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Our Week-and-a-Half in Northern Croatia and Slovenia

Our Week-and-a-Half in Northern Croatia and Slovenia

Sep 14th, 2012, 07:59 AM
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Our Week-and-a-Half in Northern Croatia and Slovenia

Pivo, Pizza and Sljivovica: Our Week-and-a-Half in Northern Croatia and Slovenia

We just recently returned from a terrific 11-day stay in Croatia and Slovenia (mostly in the northern half of Croatia), and we’re giving the region two enthusiastic thumbs up!

Just a bit of background on us, for those who haven’t read our trip reports before… We’re both in our upper-40s, and we usually take 2 or 3 trips together per year (often to European destinations). We are generally 3-star travelers; we love good value, but we place a higher premium on good location and local color than standard “luxuries”. And while we like to eat (and drink) well, we are definitely not foodies. We usually take these trips with our teenage daughter, but now that she’s gone off to college we’re starting to get back into the swing of traveling as a twosome again (as evidenced by our romantic getaway to Tuscany last year; trip report linked for reference: http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...ologna-too.cfm)

We flew out of Chicago ORD on a Friday (8/31) and returned the evening of 9/12. A rough outline of our itinerary looks like this:

Fly into Zagreb and rent a car. Drive to Slovenia.
First and second nights in Ljubljana.
Daytrip to Lake Bled and area.
Drive down to Istria, spending next five nights in Rovinj.
Daytrips to sites in and around the Istrian Peninsula.
Drive down to Plitvice Lakes area; 2 nights total.
Return to Zagreb, drop off car, spend 48 hours in town, fly home.

In nearly every way, these destinations and experiences met or exceeded our already-high expectations. So without further ado…

Day 1: Off to a wet start
The flight out of O’Hare was relatively uneventful, except for a bit of a long delay after pulling away from the gate… which wasn’t helped by captain announcing that maintenance had “goofed up” the paperwork. But we were finally airborne over an hour after our scheduled departure. It made us a tad concerned about our 1:30 connection but we made it easily (with some time for a stop at the Munich Senator Lounge). Both of us watched The Descendants with George Clooney—a good movie, btw.

Our flight to Zagreb left on time and arrived on time. It’s a fairly small airport, so we made a quick trip through immigration and picked up our rental car in no time. Finding the right motorway on-ramp was a small challenge, but no biggie. The border-crossing into Slovenia took a good 15 to 20 minutes, and then we had to stop and buy the required windshield vignette… conveniently offered by a vendor in a van by the border station.

It was a two-hour drive in light rain to Ljubljana, but finding the hotel (Premier Hotel Slon on Slovenska cesta) was easy-peasy… it’s in the heart of town on the main road that leads from the tollway. At check-in, we were warning about a wedding party planned for that evening and we noticed a couple packs of ear-plugs left on the night stand in room (just in case). But it never was a problem for us, really.

The rain started to subside a bit so we walked around the heart of the old town for a couple hours and climbed to Ljubljana Castle up on a craggy bluff. From there, we climbed the castle tower which afforded some great views of city and surrounding area. There are a great many nice, stately buildings in the Old Town, including a noted university. It’s a very pretty town, and because of its size, population and general atmosphere it reminds us of an old-world version of Madison, WI (where our DD goes to school).

It felt good to stretch our legs after the long plane flights and drive. And we both got the distinct impression that this is probably a great, great town to hang out in on a nicer evening. But as we continued our walk around the city, the rain started to pick up so we decided to head back to the hotel, dry off a little sample some of the local wine and beer at the lobby bar. There, we learned a new word (pivo apparently means “beer” in both Slovene and Croatian) and caught a quick glimpse of American football on TV (Notre Dame was playing in Dublin).

Before long we put on some dry, semi-respectable clothes and sought out a place for dinner. We only wanted something casual and light, and the nearby place recommended by the concierge seemed a little trendy and upscale for our mood, so we walked down by the river area to find something suitable. Soon it was raining even harder, so we ducked into a cozy pizzeria with a wood-burning oven to warm our bones, fill our bellies and get a half-liter of local vino. It wasn’t gourmet fare, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

By 9:30pm we were in bed and drifting off. No wedding reception would wake us. And we slept till 9:00am.

