “Skiing Old Style” is what their address says.

Aci Novinc, president and initiator of the Rovtarji (“Hill-billies”) Ski Club, explains: “The club's members are all excellent skiers, even long-time skiing instructors; we have added something extra to skiing though, and that is companionship and friendship.” He started noticing skiers in old-style gear a decade ago when he was still active within the Slovene Skiing Association. So he decided to make an attempt in this direction himself. He passed his enthusiasm on to some of his friends, and in 1998 the club was born.
“Most of the club's members come from the Škofja Loka hills and the two Sora valleys, Poljanska and Selška, while there are also some from the Logatec and Žiri areas. The club is much more than just a ski club, as its members also collect old ski gear, skis, bindings, ski poles, ski wear and boots that were used and worn a long time ago, in the first half of the 19th century or even earlier than that,” Aci explains.
It is true, the Rovtarji Ski Club members could easily be mistaken for antique collectors, ethnologists who are busy searching the attics and gathering information on how wooden skis used to be manufactured and thick woollen clothes were sewn. This is precisely what they really do, so credit where credit is due. And, as they emphasize, they do their job with great joy. Merriment is wherever they are, especially when they take hold of their instruments, the accordion, the ribežen (“grater”) and the škaf bas (“tub bass”).

Equipped with their wooden skis, old clothes, old ski boots (gojzerji) and their band, the Rovtarji participate in all the old-style skiing competitions and shows organized in Slovenia, and lately also in some of the international competitions. They never miss a Ski World Cup competition held in Slovenia either, where they add to the spirit of the competition. Besides the Rovtarji, there are several other old-style ski clubs in Slovenia, such as the ones in Kropa, Kamnik, Predmeja, Bovec, and Postojna.
“The skiing tradition below Blegoš is several centuries' old. Back then the basic wooden skis were used by foresters and hunters in order to move faster across the snow. It was much later that the curved wooden planks, the skis, began to be used for sliding down snowy slopes for pure amusement,” Aci Novinc explains.
The wooden skis owned by the Rovtarji Ski Club are indeed ancient, even more than half a century old. Some of them needed to be cast off as they were severely weather-beaten, while others are still able to hold together with a little repair work. In order to do the restorations, the Rovtarji have been forced to recapture the mysteries of the technology used by our ancestors.

Not only do the wooden planks catch the eye of the observer, the clothes also get their share of attention. “We, the Rovtarji, even have our own seamstress.” They are quick in pointing out Silva Oblak. She explains: “I sew all of these old rags that we wear: mostly long wide skirts for women, and trousers with matching jackets for men. As cloth is not as durable as wood, clothes need to be made anew. This can be quite problematic, since nowadays it is difficult to get hold of suitable thick wool fabrics. Some cuts and designs were taken from old magazines, while the others I had to cut out myself.” She can talk at length about the fashion of ancient female skiers, which now she painstakingly recreates for herself and other female members of the Rovtarji Ski Club. When they do their old-style ski parade, they wear nothing that would contradict the times which they represent.

“Beside quite a wide skirt made from thick fabric, a woman also wears an underskirt with obligatory lace. Underneath that there are knickers which must also be ornamented with lace. On top she wears a jacket with folded sleeves, so that the sleeves seem even wider. The rather short jacket narrows at the waist, so that her figure is accentuated when she skis and the skirt flutters around her … It is something to behold,” Silva says with a smile. “Male suits are not quite as special, but they are also made from thick durable fabrics. Apart from that both also wear thick woollen socks, gloves and caps.” They knit them themselves or they have them knitted by a grandmother with abounding patience. Wool comes complimentary from local sheep grazing below Blegoš in the summer.
“What a disgrace!” some would protest. “In Slovenia, the country where one of the top trademark skis, Elan, are manufactured, there are a few who try to ruin the reputation with old curved planks, old-fashioned clothes and ancient ski boots.” Such protests are highly exaggerated since the Rovtarji are far from being reactionary anti-modernists who would like to invert the development. No! They are more like a supersonic jet pilot who likes to sit in his ancient wooden cloth-covered aeroplane on weekends and fly—for his soul alone.
“Most of the people who see us, smile at the sight of our skis, boots and clothes. They wonder how we can ski at all, since the skis we use have no metal curbs. We are not able to master slopes as steep as modern skiers are, of course, only more gentle ones. Our skiing also requires softer snow, not as compact as the machine-made snow in modern ski resorts can be. Since our performance is accompanied by the music of our band, there are many who think of us as ‘ski clowns’. Well, we do clown about sometimes,” Aci Novinc is quick to admit.

