Travellers who soak up pictures of their destination before their arrival are often disappointed to find that the images that sold them on going there were too good to be true. The photo that captured your imagination was taken from a helicopter on the one day a year when the sun rose at just the perfect angle over the mountaintop. Or the professional photographer used a lens as long as your arm, pulling tiny objects that are far away into grasp, filling the frame with beauty and wonder.
Not so with Bled, Slovenia. This small town at the foot of the Julian Alps is a wonder of creation. The emerald Lake Bled is teaming with trout along the shoreline. This is backdropped by forest-covered mountains which give way to rocky peaks too hostile for flora and fauna. And as a nice change, mankind has enhanced it rather than exploited it. Bled Castle towers up 130 metres over the lake on its northern shore, offering panoramic views.
Then there is the Bled Island. Slovenia’s only island, as a matter of fact, is home to the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary, built in the 15th century. Aside from its fairytale setting, the church is most famous for its wishing bell. Locals told us a slightly more colourful story than the guide books. A young widow of a nobleman who lived in Bled Castle became very fat when gorging herself in self-pity after her spouse’s death at the hands of robbers who threw his body into the lake. As a symbol of her repentance she melted all her gold and silver and had it cast as a bell for the island church. However when the bell was being floated over to the island a sudden storm rose up, sending the sacrifice and the men ferrying it to the lake’s bottom. Feeling cursed, the desperate widow sold all her belongings and offered the proceeds for the construction of a new church on the island. She left Bled and lived the rest of her life in the Vatican as a nun. After her death the Pope heard of her misfortune and of her good deeds, and in her memory he decided to have a new bell cast. He said anyone who believes in God and rings the bell three times will have their wish come true. The tourist office says that visitors return year after year, swearing by the bell’s powers. And sometimes, on a dark night, you can hear the sunken bell ringing from the depths of the lake, the legend goes.
Summer tobogganing: is only a couple of minutes’ walk from downtown. For EUR 8 (children EUR 5), a chairlift takes you up 130 metres to the top of Straza hill where you can wizz down the half-kilometre of track at speeds of up to 40 kmh.
Adventure Park Bled: is also located on the top of Straza hill. After the staff familiarise you with safety essentials on using climbing gear, you will find yourself swinging through the tree tops. There are different challenging levels, and four of the five courses are rather long compared to other such parks. It is good value, gets the heart pumping and is a great way to avoid the heat of the day. Cost: 7 and under – EUR 10; 8-14 – EUR 15; 16 and up – EUR 19. www.pustolovski-park-bled.si/sl/
On the water: You have three options for getting to Bled Island: swim (it’s three or four hundred metres from the nearest point, but some brave souls were doing it), stump up EUR 12 per head for a ride on a traditional Bled boat called a Pletna (above) from the shores of downtown, or row, row, row your boat for a good kilometre and a half. We went with the third option. Cost: EUR 16 for the first hour and EUR 9 per hour after that. Afterward you can fake how tired you are and plop down on the beach with a beer for the rest of the day.
In the water: We rode around the lake several times on electric-assist bikes (great fun for the hot and/or tired, available from the tourism office) and tried out a few of the beaches. People were also dipping in wherever it suited them, but the lake drops off sharply. At most beaches the lake is about 150cm deep at the shoreline. The Grajsko kopalisce (Castle Bathing Area) is directly below castle rock with sun all day and facilities akin to a nicer Hungarian strand: indoor and outdoor showers, changing rooms and lockers, a full-time lifeguard, chair and umbrella rental, a free waterslide for the kids and Thai massage is also available. Perhaps the best features are the special pools with false bottoms created in the lake. There is a toddler pool (60 cm), one that is suitable for kids to splash in (1.2 metres), 1.7 metres and full depth. Cost for full-day: EUR 7 – adults; EUR 5 – students; EUR 4 – under 14s.
Bled Days and Bled Nights: held annually on the fourth weekend in July, this is the most famous of Bled’s events. On Saturday 21 July 10,000 candles will be set adrift on the lake, followed by fireworks and a laser show.
Tourist info: We turned to the tourist office often and dealt with four staff members over our four days there. All spoke good English and were able to explain the local lay of the land in a way that tourists could understand. For more information about Bled, head to their main website at www.bled.si (in English). It is especially good and includes a daily calendar of events throughout the summer. For specific questions try the Bled Tourist Board at Tel. +38-6 457-80500, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bled is an outdoor playground and to take in all they have to offer would run into weeks. For example, suggestions from the tourism office for summer sports:
– Adventure park
– Alpine and sport climbing
– Athletics and football
– Beach volley
– Hot Air Ballooning
– Horseback riding
– Mini golf
– Mountaineering and trekking
– Nordic walking
– Paintball and airsoft
– Paragliding and gliding
– Rafting, canoeing
– Summer tobogganing
– Survival courses
– Swimming and diving
It makes you just tired thinking about it. But Bled is all about wellness and unwinding. We found that two or three activities a day were plenty over a four-night stay, with evening walks along the lakefront and picking up a few items at local craft markets. Indeed, every activity we took in did not require driving. The trip from Budapest took five hours’ driving time (520 km).
One of the best views of the Bled Island comes from Bled Castle. Perched atop a steep cliff rising 130 metres above the glacial lake, it is a symbol of Bled and Slovenia. Earliest records of the castle date back 1,000 years.
Lodging during our stay was provided by the Best Western Premier Hotel Lovec. The Four-Star Superior rated hotel seemed to be the hotel of choice with international guests (we noted Americans, Irish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Israelis and Hungarians). It also had western standards of service, making you feel welcome (and wanted). The Lovec has large modern comfortable rooms with individual air-conditioning (it was 35 C outside). We opted for adjoining rooms that shared a bath. The whirlpool bath was more than just bubbles, providing a gentle massage and entertainment for the kids once they were forced to settle in the room for the night. Having two flat screen TVs helped keep the peace and a lot of the shows are in original English with Slovenian subtitles (not that I learned any Slovenian). There’s a full breakfast with three types of eggs and the breakfast terrace is shady and quiet, facing the lake. They make a decent cappuccino and guests were hoarding the mini croissants. The Hotel Lovec with mountain and lake views is on Bled’s main drag, one block from the lake, making it easy to pop in and out throughout your day.
Best Western Premier Hotel Lovec
Cankarjeva cesta 2. 4260 Bled, Slovenia
T. +38-6 462-05102 www.lovechotel.com
Bled is proud of its cuisine, with the tourism office quick to point out that three of Slovenia’s top ten chefs earn their crust here. There was a local farmer’s market during our visit at the Grill Restaurant Lovec where mayor Janez Fajfar taught us the Slovenian way of doing cheers with the local firewater (look them in the eye, and swing the bottom of the glass to clink). Head Chef Dean Grilc worked around the world before coming to lead the 122-year-old restaurant. He said Slovenian cuisine is not the paprika-festival that Hungarian is, but rather leans more toward European tastes, with sausages, garlic used in preparation and lots of sauces. Trout is the local specialty, fresh from the lake and not farmed. The grilled variety had a seasoned skin, which set off the flesh nicely, bringing the full flavour through without dominating. After a couple of attempts we were able to get into the rhythm and pull the fish cleanly from the bone.
Grill Restaurant Lovec: www.lovechotel.com