The Little Path on Bled Island

by Noah Charney
Pletna boat oarsman are very respected. The title has been handed down from generation to generation for centuries.

It is inevitable that you will approach Bled Island by boat. More specifically, in a Pletna boat, a unique vessel reminiscent of the gondolas that glide through the canals of Venice, just two and a half hours west. You will be ferried in a Pletna run by one of only 23 families who were given the concession in the 18thcentury to carry passengers to this miraculous diamond of an island, set into the jewel-encrusted necklace that is Bled, Slovenia.

If Disney ever gets around to making a Frozen-style musical cartoon epic based on Slavic mythology, then this is surely where it would be set. For us foreigners, being here feels like we must be on the set of film, or at Disneyland…or on a film set in Disneyland. The instinctive reaction is that no real place could be so picturesque. Yet, there it is: the perfectly photogenic church on the only island in a crystalline alpine lake that seems dyed an unreal shade of sapphire. To top it off, there is a dramatic castle perched on a cliff overlooking it, to say nothing of the 19th century resort on one shore and the ring of Secessionist villas on the other. A scenographer could not have arranged it more elegantly.

The most recognizable symbol of Lake Bled is the Church of the Mother of God on the Lake.

The romance is ratcheted up when we ride in a Pletna boat to the island, the church bell tower slowly rising higher with each stroke from the oarsman. It is no surprise that the ancient Slavic ancestors of the Slovenians first established a pagan temple to Živa, their Goddess of Life, on this island. It sounds like a cliché to say that there is something magical in the air here, but it is undeniable. Regardless of your religion of choice, this island resonates. A spiritual place is a spiritual place and there are certain geographical junctures on our planet that have moved people from all different cultures, no matter who visits them and when. This is one of them.

As the oarsman pulls up to the dock, the waterfall of 99 stone-carved steps spills down towards you. The obligation to climb them encourages the idea that you are on a pilgrim’s path. Whether the journey is related to faith or culture or tourism or cake (we’ll get to the cake in a moment), it’s all good. You are here, in this slice of heaven on Earth, and it’s wonderful that you are.

Bled Island is a popular venue for the sacrament of holy marriage to couples of the Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox religions.

Those who get married in the Church of Saint Mary, Mother of God on Bled Island are meant to carry their brides up these steps. This is a prodigious feat of manliness but is probably only advisable if you have a strong back…and good insurance coverage. The better part of valor is to hold hands with your beloved while walking up the steps.

These days, Bled Island is likely to be nicely bustling with visitors, and it has always been this way. It’s been a point of pilgrimage since pre-Christian times, and this was only amplified from 1185, the first record of a Christian chapel here. The church we see today dates from 1465, with Baroque renovations following damage caused by a 1509 earthquake. In the 19th century, when Bled was transformed into a wellness resort for well-heeled Austro-Hungarians, through the era of Yugoslavia, when Bled was a favorite vacation spot for Tito, visits to the island were always de rigeur, though during this later period, folks came for touristic and cultural, rather than religious, reasons.

The visit of the Bled Island has always been a spiritual journey to a sacred space.

In true Venetian style, the church has an independent campanile, or bell tower, that can be climbed to afford spectacular views of the shores and Bled Castle. The wonderful mechanism of the clock in the tower rewards those who climb. The church interior has been recently renovated, lovingly restored to a brilliant white, outshined only by the glittering gilding of the late Baroque statuary of the altars. The main altarpiece is particularly bling, with the Virgin Mary in its center, and with a pair of surprises on either side of her. They are medieval saints, Henry II and his wife, Cunegonde (who has one of the great names in European history). The two were sainted as a thank-you for having donated a large swath of territory, including Bled and its castle, to the bishops of Brixen. The bishops, who ruled from a seat in the Dolomites of neighboring Italy, then rented out Bled Castle and its surroundings to a series of feudal subcontractors, but the donation of the territory to the Church was good enough for sainthood. So, Henry and Cunegonde are featured in this altarpiece with halos, rather than as traditional patrons.

For most tourists, the central point of a visit to the island is the ringing of the “wishing bell.” This is a far more modern tradition, though the bell itself was cast in 1534. A local legend states that a young widow by the name of Polixena, wife of one of the feudal renters of Bled Castle, ordered the bell to be cast in memory of her late husband. When the bell was first being rowed from the shore to the island, a sudden storm blackened the skies and sunk the boat, bell and crew. The bell is still said to lie at the bottom of the lake—and to toll from the depths. Years later, the Pope heard the sad story of the widow and commissioned a new bell for the island, and it is this that rings inside the church (not, it should be noted, the one in the bell tower next door). A rope hangs down in front of the nave, and with a good yank the bell will ring and grant a wish. But, as locals like to say, the wish is not granted immediately, just as you must wait a moment after pulling on the rope to hear the ensuing toll of the bell, high above you.

