Bled is the number 1 tourist destination in Slovenia, and it is not hard to see why. Slovenia is the northernmost republic of what used to be Yugoslavia, sharing borders with Italy and Austria in the Alps, and Hungary to the east and Croatia to the South. Although just a very small town with a population of 10,000, its Alpine location and beauty draw visitors from all over, to see its lake, its castle, play golf and sample its hospitality.
==== HISTORY ====
The first mention of history was in 1004 when the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II awarded it to the Bishop of Brixen. The 1000 years of Bled logo can be seen throughout the town, as part of a big tourism campaign three years ago. In the nineteenth century, Bled became known as a health resort, and the grandeur of some of its buildings gives an indication of its clientele. Tito had a summer house here, which is now the Relais and Chateaux Hotel Vila Bled overlooking the west end of the lake.
==== WHAT IS THERE TO SEE? ====
The obvious things to see are the lake and the castle. The lake is not particularly big (at its longest and widest 2.12km by 1.38km, maximum depth 30.6m), but is very scenic with an island in the middle. You can take a local boat ( out to the island in the middle of Bled Lake, where there is a church, gift shop, cafe and small exhibition showing local art. The boats on the lake are called pletnas, they are covered, rowing boats propelled by the pletna keeper standing up like a gondalier without a hat!
We went out on 15 August, which is the Feast of the Assumption. The church on the island is the Church of The Assumption, and as a result of the feast day, the island was heaving and we couldn't see inside the church, where normally you can ring a bell and make a wish to return. The fare was Euro10 per adult, and took the man rowing us abut half an hour from shore to island.
The castle sits atop a 130m hill on the north side of the lake, and is reached by a road which snakes up the back. Entry is Euro6 for adults and Euro3 for children. The walls of the castle date from the 16th century. There is a chapel - currently being renovated - a museum, showing the history of Bled, a cafeteria and a wine shop, although you have to make an appointment to visit this. From the terrace, you get a good view of the Julian Alps and the lake. I would not recommend walking up here - car or bus.
The gardens at the eastern end of the lake (the end where the road from the airport and Ljubljana comes in) are very pleasant for walking in, and when we were there seemed to be a craft market every day. I imagine at times other than peak season, this would not be the case. There are a couple of interesting objects in the gardens - a chess set in a glass class showing the position after the Pirc defence, Vasja Pirc being a Slovenian grandmaster. Further round the lake side, there is a brass model of Bled and the lake on a scale of 1:2700.
There are a few craft stalls near the main centre of the town, and a shopping centre on three levels, with cafes. There are some quite nice souvenirs to be had here, particular honey and local jam. There are the usual tee-shirts, calendars, pens etc, but no worse than in other popular tourist places, plus the standard services - supermarket, chemist, opticians etc.
==== ACTIVITIES FOR CHILDREN ====
There were 2 main things which our children enjoyed doing in Bled. First was the toboggan down Straza, which is a 634m hill on the south side of the lake. In the winter, there are ski runs, but in the summer they have a toboggan run where you hurtle down the 500m track at up to 40km/h, with a drop of over 120m. The top is reached by a chairlift, and children over 8 can go unaccompanied. An adult and a child can fit in the same toboggan, although my hips felts bruised after going round corners with my giggling 6 year old on my lap. It is very safe, looks impossible to fall off and they shut the track if it rains. Costs for adults are Euro6 - 1 ride (up with the chairlift, down by toboggan), Euro8 - 2 rides, Euro10 - 3 rides: children aged 5-14: Euro4, Euro5 or Euro6. Chairlift only is Euro3 adults, Euro2 children. At the top, you can get ice cream, drinks and enjoy the view across the lake to the castle and beyond to the hills of the Vintgar gorge. The Karavanka mountains are all around as well.
Second, there is a mini-golf. The Slovenians take this seriously, having a league and proper tournament, so don't call it crazy golf. The course is well maintained (concrete rather than Astroturf), and the children found the holes interesting if a bit challenging at times. Entry is Euro3.50 for adults, Euro2.50 for children, and is open until 11 at night, as it is floodlit. It is also very shady, so can provide a respite on hot days. You can also get hot dogs, burgers, ice creams, hot and cold drinks, and buy postcards.
There is a tourist train which goes round the lake and even up to the castle, but we did not go on it. There are traditional horse drawn traps which you can hire from upwards of Euro30. The drivers (fijaker) wear traditional Carniolan dress, and seem to do a lively business.
