Slovenia

Riding the Pletna Boat to Lake Bled Island on a Bell-Ringing Quest

Lake Bled Slovenia is one of my favorite places in the world.  Not only is the scenery stunning – a crystal blue lake, an island church, a hilltop castle, all surrounded by the Julian Alps.  But it’s also where Mrs TT and I were married a few years ago.  We returned to Lake Bled this year to celebrate our anniversary and spend a little more time in this magical place.

Our return to Bled Lake also featured an important quest – a quest to ride a traditional Pletna boat to Lake Bled Island, and ring the wishing bell inside St Mary’s church. This is a tradition for those who marry in Bled (and a popular activity for non-marrying tourists too). But it rained on the afternoon of our wedding, and after our ceremony, no boats were going to the island.  We immediately vowed to return some day and complete the tradition, albeit late. 

So in this post, let me tell you all about the unique Pletna boat, about Lake Bled and its island, and about our bell-ringing quest.

An Island and A Church

If you had to choose one thing that makes Lake Bled great, then it has to be that oh-so-picturesque church sitting atop the small island in the lake. I’d seen plenty of pictures before we visited Lake Bled. But it still took my breath away when I saw it in person for the first time.  

A view across Lake Bled Slovenia to Bled Island with Bled Castle in the distance

St Mary’s Church – also known as the Church of the Mother of God on the Lake – was constructed in the late 1600s.  A 99-step Baroque stairway, leading up to the church from the lake shore, was built around the same time. 

And St Mary’s isn’t even the original island church. The first church on the island was built all the way back in 1142.  And before that, the island was home to an ancient Slavic cult.  

The Wishing Bell

Inside the church, there’s a bell.  This is the wishing bell, and it’s been a fixture in the church since the 17th century.  There’s a legend associated with the bell. 

A widow first commissioned the bell to honor her dead husband. But the ship carrying the finished product to the island sank in a bad storm.  

The Pope then supposedly caught word of the sad situation, and sent another.  He also supposedly decreed that whoever rang the bell three times and believed in God would have a single wish granted. In current times, ringing this bell has become an integral part of any tourist visit to St Mary’s church. 

But it’s on wedding day that the ringing the bell takes on additional meaning.  Certainly, what bride and groom wouldn’t wish for a happy marriage as they ring it? 

Plus, for the local Catholics who marry inside the church, there’s an additional tradition associated with the island.  After taking a Pletna boat to Lake Bled Island, the groom is supposed to carry his bride up all 99 steps(!!)…they get married in the church…and then they ring the bell. 

99 stone steps lead up to the top of  Bled Island

The Pletna Boats of Lake Bled

So, the Pletna Boat.  What is it exactly? Clearly, all the various churches built on the island over time were important hubs of religious and wishing activity, and boats were required to reach it.  Ultimately a very specific boat called the Pletna was developed by local craftsmen all the way back in the 1500s. 

The Plenta boat is flat bottomed, has very specific dimensions, seats up to 20 people, and is covered by a colorful awning to protect passengers from bad weather.  The bow (front) is pointed, but the stern (back) is widened to allow passengers to enter and exit.  There are only 23 Pletna boats on Lake Bled.

A traditional pletna boat on Lake Bled with Bled Castle in the background

The “Pletnar” is the boat’s navigator, and historically this has long been an esteemed vocation in Bled. Many centuries ago, the local ruler gave Pletna rights to only a limited number of families, and those rights have been handed down from generation to generation.

The Pletnar uses a very specific technique to row the boat with two oars, and does it standing.  As you can probably imagine, proper technique would be necessary for one person to manually propel a boat full of 20 people. 

Alternative Transport

Nowadays, there are multiple ways to reach Bled Island and St Mary’s church.  You aren’t required to ride the Pletna.  Motor boats are not allowed on the lake, but there is an electric boat that takes visitors back and forth quicker than the slow-moving Pletna.

