Towns / Cities Visited: 139
Countries Visited: 23
Steps Taken Today: 16,955
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,609,450
We awoke to a cool but sunny autumn morning, readied ourselves for the day’s adventure, and headed to the supermarket in town to find ourselves some breakfast. We were pleased to see that they offered one of our Eastern European favourites, burek, and despite not being able to read the flavours, we bought three and headed to the lakeside to eat them. Finding a park bench in the morning sun, we sat down and tucked in. Two of them ended up being savoury, one meat and one cheese, and the third actually ended up being a sweet apple and cinnamon one that felt more like a streudel than a burek. Although they were not warm, they were relatively good, and filled the void.
Looking out over the lake, it was hard not to be struck by the immutable beauty of this place. With swans paddling close to the shore, the castle looming atop its lofty precipice, and the secluded island at the centre of the lake, there is something surreal about this place. If it wasn’t for the touristy, resort style hotels behind us, you would struggle to tell what century you were in from this view alone.
Arising from our seat, we were satisfied to know that we would not have to give up this view anytime soon. You see, today would be dedicated to exploring the wonders of Lake Bled. Heading off in an anticlockwise direction, we began the six kilometre waterside walk. As you progress, the ever-morphing view continues to amaze; it seems as though every few steps you are gifted another picture perfect snapshot. Its the kind of place that even without a filter or any measure of photographic prowess, you are still left with incredible images.
As you reach the far side and venture onto the boardwalk that runs above the crystal clear water of the lakes edge, schools of tiny fish flitting beneath its surface, you look up to the best view of both the island and the clifftop castle simultaneously. With the cloud capped mountains in the background completing the scene, it is safe to say that Bled will stay comfortably in our list of favourite views in the world for a long time to come.
Continuing along on our journey, as the lakeside path began to be wrapped a little more densely in forest, we passed the large wrought iron gates of Vila Bled. This striking mansion has an interesting history. In fact, there was a different mansion built on this sight between 1833 and 1835 for the Austrian aristocrat Duke Ernest Windischgrätz. In 1922, following World War I, the king of the newly born Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Alexander Karađorđević, purchased the two storey villa and renamed it Suvobor Mansion. It is where he and his young family spent their summers, alongside many high bred rulers of Europe who frequented Bled. Alexander had wanted to construct a new villa close to the current mansion; however, he died in 1934, when the building was still in its early stages. Following his death, the original Suvobor Mansion was torn down and its replacement building began, but construction ceased when World War II broke out. After the war, when the kingdom shook off its monarchical rule in favour of communism, the new President, Tito, made changes to the building’s design and had it constructed as his summer residence. It was completed in 1947, and in the ensuing years, he hosted many foreign dignitaries within its walls. Tito passed away in 1980, and by 1984 the villa had been opened as a hotel, which it remains today. Although we would have loved to have taken a closer look, it was all closed up for the off season, and thus a peak through the gate had to suffice. Tito may have been a polarising leader, with many of his citizens feeling life in their respective countries was more stable under his rule, whereas others see the break away from communism in favour of democracy to be a blessing; but regardless of this, you have to admire his choice of holiday house. This building must surely have stoked envy in the hearts of other great leaders who visited this place during his rule.
Moving closer back to town now, we came across the dock for the traditional Slovenian, gondola-style boats which ferry tourist out to the island. These wooden boats, known as Pletna, with their brightly coloured shade cloths and long unique paddles, make for a cheerful sight. Apparently they have been the preferred method of transport on the water here since 1590, although some sources assert that they have been used since as far back as 1150. With one of them in the process of bundling guests aboard, and with our hearts set on visiting the island we had spent all morning admiring from afar, we tumbled on board alongside the European and Statesider visitors alike, parting with a few coins to pay our passage to the ferryman. He calmly stood at the stern as he waved the paddles through the water, propelling us closer to our destination. We watched as the spire of the church neared, its details growing clearer, the clockface on its neighbouring tower becoming readable, until eventually we reached the base of the 99 steep steps which offer passage up from the water.
Alighting, we were allowed forty-five minutes to explore, but given that this island is so small you could do a lap around it in about five minutes, that was plenty of time. Heading up the stairs, we found ourselves faced with our weakness, an ice cream shop. Assuring ourselves that the long walk had earned us a treat, we indulged, and sat down in the sun to enjoy it. In truth, the ice cream was some of the best we’d had so far, with quite a few interesting flavours. The unanimous group decision crowning Sacher-torte as our favourite: so rich was it, that it seemed as though someone had just melted down the cake itself and churned it.
