“Bring the boat back within one hour, or you pay extra,” says the man at the jetty as my friend and I make a wobbly push into Lake Bled, a magnificent glacial pool in the Julian Alps of Slovenia. Rosie takes the oars for the outward stretch, indulging my city girl’s cowardice. I’m wary of the outdoorsy turn our day has taken, feeling a bit sorry for myself, bitten from neck to ankle by devilish Slovenian bugs and sweating all over in the afternoon sun that burns Bled into obedient stillness.
With not much time to reach the teardrop-shaped island in the just-off-centre of the lake, visit the church and row ourselves back, we swallow our urban pride. Rosie gives the oars a mighty pull.
Within a minute, she’s got us royally tangled up in a vicious cluster of lily pads. My pal is a Cambridge girl, no less, but I think her house must have been passed over when the rowing prowess was dished out, so she’s just as hopeless as I am as we try to free the oars. We’re in full mortifying view of the man who trusted us with the boat. We call over for help; he is distinctly not amused.
Soon he is wrenching us free with chains and Rosie assures him she’ll be “absolutely, completely fine, honestly” once she gets into the open lake. We hide our bumbling giggles as I try to navigate us further out towards the glinting spire of the church. I’m giving my silliest impression of a Cambridge coxswain cheering on her boat of blues.
It takes far fewer strokes than I thought it would to get across to the island – I think we must have launched in at the narrowest section of the lake – but scuppering our chances of a cool and collected arrival is a canoe full of boisterous male tourists, making a game of steering us off course. “Watch out for these girls!” they call loudly, showing us up in front of other well-behaved rowers approaching the island’s edge. We are too hot and bothered to join in the game and we get out of their way as soon as we can.
Once we’ve moored the boat, we notice that the island is barely more than a flight of steps – 99 of them – up to the church perched on the top. It’s small, neat and modest, and hardly somewhere to spend an hour, let alone a day. The island experience is entirely about the journeying to get to it, we now see. Never mind, up the steps we go; we might as well get to the top and have a look out over Bled.
Apparently, teenagers looking for a good time are not deterred by the confines of the island and the austerity of the church looking down on them. Lithe bodies in bikinis are diving off one of the church walls, only just avoiding neck-breaking collisions with canoes as they splash into the lake. We are astonished, marvelling at behaviour more suited to a European waterpark than to a tiny island hosting a church. We reach the top step, hot now and sweating, looking for a drink.
We have time for a quick glass of iced tea outside the church before realising we need to get rowing again. Just before setting off, we pause to look over at the mainland and say a few comments of the “look over there; that’s where we were before” variety, common to island excursions. I sigh; can’t believe we’re getting back into the boat already. I feel rather doomed: It’s my turn to give the rowing a go.
We clamber into the boat. I take the oars; Rosie takes what we believe is the cox’s seat. We think we’re now experts at this rowing lark until we notice, halfway across Bled, that she’s supposed to be able to see where we’re going, and I certainly shouldn’t be pushing the oars like this. Sure enough, we’ve got the boat the wrong way round.
A quick giggly reshuffle and Rosie’s back with the oars, and I’m feeling distinctly sheepish about my failed attempt to row. Rosie makes the last few strokes to the jetty. We have just minutes to go before we steer ourselves pointlessly into an extra hour’s fee.
We try to park and get out of the canoe looking as graceful as we can. I’m breathlessly pleased that we’ve completed this little unexpected adventure, and I’ve briefly forgotten the itchiness of my bites.
We recline and cool off on the banks of the mainland and gaze over to the island. “Look over there; that’s where we were before,” I say. Simple satisfactions are the best.