Our drive from Ljubljana to Lake Bled was full of expectation, the excitement near to bubbling over as our pit stop in the tiny town of Skofja Loka showed us our first glimpse of quiet, rural Slovenia. Mountains crept into view as the seemingly one-way traffic hinted what Bled held in store for us, but I flitted between guide book, sat-nav, road signs and trying to capture my first glimpse of the elusive lake, ignoring the trail of camper vans and families-of-five in bicycle-laden SUVs ahead of us.
My heart sank as we pulled into our hotel, located on the intersection of the only road from the capital into Bled, and directly opposite a petrol station. My visions of a serene, rural escape quickly dashed, I sat in our rental car, red-faced at my booking blunder and chastised myself for being swung by cost. You see, my first hint at what a trip to Lake Bled is really like, beyond the infamous church perched on an apparently secluded island, was the price of accommodation. Before arriving in Bled, we started our five day Slovenia road trip staying in a great warehouse conversion aparthotel for the cost of a Travelodge. After Bled, we were booked to stay in a working apiary Airbnb in Kobarid, costing less than a London to Manchester off-peak train fare. But Bled was different; although huge numbers of ‘five minutes to the Lake!’ guesthouses were available, my ideas of a cheap and cheerful Eastern European getaway were soon put firmly in their place.
My disappointment on initial arrival quickly dissipated with triple glazed windows blocking out all traffic noise and a truly beautiful and comfortable self- service apartment. A minor setback, if anything, and after all, we really were just five minutes from the Lake as promised, so a reignited excitement found its place alongside my camera, three lenses and an Instagram account prepped to post THAT shot.
Except, of course, that is what everyone is there to do. The same photo of the same island that fills timelines and prompts heart-eye emojis and sets off wanderlust in people who marvel at others’ trips with low-key bemusement and wonder, asking, ‘Really? Slovenia? Wow!’. The coaches full of day-trippers from Ljubljana arrive like clockwork every 15 minutes, the heavy diesel breaks signalling the next batch of tourists who are doing it for the ‘gram. They flock to the assigned vantage point before piling onto a waiting pletna barely keeping afloat from the weight of the crowd, their squeals of joy at the possibility of drowning echo back to shore; a blur of selfie sticks and New Balance trainers over to the island before I could understand what had happened.
Forget my accommodation faux-pas, this was my biggest mistake. I ‘d expected Lake Bled to still be relatively undiscovered, or at the very least ‘up-and-coming’, but like other areas of beauty and serenity it has lost its allure to sheer popularity. I was sold the idea of an idyllic, peaceful town, but then so was everyone else who arrived and, like me, selfishly wanted a piece to themselves. It was a naive assumption but photos rarely show the large groups of tourists at any well-known site. With dedicated content creators who get up at 5am to miss the crowds and take a beautiful shot, even the Eiffel Tower could be misinterpreted as an intimate experience.
We couldn’t beat them so we joined them, or rather we followed the squeals across the water by renting our own boat. The potential for a romantic moment with my fiancé gave me enough short-term amnesia to black out that I HATE open water, right up until a young man was pushing our self-row pletna boat out onto the lake and I came to with a scream of realisation that ‘YOU HAVEN’T TOLD US IF THERE’S LIFE JACKETS’. It turns out that and we are appalling sailors as we did a couple of laps of the same square foot of water before finding a pace that got us to the island. Rent-your-own boats are available all along the lake periphery but if we had got the first one we’d encountered, I fear we would either still be there or, you know, dead, as it was a considerable distance from the island yet very close to the town of Bled itself.
The journey to the island seems to be the thing that people come here for, and not necessarily to visit the actual church that’s there. It’s said that if you ring the bell of The Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary you can make a wish, but the entry fee appears to put people off asking for all their dreams to come true. It meant I was able to ask Our Lady pretty immediately for her assistance in not drowning on my way back on our tiny wooden death boat. Those who do ring the bell do so with a wry little agnostic smile on their face and move on. A trip highlight? Not really. But I didn’t drown so something must got through to someone. The reward of a slice of Kremna Rezina, otherwise known as Bled Cream Cake, eaten by the lakeside, confirmed that my favourite water based activity is sitting next to it whilst eating something delicious, and truly this dessert was the highlight of our visit.
We’d had great food in Ljubljana so my expectations were again high, and again, dashed pretty quickly. All of the restaurants priced their main courses between €20 – €30, a price I wouldn’t pay in anywhere except those whose reputations precede them. We just wanted a burger. But as rainclouds came in, my patience ran thin, my tight purse strings were not being pried open, and over a pretty decent beer in a place that simply had the word PUB above its door, we concocted the plan that we would instead buy oven food to cook back in our aparthotel and watch Netflix. It was a great plan until we got back and realised we didn’t in fact have an oven – but that’s more of a conversation about how important communication is in a relationship so let’s save that for a catch up in person some time, shall we?
Is it wrong that my expectations of Lake Bled were so high? How could I have avoided such disappointment? In this case, I had judged the (guide)book literally by its cover and ignored my own instincts that maybe it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It is beautiful, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s also clear that over tourism is taking its toll and I think this is just the tip of the iceberg showing what’s to come with Slovenia’s most popular town.