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Trip Report Trip report: 24 days in Croatia, Slovenia and Budapest

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24 days: Croatia & Slovenia with Grand Circle Tours and Budapest independently
May 29 - June 21, 2016

I was hoping this tour with Grand Circle (GCT) would be as good as my GCT tour of Spain and Portugal in 2014. It was, in fact, better. Croatia had been on my radar for several years. This was great timing, too, as GCT is discontinuing this tour as of next year. I booked this trip with my friend Cheryl 13 months in advance; unfortunately Cheryl had to cancel as time grew close due to illness. We would be visiting: Dubrovnik, Split, Opatija and Zagreb in Croatia; Kotor in Montenegro; Lake Bled and Ljubljana in Slovenia; and Mostar in Herzegovina. We added the three night post-extension for Zagreb for the sole purpose of a day's outing to Plitvice Lakes National Park.

It was a small group of 24 on the tour--just the right size group to spend time with just about everyone. As GCT encourages singles by waiving the single supplement, I had plenty of companionship on both tours. Although the destinations were the reason I took this trip, the people on the tour made the trip memorable.

Cheryl and I were to have our own rooms on the tour. The only change to the original plan involved Dubrovnik where we planned to share a room for two nights preceeding the tour, staying at the same hotel as the tour group, the Valamar Lacroma. To save $450, I cashed in 8,000 Starwood points for two free nights at their new hotel, the Sheraton Riviera.

I left LAX on Sunday afternoon and arrived in Dubrovnik early evening on Monday. I had hired someone to drive me the two hours from my home to the airport. I'm glad I had the good sense to reserve Sheraton's car service for pick up at the airport (about $30). Being tired from the flights I wandered a bit to check out the hotel, ordered room service for dinner and went to bed early.

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    TUESDAY
    No jet lag for me! I was up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus from the hotel to Old Town Dubrovnik to "walk the wall." There is a bus stop just down the street from the hotel, but I didn't know where to exit the bus. A young couple said they would let me know when it was time to exit, but that idea was only good in theory. I missed my stop and had a lengthy walk back to where I needed to be. It turned out to be a good thing as I had a nice walk where I could see the water and my timing was perfect to reach the ticket window for wall entrance at exactly 9am when they opened. There must have been at least 150 stairs to reach the ramparts. "Okay, take it slowly," I told myself. Good timing again as there were few people walking the wall so early in the morning--later it was crowded. The views were beautiful, the weather was perfect, and I was one happy lady!

    After my enjoyable walk around the wall, it was time to wander through the Old Town, stopping into some of the shops and just enjoying the fact that I was there. All I had for breakfast was a protein bar so I was quite hungry by lunchtime and stopped by the Old Port for fried calamari. No photos, I'm afraid. I just gobbled it up. It was very good.

    I decided to find the cable cars for more great views of the city. Well, I found them, but I had to walk up 78 stairs to the ticket counter (yes, I counted the stairs). And the worst part was seeing them pack people into the cars like sardines. Where's the fun in that? How will I get a good photo? So, I skipped it. Something for my to-do list the next time I'm in Dubrovnik.

    Time flys when you're having fun and it was time to head back to the hotel. Even without jet lag, my legs were crying uncle. I should mention that I broke a toe six days before the trip, but I wasn't going to let it stop me. I just taped up that injured digit and kept going. And then, there was Voltaren for my bad ankle. It's amazing I could get around at all. Speaking of Voltaren, I found it everywhere in Croatia at $15 for a 100 gram tube. I thought that was too much. I finally purchased a couple of tubes in Budapest for $9.75.

    As an alternative to taking the bus I was able to take a boat back to the hotel. Slightly more expensive than the bus (about $8 vs. $2) but a much nicer way to travel the distance. I would have done this in the morning, but the first boat departs the hotel at 9am. The boat ride was about 15 minutes and left from the Old Port. There were only a few passengers on the boat and we all exited at the same hotel.

    I was impressed with this 5* Sheraton. It's as nice as the pictures on their website and the service was excellent. It opened only eight months before I stayed there. www.sheratondubrovnikriviera.com.

    The hotel is close to a small shopping mall where I picked up something for dinner and ate in my room. I don't remember what I had but I'm sure it involved pasta. There is an ATM at the hotel, but I used one at the shopping mall. One problem: I got cash, but no printed receipt. There was a bit of nail biting on my part, but it turned out fine.

    I ended my day with a great 90-minute, hot stone massage at the hotel's spa ($60) and, oh, how I needed it.

    WEDNESDAY
    Overcast with drizzle. A good reason to read in bed for a while. After a late buffet breakfast at the hotel (about $25 and worth it) I checked out of the Sheraton at noon having reserved their car for the short ride to the Valamar Lacroma ($25) where I would join my tour.

