Slovenia Shines with the Bled Island Shrine of the Assumption

Photos by OC-Travel
Truly one of my favorite pilgrimage destinations in the world is Slovenia. It is a land of great beauty and wonderful people. Twice I had the privilege of visiting here while on pilgrimage. Both times at the kind invitation of our dear friend Fr. Rok Pogacnik I must say how much I enjoyed seeing this enchanting treasure, the church of the Assumption (Cerkev Marijinega Vnebovzetja) on a little island known as Bled Island. Lake Bled, a glacial lake fed by hot springs, is one of the most visited tourist sites in Slovenia. Each year thousands of people visit and a great many take the boat ride to the island to see the church, a perfect summertime destination for those seeking to escape the summer heat while getting to know one of Europe's best kept secrets. The church has recently been completely updated and restored and is well worth a visit -- it can only be reached by boat. The majestic backdrop of the Julian Alps is a sight to behold, so close to the Austrian border. The entire region is a picturesque scene almost from a movie, surrounded by mountains and forests. Tito, the Croatian Communist dictator of Yugoslavia had his summer villa here which is today a hotel.

The heart of the lake is the church-topped islet with its 52 meter (171 foot) copper Baroque tower reaching into the blue skies, showcasing three bells which ring across the waters of the lake. The church is an iconic image of Slovenia and can be seen on many colorful postcards and tourist brochures.

The scene of the church on the lake is perfectly preserved in time, untouched since the late 17th century, especially evocative during the morning mist that rises from the quiet depths of the lake.

The island view is overshadowed by Bled Castle, an a thousand-year-old cliff side fairy-tale fortress that looks out from a high precipice above the lake. Many visitors walk a scenic trail around the lake – about an hour walk – admiring the stunning view which includes the church with its steeple seen on the island in the middle of the lake. Pilgrims and visitors make their way to the island on popular little flat-bottomed wooden boats, each with a pointed bow, a peculiar boat seen only here.

The boats are hand-crafted by locals and hold about twenty passengers. They are not motorized, but are each powered by one man, a trained oarsman. The oarsman employ the stehrudder technique to propel and navigate the boats across the lake, standing in the rear and rowing with two oars, one in each hand. The oarsmen are respected professionals - their job cannot be performed by just anyone. The task has been passed down from generation to generation and takes considerable strength and skill to maneuver and navigate.

The protected trade of the oarsmen dates back to the year 1740 when the Empress Maria Theresa granted to twenty-two local families exclusive rights to ferry the Christian faithful to the island. The profession is still regulated to this day, with many of the oarsmen descendants of the original families.

The boats, seen quietly ferry visitors to and from the island while gliding atop the calm waters, are known in Slovenian as pletna, recognizable by their colorful awnings. The design of the boats dates back to the 1590s. A ride to the island costs about 12 Euro. The boats await passengers in the Spa Park, under the Park Hotel Bled. Other small boats can be seen, locally crafted and glimmering in the summertime sun.

Upon arrival on the enchanted island visitors walk up a steep baroque staircase constructed in 1655, consisting of 99 stone steps. A great many pilgrims have walked here over the centuries.

On the island archeologists have observed traces of pre-historic and Slavic settlements. A story is told that there was originally a pagan shrine and altar on the island that was smashed by the locals once they converted to Christianity.

The first stone church on the island was from 1142, a three-nave Romanesque structure, consecrated by a certain Bishop Pellegrino who came from neighboring Italy. In the 15th century the island chapel was rebuilt in the gothic style with a new presbytery, freestanding bell tower and high altar.

The renovated single-nave church was consecrated in 1465 by the first bishop of Ljubljana, Bishop Lamberg. In 1509 the property was damaged by an earthquake to such as extent that a thorough renovation was necessary, carried out in the following years in the newly developing baroque style. Only the very old original frescoes in the presbytery and a wooden state of the Madonna which likely adorned the main altar, were preserved from the previous gothic church and can be seen today.

The main altar of the present church is rich with gold-plated carvings, dating from 1747. On the central altarpiece is depicted Our Lady, seated, with the donor of the Bled estate at her side, Henry II with his wife, Kunigunda.

The side altars are consecrated to St. Sebastian, a popular Roman martyr along with St. Magdalena and St. Anna, all made at the end of the 17th century.

The bell tower, built in the 15th century, has been damaged over the years by two earthquakes. In 1688 it was struck by lightning. The bells can be heard echoing across the lake, to the delight of visitors, heard amid the sounds of tranquil nature, the splash of water and the sound of pilgrims and visitors.

Of special interest is the “wishing bell.” It has reportedly been here since 1534. According to legend, a young widow named Poliksena once lived in Bled Castle and had a bell cast for the island chapel in memory of her deceased husband. While the bell was being transported by boat, a storm swelled and struck the boat and it sank. To this day the bell is said to be on the bottom of the lake.

After the widow passed, a new bell came from the Vatican, said to have been “baptized” (consecrated) by the Pope himself and sent to the pilgrimage chapel on Bled Island. It is said whoever rings the bell and thereby gives honor to the Blessed Mother will get his wish. Pilgrims flock for the must-hear sound as they kneel in humble prayer and make their wish while ringing the bell and honoring Our Blessed Lady.

Weddings are popular on the island chapel. Sometimes bridegrooms carry their brides up the steep staircase on their wedding day before ringing the bell in the church and making a wish and a prayer. Every wish can come true. The island has a few buildings in addition to the church along with a provost’s house.

In the village of Bled next to the village church of St. Martin is a recently restored palace with a lake view called the Old Parish House that has a quaint gift shop and bed and breakfast for pilgrims and other visitors at a reasonable price. (See:

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