==== EATING AND DRINKING =====
Undoubtedly the best view when eating is from the terrace of the Panorama restaurant, which is part of the Hotel Toplice. The restaurant has a salad bar, and full ala carte menu, the fish being particularly good. Main courses cost between Euro10-15. The meal should be rounded off with a coffee and a slice of kremsnita, which is a delicate pastry slice filled with two types of cream. The view is almost as good from the terrace of the Park Hotel, and prices are fairly similar.
Further round the lake is Mlino, and the pension has a restaurant which has very hearty Alpine food - schnitzels, steaks, cakes etc, and the best wild mushroom soup I have had in Slovenia. However, the food is cheaper away from the lakeside round near the bus station. We ate at a couple of good gostilnas last year, but did not visit them this year. That area has a number of bars, and has more of a vibe than by the river side.
For bars, in the evening, I enjoyed the laid back atmosphere in A Propos, which is in the shopping centre at the entrance to the town. The coffee is very nice, they have live music some nights, and have free wireless internet which a whole host of people were using. There are good ice cream shops here as well, prices being roughly Euro1/scoop.
==== ACTIVITIES NEARBY ====
Last year, I had a golfing holiday in Bled. Bled Golf and Country Club is magnificent, with 27-holes. The original course was opened in 1937, then re-designed in the 1970 by Douglas Harradine. The 18 hole King's Course is a demanding par-73, undulating, although the worst of the hills are reserved for the walks from green to tee. The par-3 7th is particularly dramatic, hitting to a well-guarded green from a raised tee, while looking at the 2236m peak of Mount Stol. The 9-hole, par 36 lake course is, if anything, more demanding, the 9th being particular brutal with a blind drive, then a long second over a lake, all on a dog-leg right. There are 2 clubhouses, serving excellent food, with the pasta just right if playing morning and afternoon. Green fees are not unreasonable - Euro59 midweek, Euro69 at weekends.
Radovlijce is a medieval market town, 5 miles south of Bled. Every year there is the Radovlijce music festival with classical, folk and modern jazz music in the church and manor house. The quaint old town centre also houses a beehive museum of note.
Vintgar Gorge is just 4km north of Bled, and is an excellent half-day excursion. There are a number of places which will organise rafting, walking, biking and other outdoor activities.
Lake Bohinj is a 25km further into the mountains in the north-east. The lake is crystal clear, and surrounding by high peaks. It has a real serious outdoor feel, with adverts when we were there for a brutal looking triathlon to held at the end of August - 8km swim in the lake, 36km cycle ride, climbing 800m, then 10km run up to an altitude of over 1800m in total.
==== ACCOMMODATION ====
We always prefer self-catering, but finding self-catering accommodation with 3 bedrooms in Bled proved impossible. In the end, we rented an apartment just outside Radovlijce, owned by someone from Essex, which was fine. There are a number of hotels and guesthouses nearby, and a camp site, but form experience, you are better off exploring on the internet than going through any of the tourist offices in Bled.
==== GETTING THERE ====
Bled is 35km from Brnik airport and 55km from Ljubljana. The good news is that the road from both of these is a motorway, however, there is a 9km stretch either side of Bled which is not completed and so is single track. At the moment, there are major road works which have closed the Radovlijce turn off and caused big queues heading into Bled, so allow an hour from Ljubljana now.
There are buses and trains to Bled, although the train station is at the far end of the lake, so not the most convenient.
==== ANYTHING ELSE? ====
On the Saturday that we were there, we saw a number of wedding parties at the town hall equivalent by the lakeside. From the voices, they were English people who had chosen to get married here, and in one place we saw a leaflet advertising a service that could arrange everything.
Bled prides itself on being a conference centre, and a management school has been set up at the western end of the lake. There have been international summits here, and one of the fountains in the gardens records the 9th Summit of the Presidents of Central European States in 2002. The world rowing championships have also been held in Bled three times.
==== OVERALL =====
Bled is a beautiful, peaceful setting. It has a little of something for everyone, even the younger children. Take time to savour the calm, try the kremsnita and enjoy the relaxation.
This is a slightly modified version of a review I posted on ciao earlier
Bled is a small town in north west Slovenia with a population of around 6000. It lies close to the edge of the Julian Alps and it is the most popular tourist destination in the country, mainly because of it's beautiful, picturesque lake, but in general for the wealth of outdoor pursuits on offer in the area.
No brochures or guidebooks could prepare me for just how beautiful Lake Bled is. It is almost too perfect with its tiny island and Bled Castle guarding over it protectively one hundred metres above on an ominous looking crag. There have been settlements on the island and around the lake for centuries but it was an enterprising Swiss doctor who made Bled what it is today. He managed to save the lake from being drained (the keeper wanted to extract the clay from beneath the lake to make bricks!) and developed Bled into a spa resort for wealthy Europeans, exploiting the thermal springs. It quickly took off and even the Yugoslav royal family summered at Bled.
