Slovenia: Danger in the dark woods

By Jenna Hand

Slovenia is achingly beautiful, but stay on the path - especially as night falls, warns Jenna Hand.

Slovenian grooms are expected to carry their brides up 99 steps to Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church. Photo / Getty Images
Slovenian grooms are expected to carry their brides up 99 steps to Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church. Photo / Getty Images

There's a moment of alarm when we take in the situation. We're somewhere in a Slovenian forest with only half a bottle of water and a fistful of gummy bears between the two of us, and we don't know where we're going. The dirt trail is muddy from the rain and the trees stretch as far as we can see. It's pretty, but that's not much consolation when the sun is setting, the last trail marker was 20 minutes ago - and even that was just a slash of red paint on a tree trunk.

We had taken a taxi from the town of Bled to the mouth of Vintgar Gorge in Slovenia's Julian Alps. People usually walk the 4kms but we were in a hurry and had to catch a bus back to the capital, Ljubljana, in time for dinner.

We'd come from Ljubljana that morning along with a dozen others doing the almost compulsory excursion to the place that inspires so many Slovenian postcards.

Just south of the Austrian border, Bled made a name for itself as a health retreat in the 19th century.

Generations of aristocrats holidayed by its glacial lake and Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito had a summer residence there when Slovenia was part of the Socialist Federal Republic. It is now a hotel.

Bled's church-topped island in the middle of the lake might indeed be one of the most stunning spots in a country with no shortage of natural beauty. They say you can swim to it but we pay a boat operator 12 euros ($18.90) each to row us across with six others.

It should be serene - just the gentle sloshing of oars in water. But two women chat away and one's phone keeps beeping and there's a guy snapping photos and then our skipper's phone rings, and we drift as he talks. But block it all out and it's just the boat, the lake and the island - and back towards the shore, the equally stirring sight of a castle emerging from rocks high above the water.

The island's quaint Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church is at the top of 99 stairs and the location of a ritual that strikes terror in the hearts of Slovenian grooms: carrying their bride all the way up.

Apparently some do serious training in advance, something I decide is quite sensible after labouring up with just a backpack. All the while the bell in the small, 18th century baroque chapel clangs haphazardly as tourists yank its rope for good luck.

Back on the mainland, we climb the hill to the medieval castle and lean over the belly-high stone walls to drink in the view of the lake below. And then we realise we have three hours before we need to be back on a bus, during which time we intend seeing a gorge an hour's walk away.

Once we're there, any doubt that we should have bothered making the effort on a drizzly day disappears. The 1.6km boardwalk leads us into the verdant cavity alongside slippery rocks that rise up on both sides, crossing the stream that is first turquoise and then a deep bottle green.

At some point we come to a sandy bank beside a waterfall and the path forks. Other walkers pass us to the left, but there's an arrow on the right pointing back to Bled. With the clock ticking and the light fading, we set off. Up rocks, through springy undergrowth, we lose then find the rough path. We walk through a tract of pungent wild garlic growing rampant on the forest floor, a seasonal favourite on local menus.

We climb some more, but there seems to be no end to the trees - and I start to panic, just a little. Wild imagining ensues and I wonder about the bears someone told us inhabit these parts. Eventually the goat track turns to pebbles and then to bitumen, and we see Bled a couple of kilometres in the distance.

We tramp through pastures and a village of pastel-painted chalets, past cows and vegetable gardens and last year's corn drying in someone's yard. Finally, we reach the town - and the blessed bus. Gummy bears have never tasted so good.

CHECKLIST

Getting There: Fly from London. Direct train services go from Venice, Vienna and Zagreb. Bled is about a 40-minute drive.

- NZ Herald

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