There are two beautiful lakes in the northeastern Gorenjska region of Slovenia. Lakes Bled and Bohinj are both bounded by forested mountains and high pastures. They’re separated only by about fifteen miles of valley, but feel worlds apart. Bohinj’s shores are an outdoor playground for paragliders and hikers, but are otherwise mostly deserted. Around Bled – which is blessed with this perfect crag castle and a much photographed island church – the holidaymakers and locals have more ostentatious tastes.
The waters of both Bled and Bohinj are a deep, aquamarine color that catches the light and seems murkier than it really is. Wooden boats dot the surfaces, rented out by the hour from stands on the shore. Both lakes are full of trout, which end up on area tables and menus.
Bled could be famous simply for its views and the castle, but there’s also a magnificent and unique centerpiece – Bled Island, which is an icon of Slovenian tourism and of the lake region in general. It’s topped by the striking Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary, built in 1465, whose bells chime the hour and echo softly over the water. On a walk around the lake’s perimeter, we watched the light change on the steeple and followed a swimmer’s progress as he made his slow way from the shore to the church staircase.
Bled is undoubtedly the tourist capital of Slovenia, and there are more German, Italian, French and American accents than Slovenian ones. It’s a glamorous place, in its own way, with the feel of an upscale ski town or an old seaside resort. While there are endless opportunities for hiking and climbing in the mountains around town, most people stay close to the shore and the shopping district, drinking and dining at the sleek bars and slowly parading their luxury cars along the main street. Tour buses come in for the afternoon. Large, stately hotels ring the water.
Not far away, Bohinj lies quiet and serene. Here, there are no castles or magnificent buildings (though the pretty churches of Sv Janeza Krstnika and Sv Duh have plenty of charm and history). Its beauty is hardly understated, though; with steep sides and pebbled coves, the lake has a natural grandeur that is breathtaking and refreshing. Its famous mists materialize early in the evening and lift late in the morning, burning off in long tendrils that hang in curls over the peaks.
While there are a few places to stay close to the shore, most of the tourism infrastructure is condensed into the little village of Ribčev Laz, at the eastern point of the lake. Most of the rest of the coast is protected as part of Triglav National Park, and the northern shore is entirely deserted. Pastures and cornfields stretch up a secondary valley in the direction of Stara Fužina, and its common to hear cowbells clanking around the lake as the Cika heifers graze amongst the trees.
There’s a pretty pathway that circumnavigates Bohinj, passing by a campsite and crossing over the Savica river on the western end. Three years ago, we walked it in the rain and felt a peaceful solitude. This time, it was sunnier and less muddy. These strange tubs – unused and inexplicable – confused us on both walks. They seem to be hooked up to piping, but are mostly full of leaves and gunk.
When we left Gorenjska, we were glad to get away from the tourists and slip back into the backwoods and unspoiled villages of Slovenia’s less traveled regions. It was sad to leave these two lakes behind, though. We’ve found ourselves missing the morning mists and beautiful trails – we regret not taking a boat out, not going for a swim, not lingering a little longer to take in the views from the peaks around.
One night we stopped at this Bohinj pier on our way home from dinner. The water was motionless and glassy and the lake was silent. From the bridge over the outlet, dozens of camera flashes flickered, but there were barely any other terrestrial lights. We lingered for a while until the mosquitos drove us away, taking in the quiet and promising ourselves that we’d come back here.