Setting out from Lake Bohinj in northwestern Slovenia, the road snakes its way through the Bohinj Valley and a series of alpine villages northeast to Lake Bled. I had arrived in the village of Ribčev Laz (pop. 155) from Bled just the night before, and I was now driving back in near-complete darkness, hoping that Accuweather's prediction of a party-cloudy morning would be as accurate as the website's name suggested.
I had spent the previous four days holed up in a lakeside hotel in Bled, often staring out my window at the incessant silvery streaks of rain and sleet falling into a white-gray abyss where my guidebook had promised instead an "emerald-green lake" and "the snow-capped peaks of the Julian Alps". Now that I had moved on to Lake Bohinj, it looked like the weather might clear up in Bled, and so I decided to drive back, leaving at 6 o'clock in the morning in order to catch the sunrise.
Though only 25 kilometers separated the two lakes, the drive would take about 45 minutes. Narrowed significantly by the recent heavy snowfall, the winding road was also fraught with other risks. A catastrophic ice storm had hit Slovenia just the week before, destroying entire swathes of forest and wreaking havoc on the country's transportation system and power grid. Though this area was far from the worst hit, fallen trees still littered the roadside, some jutting dangerously out into the road itself, looking to spear unsuspecting drivers.
Passing through village after village, the names on the road signs--Bitnje, Brod, Polje, Kamnje, Savica--are unfamiliar, but there's no mistaking the smell of burning wood in the air, a telltale sign of the rural way of life that has dominated this area for centuries.
At one time, the main industry in the valley was alpine dairy farming. In spring, local herdsmen would drive their cattle to higher and higher elevations, where they would graze on the grassy slopes of the surrounding peaks. Come mid-summer, they would begin the return journey back down into the valley, where the villagers would process their milk into butter and cheese.
These same villages are now filled with ubiquitous signs advertising sobe, or rooms for rent, an indication of how the valley has changed in recent decades. These days, tourism rules, as nearby Triglav National Park lures visitors year-round with its promise of adventure amid pristine wilderness, not to mention Lake Bled and its-perhaps now clichéd-fairytale setting.
Approaching Bled, the road ascends out of the valley from the southwest. As the peaks of the Julian Alps come into view for the first time, a shudder of excitement ripples through me. I take another glance at the mountains, rising majestically above the lake's northern shore, bathed at this hour in the cool, blue light of the pre-dawn.
Just beneath the Alps, Bled Castle stands out, nested high up on a precipice a hundred meters above the lake. The oldest castle in Slovenia, it has occupied this lofty position for more than a thousand years, dating back at least to 1011-the first time the castle is mentioned in a written document-when German King Henry II, who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor, handed it over to the Bishopric of Brixen as gratitude for the Church's assistance in securing German rule in northern Italy.
Descending to the lakeside, a clearing in the trees provides a glimpse of the Church of the Assumption, its tower climbing above the tiny, tear-shaped Bled Island in the southwestern part of the lake. The current church was built in the 17th century, but there is archeological evidence of settlements on the island dating back three millennia, to the 11th-8th centuries BCE. And, according to written documents, an earlier church was consecrated on the island as early as 1142.
Parking next to the hotel that had been home the previous four nights, I shuffle across the icy road to the lakeside trail, which, even with snow piled high in the dead of winter, is clearly marked and easy to follow. Some 500 meters west along the southern shore, there's a solitary bench on a tiny point of land jutting out into the water. If you get there early enough, you just might have this bench, and the magnificent view it offers, all to yourself-at least in the low season-in time to watch the first rays of morning light warm the peaks and turn the sky a pleasing shade of pink.