    The Valamar Lacroma is located on a small, resort peninsula for lack of a better description. For a hotel catering to tour groups as well as vacationers, it was better than I expected. We had beach privileges at its sister property next door. I went over there once and spent some time sending emails.

    Once at Valamar Lacroma's front desk I requested and received a quiet room. In fact, all my hotels were quiet. I took time to unpack as we stayed here four nights, wandered around the sprawling hotel and booked a chocolate massage at the hotel's spa. Sounds luscious, doesn't it? I thought it was terrible. To me, the smell was such that I couldn't wait to get back to my room to shower. They use white chocolate that did not look or smell like any chocolate I've ever known. Enough said about that.

    In the early evening we gathered for introductions and to meet Tena, our program director. Following that we went to a GCT group buffet dinner at the hotel. There were so many stations that it was difficult to see everything they offered and it was all good.

    With the exception of the Sheraton, all hotels included a buffet breakfast. The Valamar Lacroma provided an extensive buffet, including a large platter of honeycomb and many made-to-order dishes. One thing I noticed at all the hotels: no one checks to make sure you're at guest at the hotel. You just walk in and have breakfast. No one is at the door to ask your room number. I guess they figure if you're there you belong there.

    This is a long trip report. Please be patient with me as this is a journal for my own record. Will report more tomorrow. I hope this helps someone planning a trip to this part of the world.

    Diane

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    THURSDAY
    During our morning orientation someone mentioned that a small group would be taking a 15-minute ferry ride to Lokrum Island while the main group would take a walking tour of the Old Town. As I took a tour of Old Town the year prior while on a cruise, I was delighted to join in for Lokrum Island. It was a pretty day and this gave me a chance to meet some of the folks in a small group setting. Lokrum Island is great for nature walks. We spent time walking, observing the peacocks, peahens and their offspring, and having lunch at an outdoor cafe where the fowl were friendly and seemed to know they would get some of our lunches. While walking around the island we stumbled upon a nude beach. The men in our group found this interesting as there was a woman wearing only a hat. Once back in Old Town we wandered a bit and stopped for a beverage at an outdoor cafe. One of the things I like about Grand Circle is that they build in time for us to explore on our own.

    GCT always includes a home-hosted meal. For dinner we were bused about 20 minutes from the hotel to a small farming village where we were broken into three groups of eight and off we went to our hosts' homes. We were guided into two outbuildings where the mother of the family showed us how she continues to cook in one of their 300-year-old outbuildings just as they have for generations. In another building we were offered samples of the liqueurs they make and sell at the market in Old Town. My favorite was the walnut liqueur. We dined in the main house where Mom prepared the meal using only products from the farm: salad, sliced procuitto, cheeses and bread, followed by grilled pork and chicken with potatoes, ending with flan. I sat next to the family's young daughter during the meal. She spoke perfect English and explained that children in Croatia start learning English in the first grade. She is also learning Italian. Between Mom and Daughter we learned a lot about what life was like for them before, during and after the war. Following dinner, Dad played a tune for us on a typical Croatian string instrument. For me, the evening was one of the highlights of our time in Croatia.

    FRIDAY
    There were some optional excursions offered during our two weeks and today they offered one to Kotor, Montenegro, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bus ride was about two hours including a short stop at the border--the first of many border stops. It was good that we were a small group as we did not miss an opportunity to use a restroom and the lines to the ladies' rooms would have been longer if we'd had a full bus. There was one time on this trip when I was presented with a long line to use the facilities--I was traveling alone at that point in Budapest. There was a man collecting coins for the privilege. He announced that the men's room was available if any of the ladies wanted to use it. I was the only taker and was surprised to see there was a man using the urinal. I diverted my eyes, but I don't think he cared one way or the other. Matter of fact, neither did I. Ah, the benefits of growing older.

    Back to Montenegro, we entered the Old Town and met our local guide who was very pleasing to the eyes. I think every woman on the tour took out her camera at the same moment. I'm not joking. Other than being eye candy, he was a great guide giving history in an informative and entertaining manner. We walked through part of the town where I saw a kitchen magnet I wanted but couldn't stop to shop...I must stay with the group as we moved on. We spent some time in the Maritime Museum learning about Montenegro's interesting history. As we left the museum it started to rain lightly. By the time we were seated at our restaurant it was raining hard. The restaurant was covered with open sides. At some point, the heavy rain found its way through the overhead covering. People jockeyed to the right or left or changed tables to avoid the dripping water. I am pleased to say that everyone took it in good humor. It was a great group of people with whom to travel. The rain let up as we finished lunch but we cut our free time short and headed back to the bus. How fortunate for me that the Maritime Museum had the same kitchen magnet I wanted to buy. I bought a total of ten kitchen magnets on this trip. I started collecting 20 years ago.

