Slovenia: A land for love

Eastern Europe is fast becoming a wedding destination of choice. Tim Walker finds Slovenia a lot more romantic than it sounds

The choice was an obvious one, according to the homepage of Primavera Bled, a wedding consultancy based in Lake Bled, Slovenia. After all "Slovenia is the only country in the world with the word 'love' in it." Being a rigorous fact-checker, I have consulted an atlas, and they're quite right. But after spending a long weekend in Lake Bled last month for the wedding of my friends, Gideon and Rebecca, I feel sure the happy couple will agree that this is the least important reason for tying the knot in such spectacular surroundings.

Towards the end of July last year, a rather hefty cream-coloured envelope dropped through my letterbox. Inside was a wedding invitation weighed down by a 16-page booklet, a rough guide to Gideon and Rebecca's marriage, detailing flight and accommodation options in Slovenia, advice on skiing in the area, exchange rates, even a heads-up about Europe's unfamiliar plug sockets. The most striking piece of information, however, concerned the ceremony itself. After the marriage service at St Martin's Church, on the eastern shore of Lake Bled, we were all to be borne by gondola to the island in the lake's centre, where Gideon would perform a customary local feat: carrying his new bride up the 99 stone steps that lead to the island's Church of the Assumption, where the couple would ring the famed "wishing bell".

Gideon and Rebecca first visited Slovenia in January 2005, partly to escape the stresses and strains of organising a wedding back in Bury, Rebecca's hometown. They found Bled quilted in snow, crouching low in the foothills of the Julian Alps close to Slovenia's Italian and Austrian borders. The lake itself, guarded by mountains and by the medieval castle perching high on a rocky outcrop, is windless and calm. It seemed the perfect setting. Upon their return, the couple conducted a straw poll of friends and family: how many of us would turn up if they chose to get married in Slovenia? And in winter? By July, when the invitations were sent out, they had their answer.

Six months later and 80 of the guests, from babies in need of a nappy change to rowdy twenty-somethings in need of a G&T, boarded easyJet's Friday afternoon flight from Stansted to Ljubljana's Brnik airport. Thanks in part to the budget airline revolution, Gideon and Rebecca were able to organise a full-size wedding abroad, with 148 people in all making the two-hour hop across Europe. Though it weights the costs of the wedding towards the guests, getting married in Slovenia eases the financial burden on couples and their families. With even an average wedding in the UK now costing somewhere in the region of £17,000, there are economic benefits to getting married in a country without such an established wedding industry

Primavera Bled, run by photographer Iztok Orazem and his wife Ksenija (themselves married in Bled), has been in business for 10 years and caters to more foreign couples each season. In 2005, they organised 30 weddings for couples from abroad, the majority from the UK, but others from the US, Australia, Japan and India. Gideon and Rebecca's was exceptional for its size - most of Iztok and Ksenija's wedding parties number between 40 and 80 guests. The couple, according to Iztok and Ksenija, have also set a record for their number of visits to Bled prior to the event, clocking up three themselves, and Rebecca's parents another two, while most couples visit once or not at all.

Bled itself is quiet so early in the new year, and we appeared to have the place to ourselves, our only company being the Norwegian ski-jumping team, practising for the Winter Olympics in Turin. For those who missed the official stag night back in the UK, the eve of the wedding was send off enough, an echo of the trend for Eastern European stag dos. The groom retired to bed relatively early, but plenty of his guests had a skin-full of the native paint-stripper over dinner at a generous local restaurant. Most planned to stay in Slovenia for at least an extra night following the wedding, and with the lake and the castle to explore, as well as ski resorts under an hour away by bus, the trip held its fair share of bonus features. I took the opportunity following the wedding to spend 24 hours in Ljubljana, one of the smallest and most perfectly formed European capitals.

