The battle of Slovenia's Alpine lakes

Slovenia: Bled vs Bohinj

A teddy bear sporting Slovenia's punny slogan: 'I FEEL sLOVEnia'. Fortunately (for Slovenia and the tourist board), the word 'love' just happens to pop up in the English spelling of the country's name -- and the reference to a Donna Summer song is just an added bonus. Photo by Mark Baker.
The first guidebook of my travel-writing 'career' was this 2006 edition of the 'Fodor's guide to Croatia and Slovenia'. I carried out the research for it in the summer of 2005. Photo by Mark Baker.
My little essay on Slovenia's history and charms, appearing in the 2006 edition of Fodor's guide to Croatia and Slovenia. I cringe a bit when I read it now. Photo by Mark Baker.

Slovenia occupies a soft spot in my travel-writer heart. It was the first country I ever researched as a guidebook writer -- for Fodor’s in 2005 (I’ve posted a photo of the book here). Slovenia wasn’t technically the first guidebook I’d ever worked on – that was a Fodor’s guide to Czechoslovakia way back in 1991. But that project belonged more to my girlfriend at the time, Delia, than it did to me, and we only really did it for the fun of it. Neither of us had any intention at the time of becoming travel writers.

The 2005 Slovenia guide was something totally different. I’d been going through a rough patch, personally and professionally, that year, and after much soul-searching decided to leave my job as a deputy managing editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. It’d become a 9am-5pm grind, and I had the feeling life was passing me by. I’d also recently broken up with my girlfriend at that time, and my head and heart were all over the map.

After resigning the job and breaking up (I’ll spare you the details), I decided on a whim to fly to Morocco to get away from Prague and to clear my mind. In hindsight, it was a good decision. It helped me to reset my mood and, looking back, also put me on my future course (the course I’m still on today).

One evening during the trip to Morocco, after hiking around the Atlas Mountains (or something like that), I stopped by a village Internet café to check my email. Out of the blue had come a message from a guy named Douglas Stallings, an editor for Fodor’s in New York. Before leaving for Morocco, I had mass-emailed my resume to publishers around the world, but I wasn’t expecting to hear anything back. Here’s what Doug wrote:

Mark, You probably didn't expect to hear from me so soon, but, as they say, something has come up. One of the writers who is contracted to work on our new Croatia & Slovenia guide is going to have to drop out for some personal reasons, which leaves me short-handed … If you think you might have an interest in working on the chapter, please let me know right away, and we should talk.

(I just checked the date of that email. It was June 23 – coincidentally, the same day of the year that I’m typing this post now).

I wrote Doug back immediately, closed up shop in Morocco, and returned to Prague as soon as I could. Within a few weeks, I was on a plane to Ljubljana. I haven’t stopped researching travel guides since.

Boaters out on Lake Bohinj on a brisk morning in June 2018. This view is from near the lake's eastern shore looking west. Photo by Mark Baker.
The beautiful waters of Lake Bohinj looking off toward the mountains in the distance. Photo by Mark Baker.
Iconic statue of the original climbers of Mt Triglav, who set out from Bohinj in 1778 to conquer the peak. That's Triglav way in the distance just beside the statue on the left. Photo by Mark Baker.
The blue-green water of Slovenia's rivers -- here pictured is the Sava Bohinjka -- is something you never really forget. Photo by Mark Baker.

This post was supposed to be about lakes, so let’s get back on track. As I noted in the intro, Slovenia has two world-class Alpine lakes. Everyone knows Bled, but Bohinj is a little more obscure. Before I go into how the two lakes are different, though, maybe it’s worthwhile to write about what the two share.

You can’t venture into too much description about either lake without remarking on the unique color of the water. And for a writer, that leads – embarrassingly -- to a loss of words for what to call it. It’s a shade of bluish-green that in Europe, at least in my experience, you only see in the Balkans. Is it turquoise? aquamarine? In the past, I’ve relied on “electric” blue or green – like there’s a force pulsing through it – and so that’s what I’ll go with here.

