Bl-ess-ed Island

I’ve always liked Southwest Airlines’ slogan. “Wanna Get Away?” Their first television commercials featured people having bad days – then up pops the Southwest phrase in big, bold letters. It wasn’t so much where you wanted to go, just that you wanted to go.  So today I have Southwest on the brain, not only because I “wanna get away” (and don’t we all?) but because I know precisely where. Take me to the Julian Alps in northwest Slovenia, please.  There you’ll find a tiny fairyland oasis known as Lake Bled.

Let me tease you with a photo.  Here, you’re standing on a steep vista known as Little Osojnica Hill.  Lake Bled’s emerald green waters are a squarish mile of blended glacial melt and hot springs.  And those mountains in the distance?  You’re looking at Austria and its Alps.  The country and its majestic peaks are less than ten miles from Slovenia and Lake Bled.

But forget about the surroundings for a moment because it’s Lake Bled I really want to talk about.  Here’s how you get there.  From Frankfurt, Germany, catch a 75-minute flight (KLM or Lufthansa, not Southwest) to Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana.  Instead of spending time trying to pronounce “Ljubljana”, make your way to the city train station.  Travel thirty miles northwest on the rails and step off at the Lesce-Bled station.  Congrats!  You’re only a two-mile walk from Lake Bled.

Now for the best part.  You’re not only going to Lake Bled; you’re going to the island in the middle.  Bled Island may be the most picturesque islet I’ve ever seen.  It’s perfectly surrounded by the lake.  It’s lush with trees.  But best of all, Bled Island hosts a soaring 17th-century pilgrimage church.  It’s like a miniature Mont-Saint-Michel, only it’s not in France and you have to climb a wide stairway to get to the church doors.  Brace yourself; we’re talking ninety-nine steps on that stairway.  But you’re not gonna come all this way and not see the church, right?

Earlier I told you Lake Bled is like something out of a fairy tale.  Here’s another reason why.  The only way to get from the lakeshore to the island is on a pletna.  What’s a pletna? A wooden, flat-bottomed boat, seating a dozen or so and powered by a very-much-in-shape Slovenian oarsman.  He stands in the back like a Venetian gondolier, using his two oars to propel the boat slowly across the pristine waters.  Doesn’t it just add to the image?  Better than muddying up things with something motorized.

Bled Castle

If Lake Bled and its islet aren’t enough to get you booking flights, how about a couple more temptations?  High above the lakeshore stands the oldest medieval castle in all of Slovenia.  Drawbridge, moat, courtyards, towers; Bled Castle has everything you’d expect in an 11th-century fortification.  Must be worth the price of admission because it’s one of the most visited attractions in the entire country.

Yum!

Maybe you’re not into castles.  How about a plate of Chantilly cream pastries instead?  The cremeschnitte is the region’s culinary specialty.  The pastry is so highly regarded, the Slovenian government designated it a “protected dish” in 2016.  An annual festival celebrates nothing but the dessert.  Over the last sixty years, a hotel near Lake Bled has baked over sixty million of them.  That’s what I’d call a recipe refined to perfection.

In a recent post I mentioned my daughter is getting married next year.  For my future son-in-law’s sake, I’m glad she didn’t choose the church on Bled Island.  Local tradition says it’s good luck for the groom to carry the bride up the stone steps before ringing the church bell and making a wish.  Up ninety-nine steps?  The groom better be as strong as a pletna oarsman if he’s going to make that kind of climb.

Photos are nice but videos are the real clincher.  Spend a couple of minutes with the following YouTube tour.  I guarantee you’ll “wanna get away” to Bled Island, and soon.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Center Peace

Let’s admit to one of the unspoken axioms of commercial air travel, shall we?  When it comes to flying, we do everything we can to avoid sitting next to a stranger. In an open-seating approach like Southwest Airlines, it’s all about the aisles and windows, pinning our hopes on that almost-extinct creature known as the open middle seat. Turning the corner from the jetway and gazing down the narrow aisle, our brains simply erase the middles from the seating plan. We’ll go all the way to the last row before we’re forced to sit beside a stranger. It’s like boarding the big yellow bus in elementary school, forced to choose a seat next to a kid you don’t already know.  Haven’t changed much as adults, have we?

Call me a lost cause, but I’m here today to extol the virtues of the middle seat.  There really can be peace in the center.  Thanks to my wife (who prefers the window seat for all kinds of reasons), I’ve chosen the middle seat for countless flights in our marriage.  Used to be, we’d take the aisle and window and leave the middle open, with decent odds for extra storage and elbow room.  These days?  An open middle is about as likely as getting bumped to first class.  It just doesn’t happen.

I know what you’re thinking.  A middle seat forces you to sit next to a stranger (assuming you’re traveling alone or as a couple).  Not a problem, as long as you drive the situation.  After your stranger joins you, you have about fifteen seconds to engage them in a conversation.  Those fifteen seconds are your one chance where a meet-and-greet feels natural, because you’re both still settling in and probably making a little eye contact.  Sixteen seconds in however, you’ve lost your chance.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited until the tail end of the flight (that “safe” moment when you realize you’ll be off the plane and gone in fifteen minutes anyway), only to find out I was sitting next to one of the nice/normal ones out there.

