Above: Bled Castle overlooks the small town of Bled, framed by the Julian Alps.
A blue-green glacial lake, austere castle towering above, one sole islet with a picturesque church perched on top – this is Bled. But bring your walking shoes if you want the best views. From the 6.5 kilometer perimeter lake stroll to 250 stairs to an observation point to the 125 meter hike up to the castle — and don’t forget the 99 steps on Bled Island — this town is made for walking, and a lot of it is near-vertical. Yet we’ve been to very few places where the setting has such fairy-tale beauty.
Bled is a small town that can trace its origins to the Stone Age. On the fringe of Roman rule, the town wasn’t mentioned in written history until 1004, the castle in 1011, although excavations indicate that a castle or fortification had existed on this rocky promontory for some centuries previously. It is directly accessible by train, bus or car (we took the bus from Ljubljana). Located in the Julian Alps of northwest Slovenia, Bled has been a favorite vacation spot for Slovenians and (former) Yugoslavs, and other Europeans in the know for a couple of centuries. Today, Bled is gaining rapidly in international tourism. Just in the two days we were there we saw two large Japanese and Korean tour groups as well as assorted European couples and families; we shared a gondola out to Bled Island with a blend of couples from Austria, Belgium and Singapore.
Our first day in Bled we walked around the lake, an easy stroll with so any scenic vistas I was glad we were in the age of digital photography. In any other era I would have run through a month’s supply of film canisters in the first hour.
The second day we hiked up to the castle, then relaxed over lunch on the parapets before descending. The castle contains a small historical museum and interesting, a small exhibit on the history of printing in Slovenia, souvenir shops, herbal museum, and restaurant.
Later that afternoon we opted to take a “gondola” out to the island rather than rent a row boat, which is how we found ourselves in a multi-national vessel. The “gondolas” are not at all like their Venetian counterparts. They are much larger, holding as many as 20-24 passengers, yet usually have only one “gondolier” who wields two large oars to propel his boat through the waters. Needless to say, the gondoliers are very muscular.
Once on the island, the boatman allows 30 minutes to explore the miniscule island, which is ample enough time; it’s a tiny island. I opted to pay the €3 to enter the church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and discovered the name was almost bigger than the facility. But what it lacked in interesting artifacts and size was made up for by gilt. A lot of gilt. Not quite my thing.
But all was not in vain.
I spotted a rope dangling in the apse, and noted it seemed to go up into the tall bell spire. A nebulous sign in hieroglyphics seemed to indicate that it was okay to ring the bell as long as you didn’t hang on the rope and pulled only three times. So I did. Nothing happened. I pulled three more times – hard. Still nothing. I waited a few beats, then pulled three more times, and the bells started ringing and clanging like a five-alarm fire. They were enormously, unbelievably loud and they would not stop. Sure the church’s bell police were going to rush in and truss me up and cause an international incident, I scurried out of the church, bells still clamoring away. I’d lost count of the number of ear-splitting peals at this point. The ticket taker didn’t even look up from her book. But it was worth it. I’d never rung church bells before.
It should be no surprise that quite a lot of Slovenian couples choose to be married in such a lovely location. What is surprising is how many actually survive their wedding day. Local legend has it that once married, the groom carries his bride up the 99 steps to the church. If they make it to the top, they will have a long and happy marriage. Needless to say, I took one look at the steps and wondered how many grooms made it to the top…and what percentage collapsed in a heap.
On our return boat ride, we momentarily faced a potential international incident. One of our gondola group, a boisterously gregarious Belgian, spotted a heavily laden gondola full of Asians heading to the island. Full of jingoistic mischief, the Belgian hollered out in English to them, “Welcome to China!” There was a moment of stunned silence in both boats, then in unison the other group hollered back good-naturedly, “Korea!!” We all got a solid laugh out of that. I was just relieved the Koreans had a really good sense of humor!
In all, Bled was a fabulous respite from our travels.
In closing, I’ll just share just one more picture of Bled: the castle at night, from town:
I’ll end this posting with just a few comments about our hotel, the Vila Preseren. This former vacation villa is small, consisting of six small rooms and two suites. The bedrooms and en suite bathrooms were small but comfortable, and we got good rates on line. The place is mostly known for its restaurant, which purportedly serves the best cuisine in Bled. Since we ate only at Vila Preseren, we have no basis for comparison, but the food and service were excellent, and the menu varied. Supposedly the Vila Bled, the former summer residence of Yugoslav President Josef Tito and the other “luxury” hotel in town, also has excellent cuisine, and far more rooms, but we did not try it for dinner as we were happy with the Vila Preseren. The town of Bled is small, but it does have a range of accommodations, both in the town and outside, if you want to take a local bus. I was told the Best Western was a comfortable hotel, but did not check it out.