Why you should care
Because there’s magic in Slovenia’s mountain peaks.
When the morning mist burns off, the Gothic Church of the Assumption, perched atop tiny Bled Island, emerges from Lake Bled like some kind of mythical freshwater creature surfacing to breathe. It’s an inspiring sight, which Iztok Čop, a Slovenian gold medalist rower who’s competed in five Olympics, has seen on “his home lake” many times, he says.
On my first visit to Bled, a small town tucked away in Slovenia’s verdant Julian Alps (named after Julius Caesar), we arrived late at night and were unable to find a hotel, so wound up sleeping in my Volkswagen (not recommended) near the lakeside. Awaking before dawn, we caught sight of the picturesque island materializing out of the fog. Chills, meet spine and run along. The island and lake are the centerpieces of this town, which was once a favorite destination of Yugoslav dictator Tito and is now an occasional locale for Bollywood shoots. The neo-Gothic Church of St. Martin, and the impressive mansions dotted along the shore, add to Bled’s majestic charm.
When it comes time to fill your belly, dig into Bled’s scrumptious kremsnita cream cake.
Čop, who saw much of the world during his Olympic career, doesn’t take his home for granted. “I realize what we have here,” he says, happy that more and more Slovenians appreciate the “need to take care” of the region’s nature and clean drinking water. That nature includes Straža Hill (with a small ski slope come wintertime), with wonderful walks and views of Bled Castle — an ancient cliffside fortress suspended high above the town. Maja Lakota, from the Bled Tourist Board, recommends hikes through other high hills as well, including Dobra Gora (Good Mountain) to the south, Ojstrica and Mala Osojnica to the west and Castle Hill, with its towering limestone cliff.
When it comes time to fill your belly, dig into Bled’s scrumptious kremsnita cream cake, which the Park Hotel whipped up (the original recipe, that is) in 1953. I wolfed down several while there, but worked those extra calories off — or so I imagined — on long hikes.
“Local small farms produce their own meat and milk products,” Čop says. People on the street and hotel staff can point you to spots where you can sample traditional farmhouse fare. If you want to dine outside Bled, Radovljica, a medieval town only a few kilometers away, boasts a small but worthwhile restaurant scene (Čop suggests Lectar, Kunstelj or Augustin for a good meal), with lots of affordable Slovenian wines to boot.
Come summer, Bled Days and Taste Bled (unfortunately not “taste blood” for all those wannabe vampires out there) hosts live music and edible delights along the lakeside promenade. And if you prefer colder temperatures, swing by in December and January for Winter Fairytale in Bled — also along the promenade — dishing up winter-themed cultural events.
The Vintgar Gorge walk, near Bled, is another must, with its elevated wooden walkway (1.5 km long) running above the whooshing rapids and tumbling falls of the Radovna River, surrounded by greenery, rock and water. Nearby Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest summit at 2,864 meters, knocks out a challenging climb for would-be mountain-goat types. In general, the Julian Alps proffer a cornucopia of peaks, valleys and hikes through gorgeous alpine pastures — never more than an hour or so drive away — to ramble through for days on end.
While Slovenia might be a sliver of a nation in geographical size, Bled punches far above its weight in terms of raw charm — with a bounty of rugged, easily accessible countryside to explore close by.
Go There: Bled
- Getting around: Slovenia is a small country with good roads, which makes car rental an ideal option. Bled is less than an hour’s drive from the capital of Ljubljana, although bus and train options (to Bled Jezero station) are available as well.
- When to go: If you want to avoid the tourist throngs, steer clear of summer. If you do go during summer, book your accommodations well in advance.
- Don’t miss: If you fancy scenic train journeys, hop aboard the heritage Bohinj Railway, which runs from May until November and stops in Bled on its way to Trieste, Italy.