Visitors enjoy a scenic ride to a Lake Bled island on a traditional pletna boat. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Visitors enjoy a scenic ride to a Lake Bled island on a traditional pletna boat. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Lake Bled: Exploring Slovenia’s romantic alpine retreat

Emperors and communist dictators alike have enjoyed vacations on the pretty lake.

Tiny, overlooked Slovenia is one of Europe’s most unexpectedly charming destinations, with spectacular natural beauty, a fascinating recent history and a spirit of adventure — yet much of it is still off the typical tourist path. Here, in the land where the Adriatic meets the Alps, lies a romantic getaway that once entertained emperors and presidents — Lake Bled.

Nestled up against the northeast side of the rugged Julian Alps near the Austrian border, Lake Bled comes complete with a sweeping alpine panorama, a fairy-tale island, a cliff-hanging medieval castle, a lazy lakeside promenade and Slovenia’s most sought-after desserts. Since the Habsburg days, this is where Slovenes take their guests — whether kings or cousins — to show off their natural wonders.

Everyone here seems to be strolling around the lake on a 4-mile path. While walking the lakeside promenade is slo-mo bliss, biking lets you fast-forward between the views of your choice. At a leisurely pace, the path takes about an hour and a half on foot … not counting stops to snap photos of the ever-changing view. On the way, you’ll pass some imposing villas, mostly built by local aristocrats in the beginning of the 19th century. The most significant one was a former residence of Yugoslav president-for-life Marshal Tito — today the Hotel Vila Bled, a fine place to stop for a coffee and pretend Tito invited you over for a visit.

No visit to Lake Bled is complete without a trip to its steeple-capped island, which nudges the lake’s quaintness level over the top. The most romantic route to the island is to cruise on one of the distinctive flat-bottomed pletna boats. Like the iconic gondolas of Venice, these boats carry on a tradition dating back generations. Locals still build their pletnas by hand with larch wood from a design passed down from father to son for centuries. There’s no keel, so the skilled oarsmen work hard to steer the flat-bottomed boat with each stroke. Keep in mind, however, that the oarsmen stick close to their 30-minute waiting time on the island. For more flexibility (and to save money), you can rent your own rowboat and row to the island instead.

The island’s main attraction is its Church of the Assumption. The island has been a special gathering point through the ages. An eighth-century Slavic pagan temple once stood here; the current Baroque version is the fifth house of worship to occupy this spot. Ninety-nine steps lead from the dock up to the summit — and the Church of the Assumption. Inside is the rope for the church bell, hanging in the middle of the aisle just before the altar. A local superstition claims that if you can get this bell to ring three times with one big pull of the rope, your dreams will come true.

For the more adventurous, hiking paths lead up into the hills surrounding the lake. The mountains poking above the ridge at the far end of the lake are crowned by the three peaks of Mount Triglav. The big mountain behind the town of Bled is Stol (“Chair”), part of the Karavanke range that defines the Austrian border. Bled is a great jumping-off point for a car trip through the Julian Alps, and a wide variety of other worthwhile side-trips are right at its doorstep.

For more fine vistas, hike up to Bled Castle. Dating in one form or another from about 1,000 years ago, it was the seat of the Austrian bishops of Brixen, who controlled Bled in the Middle Ages. Today it’s merely a fine tourist attraction with a little history and lots of big views. The various sights at the castle — a decent history museum, a frescoed chapel, an old-fashioned printing press and a wine cellar — are cute, but the real reason to come up here is to bask in the sweeping panoramas over Lake Bled and the surrounding mountainscapes.

Then be sure to dive into some of Bled’s famous cakes. The town’s specialty is a cream cake called kremna rezina. It’s a layer of cream and a thick layer of vanilla custard artfully sandwiched between sheets of delicate, crispy crust. Slovenes travel from all over the country to sample this famous dessert. Slightly less renowned, but just as tasty, is grmada (literally “bonfire”). This dessert was developed by lakeside Hotel Jelovice as a way to get rid of their day-old leftovers. They take yesterday’s cake, add rum, milk, custard and raisins, and top it off with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.

Dessert in hand, sit on a dock, dip your feet in the water and watch the lake’s resident swans. It’s the perfect end to a perfectly relaxing day in one of Slovenia’s most scenic alpine retreats.

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