    Once back in Dubrovnik I visited the Synagogue and Museum with Greg, one of the tour participants. The small Synagogue is the oldest Sefardic synagague still in use today and the second oldest synagogue in Europe. Afterwards we had pizza at Tutto Bene with Annie. From there we three spent time in the Old Town until my broken toe said "that's enough," and I headed back to the hotel on my own. Greg and Annie stayed to see the town lit up at night--something I am sorry to have missed.

    SATURDAY
    This was a free day to explore the Old Town. GCT offered an optional excursion that included an evening boat ride and dinner at a beachside restaurant. I did not take this excursion. Instead I went to dinner at Azur in the Old Town with Mike and Mary. The restaurant took a while to find but was worth the effort. I read about it on Tripadvisor. We all ordered seafood in a curry coconut broth and rice noodles. It was exceptional and reasonably priced. Everyone who went on the optional excursion said it was a wonderful evening.

    In the working chapter of my life I was a meeting planner and accustomed to being in control under certain circumstances. I was big on security and most likely drove some hotels crazy with my requirements on how they needed to handle security issues. So, now I'm in Croatia and I am (happily) not in charge. I had to work hard to maintain my "when in Rome" attitude when the following happened: I wanted to contact someone on the tour by telephone but did not know his room number or what to dial on the phone. I had the list of participants and took it to the front desk. Mind you, this is a large hotel. "What do I dial to reach the hotel operator?" All I got was a blank stare. I explained that I wanted to reach another hotel guest. "Just dial 8 and the room number," I was told by the person at the front desk. "I don't know the room number. How do I reach the hotel operator?" I replied. "We don't have a hotel operator," he said. It was my turn for a blank stare. I responded, "How do I reach another guest?" (Wait for it.) "Dial 8 and the room number." "But I don't know the room number." This was becoming an Abbott and Costello routine. We were clearly at an impass. Finally, he gives me the room number. So much for hotel security.

    SUNDAY
    A long day on the bus as we traveled to our next hotel in Split, stopping for a guided city tour and lunch at Restoran Sadrvan in Mostar, Herzegovina. I wish I could attach some of my photos as Mostar is so photogenic. We walked across the Old Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was destroyed in 1993 and rebuilt in 2004. Mostar was heavily bombed during the war and there are many reminders of that fact still today. We were told that the unemployment rate is about 50%. It is clear that tourism plays a large part in this city's attempt to rebuild itself. After lunch we were given some time to wander on our own. While wandering we heard thunder, but we were fortunate that the rain held off until we were back on the bus. We heard later that Mostar was heavily flooded from that rain. At the time of this writing, Sadrvan is ranked #2 of 95 restaurants in Mostar on Tripadvisor. The city seems so small; it's hard to believe they have 95 restaurants.

    In late afternoon we checked into the Hotel President Solin in Split, Croatia. Split was one of my favorite stops and the hotel was also one of my favorites. We had a GCT group dinner at the hotel. Everyone was excited about this lovely property. In many of our hotels we had to figure out how to operate simple things in our rooms like lights, A/C, showers, and now doors. It took some time to figure out how to open the convoluted balcony door. It's simple things like this that I find interesting as I travel. That reminds me about one of the hotels (I can't remember which one) that has an electronic do-not-disturb button. I just couldn't figure out how to keep that light lit when I removed my key card from the slot by the door. By removing the key card the lights and A/C go off, and so did the do-not-disturb light. On the last day I found the do-not-disturb card to hang on the outside of my door.

    MONDAY
    After breakfast we set off to tour Split's old city and the Roman Palace of Diocletian, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in AD 305 by the Emperor Diocletian to enjoy his retirement. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed listening to our local guide as I took many photographs. Touristy, yes, but full of history (along with shopping, cafes, ice cream, etc.) We toured Diocletian's Cellers, Peristyle Square (the center of the Palace where we watched a brief show with people dressed in Roman attire), the Entry Vestibule where we were treated to traditional Dalmatian singing, the Cathedral of St. Domnius, and Jupiter's Temple. Aftwards it was enjoyable walking with Greg along the waterfront promenade, strolling through the side streets, and stopping at the outdoor market. I think it was on day one of this trip that I started eating ice cream on a daily basis and, when I could get it, I ordered "extra black," a truly dark chocolate. Today's lunch consisted of a double scoop of "extra black" and strawberries picked up at the market. I suppose one day in Split was enough, but I would have liked one more day here.

    We were on our own for dinner and a group of maybe twelve of us went to Konoba Grisole's, a restaurant recommended by Tena. It was within walking distance of our hotel; we were staying in Solin that neighbors Split proper. Great recommendation. I ordered gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce along with an order of cevapcici (a sausage dish) to share and a side of grilled veggies. We have a local restaurant serving homemade cevapcici where I live and I wanted those in the group to try it. At the time of my writing, Grisole's is ranked #1 of 7 restaurants in Solin on Tripadvisor.

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    Thanks Adelaidean. It only gets better. Wonderful part of the world.

