Image credits: Matej Vranic (top), J. Skok
Joanna Booth finds a fairytale landscape – and enough cake to feed an army – in Slovenia’s Alps
Thank goodness easyJet has introduced pre-bookable seats.
My prime spot by the window meant I didn’t miss the transition as the mountain peaks turned from white to green as we flew into Slovenia – a little preview of the palette that dominates the whole country.
Slovenia’s Julian Alps, nestling in a nook between Italy and Austria, look like the creator’s been busy on Instagram. The greens seem almost too vivid to be real, especially in spring, when the rich emerald tones are overlaid by Granny Smith-coloured new leaves bursting into life. Add to that the blues of lakes and sky, and the phrase ‘pretty as a picture’ appears to have been designed for this spot.
It seems incredible that Bled can be just half an hour from Ljubljana’s Jože Pucnik airport. The small town sits on the lakeshore, overlooked by a medieval castle balanced precariously on a rocky outcrop.
In the centre of the lake, a tiny island is crowned by a church with a pointed spire. The fairytale look is so strong that I half expected to spot a damsel letting her hair down from the castle window, or a red-cloaked child to come out of the forest. Half an hour from Heathrow? You’re in Slough.
Bled’s designed-by-Disney beauty has made it the tourism hotspot of the Julian Alps, attracting both hikers keen to walk the Alpine pathways and more sedate visitors happy to take in the views from a lakeside cafe. The wedding market is growing too, particularly from the UK, as our couples wise up to the fact their fairytale wedding ceremony can be brought to life within two hours of Stansted.
Tying the knot or not, a visit to Bled Castle is a must. The rock on which it stands rises in a sheer, 130m-high wall from the lake, and even the approach from the car park to the rear is pretty steep.
Luckily it’s also staggeringly pretty, both the views over the lake and the pale medieval towers of the castle itself, which dates from the 11th century.
A small museum takes visitors from pre-historic settlements right through to the present day, and the gothic chapel is lined with baroque frescoes. More hands on history is on offer too – from a working reconstruction of a 15th-century wooden printing press to the wine cellar, where a man dressed as a medieval monk will help you bottle your own and emboss the castle seal in wax.
The restaurant makes a lovely spot for lunch, with local specialities like grmada (pictured), a trifle-like dessert served with incredible poppy seed ice cream.
After staring down at it from the castle, it’s time to visit Bled Island. Even the journey is picturesque – you’re rowed over by a boatman in a traditional wooden pletna. Weddings can be held here too, though warn grooms that tradition dictates he should carry his bride up the 99 steps from the jetty.
Visitors come to see the church and climb the clock tower. There are beautiful frescoes, but the real attraction is the wishing bell – according to legend, ring it, and yours will come true.
If the wish was for more cake, then it’s a shoo-in. Bled is renowned for its cream cake and the place to go to sample it is the lakeside Park Restaurant and Cafe where the recipe originated.
If any further evidence were needed that Slovenians have a sweet tooth, it can be found nearby in the beautiful medieval town of Radovljica, which has been the centre of the country’s honey production for centuries.
A museum of beekeeping might sound a little niche for most tastes, but the small but perfectly formed Museum of Apiculture is full of charm. Hives are covered with decorative painted panels, so it’s as much about art as agriculture, and with honey used in everything from biscuits to schnapps, the town has delicious souvenirs aplenty.
To walk off the cake calories, head to Bohinj Valley, 15 miles from Bled. Here, in Triglav National Park, a string of 24 tiny villages lines the valley floor, ringing Lake Bohinj.
Most visitors start in Ribcev Laz, where the Church of John the Baptist sits right on the shore.
There’s an eight-mile path around the lake, but many visitors cut it in half by taking the boat over from Ribcev Laz to Ukanc, where a short stroll takes you up to Savica Waterfall. Our guide, Grega Silc of Hike and Bike, recommends the longer five-mile hike back along the north side as there is no road and you can walk right by the lake shore.
The longer route is also the perfect excuse to visit Gostilna Rupa, a family-run restaurant in nearby Star Fuzina famed for its suckling pig and out-of-this-world strudel. It really wouldn’t be Slovenia without a slice of cake.
WHERE TO STAY
Considering how beautiful Bled is, the accommodation in town isn’t much to write home about in terms of looks, with rather block-like 1960s buildings dominating.
Book clients into a lake view room on a B&B basis at the four-star Hotel Golf. The beautiful panoramas make it easier to forgive the slightly dated interior, and breakfasts are fine but they’ll want to go out for dinner. There’s a large indoor pool with slides for children, and Jacuzzis heated by thermal springs. From €122 per room per night with breakfast
For a luxurious alternative, suggest the Lambergh Chateau & Hotel, outside Radovljica. Clients won’t get the lakeside views to be had in Bled, but can choose between huge rooms in the recently-renovated Renaissance castle or colourful choices in a sleek glass extension, which is also home to an extensive medical and wellness spa. From €80 per room per night
For a summer alternative, recommend Gozdne Vile Glamping at Camping Bled. Pitch-roofed larch cabins with comfortable double beds nestle in the woods, all with private bathrooms, some with their own hot tubs. Free Wi-Fi means guests can order gourmet picnic baskets from the e-butler service. From €51 per cabin per night
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