Our “On the Edges of Europe” columnist follows in the footsteps of Slovenia’s national poet, France Preseren, traveling through many remote, seldom-visited parts of the country on the way from Lake Bled to his birthplace.
My eyes scanned across the shimmering, gently rocking waters that, like a recently cleaned mirror, reflected the sky above. The lake rested perfectly in a nest of green and white mountains, which faded to a pale blue as they stretched into the distance. The sloshing of the water, tweeting of birds, and soft whirr of a distant boat engine were enough to drown out any traffic or human voices. In the center of the lake, a small teardrop-shaped island sat alone, dwarfed by its surroundings but standing proud, its deep and vibrant greens contrasting against the sheet of turquoise. Between the trees on the island, a 17th-century Gothic church – known as the Pilgrimage Church – towered above the canopy, adorned with Baroque details that beckoned travelers to come for a closer look.
This was Bled: a glacial lake in the Julian Alps, 34 miles from the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. Home to barely 8,000 residents, this small town punches well above its weight. Any tourist to Slovenia will have heard of this idyllic settlement, but only those who make the journey understand the magic of Lake Bled. While oceans, representing the powerful unknown, bring out the adventurer in me, lakes are still, gentle, and bound by rigid borders. They’re a place of retreat and safety, a reminder to explore the world at your own pace and soak it all in.
Dipping my foot into the water, its warmth took me by surprise. But then again, it was the end of summer and the sun had been radiating down on the lake almost without interruption for several months. Characteristically ill-prepared, I stripped down to my underwear and slid from the bank into the refreshing embrace of the lake. Like a floatation tank, the water’s temperature was close to that of my skin, meaning I could barely feel it as I lay on my back and gazed at where the snow-capped mountains met the sky. The tension in my muscles dissipated as my consciousness slipped into the mind of an artist.
I was there for my own personal literary pilgrimage, tracing the footsteps of Slovenia’s national poet, France Prešeren. From what I could gather, he was a strange, desperate figure. Tortured by his non-mutual infatuation with his muse, Julija, Prešeren turned to alcoholism and suicidal ideation to cope with the rejection not just of Julija, but of Slovene society. Nevertheless, he took solace in the transcendental beauty of the countryside in which he was born and raised. This inspired him to write in Slovenian and revive the country’s national identity, an achievement for which he continues to be revered. While most national myths involve a bloody battle, Slovenia was born by putting pen to paper.
The Road to Vrba
O, Vrba, happy village, my old home –
My father’s cottage stands there to this day.
The lure of learning beckoned me away.
Its serpent wiles enticing me to roam.
- O Vrba, France Prešeren
Although small, Bled is a well-trodden town. My ambition was to wander somewhere more remote. If you don’t get lost, the village of Vrba is just over an hour’s hike from Bled. Around 200 people call it home today, but once lived there a great poet called Prešeren. His home has been preserved and turned into a museum, where visitors are promised the chance to step back in time to the early 1800s. Not knowing what to expect, my worldly possessions on my back, I picked the path out of Bled that seemed to be going in vaguely the right direction.
It was steep at first, so soon my thighs were almost as hot as my sunkissed face, but once the terrain leveled out and I’d escaped the gravitational pull of civilization, I found myself in some of the most serene, unspoiled landscape I’d ever encountered. The mountains flowed in all directions like waves on the ocean, their distance determined by the vibrancy of their colors. My barefoot shoes allowed me to feel every detail as the road transitioned from smooth tarmac to loose gravel and even dirt. As I walked, it felt like my footsteps were painting this new world into existence. The land morphed from farmland to forest and back again as if it were alive and working to enrich my senses.
Stepping onto a metal and concrete bridge, I peered down at the powerful river below. The water was an enchanting mix of pale and navy blue. It took on the color from the travel magazines; those photos that always felt edited beyond what was possible. These weren’t the liquid dirt rivers I was used to but a reflection of how beautiful nature would be without the corrupting influence of humanity. I scrambled down the side of the bridge and waded into the water. They say no man can stand in the same river twice, but it certainly felt like I was standing in the same river as Prešeren, even if we were separated by 200 years.
The bridge emerged in a part of Slovenia where few humans seemed to tread. There were no cars, hikers, or dogs. At one point, the path traced a railway line and was lined on either side by tall crops, the Julian Alps rising above them. For this entire section, I was alone, my mind racing with thoughts about art, nature, and poetry. Images of Prešeren taking the same walk appeared in my mind’s eye. Despite all his romantic woes and political pain, there was no doubt this scenery must have provided some respite from the demons.
The final stretch to Vrba is on an area of pleasingly flat land. With the naked eye, pilgrims can see their final destination long before it arrives: a cluster of 16th-century houses huddled together, surrounded by open fields and free-roaming cows. Despite arriving without expectations, I was struck by how humble it all seemed. This was the home of the national poet, the greatest writer this country had ever produced. And yet, it was just a normal Slovenian village. The sign simply read Vrba and nothing more. There was no mention of the village’s historical significance. And somehow, that made it all the more significant to this weary traveler.
I arrived with sweat drenching every inch of my body, but nowhere was more soggy than my back which bore the weight of my heavy rucksack. Entering this tiny, almost silent community, I found a large public water faucet and turned it on. I plunged my entire head beneath the flow of icy water and embraced its welcoming refreshment. To my right was a modest white cottage, with a triangular red roof, tiny windows, and small arched doorways. It was like every other home in the village. Except, it wasn’t. This was a special home; the home of Prešeren.
The entrance, confusingly, was around the back. The solid wooden door was a deep, dark shade of brown, the result of centuries of aging. I hauled it open and found myself alone in France Prešeren’s dusty dining room. It felt small, almost claustrophobic. But I’d made it to the home of greatness and stood silently, just soaking it all in.