    TUESDAY
    Another long ride on the bus as we traveled to Opatija in Croatia. We stopped briefly in Skradin for the restrooms and pretty views of the sea. We also stopped at Restaurant Martina in Senj where my meal was inedible. This was the only bad meal of the trip.

    Opatija is a pretty seaside destination with a strong Austrian influence in its architecture. A local guide took us for an afternoon walking tour to Park Angiolina and on a portion of the Lungomare, a seaside path that stretches seven miles along the Mediterranean Sea. We stopped by the 15th century Church of St. Jacob and the statue, "Maiden with the Seagull."

    Dinner was a GCT group affair at the Continental Hotel and was buffet style. Both our dinner and breakfasts at this hotel seemed to offer the most traditional cuisine we experienced. There were things on the buffets I didn't recognize and I liked those items I tried.

    The Continental Hotel was nice and decorated in an eclectic style--they even have a chocolate factory/shop in the basement with a complimentary chocolate fountain. In the evenings there was live entertainment in the bar and one evening there was a musical trio & singer in the walkway between our hotel and the next. My assigned room on the third floor wasn't so nice. I referred to it as my "little dungeon" with a low ceiling, one tiny window and worn furniture. I saw some of the rooms assigned to other participants and they were large and attractive. It was just the luck of the draw and a few others from the tour were on the same floor as I was, so I didn't complain. We were there three nights and were rarely in our rooms. The air conditioning worked well, it was quiet and had a great shower.

    Near the hotel was a casino. In fact, there was a casino across from our hotel in Bled and attached to our hotel in Zagreb. I guess I could have helped out their economy, but fought the temptation.

    WEDNESDAY
    We had another free day. Our program director offered a couple of non-GCT options where she handled the arrangements: Trieste in Italy or Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. About six people went to Plitvice Lakes, about a two-and-a-half hour drive away. Some of them were not signed up for the post-extension to Zagreb and some were but wanted to be assured good weather for the walk--they were fortunate with good weather on both visits. This national park is known for its beautiful waterfalls. The walking paths in the park are narrow and one of our participants was intent on taking photographs with his ipad. He backed up a step, lost his footing and over the side he went. Fortunately, he was able to hang on and the guide was able to help him back up. Even the ipad escaped injury.

    Fourteen of us went to Trieste in Italy, about 90-minutes away from Opatija. Our local guide in Trieste was requested at the last minute and it appeared she was not 100% prepared. I don't fault her as she was contacted the night before. We spent a lot of time at St. James Cathedral and the area around it. We were fortunate to be there while young school children were singing in the Cathedral. They were adorable. From there we drove in our mini-van to Piazza Unita d'Italia, the main plaza of the city, and were free to wander for about an hour. Ten of us stopped for lunch and that took up pretty much the allotted time.

    Following lunch we took the short ride to Castello di Miramonte. The castle faces the sea and is surrounded by gardens. Entrance was included in our tour price. Miramonte was commissioned in the second half of the 19th century by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg as a residence for himself and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium.

    In the evening we had a GCT group dinner at the Istranka Restaurant. It was a three-course meal with a choice of a meat or fish entree. It was okay, but not memorable.

    THURSDAY
    Today we were offered an optional excursion to the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia. We first visited Rovinj, a coastal town built on land that was once an island, but is now connected to the mainland by a causeway. Rovinj was one of the most charming spots on our tour. Being so close to Italy, it has a strong Italian influence in its architecture. All roads of the circular city lead up to the 18th century St. Euphemia Church, passing many shops along the way. Several shops had bicycles ladden with flowers parked outside their doors adding to the charm of the town. The open-air market was offering samples of truffles. The town is small, but I would have very much enjoyed another hour or two in Rovinj.

    Our GCT group lunch was at Konoba Stancija Mili, a family farm. I had to rely on my photos to piece together that we had salad, meat with pasta served family-style and a crepe for dessert. It was an enjoyable lunch.

    Onward a short ways to Pula to tour a 23,000-person amphitheater, the sixth-largest of its kind to be preserved in the world. The amphitheater was erected in the 1st century and was primarily used for gladiator fights. Now it is used for tours, concerts, operas, ballets and a film festival. We had a good local guide. She asked Greg to play the role of gladiator. After a few moments he announced that he preferred to be the emperor, so he became Emperor Gregorious and Ray was named Gladiator. Through them our guide brought the arena alive with her stories. We also toured the underground museum.

    Back in Opatija we were on our own for dinner. Some of us followed Tena's recommendation to dine at Roko I (there is also a Roko II) and it was excellent! I had pasta with pesto with a side of grilled vegetables. Definitely worth a second visit, but we checkout tomorrow.