The highlight of a visit of Bled Island is ringing  on the bell of wishes, which carries prayers of the soul to Mary.

Do climb the 99 steps, see the church, summit the bell tower, ring the wishing bell, and even take a stroll around the island. It will all work up an appetite. The obligation to travel somewhere in order to fulfill an anticipated desire is part of the pleasure of pilgrimage. When I was growing up, I used to go on a different sort of pilgrimage with my parents—of the culinary variety. We set out on long journeys in search a very specific dishes at restaurants that we had read about and were eager to try. In case you are my kind of pilgrim, then this island has you covered, as well. After all that beauty and culture, you will be rewarded with a bite to eat.

While Bled Island boasts a well-oiled infrastructure today, as recently as the 1960s, there was a single family that lived here full-time, complete with livestock, and the organization was a good deal less formal, to say the least. These days the township of Bled runs the island officially.

Potičnica cake shop on Bled Island.

Potičnica, the cake shop on the island, should be your final stop, after taking in the cultural attractions. Studying altarpieces and climbing bell towers can make a fellow hungry.

Potičnica, as the name suggests, features one thing: potica, Slovenia's national dish. The word potica means “little path,” and it is certainly worth a journey. It’s best described as a ring-shaped pastry made of dough with fillings rolled inside it. It is then coiled and baked in a special clay Bundt pan called a potičnik. The most traditional filling is ground, sweetened walnuts, but one of the joys of this cafe is that they make a wide variety of different poticas, and you can taste as many of them as you like. On any given day, there maybe six or eight different fillings featured. There are traditional options, like tarragon (Slovenia has the unusual distinction of being the only national cuisine that features tarragon exclusively in sweet dishes), but you can also find chocolate or hazelnut or poppy seed and many others, sweet and also savory (pork crackling potica, anyone?). You can’t go wrong, and there is no more Slovenian thing to eat than a slice (or five) of potica after ringing the wishing bell on Bled Island. And let it be said (although I hope my mother-in-law doesn't read this) that this is the best potica I've ever eaten.

Potica, traditional Slovenian festive cake.

Potica on Bled Island is made with a lot of love and appreciation for local traditions and green living. This can be seen in each detail in the cake shop, down to the fact that exclusively walnut wood is used, a tip of the hat to walnut potica. They won’t offer coconut potica, though it is popular, because there are no coconuts that grow in Slovenia. They’re deeply in tune with local heritage and is also part of the green tourism movement that has brought Slovenia international recognition and awards.

As a tourist, you will surely admire the church and the view from the tower, and you will ring the bell. You will appreciate the Pletna boat ride to and from the island, the sense of magic and tradition and enduring pilgrimage. But one of the rare pleasures that few tourists get to experience is a chance to meet the locals. Residents of Bled, especially those who value tradition and history and know the stories and help those traditions live on, locals who want to share their love for their home with interested visitors, are the living proponents of cultural heritage. So, a chance to meet the warm and enthusiastic people of Bled brings the experience of visiting to a whole other level.

After you’ve rung the bell, but before the Pletna carries you back to shore, grab a slice of Slovenia’s culinary cultural heritage, a “little path” on this longer journey.

About author

Dr Noah Charney is a best-selling American author and professor of art history, living for many years in Slovenia. He grew up in New Haven, in the USA, and did his postgraduate studies at The Courtauld Institute, University of Cambridge and University of Ljubljana. He is the author of 13 books, including several international best-sellers, including Slovenology: Living and Traveling in the World's Best Country, a book of essays about his adventures living in Slovenia, which he calls “the world’s best country,” which sold over 3000 copies in the first six months. His Eternal Architect: The Life and Art of Joze Plecnik, Modernist Mystic, came in second for the Slovenian Book Award and won Best Book at the Novi Sad Architecture Biennial. While he is a specialist in art history and art crime, he has become a specialist in Slovenia, writing about it frequently for  major publications, like The Guardian and the Washington Post. Learn more about his work at noahcharney.com or join him on social media, where he reports on his adventures in "the world's best country."

Related topics

  • Lake Bled
    Lake Bled
  • Pletna boats
    Pletna boats
  • St Martin's Parish Church
    St Martin's Parish Church

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