Thursday, March 27, 2008

New Stop Number 3

Above: On the castle lookout
Above: Enjoying Slovenian cuisine.
Above: Product of the Gutenberg Printing Press.
Above: Wine-crazed monk blocks our exit until we all buy a bottle from him.
Above: In front of the baroque St. Mary's church on Slovenia's only island.

Slovenia is a tiny country, half the size of Nova Scotia, that used to be the northernmost part of Yugoslavia. It escaped most of the ravages of the war in the early 1990’s that saw a lot of the Balkan Peninsula in chaos, and has recently joined the European Union, adopted the Euro, and closed down the massive communist era border checkpoints in the north (though they have had to increase border security with Croatia to the south as Croatia is not part of the EU). After seeing a film about tourism in former communist countries of Eastern Europe that talked about Tito’s (the Yugoslavian dictator for most of the 20th century) holiday home on Lake Bled, I set out to add a new stop to the LFMSS Europe experience.

Bled is a small town on a lake in the middle of the Julian Alps. In the middle of the lake is Slovenia’s only otok (island), and on top of the island is an inviting baroque church. Slovenians bring their wedding parties to Bled, take a pletna (more about that later) out to the island, and climb the 99 steps to the church to ring the bell, which, according to a local legend, will grant you one wish. The interesting thing about the stair climbing thing is that the groom must carry the bride up all the steps without a rest.

We arrived in Bled in the rain, unfortunately, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. Our local guide Robert, who can be seen in Michael Palin’s BBC travel series, guided us to the restaurant where we had a traditional Slovenian meal, ending with a piece of Kremna Resina – the cream cake Bled is famous for. He took us down to the lake where our group split into three and we boarded three Pletnas. Pletnas are s flat bottomed boats (no keel) that are traditionally hand made in Bled only. Maria Theresa, Austrian princess, instituted this practice during the Hapsburg reign in the region. There are only 21 pletnas on the island, owned by 20 families (one guy has two), and passed on generation to generation. Robert was working in Baltimore for Lloyd’s of London when his dad called him home to take over the family pletna since he was retiring. The Pletnas are beautiful boats, and we were all really glad they are covered.

On the Island, we rang the bell in the church, annoyed a swan who laid its eggs too close to the dock, and hid out in the gift shop while our pletna captains took a break. After returning to the mainland, Robert took us up to the Grad, or castle, on the cliff overlooking the lake. Even with the clouds and rain, it was a beautiful view. Robert told me all of his clients who had booked tours for Easter time had cancelled except us. He liked our hearty spirit. Inside the castle we saw something I thought was really cool – a Guttenberg printing press. A man in costume and playing the role of a medieval printer showed us how to use it, and let those of us who wished to buy a handmade paper and have something printed on it actually use the press. In one of the cellars of the castle, a man dressed as a monk made a great sales pitch to our kids – for Slovenian wine! It was an awkward silence after he went through his explanation of some of the customs around wine in Slovenia and then told us which wines were which and how much they cost. I made all the kids buy a bottle to end the awkward silence. Plus he was holding a huge sword they use to open magnums of champagne at weddings, and blocking our exit from the cellar. Hopefully they still have there bottle when they get home – they are supposed to give it to their parents.

I hope you enjoy my sense of humour. If you do, great. If not, it was Mr. Johnson’s idea to write those last couple lines.

I would definitely return to Bled, and would definitely book Robert as our guide again – he got a nice big tip after being very patient (we were an hour late, got lost on the way to the restaurant where we were supposed to meet him, he had to run up the hill to the sports park to guide us to the restaurant) and very friendly and informative (he had a huge smile almost the whole time, and answered all our questions).


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