    Please check back as next we move on to Slovenia.
    Diane

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    FRIDAY
    Leaving Croatia we stopped at the Postojna Caves in Slovenia. I was not looking forward to this stop, but it turned out to be interesting and fun. Our group had a reserved time for entrance. We walked up and then down for a bit and then took a short train ride into the extensive caves. A sweater or jacket is recommended as the caves maintain a steady 50 degrees fahrenheit. From the internet: "The caves offer 12 miles of passages, galleries and chambers. Calcite formations, stalactities and stalagmites abound." The caves are thought to be millions of years old. It was hard to take photographs inside the caves due to either darkness or artificial light. Still, we worked at it. Anna and I lingered back from our group intent on getting a few good shots. Another group was catching up with us and the German guide yelled at us to move ahead and not interfer with his group. He actually yelled at us! A bit stunned, we scooted forwarded a bit and went back to our task of taking photos. Following this adventure we had a GCT group lunch at Jamski Dvorec, just outside the cave entrance. It's a large restaurant with multiple rooms. It was a decent meat-and-potatoes meal.

    And now, my favorite part of the entire tour was Lake Bled, Slovenia, where we were to spend four nights at the Hotel Park. We were all assigned lakefront rooms with balconies. My room was directly across from the castle high on the hill where it was lit up at night.

    We arrived late afternoon, and after checking the weather report it appeared this afternoon would be the only time we would see the sun while there. So, Tena arranged a pletna (boat) to pick us up at the hotel for a lake ride with a stop at Bled Island where some of the group toured the 15th century church and bell tower. Legend has it that if you ring a wish bell in the church your wish will come true. I can think of no words to describe the fairytale-like setting before us. I was happy to just roam the grounds.

    No real dinner this evening--just a piece of "kremsnita" (cream cake) at the hotel's Park Cafe. The cake is a speciality of the region. I was unimpressed.

    SATURDAY
    A free day and I took advantage of the pleasant but cloudy weather to walk the 3.5 miles around the lake on my own. I stopped occasionally to take a photograph and gaze at the beautiful scenery. If the clouds would move away the Julian Alps would be in full view. There is a rowing center in Bled and I saw a lot of rowers out. There was some kind of competition going on and I stopped for a while to watch. Lake Bled has hosted a number of rowing championships. About three-quarters of the way I caught up with Greg and Anna, a couple of my new travel buddies, and we finished the walk together stopping numerous times for photographs as we had a bit of sun. By the time we finished it had started to drizzle. Greg and I went for lunch at Pizzeria Gallus, another recommendation by our program director, and it was terrific pizza.

    In the evening there was an optional GCT tour that I did not take. Instead I joined Mary, Hank and another Mary from the tour for dinner at the cozy-yet-elegant Penzion Berc, close to the hotel. Hank and Mary made a reservation and was able to change it to three people, but then I showed up as a fourth. They were not able to accommodate us at one table and split us into two tables of two. The meal started with an amuse bouche, a small, complimentary appetizer of the chef's choice. We both ordered fish entrees. It was a lovely meal with excellent service. www.penzion-berc.si/en.html. At the time of this writing, the restaurant was ranked #1 of 54 restaurants in Bled on Tripadvisor.

    SUNDAY
    I signed up for the optional tour to Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital. I read that many things are closed on Sundays, but I did not find that to be the case. Lots of cafes, shops and the riverside market were open. Families were out strolling, cafes were filled, and there was a liveliness and youthful feel to the city. We had one day here and I could see returning for a stay of several nights. The Ljubljanica River flows through the center of the city. After seeing so many bodies of water with beautiful hues of blue, green and aqua, it was a bit of a surprise to see the river here a murky brown-green. That was unfortunate as the architecture around the city is beautiful. We started by Preseren Square, the main plaza, and took some photos of the Triple Bridge before Greg and I wandered through the town. We stopped at the 18th century Cathedral of St. Nicholas, Dragon Bridge and Butchers' Bridge where there are many love locks attached to the railings. I was glad Greg brought a sandwich to share from our breakfast and that allowed us the opportunity to spend our time seeing as much as we could of the city. We also stopped at Cacao for ice cream. Although we didn't take the funicular up to the castle, I got a great shot of the huge dragon at the base of the bridge with the funicular and castle in the background. It was nice to get to spend most of our day here.

    In the evening we had a GCT group dinner at Restoran Lectar in the nearby town of Radovljica. We began with a brief visit to the Gingerbread Museum where we watched a young woman decorate a gingerbread cookie. We had a private dinner in the basement restaurant where we were served family style. The meal was quite good and they provided entertainment of two people playing accordians. With a little encouragement, Gina, one of the tour participants got up to dance with one of the accordian players. By this time our small group were on friendly terms and there was much enjoyment and laughter throughout the evening.

    MONDAY
    We had an included tour to the small village of Kropa, one of the oldest villages in Slovenia, where we visited the Iron Forging Museum, dating back to the 15th century. Kropa was noted throughout Europe for its iron forging work in past centuries. We were given some time to stroll through this small village before heading back to Lake Bled.

