Bl-ess-ed Island

I’ve always liked Southwest Airlines’ slogan. “Wanna Get Away?” Their first television commercials featured people having bad days – then up pops the Southwest phrase in big, bold letters. It wasn’t so much where you wanted to go, just that you wanted to go.  So today I have Southwest on the brain, not only because I “wanna get away” (and don’t we all?) but because I know precisely where. Take me to the Julian Alps in northwest Slovenia, please.  There you’ll find a tiny fairyland oasis known as Lake Bled.

Let me tease you with a photo.  Here, you’re standing on a steep vista known as Little Osojnica Hill.  Lake Bled’s emerald green waters are a squarish mile of blended glacial melt and hot springs.  And those mountains in the distance?  You’re looking at Austria and its Alps.  The country and its majestic peaks are less than ten miles from Slovenia and Lake Bled.

But forget about the surroundings for a moment because it’s Lake Bled I really want to talk about.  Here’s how you get there.  From Frankfurt, Germany, catch a 75-minute flight (KLM or Lufthansa, not Southwest) to Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana.  Instead of spending time trying to pronounce “Ljubljana”, make your way to the city train station.  Travel thirty miles northwest on the rails and step off at the Lesce-Bled station.  Congrats!  You’re only a two-mile walk from Lake Bled.

Now for the best part.  You’re not only going to Lake Bled; you’re going to the island in the middle.  Bled Island may be the most picturesque islet I’ve ever seen.  It’s perfectly surrounded by the lake.  It’s lush with trees.  But best of all, Bled Island hosts a soaring 17th-century pilgrimage church.  It’s like a miniature Mont-Saint-Michel, only it’s not in France and you have to climb a wide stairway to get to the church doors.  Brace yourself; we’re talking ninety-nine steps on that stairway.  But you’re not gonna come all this way and not see the church, right?

Earlier I told you Lake Bled is like something out of a fairy tale.  Here’s another reason why.  The only way to get from the lakeshore to the island is on a pletna.  What’s a pletna? A wooden, flat-bottomed boat, seating a dozen or so and powered by a very-much-in-shape Slovenian oarsman.  He stands in the back like a Venetian gondolier, using his two oars to propel the boat slowly across the pristine waters.  Doesn’t it just add to the image?  Better than muddying up things with something motorized.

Bled Castle

If Lake Bled and its islet aren’t enough to get you booking flights, how about a couple more temptations?  High above the lakeshore stands the oldest medieval castle in all of Slovenia.  Drawbridge, moat, courtyards, towers; Bled Castle has everything you’d expect in an 11th-century fortification.  Must be worth the price of admission because it’s one of the most visited attractions in the entire country.


Maybe you’re not into castles.  How about a plate of Chantilly cream pastries instead?  The cremeschnitte is the region’s culinary specialty.  The pastry is so highly regarded, the Slovenian government designated it a “protected dish” in 2016.  An annual festival celebrates nothing but the dessert.  Over the last sixty years, a hotel near Lake Bled has baked over sixty million of them.  That’s what I’d call a recipe refined to perfection.

In a recent post I mentioned my daughter is getting married next year.  For my future son-in-law’s sake, I’m glad she didn’t choose the church on Bled Island.  Local tradition says it’s good luck for the groom to carry the bride up the stone steps before ringing the church bell and making a wish.  Up ninety-nine steps?  The groom better be as strong as a pletna oarsman if he’s going to make that kind of climb.

Photos are nice but videos are the real clincher.  Spend a couple of minutes with the following YouTube tour.  I guarantee you’ll “wanna get away” to Bled Island, and soon.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Bon Voyage!

Every now and then I come up with a topic for my blog, and then the topic somehow surfaces in the natural course of conversation later the same week. It’s a little unnerving – perhaps divine intervention – to watch someone bring up something you hadn’t thought about in years, or at least until a few days earlier.


Such was the case this week when I opted for a (virtual) visit to Mont Saint-Michel, the majestic island commune and fortified abbey just off the coast of Normandy, France. Mont Saint-Michel came to mind because I received a mailer from my alma mater advertising a ten-day trip to the region next summer. The itinerary includes a stopover in Paris, a base hotel in the historic seaport village of Honfleur, extensive tours of Normandy focusing on the events of World War II, and finally, a full day exploring the island of “St. Michael’s Mount.” Mon dieu, what an adventure!

Mont Saint-Michel has a remarkable history on top of its dramatic architectural elements (which you can read about here).  Its buildings date to the 8th century, with the Romanesque abbey and monastery at the very top (“closest to God”), literally supported by a vast network of halls for stores and housing, and finished elegantly at the bottom – outside the walls – with individual houses for the handful of fishermen and farmers who live there.  The church inside the abbey is partnered with an open-air cloister (a square covered walkway for reflection).  A statue of the archangel Michael watches over the land from the very top of the church spire.  Magnifique, no?

85-bon-voyage-2      85-bon-voyage-3

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia about Mont Saint-Michel.  You may think the following photo is a distant view of the island.  Au contraire.  The Mont has a “sister” across the channel near Cornwall.  England’s island of “St. Michael’s Mount” is much smaller, but it still shares the characteristics of Mont Saint-Michel, including the significant rise/fall of the surrounding tides, the conical shape of the island, and a chapel at the top.


In today’s world Mont Saint-Michel is a little touristy for my tastes, so perhaps it’s just as well I’ve never made the pilgrimage.  2.5 million visitors descend upon the island every year, hosted by only 25 full-time inhabitants (monks, nuns, and shopkeepers).  Tourism is literally the only source of income.  Besides a walk through the abbey and the spiraling streets, you’re channeled into the requisite shopping area, for food (including the famous to-go omelettes), and for purchases that can only be labelled as “tacky”. I actually have one of these souvenirs (below photo). Sacre’ bleu!  Maybe if they’d left off the sailboat…


To further detract from the mystique of the Mont Saint-Michel, a permanent walking bridge was built three years ago, allowing round-the-clock access from the mainland car-park.  Once upon a time you had to wait until low tide and then quickly walk across the natural spit of land before the water returned.  Now you just cross whenever you want.  Too bad, but apparently the channel was filling in with silt and a bridge was the only way to keep the island an island.  C’est la vie.

My first introduction to Mont Saint-Michel was forty-odd years ago on the shores of California, not France.  San Diego County hosts elaborate sand-castle building competitions on its beaches, and one year I snapped the following photo of the winner.


To visit Mont Saint-Michel, you’ll need to drive four hours to the west of Paris, all the way to the coast of the English Channel.  Unless you have a hankering for WWII history, there isn’t much else to draw you to the region.  Which brings me back to the start, and my comment about topics resurfacing later in the week.  Three days after I wrote this post, I was having a beer with some older friends and we got talking about the movie “Saving Private Ryan”.  One of the guys said his dad served in WWII and he’d taken him back to the beaches of Normandy, where he’d spent part of his time as a medic.  “Normandy?”, I said.  “Yes”, he said. “You know, in the northwest of France near Mont Saint-Michel?” To which I almost said, “excusez-moi?”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.