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Annie's fantastic, and surprisingly economical, trip to Croatia and beyond.

Annie's fantastic, and surprisingly economical, trip to Croatia and beyond.

Dec 11th, 2009, 09:36 AM
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Annie's fantastic, and surprisingly economical, trip to Croatia and beyond.

Firstly, let me thank Tracy, Sessa, Barb and others for giving DH and I the courage to travel to Croatia in the off-season. Due to divergent work schedules, March & April are the only months DH & I can actually travel together. Secondly, while I have posted before, this is my first trip report....please be kind! If you are expecting fantastic photos, precise foodie details, or elaborate historical explanations, please look elsewhere....I just don't have those skills. What I do have is a down-to-earth tale of two middle-aged wanders who had a plan, albiet rough, and decided to head off the beaten track as much as possible while staying in some fantastic places. Sometimes this worked wonderfully well, others times...well, it left something to be desired.

So, the rough specifics. We were gone for 4.5 weeks and started in Zagreb, and then off to Mostar, Dubrovnik, Montenegro, Korcula, Trogir, Plitvice, Rovinj, Opatija, Venice, Mont. St. Michel, Bayeaux, and Paris in that order. We stayed in a combination of hotels, B&B's and apartments, trying to book places with at least 3 stars. Our average cost for lodging was $85.00 -- we had hoped to stay under $100.00 and were very surprised to see our final total come in at this number. Our total transportation, with 12 day car rental in Croatia and 7 days in France, train to Venice, flight to Paris, vaporetto tickets and various other costs, came to $750.00. We used points for our international flights, so that was basically free.

Off-season notes: it wasn't warm every single day, but then it wasn't freezing the whole time either. Except for one harrowing day trying to find our way through a snowstorm on slippery mountain backroads to Plitvice (the highway was closed due to the Bora), we never saw snow. The only place that crowds were a problem was in Paris; we managed to hit the free Sunday as well as a huge marathon weekend. While we love Paris, I found that I don't love it when I have to jostle for space on the subway. We had a little trouble finding open restaurants in a few places, Korcula & Plitvice specifically, but since we're not foodies, we found enough to keep us going. And the best part of all about off-season travel, we didn't see a single cruise ship docking anywhere!

Notes about getting lost: it happens. Especially when you have a husband who prides himself on finding the narrowest, most remote roads around....if there's a pull-off that looks halfway navigable, that's where we go. We love to travel this way, not because we're afraid of the highways, but because it's a great way to see the true heart of a country. Seeing Croatia this way was invaluable because we realized more than ever the true price of peace. It was both heartbreaking and exhilarating to see a country trying to knit itself back together while travelling down roads through areas that weren't listed in any travel guides. Could I tell you exactly where we went? No, but I can say, try it and don't worry about getting lost. Eventually you will get where you need to be and you will remember the journey forever.

So much for my long-winded introduction...I guess I should start with the actual trip now.

ZAGREB -- OR THIS IS REALLY AN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT?

The usual long flight, no sleep, feeling rough and getting off the plane into what we both think is a really small airport. We use the ATM, go outside, I think we could throw a football from here to the plane, and find a bus that takes us to the train station in Zagreb. Now what? Oh, there's the tram, get on and then get off at the wrong stop. Lots of walking and finally two blocks away we realize where we are and trudge to the Best Western Hotel Astoria (88E and one of our higher end stays). No time for a nap, we are only here for one night, and we want to make the most of each moment.

We drop off our bags, get info from the desk and head to the TI which instructs us to take a walk through the Upper & Lower towns. Great route, wonderful views, fantastic bustling square. We feel bad we missed the market, but we walk all around imagining the whole scene. We stop for a glass of wine and sit outside to drink it. After a half an hour of strange looks from everyone, we realize it's because we're the only ones sitting outside and we're not as bundled up as everyone else -- that's when we figure out that we're 60 degrees warmer than home!

Zagreb is a great city for walking. There are beautiful parks, lovely squares, and we have far too little time here. We scope out a good place for dining, the one place recommended by both the TI and the desk clerk, make a reservation, and then head back to the hotel to change. Since much of that day is conducted in a jet-lag haze, I can't remember exactly where it was, just that it was subsequently reviewed in NYT and was great. Meat on a spit and a neat barrel ceiling, with a waiter who was both patient and kind to us obviously foggy-minded oldsters, resulted in a lovely evening of relaxing before heading off to Mostar.