    Five of us had a reservation for lunch at Bled Castle's restaurant. The castle dates back to the middle ages. Our bus driver, Leo, drove us as far up as he could take the bus and we walked up the rest of the way. We were seated outside where we had a fabulous view of the church on the lake. As such, we took a lot of photos. I was not expecting an elegant meal, but that's exactly what we had, again starting with an amuse bouche. I ordered green ravioli with a sausage filling in a horseradish sauce that was one of the best dishes of the trip and artfully presented. We then walked down from the castle to St. Martin's Church. The castle high up and St. Martin's Church below with reflections on the lake made a beautiful photo.

    Our farewell dinner was in the hotel's dining room where said our final farewells to those not continuing on to Zagreb. Before dinner we all gathered on the hotel's lawn for a group photo.

    Next: Zagreb and Plitvice Lakes National Park

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    I think I was adding too much text.

    TUESDAY
    Following breakfast, 14 of us continued on to Zagreb, Croatia, for our post-extension. We stayed at the Westin Hotel for three nights. In the afternoon a local guide took us on a walking tour of the city. As the funicular connecting the upper and lower towns was being repaired, we took a city tram from the main plaza, the Square of Ban Jelacic--it was a busy spot. Taking the tram was great because our program director mentioned that we would be walking up and I wasn't looking forward to that vertical climb. We passed by the 13th century St. Mark's Church, the Dolac daily outdoor market, the Stone Gate--the eastern gate to the medieval town that is now a shrine, where people believe that the painting of the Virgin and Child possesses magical powers.

    Once the tour ended, some of our group visited the Museum of Broken Relationships while Greg and I stopped into the Museum of Naive Art--both in the upper town. The Museum of Naive Art was featured in a Rick Steves video and was one of my priorities for Zagreb. The museum displays works from the 1930s to 1970s by self-taught artists who had no formal training. I bought a kitchen magnet of "Cows Coming Home." There are plenty of museums in Zagreb to appeal to many interests. Walking back we stopped on Tkalciceva Street, a long pedestrian street filled with cafes and restaurants where we ordered beverages and people-watched. From there Greg and I split up and I continued my stroll around the city, stopping for some "extra dark" ice cream. Just as we experienced in Ljubljana, Zagreb is lively and has a youthful atmosphere. The city is not high on the tourist map, and that's a shame as it was a great spot to spend a few days. My only complaint about the city is the amount of graffeti.

    I had a problem at the Westin when I checked in. I was assigned a large, beautiful, corner room with expansive windows, but the air conditioning didn't work. They promised to move me while I was out, but that didn't happen. Now, it was late and there were few options offered and I wound up in an out-of-service room, but the air conditioning was working so I didn't care much. It was too hot to go without. It took so long to work out the room situation that it was too late to go out to dinner. There are no restaurants close by, so I ate in the hotel's dining room. It was a good dinner, so no complaints. I noticed the man at the next table taking photos of his food. That's what I do as a record of where I've been and what I ordered. Through the years I've taken some nice shots and have framed a bunch and they are hanging over my kitchen cabinets as a daily reminder of some of my favorite meals in Europe. This evening I did not have my camera with me, but I think I ordered duck.

    WEDNESDAY
    Today was our much anticipated visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park. It was a long ride on the bus but no one seemed to mind. The hotel promised to move my luggage to an exceptable room and I hoped that actually happened (it did).

    Along the way we stopped at the war-torn town of Turanj to spend a few minutes at the small, outdoor Museum of the Croatian War of Independence that contains a collection of old or destroyed military equipment.

    Made up of 16 lakes that cascade into each other in a series of waterfalls, Plitvice Lakes National Park is a member of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Needless to say, it is beautiful with lush landscape and blue/green water. It is difficult to describe, so I encourage you to do an internet search for photos of this stunning scenery. We arrived as a group and walked as a group. I was challenged sometimes to keep up, but there was no option but to do so. I spent a lot of time looking down to be sure I didn't trip when I really wanted to take my time and concentrate on taking photographs. That's the bad part. The good part is that it was a thoroughly enjoyable day in breathtaking surroundings. We took one of the boats that connects the three piers. It is not easy to get here without a car, but certainly worth it if you have the means and time to take it all in. Best to be here early in the morning or in the late afternoon after the tour groups are gone.

    This evening was our last "on your own" dinner so Greg and I went to yet another restaurant recommended by our program director: Boban Restaurant, on a side street from the main square. It was another excellent recommendation. We walked towards the back of the restaurant to find a dining area in an open-air atrium. We both ordered tagliatelli with veal. It was a nice way to end a great day. At the time of this writing, Boban is ranked #17 of 602 restaurants in Zagreb on Tripadvisor.

    THURSDAY
    GCT offered an optional excursion, but without takers it was canceled. We had another free day. Tena invited us to join her on an unscheduled visit to Mirogoj Cemetery, some of the building going back to the 19th century. I had envisioned something along the lines of Pere Lachaise in Paris, but it not really. The cemetery was okay, but Tena's commentary made it worthwhile.

