For a few seconds close your eyes and imagine a magical setting complete with castle, moat, royalty, knights and palace intrigue. The words "fairy tale setting" are frequently used to describe Bled, Slovenia. Marvelous does not begin to describe the natural beauty. (Be sure to enjoy the photos in the attached photo gallery to compare reality with what you imagined.)
With its pristine, emerald green lake, a picture perfect postcard church on an island, a medieval castle perched high atop a rocky cliff and some of the highest peaks of the Julian Alps and the Karavanke as backdrops, Bled is Slovenia's most popular resort. Who comes to Bled? Everyone! Like honeymooners lured by the over-the-top romantic settings and low talking Eastern European business magnates meeting at corner tables in the hotel lounge as well as heads of state and European royalty gathering at the Grand Hotel Toplice to draft international agreements. However, the majority of tourists are nature lovers, thrill seekers and athletes who flock to hostels and campgrounds looking for their next adrenaline fueled mountaineering, hiking, biking, watersport and canyoning adventure. Bled is known for gorgeous Lake Bled. Glance upwards and you see the iconic Bled Castle overlooking the lake, perched high above on an intimidating rock cliff. Bled village sits on the eastern shore. In the middle of the lake is a wooded island with an idyllic 17th century church. A path completely surrounds the shoreline so you can stroll, hike, bike or run.
Due to its mild climate, Bled has a long history of aristocratic guests from all across the world. Today, it is an important convention centre and tourist resort, offering a wide range of sports activities (golf, fishing and horseback-riding). It is a starting point for mountain treks and hikes, especially within nearby Triglav National Park.
Not surprisingly, Bled can be overpriced and swarming with tourists during the high season. But as is the case with many popular destinations worldwide, people come in droves – and will continue to do so – because the setting is unique. There are many camping and hostel options in Slovenia.
Don't be surprised if you see brides and grooms prepping and posing on ancient steps, in front of the lake or on a mountain top surrounded by photographers and assistants. The wedding photography business is thriving in Bled as well as many other beautiful European locales.
The small island in the middle of the lake is home to Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church and visitors frequently ring the bell for good luck. Human traces from prehistory have been found on the island. Prior to the church, there was a temple consecrated to Živa, the Slavic goddess of love and fertility. Around the 11th century the region was converted to Christianity and the Slavic temple was demolished. Worship shifted from Živa to another woman, the Virgin Mary. An earthquake destroyed the church in 1509. Today's church was built in the 17th century with an impressive 99 steps leading to the entrance. A local wedding tradition is for the groom to carry the bride who remains silent during this portion of the ceremony.
What to do
The view from Bled Castle or Castellum Veldes is breathtaking. An informative museum inside the 11th century complex unravels the complex history of the castle and the region. Even Emperor Napoleon claimed title for a few years. This fortress on the cliffs is the most visited tourist destination in Slovenia so expect crowds. Tip - You can avoid many but not all of them with a little planning as large groups are often are part of organized tours. Tours tend to visit places which are easily accessed by tour bus. Visit major attractions and monuments as soon as they open or shortly before closing, and you will likely avoid many large tour groups.
Renting a bike for an hour or so and riding around the lake is easy, pleasant, tranquil and satisfying. The lake path is relatively flat and nicely shaded by many trees so a meander Is most enjoyable.
Visiting the Island
An island visit is possible only by row boat as motor boats are not allowed. The choices are a traditional Pletna boat or a small row boat. Pletnas are wooden flat bottomed boats powered by a standing oarsman that carry about 10 people. You can also rent your own boat and row to the island for a more private experience. After you arrive on the island, climb to the top of the bell tower and experience a great view with few others. The steps are modern and safe to climb. At the very top there is an old mechanical clock mechanism for you to study. The clock is powered by the heavy weights and the swinging pendulum in the stairway. The clockwork is mesmerizing with each cog, cable and lever clearly visible and working in harmony with precision.
Triglav Bike Trip
Slovenia’s only National Park, Triglav, is close by and is situated in the shadow of the Alps. Upon entering the park, the road winds for miles through forests and fields adjacent the Radnova river. The entire ride is a pleasant 30 miles with virtually no traffic. Take a break at Zg. Radnova and enjoy a cold drink and the beautiful scenery.