The lake itself is quite small, measuring 2 kilometres by 1380 metres, so an easy walk around it only takes about an hour. However, with breaks to stop a while to take in it's beauty and more breaks for liquid refreshment, it can fully occupy a whole morning or afternoon. There is plenty of interest as you circle the lake - pretty houses, swans and scores of handsomely coloured ducks and a lovely canopy of trees overhead. In Mlino, a hamlet on the south shore, there are a couple of cafes and bars and a small supermarket if you rather pick up a picnic and eat beside the water. Further round on the western shore there is a bar and restaurant at the Zaka Regatta Centre with indoor and outdoor tables. Even in February we sat outside and enjoyed a beer and a hot fuit tea overlooking the tranquil lake.
Rowing is a popular pastime in Slovenia and nowhere more so than at Bled. A competition is held on the lake each June and the locals are understandably proud of their local boys who won a medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 - not bad for a little-known country tucked away in the heart of Europe! In the town itself we found a little bar tucked away which is basically a shrine to the Olympian heroes. The walls were plastered with newspaper cuttings of the team, there was a rowing scull hanging down from the ceiling and in pride of place on display was a pair of rowing shoes worn by one of the medal-winners. I don't know how we found the place but if rowing's your thing ask a local who might just be able to direct you!
It's not easy to say what the most beautiful feature at Lake Bled is - the lake itself, the delightful little island with it's church or the castle. The best way to see the lake and, of course, the island, is by boat: in summer you can get across to the island by hand-propelled gondola or you can hire a rowing boat from the shore at Mlino but we were first there in winter and so went with a couple of other tourists in a tiny motor-powered covered-in boat from the eastern shore. It chugged slowly across the lake, cutting alarmingly through the ice before it stopped at a little wooden jetty beneath a flight of stone steps which lead up to the 17th century baroque church. The boatman moors up and you jump off and get about 30 minutes to explore. You don't need anymore than this, there's nothing on the island except for the church.
The church is wonderful inside. As you enter there is a small exhibition outlining the history of the island and models show the development of the church itself. The main part of the church is beautiful, the altar is very ornate, with intricate gold details. It's surprising to find that this tiny island hides such a treasure. The highlight of a trip out to Bled Island has to be the "wishing bell". The rope hangs down into the nave and it's customary for visitors hoping to be granted a favour to try their hand at ringing the bell. It's great fun - especially when someone just can't get the bell to ring no matter how enthusiastically they try.
Apparently in summer some people swim over to the island but be warned that if you do so you should take with you some clothes in a waterproof bag because entering the church in swimming clothes is not permitted (as you would expect).
There are alternative ways to tour the lake - you can hire a bicyle in town or you can view it from the comfort of a horse-drawn carriage - these leave from in front of the Festival Hall.
If you visit Bled in summer you will find the lake very popular with swimmers: there are a couple of "beaches" dotted around the lake and on the north side there is a lido with a waterslide. You can also visit the Castle Baths which has separate enclosures within the lake which means safer swimming for children and an inddor pool too. The Castle Baths are open from mid-April until October.
Bled Castle is situated over 100 metres above the lake perched on a rocky outcrop. It is lifted straight from the pages of a childrens' fairytale book: this is what castles are meant to look like - towers, turrets and a moat. From the ground there are two clearly sign-posted routes up to the castle. It's quite a steep hike but definitely worth it. I have to say that these days I'm tiring of castles. After extensive travels in eastern/central Europe I've pretty much exhausted any enthusiasm I might ever have had for them. However I have to say that for the view alone it was worth the climb. From here you can appreciate the visual impact of the whole lake and it certainly is breathtaking! That description extends to the views beyond the lake and the town. On the horizon you can see the dramatic snow-capped peaks of the Julian Alps and only just across the lake you can see skiers descend the piste at the mini-ski centre at Straza.
In part of the castle there is a museum that outlines the history of the lake and the settlements which surround it. There is also the usual collection of miscellaneous items typical of such attractions - arms and armour, old coins and archaeological finds from the area. There is a cafe too which is open in summer. The castle is open from 8.00am - 7.00pm March- October and from 9.00am - 4.00pm the rest of the year. Admission costs 600 Tolar for adults, 400 Tolar for children. (For information on Slovenian currency see "Practicalities" in my review on the Slovenian capital Ljubljana)
The other activities on offer in and around Bled tend to be energetic ones. The Slovenes in general are an athletic race and fond of outdoor pursuits. Sloevenia's highest mountain, Triglav (2864 metres), is nearby and ProMontana, an outdoor pursuits company with an office in Bled on Ljubljanska cesta, can organise two day guided ascents as well as being the place to go for rafting, mountain biking, skiing (downhill and cross country), rock climbing and many other activities.
