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Fall 2015 Balkans Trip Report - Mostly Croatia & Slovenia

Fall 2015 Balkans Trip Report - Mostly Croatia & Slovenia

Old Oct 13th, 2015, 02:55 AM
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Fall 2015 Balkans Trip Report - Mostly Croatia & Slovenia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For reference, the border crossings between the countries were uneventful. Show your passport and the car registration and you’re sent on your way. It was that way throughout the whole trip. In the next installment we are on to Split, Croatia, we have a very enjoyable chance encounter with a lovely, adventurous college student from back home in America and we take the train further north.
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Old Oct 13th, 2015, 10:43 PM
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enjoying -we loved the trip from Mostar to Dubrovnik as we had a driver who was able to tell us lots as we drove along.
The cemetery in Dubrovnik is an eye opener -on the street to the old town -graves of young men who died in all around the same time during the war -sad.
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Old Oct 13th, 2015, 11:10 PM
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on for the ride
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Old Oct 14th, 2015, 02:33 AM
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On my bucket list too.
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Old Oct 14th, 2015, 06:11 AM
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Part 2

This was our day to begin our northern migration. Our next base would be in Ljubljana, Slovenia. When we began planning the trip we initially thought we would wind our way up through Croatia in our rent car and make several stops along the way, probably also an overnight stay, before getting to Ljubljana. Unfortunately, the rental car drop charges between Croatia and Slovenia seemed like a waste of money so we revised the plan. We decided a logical stop timewise would be to stay in Zagreb one night before moving on to Ljubljana. Rather than spend essentially a full day driving our rent car to Zagreb, we opted for a more relaxing way to go. In our research, it appeared the trains only went as far down the Croatian coast as Split, about a 3 hour drive north from Dubrovnik, mostly along the Adriatic coast. So, we set our plan to drop the rent car in Split and take the train from there to Zagreb. There are no fast trains for the route and it takes a little over 6 hours for the trip. We would then stay overnight in Zagreb and take the train the following day to Ljubljana.

The portion of the drive from Dubrovnik to Split along the Adriatic coast was beautiful. Part of the way there we went inland and picked up the newly completed toll road and zoomed into Split. Unfortunately, the light rain that had begun on our drive turned into an all-out downpour. We still spent a few hours walking around the old pedestrian section of the city and stopping for lunch before heading to the train station. It was worthwhile to get out even in the pouring rain as we got to tour through the ruins of the 3rd century palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian. The ruins are right in the old section of town.

In a visual dictionary, a picture of the Split train station would appear under the word “seedy”. We were happy to get on the train and get out of there. Taking the train from Split to Zagreb doesn’t seem very popular as we had the whole train car to ourselves. The train seating was set up like a regular commuter train without the private compartments you see on many European trains. Nonetheless, the train was modern, clean and comfortable. We settled into our seats in the forward part of the train car for the 6 hour ride to Zagreb. We don’t know whether it’s a cultural difference or not but we were wrong in figuring that if someone got onto the train at one of the stops along the way they would probably sit as far away from the only other people on the train for privacy. About a half hour or so into the ride the train pulls up to a stop and a guy gets on at the back of the car. He slowly strolls up the aisle apparently surveying where he’ll sit and to our surprise, he sits in the seat directly behind us. He then spent the next 45 minutes yakking loudly away on his cell phone. Listening to one end of someone else’s cell phone call seemed to be even more annoying in a language we didn’t understand. So now there’s 3 of us in the train car and we pull up to the next stop. A woman gets on through the door at the back of the car. She slowly strolls up the aisle and where does she sit? In the seat directly across from ours. I guess Croatians favor close proximity over privacy.

