Lake Bled: Alpine Beauty
Text & photos by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
Sapphire blue Lake Bled, capped by the imposing Julian Alps, has been featured on the covers of numerous travel magazines lately. But, in truth, the area has been a resort since the 17th Century. Thermal springs, thought to have healing properties, were an initial draw. Later the site was frequented by nobility, particularly the Habsburgs. More recently, the late Yugoslav president Josip Tito built a lavish summer residence on the Lake.
These days, the enchanting site seems to be perpetually awash with tourists. Located in northern Slovenia, on the edge of the Triglavski Narodni Park, just a few miles from both the Austrian and Italian borders, Lake Bled is easily accessible. Multinational motorcycle clubs ride through regularly; buses drop off loads of camera-toting tourists. Slovenian families, who have vacationed on the lake for decades, continue to arrive as well. And yet, somehow, the lake and mountainous countryside seem unperturbed – lovely, tranquil and unspoiled.
The fact that no motorized boats are allowed on the lake does much to preserve the serenity of the area. Only row boats and pletna, hand built, wooden boats, similar to Venetian gondolas are permitted on Lake Bled. The pletna tread the waters all day long, dropping visitors off to explore various points around the lake. A primary destination is a tiny island in the middle of the lake that is home to a picturesque Baroque church.
Deciding to explore myself, I board a pletna, watching in awe as its captain slowly rows myself, and four other passengers, across the lake. The little pletna seem so romantic, but from the rower’s perspective they’re incredibly labour-intensive work!
Once on the island, I climb the 99 steps to the Church of the Assumption. Built in the 17th Century, portions of frescoes depicting scenes from the Virgin Mary’s life, have been preserved. The main Baroque altar was carved in 1747. The church belfry houses the “wishing bell.” According to local legend, those who pull the heavy rope three times will have a wish granted.
Given the extraordinary beauty of the site, it’s not surprising that the church is a popular spot for weddings. And, sure enough, I encounter a wedding party. A nervous groom paces along the rock landing, awaiting his bride, along with family, friends and a band of musicians in traditional Slovenian costumes. After 15 minutes or so – an eternity for an anxious groom – a pletna with the pretty bride docks.
The groom greets his future wife with a large bouquet and the group begins the strenuous climb, up the 99 steps to the church. We’re told that many grooms carry their brides-to-be up the steps for good luck. In this case, however, this couple must have decided that it might be luckier not to risk serious back injuries before the ceremony.
Stately Bled Castle sits on a steep hill above the lake, adding yet another storybook element to the scene. The structure dates back to 1011 and is considered the oldest castle in Slovenia. A museum displays period furniture and costumes, along with archaeological finds from the area, discovered over the centuries.
The castle wine cellar gives bottling demonstrations and tastings. Festivals throughout the year portray Medieval life and a restaurant provides stunning panoramic views of the Alps and lake.
To cap off the visit, I stop in at Vila Bled, once the summer home of Yugoslav president Josip Tito. The property is now a hotel run by the Slovenian government. The lobby is still quite formal and feels as if a head of state might make a grand entrance any minute.
I wander a tiny portion of the gardens – there are 13 acres total on the large estate. Vine-covered arbors provide perfectly-framed views of the lake. Park benches are tucked into grassy hillsides for maximum effect.
The restaurant at the Vila, offers an expansive stone terrace – the perfect spot for watching sunsets and moon rises over the Lake. At the end of the day, it seems that the best activity around Lake Bled is to simply pick a spot – just about any place will do – and revel in the exquisite views.