We were not surprised on our first morning in Bled to find that it was raining. During the week before we left home, I had been watching weather forecasts for Bled in particular and Slovenia in general, and they consistently predicted at least five days, possibly more, of rain and clouds, beginning just as we arrived in Bled. This weather would blanket our whole time in Bled, and might even last into our next stay, at Ljubljana.

We’d made flight and lodging reservations months earlier, and we couldn’t easily have changed them even if we’d wanted to. But although we knew that during our visit the lake might fall short of the spectacular beauty we’d seen in hundreds of guidebooks, posters, and web pages, we were sure it would still have a lot to show us, and this confidence was justified.

Breakfast at the Mayer Penzion was a buffet, with lots of fruit (including fresh strawberries and pineapple, and sour cherries in syrup) besides fruit juice, assorted cold meats, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, breads, yogurt, cereals (including granola), cookies, sweet rolls, and marble cake. The lady in charge of this bounty was one of the few Slovenes we met who spoke no English, but all she needed to know from us was what beverage to serve, and the linguistic barrier didn’t prevent us from ordering tea.

Bled Castle

Well fortified, we donned jackets, hats, and backpacks, raised our umbrellas, and descended a steep narrow street to the lakeside. The commercial center was a street running to our left; directly in front of us another street at right angles to it led along the lakefront toward the older part of town, near the top of which we could see St. Martin’s church. To the left of that, overlooking the lake, was Bled Castle perched on its high cliff. A few wisps of wet, heavy cloud were passing in front of it.

Much of the lake shore in the town was occupied by large hotels built mostly during the late 1950s and 60s, when Tito was trying to attract hard currency into Yugoslavia by developing the tourist industry. Part of this plan was a casino that we saw nearby, shockingly small and inconspicuous by Las Vegas standards. It was one of several casinos opened during that period in various parts of the country. Back then, only foreigners were allowed inside — Yugoslavia wanted dollars, pounds, and marks, but wasn’t interested in winning back its own dinars.

Otok Bled (Bled Island) from the town
Far down the lake we could see, through a haze of mist, Lake Bled’s famous little island with its picturesque church, looking bigger than it really was because the island was so small. We turned away from the town and started toward it along a paved walkway that circles the whole lake. Although we didn’t meet many other photo-snapping tourists, the walk was far from deserted. A lot of people passed us — some both coming and going, since we often stopped to take pictures (and we’re not very speedy walkers in any circumstances). Most of these people seemed to be local folks out for the exercise; they showed no inclination to linger and gaze at scenery that they probably saw every day. We greeted everyone with a cheerful “Dober dan!” (‘Good day!’), one of the few bits of Slovene we’d learned from our guide book. They returned our greeting politely, commendably suppressing whatever inclination they might have had to giggle at the way we pronounced it.

I felt well protected by my umbrella, but somewhere along the way Dorothea pointed out that, while it did keep the rain off my head and face, it wasn’t large enough to shelter my shoulders and backpack at the same time, and when I checked I found the top of my backpack quite soggy. Fortunately the first item inside was a poncho, so the soaking stopped there. This umbrella was the same brand as the one I use at home and love dearly, but much smaller and easier to pack — now I was learning that this convenience didn’t come without a price.

View from Mlino
The villagers of Mlino possess a hereditary right, granted by the Empress Maria Theresa in the 18th century, to build and operate a type of small boat called a pletna, which is the traditional means of visiting the island. (Officially I believe its name is “Bled Island,” but locals just call it “otok,” ‘island.’) You can take a pletna from the lakefront in Bled town or from Mlino itself (a shorter and slightly cheaper trip), but wherever you start from, the pletnar rowing the boat will be a Mlino man.

As we passed through Mlino, the rain was falling and we saw no one heading for the island or even hanging around the boats. We noted the position of the Mlino Penzion, whose restaurant the Rough Guide had recommended, and continued on our way. Not far past the village we came to a big stone wall surrounding the grounds of the Vila Bled — now a fancy hotel, but at one time Tito’s summer residence. The wall didn’t block the path; it stopped several yards short of the water and ran along the inland side of the walkway we were following.

