Once you start looking into places to go and things to see in Slovenia, Lake Bled pops up on top of all the lists. Some dear English friends of ours adore Lake Bled; they’ve visited in all seasons. They were very clear that we absolutely had to check it out ourselves. Advice we happily followed.

The exit from the tidy freeway toward Lake Bled leads along a two-lane road. Signs for campgrounds, tour operators and a Dino Park (!) greet us. Starting to worry that this might be a cheesy tourist trap.

We pull into the just-about-full parking lot of our lakeside hotel; it’s a sleek modern building. One step into the lobby and we see the view of the lake behind reception. Ah, that’s why we’re here.

You can’t get more picturesque than this lake: green hills and snowy mountains reflecting in the water, pilgrimage church on a little island in the middle of the lake, medieval castle overlooking the scene, village church nestled against the castle cliff. It’s simply a beautiful place.

One of the best ways to enjoy the lake and its sights is to walk around it. The circuit takes about an hour, which we enjoyed a few times. One of our visit days was a Sunday. People from all over the region came just for the day. We had lively company along the walk: lots of families, lots of kids, lots of dogs, all simply enjoying the fresh air and beautiful setting.

The centerpiece of the lake is The Church of the Mother of God. While you can take a boat out to the little island, and climb the stairs to the chapel, we were content to enjoy it from afar, framed by foliage, backed by a wall of snowy mountains.

The Church of the Mother of God:Before the church was built on the island, a temple dedicated to the pagan goddess of life and fertility stood at the same place. After Christianisation in 745, the ancient Slavic temple was replaced by a church, dedicated to the birth of Mary. The church was renovated in 1465 and rebuilt in single nave Gothic style. The special feature of the church was 52 metres high free standing bell tower, made of porous stone, called buckwheat grains. The panoramic bell tower has one large and two small bells that still resound today. The church got its current baroque image in the middle of the 17th century; the chapel of the Mother of God was also built on the island to motivate people to pray. The famous staircase was also built in that period. The staircase has 99 stone steps. There is a tradition still alive today, i.e. that the groom has to carry the bride up all 99 steps if the couple wants to get married in the church on the island. (source)

Along the main axis of the lake, an array of buoys looks like an airport landing strip. These are lanes for rowers to practice and race. (During my freshman year in college, I rowed crew — one rower in a boat of eight. We practiced and raced on a calm constructed lake. But our lake was nowhere near as beautiful as this one.)

One evening, we joined a wine tasting a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. Upon our arrival, a burly fellow rushed us down to a basement tasting room. We joined a party of four Icelandic visitors. From their conversation, we quickly realized that Icelandic people don’t drink much wine — it’s not quite the region for wine production, and wine is very expensive there. They were charming and eager to learn. As were we — eager to learn, I mean; I don’t know about the charming part.

Our host Boris spoke fast and loud in his thick Slovenian accent. He provided a not terribly nuanced introduction to Slovenian wine, but he made up for it by being theatrical and passionate. He proposed a series of local wines — all available for purchase, of course.

For one of the wines, he had us all don blindfolds.

He poured a wine, put the glass in outstretched hands, and asked us to say if it was white or red. It can be notoriously difficult to do this without seeing the wine. We get more cues from sight than we typically realize. To me it tasted rounder and more complex than I’d expect from a white, but also simpler than a red. But I can’t really trust my taste and we could already see that Boris enjoys playing tricks. Most everyone guessed that it was a red, but I wasn’t sure so didn’t say anything. I almost wondered if this was an orange wine, for which Slovenia is known. Blindfold off, and there it was: an orange wine! Which is what I exclaimed. Boris looked at me in mild shock; maybe I’d taken away a good punch line. Oops. But he also looked pleased. He explained that this type of orange wine is more like white, but with more grape skins involved, which give the orange color. I rather liked the aromas and flavors even if there was some bitterness in there. Mike scrunched up his face; he said, “It tastes like salad dressing!” 

Then our showman host asked if we wanted to try something: chocolate with cinnamon and apples along with the orange wine. Much to our surprise, the combination was great. The sweet of the chocolate and cinnamon balanced with the acidity of the wine. Even Mikey liked it!