We get up very early the next morning since we want to be at the car rental office when it opens. An absolutely lovely and scrumptious spread for breakfast! But hey, what's this lunchmeat doing here at the breakfast bar? (Unfortunately, that wasn't the last time we saw that lunchmeat.) We were the only ones at the buffet at this hour and the wait staff seems somewhat shy to talk to us in English. We look out and notice it's pouring rain. No walking now, we'll have to call a taxi. After the long ride, we thank heavens for the rain because it would have taken us forever to walk that distance. Note to self: Zagreb has some very long blocks. We pick up our car after the clerk assures us that we do not need to have any additional paperwork or charges to go to Montenegro. What? Well, we decide to deal with it if it comes up, which thankfully, it never did.

Finally we are on the road, and even though it is morning rush hour, we're headed in the right direction...OUT of Zagreb.
anniemackie is offline  
Dec 11th, 2009, 10:00 AM
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Thanks for posting. Can't wait to read the rest.
isabel is offline  
Dec 11th, 2009, 10:13 AM
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Annie,this is a great start and I'm looking forward to reading more. It wasn't clear to me when you were there? March/April? Gotta love the Zagreb Airport. It's amazing how effeciently it works for the size and the chaos. I would like to spend some time in Zagreb. So far I've just just connected through the airport there.
Barb is offline  
Dec 11th, 2009, 10:26 AM
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My husband and I are planning our first trip to Croatia next year (March 26-April 8) -- to celebrate our 20th anniversary. I'm in the planning stages -- so I can't wait to read the rest of your adventure!!!!
gammy02 is offline  
Dec 11th, 2009, 10:38 AM
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You've hooked me with your phrase 'remote roads', and the following paragraph...

I'm driving from Split to Sarajevo next May, and having already done the long way round to Mostar on the Adriatic Highway I want to try the short cut - but I'm worried because the small roads don't show up on google earth ... Your words are encouraging.

Anyway, waiting for more please!
julia_t is offline  
Dec 11th, 2009, 10:55 AM
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I like your attitude toward travel. And you do have the skills to write a very interesting trip report! Looking forward to more.
KERRYAJS1 is offline  
Dec 11th, 2009, 12:17 PM
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Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Barb, we arrived in Zagreb in mid-March, evading 14 inches of snow at home. Julia, DH really wanted to go that route and visit Sarajevo, but that early in the year, I was the big chicken...

MOSTAR....OR THE CLOSEST BRUSH WITH JAIL WE'VE EVER HAD!

My gosh, the country around Zagreb is beautiful. Rolling hills, lush hardwoods, deep ravines, and then we seemed to take a turn and ended up in a landscape that looked like the moon. If only Croatians could make money from rocks, then they would rule the world! The A1 is quick and efficient, but to our eyes, used to lusher surroundings, it is extremely barren. Endless fields of hard, huge, and sharp, rocks made us wonder exactly how anyone ever decided to settle here in the first place.

We pull off the A1 far too early and try a smaller road that "seemed more interesting" and headed through some high narrow "roads" to Bosnia. The weather is perfect, crisp and sunny, and since we've stocked up on picnic supplies, we stop for lunch. I try to walk amongst the rocks and am still in awe...the children here must have very calloused feet.

Somehow we find our way to the border crossing and my first feelings of discomfort. The guards look all through our car, ask us questions and wave us on. Not understanding a thing, we proceed as if leaving only to have another guard quickly step in front of us waving his hand, gun at his side. Another look at our papers and we are off with a big sigh of relief. We remark on the fact that not long ago this crossing would have been very difficult.

Now we are in Bosnia and what a difference! Tidy Town it isn't. As we journey down the road we see burned out vehicles abandoned by the side of the road, garbage dumps on every corner and those interminable (yes, I can't spell!) plastic bags stuck in trees and brush everywhere. While we see many greenhouses, it doesn't look like landscaping is at the forefront of anyone's agenda. This is very definitely a country still healing, and with much more work left to do. I feel somewhat guilty to have so much when it is obvious that so many here have struggled.

