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Trip Report Mom & daughter travel Croatia & Slovenia

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After months of thinking about it and additional months of planning, my 30 year old daughter and I embarked on our three week adventure through Slovenia & Croatia in September 2014. This report is a thank you offering back to the Fodor’s community and all those who dispensed advice along the way. It was an amazing trip and I feel obligated to share the insights we gained so others will be motivated to visit these two incredibly wonderful countries. Not many Americans have discovered Slovenia and Croatia yet so hurry and pack your bags before it becomes over run with too many tourists!

I apologize ahead of time for the length of this report. For some it may be useful…for some, your eyes will glaze over so I have included a Reader’s Digest itinerary up front that you can preview to see if this trip applies to you. Daughter and I have traveled together before but both agreed this was our best trip yet. We left Slovenia and Croatia feeling we managed to experience much of what these countries have to offer and there was little we would have opted to do differently.

Flight from Miami to Frankfurt to Ljubljana
2 nights in Ljubljana
1 night in Lake Bled
Drive thru Julian Alps
3 nights in Landol (Karst region)
Predjama Castle, Skocjan Caves & wine tasting
Portoroz – bus to Rovinj
1 night Rovinj
Drive across Croatia to Plitvice with a stop in Motovun
2 nights Plitvice Lakes
Drive south to Dalmatian with a stop in Sibenik
2 nights Trogir – day trip to Split
Organized bike trip
3 nights Brac
3 nights Hvar
3 nights Dubrovnik
Flight from Dubrovnik to Frankfurt to Miami

Daughter and I flew into Ljubljana – it was difficult finding convenient flights and all were more expensive than I thought they should be, but eventually after months of scouring the internet for “deals” we sucked it up and booked. We decided convenience was more important to us than price. Ljubljana is a beautiful city – even in the rain, which provided its fair share during our two days there. We were able to dodge most of the raindrops and did not allow them to spoil the charm, perhaps because Ljubljana is smaller than most European capital cities and very walkable. We stayed in a quiet, comfortable apartment close to the old town and within walking distance to everything. I highly recommend the free walking tour to get an appreciation for the history, architecture and culture. We walked up to the castle and enjoyed the views over the city and roamed the market, even stopping to dispense unpasteurized milk from a vending machine for my mandatory morning cup of tea! Two days were enough to explore, appreciate the atmosphere, recover from jet lag and left us ready to move on.

We decided it would be easy enough to walk (with luggage) to the bus station where we picked up the rental car. Armed with an old fashioned, paper map (I’m old school – what can I say?) and GPS(but open to technology when it works!) on the phone, we drove out of town toward Lake Bled. I was nervous about the car rental and purposely planned the trip to avoid as much city driving as possible. Roads were excellent and after only one slight panic when I couldn’t remember how to put a manual transmission car into reverse (it had been a while, but hey, it’s like riding a bike…), we did just fine. Lake Bled brought sunny weather so after checking into our farmhouse sobe, we took bikes and rode around Lake Bled, stopped for lunch (including consuming some of the famous cream cake dessert for daughter - not for me as I am gluten-free), climbed the hill to the castle (seems every town has one) and then biked the additional distance to Vintgar Gorge. The gorge is spectacular – not to be missed! Imagine a rushing river – clear, cold and with an amazing color cutting through a limestone gorge. There are wooden walkways along the sides of the gorge and bridges that cross it so you get an up close and personal experience with the river. I think it is about 3 km up and back along the walkway and by now we had used up all the sunshine for the day and it began to rain. This meant we had to cycle back to our farmhouse in the rain. It had been a full day and provided an excellent introduction for these flat land Florida girls of what it means to cycle up hills. We were soggy and tired, but exhilarated by our experiences despite the rain.

