The stairs from Tito’s neo-classical villa, now a five star spa hotel, led down to the lake. Down by the banks, sturdy boats resembling gondolas, topped with blue canopies lined the jetty. These unique boats called “pletna” can trace their origins as far back as the 1590s, whose oarsmen come from a pedigree of native Bled families with rowing in their blood. Unlike the dainty Venetian gondola, the pletna can take up to 20 people at a time. Topped with a colourful awning, these boats glide across the transparent blue waters from all directions of the Lake.
Lake Bled’s landscape sums up the face of Slovenian tourism in a snap. Guide book covers, postcards and any travel related material relating to Slovenia will usually picture the lake with it’s church-topped island, tranquil turquoise waters and mountainous backdrop. It’s a landmark that’s seen so often through the lens of camera with a touch of photoshop that I though a place like that simply didn’t exist. The I would get off the bus in Bled and be let down with a dull looking lake and an overcrowded island. In that quiet August morning on Lake Bled, I realised all the photos I had seen of the famous Slovenian lake couldn’t do it justice in real life.
As I stepped into the wobbly pletna, I looked down into the water — so clear I could see the rocks in the shallows through a glass-like clarity a metre or two below the jetty. But as the pletna waded through the water towards the island, the lake floor disappeared under a hue of green-blue pure water. I reached out to touch the gentle watery laps caressing the boat, I was surprised to find it warmer than its glacial colour had me believe.
The lake plunges 29.5 metres at its deepest point formed when a tectonic basin became carved out and filled by the Bohinj glacier, which melted and filled up the natural basin. Today, the lake’s water supply is topped up with lukewarm water originating natural, thermal springs from the surroundings, giving the lake a pleasant temperature of 23ºC in the summer months.
Set high up in the Julian Alps only a few kilometres from the Austrian border, the purity of the water and the mountain air along with its natural beauty transformed the small Slovenian town into one of the principle health and spa resorts in Central Europe during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Bled: The Lakeside Resort
While archaeological relics can trace back to Bled’s settlements as far back as the 8th century, it was actually a Swiss doctor and hydropath, Arnold Rikli, who saw Bled for its curative properties in the 19th century. Since then, Bled developed into a spa resort for the European gentry. Rikli’s treatments combined the natural cool water of the lake with warm and steam baths. As Bled grew in popularity, this spot of natural beauty almost fell victim to the overconsumption of tourism.
“Many rich people built their villas here,” my guide said as the boat glided across the water, “everyone wanted a villa by the lake, but now they came up with a law that prohibits new construction on the immediate banks of the lake.”
The resort town of Bled retains much of its original charm, with a long prominade and cafés set up in the original lake side villa, but much of the lake is protected. Swimming is only allowed in allocated bathing areas, and the only boats allowed on the lake are the pletnas. The care of the lake shows in its pristine waters.
The Mystical Bled Island
The boat slowly moved closer to the island. Unlike neighbouring Croatia with its hundreds of islands, Bled Island is Slovenia’s only island. Topped with the Church of the Assumption and its haunting bell which echoed out across the water.
“The island was once a place of pagan worship,” our guide continued, “there was a temple here dedicated to the pagan goddess of love, but after the local population converted to Christianity, they built a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary here. This was built up over time, and the outside part of the church you see today dates back to the 17th century.”
Leading up from the jetty, 99 steps carry up to the church.
“If you get married on the island, the groom has to carry the bride up the 99 steps,” our guide continued. “I guess it’s the price you pay to get married in a beautiful place like this.”
Every 30 seconds, the bell rang out from the tall tower. Legend has it that a young woman who lived in Bled Castle, high up the towering rock opposite mourned her husband after he was killed by robbers and thrown into the lake. She became inconsolable and gathered all her gold and silver to cast a bell for the island chapel in memoriam for her husband. But on the way the bell sunk to the bottom of the lake during a terrible storm. Inconsolable, the widow sold all her property, offering to construct a new church on the island before leaving Bled to become a nun in Rome. The Pope, upon hearing her selfless act cast a new bell for the tower. This special bell is said to make anyone’s wish come true should they ring the bell three times. Today, tourists flock and queue up here to ring the famous bell inside the church.
The Castle on the Rock
Towering above the lake, Bled Castle looks over the expanse of the lake and the Julian Alps beyond. The turreted castle itself is also romantic in its setting, but the geology of the rock it’s perched on is spectacular in itself.
When the Bohinj glacier moved during the ice age, it shaped the basin of the lake today. However, a high limestone mass on the edge proved to be a natural barrier. The high rock made the perfect place for the castle to stand, and at 139m high, it has some of the best views in Bled.
The castle’s origins go back to the 11th century when only a Romanesque tower stood high up on the rock. The castle was slowly built, but used for defence rather than for comfortable living, so its halls inside are rather spartan. Layers of the castle’s history can be seen in various architectural styles, such as the Gothic arch in its outer walls or the beautiful Gothic chapel in the upper courtyard.
Inside the first layer was once the servants’ quarter, where the café today serves the local Bled cream cake and showcases a historic replica of the printing press that was used to print the first Slovenian language manuscripts. Heading up into the fortified part of the castle with views over the lakes was built for the feudal lords.
Bled Castle offers a tapestry of styles, mixing Baroque on top of the Gothic. While the unique nuances of the castle fascinated me, I still found myself standing on the terrace, watching the lake for minutes on end, staring down at the island watching the tiny boats dot the blue water.