When I was still in my single-digit years and began uncovering the beauty of the world via the pages of my parents’ set of black and white encyclopedias, there were five places I learned about that I knew I would have to see in my lifetime: Venice, Sweden, Neuschwanstein Castle, Château Frontenac, and Lake Bled. I’ve been lucky enough to achieve that goal, and, for the first four, under perfect conditions. Lake Bled, however, proved to be trickier.
Ljubljana, Slovenia, is the second-wettest capital in Europe, a statistic I came to resent as I sloshed through the city during three days of overcast skies and varying intensity of precipitation. With only one day left before I moved on, I could delay my visit to Lake Bled — about an hour away — no longer. I knew the cobalt-blue color of the lake would be neutralized, and the greenery around it would be muted, but I had been dreaming of seeing this place for more than 30 years. It was now or never.
A five-minute stroll from the bus station in the town of Bled brought me to the shore of the lake, which, as expected, was an ashen gray. The color would be lost for the day, yet, somehow, as I began my four-mile loop around the lake, the entire setting exuded a particular magic that was both unexpected and hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it was the lack of people who may have been kept away by the lack of sun. Perhaps it was the cloudiness itself that weighed heavily on the lake, making it seem more mystical and intimate. Perhaps it was little Bled Island in the middle of the lake, topped by the romantic Church of the Assumption and conjuring up images of knights and princesses.
Whatever the reason, by the time I completed my walk along the trail that bypassed majestic hotels and pleasant homes, weaving in and out of woods and always offering ever-changing perspectives of the island and of Bled Castle atop a precipice on the edge of the lake, I had been completely seduced.
Invigorated by my stroll through a locale oozing with romanticism, I took a short walk on a short pier to board a pletna, a wooden flat-bottom boat unique to Slovenia, covered with a colorful awning and steered by a pletnarstvo, who remains standing while he propels the boat with two oars. Once he had the requisite number of people, we pushed off, bound for the island. As 10 of us were ferried across the glassine water that reaches a depth of 100 feet, pausing once during the 30-minute journey for our captain to receive a call on his cell phone, my fellow passengers — two elderly but sprightly Welsh women, a couple from New Zealand, and five Brits — began to discuss the silliness of Americans who try to see a dozen European cities in as many days, all while hauling tons of luggage.
At this point, I identified myself as a citizen of the United States and tried to offer a satisfactory explanation, even though I agreed with them.
“Well, most Americans receive much less time off from work than most Europeans,” I said. “And getting here is both expensive for us and time-consuming, so they tend to try to see as much as possible on one trip.”
They accepted these as reasonable. “But,” ventured one of the Brits, a lady with a particular disdain for London, “why all the bloody luggage? Don’t they realize they can buy tissues and aspirins here, and that it is fine to re-wear a shirt?”
I never understood that, either, and I couldn’t suggest a reason. But before I could invent one, we arrived at Bled Island — the only island in all of Slovenia — and disembarked. We climbed the 99 steps of the Baroque staircase to the Church of the Assumption. Although the church dates from the 17th century, its 177-foot-tall bell tower is from the 1400s, and archaeologists have discovered traces of settlements on the island from as far back as the ninth century. Besides my group, the only other person here was the father of a soon-to-be-bride, on a reconnaissance mission to check out the place for his daughter’s upcoming nuptials. What a fantastic site for a wedding, I thought, as I rang the “wishing bell” — a bell that has been here since 1534 and that, according to legend, will guarantee its ringer a wish come true.
Enveloped by the surrounding peacefulness and gently lulled into a tranquil state by the soft sounds of the water lapping against the shore, I was convinced I had found one of the most picturesque spots in all of Europe. After the pletnarstvo returned us to our starting point, I meandered through a lakeside park before I began my hike up a steep, bosky, switchback trail. The path sported continual glimpses of the lake growing smaller and smaller as I made my way up the 599 feet to the top of the precipice and my final destination for the day — Bled Castle, the oldest castle in the country. With its earliest part dating from 1004 and expanded over the centuries, the castle is largely a medieval defensive structure lacking any sort of luxurious chamber or expansive hall. Instead, it features a couple of cobblestone courtyards, thick-walled towers capped by orange roof tiles, a Gothic chapel, and an extensive collection of chainmail and suits of armor.
After roaming through the castle, I emerged onto a terrace, ordered a glass of dry Slovenian white wine from the castle’s restaurant, and took a seat against the low-rise wall. As I soaked in the panoramic view of the lake and its enchanting island, of the town, of the green valleys around it, and of the majestic Julian Alps hemming them all in, I realized that I hadn’t needed a sunny sky to appreciate Lake Bled. In fact, a day like this — never portrayed in the publicity and travel literature — made a place that I had seen pictured in a certain way so often feel new and undiscovered, and I think I fell in love with Lake Bled even more completely than I would have if it had looked just as I anticipated.