For those of us who thought Slovenia was a figment of the same imagination that created "The Student Prince," truth is not altogether at odds with fiction.
Those wild and crazy guys in Slovenia have put themselves together a country right out of the '50s -- whether it be the 1850s or the 1950s is a good question. Before 1991, in all recorded history, true nationhood came to Slovenia for a grand total of five years ending in 874.
After an easy driving day from Munich bound for Slovenia, there was a hint of "Star Trek" time travel before usl. Five miles straight through the snow-capped limestone Alps lies Slovenia. Outside the far end of the tunnel two visions emerged and carried forth on the 45-minute drive to Lake Bled.
No other Alpine state within my experience offers the seven levels of distinct, multicolored foothills starting at such a forest green and leading up to such a barren, sawtoothed skyline. The clouds move freely here on the Mediterranean side of the Alps, and sweep between sun and the land below with an ever-changing paintbrush.
We held no specific agenda. After all, a country the size of West Virginia could be laid open in a week: The ski slopes of Kranjska Gora now quiet with grass and Alpine flowers, Ljubljana and the feudal castles of Novo Mesto, the 15 miles of Adriatic coast. If things got too boring, one could always pop across into Hungary, or Italy.
However, it didn't happen that way. Lake Bled magnetized us.. A favorite watering hole of the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian aristocracy, Bled made the transition to the proletariat when the Communist strongman of Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, escorted the likes of Khrushchev, Nasser, Nehru and U Thant to his requisitioned villa by the lake, a villa that started life as a royal palace. Now Vila Bled, too, has accepted the fates of democracy, as a hotel.
Agatha Christie often took leave from the Simplon Orient Express for a stopover in Bled and a fictional murder.
One can stroll the lake's perimeter in two hours. This adds to the joy of variously viewing the lone islet - dominated by 110 steps leading to a baroque church - from many angles. When the lake is icy smooth in the morning mist, the chapel casts a gauzy reflection across its depths. Pilgrims are ferried to the chapel by a procession of gondolas called pletna.
There exists an individuality of style in Slovenia. The terraces, the yards, the roofs, the gardens are all owner-designed and built in a more ramshackle Alpine tradition than you see in Switzerland, Germany or Austria. The scythe replaces the Weed Eater. On the narrow thoroughfares, traffic grinds to a halt when the walker's dog chooses, for reasons of nature, to stop.
The Vila Bled and other hotels that so impressed the likes of Agatha Christie remain near the top of Europe's luxury class, at prices less than you would expect. Other lodging is straight through town to the quieter south side of the lake.
As we sat on our balcony overlooking our own pine-fringed inlet of the lake, drinking a chilled glass of the local Laski Riesling, we reflected on our decision to bypass the hotels and stay in a "soba."
Would we have discovered the national breakfast dish of lganci (a mealy mixture that might compare to scrapple from Pennsylvania Dutch country)? Would we have discovered tiny Gostilna Pletna, where the orehoui struklji (buckwheat nut pie) constitutes a meal in itself and the domaca klobasa (homemade sausage in hog grease) that was exceeded only by the tunka v zaseki (pork with smoked ground bacon)?
Our server noted proudly that every plate comes with "garbage."
She meant "cabbage."
Within hiking distance of Bled is the Vintgar Gorge, one of Europe's least-known natural wonders. The symbol of Slovenia, triple-peaked Mount Triglav sends its clear glacial waters coursing toward the valley of the Sava. Near Bled these waters have cleaved a deep, narrow path through limestone. A wooden hiking trail about two miles long has been suspended from those cliffs, overhanging emerald grottoes and the fury of repeated waterfalls.
Although the peaks of Mount Triglav adorn the flag and provide a refuge for the legendary golden-horned chamois, the more down-to-earth frog-shaped refuse containers, ubiquitous throughout, could also symbolize this spic-and-span land so recently kissed by independence.
At Gostilna Pletna, 37 Cesta Svobode. The lake trout is excellent but expensive. Another possibility is zlinrofi (meat dumpling).
Rogaska crystal, made in Slovenia, is inexpensive by European standards.
Laski Rizling, the white wine of Slovenia, is somewhat bland but very smooth. Don't be put off by the fact that it is merchandised in bottles with no tint, giving the appearance of 100-proof vodka..
Pokljuska Luknja has several modern ski lifts about 15 miles from Lake Bled.