News from the snow
The beautiful lakeside resort of Bled is, and always has been, the most important of Slovenia's sports and leisure destinations. At least this is the case as long as it has been a part of Slovenia, for a hundred years ago when tourism really took off here, Bled was still part of the Austrian empire. The resort is a fascinating mixture of old Austrian ambience, some post-war communist development, ancient history and stunning natural beauty. It sits on the shore of Lake Bled with the Julian Alps rising above the forested slopes of the Jelovica and Pokljuka plateaus behind the town. The resort's famous castle, silent witness to its former power, stands on a rock above the lake. There are spectacular views from here including, in the middle of the lake, an island of religious significance for at least a thousand years. Although famous for its winter sports Bled, which is only 35km (22 miles) from the capital Ljubliana, has a thriving existence away from skiing, offering a huge range of sports and leisure opportunities year-round and providing an administrative and commercial centre for the area. Indeed, tourism of a kind has gone on here for at least 500 years, with the first 'tourists' being pilgrims travelling to the Church of the Assumption on the island in Bled's lake. The resort was also famous for its spas, mentioned for their health giving powers in a book about the area written in 1689. It is known that a manager of the castle in Bled at that time was so fed up with the influx of tourists wanting to take the waters that he endeavoured to fill in the springs; fortunately he was prevented from doing so. In 1855 a Swiss hydropath named Arnold Rikli was one of the first to recognise the true health and tourism potential of Bled's climate and its thermal springs. He founded the Institute of Natural Healing and introduced a new method of treatment. In 1903 the resort was awarded a gold medal at an international health spa exhibition in Vienna and you can still visit thermal pools in some of the town's hotels today. Rikli, whose technique won international recognition, is still revered as the father of tourism in Bled and there's a statue and plaque to him in the town. Bled has a complex and fascinating history, some knowledge of which makes your visit more enjoyable. Settlement here dates back to the stone age, and there have been more substantial finds of artefacts dating back 3000 years to Iron Age settlers and subsequent Celtic and Roman inhabitants. Later on the area was settled by Slavs who arrived in great numbers and from whom many inhabitants today are descended. From 1000AD to 1800AD the resort was controlled by the Austrian Bishops of Brixen from the castle although there were repeated invasions by the Turks, amongst others, during that long period. In 1809 the area became part of Napoleon's empire for four years and with a change from religious to state control and back again, the demise of the feudal system and the growth of industrial power, the castle changed hands half a dozen times before 1919. This is an especially significant date for the people of Bled as it was the first time the castle was actually owned by a Slovenian, in the form of local Bled hotelier Ivan Kenda. Between the two world wars, Bled remained the most cosmopolitan spa in Yugoslavia and the summer residence of the Yugoslav royal family. During the second world war the resort became the German civic and military head quarters. After the War the resort continued its tourist tradition - its inhabitants took over and renovated the many tourist/recreation facilities which passed into Slovene hands. Since former Yugoslav President Tito had a residence in Vila Bled, it was visited by many statesmen, politicians and culturati from Yugoslavia and abroad. Vila Bled has been renovated and is today a top category hotel which can accommodate even the most demanding guests. I In 1960 Bled finally won town status. Visitors interested in winter sports have a choice of five ski areas nearby to enjoy. The small local ski hill is Strazna. Somewhat larger ski areas within 10km (6 miles) are Pokljuka - a major cross country ski area but with one drag lift for downhillers, and Zatrnik. However, most guests searching for more extensive and demanding terrain make the 20km (13 mile) journey to the areas of Kobla or Vogel.
The beautiful lakeside resort of Bled is close to three ski centres, the closest Straza is right above the old town, but has more limited terrain than better known Kobla and Vogel ski areas, 30 minutes drive away ( free ski bus for lift pass holders ) . Straza does have night-skiing however so is worth considering for an aprés - ski - ski.
Two ski slopes, in total about 1.2km (three quarters of a mile) in length are available for both beginners and experienced skiers. However anyone above beginner standard is unlikely to find more than a day's entertainment here.
The next centre on the road out of town is Zatrnik, 10km (6 miles) away on the Pokljuka plateau. It is blessed with a chair and four T Bars serving 16km (10 miles) of runs for all standards, the longest 2.5km (just over a mile and a half). The vertical is 344m, three times that of Straza, and the top of the lifts at 1200m is twice as high.
Zatrnik is another good place to learn to ski or progress with gentle open nursery slopes and some easy to use lifts. The chair serves long easy and intermediate runs from the area's highest point at Berjanca, and there are a couple of short sharp blacks from the top of the Hotunjski Vrh lift, one of which has staged world cup slalom races in the past.
There is extensive cross country skiing in the area from a separate base at Pokljuka, a further 10km (6 miles) along the road, where the 35km (21 miles) of trails are supplemented by a single 200m drag for alpine skiers. The best known cross country trail is on Rudno Polje - a Biathlon World Cup event is held here every year. You can also go cross-country skiing on Zajavornik, Goreljek and in the Kranjska valley.
The two 'serious skiing' centres are Kobla and Vogel - in Bohinj, only 20 and 30 km from Bled respectively. There is good snow here almost every winter, because the 36 trails on Vogel run from 1300 to 1800 m above sea level, and Kobla has snowmaking facilities. Both areas have a healthy 35km (22 miles) of trails, each with three chair lifts. Kobla has three additional drags, Vogel five drags and a cable car. Vogel's cable car rises above the forest from lakeside Bohinjsko Jezero up to a ski area base plateau that includes nursery slopes and chairs serving higher, steeper runs. Although official figures give a vertical of only 500m or so, an intermediate run back down to the base of the cable car is open if snow conditions permit, giving a world class drop of 1200m, the upper section of which may be completed on the area's single black, or an intermediate run giving the longest run of 6km (4 miles).
From the top of Vogel you can have excellent views of Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenija and indeed in the whole former Yugoslav Republic area. A similar vertical of nearly 1000 metres is possible for Kobla, again if snow conditions are adequate. Here there are easy runs at all levels with nursery slopes at the base. The three chair lifts take you in succession to 700 and then 1000 metres. The one short black is served by the middle chair.
Private lessons are the only option for younger skiing-age children although these are charged more reasonably than at most other ski areas. Details of babysitters are available from the tourist office or individual hotels.
On the plus side prices are generally far more reasonable than at most international ski centres and there are plenty of child friendly facilities.
Bled is famous for its cream cakes which have now been known for decades as the symbol of Bled cuisine. The former manager of the Hotel Park, a Mr Lukacevic had the enviable job of testing recipes for many years before he finally succeeded. His cream cakes, prepared in house and sold in the café opposite the hotel, are famous. There is apparently no secret to the success in making the cakes, only experience. The cooks from Bled have plenty of that having made and sold more than 13 million cakes since 1960. The famous treats have a golden crispy crust made from butter dough (not margarine!), a delicious vanilla cream of exactly the right consistency (i.e. with exactly the right amount of flour - if there is too much, they are no good, if too little, they collapse after cutting). This is topped with whipped cream, then another crispy layer of butter dough covered with powdered sugar.