Next morning we enjoyed a hearty farmhouse breakfast with food produced right on the farm. Daughter told me the bread was delicious and though I was jealous, there were plenty of yummy non-gluten items for me to select. Weather was overcast, but we took solace that there was no rain. We headed into the Julian Alps, following Rick Steve’s tour with the 50 hairpin turns. I was concerned it would be harrowing but it wasn’t. Don’t be scared away from attempting it! Temperatures were chilly for us Florida girls, and unfortunately the overcast skies did not permit the spectacular views we anticipated. Still, since we are used to incredibly flat terrain, the scenery and the drive was lovely. We stopped several times for the scenic overlooks, to enjoy the bracing mountain air and jump on rickety suspension bridges that cross the Soca River. The water color was the strangest, milky, aquamarine blue. We also made a sobering stop in Korbid for the World War I Museum. After having driven the mountainous roads, we appreciated how devastating the battles must have been in that area. Can’t imagine what it was like to fight your way up and down in the cold and snow. - so much blood shed, for so little gain. We couldn’t tarry long as we were due to spend the night in Landol, a tiny (tiny) village in the Karst region. I wanted to arrive before dark, besides dinner was waiting for us! Finding Landol was a little tricky as it was too small to be on our printed map – thanks heavens for that GPS and a daughter who could operate it properly! After another packed day, we were ready to crawl into bed early. Being in a small, country village was wonderfully quiet and so restful!

We awoke to sunny skies and were determined not to waste a moment of the good weather. After a big breakfast, we walked through the village and the woods until the Predjama Castle popped into view. It was only about a 40 minute walk through a lovely country track and such fun to approach the castle from the woods instead of from the paved road packed with tour buses. It is one of the most photographed castles in Slovenia as it is tucked into a cave opening. It has an entertaining history (well for us, not for poor Erasmus) as the owner met his demise from a cannon ball while sitting on the toilet! It makes you want to visit just to get the rest of the story! After our walk, we got the car and drove about half an hour to the Skocjan Caves. I have seen caves before but never like this! Skocjan boasts it is one of the deepest & widest in Europe and there is a huge river rushing through the depths. Truly spectacular! We opted to hike out of the cave (instead of taking the funicular) and enjoyed the sun and the scenery. Would have loved to dawdle, but couldn’t as we were booked for a private wine tour with Sveti Martin. Again, thank you GPS! I wasn’t challenged by the Julian Alps drive but finding this winery atop of the mountain ridge on a one track road with switchbacks, made my hair stand on end! I was terrified I would meet someone coming down in the opposite direction. Manual transmission was an absolute must for this adventure! The wine tasting was delicious and informative and of course, we had to buy a couple of bottles. I did think it prudent for me to walk about the village a bit after all that wine tasting before attempting the drive back down the mountain. We hiked up to the country church perched at the very top of the hill and enjoyed the spectacular views before driving back to our lodge. Once again we collapsed into bed exhausted.

All the adventure was beginning to catch up to us and with the quiet of the lodge, we slept in a bit and got a later start. We thought we would take things easier today and aim for a leisurely lunch in Vipava. It was Saturday & not much was happening but we enjoyed walking about the small town, visited the cemetery where there two 25th century BC sarcophagi are just sitting outside for all to see and touch. Seems Vipava was the home town of an Austrian counsel to Egypt and he decided to relocate the bones of the original occupants and use their sarcophagi to host his relatives instead. We also hiked to the top of another hill to another castle (as I said every town seems to have one) and had the castle and the views all to ourselves. One of the things we loved about this trip- it was so easy to get off the beaten track to enjoy the surprises of travel. After all that walking, we were ready for lunch but our plans for a leisurely lunch fell through when the two restaurants we picked out were closed or fully booked (lesson learned book ahead for popular restaurants even in the middle of nowhere). We ended up in a pizzeria in Postojna (a fairly boring town but useful for travel support i.e. grocery stores & ATM’s). In Slovenia, pizzerias are regular restaurants and serve a variety of dishes including typical Slovenian fare. It was a delicious and relaxing meal and after cramming so many activities into the previous days, it was nice to kick back a bit.