Day 2: Daytrip to Lake Bled area
Nine in the blessed AM!? We never sleep that late. But I think it did us a load of good. The breakfast buffet at Hotel Slon is pretty big and fairly decent, so we took our time and enjoyed it. Afterward, we asked at the desk about the weather around the Bled area and were informed “Rain, all the week” in definitive tones. Oh well. We decided to give it a try anyway.

Driving from downtown Lj to Lake Bled is extremely easy, and only about 45 minutes by motorway. Finding a place to park can be a bit of a challenge, but we eventually found a spacious car park on the southwest side of the lake (not cheap though; 10E for the day). It didn’t matter that much to us where we were parked, since it was our plan to walk the trail completely around the lake anyway… about 4 miles, total.

Lake Bled is, itself, fabulously beautiful with steep mountains surrounding it and a small island with a picturesque church within. Above the north shore of the lake is an old castle perched on a high cliff. We made the steep hike up to the castle to help work off our large breakfasts, but we should note that it can be accessed from the other direction by car if desired. The hike up is a personal decision… if you’re out of shape, it’s a gut-buster; if you’re a fitness person it’s no big deal; if you’re like us, somewhere in-between, it’s a workout but not really a challenge.

Our 8E entrance fee (per person) was worth it for the views. The castle itself is somewhat interesting, and has a nice exhibit on the history of the area. As we looked out over the lake and took dozens of pictures, we noticed that the previous predictions of rain had not come true. In fact, the sky was starting to clear and the sun was struggling to come out for once!

On the south side of Bled town we stopped for some drinks at a nice roadside inn, and ms_go enjoyed a hearty bowl of mushroom soup. We resumed our walk and circled back around to our car, and started down the road toward Lake Bohinj, about 20K west.

Lake Bohinj is similarly situated and beautiful like Lake Bled, but not nearly as touristed. We had wanted to go up the cable car to Mt. Vogel, but there were too many clouds at the summit and not worth the 27E for both of us. So we headed back into the small town on the eastern shore, Ribcev Laz, and strolled around for a bit. We took a few minutes to explore the local church, parts of which are 1000 years old, and admired the colorful frescoes inside.

Driving back to Ljubljana, the sun came out in full force. And sure enough, the fair weather changed the character of the town that evening. Lots of people, many of them college students, were out enjoying the cafes, bars and restaurants along both sides of the river. The mood everywhere was far more convivial than the preceding evening, and we were glad to be a part of it.

We ended up on the other side of the Old Town for dinner that night, and enjoyed one of our finest meals of the year in courtyard of a restaurant called Spajza. We ordered each of the two 5-course tasting menus on offer (one mostly seafood, one meat & game) and decent bottle of chardonnay. Both menus were excellent, and the entire meal set us back less than 100E including tip.

After dinner we strolled slowly back along the scenic river, past the many outdoor seating areas for the local bars and restaurants, and found a romantic wine bar for a candlelit nightcap. It was a lovely night.

More to come...
mr_go is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 08:05 AM
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Looking forward to more. I like that area too. You didn't do the boat ride at Lake Bled? I thought it touristy but the island and church are neat.
thursdaysd is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 08:20 AM
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No, we didn't. Looking back on it now, it probably would have been a good idea... perhaps there will be a 'next time' to correct this oversight. Frankly, the whole day-trip would work well as part of an Austria trip.

I'll try to post more when I get a chance, but there is much work to do today.
mr_go is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 08:28 AM
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Great start, looking forward to reading more! Your description of Lake Bled brought back great memories for me. I was there in 2006 for a few days and had a wonderful time!
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 08:30 AM
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Thanks for your report. Croatia and Slovenia are on my to-do list, so I appreciate your descriptions.
Pegontheroad is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 08:45 AM
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Great itinerary!! Looking forward to more.
Judy is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 10:33 AM
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Thanks very much for your kind words and encouragement, everyone. And LCI... it does seem like you and I cover much of the same ground, doesn't it?

