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Trip Report Fall 2015 Balkans Trip Report - Mostly Croatia & Slovenia

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My wife and I are around 60 years old and have been planning and taking independent trips for about the last 30 years.

This was our first ever trip to Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia. In addition, we also took day trips to nearby parts of Italy and Austria. While we had been to those countries before, we had not been to the areas we'd hit on this visit. Our travel scheme is pretty well established at this point…we always pick a couple of bases and make day trips from them.

In this Fall 2015 trip our 1st base was Dubrovnik, Croatia. We arrived at the Dubrovnik airport after a full day of travel from New York and picked up our rental car for the short drive to the city. The focal point of Dubrovnik is the small old walled city which is pedestrian only. While it doesn’t make sense to rent a car if you’re only going to be hanging around Dubrovnik, we rented one because we intended to take day trips and we like the independence of having a car. Parking anywhere close to the walled section of the city is about 20 to 40 Croatian Kuna per hour (about $3 to $7 per hour) depending on the lot where you park. If your car is going to sit for at least 12 hours, you want to park in the city parking garage and request a day pass from the attendant. The garage is 20 Kuna per hour or 240 kuna for a 24 hour day pass. The garage is a 15 minute walk from old town. You can take a path which is a steep grade or an alternate that has various sets of steps, about 200 in total. There are 3 entry points into the old walled city, the Pile gate, Ploce gate and Buza gate. We always seem to find out the hard way what is the worst way to enter loaded down with luggage and that would be the Buza gate which is at the top of too many very steep steps. As we later discovered, the Ploce gate has a ramp into the old town center and the main Pile gate is effectively at the level of the old town center.

Dubrovnik is worth at least one visit in your lifetime. Built into a cliff perched on the Adriatic, it is very beautiful and almost Disneyesque in its cleanliness and postcard look. It is really a solely tourist destination. The streets and little passageways are really charming looking but also lined with shops selling t-shirts, fridge magnets and ice cream cones. I’m not going to sit here and tell you my wife and I are not tourists or that we’re any better than any other visitors but if you can’t deal with the sudden influx of crowds that happen in cruise ship destinations, Dubrovnik may not be for you. On any given day, upwards of 8,000 people can arrive essentially all at once. There are websites that will give you the scheduled docking dates and times of cruise ships if you want to work around the crowds. For the most part though, the city is pretty peaceful in the later evening because most of the daytime crowds have left. We stayed in the old town at a neat and clean small hotel named Villa Sigurata. We thought it was a great bargain for the location at about $70/night. We probably wouldn’t visit Dubrovnik again but did very much enjoy our 3 night stay in town.

Our first day trip destination was about a 2 hour drive south to the Montenegro town of Kotor which sits on a fjord. A good bit of our enjoyment of visiting Kotor was the drive to get there. The initial drive along the coast is beautiful as you climb higher on the mountains and get views of Dubrovnik as well as the Adriatic coastline and the blue sea. As you head inland, several parts of the drive are dotted with stands of cypress trees in valleys against the mountain backdrop. Shortly after entering Montenegro the drive goes back to coastline as you drive around the perimeter of the bay toward Kotor. There are several places to pull out along the way and we stopped a few times just to enjoy the vistas. We were lucky for our drive that it was a lovely sunny and calm day as the water of the bay was like a sheet of glass and with the mountain backdrop it was just spectacular. Like Dubrovnik, albeit much smaller, Kotor has a pedestrian only, walled old town and is a cruise ship destination. The most breathtaking views of Kotor are from well above the town. The town can either be wall to wall people or relatively quiet. We enjoyed a bit of both as we got there about an hour before a big ship’s passengers left. We toured around the small streets and passageways for a while and had a bite to eat in the main square before heading back home to our base in Dubrovnik. Back in Dubrovnik we enjoyed a rock concert that night in the main square that was hosted by a local radio station. We didn't understand a word of the songs but had a good time being among the lively crowd.

One of the things we didn’t want to overlook about our visit to the Balkans was the relatively recent history of war along with ethnic and religious strife in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia especially in light of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Dubrovnik had several exhibits related to the war and the people who fought and died to preserve their way of life. It was worthwhile to learn a bit about the history.

Another thing to note is that in Dubrovnik and Kotor there are a large number of stray cats. You will see that obviously residents or others are feeding the cats as they look to be in decent shape. The animals aren't really intrusive but don't be surprised if you're having lunch or dinner at an outdoor cafe and one of them is parked next to your table waiting for something to drop.

Our next day trip was to the city of Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina. It was about a 2 ½ hour drive from Dubrovnik. Unlike the drive to Kotor, the drive to Mostar is inland and through pretty desolate surroundings. For us it looked like several of the areas still had not recovered from the war and also were either experiencing very hard economic times or were abandoned. Several towns or villages along the way had many unfinished or bombed out buildings. Coming to Mostar from Dubrovnik is kind of a shock to the system. The two cities could not have seemed more different in terms of scenery and culture. We drove through parts of the “modern” (for lack of a better term) part of the city before parking the car and heading into the old town area around the famous Stari Most, the old bridge. Other than walking over the bridge and enjoying the interesting view of it along the street on the other side, we could have passed on Mostar. We’re glad we went for the experience but it really just wasn’t a place we would ever consider going again. We just didn’t feel comfortable there and the old town was overrun with schlocky souvenir stands. We were happy to get back to Dubrovnik.

For reference, the border crossings between the countries were uneventful. Show your passport and the car registration and you’re sent on your way. It was that way throughout the whole trip. In the next installment we are on to Split, Croatia, we have a very enjoyable chance encounter with a lovely, adventurous college student from back home in America and we take the train further north.

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