However you label the color, it definitely, inevitably draws you in for a swim – even as the water temperature in either lake at midsummer scarcely moves above 73°F (23°C). I generally hate cold water, but I have faint, fond memories of night-swimming on that 2005 trip and on earlier journeys to Slovenia. As I remember it, I couldn’t wait to dive in.

Both lakes also lie on the fringe of the Triglav National Park, an isolated, mountainous region in Slovenia’s northwest that covers more than 4% of the country’s total land mass. From Bohinj, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Mt Triglav, which at 9,394 feet (2,864 meters) is the country’s tallest mountain. Alpine peaks also frame the back of Lake Bled when viewed from the town of Bled, on the shore. Just look at any postcard to see what I mean.

But that’s about where the similarities end. They’re fraternal twins – not identical ones. The good news, of course, is the two are close enough to each other to spend time at both. Here below is a quick of sketch of the two and some ideas for what to do when you’re there.

Another shot from the Sava Bohinjka river, on the western end of Lake Bohinj. Photo by Mark Baker.
There's a beautiful bike trail that tails off from the eastern end of Lake Bohinj and eventually runs all the way to Bled (via Bohinjska Bistrica). It takes you through pretty villages like this one. Photo by Mark Baker.
This was lunch along the way at Gostilnica Štrudl, in the town of Bohinjska Bistrica. Local sausage, mustard (of course), and a sourish potato salad (much better IMHO than the mayonnaise version). Photo by Mark Baker.
The English author Agatha Christie stayed at Lake Bohinj in the 1960s. Her favorite hotel, these days, is closed down and abandoned. It would make a creepy site for one of her books. Photo by Mark Baker.

Lake Bohinj

The English master of murder mysteries, Dame Agatha Christie, chose sleepy, remote Lake Bohinj for a holiday in the 1960s, and it’s not hard to see why. Though the shore comes alive with vacationing families for a few warm weekends in July and August, for much of the year, the lake is shrouded in mist – and mystery. Christie famously said on that trip, in 1967, that Bohinj was “too beautiful” to plot a murder here, and it certainly is beautiful. But in the evening, when the sun drops below the mountains and darkness falls over the lake, a kind of solitude, a feeling of intimacy, descends.

The spookiest place in Bohinj might actually be Christie’s old hotel, the Bellevue. The hotel sits on an isolated hilltop above the southeastern end of the lake and has been closed for years in a property dispute. On my trip there in June 2018 I rode up to the place on my bike to see if I could get a look inside. What I found was a boarded-up property, surrounded by overgrown vegetation and ominous-looking “Keep Out” signs. I remembered from previous visits the hotel had kept Christie’s room intact just as she’d left it (including her old typewriter). I wondered to myself if that typewriter was still there and who, if anyone, ever spends the night there now.

That thought gives me goose bumps.

Much of Lake Bohinj lies within the confines of the national park, which means there are no large towns or settlements along the shore. The main hamlet, Ribčev Laz, stands on the lake’s eastern end and is little more than a tourist office, supermarket, and a few restaurants and hotels. At the other end, about 3 miles (5 km) across, is an even smaller place called Ukanc, with a campground and a few more hotels (including, oddly, another boarded-up, beautiful old hotel: the Zlatorog). The northern shore is completely undeveloped and makes for a perfect, secluded (daytime) hike.

The main activities at Bohinj are swimming, hiking, kayaking, and cycling. Bohinj is surrounded by a string of rustic, rural villages – Stara Fužina, Studor, and Srednja Vas – that are so achingly authentic you expect to see Jimmy Stewart himself standing out near a hayrack. They’re connected by a lightly trafficked road and – even better – a paved cycling path that follows a river through the trees and is signposted all the way to Bled.

A guidebook writer’s time is precious. On any given research trip, there are many places to see and only so many days in which to do it all. Still, on this trip, I managed to squeeze three days in at Bohinj, and I could have stayed the entire summer.