Our first glimpse of Mostar was somewhat of a let-down as we crossed the river adorned by thousands of platic bags waving like flags in the stiff breeze. What have we gotten ourselves into? Many of the buildings are still bombed out and abandoned, the traffic is horrendous, and we can't find the hotel. We stop, look at the map, wander, look at the map again, and decide to use geography as our guide. The motel is on a side river, we'll look for water and follow that. This new strategy works and we find the cutest, and by far, the most unique hotel we've ever seen. Thank you to those who put a little blurb on Fodor's about Kriva Cuprija (55E w/bkfst)! It was everything mentioned and more.

Situated in a ravine, the roads are above the hotel, which was why it was harder to find. We park in an area that seems to be the most likely parking space, walk down the steps, across a bridge, and through a cute courtyard to check in. Our suite is lovely! A nice little sitting area, living room, bedroom and heaven upon heavens....a deck overlooking the little river! I'm so thankful that we bought a bottle of wine earlier.

After DH and the bellboy brought our bags down from the car, we're off to see the Old Town and wander, wander, wander. DH is a history buff and did his homework before we came. I get a long lesson on exactly how the town was taken and the Old (New) Bridge destroyed. It is facinating. Every corner seems to present another fantastic view. I take pictures of the cobblestones arranged in different patterns, the Mezinas (is this right? I'm sure it's my spelling yet again) wailing their calls to prayer, and the bridge from every angle.

We have a long talk with a resident who was a young boy at the time the bridge fell. We weren't sure at first whether he would ask us for money, but it seems as if he just wanted to tell his story. Through halting english, and many gestures, I became even more grateful for my son's childhood. I can't imagine trying to shelter my children from bombs in a city so literally divided by war.

Finally, we decide it's time to wander back to the hotel for dinner. DH realizes he left his glasses in the car so we climb up to get them. Leaning against our car is a big, burly policman, who upon seeing us starts waving his hands and yelling at us. He is angry, very angry, and we have done something, no idea what, to make him that way.

He asks for our passports, and remembering every warning I've ever read on this board, I tell DH "Don't give them to him. We don't know if he's really a policeman." This makes the man even angrier. He hauls out a radio and starts barking into it. There's some barking back and forth until finally he hands the radio to us. The person on the radio tells us the man really is a policeman and that we must cooperate or we will be jailed. OMG!

Pretty soon there is a small crowd watching and we see our bellboy come up from the hotel. Long story short, we've parked in a loading zone and we need to move our car. What? A threat of jail over a parking space? Some money is passed between the bellboy and the policeman and he's off in a flash. We still don't have a clue what that was about, but we were so happy to avoid getting hauled off to the police station, that we decided not to care.

After all that excitement, we relaxed on the deck for a refreshing happy hour before going to dinner. For 25E, the hotel offers it's guests a menu of traditional foods. With no idea what to expect, we entered the lovely dining room with it's views of the rushing river, and were astounded at the variety of food. It was wonderful. After all this time, I can't even remember what we ate, just that it was plentiful and good. The absolutely perfect ending to an at times stressful, and somewhat strange, day in a country that is very different from anywhere we've travelled before.
anniemackie is offline  
Dec 11th, 2009, 01:35 PM
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Gosh, I just saw how long that post was. I'll make them shorter or this will be the longest trip report ever. My apologies!

DUBROVNIK.....OR HOW COME THE BUZA BAR HAS TO BE SO FAR?

Another early morning and mixed feelings about leaving Mostar too soon. We usually avoid back-to-back one-night stays, but there it was, two of them in a row.

The border crossing back to Croatia was uneventful, with the drive along the Adriatic awe-inpiring. A bit more development than we'd like to see along the shore close to Dubrovnik, hopefully they will curtail some of that sprawl, but then once we were inside the gates and down those never-ending stairs, we didn't give it another thought.

We were staying at Marc Van Bloemen's Karemendu Apts. along the harbor. Very easy to find, good location -- unfortunately, my notes regarding the price are vague. We put down an unremembered total for deposit and then paid 165E for four nights. I'm sure it can be found online...

