Wednesday 17 April 2019

The Beauty of Lake Bled, Slovenia

I wrote this piece for a newspaper years ago, after visiting Slovenia. It never went online, so here it is now...

I’m standing in the light rain, holding an umbrella above the head of an artist as he paints a silhouette on the back of a painting for Narrelle Harris.

What’s the subject? Well, it’s a depiction of me holding an umbrella over him, with Narrelle standing nearby.

Confused? So am I.

But then I look up to see the beautiful lake before us, punctuated by an island topped with a small elegant church - itself dwarfed by a mighty castle on the sheer cliff above it - and everything seems just fine.

That’s the effect that Slovenia’s Lake Bled has on people. As a postglacial lake within the foothills of the mighty Julian Alps, the lake and its accompanying town have long attracted those looking for a retreat.

Bled Castle, high up upon a rocky outcrop above the waters, was first mentioned in historical documents in 1004 AD.

In the 19th century the town developed as a health resort for the careworn aristocrats of Central Europe. It then became the summer home of the King of Yugoslavia, a tradition maintained by communist President Tito after World War II.

Nowadays Slovenia is an improbably small independent nation within the European Union, and Lake Bled exerts its charms on the international tourist set. Which is why I’m standing in misty drizzle, impatiently waiting for a silhouette to be completed on the back of a landscape painting of the lake.

Our artistic friend senses me fuming, laughs and urges me to “Take it easy, take it slow, remember your blood pressure.” And I do, smiling at his languid eccentricity.

All this, however, is a mere precursor to visiting the island within the centre of the lake. Bled Island has drawn the eye at every step of our three kilometre stroll around the lake’s edge from the township.

In the centre of its greenery sits the elegant pink-tinted 17th century baroque church which was built on the remains of earlier places of worship. Beyond it on the horizon, massive snow-streaked mountains provide a dramatic sense of scale.

We engage one of the gondolas stationed along the shore to take us there. Klemen, our rangy gondolier, reveals he’s a social studies student when he’s not on the lake rowing visitors back and forth via the twin oars set in high rowlocks at the end of the vessel.

He drops us at the base of a set of broad, pitted white steps which run up to the church.

The island contains just enough diversions to occupy the 30 minutes allotted until our return - including a go at the “lucky bell” within the gilded church interior, which must be rung three times while making a wish.

It takes a tad more shoulder movement than I expect to get the thing swinging, so I forget to make a wish and by then the momentum’s built up so much that it rings seven times.

Oh well, I’m lucky just being here.

Back on shore, we have a late lunch, ordering way too much food at Gostilna Pri Planincu, a restaurant serving Slovenian and Serbian cuisine.

The dishes are enormous, but the waiter laughs and says “Grandma started the tradition and we can’t give it up now!”

Bled is like that, it seems: old-fashioned, relaxed and almost too much for the senses.

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