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    TO BUDAPEST

    Originally, Cheryl's brother was to meet us in Zagreb and go with us by train to Budapest. I was not excited about taking a six+ hour train ride, and taxis in Zagreb and Budapest, especially with my 25" suitcase and carry-on. I usually travel with one small suitcase, but my luggage seems to grow the older I get. I didn't fill my bag to start, but added some bubblewrap and then used the bubblewrap for purchases. I digress. Prior to the trip I heard about rome2rio.com, a website that gives options to get from point A to point B. Through this website I learned about a shared van service. We had already purchased our train tickets, but I contacted Euro Busways (eurobusways.com) and reserved a door-to-door pickup for 80 euros. I kept the train ticket as my backup. I walked from the Westin to the train station the day before just to check it out in case I needed to fall back on Plan B. The van was picking me up at 9am and the train was departing at 10:05am. A short window of time if things didn't go according to plan. Tena called Euroways for me on her cellphone to confirm my pickup. That was nice of her as they are based in another country. I strolled through the Botanical Garden on my way back to the hotel from the train station.

    We again had a farewell dinner at the hotel and I was truly sorry to say goodbye to my new friends.

    FRIDAY
    I was now on my own to travel to Budapest. At 9am there was no sign of the van and I was a bit nervous--no, not a bit; I was very nervous. I was able to reach Euroways via email to learn that the driver was on his way but was stuck in traffic. Okay, I can handle that, but Plan B just went out the window. The driver arrived at 9:40am. As it turns out, I was the only passenger for the four-hour ride to my next hotel. He did not speak English and it wasn't a problem. We made one potty stop. I read a book and played games on my Nook and occasionally looked at the scenery.

    As you can tell, I'm a big fan of Tripadvisor. I found Hotel Palazzo Zichy (http://www.hotel-palazzo-zichy.hu) on the site and we booked almost a year in advance. The price was affordable so I reserved my own room for four nights. Wonderful hotel, great service, very comfortable/quiet room, excellent breakfast. The sleeping rooms come with blue-ray players with videos available in a room off the lobby. This is a hotel that is definitely trying hard to be the best it can be. I needed someone to come up and show me how to operate the shower in my room. The woman who came to show me how to work the knobs/handles commented, "It's Italian!" like that would explain in a nutshell why it was so complicated.

    I'm torn about the hotel's location. It was not near tourist sites although the hotel is close to public transportation--tram, bus, metro. I bought a three-day transit pass and that worked out well. By the third day I was using public transit comfortably. Mostly I enjoyed the metro--very clean and there was an attendant every time I walked into a station. I liked that the hotel is located in a residential area and I felt like I was where people live. All my meals were in this neighborhood and I enjoyed walking around here. The question is, would I stay here again? Yes, I think I would. At the time of this writing, the hotel is ranked #5 of 337 hotels in Budapest on Tripadvisor.

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    Love reading your trip report.
    We will be in Slovenia & Croatia next June, but travelling under our own steam.
    We want to travel from either Ljubljana or Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes and stay over night there and then move on to Split. Our options are by bus from Zagreb or hire a car.
    Planning and reading is a fun part too.

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    luvtotravel, I'm enjoying your trip report. I am planning a trip to Croatia and Budapest next fall. My mother's father and his parents were born in Karlovac, not far from Zagreb. I am going to research family. Then on to Budapest where my mother's maternal grandfather was born. More family research. But I plan on enjoying every minute of it.

    Thanks to your copious notes, I now have some hotel and restaurant recommendations to start with!~

    Looking forward to more!

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    I've been trying to add the last of my TR. Let's see if I have success tonight.

    GinnyJo, I highly recommend the Curry House for Indian food. Excellent but not traditional Hungarian. I ate meals around my hotel and they were all good. I suppose that's because they don't rely on tourists.

    sarge56, I'm glad you are getting something out of my adventure.

    Back to the TR:

    This was my first time in Budapest. After settling in I headed to the Dohany Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. On a map it looked like a short walk. Perhaps it is, but that would probably be if you know how to get there. Every day, no matter where I was going, I received instructions from the front desk to turn left and walk straight. Somehow that never worked. Eventually I found the Synagogue but it was ten minutes before closing time. I am sorry I didn't make an effort to get back there over the next couple of days. At least I had a nice walk. Using public transportation was more direct than walking.