Here’s another rule about middle seats.  You need to find your comfort zone with the armrests.  There’s not a lot of real estate on those babies, so inevitably you’ll be jockeying with your neighbor to figure out how to share.  Just make sure you don’t let your neighbor take the whole armrest from the get-go.  If you do, your middle-seat space will feel super-cramped. (Why did a ’70’s rock band just come to mind?)  In other words, you’ll experience “armrestlessness” the remainder of your flight.

Strangers and armrests aside, let’s acknowledge some of the hidden positives of sitting center.  First, you have the easiest access to all the ceiling gadgets.  Adding light or air or a flight attendant to your environment requires nothing more than a casual reach overhead.  Your seatmates have it more difficult.  They’ll often add an “excuse me” to their movements, or even ask you to do it for them.  Sometimes that means bodily contact. Ick.

Second positive: you avoid the shortcomings of the window and aisle seats.  What are those?  The window seat personal space is noticeably smaller than other seats (including the storage space below the seat in front of you).  The window seat is also be noisy if you’re near the engines.  The aisle seat personal space is constantly interrupted by the happenings in the aisle itself: roving flight attendants, drink carts, and all those other strangers on the plane.  And here’s the ultimate penalty for sitting in the aisle seat:  you’re sitting between your seatmates and their freedom (i.e. the lavatory).  Every time they’re up and out of their seats, so are you.

Speaking of airplane lavatories, I avoid them until my bladder pulses me into levitation.  It’s not an issue of cleanliness or claustrophobia, but rather the journey to get there from your seat.  Here’s my ultimate nightmare: I get past the aisle seat and head to the front lav.  I find it occupied, which means I head to the back (no lines allowed in front).  On my way to the back, the seat belt sign dings and flight attendants guilt me into returning to my seat.  Mission unaccomplished.  Hold please.

Final though: be bold and choose the middle seat on occasion.  You might enjoy it as much as I do.  Then again, in-between comes more naturally to me. I was a middle child growing up.  I live in a middle state in the U.S.  I like to think of myself as slightly above average.  In other words, fair-to-middling.

Manipulation Games

In April of last year Starbucks modified its customer loyalty program, linking reward “stars” to dollars spent instead of store visits. Where previously you nabbed a free coffee for twelve trips to the cash register, you now need a total purchase value exceeding $63 .  According to CNN, “…customers were furious with the new program.”  Maybe so but those customers didn’t stay away either.  Starbucks’ 2016 gross sales were $21.3B, up 10% from its previous fiscal year.

Once upon a time I resisted customer rewards programs but over the years I’ve made peace with them.  I keep a couple dozen loyalty cards in the car or on my phone, ready to play whenever I visit this store or that restaurant.  I still control where, what, and how much I purchase.  Since I don’t keep a close eye on my rewards, I’m pleasantly surprised whenever I qualify for a freebie or a discount.

But here’s what I don’t like about rewards programs.  They’re designed to manipulate your spending habits.  That’s where Starbucks – like so many other merchants – gets a “fail” on my customer satisfaction test.  In addition to their stars program Starbucks sends emails every other day (which I unsubscribe from but always seem to return).  Those emails encourage me to purchase in certain ways or quantities or timeframes with the allure of “bonus” stars.  It’s a ruse; plain and simple and obvious.  No amount of “free” will ever tempt me to buy three breakfast sandwiches in five days.  Or three Frappuccino’s in three days.  (I don’ t even buy one breakfast sandwich or one Frappuccino.  Just coffee.)

Starbucks may annoy me with their sales tactics but I still buy their products.  The same cannot be said for credit card companies.  The newest Visa and MasterCard programs include sophisticated reward programs where spending is literally the only path out of debt.  Take Chase Bank’s Sapphire Reserve Visa card.  As trendy as this elegantly thin metal card appears to be, it’s utterly manipulative.  For starters, just holding the card in your hand sets you back $450 a year.  Then you’re encouraged to spend $4,000 in the first three months to qualify for 100,000 reward points (recently sliced to 50,000).  You’re also tempted by an instant $300 travel credit – which can only be used through Chase’s partners – as well as credits towards Global Entry, TSA Pre, and airline lounge fees.

No matter how you justify the rewards of Chase Sapphire Reserve you’re still spend-spend-a-spending to recoup the costs.  Consider Sapphire points are valued at 2.1 cents each.  The best-case scenario therefore – spending on travel or dining – still needs to add up to $15,000 before you’ve paid off the $450 annual fee.  Too rich for me.

Las Vegas is getting in on the rewards game too.  Sin City’s legendary “free drink” is about to enter the history books.  Slot machines now include small colored lights, easy to spot by the passing cocktail waitress.  If you’re “red” she’ll walk right past you without so much as a smile.  If you’re “green” you’ve fed your machine enough to earn a “free” drink.  The same goes for casino parking lots; spend enough inside the building and you’ll earn a voucher for outside.  Is it any wonder gambling is no longer the biggest source of revenue in Las Vegas (in favor of hotel, restaurant, and bar purchases)?

Despite these trends, I’ll keep playing the rewards game and very occasionally cashing in on anything “free”.  But I’ll also be wary of the subtle manipulations.  Just yesterday I received my umpteenth Southwest Airlines’ Visa card offer.  All I must do is spend $2,000 in three months for 50,000 points and no annual fee.  That application goes straight to the shredder every time.  My one and only Visa card with its no-frills-no-cost rewards program suits me just fine.