Fueled by sugar, we wandered over to admire the church, debating whether to pay the price to enter, and coming to the conclusion that this was probably the only time in our lives we’d be here, and thus we went right ahead. Like most of these kind of church jeweled islands, there has long been a holy building here; in this particular spot since the 9th century. With that being said, it has not always been a Christian sight of worship; in fact, the first temple erected here was actually in honour of Ziva, the ancient Slavic goddess of love and fertility. Eventually, the pagans fell to the Christian sword, and a church was erected in place of their temple. A Gothic style church was erected in the 15th century, followed by a Baroque renovation in the early 16th century after an earthquake severely damaged the previous structure. The current building dates from the 17th century when it was renovated again after a second earthquake.
Moving right along, this church, like so many others, has an unnecessarily long name: Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria. Despite its bulky name, it is itself a rather small church. Still, it offers the light airiness of crisp white walls and vaulted ceiling, and a bordering on gaudy, large gilded altarpiece. The walls are donned with an array of biblical paintings in similarly gilded frames, or marble mountings; and a small but ornate organ sits on the balcony above the door. It does not stand out greatly from the countless other churches we had visited, aside from one feature; in front of the altar hangs a rope, dangling down from the tower above. In seeing it, a question we had been pondering since we’d arrived in Bled was answered. Why does the church bell on the island ring at such random intervals? The answer: because anyone who pays entrance to the church may ring it. In fact, legend has it that if you ring the bell three times, your wish will be granted, but only if your faith in the Lord is strong enough. As I do not believe in the existence of God, it seemed my wishes would go unfulfilled, but still I gladly gave the rope a firm tug, and reminisced about the time we rang the church bells in Dublin. Besides, I was not in need of some biblical wish provision, my wish to travel was already self-fulfilled and in progress.
Returning out into the sunlight, we wandered to the foot of the clocktower, entrance to which was granted with our ticket, and began our ascent. The interior, although not spectacularly interesting, does allow you to see the inner workings of the clock, and as you circle the stairs that hug the walls, you are take up past the hanging weights and pendulum, until you finally reach the whirring gears keeping time on the face just outside. We had hoped for a clear view out from the top, but found the windows covered with a tight weave mesh, I’m assuming to keep pesky birds and insects from sullying the mechanics.
With our visiting time coming to an end, we scurried off back to our pletna to enjoy the ride back. It was a somewhat less than peaceful trip in this direction, with our captain suddenly becoming the most in demand man in town, his phone ringing almost constantly and his conversations neither quiet nor subtle. Still, we did out best to ignore them and just enjoy the view. As we neared the shore, we spotted Leighann, filming a video for my brothers travel brand: No Fixed Adventure. Upon reaching solid ground again, we wandered up to say hi. Apparently Steven was working at a nearby restaurant, so all four of us headed over. Feeling peckish we settled into the outdoor dining area and ordered a couple of plates of ćevapi, another Balkan staple that we had been missing and hoping to share with my mum, and chowed down as we continued last night’s catch up.
The afternoon was wearing on by the time we bid the other pair farewell; although we would not be seeing them again in this place, we were set to rendezvous with them in less than a week when both groups converged on Venice. We decided to take a slow meander back through the heart of the town. Passing the souvenir laden shops spattered amongst tiny eateries, we noticed that there was a local sweet treat advertised at almost every café and bakery we passed, and one we immediately agreed we should purchase for the evenings dessert: Bled Cream Cake. Imagine, if you will, a vanilla slice, but atop the layer of custard sandwiched between the pastry, there is also a layer of cream. I’ll be honest, we were so eager to eat them after dinner that night that we completely forgot to snap a picture, so allow me to gift you one from the annals of the internet to whet your appetite.
Returning to our hostel, it was a standard low key night in, for tomorrow would take us on a strenuous hike, then proceed to our onward journey. Lying in bed, listening to the thunderstorm soundtrack I use as white noise every night, I slipped into a deep state of relaxation. Trying to clear my often deafeningly loud thoughts, I concentrated on the beauty surrounding me just outside the walls: the beauty I had spent my day amongst. I fell asleep, rather uncharacteristically, void of worry. The mountains encircling the town cradling me in my sleep; the still night with its clear, star-spangled sky my blanket, the weight of its longevity lulling me safely into my dreams until the morn came.