Travel is completely subjective. So many people love Salzburg; I hate the place. I raved to my parents about Munich, but they couldn’t see its charm. I don’t particularly care for Belgrade and said so on this blog; never have I received so many messages and emails telling me how wrong I was.
The small town of Bled, Slovenia is different. It’s probably the only place I’ve ever heard about that everybody simply adored. As such, my excitement for seeing Bled and its famous lake for that firs time was sky-high, and I was completely convinced that I would love the place.
I didn’t do much research before I headed to Bled that first time. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t, because on paper Bled really isn’t my type of place. I adore big, bustling cities with street food, public entertainment and warm air. Sure, I don’t mind a bit of nature, but I’d rather experience it all on a day trip and tuck myself into bed later on in a nearby city with neon lights and people on the street. Scoff if you want, but that’s what I’ve learnt about myself over the years.
Bled does not fit my perfect mold. It ain’t a Bangkok, Barcelona or Berlin. Instead of street food it boasts a sophisticated creme cake, its public entertainment comes in the form of natural scenery and its air is crisp and chilly at night.
But I got it straight away. Within the first ten or so minutes, in fact. Bled is special, in that it is probably the most timelessly beautiful place I’ve ever seen. When it comes to most places that are known for their natural beauty, buildings and anything man-made are generally seen as detrimental. As things that should be bulldozed.
In Bled, that’s not the case at all. The simple church on the island in the middle of Lake Bled, plus the castle overlooking the scene below, look as if they have always been there. They compliment the brilliantly blue water, the forest-y green surrounds and the snow-capped Alps in the distance, rather than taking something away from the picture. I would just look at the scene and stare.
Bled is roughly a three-hour drive away from Venice, Munich and Vienna, placing it in an extremely convenient spot for people undertaking trips through central and southern Europe. Slovenia’s in the Schengen Zone, so there aren’t any passport controls to get into the country by land (except with Croatia, which isn’t in the Schengen Zone yet). It’s even on the euro; it was the first of the former communist countries (Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia until 1991) to make the change.
I therefore expected Bled to be overrun with tourists, especially as I’d just come from Croatia. I expected high-rise hotels jostling for views of the lake, touts offering expensive boat rides and tacky souvenir stores lining the main street.
Bled has none of these things. It has a few medium-rise hotels which all look tastefully refined, boat prices are fixed (I actually had to wake up one of the nearby owners once to get him to take our money) and the main street is filled with little boutiques, cafes selling borek and adventure tour agencies. (There is a little casino, but thankfully it’s tucked away at the end of the street.) There are no obnoxious touristy bars; locals and visitors alike all drink at the cosy George Best Bar.
You have to give massive, massive credit to the Slovenians for this. Surely it would have been easier to sell the land around the lake to the likes of the Sheraton, the Hyatt, Louis Vuitton, Prada and a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. And nobody would have really blamed them for it, particularly as they’ve been setting up a post-communist economy. But they haven’t done that at all; most of the land surrounding the lake is completely undeveloped and the only mansion visible belonged to Marshall Tito. In town, almost all businesses seem to be locally owned. The L’Occitane store near the Park Hotel sticks out like a sore thumb.
So what does that mean, in reality? To me, Bled feels innocent and uncompromised. Walking around, I would sometimes feel as if I was a tourist in the glory days of the 1920s, when Coco Chanel headed to the French Riviera and holidaying women would wear giant floppy hats, red lipstick and giant sunglasses. It was just so classy and sophisticated. You don’t hear about Hollywood stars holidaying in Bled, and that’s the way I like it. It’s too nice for the Kardashians.
I was on my best tourist behaviour on the three occasions I visited Bled last year. I was very active and outdoorsy. On one occasion I climbed up to the castle and simply enjoyed the view of the lake below. One other time I spend a long, lazy afternoon walking around the lake, particularly enjoying seeing the Bled Rowing Club on the opposite side of the lake to the town. The club is one of the most successful in the world, boasting six Olympic medals and hosting the World Championships four times.
I got a boat out to the island a couple of times, which is an experience in itself. The island is nice to look at, yes, but in reality it’s all about the boat ride. The water is so clear and the boats cut through it like melted butter. I can hardly recommend something more relaxing than this, anywhere in Europe.
My favourite activity in Bled, however, has got to be the toboggan. It doesn’t always run (don’t count on it in the cooler months or on windy or rainy days) but when it does, wow. It’s about a ten-minute walk out of town, and after a tiny hike up to its base, you get to catch a chairlift up the rest of the way.
At the top, you’re rewarded with the most magnificent views, and the chance to fling yourself back down to the bottom on a metal track. Ignore the signs to brake at the turns – this non-adrenaline junkie says you don’t have to. It is wildly fun and something I did most times in Bled.
The activity that takes the cake though – both figuratively and literally – is enjoying Bled’s famous creme cake right by the lake at the Park Hotel. Locally termed ‘kremna rezina’, it’s a bit like a giant vanilla slice, with cream, vanilla custard and puff pastry. It’s sold all over town, but you have to eat it at the Park Hotel – that’s where it’s from, and it has the most beautiful deck overlooking the lake and castle.
There is nothing better than sitting back, with the sun on your face, and taking in the view of Lake Bled and creme cake right in front of you.
I don’t usually make accommodation recommendations as they tend to come off sounding like an advertisement, but I’m making an exception with Bled. Jazz Apartments is located just on the edge of town and on the road up to the castle, and is one of the best hostels I have ever visited. It’s run by a couple called Jani and Urska, who are quite possibly the happiest married couple in Europe. I’ve never seen Jani without a gigantic grin on his face, and he and his wife will do anything and everything for you.
I’ve witnessed Urska driving guests to the train station at the crack of dawn, and Jani, upon hearing that a departed guest had left her camera at a restaurant in town, running there and back to retrieve it and then posting it, without charge, to the UK. The two of them are one of the main reasons why I am a little bit in love with the Slovenians and no trip to Bled is complete without meeting them.
So believe the hype, people. Bled, and Slovenia more generally, is the best-kept secret in Europe. Yes, it is still a secret. And you know what? Everyone’s in agreement with me on this one.
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