The Bled Bookend

4 September 2019

We had two options today, according to our walking notes – the first, a hike to the Vintgar Gorge (16.2KM, 5hrs 10mins, total ascent/descent 380 metres); the second, a shorter hike to the “small picturesque town of Radovljica” which would take us back in the direction of Ribno (13.5KM, 4hrs 10min, total ascent/descent 200 metres). We decided to do… neither, and to instead explore beautiful Bled.

First on the agenda – that island with the church, which by now we’d taken a ridiculous number of photos of. So after breakfast, we wandered through the grounds of Vila Bled to the lake. A row of gondola-like boats – pletnas – and their boatmen waited for their fares. We picked one at random and were directed onto the shiny new Neža, named after our boatman’s daughter.

It wasn’t long before the boat filled up with other tourists, and we were off to the island. There seemed to be two other ways to get to the island – you could row your own boat, or you could swim across.

The other swimmers

We found out that pletnas and their boatmen were a rather exclusive lot. The boatman ‘title’ is handed down through generations – and can only be inherited by the males. Our boatman had daughters, so it looked like the line would end with him. There are a limited number of these pletnas – not more than 20 apparently. The earnings were not too shabby – a round trip to the island cost 15 Euros per person. There are about 20 people on each trip. It’s about 20 minutes there, and 20 minutes back – and passengers are given 30 minutes to look-see around the church and the island. Our boatman said he does up to 6 trips a day, sometimes more…if my math is right, that’s 1800 Euros a day. He also said he can choose when he wants to work, and that he does less (or nothing at all) when his girls are on school vacation.

A pletna’s boatman is a pletnar!

From the lake we got a good view of our hotel – it really was in prime location, hugged by trees, its well-manicured lawns coming right down to the lake. It would’ve been a magnificent summer retreat for Marshal Tito and his family.

The Vila Bled

The Church of Mary (aka the Church of the Mother of God – just in case there was any doubt about Mary’s identity) on the island is apparently a popular wedding spot, with people coming from all over the world to get married there; no weddings were in progress today. Its other claim to fame is its ‘wishing bell’ – near the altar was a rope that hung down from the bell tower. Legend has it that ringing the bell three times (by pulling the rope) will make a wish come true…unfortunately, I only found this out much later, after we had left the church…I did wonder why so many people were so eager to ring the bell…

Pletnas, Lake Bled

Getting back to mainland after our island walkabout, we decided to walk along the lake, with no particular destination in mind. It was such a beautiful blue-skied day. The sun-worshippers were out in full force, making good progress on their tans – and I guess concurrently making progress on their sun-damaged skin as well.

In a patch of shade, under some trees, a multitasker had set up his fishing rods and while waiting for the fish he edited photos on his laptop. Elsewhere, friends and couples sat on the water’s edge, just enjoying the day. It was truly quite idyllic.

The water was unbelievably clear. This seems to be standard here in Slovenia – every water body we’d encountered…lake, river, stream…had absolutely crystal clear water.

Ladies of the Lake
Getting one’s ducks in a row…almost

Strolling along, the lake on the left, the road on our right, we noticed streams of Harleys thundering past. As this was an itinerary-less day, we had the luxury of stopping and taking countless panning shots of the Harleys and other vehicles that went past. We found out later that the Harleys were in town for their annual European Bike Week meet-up in neighbouring Austria.

An exercise in patience

We soon got hungry and wandered back to the town centre and to Sova, a restaurant which was on our ‘recommended list’. We were lucky to be there early, before it filled up, and got a lovely balcony table overlooking the lake. The food was divine – from the breads, and the fish soup, to the pasta and the chocolate overload dessert (with a bonus of salted caramel ice cream) – it was a Very Satisfying meal.

Fish soup
Gone in short order
Dessert (it was shared!)

It was a slow (very slow) walk back to our hotel after lunch, the heat adding to our post-prandial stupor. After some lolling, we thought we should go have a look at castle; we did it the easy way, getting a cab which took us to the entrance of the castle. There still was a steep cobble-stoned walk before we got to the castle proper. We were now looking back across the lake to our hotel and the island church we’d visited this morning. Quite magnificent views, though the bright sunlight and cloudless skies made the photography a tad challenging.

Hello from the other side

The courtyard restaurant at the castle was preparing for a wedding reception – at least I think it was a wedding reception. Either that or it was a party with plenty of wine.

Party prep…living dangerously

There were some cosplay characters around, dressed in their mediaeval best and practising their sword moves. This reminded me of our visit to Visby on Gotland Island in Sweden – we had arrived (totally unplanned) in the middle of Mediaeval Week, and were immediately plunged into an era long-gone, but obviously not forgotten. There were people in complete suits of armour, jousting contests, children pulled in wooden carts (with wooden wheels) and even a Thor-like character who might’ve got his costumes mixed up. These dressed-up people at Bled Castle weren’t so hard-core – but close.

