Specificities of the European (air)space, unplanned stop in Slovenia and new friends in Croatia
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
In my last post on August 2nd, I had promised to share some information about the European airspace. I did not expect it would take me so long nor that I would be sharing it from Asia, after 12 flights (and more than 40 hours in the air) across Russia. But there has really not been time to stop and write. We entered the biggest country in the world on August 1st and have reached Petropavlovsk Kamchatkiy yesterday, August 21st. Time here is UTC+12, meaning it was still August 20st in a large part of the world, and also that we will soon cross the International Date line: we will arrive in Alaska the day before we took off… The Russia trip has been a pleasure and a source of constant amazement, but I really want to describe our whole journey, so this post takes us back to the day we left Italy with the intention of reaching Croatia.
En route from Milano Bresso (LIMB) to Zadar on July 5th, we stopped in Venice for lunch (how much more jet set can it get?! Except of course that we don’t have a jet…), using the small Venice Lido airport (LIPV) that had been recommended to us because of its beautiful approach. We indeed enjoyed the views upon landing and headed to the city following the instructions of the airport staff: after a 15 minute-walk to the harbor, the boat would take us directly to the Piazza San Marco.
Piazza San Marco (left behind the wing) and Lido airport (grass field on the right)
Public boat tickets to the city
Plaza San Marco in Covid times
After lunch next to a canal with gondoliere and a walk through the unusually empty streets of the floating city, we headed back the same way and arrived at the airport around 5.15 pm, where we were greeted by a very worried staff. We had indicated in our PPR (“Prior Permission Required” form to be sent to airports) that we would leave for Zadar at 4 pm, therefore the Italian immigration officials had come specially to stamp us out of the Shengen space at 4pm and after a 30-minute wait they had left again. We had been spoiled, flying freely from the Netherlands to France to Spain to Italy, completely forgetting about customs etc… We felt a little embarrassed because we had no idea the officers were coming, no idea either that we needed to exit the Shengen space in order to enter Croatia, and the worse part was that it was too late for them to come back that afternoon and the Lido airport would close at 7pm for several days because of a G20 event. If we didn’t want to be blocked in Venice, we had to get out of there fast but stay in the Shengen space. There were only 2 possibilities: Trieste in Italy, a bigger airport where we could go through immigration the same day, or Portoroz in Slovenia. With the help of the Lido airport manager, we started calling both places and the first to answer the phone was Portoroz, they were happy to have us but advised to hurry because they closed at 8pm. Alex immediately checked the route on his iPad and saw it was no problem at all: the flight from Lido to Portoroz was only 24 minutes, we had plenty of time.
This was one of those moments where we were super thankful to have the right technology. There are many flight assistance applications available in the world and we have found that there is no “one size fits all”. In Argentina, Alex used the Swiss application AirNavigationPro (“Airnav”) which often times had much more precise information that Garmin with Jeppesen. Airnav however does not cover the USA very accurately. Over there, the absolute leader is Foreflight which carries very precise terrain and airspace information, allows to create routes, file flight plans and provides fuel prices and detailed weather information before and during the entire itinerary. In Europe however, Foreflight is less useful, especially for VFR flying. We could say that ForeFlight is the perfect tool for IFR flying in the US where lots of pilots get their instrument certification as a continuation of their first PPL (Private Pilot License).
In Europe however, most of the General Aviation flying is done VFR probably because distances are short and there are plenty of sights. And this is VFR at low altitude, dodging obstacles and negotiating ins and outs of complex airspaces. Foreflight doesn’t excel at that: airspace and terrain information is probably there as well but not organized for the needs and requirements of the VFR pilot and alas, there is no weather or comprehensive fuel price information as we get in the US. So, for Europe we use “Skydemon” in addition to the airplane’s Garmin system. SkyDemon planning tool starts with a straight line between the origin and destination airports at the altitude you select, and it has a warning function that pinpoints and depicts each airspace you would enter (or infringe) with its description and frequencies; with the usual (virtual) rubber band you easily bend your planned route to avoid the bad zones; and then, in flight, you are constantly reminded about the airspace you are about to encounter prompting you with the frequency to negotiate the penetration or flashing it red if you have to detour around it.
In the air, this means Alex simultaneously monitors Garmin on the screen and Skydemon on the iPad (tied to his knee) to make sure we stay out of trouble.
In preparation of our Russian crossing in August, Alex had been asking about the best software there and according to our Florida based earthrounder “guru” John Bone, who is in the middle of his second solo round the world trip, eastwards this time, Airnav is the best solution there, same as in Argentina! We were surprised to notice that with the subscription we have in Argentina we get global coverage for their SMART maps including all the points we will need in Russia. We could also buy additional layers of charts, but we still have Foreflight with the Jeppesen charts on top so we didn’t need to, we feel fully equipped as is.
So, thanks to the right software for Europe, we left Venice before the airport closed and landed 24 minutes later in Portoroz, a very nice small airport close to the medieval city of Piran where we decided to spend the night, instead of pushing though to Croatia because it was getting late. From our hotel window, we could see the Croatian coast on the other side which looked so close but yet was so far because of Shengen.
In Piran, looking at Croatia on the other side!
