It looks like a fairy tale. Out of the lake rises a stone staircase. Step delicately over the edge of your rowboat, and mount the stairs. The little island at which you’ve docked barely has enough space for a few trees and your destination: the medieval Church of the Assumption. The solemn peal of a bell and thin iron spire are made even more dramatic by the fact that you are standing in the middle of Lake Bled.
Bled, Slovenia has long been a pilgrimage site for Slovenians; now it has also emerged as a tourist destination. With its dark mountain water and setting high in the Julian Alps, the lake resembles a Disneyland fable. Rowboats make thin, vanishing wakes; swans pick at reeds along the shore. A genuine castle completes the picturesque scene.
The town of Bled sits below the castle. Carved wooden shutters spill with flower boxes, and the streets curve without design or destination. Despite the rush of tourists, both foreign and Slovenian, the town seems able to accommodate holiday crowds. At mid-day, most visitors have found their way up into the mountains, to hike, cycle, or swim, leaving the lulled town to the ice cream vendors.
Outdoor adventures draw many visitors in the region. Tour companies based in Bled offer canyoneering day-trips, complete with waterfall leaps and rappelling. For the more independent traveler, cycling is an easy way to see the surrounding countryside; many visitors spend an afternoon climbing roads through bucolic farm-towns or along the river in Triglav National Park.
Built in the 11th century, Bledski Grad castle offers one of the finest views of the surrounding countryside. From town, a short climb through the woods leads to a steep cobblestone entryway. In a small chapel once reserved for nobility, 500-year old frescoes leap from the curving ceiling in ochre and lazuli hues. A small but informative museum provides an anthropological history of the castle and it’s surrounds, from Paleolithic times through the present. The castle ramparts overlook a swimming dock, where divers make tiny white splashes in the water below; towels tucked around their necks, families pedal bikes along the shore. Mountains rise from the banks, fir-covered, bluish-green.
Only an hour outside the capital of Ljubljana, Lake Bled is an easy weekend getaway for urban Slovenians. But while neighboring Croatia has capitalized on its coastline to draw foreign tourists, Slovenia remains largely an unknown factor for many euro-trekkers. The Julian Alps are often overlooked in favor of their Swiss or Italian cousins, but they offer a similar alpine experience.
Tracing the water’s circumference, a path connects Bled town to the outlying villages and a campground. Shaded by large old trees, the path serves as both transportation and recreation. In the evening hours, as the water darkens and clouds of gnats tie knots around each other, the lake draws Bled’s visitors to its shoreline. An old woman sits on a bench, savoring forkfuls of kremna rezina, sweet custard cake. Kids on in-line skates zip past. On a veranda overlooking the water, a couple enjoys a cup of chilled blueberry liquor – a traditional Slovenian drink – and the last of the summer sun.
Written by Caitlin Dwyer with Photos by Matt Bozigar for EuropeUpClose.com