Swiss Airbus 330
We left Logan Airport in Boston at 9:35pm on a Swiss Airlines flight to Zurich. The plane was a big Airbus 330, in which we were reasonably comfortable. As on just about all planes nowadays, the rows of seats in the economy section were too close together, but ours were not too far back, and in the outside segment of the row, which was only two seats wide. Having read a good deal about the increasing parsimony of the hard-pressed airline industry, we didn’t expect to see any food before breakfast, but the Swiss surprised us by serving dinner not long after the takeoff. We had brought food with us to the airport and eaten before getting on the plane. But here was dinner — quite respectable for airline food, and including a glass of wine for which no payment was asked — so I bravely did my best. Dorothea was feeling a little uncomfortable, probably, she thought, because of the dramamine she had taken. So she ate less than I did, though that’s hardly unusual.

In Zurich we rode a short subway train to the terminal that handles flights inside Europe. We had almost six hours to wait for our flight to Ljubljana, and had been told that, because the city is so close, and public transportation there is so fast and convenient, we’d have plenty of time to visit Zurich. But those who gave us this advice were considerably younger than we are, and the effects of an all-night flight were more than we could overcome. I’ve never been able to sleep on a plane. Dorothea managed a few winks, but the malaise brought on by the dramamine dose that was supposed to prevent it limited the amount of sleep she was able to get, and continued to bother her after we landed. Another reason for deciding to stay at the airport is perhaps another characteristic of senior citizenship: we had no difficulty at all in imagining various accidents and delays that would cause us to miss our flight if we left. (This implies no reflection on Swiss competence, but a realistic assessment of our own.)

The terminal was bright, clean, and pleasant. Clear signs and maps gave directions in English as well as the several national languages of Switzerland. Through the windows we could see nothing that looked even slightly urban — though Zurich may have been near, it was well out of sight. The terminal building we were in was big and architecturally impressive. In some parts it resembled a glitzy shopping mall. We considered renting a day room to get a few hours’ rest, but after walking what felt like a mile to find these rooms, we changed our minds when we saw what they cost.
Zurich Airport Terminal

Back in the mall area, we looked for seats. At first the only ones we could see belonged to bars and restaurants offering refreshment of various kinds to the weary and well-heeled traveler, but a pleasant lady at the information booth pointed out an area that lay between two restaurants and behind a row of shops (which sold, among other things, diamonds and caviar). There we found a good-sized block of comfortably upholstered seats, few of them occupied. Dorothea was exhausted after our long hike, so she stretched out across two seats and managed to nod off for a while.

I wandered through a couple of duty-free shops, where in my somewhat foggy condition, I found even the Swiss chocolate (let alone the caviar and diamonds) easy to resist. Eventually I settled down beside Dorothea to read a Larry McMurtry book that I’d started on the plane.

For the Zurich–Ljubljana (or ZRH–LJU) leg of the flight, we boarded a much smaller aircraft, a Canadair Regional Jet 200. (The one in the picture, which I found on the Web, coincidentally happens to be at Zurich Airport.) Although our tickets, which we had bought from Swiss, gave this flight a Swiss Airlines number, it was in fact operated by Adria Airways, the Slovenian national airline, which (my research suggested) is almost the only airline that flies in and out of LJU. American, United, Lufthansa, Alitalia, KLM, SAS, and other carriers will sell you a ticket from Boston to Ljubljana. Your choice will certainly affect the length and location of your layover, but the odds are good that you’ll finish the journey aboard an Adria plane.

Adria Canadair Regional Jet
We had bought our tickets early, way back in November. This accounts for the comparative luxury of our seats on the BOS–ZRH flight, but we hadn’t been allowed to reserve seats for the last leg. Still, our boarding passes said row 12, which sounded pretty good — on the transatlantic flight we’d been in row 21, and that was right over the wing — but we hadn’t reckoned on the small size of the Canadair plane. Row 12 turned out to be the next to last — in fact, on our side of the aisle, there was only one seat in the row behind us. But the flight was short, just over an hour, and it was very smooth as well.

We had eaten a late lunch in the Zurich airport, again expecting no nourishment to be offered on the flight, but once again we were wrong. The sandwiches we got were comparable in quantity, if perhaps not quite in quality. to the one I’d eaten for lunch in the airport, but they had the substantial advantage of being free. Our light lunch in a terminal restaurant had been quite an expensive meal: I had a ham and cheese sandwich, Dorothea had a tomato and mozzarella salad, and each of us consumed a small bottle of spring water. The bill for all of this, with tip, came to 40 Swiss francs, then trading at a few cents short of a dollar each. Our water alone cost 11.9 francs, almost twelve bucks.

I put that lunch on my American Express card, and it was the last item we charged on the entire trip. We left Boston carrying 3,000 euros (that being the official currency in Slovenia), which we had bought a month or two earlier as we saw the exchange rate getting worse every day. While we traveled we paid for everything, lodging included, in cash, and when we needed more euros (or kune in Croatia) we found them easy to get at ATMs. But in Zurich, before our trip had really started, we were reluctant to trade any of those euros (on which we’d paid our local bank an outrageous premium) for Swiss francs, and doubtless get hit with another hefty premium. American Express, on the other hand would convert the francs to dollars at only 2% above the interbank rate. (The end result of this high finance may be that we saved as much as two or three dollars, but it’s the principle of the thing….)

