Royal Bled’s journey into the elite of Continental Europe began with the purchase of a gift voucher for a lesson at Belgrade’s only golf club. The present was for Dragan Solak, from the staff at the digital media company the Serbian founded in the early years of his country’s existence. The firm was so successful it was bought by a London investment firm in October 2013, and that gave Solak more time as well as money to pursue the new passion he had discovered via the voucher.
The lesson quickly led to him being firmly bitten by the golf bug, so much so that his wife Gordana realised she should also take up the game so they could play together.
Both soon became solid players and travelled widely to indulge their new pastime, becoming members at some of the most exclusive clubs in the world. One of their golf trips took them to the achingly beautiful town of Bled in the heart of Slovenia.
Bled’s golf club sits a mile from the shores of the lakeside town and was founded in 1937 as a retreat for the Yugoslav royal family, who entertained nobility there in the summer.
It was allowed to deteriorate after the Second World War but was spruced up by Donald Harradine in the early 1970s to the point it was regarded as one of the Top 100 courses on mainland Europe.
The Solaks enjoyed it, but believed minimal long-term investment meant it could be even better – and decided they were the people to make that happen. Two months after selling their media company, the Solaks bought the golf club.
They then found old plans by Howard Swan of Swan Designs for a redesign of the course among a pile of papers in the former greenkeeper’s office. The Solaks made contact with the firm and, by now with son William on board too, the architects updated their proposal and were given the green light to implement them.
The result is spectacularly good; the Solaks’ investment and the nous of the Swan firm has bequeathed a course that now does justice to the setting the town and golf course of Bled have always enjoyed. The town cuddles one corner of a tranquil, turquoise lake out of which forested mountains rise up on all sides.
There is a small island in the lake with the turrets of a cute house peering beyond the treetops that adorn it, and the whole scene is surveyed by the castle that sits on top of the tallest mountain.
Meanwhile a mile away, snow-capped peaks tower above the course, the thundering water of the River Sava runs below it and there are views of the aforementioned castle.
It is an alpine setting to rival even that of Crans-sur-Sierre’s and, when combined with a trip to the town itself, has to be one of Europe’s most beguiling locations. Now the course comes a lot closer to matching its gifts from Mother Nature.
Bled – it became Royal Bled when it was granted that status in 2017 by HRH Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia – has other significant natural advantages.
There is the topography of Gleneagles, the free-draining soils of a Surrey heathland and the definition from mature woodland with echoes of Woburn. Swan Designs helped to maximise these aspects. “Essentially we rebuilt the whole golf course,” says William Swan.
Only minor changes were made to the routing and individual holes other than extending the yardage to 7,275 yards so that it could host modern events such as the European Boys’ Team Championship and the European Challenge Tour.
However the greens, tees and bunkering were completely overhauled and fairways renovated, there was a programme of tree management and a whopping 10 lakes added. The new water hazards total more than 12 acres of water surface, are connected by streams and are used to feed the new irrigation system.
Expertise from nine countries across Europe supplemented the Slovenian backbone of the workforce, which was largely via a local farmers’ cooperative.
“The most enjoyable element is the greens,” adds Swan. “I’m confident we’ve achieved some very fun putting surfaces to play on.
“The challenge on and around the greens – including the potential for some tough pin positions and a few multi-directional putts – work in partnership with the wide fairways so the course can be set up for holidaying golfers or Tour players.”
So Bled now mixes the sensational views for which it has always been known with immaculate conditioning and a fascinating, strategic and playable challenge.
It is an intriguing mix of tempting par 5s, par 4s that charm you but can bite you, and all-world par 3s – led by the signature 10th, with its island green. It can test goood golfers but equally it can beguile higher handicappers intent solely on fun and entertainment.
Fly to the capital Ljubljana or even Trieste in Italy and experience one of the continent’s most alluring towns and a golf course whose renaissance gives multi-millionaires a good name.