Very rarely do places actually live up to their expectation that I have in my head. That’s what I reminded myself as the car door muffled shut. I climbed up a grassy embankment to the main road, and back down the other side. Lake Bled lay before me. Immediately I was hypnotized by the tall white steeple of the Pilgrimage Church. The church sat on the island in the middle of the lake. Visitors rode Pletna boats out to the island and rang the church bells for wishes. The ringing reverently reverberated over the glass-like surface tension up to the peaks above. My imagination was immediately captivated by legends of angry fairies who once used to dance in the soft grass of the valley. The fairies were worried that the sheep would eat all of their grass, so they asked the shepherds for help. When the humans refused to help and all of the grass was eaten, the fairies flooded the valley. Now they dance on the water each night. Places this beautiful usually inspire myths because we’re unable to explain their majestic nature in realistic terms. Old myths are evidence that people, like the travelers of today, have always been aware of the magic of special places.
I was so enamored by my trip to the lake that I immediately went back to the hostel to swoon over Instagram. Looking back, it was a little bit like writing a love letter to Slovenia. But my initial words totally nailed it:
What surprised me the most about Lake Bled was how much of a pristine riparian (okay technically littoral) habitat that it truly is. Within two minutes of being there I was hanging out with fishermen who were pulling out prehistoric looking carp that were 3 feet in length. I got to gasp and giggle alongside them and talk in broken English. Coming from neighboring countries to sport fish is a typical activity for Lake Bled. Don’t worry– (from what I saw) they always let the fishy friends go. I mean– the nets to pull these suckers in were as big as a person.
I got eye level with perfect lily pads and disappeared under a weeping tree at the water’s edge. When I looked down into the green water I saw . . . at the risk of sounding like a total redneck . . . what I could only compare with what you would see in one of those 15 foot freshwater aquariums in the middle of Bass Pro. Fish after fish, little fish, big fish, hiding under a log fish, whisker fish. It was totally amazing. All of my fellow redneck friends cue laugh here.
And that’s about the time that I ran into Bobby. Walking along the lake shore we came to a narrow spot where we had to cross by an artist selling his work taped to a board. He sat with his back to the lake wearing a stereotypical black beret, you know one of those European artist hats with the tiny point tip? The ones you see in French cartoons?
Not intending to buy anything, I stopped to admire his board of available works, at his request. I gave just enough consideration as to not appear rude, noticing that each watercolor was the same– just in a different color scheme. I started to take a step away when I heard him quietly say, “Four Euros”.
In disbelief, “Four Euros?” I repeated. I didn’t have any spare room for souvenirs in my backpack on my 80 day journey around the world. But these were small, original, and they were cheap. I carefully selected the sepia toned work. He peeled the tape from the board. And put the work in his lap. He laughed intermittently the entire time he talked to us because he was so happy to have tourists back– American ones at that. He’d sat in this exact spot selling his art for 30 years. He’d been lonely without the tourists to talk to and he claimed to especially like Americans because some of us are gregarious and overly friendly. He continued to laugh to himself. He flipped my painting over, dipped his perfectly pointed watercolor brush into his deep black and began to write our names and the year. He signed his name. And I was expecting that to be the end of our interaction together . . . until his brush strokes began to make unfamiliar wavy lines. At first I thought he was drawing the lake scene of the day. But then I realized that he was beginning to draw. . . us. At first I resisted the urge to sigh damsel in distress style: “Jack paint me like one of your French girls,” with my hand over my forehead dramatically. He continued to laugh to himself. Clearly he enjoyed the element of surprise.
“I’ve never had anyone paint me before” I said seriously.
Trying to break the awkward silence as he studied his subjects, I asked him if it was nice to enjoy the lake to himself over the last three months while all the tourists were away due to Covid. I was shocked to hear his longing voice say that he missed the human connection. He missed sharing his passion for art with others. He carefully traced every line of my body judgmentally to covey it into my portrait. I suddenly felt overly conscious of my insecurities. Long nose line, eyes close together, typical tourist camera strap, plump breasts and belly, chubby arms. His laughing sounded different at that point, like even though he’d done this countless times, maybe he was a little uncomfortable too. Yet, here we were– all participating. Bobby inserted himself into the portrait with an image of him drawing us. The finishing touches were the backpacks. I examined the final work. That was me. And we continue to carry his painting with us for the rest of our adventures 80 days around the world.
On this trip, many people in the tourist industry have given heartfelt thank yous for being brave enough to come back out, and “We are so glad to have tourists back!” They have called from their stands and in the streets. I desperately needed this positive energy to combat the negative ideas that I’ve had about myself for traveling during this time.
Many people have had their charactatures drawn at typical touristic sights. You know the ones: the artist specializes in political figures and celebrities drawn with exaggerated physical features. They’re funny. You could get one at any theme park. But this experience was different. This artist saw me for exactly what I was at that moment. He examined me with his artist eyes and artist heart. And he shared a little bit of that fairy dust travel magic with us to make the experience at Lake Bled that much more memorable. I walked away with my hand on my heart-space, holding that interaction dearly.
Tips when visiting Lake Bled:
*The farther west you go, the better view of the island in the middle of the lake
* Do: Plan to visit the Blejski Grad Castle and have a slice of the legendary Lake Bled Cream Cake, a totally majestic snack. There is a truely excellent view of the entire lake and island here.
*Do: bring a swimsuit for the swimming area near the camping on the west side of the lake (make sure not to pollute the fish paradise with sunscreen, bug spray, or residue soap on your skin!)
*Do: take time to walk the trail along the edge of the lake
*Do: dip your toes into the water
*Do: engage in conversations with locals and read local folktales
*Plan to spend some time exploring Slovenia’s surrounding Alps and National Parks
*Hike the gorges of the area: I was totally blown away by Vintgar Gorge (more on that later).