An Austrian prince had built the original villa, and later the Yugoslavian royal family had used it, between the world wars. When Tito took possession, he had the place rebuilt, making it more modern and perhaps more secure. At the place where the path met the wall there had once been a sentry station. We were told that local people — or perhaps Yugoslavs in general — assumed that Tito made this a residence because, after breaking with Stalin in 1948, he wanted to be near the Austrian and Italian borders in case Russian tanks should come rolling across the frontier. After this danger subsided, Tito used the villa as a showplace to entertain such world leaders as Nikita Kruschev, Indira Ghandi, Fidel Castro, and Kim Il Sung. (Now, that sounds like a party.)

Carving on Tito's villa
We came to the foot of an impressive flight of stone steps leading up to the hotel. At lake level was a small dock where a pletna was tied up, empty except for a couple of local men who were looking rather glum. It occurred to us that the hotel might be a good place to seek out a rest room, so we hiked up the steps and found our way into an impressively ornate lobby, its decor long on polished marble and gilt. The clerks responded kindly to our humble request, and I was soon, er, resting in a place where Krushchev, Castro, or Kim might have preceded me, though I confess that this possibility wasn’t on my mind at the time. As were leaving the building, I noticed that — though the architecture didn’t look especially socialist (except, perhaps, for a certain blockiness) — one of the facing stones had a discreetly unobtrusive hammer and sickle carved on it.

A little further down the path we found a sign warning us (fortunately in English as well as Slovene) that local swans were raising a family near the path just ahead, and were inclined to be rather testy if approached . So we took the suggested detour, from which we photographed the swan family at a safe distance.

The full circuit is only 3½ miles, but we didn’t go all the way. Instead, we stopped a bit less than halfway and retraced our steps back to Mlino, where we knew that the Mlino Penzion would be a good place to have lunch. (Later, the weather lightened considerably, though it never quite cleared, and in the course of our explorations we found plenty of things to photograph, often more than once in the changing light.)

Swan family and Church of the Assumption
Before we turned back toward Mlino, we had walked far enough to look directly across at the high stairway that leads up to the Church of the Assumption on the island. Rick Steves’s guidebook says (accurately, I’m sure) that there are 98 steps, but to us at this point it looked like at least 200. The guidebook also reports that, on summer Saturdays, many wedding parties come to the island, where it’s traditional for the groom to carry the bride all the way up the steps to prove that he’s “fit for marriage.” On this rainy Saturday, however, no one was coming or going during the time we were nearby.

Back in Mlino, we found that, for the moment at least, no rain or mist was coming down, and there was even a weak wash of sunlight trying to get through the clouds. The blossoming horse chestnut trees, which we saw everywhere around the lake, were especially pretty in this soft light.

Penzion Mlino
We found all the seats in the Penzion Mlino’s informal dining room occupied when we came in, but the manager saw us waiting and showed us the way to a slightly more formal room in the older part of the restaurant. (That’s the yellow-painted building you can see in the picture; the informal room is in a low attached building hidden by the horse-chestnut trees to the left.)

We shared an order of asparagus risotto and an order of čevapčiči — a Balkan specialty (and therefore not quite at home in Slovenia, which is a Balkan country only by association) consisting of spiced pork sausage patties. We weren’t overwhelmed by this, which possibly the Mlino restaurant hadn’t quite gotten the hang of. I had some the same evening (as part of a mixed grill) that I liked a lot more, and we both enjoyed the čevapčiči we ate in Zagreb near the end of our trip. However, the Mlino’s risotto was great. Asparagus seemed to be in high season just at that time: on the Mayer restaurant menu, it was featured in nearly all the specials. Again, we shared a liter of Radenska.

Three English couples were sitting at the table next to ours, and when their bill arrived we couldn’t help overhearing that a currency problem had come up. They had driven to Bled for the day from a resort where they were staying in northern Croatia, assuming that their Croatian money would be accepted in Slovenia. But the restaurant wanted euros, not kune. This was an opportunity for us, because we had been wondering how we’d deal with the currency situation when we arrived in Croatia about ten days later. We would get off the train in Rijeka well after 5pm, and our plan was to go first to the intercity bus station to make arrangements for the next leg of our journey, then to a local bus stop for transportation to our hotel in a nearby town. Since we’d have all our luggage with us, we’d need money for a taxi as well as local and long-distance bus tickets. There would be ATMs at the railway station, but what if they were broken, or happened to be out of cash? We’d been discussing how to prepare for such contingencies. And now here was a way to provide ourselves with a modest stash of kune for insurance against these imagined problems. So we spoke up and offered to exchange currencies with the English travelers. They were delighted not to have to go looking for a bank that was open on Saturday afternoon, the only solution the restaurant had been able to suggest. In fact, they were so relieved that they insisted on giving us more kune than we asked for in exchange for our 50 euros, so we wound up selling the euros at a very favorable rate — a fine material reward for our virtuous intervention.
Pletne approaching the island

