Getting to the Island
The nicest way to get to the famous island is on a wooden Pletna boat. They are easy to catch from in front of the Grand Hotel Toplice on the lake in the town of Bled, or from the village of Mlino about half-way along the lake, or from the bottom of the stairs leading up to Hotel Vila Bled (used to be Marshal Tito’s villa). You take a round trip with the pletna oarsman, which includes a 30-minute stop on the island.
We did this from Mlino and it’s great fun. The only problem, especially round the middle of the day, is that you may have to wait for the boat to fill up before the oarsman will leave. However, through a tour company, pletnas can be commissioned for special groups or for special occasions, like weddings—and the island is very popular as a wedding venue.
The day that we went, our oarsman was Gabriel who chatted to some other Slovenian visitors who got on his boat, so he seemed very friendly. The name of our boat was Sonya, so we were happy!
The Pletna boat has become an important symbol of Lake Bled. They are wooden, 7m (23 feet) long and about 2m (6.5 feet) wide, with a wooden seating bench on both sides, and have a colored roof canopy. These days, pletna boats are still hand-built according to the old designs. The flat-bottomed boat has no keel so the oarsman needs to be very skilled to steer it, as it can slide around on windy days. The oarsmen have a very distinctive way of rowing these boats standing up, which is fascinating to watch.
Besides being a distinctive sight on the lake, these boats continue a tradition dating back many generations. According to notes in the church books, from about the 12th century farmers from the village of Mlino area carried passengers and pilgrims to the Island on the lake and its church instead of paying taxes. In the 17th century, Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa granted special permission to 20 families from Mlino to ferry visitors across to the island. She did this because the residents had lost farmland there at the lake edge, and needed a way to generate revenue. Mlino residents built their pletnas by hand, using a special design passed down from father to son (as is the case with the iconic gondolas of Venice).
Over time, this Hapsburg decree and family tradition evolved into a modern pletna oarsmen union/guild, although between 1945-1955 pletnas were nationalized and boatmen ran them for a national company called Grajska till. There are apparently 23 official pletnas on Lake Bled all belonging to the union and dividing the income equally, but competition is fierce and there are sometimes “black market” boats that try to get in on the act.