The Magic Of Lake Bled

Pletna Boats

Bled Island

Bled Castle

Bled Castle Wall

During most of the year, one of the most famous lake regions in the world lies quietly and ignored by the masses of travelers around the world. No doubt, accessibility plays a part on this, even if the place is quite accessible. But perhaps it is something else. Perhaps it is the fact that the country is not particularly associated with grandiose structures like the Eiffel Tower, or the Vatican, or the works of Michael Angelo. No, its incredible beauty is the result of nature itself, of mountains and crystal-clear waters, of ever-changing weather patters, and of course, of a small, but incredibly beautiful church that happens to be sitting on a tiny islet in the middle of a lake. Welcome to Lake Bled in Slovenia.

The most visited place in Slovenia is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places this tired traveler has ever seen. Its inherent beauty is not just the result of what you see, but also of what you feel when you are there. It is as if the majestic Alpine chain forms a frame around the lake to share with us one of the most incredible windows in the world. On a late April day, when hardly anyone was around, the silence alone, softly punctuated by the cool breeze of an early spring day, was the stuff of dreams. A person here and there, then solitude. The rhythmic sound of ores slowly moving the Pletna boats carrying travelers to the only island in Slovenia and the Assumption of Mary Church sitting 99 steps above the water level, was nothing short of Alpine music to my ears. Legend has it that if you pull the massive rope to ring the church bell three times while looking at the Virgin Mary, your wishes will someday come true. So, with eyes that seemed overwhelmed by all the beauty that lay before them, I firmly wrapped my hands around the rope and pulled as hard as I could. The deep sound of that bell spreading in all directions over the green, transparent waters of Lake Bled were as sweet to my ear as the sound of a Mozart sonata filling a concert hall in Vienna. Staring out of the window during the 35-minute drive back to Ljubljana along valleys dotted with small villages and green pastures, I couldn’t help but think that I had just seen one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. What’s more, the deep, endless sound of that bell traveling beyond the mountains that surrounded it, still rang gloriously inside my head. I knew there and then, that the legend was true. My wish had already come true.

Slowing Down In Freiburg, Germany

A young woman walk by Adelhauser Platz during the early morning hours. [Click photos for larger versions]
A young woman walk by Adelhauser Platz.
While not as large as in other cities, the Freiburg Christmas Market is just as colorful.
The colorful Freiburg Christmas Market.
Vendors don't seem to miss a day to sell their wares by the Historisches Kaufhaus next to the Freiburg Cathedral.
The Historisches Kaufhaus next to the Freiburg Cathedral.
There is never a shortage of patrons at one of the most popular breweries in town.
A town of great breweries.
Like in most European cities, getting lost in the backstreets is half the fun.
Getting lost in the backstreets is half the fun.
Blankets are very popular at local cafes, where locals insist to sit outside no matter how cold.
Blankets are very popular at local cafes in winter.
A small canal bordered by quaint restaurants and coffee shops is part of the charm in Freiburg.
A small canal bordered by quaint restaurants and coffee shops.

Some places have a way of captivating you through their quiet, unassuming ways. They usually don’t make the front pages of travel magazines, nor do they become world-famous for hosting major events like the Olympics or the World Expo. And yet, for those who venture outside the normal touristy venues to explore a bit deeper into a country, these somewhat out-of-the-way gems are full of rewards. In a type of understated way, they charm you not with UNESCO-type monuments to humanity, but rather with the easy-going simplicity that characterizes most of our everyday lives. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany is such a place.

Straddling the western side of the Black Forest, this smallish university city in the state of Baden-Württenburg provides a much welcomed break from its more touristy French neighbor to the north, Strasbourg. It’s geographical location alone (sitting on the south-west corner of Germany by the Black Forest) makes it somewhat of a refuge from the tourist lanes that crisscross most of Europe these days. To go to Freiburg, you must want to go to Freiburg, because it will require you to get off the main road to do so. But this, my friends, is the good news about this wonderful city. It charms you for what it’s not, which if you have traveled any time recently to the overcrowded, major European cities that dominate most vacation brochures, you will soon come to appreciate.

If I had to pick a term to describe my time in Freiburg, I would probably refer to it as “slow travel.” None of that need-for-speed stuff that characterizes major metropoles these days. On the contrary, days wandering the twisted, quiet streets in Freiburg tend to blend into each other with the ease of day passing into night. After spending some time in a major European city, life in Freiburg felt like you had arrived at a place you could call home. Orderly, clean, and charmingly low-keyed, it is the kind of place where you go to recharge your batteries while enjoying a simpler way of life. But don’t get me wrong, Freiburg is not some desolate city where nothing of any consequence is happening. Rather, it is a charming city with all the trappings of a larger city, but on a much smaller scale (and a lot cheaper too), and with a lot less tourist traffic. And even if you wouldn’t think so from trying to find a free table at the incredible Hausbrauerei Feierling brewery (which by the way, is reason enough to go to Freiburg for a few days), you will be able to dispense with any notion of speed during your visit there. The city, with its easy-going, unassuming rhythm, will definitely grow on you. And as you board that train on your way to Basel, Stuttgart, or wherever your travels are taking you, you will be glad you took the time to stop and visit this charming city by the Dreisam river.