You can also rent a row boat from multiple spots around the lake, and row yourself over.  

Or you can even swim to the island.

But in my opinion, traditional is always the best….

Our Pletna Attempt #1

As I mentioned earlier, during our wedding trip to Lake Bled, we had bad Pletna luck.  Almost as soon as we said “I do”, the clouds that had darkened the sky all day opened up and started to dump quite heavily on the lake.  We waited for two hours, near the closest Pletna station, for our chance to get over to the island and ring the bell.  

A stormy day at Lake Bled Slovenia
A stormy Lake Bled immediately after our wedding ceremony

The most convenient Pletna station to the town of Bled sits just below the Hotel Park.  This happens to be where Bled’s iconic cream cake was created in the 1950s.  You can’t visit Bled without seeing Bled Cake just about everywhere.  This creamy delight consists of a square of vanilla custard, topped with a generous layer whipped cream, placed in between two thin crispy butter crusts. 

And so as we waited for the rain to stop, we ate Bled cake at the Hotel Park restaurant.  Our official wedding cake for the day. 

Bled Cream Cake on a rainy day at Lake Bled Slovenia

But sadly, the rain didn’t stop. No pletna boats went to Lake Bled island.  And we ultimately gave up.  We left town the next morning for our “honeymoon” in Motovun & Rovinj Croatia and never had any other chance to ring the bell. 

Pletna 2023

So we returned this month. To once again enjoy the beauty of Lake Bled.  To celebrate our marriage.  And to finally ring the bell. 

The day of our anniversary was a gorgeous one. No rain in the forecast. 

Riding the Pletna boat to Lake Bled Island is typically quite easy.  There are four Pletna “stations” around the lake.  These are where Pletna boats line up and wait to fill with riders. Once each Pletna is full, it leaves for the island, and the next one moves over and takes its place.  

Traditional Pletna boats line up on Lake Bled in Slovenia

As with our first wedding day attempt, we chose to board just below the Hotel Park.  This is the station closest to the town of Bled and the one furthest from the island.  It therefore takes longer to reach the island, making for a longer more scenic ride. 

The current cost for a Pletna boat ride to Lake Bled Island is 18 Euro per person.  This covers the cost of the round trip, and allows for 40 minutes to spend visiting the island and its church.  You pay the Pletnar directly, in cash.

When we arrived, we found a boat nearly filled with other riders. So we waited until it filled and left.  Once the next driver moved his boat over, we hoped on board.  We wanted to sit at the bow….for the best views on our Plenta ride. 

Inside one of the pletna boats at Lake Bled Slovenia

It took about 20 minutes for the boat to fill.  Once it did, we were off. 

Riding a Pletna Boat to Lake Bled Island

The ride itself is not quick – it took about 20 minutes.  And that’s perfect.   It truly is just a leisurely glide across the beautiful Lake.  You watch the castle go by, you look at some of the manors along the lake, you pass other Pletnas, you listen to your Pletnar yell at row boats for not paying attention and getting in his way.

A pletna boat glides across Lake Bled Slovenia with Bled Castle in the background

And you watch the iconic island church get closer and closer….

Approaching Bled Island from the front of a pletna boat

It’s also quite amazing to watch the Pletnar do his thing.  Think about it.  One man and two oars is physically propelling a wooden boat filled with 20 other people.  He stands in a very defined stance, follows a very defined rowing pattern, and definitely works up a sweat. 

A pletnar rowing a pletna boat across Lake Bled Slovenia

Yet ours still managed to interact.  On the way back from the island, we sat next to him and learned that Pletnars work year round, even in the rain and snow.  The awning protects the riders, but the Pletnar is exposed to the elements on the back of the boat.

Wait a minute….he said they work in the rain?  

What about our wedding day??  

We told him about the circumstances of that day, and he said that it’s likely that no one wanted to go to the lake in the pouring rain.  But that a Pletnar was probably still waiting with an empty boat just in case it filled up with diehards.  (We would have gone…I doubt 18 others would have.)