We initially booked a ground floor apartment, but then we discovered that an apartment with a view of the harbor was unexpectedly available, so we grabbed it. Not only was the apartment extremely cute, it had a great view, our only dismay was that it wasn't the one with the balcony.

Marc directed us to a far-off free parking lot, which had us a little worried. Was the car still going to be there when we returned, or were we going to see a slew of tickets on the windshield? After Mostar, we were a bit leary. No problems, however, and having a car to explore the area a little more each day was fantastic.

What can I say? Dubrovnik is magical, and after reading about summer crowds, off-season Dubrovnik seems even more perfect. The weather was sunny and crisp each day, warm enough in the afternoon for shirtsleeves and a light jacket the rest of the time. We saw all the usual sites and walked the walls twice. Both times we never met another soul. On our first day, we happened upon the Buza Bar (ok, I'll admit I was looking for it) and were their first clients of the season. The workers were busy scrapping and painting while we sipped wine and watched the sun go down over the Adriatic each night.

For dinner, we went on the advice of Marc who left a map and recommendations of which restaurants were open...avoiding the major tourist traps...and just went with the flow. Our days were spent walking, driving around, walking some more, drinking a bit of wine, and just plain marvelling at our good fortune to be able to travel to places like Dubrovnik.

I'd go back in a heartbeat...just not during the summer.
anniemackie is offline  
Dec 12th, 2009, 10:04 AM
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Well, after all those mistakes above, I’ve decided to forego serendipity and paste from Word, which thankfully, allows a spell-checker (and dictionary). Also, I’ve realized that one of the reasons I like travel reports is for the tips. I’ll try to provide more….

PRACTICAL TIPS FOR DUBROVNIK

GETTING AROUND: if stairs are a problem, enter through the Pile gate, much of Dubrovnik is level once you take the walkway through the gate. If you like stairs, and lots of them, with their great views, then enter through the North City entrance.

EATING: Inexpensive and tasty meals at Mea Culpa for pizza and Toni’s Pasta. We liked our long, sit-down dinners that didn’t break the bank at Taj Mahal, and a restaurant that I can’t recall the exact name -- Lokanda Sea something -- just inside and to the left of the harbor entrance. DH enjoyed the seafood at Kamenica. We shopped heavily at the bakery and supermarket on Gundulic’s Square and as far as gelato, the place across from the well at the Pile gate was our winner.

SHOPPING: Somehow I forgot to bring a pair of jeans to wear at Plitvice. After looking through the shops on the Stradun, I was worried about finding anything that was less than 100E. But, one day on our way from Cavtat, we noticed a big sign just over the hill from Dubrovnik. It looked like a big store. We turn around, go back up, take a left, and find the best store ever. A cross between Sam’s Club, Farm Fleet and the local liquor warehouse. Tools, groceries, booze, and even jeans for 12E! The only issue was the dressing room; a square shower curtain hanging in the middle of the aisle…too much fun!

FAVORITE VIEWING SPOTS: Buza Bar (of course) the benches on the other side of St. John’s Fort, benches at Ploce gate, the parking lot on the other side of Fort Lovrijenac.
anniemackie is offline  
Dec 13th, 2009, 07:27 AM
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I am really enjoying your report so far. Brings back memories of our trip during March 2008. Can't wait to hear about your experience at Plitvice in the snow since we had a major snowstorm there during our trip, too!
sessa is offline  
Dec 14th, 2009, 03:15 PM
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Thank you, Sessa. I hope you saw that you were one of our initial supporters. Before your report we were wondering if Plitvice in Spring was just a crazy dream! I'll post more once I catch up with work....

--Annie
anniemackie is offline  
Dec 14th, 2009, 03:53 PM
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Annie,

Absolutely loving your trip report - just enough details! It brings back memories of our trips to the Balkans. There are so many plastic bags on trees and bushes in Kosovo that someone we know calls them the national flower of Kosovo! I wasn't prepared for the signs of war in Mostar. I'll never forget children running home from school past the bombed out buildings, taking them for granted.

Croatia, with its tourism dollars (kunas) is fortunate to have been able to rebuild for the most part. I tell everyone I talk to about that part of the world that Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian coast are heaven on earth. I'm reliving our trips through your report and can't wait for the next installment!

