Tucked in the northwestern corner of Slovenia, between Austria and Italy, Lake Bled's emerald-green waters create a spectacular landscape, with a lush, tiny island and a church tower peeking out of evergreens surrounded by the rocky, snow-covered Julian Alps.
A majestic 16th century castle stands on a steep cliff, and a narrow pathway winds through a thick pine forest. It's like something from a kitsch painting — only the picture-perfect appeal of Lake Bled is for real.
The island on the lake is the only island in all of Slovenia, the small central European country of about 2 million people that is privileged to have both an opening onto the Adriatic Sea as well as chunks of the Alps. Slovenia packs an abundance of contrasting landscapes and cultures, and it's also proud of being the only country in the world with the word "love" in its name.
Time appears to have stopped in Bled. The church on the island — sometimes called Fairytale Island — can be reached via 98 steps leading from a small port used by traditional gondola-style wooden rowing boats (no gasoline engines are allowed here). The island church, which dates to the ninth century, is favoured for weddings in summer because of its wishing bell, which according to legend brings good luck if you ring it three times. That usually means the bells are tolling almost constantly during daytime when tourists visit.
A 6-kilometre (3.7-mile) stroll around the lake is the best way to see it. Most of the hotels — built in the 1970s and '80s when Slovenia was part of communist Yugoslavia before declaring independence in 1991 — and restaurants and shops are located the small town of Bled, which has changed little since the communist days.
There are no real attractions here for young partygoers, but the local cuisine has its specialties. The sweet to eat after hiking is Kremna rezina, or cream pie — found only in Bled — consisting of a thick layer of cream and an even thicker layer of vanilla custard sandwiched between slices of thin crispy pastry. Each restaurant in town touts its own slice, but Park Hotel claims to make the best pie after baking the original in 1953.
For those with bigger appetites, try Kranjska klobasa, a juicy pork sausage that originated in the nearby town of Kranj. Or Struklji, a traditional Slovene pastry dish, composed of dough and various types of filling. It was a favourite of late Yugoslav communist strongman Josip Broz Tito, whose villa still stands next to the lake.
Local wines are well-known, as is Borovnicka, a sweet-tasting blueberry liqueur.
Bled is crowded with tourists and swimmers in summer. But the best time to visit is in winter, when its waters sometimes freeze all over creating a giant skating rink, allowing visitors to walk shore to shore, as well as to the island.
"The beauty and bore of Bled is what makes it so appealing," said Ruzica Katic, a visitor from Serbia. "There is no better relaxation than this."