Fairytales, Castles, and Communism – Lake Bled, Slovenia
By Scott Dicken
Once upon a time there was a lush, fertile valley and in the very centre of that valley was a small hill. The hill, which sat in the middle of the green pastures, was the favourite gathering place of fairies who liked nothing more than to spend their time dancing around its base. The fairies lived a happy, peaceful existence until, one fateful day, a group of shepherds arrived. As you can imagine, the shepherds were keen to use the fairies’ lush, green pastures as grazing land for their herds. The fairies took umbrage to this most obvious invasion of their peace and, after a bit of a conflab, opted to flood the entire valley. To this day the only part of the valley that remains visible is ‘Fairy Rock’ – the small hill around which the fairies danced.
This, according to our guide, is the legend of how Lake Bled came to be.
To the uneducated, myself included, the fairies sound like a bunch of morally repugnant individuals whose parents never taught them that ‘sharing is caring’. Also, flooding an entire valley because a few sheep ate some of their grass seems like a hasty over-reaction. Nonetheless, the results of their endeavours are now Slovenia’s primary tourist attraction, and a setting that retains the charm and beauty of a fairy tale. Albeit, a fairy tale later supplanted by the less whimsical arrival of communist dictator, Tito, whose one-time residence now provides the lake with 5-star accommodation.
The lake is nestled amongst Slovenia’s Julian Alps, and was actually formed as a result of glacial erosion (in a story that isn’t quite as mystical and enchanting) and is the home of the Church of Mary of the Assumption. The church is the highlight of a visit to Lake Bled and sits romantically nestled within the trees on the very island created by the fairies’ environmental disregard. Church of Mary of the Assumption is a photographer’s dream and spawned the lake’s second legendary tale.
This second tale tells of a young bride, Poliksena, who lived on the island during the 16th Century. Upon the death of her husband, and in a state of extreme grieving, she cast a memorial bell from all the gold and silver she could find. Just as the bell was being delivered across the lake by a small wooden rowing boat (a clearly illogical choice for a heavy bell), a fierce storm erupted sinking the bell, the boat, and the crew. Now I know what you’re thinking – based on track record this sounds like the work of a certain group of grudge-bearing fairies! Apparently, not on this occasion. However, the grieving widow decided to flee the island and become a nun in Rome (the second ‘logical’ choice in this tale). Skip a few decades and Poliksena dies. At this point, Pope Clement VII, upon hearing the story of the recently deceased widow, casts a new bell for the island’s church and proclaimed that anyone who was a believer (in God….not fairies) and rings the bell three times will have their one most precious wish granted.
Fairies, legends, nuns, bells, tragedy, and stunning scenery – Lake Bled has it all.
As you can probably guess, climbing the 99 steps to the church and ringing the bell three times is a modern-day tradition for visitors to Lake Bled. If that new bell ‘floats your boat’ then you can reach the island by pletna (a small boat that you can catch from the lake shore for a minimal fee). More preferably (for me at least), you can hire rowing boats to get there yourself (just beware of boat-sinking freak storms) – this way you can circumnavigate the island and explore the lake under your own steam.
Lake Bled is easily accessible from Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana, which is only 50km away. Your public transport options are either bus or rail. If you want to catch the bus, then your best bet is to check out the Flix Bus Website. Alternatively you can catch the Oste train from Ljubljana to Lesce-Bled Station which is a mere 4km from the centre of Bled.
The one potential problem for Lake Bled is the ongoing rise of tourism (yes, the irony of that statement in a travel column is not lost on me). In the summer months, the lake becomes a little inundated with selfie sticks and this, in turn, has spawned the rise of some of the ‘tackier’ elements of tourism (by that I mean cheap souvenir shops and ‘quirky’ tourist attractions like the Lake Bled Toboggan ride and the tourist train). The good news is that, to date, the town seems to have dealt with this relatively well! That said, you might want to avoid the high season summer months if you want to miss the majority of the crowds.
Enhancing the lake’s fairy tale status even further is Bled Castle, which sits perched up on a rocky crag overlooking the lake. The castle’s elevated position provides the perfect opportunity for photographing the island for those who can’t muster the energy to hike one of the trails that weave into the surrounding hills in the north. Even better is that you enjoy a slice of Lake Bled Cream Cake and a cup of coffee whilst enjoying the views from the Castle Café. At the base of the Castle is the neo-gothic St Martin’s Parish Church which houses a number of noteworthy frescos.
Only 4km from Lake Bled is Vintgar Gorge, another site well worth visiting. Running along the gorge is a 1.6km wooden walkway which traverses the river, falls and rapids. If you’re visiting in the busy summer months (June-September), there is a small tourist bus that runs to the entrance of the gorge, Bled Castle and the north end of the lake. Check for the times in advance as I believe it only runs once a day. If you miss the bus, then the walk to the gorge is also fairly easy.
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