9 June – 10 June, 2014
I woke early in Budapest, ready for a long day of cross-country travel. I took the metro and a bus to Budapest airport and grabbed some snacks from the market there. Around 10, I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there in front of me was my very own Jill, just off the plane! I’d been traveling for 3 1/2 weeks already, and the last 2 solo, and here was one of my best friends in the entire world to see out the final 9 days with me.
In the interest of making our first train out of Hungary, we took a cab to the station – a rare luxury for budget travelers like us! We made it there with plenty of time to spare, bought tickets and boarded. Our first train was crowded (overbookings are common) and we killed a good amount of time in the dining car nursing some real Czech Budweiser beers since we couldn’t find seats that were not reserved. Beer at 11:30 is always a great idea, especially when you’ve been flying for days. We had to change trains twice, once in Vienna and a nerve-wracking 8 minute connection in Villch, Austria. That third train was pretty dinky and hot and stuffy, but we were so thrilled that we’d made the connection and excited to be on it. We stood in the hall for most of the ride, hanging our heads out the windows and taking pictures. From Bled train station it was just a short bus ride to Bled town. It was at this point that the pull-handle of my bag decided to finally give up its life after 8 years of travel. I was to spend the rest of the trip carrying it on my back and feeling very much like a tortoise.
Bled is a picturesque Balkan town situated around a crystal clear lake. When I was researching Bled, one website stated that the top things to do in Bled are to go to the lake, go hiking, go biking, visit the castle, and eat a special type of cream cake. Yes, cake. I’ll get to that. But clearly, the things to do in Bled are fairly outdoorsy, and the Slovenian people in general excel at sports and outdoor activities. And after 2 solid days of travel, a little outdoor recreation in a tiny Alpine town was perfect.
We hit up the local Mercador market for picnic supplies and were off. One of Jill’s passions is castles, so first was a hike up the steep steps to Bled Castle. The castle is situated high on a hill above the lake, and has some breathtaking views as a result. We looked around but didn’t want to pay the admission fee to go in. Slovenia is the only former Yugoslavian country currently on the Euro, and as a result the prices are pretty much what you would find in Western Europe. We took a path down to the lake and strolled around, pausing to take pictures and aww at ducks with ducklings in tow.
In the center of Bled Lake lies a tiny island with a beautiful church. Crossing the lake to see the island is the biggest tourist attraction in Bled. To get to the island, you can do one of three things: hire a pletna boat (similar to a gondola, the most touristy and expensive option), hire a rowboat (moderately priced), or swim (free, but you cannot enter the church since you are in a swimsuit). It was a hot day, the water was clear and inviting, and we were cheap, so we stowed our stuff on a grassy bank and hopped in the lake.
I had been doubting the possibility of actually swimming to the island, but it was absolutely doable! The water wasn’t warm, but it was refreshing, and a brilliant turquoise color. Our visit to the island was brief. It’s awkward to be standing around dripping in your bathing suit while well-dressed British tourists are snapping photos and getting in and out of the fancy pletna boats. We quickly swam back to our bank and sunned for a bit before continuing our walk around the lake.
We came upon Villa Bled, the imposing villa of former Yugoslav president Tito, now a hotel. We had a peek inside. It was lavish, all marble and mirrors and chandeliers and cold war 1960s elegance. Very James Bond. We’d wanted to have coffee on the terrace, but the prices were so insane that we headed back to Bled town to a highly recommended local’s place. Slaščičarna Šmon may not have lakeside views, but it certainly had a good deal of local charm. We got the Bled dessert that I mentioned above, kremna rezina, along with some espresso and Radenska mineral water. It’s easy why kremna rezina is one of the top “attractions” of Bled. The cake is a little piece of heaven, and consists of thick vanilla custard and cream sandwiched between two delicate pastries and generously dusted with powdered sugar. Absolutely delightful, and the coffee perked us up for our afternoon adventures.
We took a bus to the tiny, adorable alpine village of Podham, and walked to Vintgar Gorge, a natural attraction similar to the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia but much smaller. The attraction is a gorgeous river running through a gorge, with rapids and waterfalls and canyon walls rising high on both sides, and a little wooden boardwalk for tourists. It was serene and beautiful, and thankfully cooler than by the lake. Afterwards, we ended up walking all the way back to Bled town through the Slovenian countryside, passing fields of cows and the traditional roofed hayracks of Slovenia.
For dinner we went to a traditional Slovenian restaurant across from the hostel. There we began a love affair with Lasko, the local beer which was always cheap and good throughout our travels, and split the fresh garlic soup, a salad, and risotto with asparagus and shrimp. Slovenian food was pretty similar to what I’d been encountering throughout the Balkans: hearty and fresh. The soup in particular was interesting. It was not just the garlic bulb in the soup, but the whole stalk chopped up and was a bright green color. Both Jill and I love garlic so found it delicious.
After dinner we hit up a really cool local bar, Gostilna Pri Planincu. The folks working there were nice and a bit funky, and license plates from different countries all over the world decorated the walls and ceiling. There was an old tv playing Ned Kelly, a Heath Ledger movie, with Slovenian subtitles. We nursed some massive Lasko beers until the sun went down and we could go to bed without feeling embarrassed about how early it was.
The vibe in our dorm room was likewise sleepy and convivial, and we all had a good time chatting from our bunks until everyone dozed off. That is, until the weird Indian guy who liked to smoke in the bathroom came back and turned on the light and woke everyone up. Oh well. There always is one weird guy.
Good luck and Happy Travels.