A Sinking Feeling

As we approached the island, I realized that the bell wasn’t ringing.  During our wedding trip, when we’d walked along the island side of the lake, taking in the amazing views, we could hear the bell ringing constantly from the shore.  One chime after another after another after another …as visitors made their wishes. 

But this time, as we drew closer and closer in our Pletna, still no bell.  Hmmmm.

The back side of St Mary's church on Bled island while approaching in a pletna boat

On Bled Island

Our Pletnar expertly turned the Pletna boat around and we disembarked onto the shores of Lake Bled Island from the back.  He told us that we had 40 minutes – until 1:40 pm – to explore the island.  And then all of the same passengers would get back on his Pletna and we’d return to where we started.

We disembarked on the back side of the island – behind the church and away from the stone staircase.  We followed a lake side trail to the other side.  

The shoreside trail on Bled Island in Slovenia

Then up the steps to the church.  And let me say here, that I cannot imagine myself or anyone for that matter, carrying their bride up these steps (but our Pletnar confirmed that this is still very much the tradition and all grooms that marry at the church do it). Here’s one more look at the daunting task…

99 stone steps lead up to the top of  Bled Island

At the top, we headed straight for the ticket booth.  You do have to pay to enter the church.  It’s currently a 12 Euro entry fee and this gets you access to the church (with the wishing bell inside), the separate bell tower (which you can climb for views out across the lake), and a museum.

We immediately asked the attendant if bell ringing was on hold – since we still hadn’t heard it.  

And we were told that….there was a wedding! 

A couple, who would forever share our anniversary, was now preventing us from ringing that damn bell!

We asked hopefully, if by any chance, the wedding might be ending soon. 

And he said….Perhaps in 20 minutes.   It was only 1:05 by this point.  35 more minutes until launch. So there was hope. 

Waiting on an Island Next to a Church Hoping to Ring a Bell

And so we stood just outside the church and waited and stared at our watches.  We didn’t go anywhere else on the island.  We didn’t go up the bell tower.  Or into the museum.  

Looking up at the bell tower of St Mary's church on Bled Island

We stood and watched the doors of the church and listened for the new couple to ring the bell themselves.  And prepared to hurriedly buy our tickets and rush in and do it ourselves. 

But the priest must have been long-winded.

At 1:33, we gave up and headed back to our Pletna.

And as we walked down the path…and passed below that iconic and beautiful island church…the bell rang out. 

Back To Bled

We boarded our same Pletna with our same Pletna-mates and left the island.  Though disappointed at the turn of events, we couldn’t help but laugh too.  We were foiled by a wedding.  We hadn’t even considered that. 

When we told our pletnar of our foiled quest, he laughed and told us that there were 6 weddings scheduled on the upcoming Saturday, two days hence.  

And as we glided away from Bled island…

…tourists entered the church and the bell started to ring like crazy.

Bled Cake Redux

After an equally enjoyable Pletna boat ride back to town, we headed straight for the restaurant at Hotel Park.  It seemed only right that after falling short a second time in our quest to ring the bell, that we should repeat history and eat Bled cake & drink wine.

Bled Cake and dessert wine at Lake Bled
(No red wine doesn’t pair with Bled Cake, but Port kinda does…)

End of a Quest?

And as we ate our anniversary Bled cake, we concluded that we would give up our quest to ring the wishing bell. 

Ringing a bell does not a good marriage make.  And we have a great marriage.  We don’t need to keep trying to ring Bled Island’s famed bell to ensure that it lasts.  

We will return to Lake Bled sometime.  It’s a special place for us.  Plus, we also love nearby Ljubljana.

And we may ride the Pletna boat out to Lake Bled island again.  It’s one of the great things to do in Bled.  

And we may even go into the church if we can.  Just to finally see what it looks like inside.

But if we ever ring the bell, we’ll wish for good health….so we can stay with each other longer. 

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