Slovenia’s One and Only
Many countries have none. Finland has nearly 180,000. Slovenia has one. And it’s a beauty. I’m talking about islands. If the wisest leaders of Slovenia could have chosen the setting for the country’s only natural island, they couldn’t have chosen a setting more beautiful than Lake Bled located in northwestern Slovenia near the Austrian border.
The small postcard perfect islet stands in the midst of the emerald water of Lake Bled, one of Slovenia’s most popular tourist attractions. Bled Lake was formed about 14,000 years ago after the recession of the Bohinj glacier during the last Ice Age. Today's island is the tree covered remains of the Ice Age limestone moraine.
The 15th century Baroque Church of the Assumption dominates the island and is a popular wedding site and tourist destination. From May to September, up to two weddings per day are held at the church in addition to the many newly weds who come just for the photo op. According to local tradition, a husband who can carry his new bride up the 99 steps from the dock to the church will be ensured a happy marriage.
On this pleasant, balmy day I walked up the steps leading to the church counting the steps as I ascended. At the top I stopped to catch my breath in front of the statute of the Virgin Mary standing in the courtyard. As I looked down the 99 steps, I smiled at the visual of the young groom striving to make those last few steps.
On the way up I heard the repeated ringing of the church bell. I later learned about another piece of local lore that ringing the bell three times will fulfill one of your wishes.
Inside the church, I walked toward the gilded Baroque altar, waited my turn to grab hold of the gently swinging rope suspended from the bell in the upper roof beam, made a wish then pulled hard. As I watched the ball strike the 16th century Italian made wishing bell, as it has done since 1534, I listened to what I hoped would be fortuitous notes.
The 52 meter (170 foot) bell tower, built in the 15th century, has three bells made by bell makers from nearby Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital city. The interior of the church is painted with fragments of illusionist frescoes and various religious images that, according to experts, date back to 1470.
Most visitors reach the island via a pletna, colorful canvas covered gondolas propelled by exceptionally strong young men. The two oared, one rower boat is unique to Bled and is one of the city’s symbols. The individually named, handmade boats are made of five different types of wood and last about 12 years. The privilege to build the pletnas is so prized that the rights to build them are inherited and passed from generation to generation. Visitors may also row to the island in boats rented at various points around the lake. Motor boats are prohibited on the lake to maintain the pristine condition of the emerald green water.
Bled Lake is surrounded by magnificent views of the Julian Alps and Gorenjska region. The lake is 30.6 meters at its deepest point and has no natural tributaries. Instead it is fed by a few alpine springs. With its crystal clear water and some 19 species of fish, the lake is a favored summer destination for swimmers, fishermen and divers. When the temperature drops enough in the winter to freeze the water, ice skaters glide over lake in the midst of majestic beauty with the snow-covered island as a backdrop.
Towering 130 meters (426 feet) up on a cliff along Bled Lake’s north shore is Bled Castle, one of Slovenia’s oldest medieval fortresses. Looking up at the castle from the island conjures up visions of a damsel in distress though I later discovered that nothing could be further from the truth. The bird’s eye view from the castle terrace provides the perfect view of the lake, the island and the surrounding countryside.
With a nearly two centuries old rowing tradition and surrounding natural alpine beauty, Bled Lake has hosted three world rowing championships. The lake has been selected as the site of the 2011 Championships. During Slovenia’s first competition as a sovereign state, Bled oarsmen brought home medals from the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. According to locals, Thomas Keeler, President of the International Rowing Federation, once commented that “God has to be a rower to make a lake this beautiful.” And it is the perfect place for Bled Island.
If you go
Bled is less than an hour from Ljubljana by train. Get off at the Lesce Bled station then walk or take a taxi to Bled Lake.
Pletna boat ride - 12 euros (about $18 USD)
Church of the Assumption Admission - 3 euros (about $4 USD)