Heaven IS a place on earth
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Date: 22/08/05, updated on 22/08/05 (314 review reads)
Advantages: The most beautiful scenery in Slovenia
Disadvantages: Can get busy (and expensive) in the height of summer
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.
Summary: Slovenia's best for scenery and sports