When we came out of the restaurant, the rain was still holding off, and we saw a few pletne approaching the island, one from Mlino and a couple of others on their way down from Bled. Another pletna was already bringing passengers back to the Mlino landing. Quite a few of them appeared to be Slovene schoolkids, who sang a song in harmony as the boat came toward the shore. At that point, we could have chosen to be rowed to the island, but, with the sight of the formidable stairs fresh in our minds, we stayed on the path that led us back to Bled and the Mayer Penzion, where we took a needed rest.

Bled Castle from Mlino
On our way back we’d noticed, at the foot of the street that climbed the hill to the hotel, a restaurant called Oštarija Peglez’n. It had been praised by Steves and by many contributors to the Virtual Tourist forum, so, when we were ready for dinner, we came back down the hill. The restaurant’s name means ‘flatiron hostelry,’ a name that its wedge-like shape fully explains. The narrow end is a roofed outdoor terrace, but this was a better night for eating indoors, so we went into the dining room, pleasantly decorated in country-cottage style. The young man who served us was pleasant, too. Because of the way he seemed to take responsibility for everything going on in the restaurant, we assumed that he was the owner, but when we later described him to our guide, Tina, she told us that he’s a waiter who has worked there for a long time. We chatted with a young American, traveling alone, who sat at the next table, and learned that he has a sister who lives in Lexington.

Dorothea and I shared an appetizer plate of pršut (prosciutto), melon, olives, and “rocket,” which is what they call arugula in all parts of the English-speaking world except ours. Pršut, despite its Italian name, is made in several parts of the former Yugoslavia, all of them more or less near the Adriatic coast. The style varies a little from one region to another. In Slovenia, pršut comes from the Karst region in the southeast. The word has such a fiercely Slavic look that I wondered if the name and the product had originated among the South Slavs, but I found that prosciutto is a native Italian word (with respectable Latin antecedents) meaning ‘thoroughly dried out’ ― so it doesn’t look as if Italy borrowed either the name or the idea. In fact, hams of a similar kind, dry-cured rather than cooked, are produced in many parts of Europe and Asia — as well as the American South, where they’re usually called “country ham.”

The mixed grill I had for dinner included sausage, turkey, and a pork cutlet, as well as more čevapčiči (these more successful than the ones I’d eaten at lunch). Dorothea had smoked pork, and we shared a plate of tasty grilled vegetables. Besides sharing what was coming to be the usual liter of Radenska, I ordered a half-liter carafe of the house white wine. It came from Western Slovenia and was pleasantly similar to Italian wines produced only a few miles away on the other side of the border.

We finished dinner early and got back to the hotel, where we had arranged to meet Tina, the guide whose name we’d found in the Rick Steves book. In an exchange of emails earlier in the year, we’d decided that we wanted to take two trips within three days. Tina had proposed that we meet after our arrival so that we could make detailed plans based on better information about the weather.

Unfortunately, of course, we all knew by then that the weather wasn’t going to be good. Rain was expected for the next day, but there were scenic drives in the area, and Tina knew of several museums that would be open (some because they were always open on Sunday, others because of a special promotion on this particular Sunday). We agreed to do that trip the next day and wait on the weather to see whether Monday or Tuesday would be best for the longer trip we wanted to take into the Julian Alps. Tina told us that our guide for the Alpine trip would be her husband Sašo (who just happens to be the other guide mentioned in Steves’s book). They had become the parents of a little boy only five months previously, and our Sunday excursion was to be Tina’s first workday away from the baby. He would be very well looked after, since she and Sašo live one floor above her parents. Tina told us that the houses in Slovenian towns and villages are built quite large (a feature that we noticed as she drove us around the next day) so that extended families can occupy them in a satisfying balance of proximity and separateness.

Despite the gloomy weather forecasts, we were buoyed by Tina’s warmth and enthusiasm. It was clear that, as a guide, she would be knowledgeable, experienced, and fun to be with.