The accommodation in Bled has pedigree. The main lounge of the Grand Hotel Toplice, where the couple and their families stayed, and where the reception was held, has breathtaking views of the lake. The lobby sports photographs of past visitors including Prince Charles, Laura Bush, Madeleine Albright and Donald Trump, flaunting his third wife Melania, a Slovenian model. The elegant Vila Bled, where Gideon and Rebecca spent their wedding night, is in a more secluded spot, a 20-minute stroll around the lake from Bled's centre. It was a favourite holiday residence of former president Tito. The cheaper Hotel Jadran, its Soviet-era decor a little more Spartan in character than the competition, nonetheless allows its guests use of the neighbouring Toplice's luxurious spa.

In the morning, we all gathered in the Toplice lounge, togged out, as advised, in our smartest cold-weather gear. From the hotel, efficiently shepherded by Primavera Bled's discreet pair of wedding organisers, we proceeded around the lake to the church. St Martin's lies in the shadow of Bled Castle. Its walls are alive with the dramatic 1930s frescoes of painter Slavko Pengov.

The Catholic marriage service, led by Peter, the local priest, had been carefully designed by Gideon and Rebecca, both theology graduates. After the couple had said: "I do", their friend Matthew gave an address based on the theme of Gideon's imminent task - carrying his new bride up the 99 steps to the wishing bell. It's all about perseverance, Matthew explained, about overcoming the inevitable difficulties ahead, and emerging from them stronger and more committed.

Coming out into the settled snow, breath clearly visible in the frozen air, the guests swigged gratefully from the ready cups of mulled wine. Gideon and Rebecca, stunning in a white winter dress that looked as though it had escaped from Narnia, gingerly released a clutch of doves. Then it was time to cross to the island. At the water's edge a group of pletnas, flat-bottomed gondolas, were waiting for us, rowed expertly by local oarsmen. A snowball fight broke out during cast-off, rocking the boats. Some of the older guests grimaced at the thought of being tossed into the freezing water. to the warmth of the Grand Hotel Toplice; to the champagne reception; to the embarrassing old photos of the bride and groom that Jeremy, Rebecca's dad, had up his sleeve; to the best man's speech; to the Beatles tribute band; to the midnight fireworks over the lake. But there was still one last formality to attend to. During the short crossing, there was much speculation regarding Gideon's last-minute preparations - is it possible to do an effective warm-up in such difficult conditions? What if the steps were icy?

When all the guests reached the island, we were directed to line the steps on either side, the steep 100-metre climb strenuous enough without an extra body to carry. From my vantage point near the top, I could hear the cheers begin, rippling upward from the foot of the stone staircase, before Gideon hove into view, teeth gritted, legs like tree trunks pounding up the steps. "He's been practising," muttered a nearby sceptic. (Gideon later admitted that he had tried it previously with 70 stairs, so had a pretty good idea of the effort involved.)

Wolf-whistles, and loud cries of encouragement followed him. Rebecca laughed, a touch apprehensively. Gideon was looking shaky as they passed me at about step 75. A hush swept through the crowd as he stopped just short of the summit, his shoulders heaving with the effort. And then he turned; grinned, first to his wife, and then to his audience; and hopped up the last pair of steps, to rapturous applause.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Ljubljana is served by Adria Airways (020-7437 0143; www.adria-airways.com) from Gatwick and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Stansted. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climate care.org).

The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Ljubljana in economy class is £5, which is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

Alternatively, European Rail (020-7387 0444; www.europeanrail.com) offers rail services from London to Ljubljana via Munich. Lake Bled is connected to the capital by Slovenian rail (00 386 1 29 13 332; www.slo-zeleznice.si).

STAYING THERE

Grand Hotel Toplice, Cesta Svobode 12, Bled, Slovenia (00 386 4 579 1000; www.hotel-toplice.si). Doubles start at €132 (£94), including breakfast.

Vila Bled, Bled, Cesta Svobode 26, Slovenia (00 386 4 579 1500; www.vila-bled.com). Doubles start at €190 (£136), including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Primavera Bled (00 386 4 57 67 420; www.weddings-in-slovenia.com).

Lake Bled Tourism (00 386 4 578 05 00; www.bled.si).

Slovenian Tourist Office (0870 2255 305; www.slovenia-tourism.si).

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