Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap In Slovenia You Really Must See

Lake Bled
Sean McLachlan

If you don’t already know that Lake Bled is the most popular tourist attraction in Slovenia you’ll know it the moment you arrive. There’s a casino. There’s a Shamrock Irish Pub. There’s even one of those tourist buses made up to look like a choo-choo train. It’s horrible.

But look out across the emerald-green water sparkling in the sunshine and all that disappears. Instead, you see a storybook landscape – a lush little island with a church spire peeking out over the greenery, snow-covered Alps beyond and, on one shore, a steep cliff atop which looms a formidable castle. It’s like something from Wagner.

The best way to see Lake Bled is to take a slow stroll around it. A path makes the entire 3.7-mile circuit. Most of the hotels and nearly all the businesses are clustered into one small town, so you soon leave the noise and people behind. Much of the walk is shaded and you can admire the lake from all angles. At one point there’s a sign for Osojnica hill. A moderately challenging 15-minute climb will reward you with fine views of the island and its church.

Most visitors head up to Bled Castle, one of the most impressive of Slovenia’s many castles. It’s a 16th-century fortress/manor house built on 11th-century foundations. While picturesque from afar, I’d recommend not visiting it because you’ll spoil the illusion. As soon as you enter the front gate someone shouts, “Smile!” and snaps your photo. When you leave they’ll offer you an image of yourself looking slightly surprised and confused for only €6.50 ($8.60).

%Slideshow-599%Once you make it past the photographer, you can visit an old-style print shop, where you can buy handmade prints; or you can visit the wine cellar, where you can buy wine; or you can visit the smithy with its fake forge and array of metalwork for sale. The only redeeming spots are the fine little castle church with its 16th-century frescoes and the views over Lake Bled. Since you can get just as good views from Osojnica hill for free, there’s really not much need to come here.

While Bled Island and its Church of the Assumption are equally touristy, they feel slightly less spoiled than the castle. At least people aren’t trying to sell you something all the time. The approach is nicer too – instead of slogging up a steep hill, you’re rowed across the lake on a gondola. When I went to the lakeside to catch a boat, a tour bus pulled up and disgorged a huge crowd of South Koreans, mostly women in their 50s with a couple of camera-toting husbands in tow.

We all piled into three gondolas and set out. The women in one of the boats started singing and their voices carried nicely over the water. I shared the stern of my boat with two ladies. Everyone thought this was funny for some reason and started snapping photos of us. The lone Korean man in our boat stood up to take a shot and, figuring I’d give him something to talk about back home, I put my arms around the two women. They started giggling. For them, at least, I’m still a young man.

The photographer gave me a wide grin and took our photograph. After he sat down one of the women turned to me and said, “That’s my husband.”

Oops.

The man must have overheard because he laughed. Then he pointed at me and said, “You kimchi.”

I swear to God that’s what he said. “You kimchi.”

Maybe Gadling’s resident Korea expert can shed some light on this?

Once we got off the boat, the oarsman grumpily announced that we only had half an hour. That’s plenty of time because the island is tiny. A quiet little path goes around the edge. It took me barely five minutes to make the circuit even though I kept stopping to take pictures. Then I rejoined my temporary travel companions in the church.

The church has some lovely 14th-century frescoes but that’s not why people come here. They come here to ring the bell. There’s some local legend about how it gives you luck for some reason or other. I didn’t bother to write it down since it was probably made up for tourists anyway. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance for some good luck and I got in line with the rest. A sign on the floor gave strict instructions not to swing from the bell rope. Most of the women did anyway.

That bell rang and rang. Since a steady stream of visitors passes through the island, you can hear that bell ringing from early in the morning until sunset. It hardly ever seems to stop. Lake Bled has a lot of luck to give.

The women thought I was very strong because I could ring the bell without swinging from it. Thanks, ladies! Maybe that was the luck the bell had for me – the admiration of a crowd of middle-aged South Koreans. It’s not much, but how much magic do you expect from a tourist trap?

Despite all this nonsense, is Lake Bled still worth a visit? Oh yes. It is simply beautiful. Even in a steady downpour it had a majestic quality to it, and when the clouds broke it became one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in 25 years and 34 countries of travel. I would suggest visiting Lake Bled but actually staying at the less-visited but equally beautiful Lake Bohinj in Triglav National Park. More on that in the next post.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Hiking in Triglav National Park!

Video: animatronic recreation of the Gunfight at the OK Corral

I’ve been in a Wild West mood lately. I used to live in Tucson, Arizona, and loved the tales of gunfights, gold strikes, and crooked gamblers. I’ve been rediscovering some of that lately and my thoughts turned to Tombstone, the West’s quintessential tough town. It was here that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday faced off against the notorious Cowboys and shot them to pieces just outside the OK Corral.

