21 December 2010

Bled Island – Slovenia’s Fairy Tale Isle

Lake Bled in Slovenia has had visitors for thousands of years. Little wonder when you consider its mild climate and beautiful surroundings.  

The lake has an island, tear-shaped and the only real island in the virtually land-locked country.  

When people say that a place is like something from a fairy tale often they are exaggerating.  

Not with so Bled Island.  Formed by a glacier it is every inch worthy of that description.

The island is tiny but over the centuries people have wasted no time using virtually every square meter to one purpose or another.  In fact it has been inhabited in one shape or form since prehistory – human traces many thousands of years old have been found there.

As you can imagine the place is popular among couples seeking that romantic place in which to exchange vows.  The largest building on the island is the Church of the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage.   Yet Bled, in the heart of Europe, has not always been Christian.

Before this it is said that the Slavic goddess of love and fertility, Ziva, had a temple here. Although this was originally a creation of the great Slovene poet France Prešeren, it is easy to imagine ancient rituals taking place here.  Archaeological work showed that the early Slavs worshipped at a pagan temple here at least a century before the first Christian worshippers arrived in the ninth century.

Traditional wooden row barges call pletna (see above) ferry people to and from the island.  More adventurous visitors can rent a boat and row themselves over. The way up to the church consists of 99 steps.  A local tradition dictates that the groom but carry his wife up these steps to the church – one can only hope that if there is a disparity in weight it is the husband who is the heavier.

As she is carried the wife must stay completely silent or bad luck will descend on their marriage.  It is tempting to make a slightly cynical comment here about the silence most likely being her last but discretion is so often the better part of valor.  Whatever must not be said here, the steps are very steep.  Grooms are advised to spend several months training in a gym before their nuptials.
The church was originally Gothic in its architecture which suited the area well.  It has a large free-standing belfry on its southern side, both of which were built in the late fifteenth century.  The first Bishop of Ljubljana, Sigmund Lamberg, consecrated the presbytery and the main altar in 1465, when Christopher Columbus would have been fourteen years old.

The church was reconstructed in 1685 in the Pre-Baroque style.  The interior dates from that period and up to one hundred years later.  Renovated in 1972 the church has four side altars, replete with wooden and black marble carvings.  The main altar is a richly gilded affair which dated from the middle of the eighteenth century.

As well as the inevitable weddings, the main feature that attracts visitors is the wishing bell - you can see someone tugging on its rope on the left of the picture above.  The bells date from the early eighteenth century. As you ring the bell, make a wish and it will be granted – or at least that is how the story has it. Of course it must be true - every fairy tale should have a happy ending after all.