Situated at the carrefour between Balkan, Austrian, Italian, and Hungarian realms of influence, the Slovenes have managed to carve out a distinct identity for themselves: a unique mélange of Alpine and Slavic heritage with a spritz of the Mediterranean. The country’s landscape is diverse, ranging from hills and vineyards to breezy coastal towns on the banks of the Slovene Riviera.
Bled, located in the northwestern region of Slovenia known as Gorenjska, lies at the foothills of the Julian Alps. (‘Julian’ after Julius Caesar, who founded the Roman town of Cividale del Friuli on the other side of the range.) Here, the mark of the mountains is evident at first glance: wooden chalets with balconies of cascading of geraniums evoke a suspicion that Heidi might be hiding just around the corner.
A unique mélange of Alpine and Slavic heritage with a spritz of the Mediterranean…
An unpretentious Adria Airways plane pulled into Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport a quarter after ten on a Friday night. The last bus in any direction was already long gone by the time I made it to the arrival hall. I had scheduled a pick-up taxi a couple of days before, but I was skeptical about whether anyone would actually show up, and destination was more than half an hour’s drive away. Fortunately, Bled Taxi was true to their word and every bit as fantastic and reliable as they advertised. During the ride, Tina, my friendly chauffeuse, shared some tips on the area’s surrounding attractions and facts about Slovenia. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the country only had a population of two million; it made me wonder if Slovenians felt particularly compatriotic when meeting one another abroad. As we neared our destination and the mountains of Triglav National Park presented themselves in the darkness, I also wondered why I hadn’t made my way here earlier.
Slovenia’s status and beauty as an Alpine Shangri-La is all but eclipsed by its recent history. In 1991, following a referendum held the previous year, it became the first constituent republic to successfully secede from Yugoslavia, igniting a spark that would fuel the latter’s tumultuous and violent dissolution. Only lately has it begun to reclaim some of its former mystique as a green sanctuary in the heart of Europe. And it’s easy to see why: with its cloistered castle looking out over crystalline waters, Bled has all the charms and coquetries of a folkloric fairytale.
Tina left me in front of the hostel just after eleven. I had spent more than I originally anticipated on flights and transportation, so I vowed to be economical with regards to lodging. Garden House Bled, located in a quiet area ten minutes by foot from the town center, had recently opened its doors, and, as the tourist season was just wrapping up, I found myself the sole occupant of an entire room.
I woke up Saturday morning and helped myself to two tall glasses of elderflower cordial from the communal kitchen. There, Lovro, the fit-looking morning receptionist, asked if I liked to hike; yes, I did. “Alright, then you can rent a bike in town and pedal to Radovljica. From there, you can get on a bus. It will take you to the start of the Karavanke Mountains, and then from there it’s a three-hour hike to the top.” I think he overestimated my level of fitness.
I thanked Lovro for his recommendation and told him that I would remember it for another day, since I wanted to spend my first day in Bled. I asked him how long it would take to walk around the lake. “You will do it in an hour and a half, max,” he answered convincingly. Five hours later and only halfway into my circumnavigation around the lake, I realized that I would never make it up the Karavanks.
Blejski Grad: The Castle Above the Lake
By mid-September, the autumn chill has already crept into the waters of the Limmat and Lake Zürich. But over the Alps, out by the docks of Bled, you could still soak up the last rays of summer. I resisted the gentle beckoning of the waves lapping against the wood and instead began scaling the steps leading up to the castle; an afternoon dip would be my reward for working up a good sweat.
In addition to a bird’s-eye panorama of the lake, the island, and the mountains, Bled Castle boasts a reconstructed and fully functioning Gutenberg printing press. After years of hearing and reading about the innovation that jolted Europe into a new era, it was a moment of realness to see it working, printing. Also on display was the first book printed in Slovene, written in 1550 by the Protestant reformer Primož Trubar in the vernacular of Dolenjska. During the 16th century, the dialects spoken around modern-day Slovenia were regarded as plebeian, unworthy of print; Trubar’s books, in their rebelliousness, laid the first foundations for a modern, standardized language and a unified Slovene identity.
I savored the view from above with a midday sandwich from the courtyard café: pickled quail eggs laid atop several thick slices of local cheese and a smattering of horseradish. Below, the boats drifted aimlessly over the cerulean surface. It was a languid, sleepy afternoon.
Kremna Rezina: Bled’s Famous Cream Cake
Upon making my way down from the castle, I passed an unassuming patisserie. A sign outside advertised for homemade Bled cream cake. I remember Tina telling me that before I left Bled, I had to sample the local pastry known all over Slovenia. As I had just scaled a small mountain, I thought I deserved a little something extra.
The inside of the patisserie was remarkably plain, with the mainstay wooden tables, egg-white wallpaper, and 80s background music so typical of a central European diner. Devoid of any embellishment, it was unlike anything I’ve witnessed so far in the shimmering Bled. I was convinced that I was experiencing something unfiltered and real—the authentic, ordinary Slovenia, perhaps. As for the cake, it was fitting for its name: two-thirds Chantilly cream and one-third custard, sandwiched between thin, crispy layers of puff and dusted liberally with powdered sugar. It was rich, it was filling, it was cream beyond comprehension.
The Art of Wellness
Resuming my stroll along the lake, I found myself walking on a thickly forested road. The foliage was thick, but occasionally, the trees would give way to small clearings where a villa or mansion stood. Many of them were constructed during the second half of the 19th century, when Bled began gaining prominence as a wellness hotspot, in part due to the contributions of the Swiss naturist Arnold Rikli. Rikli came to Bled in 1852, and, recognizing the place’s favorable climate and propensity for natural healing, founded his own treatment center. His methods consisted of long walks supplemented by daily dosages of sunbathing alternating with dips in the lake.
I imagined myself on one of Rikli’s prescribed walks. Upon arriving at the docks of Bled’s rowing center, I followed suit as thousands must have done before and slipped into the water. Crisp. Rejuvenating. Cleansed of the stickiness that clung from the afternoon’s promenade, I floated for a time, gazing at the sky: a stracciatella of clouds and eggshell blue. In the near distance, someone tolling the bell from the chapel on the island…