Day 3: Finding our way in Rovinj
Fortunately for us, the weekend package at the Hotel Slon included a late check-out. That allowed us time to ramble about the town and explore some areas we hadn’t seen previously, such as the Tivoli park to our immediate west. The cool light of day reaffirmed our impressions from the night before; this is just a great town and well worth a visit!

We enjoyed our breakfast buffet once again and hit the road by 11:00. Almost all of the route to Rovinj is highway driving, and it went fairly smoothly. But one problem did make itself evident for the first time… our 5-door VW Golf did not include an input jack for the stereo system, so we couldn’t play music from our iPhones. And since I’d neglected to pack emergency CDs, that meant Slovenian & Croatian radio the whole way. In other words, long-forgotten hits and deep-tracks from cheesy 80s bands mixed with current Serbo-Croatian disco. You know it’s not going especially well when Bon Jovi (Shot down! In a Blaze of Glory!!) comes on and you’re actually happy to hear it.

We arrived in Rovinj, Croatia (on the Istria peninsula) around 2:00 pm, and waited a good 15 minutes in line for a place to park at the big municipal parking lot near the Old Town. We took a few moments to load out our belongings and start walking in the general direction of our hotel, the Casa Garzotto.

Rovinj used to be an island, separated by a narrow channel from the mainland. A few hundred years ago, the town grew and they filled in the channel… and that’s where the parking lot is today. But once you’re inside the old city gate, the streets become an erratic warren of cobblestone streets, blind alleys, unexpected turns, hills and passageways… all lined with an amazing assortment of shops, galleries, cafes, restaurants, apartments and inns.

I got us to a spot that I knew must be close before I asked a kindly shopkeeper for directions. With a bemused grin he showed me that if I’d only taken two more steps, I would have seen their sign just 20 feet away. Not bad without a map!

We were actually renting their apartment, Corte Montalbano, which is around the corner from the B&B, and which shares a wall with their sister restaurant. We unpacked and settled into this unusual apartment, built on three separate levels. From the street-level living room/kitchen area, two different stair cases lead up to different bedroom areas… one of which has an intervening dressing room/bathroom floor. The two bathrooms were a great bonus when getting ourselves ready in the morning, and the second bedroom proved fortuitous one night when I experienced an unfortunate snoring attack. It’s a very nice, homey place with lots of little touches and amenities (but a few more windows would have been nice).

We had a brief, mild panic when ms_go discovered her iPhone was missing, until we had the hotel’s driver bring our car back so we could see if it was there. It was! Elated with relief, we walked all over the Old Town and up to its iconic Church of St. Euphemia, learning how to keep our footing on the slick paving stones. Later, we made our way to the colorful, picturesque waterfront and had some refreshing drinks by the marina while we admired the view.

Rovinj is a very active hotspot of tourism, especially compared to the low-key Ljubljana. But we actually don’t mind a destination being a little touristy if it’s touristy for a reason, and this is one of the loveliest towns we’ve ever stayed in. It’s the type of place that keeps revealing new glimpses of rough-hewn beauty and old-world charm around every corner, despite the t-shirt shops and souvenir stands.

After some more exploring, we decided to have dinner at the hotel’s restaurant right outside our front door, Barba Zuane. I should point out that the restaurant is so close that, literally, anybody sitting at the street-side table in the smoking section had to make way for us when we entered or exited the apartment! The atmosphere there is quite nice, very rustic and inviting and the service is decent; the food was pretty good, not great. We had a Caprese salad, linguine with chicken & mushrooms and spaghetti with tomato and prawn and a local wine.

We walked off some of our dinner through the town before stopping for a late evening drink by the waterfront. (Note: I realize this trip report is starting to make it sound like we’re a couple of booze-hounds, but really… stopping for a nice glass of wine by the water here is a fabulous way to while away an hour and catch up on trip notes!)