On to Croatia…
I wanted to avoid the high fees charged to drop a car off in another country so after considerable research and multiple suggestions from the Fodor’s forums, we decided we would drive from Landol to Portoroz and return the rental car in Slovenia. We caught a bus from Portoroz to Rovinj, Croatia where we picked up another rental car a day later. It worked perfectly and saved a lot. The drive to Portoroz was easy – finding the rental car office a slight challenge but the town is not that big and the rental office and the bus station were close to each other. We had enough time to sit and enjoy a coffee and soak up the seaside atmosphere. Bought our tickets on the bus; it was comfortable and the border crossing a breeze – just remember to keep your passport on your person and not in the luggage stored beneath the bus. An hour and a half later, we were in Rovinj and walking from the bus station to our next accommodation in the old town. After dropping off our luggage at the room, we were off to explore this picturesque town built on a hill and surrounded by water. The weather was gorgeous – after enduring overcast and rain, we truly appreciated the sun. We enjoyed the old town, climbed the hill to the church and up the bell tower for more spectacular views. Be warned the steps up are wooden & the ricketiest I’ve ever seen. You don’t really need activities in Rovinj - just soak up the atmosphere which can be done best in a waterside café with a glass of wine at sunset listening to music coming from the open square.

Next day, we picked up the new rental car with Plitvice Lakes as our destination for the evening. That left quite a bit of ground to cover before nightfall, but thought we could squeeze in a lunch stop at one of the Istrian hill towns, Motovun, another picturesque town with more hills to climb up , more churches on a hill and more terrific views. It’s also more touristy than we prefer and you have to dodge tour groups, but definitely worth a visit and a fabulous place for lunch, soaking up the sun with a view. Driving from Istria across Croatia was mostly boring, but the highways s are excellent and provide the opportunity to see additional countryside, drive over incredible bridges balanced miraculously between mountains and go through multiple tunnels carved smack through the center of mountains. Plitvice Lakes and the towns that support them are definitely off the beaten track. Finding our sobe required the GPS and took us down roads that I am pretty sure were just paved cow trails. Using the blind faith that technology provides, we ended up at our accommodation and before dark. This national park is visited by millions each year and I was astonished that with all the hordes beating a way to its door, it was still an adventure to get there. Finding a comfortable place to stay and finding a good restaurant was more frustrating than you would expect considering the location’s popularity. Perhaps the lack of amenities is a blessing as then the crowds would be worse. Our rooms were adequate but out of the 3 week trip, these were the only ones that I would not go back to. The nearby restaurant also was not on our repeat list, but the visit to the park, falls into the NOT TO BE MISSED category. I understand from the locals (in both countries) the weather for the summer of 2014 has been dreadful – constant rain (which prompted discussions on global warming and how the United States is ultimately responsible for the world’s bad weather…) but daughter and I were smiled upon from above and provided with perfect weather for seeing the lakes and waterfalls. We followed Rick Steve’s recommendation for touring the park and would add that it would be important to attempt to see the major waterfalls in the morning light. Start early as possible and try to find walking routes that avoid the tour groups. Being slightly adventurous, we trudged just about every path in the whole park including several submerged in icy cold water. First, we attempted to keep our shoes dry but eventually gave up and accepted soggy feet. I kicked myself for not bringing the water shoes left in our luggage which would have been ideal. We easily spent eight hours and walked countless miles. Despite all the people, it is possible to find yourself alone on the paths and be amazed at this special place on Earth. If you ever find yourself in Croatia, do not leave without visiting Plitvice Lakes and hurry before the crowds ruin it.

