Travel: For whom the bell tolls in Slovenia

Thee Church of the Assumption on Lake Bled. Picture: Getty

Thee Church of the Assumption on Lake Bled. Picture: Getty

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BETWEEN Alpine splendour and Adriatic calm Slovenia’s location is as blessed as the newlyweds on its fairy-tale island, finds David Walsh

A crowd has gathered inside the church by the time we climb the 99 steps from the boat. Nevertheless, we are ushered to the front with the eyes of the congregation tracking us as we go. In turn, each of us gingerly takes up position and pitches the suspended rope upwards before heaving it to the floor.

Pletnas or gondolas at the waters edge. Picture: David Walsh

Pletnas or gondolas at the waters edge. Picture: David Walsh

Amid a faint peal overhead, we hurriedly proffer our heartfelt wishes skywards before turning on our heels and breezing, red-faced, past the likewise blushing bride. It’s the first and the last time I’ll ever hold up a wedding, but something tells me it is a common occurrence here.

Legend has it that whoever rings the bell of the small “Church on the Island” has their wish granted by the Virgin Mary. It is something that has attracted pilgrims and betrothed couples for five centuries. That, and the fairy-tale setting of Lake Bled itself.

Wedged between Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary, Slovenia is the crossroads between the Balkans and central Europe, a melting pot of Germanic, Italian and Slavic cultures. Escaping the implosion of communist Yugoslavia in 1991 relatively unscathed and 1,000 years of Venetian and Austrian Habsburg rule before that, Slovenia took up its place alongside the other EU countries with ease in 2004. Add into the mix Alpine mountain-scapes, gently sloping hills of vineyards and a short but sparkling coastline along the Adriatic, and this diminutive nation – about the size of Wales – is a small wonder.

The obvious benefit of exploring such a compact country is the relatively short driving distances between regions. With that in mind, we base ourselves at Lake Bled, 40 minutes by car from the capital, Ljubljana. It’s arguably Slovenia’s main tourist spot, but travelling off-season means we escape the summer hordes and get to fully appreciate the resort and views of its emerald lake, clifftop fortress and verdant forest fringes without having to elbow our way through crowds. As a thermal spa resort, it’s the ideal tonic for those of us worn out from the rat race and looking to unwind.

Pirans Tartini Square. Picture: Getty

Pirans Tartini Square. Picture: Getty

Off-season travel here often means the weather can be inclement, and true to form, a blanket of mist obscures vistas of the lake when we first arrive at Villa Rečica, our abode for the stay. Rather than waste the day, we make for the coast, just two hours away by car and still basking in 20-degree heat.

The Istrian peninsula is shared by Croatia, Italy and Slovenia, with the latter laying claim to just 47km of its coastline. The mild winters go some way to explaining the bountiful olive groves and vineyards we pass as we drive high above the terracotta-tiled roofs of Izola and Portorož to reach Piran, a small walled town protruding into the teal waters of the Adriatic.

In stark contrast to the Alpine chalets and onion-domed churches in the north, the elegant town houses and loggia on Piran’s Tartini Square and the Renaissance steeple of the Church of St George – a faithful replica of St Mark’s Campanile – are unmistakably Venetian in style. Remnants of Italian influence are never far away, detected at the very least in the more lyrical accent in these parts.

While it tends to be mobbed during the summer months by Italian tourists and Slovenians looking for sun, sea and sand, Piran has noticeably been reclaimed by its inhabitants who sit, chat, drink coffee and play chess as we amble through the alleyways of its compact medieval heart.

A rigorous ascent to the wall ruins overlooking the town works up an appetite as we laze in the sunset’s glow on a street terrace near the harbour, tucking into grilled gilt-head bream with hearty spinach-potatoes and a glass of local Malvasia Bianca.

The weather thankfully takes a turn for the better overnight, with the fog giving way to crystal-clear views of the lake, forests and triangular wooden chalets against the towering backdrop of jagged peaks. For Slovenia’s population of two million, being active outdoors and enjoying clean living are sacrosanct.

Travelling at the start of November, we’re a little too early to profit from the snow season in the Julian Alps but the climate is mild enough to make the most of the fresh mountain air with an al fresco breakfast on the villa’s terrace while sporadic chimes of bells from the islet on the lake below echo around the hills.

It’s not long before we pull up at the shore and begin our own voyage to the island by pletna – a traditional gondola. It takes about 15 minutes to be rowed out to the island, with 30 minutes more allowing to explore before starting back on the return leg – ample time to skirt the island and visit the baroque church.

On dry land, we abandon the car and stretch our legs on the 6km path circumnavigating the lake. More than halfway around the circuit, the beckoning lakeside terrace of Vila Prešeren in Bled proves too tempting a prospect to pass up. Sitting in the crisp late afternoon within touching distance of the lake’s placid water, a beer soon turns into a late three-course lunch of trout broth, venison with an excellent Slovenian merlot finished off with a coffee and regional speciality, Bled cream cake.

As the sun creeps behind the high mountain ridges and a chill grips the air, there’s only one thing for it to lift us out of our post-meal daze – embracing the Slovenian mantra of self-care and firing up the sauna back at the villa.

FACT FILE:

EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Ljubljana from London Stansted. Flights start at £24.49 one way. Renting a car is advisable. Car hire from Europcar (europcar.com) starts from €24.43 with discounts offered with advance online booking.

David stayed at Villa Rečica near Bled, a 40km drive from Ljubljana airport. The modern villa can accommodate up to seven guests, equipped with a sauna and balcony views of Lake Bled from the living room and master bedroom. A three-night stay is €540. Book or browse other accommodation options at thinkslovenia.com

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