Just occasionally, we have the joy of experiencing a postcard moment. You know — one of those other-worldly scenes that come straight out of a National Geographic photoshoot. Though seldom, these moments open our eyes to the history of countries far removed from our own. Most recently, we enjoyed this experience on Lake Bled in Slovenia.
Nested in the Alps, Lake Bled is the very same picturesque body of water you see splashed on travel magazine spreads and adventure guides. It’s not terribly large — only 7,000 feet long and 4,500 feet wide. Surrounding it are lush forests and mountains that link back to the imposing Alps.
Perhaps most iconically, the lake boasts a small island (named Bled Island) at its center. While quite small, it does house several buildings, including a pilgrimage church dubbed the Assumption of Mary, which took its current shape in the 17th century. The church incorporates much older elements, however, with Gothic frescoes dating back as far as the 15th century.
Curiously, a stairway from 1655 (pre-dating the current church) slopes down from the church steps to the water. This is where flat-bottomed, awninged boats called pletna unload pilgrims and tourists who have traveled from the lake’s far shores, keen on worshipping, studying, or celebrating in the storied Assumption of Mary.
But when did all of this take shape? Some accounts of Lake Bled and its island put the pletna‘s origins in the 12th century — indicating a previous place of worship stood more than eight centuries ago. Historians claim that before the proliferation of Christianity, a temple to the Slavic goddess Ziva stood on the island — a temple that ultimately fell victim to the destruction of zealous Christian warriors.
Another fun fact: The oarsmen who row the pletna are something of a unique class in Slovenia; they are said to be descendants of 22 families granted exclusive ferrying rights to the lake by Empress Maria Theresa in 1740. Their boats are still made by hand, and they employ a unique rowing technique known as stehrudder in which they stand while rowing with two oars.
These days, Lake Bled and Bled Island feature in countless weddings and celebrations. Tourists continue to flock to the region, drawn in by the natural beauty and history of the lake and its anchoring island. Visitors often stay in nearby hotels (there are many), and supplement trips to the lake with hikes in the breathtaking surrounding region — dotted with waterfalls, forests, gorges, and of course, mountains.
Unbeknownst to us when we arrived, there’s more than hiking and church-gazing to do; you can take a hot air balloon above the lake, go belly-kayaking (called belljaking), play golf, go horseback riding, cycle, and do a dozen other things. There are also a fair number of restaurants and cafés dishing up Bled cuisine (read: soups and stews extraordinaire), most with expansive windows looking out onto the glorious Lake Bled.
For more information on this incredible destination in the Slovenian Alps and to plan your own trip, visit bled.si.