Consistent with our plan to have a lazy-ish day today, we called for a cab once we were done at the castle, intending to head back to the hotel. The young and quite chatty cabbie who came to get us, asked if we had been to the Vintgar Gorge – one of our hiking options for today. He said it wasn’t far and we could probably have a look before the park gates closed. So, off we went to the gorge.

This was probably the best impromptu decision of the day. As it was almost closing time, we were practically the only ones there. It was an easy boardwalk sort of trail, with only parts going off-trail – which was a good thing since none of us were wearing our hiking boots. It was so peaceful, walking on the boardwalk which criss-crossed over the Radovna River…and yes, this was another crystal clear river. It was simply stunning.

There were the occasional visitors returning in the opposite direction but for the most part it was just the three of us – and we could take our time, doing various slow shutter speed shots (without tripods) without blocking the narrow path – and more importantly, without the boardwalk bouncing and vibrating with the walking by of other visitors.

It was almost dark by the time we got back to the entrance – and getting quite chilly. There was a bit of a wait till the cab we’d called arrived, but it eventually did – with the same young cabbie. It was a lovely drive back, on dark village roads, with the sound of Andrea Bocelli’s ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ filling the car (the cab had a good sound system!)…a fitting end to our last full day in Slovenia.

Back at the Vila Bled, there was a brief consideration of going back to Sova for dinner but we decided instead to eat in at the hotel’s restaurant – it was rather fancy, and we were probably underdressed – but there were only a few other customers, and neither they nor the wait staff batted an eyelid. Unfortunately, our nice waitress from yesterday, Beti, wasn’t there – we hoped she would be at breakfast tomorrow so we could say goodbye. [Afternote: she wasn’t 😦 ]

5 September 2019

Today we go our separate ways, GC back to DC and S and I to Singapore. It was a well spent morning – GC was chatting to the front desk lady who said she’d show us Marshal Tito’s suite. It was spartan but posh in a socialist sort of way. The master bedroom, sun streaming in through its large windows, had stunning views of the grounds and the lake. One of the bathrooms was well equipped with grab bars and hospital-type fittings – probably installed as Tito got more ill.

We had some time to walk through the beautiful grounds, checking out iPhone’s Portrait mode, before Milan was there for GC’s ride to the airport. After goodbyes were said, S and I walked into town for a early-ish lunch…back to Sova, and once again a balcony table. I decided to live dangerously and had the ‘creamy truffle soup with prosciutto chips and profiteroles’…I say this because I have a mushroom allergy, but NOT a truffle allergy (it’s a classy allergy that way)…but I haven’t had truffles in such high concentration before. Thankfully all was well.

Truffle overload

Fortunately too we decided to share the lamb shank – it would have been more appropriate to have shared it among 3!

Yumm!

Back to the hotel after lunch, we had a little time to freshen up before Milan was back for us and we were on our way to Ljubljana airport. Our flight back to Singapore via Munich was uneventful – the highlight being our Thai food and the most welcome chilli padi at Munich airport.

Going Asian in Munich

The Verdict

Slovenia has been surprising – it was idyllic in a way I never imagined it to be. The countryside and the little towns were pristine, the scenery and landscapes stunning; the people were almost uniformly friendly and helpful, the food was yummy and tap water drinkable everywhere we went.

A walking holiday provided a perspective of the country – and countryside – that seemed far sharper than when seen through the window of a moving vehicle. There was time to stop and stare; there was time to notice earthworms and frogs, butterflies and bees busy in flower beds; there was plenty of time to think as we walked, often in silence – a rare privilege when at home and caught up in the daily routine of work, home, and everything in between.

So would I do a walking – or hiking – holiday again? The answer, after more than 125KM and close to 200,000 steps, is a ‘yes’ – with just two caveats :

  1. A daily average of 10 – 15KM (as opposed to 20 – 22 KM) would, I think, be a better target. While we completed the 20 – 22KM and got to our next destinations before dark, I at least, felt that there were diminishing salubrity returns beyond the 15KM mark – bragging rights notwithstanding.
  2. Fewer descents, and to some degree ascents – especially those punishing descents on asphalt – my knees would thank me – and perhaps will last longer, for the many more trips planned, and as yet unplanned.

A couple of days after returning, in a Cambridge Analytica moment, several ads for walking holidays popped up on my social media feed. I’d been thinking about Japan, and there on my FB wall was an article advertising a walking holiday in Japan. There were several grades of walks – I looked up the one that said ‘challenging’…the day described as the ‘toughest’, comprised a 9KM walk, with less than 100 metres of ascent/ descent…I just might sign up for it.

For more pictures from this journey, click here.

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