We turned in early, knowing we had plenty to see and do the next day. Weather permitting.
mr_go is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 10:54 AM
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Wow, you sure are prompt with this report--cannot wait for more---and the pics of course.
As usual, some world class writing, but where did you learn the vocabulary that includes "easy-peasy"?
bobthenavigator is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 11:07 AM
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...where did you learn the vocabulary that includes "easy-peasy"?

Your granddaughter, probably.

It might take a while for those pics to get posted. There are an awful lot to sort through.

So, when do we get to see your Scotland report?
mr_go is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 11:39 AM
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ahhh, yes, mr_go....great (travel) minds think alike! ;-)
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 05:53 PM
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Dying to go to this area, so this report will be saved by me for future use. Good thing it's well written!
Your reports are always good ones!
taconictraveler is offline  
Sep 14th, 2012, 06:09 PM
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Enjoying your report and looking forward to reading more as its high on our list of places to go. Seems like yesterday when we met u for dinner in Luang Prabang and you were talking about Croatia as your next trip.
yestravel is offline  
Sep 15th, 2012, 04:37 AM
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Glad to hear that Spajza is still good. That was one of our regular places when we lived in LJ.
SloJan2 is offline  
Sep 16th, 2012, 04:32 AM
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Thanks everyone! We will try to get a few more segments done early in the week. The photos are going to take awhile--we took a lot!

Hi yestravel! Definitely put this area on your list. Where are you off to next?

Now...trying to figure out how Singapore ended up in the Fodor's destination guide box after the first post in this thread!?
ms_go is online now  
Sep 16th, 2012, 05:34 AM
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Hi! Ok, moving it up on our lengthy wish list...we head to Naples and then Puglia on Tuesday. Been to either?
yestravel is offline  
Sep 16th, 2012, 06:00 AM
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Naples, yes (for three days, seven years ago). Puglia, no...or I should say, not yet--it is on our list. I loved Naples! Have a great trip!
ms_go is online now  
Sep 16th, 2012, 04:52 PM
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REALLY enjoying your report.
Plan to spend 2 weeks in Slovenia next Sept.Then moving on to Croatia.
Should be in Istria by mid-Sept. 2013 for at least 5 nights....and will definitely base ourselves in Rovinj.

More about Istria and Plitvice, PLEASE!
morewierd is offline  
Sep 17th, 2012, 05:57 AM
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yt: As my LW mentions, we have indeed been to Naples before... and it was quite an experience for all of us. Here's the appropriate page(s) from our trip report:

Everyone else... thanks so much for your kind words. Sneaky, I'll have to check out your blog later today (assuming my work schedule permits!).

I should have pointed out on the very first post that, as always, this trip report is a collaborative effort. Ms_go and I work as a team. The same will be true when we post our pix (eventually).

I'll try my best to get Day 4 (Pula, Bale & Vodnjan) up into the thread today. Stay tuned!
mr_go is offline  
Sep 17th, 2012, 06:40 AM
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As promised...

Day 4: Stepping back in time in southern Istria

Breakfast this morning (and for the next 4 mornings) was served at the restaurant next door, just a couple of steps from our front door. Now that’s convenient!

We left on our driving adventure around 10:00; first stop, the small medieval town of Bale. After a fairly short drive we parked and walked into small town. Immediately, we were mistaken as being part of a small group of French tourists by an Italian man who invited us all in to see the restoration (in progress) of a 500-year-old manor house with distinctive Venetian architectural details. It took some time before I realized the source of the confusion… I was wearing a t-shirt with bright lettering in French. Between the French and Italian commentary, we were able to get the gist of the message.

Afterward, we prowled around the evocative old town a bit more. We popped inside a very small church with striking 14th century frescoes at one point. But really, you can see the entire town in about 30-45 minutes… so we were soon on way to destination #2: Vodnjan.

The primary attraction here is a group of mummified saints on display in the local church. Suffice to say, it’s creepy in the extreme; one them, the Patriarch of Constantinople had died in 350 and was originally buried in the Hagia Sofia. The other desiccated saints were of a somewhat more recent vintage, and all were dressed in period finery. Definitely one of the stranger attractions we’ve paid money to see.

