Mention Slovenia to most people you will be typically met with three responses: 1 – “Where is that?” 2 – “Isn’t Bratislava the capital?” and 3 – “Ah yes, I once went to Lake Bled; it is beautiful there.” Perhaps the aforementioned isn’t particularly scientific but having personally been answered with ignorance, confusion with Slovakia and the the feeling that most people believe Slovenia begins and ends with Bled, it is perhaps more accurate than the tourism gurus in Ljubljana would like us to believe.
So, why do most people know of Bled’s existence over the far superior Bohinj, the dramatic scenery of Kranjska Gora and the coastal sophistication of Piran? Many factors come into play to explain this. Firstly, Bled is a classic example of ‘accessible Alps’, the kind of place that would’ve perfectly suited Mark Twain, his Alpine travel-essentials merely consisting of a verandah, a telescope and a bottle of whisky. Travellers can feel a part of the mountainscape without actually having to get involved with it, to interact with it or the demands an assault on the nearby Karavanke massif would dictate. By this definition it caters for the not insubstantial demographic of a certain vintage who like the their lakes at touching distance and mountains distant, albeit visible from their terraces, balconies and yes, verandahs. These are people who in their pomp perhaps scaled the peaks, walked hut-to-hut and endured the many meteorological vagaries that the Alps routinely throws at the hiker but now, are content to view from afar their adventures of yesteryear in a way that won’t exacerbate their arthritis. Bled of course thrives and equally relies upon this niche market, which of course should not necessarily be viewed pejoratively.
The grey pound/euro is amply catered for with a short bus ride(rather than the steep but rewarding forest walk) to the eponymously named castle perched magisterially above the lake, exorbitantly priced Pletna rides to the middle of the lake to one of the only two lakes in Slovenia(the other being on Maribor’s river Drava) and the opportunity to ring the bell at the pilgrimage church, popular for weddings with foreigners and locals alike. Those travelling with the likes of Inghams, Crystal Thomson and an increasing array of British coach holiday companies will also benefit from the short walk from the hotel entrance/exit to their transport, to then be guided on four wheels around the area with the absolute minimum of personal effort. For those who can manage it walking the circuit of the lake will also while away a couple of hours.
Once though it has been established that Bled has a clean lake, albeit almost devoid of bird life save for the usual Mallards and Mute Swans and, a one thousand year old castle, what else does it really have to offer? This is where the travel companies will begin to look shifty and point you towards outlying areas such as Bohinj and Radovljica. It cannot be emphasised enough how ugly many of the hotels are that Bled relies upon for vital tourism revenue. A case in point is the Hotel Krim: its name lends an at best inauspicious start to proceedings but witnessing it first-hand is an experience in itself. The words leviathan, concrete, behemoth, monstrosity, brutalist, Communist, 1970’s and shameful can be placed in any order you prefer but the message is plain and simple: architecture like this has no place in the 21st century, in a resort Slovenia regards as its flagship or in any other. This is just one example, perhaps the worst, but it is worth noting that despite these carbuncles being sanctioned in the era of Josip ‘Broz’ Tito the man himself decided it was best, in the true Non-Aligned fashion that Yugoslavia was then famous for to stay away from the proletariat in his own lakeside villa, now renovated to take guests under the Vila Bled aegis. The Grand Hotel Toplice, the closest thing Bled has to five star accommodation and positioned roughly opposite Bled Castle, has been described as being less than the sum of its parts whilst into the bargain setting you back a pretty penny.
My previous visit to Bled in June last year yielded disappointing results in the town itself, where the dominant feeling amongst myself and other foreign guests was “is that it?”. On an admittedly roasting hot day that drove me away for the day from my base in Bohinj, I searched for stimulation but found very little. The concrete shopping-centre housed on several levels is ugly, pointless and in the main sells things that if they never existed people wouldn’t miss. I also noted wonky paving slabs which were dangerous underfoot but hopefully now rectified. Bled has a chairlift to the modest peak of Mount Straza which, having used it several years ago I thought would afford me some shade and a cooling breeze. I unfortunately will never know if it would’ve served those purposes as it wasn’t operating. Surely in mid June, in Slovenia’s self-styled premier resort this could’ve been running? Having almost melted into the paving whilst sitting by the lake with the Mallards, I cut my losses and headed back to Bohinj, not itself a mecca of things to do when it is too hot to walk the trails. My journey between the two settlements, approximately half an hour in duration, was preoccupied with attempting to stay cool in the 95 degree fahrenheit temperatures but also, I was troubled by the question I would inevitably ask anyone I knew who had stayed in Bled: what on earth did you do whilst you were there, especially if you are not a hiker?
Using Bled as a base is perhaps the most useful purpose of the town itself, merely somewhere to lay your head and eat breakfast and dinner. There is inevitably a greater, if at times aesthetically uglier choice of accommodation than Bohinj although there are some well-regarded pension-style boltholes to be found, such as the unfortunately named Pension Berc www.penzion-berc.si/en and Penzion Mayer www.mayer-sp.si. It is feasible to base yourself in Bled and get the bus every morning to either end of Lake Bohinj, depending on where your hike starts, or any of the settlements between Bohinjska Bistrica and Ribcev Laz, respectively the administrative centre of the Bohinj area and the commercial hub for Lake Bohinj itself.
If I had to offer some advice to the tourism mandarins in Ljubljana, be it welcome or otherwise, it would be to stop trading on the beauty of the lake and castle and be realistic: what does it expect guests to do in Bled if they are not hardened hikers? Is it enough for Bled to be used as a base where guests disappear from every morning to go and spend their hard currency in other towns, even over the border in Italy or Austria? Could it not be viewed as disrespectful to guests to allow the likes of the concrete jungles of, for example the Hotel Krim and the wholly egregious and pointless shopping-complex to be some of the abiding and predominant memories guests will take home from Bled? Whilst any tourism hotspot, be it deserving of that moniker or otherwise, will have at times appalling levels of traffic and the feeling of a lottery in getting across some of the roads, this is also a situation the authorities again need to address.
It is not enough to say Bled is in a great location for visiting OTHER places such as Bohinj and Ljubljana, to create an identity that only serves to be used as a stopping off point for going elsewhere. In the 21st century where guests demand more than being fleeced and being confronted with aesthetic abominations, Bled needs a radical rethink of what it wants to be and to whom. It can be an Alpine resort that offers something for everyone, for guests who wouldn’t need to venture further afield should they not wish to. At the moment though it merely seems to be a stopping off point for camera-toting Japanese who stop, take a few snaps and then move on. It can and must do better than this.
*Coming soon: Lake Bled – the case for the defence*