I discovered the Adriatic Sea in Piran and enjoyed one of the most scenic swims of my life, challenged only by swimming between skyscrapers in a high-rise pool in Hong Kong and by the lakeshore in downtown Chicago. In Piran, the water reaches right up to the sidewalk so you can either jump right in or lower yourself slowly from a series metal ladders. The water was deep blue and had a perfect temperature, I could see the Croatian coast on my left -so close it almost felt like I could reach it swimming and without customs! - and the picturesque Piran coast on my right.
I swam in the evening and in the morning and could have stayed in that water for days but the life of an earthrounder is tough: we needed to pack again and leave for Zadar.
Back at Portoroz airport, we properly went through customs and left for another highlight: probably one of the most beautiful flights of our trip. A festival of islands in clear blue waters, the European Bahamas, I had no idea this existed.
In Zadar airport (LDZD) we rented a car because our goal was Plitvice Lakes national park. As part of our preparations for our circumnavigation, we had done several internet searches like “best cities to visit in the world/ most beautiful places to visit” etc... and Plitvice was on many lists. There was actually another airport nearer to the lakes (LQBI) but it was in Bosnia Herzegovina (unlike Croatia, not even in European Union) and we were not brave enough to venture there.
Plitvice Lakes turned out to be a great excursion. We got there very early as recommended by all travel sites and were almost alone until about 10.30 am when the buses started to pour out the other tourists. Plitvice is a “system” of lakes cascading down in layers, like terraces, all different beautiful colors of blue and emerald.
The only negative thing is that it is not allowed to swim in them☹ It is not allowed either to walk outside of the paths and, people being the same everywhere, there were frequent reminders.
On one of the lakes there are electric ferries from one shore to the other where we all traveled masked and when we reached the other shore, we realized by the number of empty picnic tables that the place was much emptier than usual!
To visit the park, we stayed in the Jankovi Dvori guesthouse run by a young couple where there was a swimming pool which compensated for the frustration of not being able to swim in the lakes, especially since the outside temperature was near 40 degrees Celsius. The next day we left to Mali Losinj island recommended by Tom, our German earthrounder colleague who we met in Coeur d’Alene (Idaho). He has friends there: Radko, an ex- air traffic controller and his wife Nada. Radko welcomed us at the airport and after a snack at his house where we had the most interesting conversations about Croatia and his aeronautic life, he took us for a swim at his favorite beach. The walk there was along beautiful villas that had been built around 1900 and had recently been bought and rehabbed by rich foreigners. One of them looked very much like our old Buenos Aires house (Alex’ school) but bigger. A twin Italian villa in Mail Lošinj! Radko also took us to a beautiful outdoor restaurant on a hill to see the sunset and the morning we left a journalist from Otoci newspaper interviewed us. We were famous again!
Arriving at Mali Losinj airport terminal :)
Walking to the beach
The Croatian big sister of our Buenos Aires house
With Radko and family and friends
Mali Losinj sunset on the hill
As luck would have it, Radko and Nada’s son Sasha, a private Gulfstream jet pilot, was visiting during our stay. He took us on a boat trip to an island nearby with friends of his from Vienna who were living on a rented boat, touring Croatia for their vacation. His friend’s wife had just recovered from a kidney stone attack which had her in hospital there in Mail Lošinj for several days. It had started the day of their arrival! No visits allowed due to Covid but her husband had found a way: he dressed in white to look like a doctor, put a big face mask on and just walked in, greeting everyone with the local “dobredan”. While enjoying life on our Croatian island, the administrative aspects of our travel experience started to need attention. The special ministry letter required for my Russian crew visa was ready (tourist visas for Dutch citizens were not available because the Netherlands was not on Russia’s safe country list, and as I write this, it is still not) so we needed to hurry to Paris to apply because it would take about 10 working days to be processed and we wanted to have it before August 1st. We decided to go to the visa center in Paris on Monday 12th of July and since we had one extra day left, we went back via Vienna. We landed in Wiener Neustadt (LOAN, smaller airport about 1 hour from the city), booked an apartment in an old building in the center and spent the day walking around with the GPSmycity App. In front of St Stephen's cathedral, we saw signs for a concert that same night and bought tickets. Spontaneous decision which almost made us feel Viennese.
Bye bye Mali Losinj!
The National Library in the Neue Burg
St Stephen's cathedral concert
Cool Traffic lights in Vienna also
And of course : Sachertorte
Our visit to the Austrian capital was short but intense and we landed in St Cyr l’école, Alex’s old Parisian base where he passed his French license in 2005, on Sunday July 11th for our last 2 weeks in France before the next big crossing: Russia.
In those two weeks, my visa was processed, I had a small operation in Laval and we spent the last week of July in a beautiful Airbnb in Loire Atlantique. It was supposed to be a whole-family vacation but due to Covid related entry restrictions in Argentina, Carmen’s return flight was cancelled. It was announced suddenly that, due to the “Delta variant”, they would only let 600 people into the country per day. Many Argentines abroad got stranded and had no idea when they would be able to go home, rumors of 5-month delays were circulating, so these were really not good circumstances for Carmen to travel.to get. In addition, Argentina was also on the “red list” in France so all in all it got too complicated. We are hoping we can get the six of us together in 2022!
But first: We go to Russia.