As the visitor enters Slovenia from Italy, the landscape changes from Midwest-flat to wooded and mountainous. The town of Bled, not far from the capital Ljubljana, is in the Gorenjska or mountainous region, what under the Habsburgs was called the Upper Carniola.
Though not agriculturally rich, this area came in many ways to represent Slovenia. In 1689 Janez Vajkard Valvasor (author also of the Three-Part Theater of Human Death) preserved over three thousand, five hundred pages of information about local culture and natural history in Die Ehre deß Hertzogthums Crain (The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola). A precise and scientific-minded observer, Valvasor’s indefatigable researches eventually exhausted his resources, and he was obliged to sell his castle, ending his life in poverty.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Gorenskja dialect became the basis of standard Slovenian, and the region produced many important philologists and writers, including the poet France Prešeren a sonneteer and author of “Zdravljica” (“A Toast”) which was widely used as propaganda during the 1848 revolution against Austrian rule and has since been adopted as national anthem. His Krst pri Savici (Baptism on the Savica) which describes battles between pagan and Christian Slavs and the romance through which the pagan leader is converted is considered a brief national epic.
During the nineteenth century nationalist movement, the Upper Carniolan folk costume was adopted as a national symbol, and even in the mid-twentieth century, the popular music of Slavko Avsenik and his brother came to dominate the Alpine and polka styles of Europe and the United States, making him one of the most popular roots artists in the world.
A better stage set for such regional enthusiasm could hardly be imagined. We enjoyed a room on the shore of Lake Bled with perhaps the most enchanting view I have ever enjoyed. The snow-covered Julian Alps in the distance and the closer heavily forested hills, the clear ultra-blue lake fed from the Bohinj Glacier with its small island (the only island, one is told, in Slovenia) on which stands the frescoed Church of the Assumption, the sheer rock cliff on one shore with Bled Castle on top, all this forms a truly storybook picture, very nearly too perfect (like a fussily-tended Victorian home or two I have seen). An inviting path extends the four miles around the shore.
Accessible from the center of Bled, the trail presents the most civilized experience of nature. Mute swans drift offshore, some with their wings slightly lifted in the most elegant manner, while ducks paddle nearby, and song-birds chirp, sing, and peep above. Now and then one passes an old villa, most converted to bed and breakfasts, but one in a highly romantic state of collapse, its roof disconsolate on an old tiled floor.
The walker passes beneath St. Martin’s Church, a plain neo-Gothic church which is perfectly at home in the scene though it was built at the turn of the twentieth century. Here one might see Slavko Pengov’s Last Supper in which Judas Iscariot appears with the features of Vladimir Lenin. This satiric jab remained uncensored due to Tito’s differences with the Soviet Union, but Pengov’s renderings of heroic partisans adorning Tito’s home on the other side of the lake will strike the viewer as more doctrinaire Socialist Realism, though critics have inferred more heterodox opinions from details inserted by the pacifist artist. The building itself was originally constructed by German POWs, but is now the Hotel Vila Bled, with rooms booked far in advance. The Karađorđević kings who ruled the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes between the world wars were equally fond of Bled. When it comes to perks there seems to be little difference between monarchists and communists.
Visiting the castle today one may admire the drawbridge, the solid Romanesque tower, courtyards on two levels, and a sheer drop down to the lake-side. Beneath its imposing presence, though, the walker’s thoughts turn to those who lived under its domination subject for over a thousand years to feudal extortion, paying tribute in produce and labor to the agents of the proprietors atop the hill. Perhaps the nobles were at times troubled by conscience, for we know that in 1004 the last of the Ottonian Holy Roman Emperors Henry II (later sainted) donated the territory to the bishop of Bled, Albuin of Brixen who appointed underlings to administer the lands. Portraits of Henry and his wife Kunigunde of Luxembourg adorn the old chapel with its trompe l’oeil ceiling. It may be that the prelates eventually tired of dealing with their tenants. We know that they leased it to the Kreigh family who continued to occupy it when the region came under Habsburg rule in 1278. Insurgent peasants sent complaints to their bishop and king several times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and, finding no redress, attacked the stronghold more than once. One lord, Hartman Kreigh, was killed by angry farmers. Once order was restored, his wife Poliksena had cast a memorial bell of gold and silver, meaning to place it in the chapel on the island. On its way there, though, a storm overturned their boat and the bell sank to the bottom. It was never recovered, though legend says it may still be heard on occasion, ringing from the depths. It is unclear whether such spectral music would remind the listener of Hartman’s greatness or of his cruelty. Families of those who had rebelled were subject then to even greater levies to punish them for generations to come.
In the mid-19th century the castle passed into the hands of venture capitalists hoping to make money with a hotel. Though tourism was rapidly growing, all the more after a health spa was established below, the castle’s value remained for the most part in the spectacle it presented. Under communism, of course, it was state-owned, as such a place should be, and today for €8 one may poke around. The management is today ambitiously entrepreneurial. For a fee someone will print the visitor’s name with the castle’s image on a parchment-like page, or a monk, wearing a robe which may have come from some order or perhaps from central casting, will draw off for him an overpriced bottle of wine. Couples can rent the spot for weddings and get not only the regal (or at least baronial) setting, but in addition a handful of people in vaguely Renaissance costume. And there’s a restaurant that can be recommended at least for its fine large danse macabre fresco and Garden of Eden scenes, all the more appealing for their unsophisticated draftsmanship.
Proceeding on the trail on the lake’s edge, the walker passes the sizable and serious rowing center. International competitions are regularly held in this glorious spot. A short bit later comes a camp ground from which I heard the sounds of partying and singing in German. After this point there are few buildings until one has returned almost to the starting point. By this point of my visit, night had fallen, multiplying the delight of the scene now etherealized and mystified by obscurity. Images reminiscent of violence, oppression, spiritual aspiration, cupidity, vulgarity, beauty, and philosophy jostle against each other as they tend to do in this life. With the turning of the wheel of fortune, the borders threaten to blur between the lords and the luckless, the pious and the vicious, the lovely and the hideous. If the synthesis is elusive, the visitor has the option to stop thinking and retreat at this point into the considerable calories of a local specialty, the kremna rezina or cream slice whose generous layers of cream and custard are barely contained by a bit of puff pastry. After consuming only one, ratiocination tends to slow in the most comforting way.