“Cowboy” was a derogative term in that time and place, reserved for rustlers, brawlers, and other ne’er-do-wells. Honest people who handled cattle were called cattlemen, range men, or by the Spanish term vaqueros. Most were Mexican or black, a fact Hollywood has seen fit to forget. The Cowboy gang that operated near Tombstone loved to steal cattle, shoot up saloons, and do all that other stuff from which legends are made. Americans love their bad guys.

They love cheesy tourist attractions too. I mean, how couldn’t you love an animatronic recreation of the Gunfight at the OK Corral? It takes place all day, every day in Tombstone. I challenge you to watch this video without smiling. Yes, it’s hokey, yes, it a bit embarrassing, but damn is it entertaining! A much less hokey live show is performed in Tombstone every day of the week at 2pm.

Want more Arizona cheesiness? Have you seen… The Thing?

Amsterdam’s Torture Museum

torture, Amsterdam, torture museumLike many travelers, I have a soft spot in my heart for tourist traps. Whether it’s the politically incorrect cheesiness of South of the Border or the shabby weirdness of The Thing, nothing brings a smile to my face better than some cheap, gaudy attempt to capture my attention.

Amsterdam’s Torture Museum fits the bill perfectly. Behind a pseudo-spooky facade are reproductions of torture instruments from the Bad Old Days. You’ve got famous nasties such as the rack and the stocks, as well as lesser-known evils like the Flute of Shame. Pictured here is the Inquisition Chair. The victim was strapped in and the weight of his own body caused him to sink onto the spikes. Check out the gallery for more photos and descriptions.

The whole place is lit by weird red, orange, and blue lights and is a maze of stairs and hallways that makes you feel like you’re in a medieval dungeon. Signs in several languages (including English) give basic descriptions of what you’re seeing, and images pulled from old books show the torture instruments in action.

It’s all very garish and exploitative. No attempt is made to be socially redeeming by discussing modern torture. For example, there’s no display about waterboarding, used by the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge, and the U.S. government. Of course there shouldn’t be because the U.S. government says waterboarding isn’t torture and they only use it on the guilty anyway. I know they’re speaking the truth because the U.S. government never lies and never makes mistakes.

The Torture Museum’s garish displays and Wikipedia-style descriptions are mere low-brow titillation. It’s when you think of what these objects really mean, and how similar instruments of cruelty are still in common use today, that this horror show becomes truly frightening.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam day trip: Van Brederode castle!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

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7 travel rules you should break

I am not what you would call a rebel. I floss nightly. I chew each bite of food at least 20 times before swallowing, for fear of choking. As a kid, I colored between the lines. In short: I obey the rules. I always have.

But lately, I’ve noticed a little rebellious streak has emerged within me, particularly in the realm of travel. I’ve realized that a lot of people like to issue travel rules. Definitive statements about what we should and shouldn’t do as travelers. And frankly, that seems silly.

Now, don’t get me wrong: if the U.S. government issues a travel warning about heading to a foreign land, I think you should listen (or, you know, at least read the warning). I don’t think that walking down dark alleys is strange cities is necessarily a good idea. But I do think that some travel rules were made to be broken. And that by doing so, you’ll actually have a better time than if you had obeyed them. Here are seven travel rules I recommend you ignore.

Rule: Never check your bag.

I’ve heard this rule repeated time and again by experienced travelers (and I’m not going to lie: I’ve said it myself a few times as well). They warn that checking your bag makes you that much more likely to lose it. Or have your stuffed damaged, stolen, or otherwise snooped through.

Still, this is a rule that is delightful to ignore. After all, checking a bag makes going through security a breeze — no need to worry about liquid restrictions, or having to lug your bag with you while simultaneously trying to remove your shoes, watch, belt, underwear, and dental fillings. Plus, checking your bag means that you’ll be able to purchase an array of items that you couldn’t otherwise pack (perfume, wine, etc). I’ll never forget the time my hubby and I didn’t buy an absolutely amazing bottle of liqueur because we didn’t want to check our bags. I still think about it, and would have gladly waited an extra 20 minutes at baggage claim to have it.


Rule: Pack light.

I once read an article in a travel magazine in which the author implored his readers to pack nothing for their next trip. Absolutely nothing. Underwear was meant to be washed in the sink. Shirts could be re-worn several times.