 

The Simple Beauty Of Locarno

The imposing Madonna del Sasso church and monastery watch over the town of Locarno and the Swiss Alps.
The imposing Madonna del Sasso church and monastery watch over the town of Locarno and the Swiss Alps.
A rainy day doesn't seem to scare shoppers at the quaint Via alla Ramogna near the Locarno train station.
A rainy day doesn’t seem to scare shoppers at the quaint Via alla Ramogna near the Locarno train station.
Like in so many other places in Europe, entering through an open door can reveal some magnificent views generally hidden from the public.
Like in so many other places in Europe, entering through an open door can reveal some magnificent views generally hidden from the public.
One of the most beautifully serene piazzas in Locarno is the Chiesa di Sant'Antonio.
Up the hill from the main shopping area in Locarno lies one of the most beautifully serene piazzas in the city, the Chiesa di Sant’Antonio.
Locarno's old town is a wonderful maze of colorful, narrow streets lined with small shops and family-owned restaurants.
Locarno’s old town is a wonderful maze of colorful, narrow streets lined with small shops and family-owned restaurants.
The old doors and brick structure of Castello Visconteo are a reminder of 15th Century Locarno.
The old doors and brick structure of Castello Visconteo are a reminder of 15th Century Locarno.
Doors that are closed during the early morning hours open up to reveal some of the most incredible courtyards in Ticino.
Doors that are closed during the early morning hours open up to reveal some of the most incredible courtyards in Ticino.
The many covered walkways in Locarno are lined with boutique shops, gelato stands, and a whole array of Italian restaurants.
The many covered walkways in Locarno are lined with boutique shops, gelato stands, and a whole array of Italian restaurants.
Not even flooding could stop traveling musicians from setting shop at the shore of Lago Maggiore.
Not even flooding could stop traveling musicians from setting shop at the shore of Lago Maggiore.

Nearly ten years ago I had the pleasure of driving near Locarno, Switzerland on my way to Lucerne, it’s more popular neighbor to the north.  At the time I remember being so fascinated with the landscape that I promised myself that one day I would return to visit Locarno and its surrounding areas.  Well, here I am, and to say that Locarno has lived up to my expectations would be a gross understatement.  The postcard beauty of this small town by Lago Maggiore is only exceeded by the friendliness of its people.  And while I must admit that I was a bit skeptical of the description of the Ticino area as one having “Italian culture with Swiss efficiency,” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is indeed the case.

Four great sights seem to be at the heart of this great Swiss region.  For starters, there is the imposing Lago Maggiore, which appears to be suspended in air while blessed with clear Alpine waters.  Then there is the center of Locarno, the curved Piazza Grande, lined by the old town to its north.  Further up the mountain is the famous Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, with its imposing views of Lago Maggiore, the city of Locarno, and the snow-capped Alps around the lake.  And last, but not least, there are the Alps themselves, ruggedly imposing and with snow tops reminding you of that idyllic world we all experienced only in postcards.  It is all the kind of visual wonderland that only existed in our imaginations.  Perhaps too much to take in during just one visit, but it all leaves you with the unmistakable feeling that whatever magic the place is playing on you, there is no doubt that you want more of it in your life, and lots of it.  I know that the moment I watch Locarno from my train window receding in the horizon, the same feeling which consumed me so many years ago will immediately return.  I will have to come back someday, but this time it will not be out of curiosity.  Rather, it will be out of an incredible sense of wonderment.

The House Where George Washington Worshiped

The historic Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia where George Washington maintained a box family pew.
The historic Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia where George Washington maintained a box family pew and prayed whenever he was in the area.
Completed in 1773, the white panels from the interior of the church have acquired a soft yellow tint over the years, but have never been retouched.
Completed in 1773, the white panels from the interior of the church have acquired a soft yellow tint over the years, but have never been retouched.
The George Washington family box pew is perhaps the largest of all pews, and much larger than the Robert E. Lee pew a few feet away.
The George Washington family box pew is perhaps the largest of all pews, and much larger than the Robert E. Lee pew a few feet away.
Many Presidents have paid their respects at Christ Church, to include a famous 1942 visit by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his guest, Winston Churchill.
Many Presidents have paid their respects at Christ Church, to include a famous 1942 visit by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his guest, Winston Churchill.

I’m always amazed at how much I have yet to see in this world.  Sure, I move around a lot and seem to suffer from some incurable travel compulsion, but no matter how much I experience through travel, there always seems to be much more out there to see and photograph.  What’s more, even the places I’ve visited so many times in the past seem to have a surprising way of revealing something new all the time.  Case in point: the historic Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.  I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have walked these grounds with my camera, but I hate to admit that until a few days ago, I had never gone inside the Church itself.  This was not because of a lack of curiosity, mind you.  In fact, the more I walked by, the more I kept telling myself that I had to try to sneak in with my camera someday.  Little did I know that when services are not being conducted, everyone is more than welcomed to come in and take as many photographs as your memory cards can hold.

But what makes a visit to Christ Church even more rewarding is the incredible historical information provided to visitors by local volunteers.  Walk in when there are no other visitors around and you may catch one of these volunteer quietly sitting in President George Washington’s family box pew waiting to enlighten you about the history of this magnificent building.  And yes, just like the local historian, you too will be able to spend some time inside the Church’s two most famous pews: the one used by President’s Washington’s family and the one used by Robert E. Lee’s family many years later.  And just in case you begin to wonder about your exact geographical location, the local guide will be nice enough to remind you that your feet are now well planted in “the south.”  I guess it is always important not to miss any of those significant historical details.  After about twenty minutes, myself and the visitors from Siberia wrapped up our visit.  Not sure where they went, but my compass unmistakably showed I was headed to “the north.”  And that was OK with me.