There is a golf course just outside town at Bled Golf and Country club and there is miniature golf available in the centre of town. In winter it is usually possible to skate on the lake but there is also an indoor rink in town at the Sports Hall (open August to May).
The ski resort of Zatrnik is a few kilometres outside Bled but many skiers prefer to stay in Bled with its better accommodation and apres-ski prospects and bus it to the slopes each day.
Bled has plenty of accommodation to suit all budgets. We didn't book in advance but just turned up at the Kompas travel agency in Bled which has lists of private rooms and apartments. Within minutes a lovely old gentleman arrived in his car to take us to his house (just a five minute walk from the centre of town on a quiet residential road) where he and his wife rent out rooms. We paid around 27 Pounds for a double room. Private accommodation like this is usually offered without breakfast but can sometimes be negotiated if the owner lives on the premises. The room was clean, comfortable and spacious and the bathroom (which we had to ourselves since no other guests were staying that night) was tiny but adequate and clean. A couple of minutes after our arrival, the lady of the house tapped on the door and presented us with a tray of chocolate wafers and a shot each of the local firewater!
For travellers on a budget private rooms are pretty plentiful in Bled. You can even cut out the middleman and knock on the door of houses displaying a sign saying "Sobe" or "Zimmer Frei". There is also a hostel, Pension Bledec, and a large camping ground at the western end of the lake.
Hotels range from mid to high prices and, naturally, are more expensive the nearer you are to the lake. Unless money is not an issue I would say that you just as well off going for private accommodation which tends to be in quiet residential areas because the cheaper hotels seemed to be on noisy main roads. If you really want some luxury you could try Vila Bled near Mlino which was where Tito used to summer along with his foreign guests. The Presidential Suite can be yours for around 200 Pounds a night.
Bled has plenty of variety as far as eating out is concerned but I must single out "Okarina" for special praise. It's sign-posted from the centre of town and is a quaint little house with a lovely wooden terrace, ideal for dining in the summer evenings. For Bled it is close to the top end of the market but we found it reasonable and ate like royalty for just under 30 Pounds, including wine. When we arrived we were presented with a basket of several delicious varieties of bread and a tray of lovely, brightly coloured crudites with dips to munch on while we perused the menu. We decided against starters but had two hearty main courses. "Okarina"is unique in not just Bled but in Sloevnia as a whole as it is the proud owner of a tandoor. Unfortunately, though, we ate there on a Friday and the tandoor is only fired on Saturdays and Sundays so my other half was disappointed not to be able to have the tandoori fish. He did, however, have the vegetable thali which he gave his full approval (not often given so quite an accolade). I had the roe deer venison with buckwheat dumplings, it came with a crisp salad and an accompanying black cherry sauce and half a pear which worked beautifully with the tender venison. The service was exceptional, just one waitress who spoke perfect English served the whole restaurant - very impressive! Other dishes on offer include steaks, fish, salads, a variety of meat and poultry and vegetarian dishes - something for everyone basically.
(This restaurant organises an international arts festival held in Bled each year. For details go to www.okarina.com)
Elsewhere in Bled there is a Chinese restaurant, various pizza places and plenty of restaurants serving a mixture of international dishses and local Slovene cuisine. The full range from cheap and informal to very formal and exclusive can be found in Bled. There is no end of bars and cafes but do me a favour and try the area's speciality - a big cream cake a bit like a custard slice, covered with nuts. Sadly I couldn't try one as I'm allergic to nuts but I'd love to hear someone's verdict! Most of the cafes and coffee shops proudly sell these confections.
There is not a great number of shops in Bled but given that many wealthy Slovenes live in the area and commute to the capital and many wealthy Slovenes spend alot of time here, they do lean towards the pricey and exclusive with lots of designer boutiques and jewellery shops. There are loads of shops selling all the gear you need for outdoor pursuits so you needn't worry if you've forgotten anything like that.
I am sure that even the most jaded tourist would find something to rekindle their enthusiasm in this most beautiful spot.
I travelled by bus from the capital, Ljubljana, a journey which takes around 70 minutes and costs just over three pounds.
Bled is a small town and can be navigated on foot. There is a tourist information office next to the casino close to the eastern shore edge and Kompass travel is across the main road in the modern shopping centre.