We walked around the town for a while, and found it to be a little more photogenic than we’d expected. Not a bad little town to check out if you want to get off the “tourist track”.

Next stop: the port city of Pula, famous for its Roman ruins. Our first challenge was finding a decent place to park. We eventually ended up at a pay lot on the waterfront near an industrial area, but not far from the city center. We only had coins for a one-hour ticket, so we stopped for a quick snack/lunch to get some change and feed the parking machine.

We walked to the Roman amphitheater in the center of town, which we found to be as formidable and well-preserved as the ones in Arles and Veronna. For some reason, workers were setting up what appeared to be a hockey rink in the arena. From there, we walked over to the nearby citadel in the heart of town and climbed around on the ruins. We then ventured over to the main square which was built on the old Forum, and which still includes a well-kept Temple of Jupiter at one end.

By now, a light rain had started to fall so we headed back to Rovinj, dropped off the car, had drinks at the waterfront (again!) and discussed our plans. So far, every day of this trip had involved some cloud cover and/or rain but we agreed that it didn’t really matter that much… as long as the weather cleared up in time for our visit to Plitvice later in the week. We crossed our fingers.

Sufficiently rested, we walked up the main street of Rovinj to the old church at the top of the hill and climbed the imposing tower. The stairs up are made of thin wood planks; not ms_go’s favorite, but she vowed that if the woman ahead of us in the 5-inch heels could do it, so could she! The views from the top are simply breathtaking, and the sun came out for us while we were up there… perfect timing!

Dinner that night was at Kantinon, a well-known seafood place (recommended by Lonely Planet) off the peninsula but on the waterfront. It’s a nice, unpretentious place with friendly service. We enjoyed excellent grilled squid and tuna steak, plus some soup and local wine. Despite the high quality of the food, the total was only about $45.

Afterward, we took a leisurely stroll and had a little gelato for a night cap.
mr_go is offline  
Sep 17th, 2012, 08:31 AM
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Day 5: Into the heart of Istria

After breakfast and showers, we hit the road again around 10:00… destination: Pazin.

We eased our car into the city center and found parking by castle. From there, we went for a hike into the famous chasm that splits the town. The scenic and woodsy trail takes you to the bottom of the gorge and then back up the other side… a little over a kilometer in total, and we were only ones there as far as we could tell. On the other side, the trail ends at a resort hotel with dramatic views back at the old castle and city. It also has a zip-line that runs back to where we started. It wasn’t open for business at that moment, unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re ms_go).

From there, it was on to Motovun. We were required to park at base of the hill and walk up into town, along with numerous other tourists (mostly German). It was here that we decided that people doing this with baby strollers (and yes, there were many) must be crazy!

We chose a decent-looking spot with outdoor tables along the rampart wall, called Pod Voltom. We enjoyed an excellent lunch there, and we can attest to quality of their fuzi (homemade pasta). Ms_go had it with black truffles and I had it with a hearty local beef stew. Both were rich and satisfying, and the view was terrific although a bit cloudy that day.

We explored the scenic old town, popping into an art gallery or two and soaking up the local color before descending the streets back to the car park. Our next stop was Groznjan, a very cute town and a good discovery that you don’t see on every tourist guide. There was, literally, music in the air as we strolled through town, courtesy of music students practicing their instruments near open windows.

We drove ourselves back to Rovinj around 4:00pm and had a couple of drinks and rested up before dinner. And, of course, took trip notes! We decided on pizza for dinner at the most popular pizzeria in the Old Town area, da Sergio. They serve good pizza—not fancy, but well-executed. We walked right in around 7:00, but there was a long line when we left.

We walked off our hearty fare with a lengthy stroll to the other side of the harbor and beyond, seeing the other side of Rovinj for the first time. Looking back at the lights of the old town behind all the boats in the marina is a very nice image for us shutterbugs!

So... anyone have questions so far?
mr_go is offline  

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