The airport that serves Ljubljana is some distance from the city, and is sometimes called Brnik after the nearest village. Shortly before our trip it had been officially renamed to honor Jože Pučnik, a recently deceased Slovene politician who had been active in the effort to separate from Yugoslavia in 1991. (It occurred to me that if his surname had been Potnik instead of Pučnik, the name of the airport could be translated “Joe Traveler.”)

As full as it was, our plane didn’t carry a great number of passengers, but to our surprise we found a big crowd lined up at passport control. We were told later that four planes had landed at almost the same time. One of them came from Priština — the chief city of Kosovo, whose dismal economic and political situation probably explained the tall stack of passports the Slovene policemen at the desk were collecting for further study, and the correspondingly large number of people milling around or sitting glumly while their fate was decided. As a member of the European Union, Slovenia has fully open borders with Italy, Austria, and Hungary — once you get in, you can travel almost anywhere in western, northern, or central Europe without having to show a passport. So when travelers arrive from points south or southeast, the Slovenes have to play the role of guardians at the E. U. door.

It took a long time to reach the window, but when we got there the policeman hardly gave our US passports a look before applying a visa stamp. He didn’t ask us how long we intended to stay, or anything else. Perhaps the crush of incoming passengers had made him a little tired of being a cop.

We went through a door and found our suitcases waiting beside a motionless carousel; they were almost the only ones left. The door after that led to the arrival hall, where we met Orel Aleš, our taxi driver, holding up a sign with our name on it. He waved to us even before we spotted the sign, explaining that he recognized me from my picture. I had become acquainted with Orel, under the name “SI Eagle,” on the Internet travel forum Virtual Tourist, where he had answered some of my questions about hotels in Bled. (“SI” is the official two-letter abbreviation for Slovenia that identifies websites based in that country, like “UK” for Great Britain, “CA” for Canada, “FR” for France, and so on.) I had uploaded a mug shot of myself which appeared on each message I posted. Though this picture was no bigger on a computer screen than a small US postage stamp, my features were easy enough to recognize — a characteristic that should deter me from taking up a life of crime.

At a later stage in our planning I had found Orel’s “Bled Taxi” site and made arrangements for him to meet us at the airport and drive us to Bled — a necessity because there is no direct public transportation (and even if there were, we probably couldn’t have dealt with buses or trains after thirty-some hours essentially without sleep).

Orel, a friendly and well-informed man with very serviceable English, explained the four-planes-at-once problem that had delayed us in passport control, and pointed out interesting sights as he drove us through the green countryside to the small lakeside town of Bled. Ahead of us we could see Bled Castle on its high rock, but before we reached the lake the taxi turned up a steep street that led to our destination: the Mayer Penzion (whose name is pronounced as in Oscar Mayer of hot-dog fame).

Mayer Penzion
This is a small hotel with 13 rooms and a locally (and justly) renowned restaurant. It was well into the dinner hour when we arrived, and the reception desk was unstaffed; everyone on duty was busy serving food and drink. The phone on the counter was labeled with a number to dial for service, and when I complied, a cheery voice answered “Merry Christmas!” My whiskers had obviously been spotted as we came in.

Our room was on the top, or second, floor (which by American counting would be the third), but an elevator — small, but it held both of us and our luggage — took us up. We were attended by an infinite number of receding images of ourselves reflected in mirrors that lined the elevator, no doubt to make it feel more spacious.

The room was simple but comfortable, with a double bed and a single one, both furnished with cotton bottom sheets and duvets but no top sheets. I found conditions too warm to be comfortable under a duvet, so we removed it from its cover and I slept under that. We used the same tactic in several of the rooms we occupied on the trip.

From the Mayer's balcony
Though the hotel is on a hill, the lake can’t be seen from where it is, so windows and balconies all face in the opposite direction. Our room had a balcony (which you can see in the oval space in the picture above), overlooking a neat yard and several inn buildings, some of which belonged to the Penzion Berc (pronounced ‘bairts’) next door.

We were tired, but not too tired for dinner, so we made ourselves presentable and went downstairs to the restaurant. Nearly all the diners (ourselves very much included) appeared to belong to the over-55 set, mostly British and American. The dining room was pleasant — all wood and beveled mirrors — and we were waited on by the same jovial young man who had offered Christmas greetings over the phone when we arrived. He was busy — we had to ask for knives and forks, and never got napkins — but his service was friendly, and the food, even though it took a while to come, was excellent.

I began with asparagus soup with spätzle and went on to venison goulash; Dorothea’s starter was fried dumplings (like little turnovers) filled with vegetables, and for her main course she ordered a popular Slovenian dish: mushroom soup and ajdovi žganci: buckwheat mush. The name of the last item may not cause you to lick your chops, but it contains a good deal more than buckwheat, including onions and mushrooms, and since our return she has mentioned it more than once with nostalgia. I drank a good draft lager (Union, brewed in Ljubljana) and also helped Dorothea with a liter of Radenska, Slovenia’s own sparkling mineral water. Dessert for both of us was crèpes — called palatschinken as they are all over Central Europe — with apricot jam. The meal was as good as we’d hoped it would be, and we retired right afterwards for a long and well-earned rest. I say earned even though we hadn’t spent the day climbing mountains or chopping wood. But it was now almost 40 hours since we’d been near a bed, and surely that gave us some right to feel entitled.

Lake Bled