Escapism

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Slovenia: Lake Bled on two wheels

By Jill Worrall

Slovenians and overseas visitors alike flock to Lake Bled for its alpine air, the springs and the scenery. Photo / Jill Worrall
Slovenians and overseas visitors alike flock to Lake Bled for its alpine air, the springs and the scenery. Photo / Jill Worrall

I'm hoping that cycling twice around Lake Bled in Slovenia will in some way offset the effects of eating one of the regional specialties - a custard slice that will absolutely never get a "pick the tick" logo.

Lake Bled, in north-western Slovenia and only a few kilometres from the Austrian border, has an air of unreality about it, despite the fact that it is often besieged with tourists.

Encircle a small lake with a backdrop of both the Julian Alps and Karavanke mountains, drop in a tiny island topped with a 17th century church, and top it all off with a medieval castle perched high on a cliff over the lake.

It would be a cliché to use the world "fairly-tale" to describe the result. But unfortunately, when you're standing amongst the oak forests on the shores of Lake Bled and someone is rowing past the island in a wooden boat shaped like a swan, it's the word that comes instantly to mind.

Although people have lived around the lake and on the island since the 7th century, Lake Bled's beauty was not always appreciated the way it was now. In the 18th century someone even considered draining the lake and using the exposed clay to make bricks.

Thankfully this idea was abandoned and by the mid 19th century Bled was discovered by its first wave of early tourists. Thanks to its rising popularity as a result of the fashion for spa holidays (Bled has hot springs), it's future was secure.

Today Slovenians and overseas visitors alike flock to Lake Bled for its alpine air, the springs and the scenery. The small town at the eastern end of the lake might be a mishmash of hotels, restaurants and shops, but it is surprisingly easy to escape the throngs of visitors.

Early one morning before most people were stirring I hired a bike and set off around the 6km trail that hugs the lake shore. An early autumn mist was hovering above the water, making Bled Island appear to float magically just above the surface, and the first sunshine of the day was illuminating the castle walls.

Set among lime and oak trees on the lake shore above the trail not far out of town is the former holiday villa of Marshal Tito, the ruler of the former Yugoslavia of which Slovenia was once part. It's now a hotel, and as I cycled past I had a glimpse of an elegant white building and wide steps descending towards the lake.

At the far end of the lake is a camping ground and, conveniently, an outdoor café - it was the perfect place for an early morning infusion of caffeine with an unimpeded view of the castle and the island thrown in for free.

The Church of the Assumption on the island is at the top of 98 stone steps. It was a tradition long before the socialist era for grooms to carry their brides up the steps. To succeed was to prove oneself fit for marriage.

The church was closed and weddings on the island banned during the time of Tito, but following Slovenia's peaceful transformation to independence the tradition is back in fashion.

Presumably, if you were a groom you'd want to ensure your bride had not consumed too many of Bled's specialty pastries before setting up the steps. Kremsnita can be found all over Slovenia but it was invented in a Bled hotel and the town considers it still has the best.

Kremsnita look like a superior, and rather large, custard square but with the addition under the top layer of very fluffy pastry of about a centimetre of fresh cream. Even the lakeside café had them on offer but I resisted, not wanting to undo all the good work from the cycle.

Beyond the campground was the Zaka Regattae Centre, which was the venue for last year's World Rowing Championships and the scene of a gold rush for New Zealand rowers. Boats were being launched as I pedaled past: fours, eights, pairs and doubles were setting off for a morning's training on the still waters of the lake.

Beneath the castle the lakeside was studded with more 19th century villas and squirrels skittered among the first falling leaves of autumn. Back in town, I decided that the time was nearly right for a kremsnita, but as an insurance policy I decided to cycle around the lake one more time first.

- nzherald.co.nz

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