Feel like chilling out? Jump into Lake Bled

Snowy alps, bracing walks, cheap beer - Slovenia has it all, says Clare Rudebeck. But think twice about going for a swim

It was another hot day by Lake Bled, and locals and tourists were cooling down with the help of ice cream and cold lager. For some reason, everyone seemed to have missed the obvious way to combat the heat: going for a swim in the lake. My boyfriend and I decided to lead the way.

It was another hot day by Lake Bled, and locals and tourists were cooling down with the help of ice cream and cold lager. For some reason, everyone seemed to have missed the obvious way to combat the heat: going for a swim in the lake. My boyfriend and I decided to lead the way.

Walking along the edge of the lake, our swimming costumes tucked under our arms, we saw the perfect place to wade in. Unfortunately, it seemed to be on private land. But what are holidays for if not childish rule-breaking?

We looked both ways, leapt over the fence and skidded down the bank. Out of sight from the path, we pulled on our swimmers and chucked ourselves into Lake Bled. It was at this point that we realised why everyone else had chosen beer over bathing: the water was freezing. Of course, pride overcame discomfort, and we paddled out into the lake. On our right, we could see Bled Island, which local Christians identified as the perfect spot for a church as long ago as the ninth century. The island's current house of God is a dreamy 17th-century number with a delicate spire. As we swam, the church bells were ringing out over the water. This was not a call to prayer - it was because tourists are allowed into the belfry.

Behind us, Castle Bled sat on its cliff above the lake, smug in the knowledge that it has all the attributes of a fairytale medieval fort: ramparts, towers, moats, the lot. All around us were the Julian Alps, still covered in snow. Bled is outstandingly pretty. And unlike better-known Alpine lakes such as Italy's Garda and Como, in Bled it is still easy to wander off the beaten track and find yourself gasping at the view.

This corner of Slovenia, a few miles from the Austrian border, has always been popular with those in the know. The Austro-Hungarian emperors came here on their holidays when it was part of their domain, as did the Yugoslavian dictator Tito when it was part of his.

Today, Tito's villa has been turned into a hotel, and Slovenia is one of the EU's newest members. It has also secured its place on the easyJet map with flights from Stansted to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, departing at the unusually civilised time of 12.45pm. This is the route we took, and we were in Bled by 5pm.

We got out of our taxi from the airport and walked into the tourist office, which found us our accommodation: a self-contained, four-room apartment in a local's home. It was perfect - and dirt cheap at only £11 each a night.

Bled is a tourist town with all the attendant pluses and minuses. It is overflowing with good food, cheap beer, rental bikes and signs to hiking trails. But it is also a place where you may have to listen to a hotel entertainer singing a strangled version Frank Sinatra's greatest hits while you're trying to eat dinner.

But just out of season, as we were in mid-June, it was wonderful: we went for walks in the woods, we hired bikes, we lounged around on the "grass beaches", we swam in the lake, and we drank a lot of cheap booze. It was a health retreat, beach holiday and beer fest in one.

We could be sipping a lager in a lakeside café in Bled town at midday and, by 1pm, have our choice of Slovenian scenery - gorges, meadows, rivers, woods or mountains - all to ourselves. And at around £350 all in for a week, we could also come back home feeling rather clever. The resort has long had a reputation as a refuge from the stresses of modern life. In the mid-19th century, exhausted fat cats of the industrial age came from all over Europe to cure their migraines, insomnia and obesity at Bled's Institute of Natural Healing run by a Swiss, Arnold Rikli.

Rikli's method involved early starts, long walks, vegetarian food, and bathing in the lake. And, even though we didn't have him to kick us out of bed at 5am, we decided to see if a little light Alpine exercise might cure our ailments as well.

On our first day, we warmed up by climbing a hill by the lake. To the elderly German couple who passed us, this was obviously a stroll, but to my urban lungs, it was more challenging. However, spurred on by the sight of a mountain deer, I made it to the summit and was rewarded with a view that looked like a touched-up postcard: implausibly blue and green in all the right places.

By day three, I was ready for a bigger challenge: a bike ride to the Pokljuka Plateau. The woman in the tourist office said it was 15 kilometres away. My boyfriend knew better: it was seven kilometres at most. After peddling uphill for an hour in the midday sun, I considered ditching my boyfriend for the woman in the tourist office. We gave up the fight 20 minutes later and walked along a dirt track that looked flat. A short walk later, and entirely by accident, we found ourselves in an Alpine fantasy: a meadow dotted with wild flowers, bordered by towering pines, with the Kamnik-Savinja Alps as a backdrop. And there was no one to disturb our picnic except the out-size ants trying to eat our sandwiches.

For the last two days of the holiday, we decided it was too hot for exercise and lounged by the lake, periodically goading each other to jump in. After all, we felt better already - and sunbathing was an important part of Arnold Rikli's cure.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

EasyJet (0871-750 0100; www.easyjet.com) flies to Ljubljana, from Stansted with returns from around £160. A taxi to Bled takes 45 minutes and costs around €30 (£21).

Where to stay

The author stayed in a private self-catering apartment costing £11 per person per night bookable in advance through the local Globtour tourist office (00 386 4 574 18 21; www.globtour-bled.com).

Further information

Slovenian Tourist Board (0870 225 5305; www.slovenia-tourism.si).

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