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    SATURDAY
    I knew about a free walking tour (triptobudapest.hu) so I ventured out to Vorosmarty Square where the tour starts at 10:30am. I walked from the hotel (clearly I didn't learn the first time) and it was a much longer walk than I expected and took over an hour to get there and find the starting point. No reservations required--just show up. I seemed to be the only person over 40 on the tour. I enjoyed about 45 minutes of the walk hearing about Budapest's history when a blister on my foot started to be a bother, so I dropped out. I continued walking, but at a slower pace, down Vaci Street, the main shopping street of the city, where I bought some gifts. At the end of the street is the Great Market Hall, a huge, indoor, two-level market where I picked up a lot of packaged paprika. A friend requested some and mentioned that the paprika they sell there we can't get here. I thought I would get something for lunch on the upper level, but it was so crowded--standing or seated--I had no desire to eat there. Still, it was interesting and a good place to shop. On the upper level they had not only prepared foods, but clothing, handbags, souvenirs, etc. On the lower level are the food stalls: fruit, meat, vegetables, etc.

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    Since it was hot and humid, I spent the rest of the afternoon at the hotel. In the evening I had dinner nearby at the Curry House where I had outstanding tandoori chicken, aloo gobi, naan and mint tea for about $15. www.curryhouse.hu

    SUNDAY
    My blister was doing better and I did some walking in combination with public transport and ventured out to the Castle District, specifically Fisherman's Bastion with its turrets and towers and beautiful views of the river along with a couple of hundred other tourists. Being Sunday morning, Matthias Church was not open yet to the public. I spent time taking a lot of photographs of these beautiful structures. From there I walked over to the Royal Palace, walked around the grounds but didn't go inside. I then took a bus across the river and walked by the Hungarian Parliment Building.

    My last stop before heading back to the hotel was at the "Shoes on the Danube," a memorial commemorating Hungarian Jews--men, women and children--who were shot by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during the Holocaust in 1944-45. The victims were lined up at the Danube's embankment and shot, execution style, into the river. These unfortunate souls had to take off their shoes as shoes were valuable belongings at that time. Each pair of iron shoes was modeled after an original 1940's pair.

    Walking through my new neighborhood I stopped at Snitt Bistro, an outdoor cafe near the hotel, for a late lunch of cold strawberry soup with mascarpone and a side of bruchetta. The soup was refreshing on this hot afternoon. I spent the late afternoon hours out of the heat at the hotel. There was no doubt I was in need of a vacation from my vacation and Budapest was the only city where the heat/humidity got to me. There is so much to do here but my energy level was low. I hope to return to the city again.

    Dinner was just down the street from the hotel at Don Leone. I choose this restaurant because so far I had not had Hungarian food. The menu was extensive and I ordered seafood spaghetti and tiramisu. How's that for Hungarian? Big portions. I could eat only half of my spaghetti. The meal came to about $15.

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    MONDAY
    By now I was adept at using the metro and buses. It was my last day and I headed back to Matthias Church in the Castle District. The church dates back to the mid 13th century with occasional remodeling through the late 1800s.

    I wandered the city some and finally stopped near the hotel at the local bagel shop for a surprisingly good bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. Then went back to the hotel to begin packing for my trip home. In late afternoon I went out to enjoy the neighborhood once more. Dinner on my final night was again at the Curry House where I had another outstanding meal. Early to sleep.

    TUESDAY
    My flight was scheduled for 6:15am. Can't be too choosy when using frequent flyer tickets. I arranged for a taxi and the hotel packed a breakfast bag for me. When I arrived at the airport it seemed to be organized chaos in a fairly small area. No specific line to stand in. No ticket counters were open. Finally I saw some people forming a line and I got on it. I had no idea if it was the right thing to do and there was no one official looking to ask, but it worked and I was able to check my bag. After this non-descript ticketing area I was amazed at how large and modern the terminal is once passed security. I'm happy to say the flights were uneventful.

    My flights: I flew Lufthansa LAX to Frankfurt and Croatia Air Frankfurt to Dubrovnik. Once in Frankfurt I had a very long walk to reach Croatia Air and had to go through security again. The return flights were both on Lufthansa via Munich from Budapest. I used frequent flyer points (60,000 points RT) and flew coach. Between LAX and Frankfurt I was on my favorite aircraft (A380) and got my favorite window seat upstairs. Comfortable, especially for coach.

    I was flying to Europe at the time when people were sleeping in airports because it took so long to get through security, so I allowed a lot of time for Bradley International Terminal at LAX. The government was demanding that TSA get their act together by Memorial Day Weekend, when I would be flying. Although I have pre-check, it doesn't work in the international terminal and not for Lufthansa, so I prepared myself for long lines and taking off my shoes. It took all of eight minutes to get through security--shoes stayed on, no bins to put stuff in. They were moving people through security so fast I was dazed. Upon returning home, going through Customs with my Global Entry card took only a couple of minutes by using a kiosk--good thing as that line looked very long.

    You probably noticed that I talked a lot about food. At home I eat simply and rarely have sweets. It is only when I travel that I indulge in rich foods. Due to the amount of walking and stair climbing I did not gain weight on this trip and had some memorable meals.

    This concludes my journal. I know I enjoyed reading other journals as I prepared for this trip. I hope I am able to do the same for someone else.

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