Looking for the perfect Valentine’s Day weekend, I decide on dog sledding, somewhere that would enable a long weekend trip out of London. I am looking for something to surprise my partner, which is a challenge, given that he is a seasoned traveller and hotelier. I’m buying the clothes, booking the flights and packing the bags. While it seems most options are in Scandinavia, I soon discover Bled, 35 kilometres North West of Ljubljana. Difficult to spell, impossible to pronounce and challenging to place on a map.
Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia, which gained independence in 1991 following a referendum the year prior, joined the EU and NATO in 2004 and the Euro in 2007. Husky Adventures promises what I am looking for in the foothills of the Italian Alps, just over the border. We arrive at Stansted, an efficient airport providing low cost alternatives to destinations not served by their so called ‘full service rivals’ and even though a return train trip from the airport to London may cost more than the bargain fare you snagged earlier, these shuttling pioneers are providing a better service to centrally located airports these days.
It is however worth checking the airport code to be sure you are not fleeced with a $100 cab ride on your arrival and a border crossing to boot. Ljubljana flashing up a gate number on the departures board doesn’t stir any recognition and we’re off. After a ninety minute flight, shared with stags and hens throwing down Vodka and beer at six in the morning, we are greeted warmly by a young man who shows us to our car. His car. Exchanging nervous glances, we dismantle the child seat and toss it into the boot with our bags. It transpires that Damir is the meet and greet as well as the hotel sommelier.
During the journey we discuss the joys of the local Slovenian wines and by the time we arrive, we are more knowledgeable and even more importantly, keen to partake in a private wine tasting during our stay. Passing the sign to Ljubljana we head to Bled, leaving the buses behind. Bled is a magical town nestled around the glacial Lake Bled, which in February still clings to the remnants of a freezing winter, sheet ice glimmering in the late winter sunlight. Summer brings the sleepy hollow to life having hosted the World Rowing Championships on more than one occasion, as well as numerous regattas, the first to pierce the waters over 100 years ago. Bled Castle surveys its kingdom below with majestic grandeur and poise. The first stones put in place in 1001, making it the older statesman of all of Slovenia’s castles. The town nestled at the far end struggles to provide coffee and wine which will, as spring melts the snow that leads into summer, replenish to nurture visitors, who venture to enjoy the sun and sports provided by the mountains and the lake. Hotel Triglav Bled, originally built in 1906, clings to the cliff allowing uninterrupted views.
Tastefully renovated, we are at once settled in and invited for dinner. Restaurant 1906 both excites and surprises. Food worthy of Michelin star status and the view… The church on the lake floats on a glistening ice platform, gradually giving way to the icy blue water below, as spring gently nudges the countryside to life. After breakfast we are met by our guide. Just the two of us today. Wearing snow gear, packing snow shoes and passport we hop into the van. I’m still managing to keep this part a secret. We drive past the Julian Alps, soaring mountain ranges piercing clear blue sky. Host to Mount Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia.
Rugged, imposing and awe inspiring. We cross the border into Italy. Clipping on snow shoes we head out, immersed in Italy’s winter glory. They make crossing the fresh snow easy and enjoyable. Shortly, we hear them. Around the corner the huskies. Surprise! A quick safety talk and one at a time we lead our team around the track. Well I say lead, however the dogs rocket around the groomed and well worn path, chasing the rewards awaiting their return. A little commercial perhaps. Instinct advises to lean in instead of out, as you skim freshly revealed ponds, and after a few close calls I am back. Camera ready. I hear the dogs and see the sled. Shortly a snowmobile carrying a slightly muddied recruit roars into base. Missed the last turn. Cursing. Laughter.
Bled Castle surveys its kingdom below with majestic grandeur and poise.
Would you like another go? It’s wine o’clock! The return drive allows photo opportunities to marvel at manmade ski jumps and thermal pools. Nestled in a cellar under the hotel, our wine tasting begins. Passionate and knowledgeable, Damir guides us through the history of Slovenian wines with maps, anecdotes and wine. We will be seeking out the Slovenian flag amongst the French, Australian, South African… grabbing pride and place at most wine shops, although, as the majority is consumed locally, this will prove a difficult task. Further enlightened we choose a bottle of Slovenian Merlot to enjoy by the fire. Dinner overlooking the church on the lake, shrouded in mist. Spectacular.
Happy Valentine’s Day.