We awoke the next morning to more rain but felt truly blessed that we had been given the previous glorious day to appreciate the beauty of Plitvice. We pointed the car toward Dalmatia and aimed to make Sibenik by lunch. What another charming surprise! It was not a planned stop but it was nearing lunch and it was not out of the way on our route to the Split airport to deposit the rental car. It is another gorgeous, well preserved medieval town with a rabbit warren of streets, churches and a yet another castle with spectacular views. I am not doing these towns justice in the description as each one has unique qualities worthy of a visit. We finally got our leisurely lunch with multiple glasses of wine in a wonderful restaurant overlooking St. James Cathedral. If you go, be sure and check out the embarrassed statues of Adam & Eve. We could have happily spent more time but needed to get the rental car turned in and find our way by bus to Trogir. Again, all the details worked perfectly…the Split airport is outside the city and there is a city bus that goes directly from the airport into Trogir. One look at the traffic in Trogir made me grateful to have already deposited the rental car. Now finding our rooms, a bit trickier although I was armed with instructions and the old adage “it’s easy to find”. Eventually after asking 3 different sets of locals (fortunately everyone in both Slovenia and Croatia speaks wonderful English), we figured out it was behind an unmarked entrance. Not sure how they thought we would know the location… Still the rooms were comfortable and we spent the rest of the day walking about the old town of Trogir. The narrow streets were packed with visitors, aimless licking gelato, and we were obviously spoiled by having visited so many uncrowded, charming towns that Trogir did not make it to our favorite list. However, we needed to be there to join with our organized bike tour. We spent the next day touring Split (rode the city bus from Trogir to the Diocletian Palace in Split). Split, while worth a visit if you are nearby, was our least favorite spot. It is a big city and a transportation hub. The Diocletian Palace, while historically interesting, is jam-packed with tourists and difficult to get an understanding what we were looking at. We reviewed the travel book descriptions but still didn’t an appreciation for the complex. Think we would have benefited from a paid tour guide, but the crowds made us want to retreat back to Trogir instead. The rain set in (again) and we settled for nice dinner and an early evening.

Biker Babes…Daughter and I, while reasonably fit, are not big time biking enthusiasts. We are casual weekend bike riders and refuse to acquire the seemingly mandatory biking outfit. We live in Florida where the only hills are created by bridges going over the river, but the biking brochures depicting cycling through the Dalmatian Islands looked so spectacular that we decided to include a tour as part of this trip and hoped we would be up to the challenge of “moderately rated”. I confess, I was also looking forward to having someone else worry about the travel logistics for a while. We met up with our group of 16 fellow bikers and traveled by ferry to the island of Brac. We were based in the town of Postira and spent the next 3 nights on this stunning island with bike rides to different villages. I cannot do justice in describing the incredible beauty of this island. Seeing it from the seat of a bicycle was breathtaking. Walking is too slow and you cannot adequately absorb the scenery from the window of a car. Around every turn was an amazing vista, a rocky coastline, colors of the sea that change and sparkle with the sun, quaint harbor villages and a good number of challenging hills (mountains) to conquer. Being an independent traveler, I was concerned I would hate the “tour” part of the bike trip, but after receiving our written instructions, we were set loose to bike at our own pace. I frequently found myself alone on a mountain road with only the spectacular scenery surrounding me. All the roads were paved and with few cars on the road, it was tranquil and awe inspiring. Brac was our favorite place of the whole vacation.

From Brac, we took a small boat to the neighboring island, Hvar. Since the town of Hvar has the reputation of a party mecca, I was apprehensive I would not like it. Perhaps because September is shoulder season or because there were no cruise ships disgorging onto its streets, it was not unpleasantly crowded and I enjoyed our 3 days/nights very much. Hvar has an upscale, cosmopolitan feel, different from the quaint provincial feel of Brac. Hvar is a bigger town than most we cycled through and boasts multiple churches and a more complex rabbit warren of streets and alleys to explore. Their castle is impressively positioned on top of the hill and has a storybook looking medieval wall surrounding the town. The island itself is lovely but not as hilly as Brac, and in my opinion did not provide the drop dead gorgeous views I had come to expect. The bike riding was enjoyable and by now I was feeling pretty proud of my senior legs for keeping up with the 25+ miles per day. It’s not often you return from vacation in better shape than when you started! Not sure I am completely sold on traveling with a tour as I value the independence of making my own travel path, but I did recognize that without being part of a group, I would have never had the opportunity to immerse in the Croatian culture or been brave enough to cycle the back roads of Dalmatia.