There were periods of enjoyable scenery during the train ride but nothing really memorable. We arrived at the central Zagreb train station around 8:30 PM and were pleased to see it was neat, clean and not at all like the Split station. We had an easy 10 minute walk along the perimeter of the Tomislava park to the Hotel Dubrovnik in the heart of the Zagreb. The Hotel Dubrovnik was in a nice pedestrian section of the city and the hotel is very modern. The front desk recommended a restaurant around the corner called Vinodol which was also decently rated on Trip Advisor so we headed there for dinner. Food is an important factor to our enjoyment of the places we visit and we hadn’t been impressed with anything we’d eaten since the vacation started. We probably need to better manage our expectations when going to places not known for their culinary prowess. Unfortunately, Vinodol was nothing special nor memorable. The following morning we had a fun time exploring some old parts of Zagreb and enjoying the huge open air farmer’s market called the Dolac Market in a large square in the center of the city. We had a scheduled midday train to Ljubljana and had a nice walk along the park back to the station. The Zagreb station has a couple of bakeries, a newsstand, a small grocery store and a sidewalk café.

I popped into the grocery store for some snacks for the 2+ hour train ride to Ljubljana while my wife sat on one of the benches lining the train platform. When I came back she was talking to a young girl with a big backpack who had walked up and happened to be taking our train. Well, it turned out she was an American college student taking a semester off to travel through Europe on her own. She couldn’t have been more engaging or adorable and we ended up sitting together for the ride. By the time we got to Ljubljana we wanted to adopt her. We exchanged contact info and ended up taking her to dinner the following evening. It was an unexpected bright spot to our trip.

The scenery along the train route from Zagreb to Ljubljana was very enjoyable. A good bit of the trip runs along the Sava River basin and there are mountains, beautiful valleys and villages. Unfortunately when we arrived in Ljubljana there was a steady rain. We didn’t let that dampen our spirits as we made the 15-20 walk from the station to our hotel near the Ljubljanica River in the old pedestrian section of the city. We would come to find Ljubljana to be one of the most charming European cities we’ve ever visited and Slovenia to one of the most beautiful countries.
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Old Oct 14th, 2015, 07:40 AM
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Nice report. FYI, I've been to Ljubljana three times now - love the city, but I've had at least some rain (if not a lot) every visit. Thank goodness I've had a few nice days there, though, too!
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Old Oct 14th, 2015, 09:23 AM
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Part 3

We stayed at the Allegro Hotel on Gornji trg which was an excellent location for exploring Ljubljana. The overall plan for our base there was a day trip to the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of Italy, a day trip up into Austria, a day trip to Lake Bled and all the rest of the evenings and couple of days exploring Ljubljana. The focal point of vibrancy in the city is around the Ljubljanica River which winds its way through the city. There are numerous cafes, restaurants, galleries and shops along the banks as well as the adjacent streets. The city is one of the cleanest and most well kept of any city we’ve ever visited. The old world center is very attractive and had just a very comfortable feel to us. The people were very friendly and helpful and with about 20% of the population being university students, the city had a young vibe. Virtually all of the old section of the city is pedestrian only after 10:00 AM. Also in the old section there’s a huge farmer’s market that’s partly open air and partly indoor. There’s everything from produce to meats to baked goods. I only wished we had a kitchen so we could have cooked with some of the fresh ingredients we were seeing. At the far back corner of the square that holds the farmers market is the tram car that lead up to Ljubljana Castle. You can actually visit the grounds of the castle for free which is well worthwhile as it’s the highest point in the city and provides a fantastic vista. The castle was restored and like everything else in the city, it was in pristine shape. We finally hit the food jackpot in Ljubljana as well. We had fantastic meals at the restaurants Valvasor, Julija and Spajza. The duck confit with sour cherry sauce at Julija was a special highlight. We also had no idea about just how good Slovenian wines were as we’ve never seen them where we live in the states. There was a wine called Carolina from the Nova Gorica area along the border with Italy that was just delicious. We enjoyed it so much we searched out a wine store and carefully packed 3 bottles in our checked luggage to bring home. We thoroughly enjoyed Ljubljana and will look forward to a return trip there sometime in the future.