For me, this isn’t exactly a viable option — perhaps because “washing underwear in the hotel bathroom sink” isn’t on my vacation to-do list.And while I understand the joys of packing light, there’s something to be said about about over-packing. Having several clean outfits to choose from (and enjoying the decadence of changing your shirt twice in a day!). Swapping out comfy shoes for even comfier ones! And honestly — if you’re just going from the airport to your hotel and back, lugging a bigger suitcase isn’t that much of an inconvenience.


Rule: Avoid tourist traps.

I’m told on a daily basis how awful tourist traps are. They’re overpriced! They’re not worth it! They’re too crowded and cliche! They’re what everyone does when they visit !

While every city has it’s own fair share of tacky, touristy activities, that doesn’t mean you should avoid all of them — especially if means missing out on something you want to see. The Colosseum in Rome is always packed with tourists — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Nor should you skip the Empire State Building in New York. Or the Space Needle in Seattle. Are they packed with people? Absolutely. Why? Because they’re fun and iconic and worth seeing.


Rule: Don’t talk to strangers.

Okay, I admit, this one has a bit of validity. Travelers should exercise a bit of caution. I wouldn’t randomly walk up to some suspicious-looking character and tell them the details of my life, my social security number, or which hotel I’m staying in.

But one of the most rewarding things about travel is meeting new people. If you find yourself in a safe, public place, and you’re in the mood, why not spark up a conversation? I love chatting up cabbies, restaurant workers, doormen, and countless other locals I encounter for tips on what to see and do in a city. Even if I don’t end up taking their advice, I still end up having a richer experience.


Rule: Have an agenda … or at least some clue of where you’re going.

I constantly meet super-organized travelers who put me to shame. They have every minute of their vacation organized, scheduled and planned out. They’re researched tours, purchased tickets to shows, and made reservations months in advance.

I, on the other hand, am lucky if I remembered to book a return ticket home. And that’s not always a bad thing. There’s something incredibly liberating about arriving in a foreign city with absolutely no plans whatsoever. You can pop into whatever storefronts look interesting, roam a town aimlessly for hours, and snag last-minute tickets to a show or museum exhibit you’ve never heard of. Some of my best travel experiences are born from my lack of foresight.


Rule: Don’t buy cheesy souvenirs

I had a friend, years ago, who I thought was the epitome of elegant. Her souvenirs from her travels consisted of obscure concert posters and hand-crafted jewelry that she had fiercely bartered for in the middle of busy European streets. She scoffed at mass-produced snowglobes, key-chains, and t-shirts.

While she did have a point (finding unique one-of-kind items while traveling is always fun) there’s something to be said for tacky souvenirs. They’re cheap, they put a smile on your face, and since the name is usually emblazoned across the front, there’s no question where it came from. Besides, a Leaning Tower of Pisa shot glass that actually leans? How cool is that?


Rule: Try new things.

I’ve heard time and again that trips are a time to break away from routine, to try different things, to experience a new place and culture. And while I agree with that, I also think that travel is about relaxing and having a good time — and sometimes that means doing the same thing over and over again.

If you love the chocolate croissants at your hotel’s breakfast, there’s no shame in getting them every single morning. If you absolutely adored wandering around Central Park last time you were in New York, why not go again? Yes, travel is about exploration, but it’s also about having a good time. If that means become a repeat offender at a restaurant, museum, or a hotel, then do it. You won’t regret it.

What are your favorite travel rules to break? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

[Photos: Flickr | NicolasNova; L. Marie; JonRawlinson; ElvertBarnes; Mr.Thomas; AndreaKW; StephYo]

Geraldine DeRuiter is the founder of The Everywhereist, a travel blog for the accidentally adventurous.

Rise 35 stories above the city on Chicago’s new balloon attraction

Navy Pier, Chicago‘s biggest tourist trap, is offering visitors a new way to see the city. If riding the elevator to the top of the Sears Willis Tower or relaxing as a giant Ferris wheel slowly inches you skyward doesn’t satisfy your thirst for getting airborne, maybe this one will. A 120,000 cubic-foot helium balloon, called the AeroBalloon, promises to float you 350 feet above the ground.

The balloon’s gondola, which has a hole in the center through which passengers view the ground, can carry up to 18 people, which it will hold aloft for a ride of 8-10 minutes before returning to Earth. Kids must be at least 5 years old to ride and those under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. The rides are offered from 8am to 10pm Monday through Thursday and from 8am to midnight Friday to Sunday. The attraction will shut down for the season on October 31.

Tickets cost a hefty $25 for adults ($15 for kids 12 and under). $25 for 10 minutes? No thanks. I’ll take my view with a side of cocktail – at the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center – where I can pay around $15 and linger as long as I want.