Europe/ Slovenia/ Travel

Lake Bled: a trip of mixed emotions

“Why is the water that colour?”

My expectations of Lake Bled were admittedly sky high. As the destination that rocketed Slovenia to the top of my travel wish list, I’d spent years imagining myself standing on its light sapphire banks. Yet when we arrived, things weren’t quite as we expected.

Castle view of red Lake Bled

After the perfect day in Slovenia’s Julian Alps, we were giddy with excitement as we packed our bags for Bled. Fate nearly intervened as I found myself locked inside a bathroom with three minutes until our bus departed, shaking the railings like I was in a bad thriller until somebody mercifully set me free. After legging it into my seat on the bus, we settled in for 90 minutes of beautiful scenery before we hopped off in Bled.

Dying to stretch our legs, and find some food, we took off straight down to the lake where we skidded to a halt with surprise.

“Ermm…is the lake supposed to be red?”

Lake Bled Slovenia in March
Red Lake Bled Slovenia
Left: edited photo. Right: the water close up.

Far from the glistening alpine waters I’d admired in photographs everywhere, it looked like clay was swirling along the lake’s surface, propelled by the breeze and the odd brave duck. Rather than a fairytale paradise, it was more like being on the set of a Scandinavian thriller with low-hanging clouds and the water’s rust-coloured hue for added pathetic fallacy. I admired the still-impressive view but with a distinct sense of underwhelm – similar to my emotions watching the last Game of Thrones episode.

So what happened? At the time we tried to find out what caused this phenomenon with little success but just a week later, a series of articles pop online with photos just like mine. The algae is a natural occurance, intensified from a milder winter than usual, but decreasing water quality is said to have been a problem in Bled for years. According to this article, increased traffic around the lake, plus the number of swimmers and fisherman have contributed this, resulting in the spread of cyanobacteria.

The second thing that surprised us was the complete lack of people. Whether it was the lake’s new russet hue or the spreading coronavirus that was responsible, we still aren’t sure but we saw barely a handful of people on our walk around the lake.

Slovenia's Lake Bled is red

Our apartment host Marion assured us that it was very different during peak season. When we ran into her later that day, she enthused “the quiet is brilliant” with a kind of manic glare in her eye, silently daring us to disagree. While usually I’d absolutely love the idea of having somewhere so tranquil to myself, it had the kind of post-apocolyptic eerieness to it that set our nerves on edge. Ironically, this now feels like the norm on my daily walks around Liverpool’s deserted streets during lockdown.

Wanting to make the best of the situation, we went in search of Bled’s traditional cream cake with a view. One of the best points above the lake is Bled Castle, a breathless fifteen minute hike uphill from the lakeside. It makes for a majestic sight; equally fairytale beautiful and Halloween spooky dependant on the weather. As the oldest castle in Slovenia, dating back to 1011, its historic credentials are equally impressive too. Despite this however, we did wince at the €13.50 ticket fee as there’s not a huge amount to see once inside. One to potentially skip if you’re travelling on a budget.

Bled Castle Slovenia

We found our sanctuary at the Park Restaurant, birthplace of the famous Bled cream cake in 1953. With gorgeous interiors and beautiful outdoor terrace, it’s a lovely place to relax after a stroll around the lake. At this point my stomach growling so loudly that I could have guzzled the entire dessert counter clean, but choosing the classic cream cake was a must. Paired with their recommended white wine, we felt way more civilised than the hysterical creatures who’d just been howling in laughter at the creepiness of the whole situation.

Following the odd trajectory of this strange experience, we decided to dive straight into a main course after our dessert. Before visiting Slovenia, I wasn’t sure about their vegetarian and vegan food offerings but the Park surprised me with a delicious vegan burger. Not as authentic as the previous day’s meal but at this point, we were on edge and craving familiarity. And more wine.

Park Restaurant Lake Bled
Cream cake at Park Restaurant, Lake Bled

Our strange day in Bled was drawing to a close and as we meandered back to our apartment, I found myself trying to understand the strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s only now, over a month later, that I’m able to partly explain the conundrum.

When a particular destination or attraction receives a massive amount of hype, visiting it can go one of two ways. You’ll fall madly in love with the qualities that made it so popular, or you won’t like it. This time it wasn’t that simple. Just like the other parts of Slovenia we’d seen matched every inch of my expectations, I desperately wanted Bled to be everything I’d imagined it would be. But far from being the fault of Bled itself, the problems that Lake Bled now faces have been intensified by humanity.

With sustainable travel in mind, I’ve read about how greater visitor numbers impacts destinations like Venice, Rainbow Mountain in Peru and Nepal’s Mount Everest. However, aside from the odd queue for a photogenic Instagram spot, this was the first time I’d seen a major consequence of our actions on nature before my eyes. And it hit home hard. It dawned on me why Lake Zelenci is closed to swimmers, something I was sad about the previous day but now completely understand.

One day I hope I’ll see Lake Bled again. Until then, I’m using this time of closed borders and travel bans to evaluate how I can increase my efforts to explore the world more sustainably.

Laura x

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