Ellen
ellencmog is offline  
Dec 14th, 2009, 04:06 PM
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Oh I am loving your report!! Julia_t and I stayed at that little hotel in Mostar and we both loved it. I just got back from Dubrovnik the end of October and this is making me feel like I am right back there. Taj Mahal is a little bit of cozy heaven, especially on a cold rainy day.

More please!!
Barb is offline  
Dec 14th, 2009, 06:07 PM
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I too am loving your report! After hearing about the crowds in Dubrovnik, I am so happy we visited in November during off season. I think a lot of the magic of Dubrovnik would be lost had I experienced throngs of people. You've brought back some great memories, and I'm looking forward to the rest.

And I'm glad you spent time in Zagreb! An underrated city, in my opinion. We were only there for an afternoon/evening but were very pleasantly surprised.

Tracy
tcreath is offline  
Dec 14th, 2009, 06:26 PM
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My husband and I will be going to Croatia next year in late March. Reading this and others is making me even more excited.
gammy02 is offline  
Dec 14th, 2009, 08:03 PM
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DAYTRIP TO MONTENEGRO…OR CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN!

We were worried about going to Montenegro, but were convinced to go by all the rave reviews. Still, we wondered, would there be problems? We read about troubles with paperwork or guards demanding money, and we highly doubted the clerk at the rental agency when she assured us that it would all be “No problem”. Fortunately, it wasn’t.

We passed through the border check smoothly, and began our one-day tour of the Bay of Kotor. Everything seemed very similar to Croatia for several miles until we started to notice that things weren’t exactly the same level of “tidy”. But then we saw the bay, the mountains, those tiny little roads, and it seemed like heaven. We wandered here and there, always coming back to the main road that wound around the bay and then finally reaching Kotor. A long walk around the Old Town, a brief stop for lunch, and then back into the car to explore.

Here’s the part of wandering that didn’t exactly work out….we decided it was getting too late to count on using the ferry crossing, so DH decided that a little bit of “up” might be a good direction. Unfortunately, we only had a fold-out general road map. We saw a sign that looked like it said Cetinje and when we saw on the map that the road was marked with the coveted green, off we went…up for what seemed like miles.

The road kept getting smaller and the switchbacks kept getting tighter, until finally, we stopped to have a little conversation. That’s when we discovered that the tiny speck of civilization far below us was Kotor. My gosh! I had flashbacks of being in Glacier and insisting that the Going-to-the-Sun road couldn’t possibly be that high. Well, here we were, once again at the top of the world…or so it seemed. The only difference: no guardrails, no rocks piled on the side of the road, and a very definite proceed-at-your-own-risk atmosphere. We turned around and admitted that we were both big chickens.

Looking back on this side trip, we’re so glad we could see the beauty of such a lovely bay at this point in time. It truly is a great excursion from Dubrovnik. However, to get on a soapbox, we were bothered by what looked like an unbridled lust for expansion. Set-back requirements and new construction guidelines seem to be non-existent, resulting in a mishmash of buildings right next to the shore. One can only wonder whether all of this expansion will harm this pristine and important ecosystem. Hopefully, Montenegro will be able to balance the need for growth with the importance of protecting their natural splendor, because it is incredibly beautiful and unique.
anniemackie is offline  
Dec 14th, 2009, 08:08 PM
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Oh, and thanks for the support. Isn't it wonderful to relive great trips in wonderful places? Barb, and Tracy, I've been jealous of yours for quite a while. Ellen, I must have bought a dozen cloth grocery bags after visiting Mostar!

--Annie
anniemackie is offline  
Dec 15th, 2009, 02:33 AM
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Annie or Barb, where is the Taj Mahal? I've read good reviews and would like to try it the next time we're in the stari grad...along with the Buza Bar, of course
ellencmog is offline  
Dec 15th, 2009, 03:05 AM
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Great report. Glad to find more and more people who like Zagreb. It often gets short shrift and I think it's great.
JulieVikmanis is offline  
Dec 15th, 2009, 09:31 AM
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Great report, Annie. Thanks for taking the time to post it.
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