The natural beauty of Bled has attracted tourists for centuries. Many pilgrims from Carniola, Carinthia, Styria, the Slovenian Littoral, Friuli and Austria sojourned to the church on the island. In 1689 Janez Vajkard Valvasor, a local aristocrat and polymath from Carniola, wrote "The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola!" and described the thermal springs at Bled.
Naturopath Arnold Rikli (1823–1906) from Switzerland contributed significantly to the development of Bled as a health resort in the second half of the 19th century. In 1855 Rikli founded an institute of natural healing. Rikli’s health treatments included vegetarian diet, natural waters, natural hot mineral baths, natural cold mineral baths, steam baths, physical activity, sunbathing and nudity. In 1895 Rikli built the first destination resort next to the lake. You can glimpse the glamour of Rikli’s resort in the ruins on the shoreline. There are plans to restore the buildings but for now, it remains a skeleton of past glory.
Vintgar Gorge is a few km outside of Bled and close enough to visit by bike if you don't mind a couple hills. It is also an easy drive or inexpensive cab ride. The gorge features clear, beautiful and, at times, raging water. Along the cliffs wooden walkways frame both sides of the gorge allowing you to experience cascading water and pools. Hike through the gorge and back along a trail on the hillside or simply walk out and back through the gorge. Time your visit (early or late in the day) to avoid crowds and optimize your experience. Also, if you walk down the gorge for 15 minutes the crowds dissipate and photo opportunities abound.
Trip to Ljubljana (and lessons learned)
The largest city and the capital is Ljubljana. It is also difficult for English speakers to pronounce correctly. The beautiful old town is located on the water.
The first lesson learned was being pulled over by the highway police. We were comfortable driving in Croatia and paid cash to use the toll roads. Slovenia requires vehicles registered in a different country to place a "vignette" sticker on the windshield for toll roads. The vignette usually costs around $15 and is easily pre-purchased when you rent a car. The fine for not having a vignette is either $150 (if you have cash or credit card when you are pulled over) or $300 if you do not. The police officer blushed a bit when we explained our plan to write about this experience. Then, we asked him what to see. The second lesson learned was to remain open and ask for suggestions in the midst of an uncomfortable situation such as this.The officer was simply doing his job. He suggested a visit to nearby Predjama Castle. The fortress is well worth a visit and if we hadn't been stopped we would not have seen the castle.
The next adventure began when we entered Ljubljana. The infrastructure has not kept pace with the economy of Ljubljana so there are too many cars on the roads and not enough parking. Traffic is intense and we ended up in a minor accident (trading paint really) with another driver. Both drivers pulled over to examine the damage. The other driver, Ms. S, explained the car was brand new and this was the first scratch. Ouch! After much discussion and several phone calls, we agreed on the cost to cover the repairs and that since the damage was minimal it was not necessary to inform the police. We then got into our cars and set off to find a bank. We were immediately separated and lost. After a frantic 10 minutes, we managed to reconnect and both parties made it to the bank. Since our intention for the day, was an impromptu trip, we did not bring much cash or the working ATM card. Our plan was to get a cash advance on our credit card at the bank. Third lesson learned was we needed a PIN for the credit card. In Europe everyone with a credit card has a PIN. We had no pin number, therefore no cash from the bank. We promised to return to Ljubljana the next day with cash.
We met Ms. S. the following day and experienced our fourth lesson learned. She came bearing gifts of Slovenian candy, Slovenian fruit bars, Slovenian gum and delicious local fruit juice. We, the guilty party, were not a little overwhelmed by such kindness. Ms. S. shared that we were the first Americans she has ever met and if other Americans are as nice she wants to visit the US. We were deeply touched by her kindness and we hope she takes us up on our offer to stay with us for a few days.
While we spent hours in Ljubljana we never made it to the old town so we don’t have any photos. we spent all our time in banks and parking lots. We hope to go back some day to see what we missed. But, we did get to meet and know a wonderful young woman and that was better than seeing some old buildings.
Predjama Castle (police recommendation!)