As the interest for skiing old-style is growing, there are not enough half a century old skis to go around. A skier may also break one of their precious skis in two from time to time. If one needs a new “old” ski the man to talk to is Franc Oblak from Dolenje Brdo, the husband of the seamstress Silva. He had to study a great many books to learn adequately the old-style technology of ski manufacture, as well as pay many visits to elderly villagers who still knew a thing or two about how to bend wood and choose the right type of wood.
“The wood must be of an ash-tree. The best ash-trees are the ones which grow by the water. The best wood comes from the trunk where it is as its widest, near the tree base. This wood is the most suitable for bending and processing,” says Franc who picks the wood out himself, cuts it up and lets it dry out for approximately two years.
“Only then is the wood ready for processing. Each plank needs to be processed separately. A ski is thick in the middle and thinner at both ends. It is wide in front, and then gets narrower and narrower towards the back.” After the plank for a new ski is processed in this way, Franc lets it “cook” for approximately two hours in a special pot, like the one where pig food is stewed. When still wet and hot, the ski is then inserted in a mould where it is slowly dried and bent until it acquires its final form, convex in the middle and curved in front. “From time to time a ski will break in the process, which means that all the work has been in vain,” Franc observes. After the ski is dry and curved, a fine treatment is required as the cooking has left the wood surface rough and shaggy. Finally, the bindings are attached, just like the ones in the old days.
The Rovtarji club members do as much group practice as possible, as every competition requires adequate preparation. This has resulted in numerous medals and trophies that grace their shelves. “As soon as the first snow falls, we get together, do a bit of ‘stamping’ to make ourselves a course, and the merriment can begin,” Aci says happily.

Brane Tavcar from Dorfarji is a hunter and a former sailor. He has been skiing from an early age. “In the summer I was a sailor, and in the winter a ski instructor,” Brane explains. “At sea, aboard a ship, I would show my companions films about the beauty of Slovene mountains and ski slopes, and in the winter evenings I would present photographs of the sea and marine life to my skiing friends.”
And what is Brane's task as a hunter in the Rovtarji old-style ski club? He smiles and explains that one of the disciplines in the old-style ski competitions is also a hunters' race, as it was they who were one of the first in the history to use the wooden skis.
“At last year's contest in Stari vrh I represented a hunter carrying a wild boar. I was quite an attraction! Everybody wanted to be in a photograph with that boar,” Brane recalls. He became a hunter when he and his wife had a daughter, and the family would not let him go to sea any more. He is very proud of his medals and all the awards that he has received as an old-style hunter on skis. During his days aboard a German ship he learnt to speak fluent German, and so another of his jobs is that of a translator. The Rovtarji Ski Club has made several contacts with similar clubs in Germany and Austria, and even joined in a brotherhood with a club from Semmering. Last year they took part in their first international old-style ski competition. One of the most talkative Rovtarji members is Andrej Derlink. He joined the club when he and his wife moved from their former hometown of lowland Trate to the mountains, after their children had left home to live on their own. Andrej says that he has found peace here, together with loud company and true friends.

“We enjoy coming to practices and socializing in club premises so that we can leave home at least for a short while, as we are such a merry company. Women members would bake a potica, some bread or an ocvirkovka (greaves cake), and sometimes cook a stew with pork or venison. And when an accordion, a ribežen, a škaf-bas and a trombone player get together, it is impossible to stand still,” Andrej Derlink gives an impression of the Rovtarji meetings. He has built a cottage; the first rays of sun shine on it each morning, which make him whistle and stay happy for the rest of the day. His joyfulness is spread across the other Rovtarji members, who like to stretch their legs on the dance floor when their band is playing. In the Rovtarji Ski Club, the music is closely linked with the name of Boštjan Kreže from Retece near Škofja Loka. He is the driving force behind the band which is jokingly referred to as “the Dry Cord Band”, while never having been given an official name. Boštjan is the one who plays a folk instrument called škaf-bas. To explain: a ribežen (grater) is a large household utensil supposedly used for grating turnip and cabbage, while a škaf-bas is a folk instrument made of a hollow vessel with a bent wooden support attached–a wooden stake or, in this case, a wooden ski. A piece of string or cord is then stretched from the wooden ski to the upper rim of the vessel. A musician then strums this string, just like on a double-bass. When a musician moves the wooden support, the string is slackened or tightened in order to produce a lower or a higher note.
“‘The Dry Cord Band’ was named after the tight cord on my škaf-bas. Once when the musicians were fed up with playing and had really dry lips, we found an excuse for welcoming a drink by saying that the cord is so dry that the škaf-bas can not make a sound any more,” Boštjan Kreže recalls.
When on that day the men had “wetted the cord” and devoured all the dishes that the women had prepared, they could play some more. Music and dancing lasted throughout the evening and much of the night. And outside, the sky was spreading soft thick cottonwool, whitening the slopes of Blegoš.
“Just keep on falling!” the Rovtarji would say.