The blue waters of Lake Bled's, well and truly found
Turquoise Lake Bled will wow you - and everyone else who is visiting
When it comes to vacation destinations in Central Europe, Slovenia flies under many tourists' radars. But their loss is your gain, because that means less competition and more elbow room as you take in the country's charming scenery. With one exception.
Slovenia's most acclaimed attraction is Lake Bled, in the Julian Alps. The lake, beautiful in its own right, is enhanced by a 17th-century church on its own little island, the castle perched on a nearby hill and the assortment of cafes selling the town's famous cream cake.
Great stuff - if you can manage to enjoy it. But by 10 a.m. in the summer months, the entire town is in gridlock. Parking is the subject of multiple lively TripAdvisor threads.
To keep your visit simple, get there early and rent a bike to pedal the paved, four-mile path around the lake. Or hike up to the castle and view the lake's pristine waters from above. If you're up to braving the crowds, catch a ride on a pletna, one of the area's traditional wooden rowboats, and head to the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary. Don't leave without ringing the church's famous "wishing bell."
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No matter what, wrap up your trip to Bled with a piece of kremna rezina. This tasty dessert is available at pretty much any cafe in town, but the Park Hotel created the modern standard recipe in the 1950s and has served up more than 15 million cakes since.
Lake Bled is in the Julian Alps, 35 miles north of Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana.
Hidden in the Julian Alps
On spacious Velika Planina, you'll find sublime views and fresh cheese
For a more serene experience in the Julian Alps, head east from Bled to Velika Planina, a breathtaking plateau where nomadic herdsmen bring their dairy cattle every summer.
With more than 100 oval huts dotting the landscape, Velika Planina is said to be the largest shepherds' settlement in Europe. Some of the huts have been converted into tourist attractions, such as a local museum, while others remain the private domain of the herdsmen. But the plateau is so large that there's plenty of space for tourists, shepherds and grazing cattle alike.
From the parking lot in the nearby river valley of Kamniska Bistrica, ride the gondola lift halfway up the mountain and then a chairlift to the summit. There, you can take in the views from 5,000 feet above sea level and admire the beauty of the plateau, which in the springtime is covered with bright purple crocuses. The hiking trails are marked well; the main concern is to keep a respectful distance from the herdsmen. (Expect their cows, on the other hand, to wander wherever the grass looks tastiest.) A complete circuit of the plateau will take you about two hours, but there are several places to cut across the settlement if you need to circle back early.
While you're up there, poke your head into the huts that are open to the public. Be sure to visit the church, which still holds midnight Mass every winter. The plateau is also your chance to try classic Slovenian food: A restaurant at the foot of the chairlift sells local staples, but even better are the huts on top that let you buy dairy products, including the local specialty, trnic cheese, and zganci, a buckwheat dish similar to polenta, directly from the herdsmen who made them.
Location: Velika Planina is in the Julian Alps, about 30 miles north of Ljubljana.