Beautiful Lake Bled. What else is there to say? Photo by Mark Baker.
Bled's gondolas at sunset. These gondola rides remain the most popular way for most people to get out to Bled Island. Photo by Mark Baker.
This view toward Bled Castle shows off the range of colors at Lake Bled. At any one moment, the shades run from dark blue to deep green. Photo by Mark Baker.
These water lilies on the southwestern shore of Lake Bled were still going strong well into June. Photo by Mark Baker.

Lake Bled

Slovenia is a country of extreme natural beauty. In fact, when people ask me as a guidebook writer what country in Europe I would recommend they see, I often answer “Slovenia.” And of all the places to see in Slovenia, Lake Bled might just be the prettiest.

Yet, as I was traveling through Slovenia on this trip and would tell local people I was heading toward Bled, I’d inevitably get an eye roll. “Ah, Bled,” the look seemed to say, “I remember when it used to be nice.”

If there was ever a time when Lake Bled – with its snowy Alpine backdrop, tiny church-topped island, and fairy-tale castle on a crag – was that elusive “hidden gem” of guidebook fame, that day is clearly past. I sensed it immediately on arrival as I watched the cars stream into town along the main road. I popped in for lunch at a restaurant on the lake and counted something like 30 people on a tour group file into the place behind me. It was going to be a long wait for food.

Like many other special places around Europe, Bled is clearly coping with a case of overtourism. And this was only June. What would it be like in July or August?

But let’s be fair for a moment. Like Bohinj, I had budgeted three days for Bled, and over the course of my stay, the place slowly grew on me once again. Beauty of that magnitude can compensate for a multitude of sins, and let’s face it: tourists bring lines and waits, but they also bring life and energy.

I spent my days cycling around the lake, hiking up through the hills and neighborhoods, and milling around down by the gondola launches. Everyone seemed to be excited by the prospect of sailing out to the island. It’s the stuff of summer holidays.

The highlight of my stay was a bike ride out into the Triglav National Park on a trip organized through 3glav Adventures. One of the perks of being a travel writer is meeting all of the people along the way, and on this trip I had the pleasure of renewing a friendship from 2012 with the owner of 3glav, Domen, and his wife, Barbara. On one of the days, Domen and I hit Triglav’s scenic Radovna cycling trail into the mountains and finished off with a long lunch of sausages, buckwheat, and beer (I've posted photos from the day below).

After the ride, we caught up with Barbara and the couple’s two children (three, counting their niece) having a swim in the lake. It was a Monday, and the wave of visitors that weekend had crested and many people had already left for home. I looked out over the water and it seemed, at that moment at least, as if we had that blue-green expanse all to ourselves.

The book I was working on will be published later this year or early next. Here is a link for the current Lonely Planet guide to Slovenia. MB

People watching at the gondola boat launch at Lake Bled. Photo by Mark Baker.
Some might even call the color here at Bled 'emerald'. Photo by Mark Baker.
The reward for our ride was this meadow and mountain-top photo-op toward the center of the Triglav National Park. Photo by Mark Baker.
One of the first breathless sights you see on the way out of Bled toward the Radovna Valley is this stunning waterway and pond near Krnica. Photo by Mark Baker.
That's a smiling me on the right. On the left is my guide (and friend) Domen from Bled's 3glav Adventures. Photo by Mark Baker.
My ride for the day on our trip through the stunning Radovna valley in the Triglav National Park. Photo by Mark Baker.
The payoff for our bike ride through the Triglav National Park was this lunch of sausage, sauerkraut and buckwheat dumplings at 'Psnak,' a pretty farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Photo by Mark Baker.
Nothing rewards an uphill climb on the bike like a big mug of beer -- even if it happens to be 'Union.' We lunched at a beautiful inn and farmhouse called 'Psnak' Photo by Mark Baker.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker