Friday, June 21, 2013


We left for the Balkans on Tuesday, May 21st, just a few hours after I finished grading my finals and submitting final grades.  When we checked our bags at LAX, the British Airways guy at the counter, who actually was British, asked, "What country is Zagreb in?"  That was our first indication that we were heading off on a somewhat unusual adventure.

After twenty-one stressful hours of travel from home to LAX to London to Frankfurt to Zagreb that required some running on both of the connections, we arrived in Croatia at 10:20 p.m.  We had arranged a late pick-up for our car, which we rented from Oryx, a Croatian car rental agency.  Bob had also rented a GPS unit, without which we figured we would be doomed.  Everything was ready and waiting for us.

Then the real fun began.

For whatever reason, the GPS took us down a series of dark, narrow residential streets.  We wandered aimlessly for almost an hour, while Sophia, which is what we named the disembodied GPS voice, insisted that we had arrived.  Finally, we got the GPS to work properly, and with only a few more dead ends, we made it to our hotel, the Best Western Premiere Astoria, at around 12:30 a.m.  We learned that the street names that showed up on the Garmin GPS Navigator almost never agreed with the posted street names. That should have been our first clue that trouble lay ahead, but we were too tired to think about it.

The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed and down to the buffet breakfast that came with our room.  It was phenomenal, one of the best we have ever had in any hotel, and it was a terrific start to our first full day.

I love the golden yolks of European eggs.  American eggs just can't compare.
Why don't WE eat smoked salmon for breakfast?
We finally got on the road. The GPS was working, the signage was helpful, and we were feeling pretty confident.
Okay, THIS sign was a bit of a mystery.  What do you think it means?
Almost immediately, the scenery ahead, the Julian Alps, was breathtaking.  I took this picture through the front window of the car and it is STILL stunning:
These mountains, by the way, are where Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance during World War I and are part of the inspiration for his novel A Farewell to Arms.  

The villages along the way could have been in Switzerland, Austria, or Germany:
I almost expected to see Heidi and her grandfather come walking through this field:
We had an uneventful border crossing into Slovenia.  Slovenia, the first country to break away from Yugoslavia in 1991, has been a member of the European Union since 2004, and Croatia will become a member on July 1, 2013.  However, since Croatia was not yet a member when we were there, we did have to go through passport control, as we did every time we crossed a border on this trip, which was fifteen times. It made me really appreciate the open borders in the EU. On the other hand, our passports now have an amazing number of stamps!

Slovenia has the strongest economy of all the Balkan countries and ranks higher than many Western European countries although it is approximately the size of New Jersey, but with one-fourth of the population. In 2007, it was the first former communist country to adopt the euro currency. With borders on Italy and Austria, it feels very western, and we were quite comfortable driving down its well-maintained and well-marked roads.
After less than two hours of driving, we had traversed the entire country and arrived at picturesque Lake Bled, situated in northwestern Slovenia right across the border from Austria. When Tito was the President of Yugoslavia, he had a summer home in this beautiful resort-like town.

St. Martin's Church is at the center of the old town:

Bled Castle dominates the hill overlooking the lake:

The Church of the Assumption on tiny Bled Island in the middle of the Lake called to Bob:

However, first we had to enjoy the waterfowl along the banks of the river:

Then we checked into the the boats taking tourists to the island, but Bob thought 12 euro per person (a little less than $16) was a bit steep,

especially when we could rent a rowboat for just 10 euro total (about $13):

It did take us a little longer to get to the island than it took those big tourist boats. Eventually Bob figured out that he needed to have his back towards his destination rather than his face. Still, we did a bit of zig-zagging, but it was a classic Bob-style adventure.
We landed on the opposite side of the island from the tour boats.  While we had a short staircase to climb, on the tourist side of the island there are 99 steps, and when a couple comes to this church to get married, as hundreds do, the groom is supposed to carry his bride up those very steep steps, and she is supposed to remain silent. Heaven forbid he should drop her and see her roll down the steps and into the glacial waters.

I should have had Bob prove his love by carrying me up those stairs.

On second thought, maybe not.

The centerpiece of the island is a little baroque church and free-standing bell tower:

There have been five different churches on this site. The door on the left shows the date this version of the church was built: 1866--the post-Civil War period in the U.S.

It has a lovely baroque interior:

The organ is unusually small, even for a small church such as this one, but it is very ornate.  I love the paintings depicting Christ's journey to Golgotha painted on panels around the door:

The thing that really draws the tourists to this site, however, is the heavy rope that hangs conspicuously in front of the altar. Legend has it that if you can get the bell to ring three times with only one pull on the rope, your wish will be granted.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to hear the bell from inside, so we just have to assume Bob was successful.

I especially liked this statue of a somewhat wanton Mary Magdalene that was in the churchyard:
Just past Mary M. was a nice cafe seating area with a beautiful view:

Before long, it was time to go back to the mainland.  Our little boat was waiting patiently for us:

As good as Bob was at rowing,
. . . he couldn't quite compete with the men who transported twenty people and rowed their boats standing up. No, there is not a motor on that boat. The Slovenes pride themselves on their rowing skills.

We spent another hour or so strolling alongside the lake. I am intrigued that the road builders had gone to the trouble to blast a tunnel through the rock when it would have been so easy to use that pathway on the left for the road. As mentioned in my previous post, these people love tunnels.  I'm sure we drove through at least 100, maybe 200, during our two weeks on the road.

This sweet little sign suddenly became more important

when we walked past this poignant memorial. I wish I knew the story behind it.

I had one more thing on my list of "Must Do's" for Lake Bled that involved a stop at this charming villa:

I had read about Lake Bled's famous signature dessert kremsnita, or cream cake, and knew I had to have a piece.

It was almost too beautiful to eat . . . almost.

There is nothing like sitting outside on a beautiful day across the lake from a castle with a plate of a delicate, delicious pastry in front of you.  *Sigh.* I could get used to such a life.

No wonder Marshal Tito liked to hang out at Lake Bled.

Next: Driving through the Julian Alps


  1. On a trip it is always nice to change things up, travel by taxi, car, train, airplane, boat, etc. The row boat experience is what I will remember most about Lake Bled, much more than if we'd sat like logs in a boat someone else was rowing. The water I splashed on your face in the process also kept you awake. It is hard to beat the setting where we ate the cake, although the cake did look better than it actually tasted.

  2. Bob gets a medal in my book--no need to carry you up those stairs! This sounds idyllic, I agree, and today (especially) I wish I were traveling around Eastern Europe enjoying such beautiful sights! I'm excited to read about your trip--keep 'em coming!

  3. I love reading about all of your travels! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Wow, what unbelievably beautiful scenery, church, etc. There's just nothing in the world like traveling to another country! I can't wait for the next installment.

  5. Rowing your own boat makes for such a better story! How was the cake?!? It looks delicious!

  6. You didn't write about Sunday mass at St. Martin's. The organ there is famous throughout Europe and famous organists come on Sundays to play at the mass just for a chance to play the organ. We were there many years ago and stopped in at the church to attend mass without knowing about the organ. All of a sudden this heavenly music started and one of the parish explained about the organ. I loved Bled. While we were there we stayed at what had been Tito's former summer palace.