Kick Back in Bled

Ring the bell at the Church of the Assumption and watch your wish come true.
By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt

Lake Bled, Slovenia's leading mountain resort, comes complete with a sweeping alpine panorama, fairy-tale island, cliff-hanging medieval castle, lakeside promenade, and the country's most sought-after desserts. The first official mention of Bled was in the year 1004, when Holy Roman Emperor Henry II turned it over to the Bishops of Brixen. Bled proudly celebrated its millennium in 2004. You'll see the town's symbol everywhere: a peacock, or "bird of paradise," based on an artifact found under the castle. Since the Hapsburg days, Lake Bled has been the place where Slovenes have wowed visiting diplomats. Marshal Tito had one of his vacation homes here, while more recent visitors have included Prince Charles and Madeleine Albright.

The lake's main town, also called Bled, offers handy access to the region and breathtaking views of the lake. It's also a sublime spot to pass a day. The town's lakefront is lined with cafés and resort hotels. Big Stol ("Chair") mountain looms just above the town and in good weather, you'll see the Julian Alps, including iconic Mount Triglav, poking above the ridge at the far end of the lake.

A 3.5-mile footpath/bikepath circles the lake. A scenic spin takes you past some great villas, mostly from the beginning of the 19th century, including the former residence of Tito, today the Hotel Vila Bled (it's the big, white, James Bond-style villa with the long staircase at the southern end of lake, near the village of Mlino). For the more adventurous, there are also hiking paths up into the hills surrounding the lake or up to Bled's cliffside castle. Bled Castle, dating in one form or another from a thousand years ago, was the seat of the Austrian Bishops of Brixen. While the old castle features a dull museum, a tiny frescoed chapel, a working printing press from Gutenberg's time, a wine cellar, and an "herbal gallery," its most rewarding feature is the spectacular view of the town, lake, and island. Unpack your picnic here.

Don't leave without a trip out to the island, reachable by charming pletna boats — or if you're game, a brisk swim. The little island, topped with a super-cute church, nudges the lake's quaintness level over the top. The island has long been a sacred site with a romantic twist. On summer Saturdays, a steady procession of brides and grooms cheered on by their entourages head for the island. It is traditional for the groom to carry — or try to carry — his bride up the 98 steps from the island's dock to the Church of the Assumption. About four out of five are successful (proving themselves "fit for marriage"). The church was closed and weddings here outlawed during the communist era. But the tradition reemerged even before the regime ended, with an illegal, clandestine ceremony in 1989. Superstitious locals (and every tour guide in town) claim that ringing the church bell will make your dreams come true. Close your eyes and give it a ring. When you open them, you'll find yourself on an enchanting island in the middle of a stunning alpine lake.

And for Dessert...

While you're in Bled, be sure to enjoy the town's specialty, a vanilla-custard-and-cream cake called kremšnita. This dish was first created right here in Bled, at the big, red Park Hotel. Slovenes travel from all over the country to sample this famous dessert. Slightly less renowned, but just as tasty, is grmada (literally "bonfire"). This dessert was developed by Hotel Jelovice as a way to get rid of their day-old dessert leftovers. Start with the remains of cakes, add rum, milk, custard, and raisins, and top it off with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. It's the perfect end to a perfectly relaxing day.

Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook.