If there’s anything that gets my juices flowing, it’s the sight of a vast and glorious lake. There’s other stuff too – cinnamon whirls, for example – but where travel is concerned, this is the ultimate wonderment for me.
This love of lakes can be largely attributed to my seven-month long stay in the Canadian Rockies, back in 2009. Here, I daily awoke to the sight of gleaming-green Lake Louise, stretched out beneath a mountainous and glacial backdrop. Though relatively new to globetrotting at the time, frankly, I didn’t think it could get any better.
Then, last year, I saw Lake Bled.
Like something out of a fairytale pop-up book, this profoundly blue lagoon – complete with its own island and hilltop castle – sparkled under the midday summer sun in the small and georgic township of Bled, northern Slovenia. ‘Seriously?’ I proclaimed out loud to myself at least three times, as the full view slowly emerged from beyond the thick, green trees. I was awestruck.
What struck me first – other than the general awe – was the total transparency of the lake’s water. Then, the pilgrimage church of the Assumption facing me from the island. All baroque and dreamy-looking, the church – which can be reached by pletna boat for €12 per person – gleamed against its woody, green backdrop. In fact, I was so bewitched with it all that it took me another ten minutes to actually look up and spot the medieval castle towering over the lake. I was Alice. Bled was Wonderland.
I began my lap, sauntering clockwise around its 1.45m² surface area between intermittent bouts of prolonged camera clacking. The day was hot, and it wasn’t long before the allure of the lake got the better of me. I wasn’t alone; droves of people had succumb to its cooling temperatures, yet its amplitude meant that there was plenty of space in which to swim. Temperatures at the height of summer in Slovenia typically peak at around 32ºC, and this couldn’t have been far off.
Later, I came upon a fantastically fun-looking rope swing, surrounded by a group of local boys. One, after a bit of encouragement, launched himself forth and must have shot 40ft into the air before plunging back down to the water. Three others expertly followed his lead. Soon though, the swing was handed to me. I glanced behind me as I readied myself to leap – a crowd had gathered, which did not help my nerves in the slightest, but I took a moment to reassure myself. ‘What could go wrong?’ I thought. ‘If a boy of twelve can do it, then so can I.’
How very, very embarrassing. I failed – miserably. The swing had slipped from my grasp before I had even cleared the bank, and now children were laughing at me. I tried again, and failed again. More laughter. ‘Try holding it with your forearms facing inward’ one spectator suggested. ‘You think so?’ I replied, debating whether to give up. ‘Of course! Third time lucky’ he winked back. I sighed, and braced myself for another failure, but lo and behold, it worked. I flew, and may or may not have yelled ‘I’m Batman’ at the top of my lungs the moment I swooped away victorious. I crashed back into the lake, and re-emerged to the sound of applause! Thanking the spectator, I resumed my lap, dripping wet and suitably pleased with myself. It was back to town, where I would take the bus to lake number two for the day…
A further forty-five minutes down the road lies the even smaller settlement of Bohinj, home to another magnificent and palpably less tourist-trafficked lake, Lake Bohinj. In fact, there are hardly any residents in Bohinj at all; just tourists and a workforce. My jaw dropped as the bus turned its last corner and the lake came into view. There was no castle or island this time, but one could hardly criticise; the natural beauty was just unbelievable and the void of crowds certainly made a difference. Was Lake Bohinj even more beautiful than Lake Bled? I needed to get a closer look before making such hasty conclusions.
Closer inspection revealed that she was bigger as well. 1.58km² bigger in fact. If I intended to complete my second lap of honour for the day then I would need to either walk very quickly or rent a bike. The latter option prevailed for a very reasonable fare, and I’m no expert but I was fairly sure I’d chosen wisely. At least the suspension coils looked cool and there was a water bottle holder. No brainer really.
I got off to a good start. Cycling from the bridge along the flat path on the right hand side poses no difficulty and a great deal of stunning vistas. The water was so clear and still that only the tiny, hovering fish in the shallows gave the game away. Ploughing on, I eventually came upon a diving board balanced precariously off the end of a jetty. Several kids stood around, watching each other hurl themselves in. I thought better of joining them – I’d already had my fill of acrobatic heroics for the day. ‘I’ll carry on a little further’ I thought. ‘The views from the northern side must be even better’.
The terrain grew rockier and clunkier. ‘Where are all the other cyclists?’ I wondered, the sweat beginning to pour. I was soon enlightened by a sign that explicitly forbade cyclists to cycle on the footpath. Oops. It was too late to turn back, and I was coping all right anyway, so I powered on through. Moments later, the inevitable happened. I was flung from my seat after colliding with a fat root that my front wheel just couldn’t hack, and landed with a thud onto my chin. My initial reaction was to close my eyes, take deep breaths and ignore the pain. Then I felt the pain, and swore uncontrollably, before eventually getting up to resume my sweaty skirmish and plummet back to the earth no less than twice more.
I violently dragged the bike the last fifty meters or so before the ground finally levelled out at the lake’s north end where the views were indeed even better. I stopped to take a much needed dip, stretching out on the gravelly earth in the shallowest area, watching minnows swim across my stomach. It was at this precise moment that I pondered on my earlier question: which was more beautiful, Lake Bled or Lake Bohinj? But I could not decide, for it is impossible to choose between the two. Both are equally as awesome – in the literal sense of the word – and I doubt I will ever find another lake in this world more visually pleasing. But that’s what I said in Canada.
Both Bled and Bohinj are within driving distance of Ljubljana. From LJubljana bus station, you can take the hourly bus service directly to Bled, costing just €7. The journey takes around 1 hour and 15 minutes. Bohinj is serviced by the same bus. Alternatively you can take the train to Lesce-Bled station, 4km southeast of Bled, though you will have to take the connecting bus service to the town on arrival and these run irregularly.
WHERE TO SAY
Given how close Ljubljana is, both sites can be visited and seen fully on one long day trip, but if you’re more of an adventure type and want to take advantage of the amazing hiking, biking, kayaking and climbing opportunities in the area, you may want to stay for the night.
For the best budget accommodation, Jazz Hostel and Apartments offer convenient (five minutes from Lake Bled) and comfortable digs starting at €17 per bed. Read reviews here.
Apartments Vila Cvetka Bled are a cluster of charming cottages just 250m from Lake Bled and perfect if you’re looking for something a little more mid-range. Each cottage is surrounded by greenery and boasts splendid views of the lake. Prices start at €80 per cottage per night. Read reviews here.
Or you can splurge on the lavish Vila Bled, which sits emphatically on the shore of the lake. The four star hotel is actually the former private getaway of ex-Yugoslav president Marshal Tito, and has since combined rustic and modern in a wonderfully unaffected way. Double rooms cost €159 per night when a booking is made for three nights. Read reviews here.
WHEN TO GO
The average temperature during summer is around 26°, and can get as hot as 32° some days. Naturally, both lakes are busier with tourists at this time of year but thankfully not to the point of overcrowding. Due to its alpine climate, northern Slovenia can become bitterly cold during the winter, sometimes plummeting to -8°. However, a bit of eerie mist or snow for decoration makes the lake seem arguably even more spectacular.
If travelling from Ljubljana by bus, ensure that you arrive at the station with plenty of time ti spare as tickets must be bought from the ticket office and there is often a long queue. The buses do not wait, and every hour is precious on a day trip to Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj!