Lake Bled, Slovenia: Of Churches, Castles, Cream Cake, and Cessnas


Lake Bled, Beautiful Lake Bled! There are a few ways to see this glistening aquatic gem.  You can lazily glide over the lake in a rented rowboat or picturesque plenta to visit the tiny island that is home to the baroque 17th century Church of the Assumption. This church showcases ancient fresco fragments and an iconic restored belfry.  If you walk the 99 steps up to the church and ring the “wishing bell,” your wish will come true.  Local custom dictates that a groom carries his bride up those steps to ring in the couple’s wish.  Lucky for you, there are less strenuous ways to see this attraction.


You can bike or stroll around the lake’s perimeter, always in sight of the church and the medieval Castle Bled.  At the latter, you can take time out to visit a museum showcasing the lake’s history.


When you get weary,  you can stop at one of the eateries for the famous Lake Bled cream cake, which nestles  whipped cream and rich vanilla custard between flaky  puff pastry crusts.  This version of cream cake was born at Lake Bled’s Park Hotel in the 1960s.  (Photo below from )

We ate ours at the Restavracija Penzion Mlino.  While the meals at the restaurant earn varied reviews, the cream cake consistently gets accolades. We took a respite on the lovely lakeside patio to savor sweet silkiness followed by a pungent sip of espresso.



While boating, biking, and walking may be the best ways to explore the museums and restaurants, the best way to experience the beauty of Lake Bled is to  take off to the blue skies with the Karavanke Alps and Julian Alps beckoning in the distance. But . . . I am getting ahead of myself.



October 6 found our traveling companions and us at the Lesce-Bled Airport. This homey little field tucked in the Radovljica Plain of the Alps hosts a myriad of opportunities for their flying family: fixed wing planes, gliders, parasailing, skydiving, and panoramic flights.  And everyone is treated like family.  We walked in without a prior reservation, wanting to know if we could book a plane ride at this busy airport.  The manager said that nothing was immediately available, but we were to return in a couple of hours to give him time to try to work something out.  Before we could even get to our car, he called us back.  He had gotten in touch with his son, an Airbus pilot on vacation who was hiking nearby.



Gaspar kindly hiked out of the woods and into the cockpit of a Cessna 172 with a diesel engine.  This engine provided a smoother ride with less noise and three times the fuel efficiency than a standard engine.  Gaspar is an experienced pilot who has traveled extensively and flown all over the world.  So what was the drawback to this plane ride ?  Nothing, according to my husband Bruce.  For me, the plane’s size: a small, four-place Cessna that was going high, literally sky-high, over the awesome Alps. Gulp!



I put on a confident face and climbed into the back seat.  Bruce, the pilot in command, was in the left seat, with instructor-pilot Gaspar in the right seat.  I buckled my courage in and off we went, heading toward Triglavski Narodni Park, the only national park in Slovenia. It is tucked into the north-west corner of the country, bordering Italy and Austria, named after the highest Slavic deity, Triglav,  who according to legend, had his throne at 9396 feet,on the highest mountain top.


We climbed, we climbed, and we climbed, our reward being pristine views of Alpine lakes and craggy summits.My heart was thump, thump, thumping, as we continued our ascent to fly over the mountain range. Our little Cessna was buffeted to and fro and up and down by the winds, but continued to push itself upward and forward with the heart of the Little Engine That Could. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” I heard in the whir of the engine. As I began to relax, believing, “We got this,” our upward momentum ceased and we plummeted downward, my stomach experiencing the sinking of stepping off an unexpected ledge. Well, the Cessna did “have this”; it’s made to maneuver in updrafts and downdrafts.  We continued onward, skirting over the snow-dappled mountain tops and onto the other side. Surprisingly, I found myself calm and enjoying every bumpy moment.


The antidote to the poison of fear is obviously beauty. More mountains greeted us, their green forests topped with a white cape of clouds and a netting of filmy fog.



Leaving the park, we then headed east to see Lake Bled from the air. The church floats almost mysteriously on its tiny island in a vibrant blue lake reflecting the verdant vegetation and cumulus clouds. Buildings are scattered about, wearing white faces and terra-cotta or gray hats, basking in the sunshine. People flock to Lake Bled to experience this beauty, most by land, and a gaggle of tourists can crowd the town. Since Lesce-Bled Airport offers panoramic flights, anyone can enjoy the scenery, quietly and serenely, flying above as the swans do that inhabit the lake.


On landing, we found that the Radovljica Plain offers its own prettiness: a kaleidoscope of patterns reflecting myriad hues of greens and blues.


Back on the ground with bragging rights and pumping adrenalin, we joined our friends, Bob and Marcia, who had flown the same route. It was time to settle in for lunch at the airport’s restaurant, Na Kležnk, so the two pilots and the two crew members could compare stories over seafood soup and salads with roasted vegetables and shrimp. We logged more than time in the pilots’ log books; we logged an experience fitting to be on anyone’s “Bucket List.”



Leaving the restaurant, we were surprised to see two friends from Kittyhawk, North Carolina:  Orville and Wilbur Wright.  It seemed fitting to take Bruce and Bob’s photo with these two men looking over their shoulders, men who have inspired their long careers in aviation.



Yes, I was there, too, castle behind me, my handsome prince beside me, feeling like a princess for a day.  We were only one week into our almost month-long trip.  It was now time to step out of this fairy tale to experience other adventures that lie ahead.


Working and Playing in Slovenia: Airplanes, Horses, and Gourmet Dining



Slovenia:  Land of Surprises!  This was primarily a work day, but it was full of serendipity. My husband, our two friends, and I discovered the future of aviation at Pipistrel, a light aircraft manufacturer and one of the world’s leaders in aviation. Its paradigm-breaking aircraft include electric models and the first hydrogen fuel-cell airplane. Before the day was over, we also made three more discoveries: the iconic Lipizzan horses, the illusive bottle of gin. (See Really Life? You’ve Now Taken Me to Slovenia?), and another gourmet dinner at our guest house.

After meeting Ivo Boscorol, the company’s general manager and founder, we took a factory tour led by his genial daughter and public relations manager, Taja. Her enthusiasm was not hype. We saw the ground-breaking airplanes and the technology that produced them:  3-D printers; a water-jet cutting machine and an 8-axis robot-mill to fabricate parts; a quality control system designed and used by Toyota; and the building itself, a “green building,” which is energy-efficient and self-sufficient. Seeing the creativity of the process from conception to execution, plus observing the human team making all this possible, made us appreciate Taja’s animation even more.

Pipistrel is the winner of many aviation awards, but the one that is garnering the most attention lately is the NASA Green Flight Challenge Award, which has a prize of $1.35 million, the largest prize in aviation history. According to NASA, the award was “created to inspire the development of more fuel-efficient aircraft and spark the start of a new electric airplane industry.” The goal was a lofty one:  to design an airplane that could fly 200 miles in less than two hours while using less than one gallon of fuel per occupant, or the equivalent in electricity. Pipistrel’s electric-powered Virus not only reached the goal, it exceeded it.  It flew using just over a half-gallon of fuel per passenger, thus achieving twice the fuel efficiency required. Pipistrel not only won this award once, it won it three consecutive years.

My husband understands firsthand what technological leaps Pipistrel took to win this award. He worked at NASA Langley in Hampton, Virginia, for 33 years.  During that time, he was a member of the government-industry partnerships that developed technologies that now inhabit virtually every airplane around the globe, including the Virus:  glass cockpits, composite airframes, crash-worthy airframes, and laminar flow aerodynamics.Today, his consulting business has taken him to work in the field of hydrogen fuel-cell electric propulsion. How  satisfying it is for him to see his work reach such a successful conclusion!


Our only disappointment of the day was that we were not able to fly in one of these awesome aircraft.  Pipistrel’s headquarters sets in a valley in Ajdovščina which falls victim to some very forceful predatory winds.This day, the Bora wind phenomenon was clocked well below the 125 mph that can occur, but high winds still held us hostage, so we were grounded.



After my husband finished his business with Pipistrel, we were able to hurry over to Lipica, the home of the oldest European stud farm to be continuously breeding the famous Lipizzan horses. We arrived too late for a tour, but early enough before sundown to see these beautiful horses grazing in the field. A return trip is warranted!



We made one more stop in Lipica at a Lidl grocery store where we finally found a bottle of gin after a two-day search. There was one choice only, Castelgy London Dry Gin.  If we had wanted schnapps, our shopping cart could not have held the selection. I discovered that we found a very special brand of gin, Lidl’s own. The Guardian reported that in a taste test of both inexpensive supermarket brands of gin and more-expensive brand-name gins, Castelgy, the cheapest at 9.99 euro a bottle, did very well, earning second place.  (Beefeaters came in fifth.) We also un-expectantly found a bottle of bitters, so visions of Old Fashions started to dance in our heads.  Along with the gin and the bitters, we bought an orange, a lemon, and sugar cubes, so Happy Hour was just a car ride away.

Back at Apolonia Guest House in Sezana, the four of us raised a toast to a fun, productive day with three classic Old Fashions, plus a new concoction of gin, lemon, and a dash of bitters. The cocktails were elevated compared to ones we drank the evening before and a fitting introduction to another gourmet dinner prepared by our innkeepers, Marissa and Manuella.The first course was End of Summer Zucchini Soup, which was a work of delectable art in a bowl.  I don’t know what herbs and / or vegetables other than zucchini the gals put into the soup to make it so green.  The vibrant green was a beautiful canvas to highlight the dabs of pink shrimp, brown croutons, and the white dollop of cheese wrapped in a sliver of cucumber.  It was as delicious as it was beautiful.


Tonight was “Fish Night,” and Salmon with Sage made an impressive main course.  It was moist and flaky, garnished with tomatoes and sage leaves.  Accompaniments included buttery potatoes and grilled zucchini slices.I have never had sage with salmon before, but the flavors marry very well. In fact, I found a similar recipe from NYT Cooking  that I want to try at home.


A crisp Slovenian white wine, which I won’t be able to find in Virginia, complimented the dish. Instead, I believe I will pour a glass of Citizen Cider’s Unified Press; it’s off-dry, crisp, and excellent with all seafood.


Manuella, with a bottle of excellent Slovenian white wine,  is an accomplished chef and gracious hostess at Apolonia.

Dessert wasn’t an afterthought.  Even though it was called “A Cream with Fruit Sauce,” its plebeian title didn’t distract from its royal taste.  In fact, it was so good, we didn’t even take time to ask what fruit concoction the rich, creamy pudding was swimming in.  The puff pastry cookie  and crumbles on top added the perfect “crunch.”   When we thought the meal couldn’t get any better, Manuella brought out house-made blueberry liqueur to end the evening sweetly.


We still had one more meal to look forward to at Apolonia:  breakfast. Each day starts  with an omlette or sunny side up eggs, three kinds of meats, cheese, a basket of rustic bread, fresh croissants, and rugelach, plus juice and coffee.  As I write this, I have been in Europe for two weeks, and Apolonia has  had the best accommodations and the best dining of any of the B & Bs / guest houses we have stayed in.  Thank you, Marissa and Manuella!

Now, it was time to return to our rooms and snuggle into our large, comfortable beds.  Visions of not only sugar plums, but also airplanes, horses and gin would swirl in our heads, never a nightmare, just a perfect dream of all the varied surprises we found in Slovenia.

Slovenia: Navigating the Challenges to Experience the Beautiful Bounty



Looking for lovely verdant mountains, beautiful red flowers and fragrant purple lavender, rainbow sherbet sunsets, surprising wine finds, and friendly, helpful people? Go to Sežana, Slovenia, and experience  all of this and even more. We checked in to Apolonia Guest House to enjoy comfortable beds; large, spacious, well-appointed rooms; and  bountiful five-star meals.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Finding Apolonia was our first quest.  As most people know, GPS is helpful, but while it gets you to the right neighborhood, it doesn’t always get you to the right address, especially when the houses are not numbered in sequential order. In this case, the GPS had us turn about one-fourth of a mile early, and we found our hefty Peugeot station wagon (the “gun boat”) navigating up a steep hill on a narrow lane, only to arrive at a dead-end. Then we had to turn around (full left rudder, full reverse thrust) without scraping someone’s front porch, car, or fence, proceed up another lane, only to find ourselves boxed into another dead end.   We repeated this process again . . . and again . . . and again.  We finally crept to a house without a number, thinking we had found our destination, so we stopped.

A spry, elderly woman came running our of her house, shaking her head with a grin, and saying,”Apolonia? Apolonia?”  With her gestures and simple English words sprinkled with Slovenian words, we ascertained we were in the wrong place, but we could drive on a grass lane on the side of her house that led to Apolonia’s back yard.  Unfortunately, the neighbor on the other side didn’t seem so happy about this solution.  She also was in her yard with her two German shepherds, who were furiously barking. She, not smiling, was loudly speaking Slovenian to the nice neighbor, about what we could only surmise:  she didn’t want us driving on the grass lane that also ran directly in front of her house. But why?  It had rained, so was she worried that we were going to get stuck in the mud?  Or was she concerned that we would leave ruts in her yard? Was everything okay, or had we started an international incident? Not understanding Slovenian, we didn’t have a clue.

The battle had already begun, it was too late to retreat, so with full speed ahead,  we turned the gun boat around (again) and started down the lane. We avoided the soggy areas, but the uneven terrain bumped us like white-capped waves. The dogs incessantly barked as we bobbed and bounced to our parking place at Apolonia’s back entrance.  Hearing the cacophony, our gracious hostess, Marissa, came outside and greeted us warmly in English and then spoke kindly to her two neighbors in Slovenian, soothing the one’s concerns. The battle, therefore, never escalated into full war.

With some embarrassment, we learned that if we had ignored the GPS and stayed on the main paved road for another couple of minutes, we would have seen Apolonia’s sign and parking lot.  We would have missed out on some great local color though.

If we had never found Apolonia, we would have also missed out of some of the best meals of our entire trip.  We arranged for talented Marissa and her equally talented daughter, Manuella, to cook for us the night of our arrival.  We started the evening with drinks on the patio to  watch the glorious sunset.



We supplied the spirits, but finding liquor and ice in Slovenia proved to be an education.  Grocery stores and gas stations sell liquor, but in limited qualities; they don’t sell bagged ice at all. Schnapps and other flavored liquors are easy to find, but gin is very difficult.  The smaller the market, the less the selection, and the selection is never very large.

In fact, we gave our GPS another chance, this time to find us a market, and we were taken to the little town of Dutovlje, population of 517, about 8 km. away.  In the centre of this charming village is the picturesque church of St. Jurij from the 15th century, which was a stronghold of the Knights Templar. Dutovlje also had a tiny market and a delicatessen selling gourmet cheeses and meats.


In the market, the liquor selection was also tiny, but we did find Jim Beam Black Label, which made one of us happy.  We then left town and stopped at a gas station on the way back to Apolonia, but there still was no gin, so we bought vodka made in France: Jelzin. Supposedly, this vodka is named after Boris Jelzin (Yeltsin), the first president of the Russian Federation, a politician with a checkered reputation.  I can say the same thing about this vodka, which three of us drank garnished with lemon slices.  I love Absolut Citron, so how bad could this vodka creation be?  Pretty bad, actually, when you are hankering for Absolut Citron. Pretty bad, actually, when the only ice you have is what your innkeeper gives you from her limited supply: eight small cubes for four people.



So-so cocktails were followed by a most memorable dinner.  The first course was the best ravioli we ever had.  The homemade pasta was stuffed with mild goat cheese, covered with a silky rich sauce, and garnished with crispy prosciutto, and chives and basil from Apolonia’s garden.


This course could have been a meal in itself, but the second course was a not-to-be-missed harbinger to autumn.  Wild local boar glazed with a wine sauce was complimented by crispy baby potatoes, home-grown roasted zucchini and carrots, and a drizzle of dense balsamic vinegar. A  perfect repast deserves a perfect drink to accompany it:  in this case a nice bottle of Slovenian red wine.   Ahhh!


The dessert, a coffee mousse, floating in a decadent coffee-based sauce, was the last course, a perfect last course–one that transcended us into dining nirvana. Feeling happily enlightened, but not lightened, we said our good nights, retreated to our rooms, and dreamt of Sweet Slovenia.





Feeling Lucky About Flying on Lake, Como

fullsizeoutput_1af9Ginger tablets . . . check. Acupuncture wrist bands . . . check. Pre-flight check list . . . check. Two experienced pilots in the cockpit, one my husband . . . check.  An excited, but nervous passenger in the backseat . . . check.  And off I go, queasy stomach under control and iPhone camera in hand, flying  on a Cessna 172 on straight floats to play the role of a paparazzo for a day. It’s time to get up close and personal with the lifestyle of the lucky of Lake Como.


View of Como town taking off in a seaplane from Aero Club Como


Taking off from the seaplane base in Como town, we leave the hustle and bustle of the city, a city many travel sites tell visitors to bypass and head instead to the idyllic villages.  Como is not without its redeeming qualities, however; it is worth a look-see. For me, the don’t-miss-attraction is a walk on the promenade around the lake, winding past waterfront shopping and restaurants, a charming church and park, the iconic Aero Club Como founded in 1913, and centuries’ old villas.  You can see the ferries docking, the seaplanes soaring, women in four-inch stilettos strolling, lovers’ eyes locking, gelato melting onto sticky little hands, all a celebration of life in lakeside Italy.


I know that Lake Como is shaped like a walking man,  Looking at him, we will leave Como, flying from his foot on our left and up his leg to Bellagio at his pelvis. At this point we will keep flying a little ways up to his navel, turn around to see the backside of Bellagio on his other leg, and then return to his original leg and fly south back to Como.


Villa Troubetzkoy in Blevio


My first I-have-to-have-it-photo was of Villa Troubetzkoy in Blevio, which is a few kilometers from Como. It was built around 1850 by the immigrant Russian prince of the same name, who served six years of forced labor in Siberia for the attempted overthrow of Nicholas I. The villa is currently under restoration to fulfill the needs of its current owner, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple and a prince of business in the U.S.A. Our two friends, my husband, and I were fortunate enough to book an Air BnB rental directly above Villa Troubetzkoy.  (See the property that overlooks the top of the cylindrical elevator that is above and to the left of Villa Troubetzkoy at the center edge of the lake.) We had the advantages of the royal villa — the exclusive neighborhood, the panoramic views up and down the lake, the sparkle of sunlight by day, and the shimmer of moon glow by night — all for 200 euros a day for our two-bedroom villa. Royal living at a peasant price.


George Clooney’s home, Villa Oleandra in Laglio


Continuing to fly north, a peasant can snap a photo of George Clooney’s home, Villa Oleandra in Laglio, but she can’t afford the $19 million dollar price tag this for-sale property demands. I will not be lounging out front, sipping a Bellini, nibbling on smoked lake trout spread on crostini,  and watching the speed boat zipping in front of the villa.  Pretending to be a member of the paparazzi corps is all I can do. I have second thoughts about being a paparazzo wannabe since Laglio’s City Council approved a regulation to protect Clooney’s privacy from the likes of me. On second thought, the regulation does not apply to the air. Paparazzi and love-sick fans are forbidden to snoop in the immediate vicinity of the villa by land and by lake. I am polite, however, so I only snap a quick photo, and we fly on by.


Villa del Balbianello in Lenno


We are not the only creatures who have flown in this area.  North of Villa Oleandra at Lenno is the stunning Villa del Balbianello where clones and droids took to the skies when lake scenes for Star Wars, Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002) were filmed here. Bond, James Bond, also flew high at the book office  when Casino Royale (2006) was shot here. Today, for 17 euros you can tour this romantic 12th century villa and its gardens to learn about the Italian Intelligentsia who called it home before it became popular as a movie set. For a couple of magical hours, it can become your home, too.


West side of Bellagio


Now on to Bellagio, the Pearl of the Lake.  Looking at the west side of the village from the air, I think Pearl looks like a lazy lady lounging along the shore. She is not lazy, however, as Bellagio is a major tourist draw.  People flock to her beautiful location at the point of land that splits the lake into two branches. (The less gentile say Bellagio is located at the walking man’s crotch.) Architectural gems from the 15th century on, lush gardens,  gourmet restaurants, and specialized shopping are the Sirens that sing in this part of Italy. It’s a good thing our seaplane doesn’t have a parachute, so I won’t be tempted to answer the Shopping Siren’s call. There are terrific deals on local silk products, perfumes, and leather goods in select Bellagio boutiques. Shopping, however, is not my mission for this day.


East side of Bellagio


“Ooo-ing” and “Ahh-ing” over views like this to photograph is my mission.  After flying north past Bellagio and practicing a few thrilling rough water landings and takeoffs, my husband piloted the plane to the east side of Bellagio.  Here is Pearl’s quieter side.  Villas dot the hills and terraced gardens step up from the sea. We give a sigh of contentment and do a 180 around the point and head back  south to Como.


Cernobbio, one of the many villages climbing the mountains beside Lake Como


Lake Como is indeed one handsome walking man. His famous clientele seeking rest and recreation in his magnificent mountains are the paparazzi’s meal ticket.  Looking back on my photographs, I realize I will never hunger to be a  paparazzo. I am too nice, proven by the fact that I didn’t shoot George Clooney’s villa with a long-range lens.  Also, my iPhone 6 takes a greater number of lousy photographs than great ones, especially through dirty airplane windows. I am happy anyway.


A special “thanks” goes to the United States-based Seaplane Pilots’ Association (SPA) for organizing the  Lake Como Trip that brought us here to take this flight. I now count myself among Lake Como’s lucky.  I just spent one hour in a seaplane with the man I love, flying over some of the most beautiful and historical sites in the world.  How can a day be luckier than this one?





Lake Como: Soaring Seaplanes Since 1913

Aero Club Como, 1913

The Wright Brothers flew the first powered controlled flight in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North, Carolina.  A scant 10 years later, the first seaplane base in the world was founded at Lake, Como. Aero Club Como is still flying high, training pilots in its seaplane school, which is the largest in Europe and the oldest in the world. In addition, Aero Club Como is operating the only seaplane base in Italy.  In fact, the only other seaplane bases in all of Europe are in Scandinavia.

Seaplanes: Lords of Lake Como:

Lake Como is a Y-shaped lake encompassing about 56 square miles and plunging to a depth of about 1500 feet. Sailing vessels from the sublime to the ordinary skim across the lake’s surface: yachts, ferries, sailboats, windsurfers, kitesurfers, and paddleboats. Villas and palaces hang precariously off the sides of the mountains, which welcome both bold- blue and whispy-smoky skies. Overhead, seaplanes lord over all, surveying their kingdom, knowing all is good on Lake Como.