Next, some details about day trips outside of Ljubljana.
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Old Oct 14th, 2015, 06:36 PM
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Enjoying your trip report. We were in Slovenia and Croatia in May and really loved it there. Please keep it coming!
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Old Oct 14th, 2015, 11:44 PM
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Part 4

We ordered our day trips to try and stay out of the rain so with a decent forecast. our first day trip was to Trieste, Italy. The city lies in the eastern most part of Italy adjacent to Slovenia and is a region we had never visited, Friuli Venezia Giulia. Along with loving Italy, I wanted to go to fulfill part of my personal goal to visit every one of the 20 regions of the country before I’m too old to do it. It was the 13th region we had been to. Trieste was about an hour drive from Ljubljana and we wanted to go there to see the city and the preparations for the 47th annual running of the Barcolana regatta. It’s the biggest regatta event among the Mediterranean countries. The Barcolana is a high end event with luxury sponsors like Range Rover and certainly looked like it was tailor made for the yachting set. We got to Trieste late in the morning and toured around the harbor area. It was like a gigantic carnival with what looked to be over 100 booths and displays. There were vendors selling food, clothing, marine supplies and everything in between. There were also advertising booths set up by the various regions of Italy as well as other countries tourism agencies. In the main square, the Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia, workers were setting up a big concert stage for the weekend. We weren’t there for the actual boat race, just the opening of the festivities but, when the harbor fills up with boats it must be one tremendous spectacle. It doesn’t take much for us to have a good time in Italy and we enjoyed spending the day walking through the city and lounging in the Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia over a cappuccino. We also climbed to the top of the city to the old cathedral and enjoyed the panoramic view along with stopping at a local trattoria for a nice Italian pranzo. While we enjoyed Trieste, it isn’t among the places we intend to return to in Italy. We mainly visited there because of its proximity to Ljubljana. When we do a return trip to Slovenia, we would probably visit another town like Udine for the variety or go a little further west and get into a new region like Trentino Alto Adige.

Next, Skofja Loka, driving the Alps and Lake Bled.
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Old Oct 15th, 2015, 02:43 AM
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Enjoying the report, as we have been to many of the same places. In fact, DH and I were in Trieste this weekend for the last two regattas of Barcolana! The sailboat-filled harbor was spectacular. Saturday's regatta was canceled due to the high "Bora" winds, and Sunday's regatta was delayed by a couple of hours due to the weather. Nonetheless, in spite of being blown about we were all having a great time.
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Old Oct 15th, 2015, 10:23 AM
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What a wonderful trip report and so enjoyable to read. Thank you! Please keep it coming. Croatia and Slovenia moved up a couple of notches in my bucket list.
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Old Oct 15th, 2015, 12:13 PM
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A great report! Croatia and Slovenia are on our list, which is now quite long. Glad you had no trouble getting into Montenegro. Several years back, we were stopped and had to detour. We're eager to hear more of your trip.
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Old Oct 15th, 2015, 02:46 PM
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Part 5

First of all, thanks so much for the kind comments about our trip report. We're glad you're enjoying it!

We would have just headed up to Lake Bled from Ljubljana on the main highway if it hadn’t been for a recommendation from Luka who’s the manager of the Allegro Hotel where we stayed. We’re so appreciative for his suggestion to visit the quaint small town of Skofja Loka. Stopping there prompted us to take back roads through the Alps to get to Lake Bled and it will remain one of the most memorable scenic drives we’ve ever taken. I’ve always enjoyed driving and every time we’ve flown over the Alps, I would romanticize about taking a driving tour through them but never had. Well, it was every bit as beautiful and breathtaking at ground level as I imagined when flying over. The route we took started in Skofja Loka and from there went in order, Krizna Gora – Selca – Zelezniki – Rudno – Jamnik – Kropa – Lipnica – Lancovo and then back to the main road and on to Bled. We also stopped at a lovely little inn in Kropa for lunch. Kropa is a small village that was best known for being a center of ornamental iron work and there were many examples through the town. The vistas along the route were just spectacularly beautiful and with how remote the road was, it was easy to frequently pull over and stop to take it all in. It was incredibly picturesque and dramatic with amazing peaks and valleys along with some small villages and free standing churches mixed in. If you want to see scenery that you’ll fondly remember forever, take this drive!

Lake Bled was very beautiful as well but it was almost anticlimactic after the drive we took to get there. Still, it’s well worthwhile to go and see it. The picture you’ll see over and over on the net is the one showing the lake surrounding Bled Island. There are several buildings on the small island with the most prominent one being a picturesque church. The best panoramic view of the lake and the island is from Bled Castle that’s perched high above the lake. The ticket charge to enter the castle is 9 euros which was worth it in my opinion as I don’t think there’s another spot to get such a great view.