Predjama castle is listed by Guinness as the world's largest “cave castle." When you first see the fortification it might take your breath away. Sitting high upon a 120 meter cliff and literally built over the opening of a massive cave, the castle dominates the landscape. Imagine yourself a medieval knight as the fortress towers over the landscape. Predjama is over 800 years old and with improvements over the centuries. The audio tour takes about 1 hour and allows you visit and inspect each room at your own pace.
Images of Predjama
The castle is really a testament to the ingenuity of the medieval people that built it and lived there. The interior houses a grand living area, an indoor heating system and a fortified drawbridge to prevent unwanted entry. There is indoor plumbing built with a cave water capturing system. This was vital as an opposing army laying siege to the fortress might poison or divert the water supply. There is also a church inside the castle so the inhabitants could worship without leaving. The vast cave network the castle is built upon extends to over 14 km and served as a secret entrance so food and supplies could be brought in without lifting the drawbridge.
Round out the day with a visit to nearby Postojna Cave.
Lodging and Food
The Grand Toplice Hotel is on the lake shore and hosts a hot mineral spring within the hotel so you have access to pools filled with natural spring water. The Toplice is a grand hotel hosting many heads of state during its 150 year history. The staff is highly trained and accommodating to your every need. The concierge will patiently answer all your questions, draw maps and safely get you on the road to your destination. Breakfast is served in a majestic room with a lake view. The outdoor terrace serves lunch and dinner and is a delightful setting to watch the world go by.
Enjoy traditional Slovenian gastronomy at Vila Ajda which is in walking distance from the hotel. Along with a lake view, the Vila Ajda offers lodging.
The Vila Bled was Tito's mountain retreat. Turns out that powerful dictators choose exquisite locations for their summer homes. Currently, Vila Bled describe's itself..."as a charming hotel with a varied palette of rooms and suites, elegantly furnished in a style reminiscent of the 1950s". Bled is also known for a unique vanilla and cream pastry (Slovene: kremšnita, kremna rezina). Enjoy a coffee and a slice of Kremna Rezina at the Vila with the same lake view that Tito shared with Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s.
History of Slovenia (Rick's Take):
This region was home to people for thousands of years. Traces of prehistoric settlements dating to 8th and 11th century BC have been found on Bled Island. The Romans were here as well and established a trading outpost in what is now Ljubljana. In the 5th century the Huns invaded. Around the 6th century the Slavs settled in the region that is modern Slovenia.
Ruling power transferred from the Frankish, to the Germanic and the Austrian Hapsburgs as part of the Holy Roman Empire. For most of the last 500 years, the region was under Austrian control however the area became part of Napoleon's empire between 1809-1813. The culturally important remnant of this complex history is the population is over 90% Slovene and the dominant religion is Catholic.
Slovenia as it stands today is bordered by 4 countries. Croatia, Austria, Italy, and Hungary. Slovenia was the first of the republics to declare independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. There is a nice timeline of history on the BBC site that spans the last 100 years (from WW1).
The short story: In 1918 Slovenia joins the kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes following WW1. In 1929 this kingdom is called Yugoslavia. In WW2, Slovenia is occupied by the Germans and the Italians and after the war Slovenia becomes a republic in socialist Yugoslavia. With Tito's death in 1980 Yugoslavia begins to change. Eastern Europe sees political changes in the 1980's with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1989 the forces of independence are growing inside Slovenia and they declare independence in 1991. The fighting is brief between Slovenia and the Yugoslav army. The proximity to Italy and Austria brings in the EU to quell the violence. After a couple weeks a ceasefire is negotiated. Overall there were about 100 Slovenian deaths which pales compared with the losses in Croatia or Bosnia.
Today Slovenia is home to about 2 million people. They have a strong economy with less than 10% Unemployment. According the the official Slovenia government website, "Since independence in 1991, Slovenia’s economic development has been very successful, making it one of the most thriving countries in transition."
Ms. S. from Ljubljana shared that Slovenia is safe for locals and tourists. She is comfortable walking alone in Ljubljana even at night aalone. Her statement is confirmed with data on Numbeo.com and the US State Department rates Slovenia as a "LOW" crime area.
The overall combination of natural beauty, rich history, low crime and a thriving economy make Slovenia a wonderful place to spend time and explore.