Bled Castle faced directly into our hotel room. Our English friends had said that, while the castle itself is only moderately interesting, the views from up there are worth the climb. Time to work off all this Slovenian food and wine — at least a little. 220 steps up the forested hillside.

The castle’s history dates back to 1004 when the German king Henry II conferred the estate of Bled on Bishop Albuin of Brixen. At that time, only Romanesque tower protected by the wall stood at the place of the current castle. The first castle was built by the bishops around 1011 for defensive purposes. The bishops of Brixen never lived in the castle; therefore, it did not have any exuberant rooms.
In the Middle Ages additional towers were built and the fortification system with the wall and lifting tower above the ditch were upgraded. The ditch has been covered, but the scene still stirs up our imagination.
Double structure is typical of the castle – the fortified main part, intended for the residence of feudal lords, and the exterior part with the walls and facilities for servants. In 1511, the castle was strongly damaged by and earthquake, but it was rebuilt in the image as it is today. The castle buildings are decorated with the images of coats-of-arms, painted in fresco technique, some are engraved in stone. (source)

When we arrived at the castle’s first enclosure, costumed performers serenaded us. OK, really for some local gathering that we just happened upon. Still, lots of historical character.

Just as our friends predicted, the view was the star of the castle show.

The weather started to get colder as we cascaded down the stairs from the castle. Next stop to warm us up, a couple pieces of Bled’s famous cream cake. Here’s the story behind this cake:

Kremna rezina [Bled Cream Cake] is a specialty of the Slovenian Lake Bled area. It is a luscious cream cake with a golden, crispy, buttery pastry acting as its base. The base is topped with flavorful vanilla custard, whipped cream, and a layer of thin, buttery dough.The whole cake is traditionally dusted with icing sugar and served sliced in cubes. The story of kremna rezina (or Bled cream cake) began with the arrival of chef Ištvan Lukačević to Bled’s Park Hotel, where he modified the Hungarian cream cake by adding the right proportions of whipped cream into it, and in 1953, the hotel presented Lukačević’s invention to the public.The new dessert was a huge success and became a popular tourist treat, with up to 3,500 slices sold per day. The authentic kremna rezina is not just a cake, but a piece of art – it is said that the pastry is folded seven times before it’s left to rest, the custard is cooked for exactly seven minutes, and each cake is cut into a seven-by-seven centimeter square. (source)

Since we weren’t in Italy, we felt free to order two hot afternoon cappuccinos to complement the cream cakes. We sat outside, bundled up, overlooking the lake. These cakes really are scrumptious; they’re not just hype. They also feel like enough sugar to sweeten all of Lake Bled. (On the morning of our departure, we floated the idea of one last helping of the famous cream cake. We looked at each other, still feeling all that sugar from the day before, and easily agreed that we’ll enjoy another the next time we’re here!)

Restaurant Sova

Just a ten-minute walk around the lake edge to this restaurant. Cozy, almost alpine atmosphere.

Grill Lovec Restaurant

It was a slightly drizzly Sunday evening. Using Apple Maps, Mike targeted a steak restaurant a short walk from the hotel. The night before, Saturday evening, we easily found a table without reservations. Alas, not tonight. The place we walked to was full. So we sat outside and called other options. On the third try, a brusque woman’s voice confirmed that she had a table available at the restaurant. Good. The restaurant, simply named Grill, was just across the street from our hotel, so we had gone on a refreshing before-dinner stroll around the neighborhood. We found a small almost-empty restaurant. We were greeted by the brusque heavily accented voice, a stout blond-haired woman, mask just under her nose. She looked like Matron at a strict German girls school. She alternated between hesitant English and confident German. “You called? 8:30? OK.” At our table, she thrust two plastic-wrapped menus at us, and dropped off a stack of napkins and flatware. No fine dining tonight, we said to ourselves. We ordered our starters and main courses, and a bottle of Slovenian Pinot Noir: 2017 Protner Hiša Joannes. She brought the wine bottle to the table, and uncorked it appropriately. Then, she launched some wine into each of our glasses, smiled almost, and left. Efficiently delivered! A short while later, she brought us the starters. Very much to our surprise, they were handsomely plated and very tasty. How do you say in Slovenian: “Don’t judge a restaurant by its cover?” The main courses were simpler since this was all about grilled meat, but ample and tasty. 

For your next trip to Slovenia:

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