From Hvar, we took a high speed catamaran to Dubrovnik. The boat left directly from the pier at Hvar; it couldn’t have been easier. We walked with luggage and grabbed a seat. When we booked, I had images of a scenic cruise through the Dalmatian Islands, but it quickly became apparent that it was simply transportation (think a bus on water). But the convenience was perfect and 4 hours later we were deposited in Port Gruz, in the heart of Dubrovnik. The catamaran saved multiple travel hours as otherwise we would have journeyed back to Split and caught a 4 hour bus ride south. Arriving in the bustle of Dubrovnik was a bit of a shock after the tranquility of the islands, so we splurged and took a taxi to our rooms. It wasn’t far from the port to our room but it was not walking distance and again mysterious to find. The rooms were conveniently located above the Old Town. I opted to splurge for the last days of our holiday with a balcony and a view – it was so worth it! This area of town was connected to the rest of Dubrovnik through the rabbit warren of alleys and steps we have come to understand. You just point yourself in the general direction you want to go and wind your way until you pop out at your destination. Dubrovnik is a fabulous city with a rich history and made especially poignant if you take the time to learn about the recent war. The museum at the top of Mount Srg is worth your time (and the view can be spectacular too depending on the weather). We found it disturbing that so many tourists seemed to be mindlessly licking gelato oblivious to the devastation that occurred in the very streets they were walking. Old Town can be crowded so you have to select when to walk the wall, stroll the rabbit warren and book ahead for the popular restaurants. Game of Thrones fans will be excited by familiar buildings used in the filming of the show and of course, sunset at the Buza Bar is a must. The last three days of vacation passed happily despite more rain and we flew home to Miami from the Dubrovnik airport (via Frankfurt).

Both Daughter and I agreed it was a fabulous trip – our best yet. We came up with a few travel tips that future adventurers might find helpful. Please don’t think of these comments as complaints, just amusement that broadened our travel perspective.
• If you rent a car, GPS is a must – be aware that it may take you down roads the average American would describe as a driveway.
• It would be best if you rent a car to get a manual transmission. They are cheaper and believe me, when on curvy mountain roads, they are mandatory!
• Don’t expect top sheets on the bed…you’ll be covered by lovely duvets but no top sheet. Don’t expect soap to be provided, and there is only enough hot water for one American woman to shower and wash her hair.
• Be prepared for hundreds of stairs! Pack as lightly as possible and backpacks are best. Whatever you luggage you take make sure you can manage it yourself and can lift it up several flights of stairs.
• Don’t worry if you have food allergies – both countries accommodated my gluten-free restriction without a problem. Grocery stores carry products and restaurants have readily available options to select on the menu. I did carry a written translation of my gluten-free request and showed it prior to ordering a meal and never had a problem.
• There are lots of church bells. They sound lovely during the day… not so much at night. Some towns must silence the bells in the night but not others….couldn’t figure out the rhyme or reason but I was not pleased to be awakened at 5 AM by the quaint church bells peeling endlessly.
• Bring lots of extra camera batteries. You will take hundreds of pictures. This place is gorgeous!
• Big cities are interesting and have much to offer, but the charm is in the countryside. Get away from the tourist highlights and explore. You won’t be sorry.
• Congratulations if you made it this far in this epistle. It must mean you are really interested in going to Slovenia and/or Croatia. If you are thinking about it, go now! With Croatia entering the EU, they are on the cusp of being inundated with American tourists. Hurry and see these special places before they become the new hot destination from the US. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it will spoil these countries, but it will change the experience.

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