Next, a ride to Austria and a recap of the trip.
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Old Oct 15th, 2015, 02:54 PM
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I thought the drive from Skofja Loka through the hills to Bled the way you drove was one of the highlights of my 2011 trip to Slovenia - maybe even prettier than the drive over the Vrsic Pass. I highly recommend it too. Skofja Loka itself is well worth a stop.
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Old Oct 16th, 2015, 06:35 AM
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We're still following your great report. The natural beauty through which you traveled is territory where we'd definitely want a car. The reminder about the high drop-off charge to return to a different country than your pick-up suggests a lot of planning to avoid such. Thanks for all the details you provide.
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Old Oct 16th, 2015, 07:21 AM
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Interesting report. I loved the time I spent in Slovenia nine years ago. Skofja Loka is indeed a delightful town.

Thanks for sharing your visit with us!
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Old Oct 16th, 2015, 01:26 PM
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Part 6 – Finale

The idea for a day trip to Klagenfurt, Austria was not the result of any significant research or planning but more just that the weather forecast for the town was for sun and mild temperatures and, it was close to Ljubljana. It was pretty overcast or raining for much of the time since about the 4th day of the trip and we just wanted a sunny spot. It turned out to be a pleasant drive with some nice winding roads and mountain scenery on the way to Klagenfurt. It was a beautiful day there and we enjoyed just strolling the pedestrian area of the city. The old square or Alter Platz in the middle of the old town is charming and has an enormous winged dragon monument that commemorates the lore of the founding of the town. We had a pleasant lunch at Osteria dal Conte just off the square and my wife enjoyed the shops, finally scoring a pair of shoes which is among her favorite things to buy when we go to Europe. It was an enjoyable and relaxing day.

In the final analysis, the trip was great fun and very enjoyable even though we had several days of rainy weather. We usually get so lucky with weather on our vacations that it’s hard to complain when we actually do get a little of the bad stuff. In general, when traveling around Europe in the fall you’ve got to expect it. The absolute star of the trip was Ljubljana and the surrounding countryside of Slovenia. We found out the meaning of the Slavic “ljub” is to love or like and it couldn’t be truer than with Ljubljana, we loved it. It’s large enough to have plenty to see yet small enough to feel intimate and comfortable. It’s incredibly clean and well-kept and, it’s a great value compared to several other European cities. The countryside around Ljubljana is also well worthy of more exploration. We’ll remember our alpine drive in Slovenia with great fondness. Bosnia and Mostar were probably the only destinations on the trip that we really have no interest at all in returning to. In hindsight we would gladly trade the day in Bosnia for a day in Zagreb which looked more interesting than our pre-vacation research indicated.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting on our report.
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Old Oct 16th, 2015, 01:46 PM
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Stari Most ( the Old Bridge)in Mostar was destroyed during the war in former Yugoslavia in the 90s...
I saw the original bridge built in the 16th century...it was a thing of beauty.
Mostar( then) was a very interesting place.
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Old Oct 16th, 2015, 02:37 PM
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Before the war...not in the 16th century!

Mostar is in Hercegovina....some posters like Bosnia ( mostly Sarajevo) some don't.
I visited a number of places in former Yugoslavia before the war,
only Zagreb and Split after the war.
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Old Oct 16th, 2015, 03:38 PM
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Well, Danon, the rebuilt Stari Most is still quite beautiful. When it was rebuilt, the builders took care to try to use the same methods and materials used for the original when they could. I liked Mostar when I spent a night there in 2009, but the old town is not that big, and I didn't fall in love with it, either. Of course, I have no idea what the town was like before the war.

After my return to Bosnia this May, I can say that while I'm glad I saw places beyond Mostar and Sarajevo (especially Trebinje and Jajce), I didn't fall in love with BiH. There is no town I visited there that I'm really excited to visit again. So I'd agree with His_Dudeness there. Then again, I felt that way about Zagreb as well; I flew out of Zagreb at the end of my recent trip and purposely avoided staying in the city the night before, after having spent two nights in Zagreb back in 2009. We all have different tastes in the places we visit.
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