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Trip Report: Balkans (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro) Aug - Sep 2016

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Trip Report: Balkans (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro) Aug - Sep 2016

Trip Report: The Balkans (Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina) (Aug - Sep 2016)

Thursday August 25: USA to Vienna

Before we left home for Newark, New Jersey’s Liberty International Airport, we checked in online and printed boarding passes for our Austrian Airlines flight; still, we checked in again when we reached the airport. The agent there informed us that even as business class passengers, we could not carry our rollaboards on the aircraft because they were too large. Note that we have carried the same bags (21” rollaboards that weighed about 30 pounds each) containing nearly the same contents aboard many other international and domestic flights, so we were surprised to be told that we could not take them on the Austrian Air flight. (Austrian Air only allows cabin baggage under 18 pounds.) After we checked our bags, we waited for our departure time in the Austrian Lounge in Terminal B. Terminal B also offers an SAS airline lounge and a few small shops and restaurants; however, it cannot compare to the airport’s Terminal C, from which we normally fly on United. The Austrian Air lounge is divided into two parts: one for business class customers, and the other for first class passengers. The business class lounge was small, but featured three areas: regular table seating, high-top communal table seating, and a more relaxing area with leather chairs (we sat in the comfy chairs). Drinks included both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, including water, soda, juices, draft beer, bottled beer, and hard liquor/spirits. Food included snack items like raisins, chocolate candy, potato chips, and pretzels, as well as more substantial food like tiny sandwiches, salads, and desserts. Magazines and TVs were available to pass the time. In the past, we have used the United lounges at Newark, and although they are more spacious than the Austrian lounge, Austrian offered better food and drinks.

Austrian Air flight 90 from Newark to Vienna departed on time at 5:50 pm and lasted for almost 10 hours. The Boeing 767 business cabin was arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, so every seat was an aisle seat. We were seated in 4D and 4G; each of our seats had a side table on its right, which was fortunate because we are both right-handed. On our return flight, we were seated in row 5D and 5G, which was less preferable for us because the side tables were positioned on the left. The seat in the D position is preferable to us because it is open on the sides to the aisle, whereas the G position seat is more enclosed, restrictive, and claustrophobic when the seat is reclined fully to the sleep position. We are not complaining (because we were thrilled to fly business class!), but we want to help others to choose the best seat for themselves. The seat design was a bit cumbersome because the panel to operate the position of the seat was located right beneath one’s elbow on the armrest, so we found ourselves inadvertently touching the massage button or one of the repositioning buttons. The large video monitor in the seatback in front of us did not tilt downward as we have seen previously, so when we were in the sleeping position, we could no longer see the screen. Still, a good selection of new release and classic movies was available, as well as TV shows, documentaries, and music in various languages. The seats offered a “relax” position, which was a nice recline and could be incorporated with a footrest. The armrest contained a telescoping remote control, but it did not work the video console. Good noise-cancelling headphones were provided, as well as an amenity kit. (Amenity kits on our outbound and return flights contained the same contents [such as socks, eye mask, earplugs, toothpaste/toothbrush, lotion, lip balm]; however, the storage container differed from a drawstring bag to a sort of fabric envelope.) When we boarded the flight, we were offered water or juice, as well as a selection of newspapers and magazines from a rolling cart. Once in the air, we were offered a full drink service, as well as a bowl of mixed nuts as a snack. The onboard chef walked around to present the menus (one with dinner, and another with breakfast that would be served 1.5 hours prior to landing). An extensive Viennese coffee service was offered; even though I am not a regular coffee-drinker, I found one selection that I could not resist because it featured ice cream and whipped cream.

Friday August 26: Vienna to Dubrovnik

In order to reach Dubrovnik, we had to make a connection in Vienna, because no non-stop flights are available from the US. (Alternatively, we could have flown through Munich or Frankfurt on Lufthansa, or through other European hubs.) In Vienna, we spent our 4+ hour layover time in the Austrian Air lounge, reading, eating, drinking, and napping. Our short 1.25-hour flight (on another Boeing 767, this time with a 2-2 configuration) from Vienna to Dubrovnik passed quickly.

When we arrived at the Dubrovnik Cilipi Airport, we passed through immigration, where we had our passports stamped. After we claimed our baggage, we exited customs into the unsecured part of the airport. A driver arranged by our hotel (the Hilton Dubrovnik) was waiting at the exit holding an electronic tablet with our names on it. He wheeled our bags out to the curb, where he asked us to wait in the shade so that he could drive the car around to us. Our driver, Zoran, who works for subcontractor, spoke excellent English, and he gave us a brief tour and introduction to Dubrovnik on the 30-minute ride from the airport to the hotel.

At the Hilton, we checked in and were soon on our way to our suite. After we unpacked, we ventured out to purchase some drinks and snacks at a nearby convenience store/market to enjoy later in our room. We generally visited a store called “Trgovina Jadranka” every day before we returned to the hotel, but once we visited its competitor “Drogerle Market” located across the street instead; both stores accepted credit cards as payment (as well as Croatian kuna; however, they did not accept Euros or US dollars).

As we took our initial walk within the Dubrovnik city walls, we were pleasantly surprised by the number of sidewalk cafes. It was difficult to choose where to stop for a late afternoon snack/drink, but we selected Bistro Cele Coffee Bar. After our bite to eat and a stroll within the historic Old Town, we returned to the hotel, where we sampled the Hilton’s executive lounge evening happy hour. Later that evening, we returned to the walled city for an al fresco dinner at Buffet Kamenice, located on Gundulic Square.

Saturday August 27: Dubrovnik

Our first full day in Dubrovnik began early. We enjoyed a quick breakfast in the Hilton’s executive lounge before we met our guide (Petar Vlasic from Dubrovnik Riviera Tours) in front of the hotel at 7:30 am. Petar took us on a 1.5-hour panoramic driving tour around the city, where we stopped at several viewpoints as we climbed in elevation to about 1,300 feet above Old Town at the top of Mount Srd/Srd Hill. At the summit, we explored the small Museum of Croatian War of Independence. Nearby restaurant Panorama might be a nice place for a sunset cocktail if you choose to arrive from Old Town via the funicular. Petar was brilliant for beginning our day so early, because by the time we left the lookout approximately one hour later, hordes of tourists had begun to arrive. Although the hill can absorb the crowds, the winding switchback road leading there makes for tricky driving. (We would not have wanted to drive there on our own, so we were happy to be in Petar’s capable hands.)

Back in the historic part of the city, Petar stopped the car near the Ploce (eastern) gate and introduced us to his colleague Tomislav, who would be our guide for the next part of the day. Tom is a history professor at the local university, and for the next 2.5 hours, he guided us around Old Town.

Our Old Town Dubrovnik walking tour taught us about the Stradun/Placa (the main pedestrian promenade), the Sponza Palace (used as the customs house, trading center, treasury, armory, bank, and school), the Clock Tower (over 100 feet tall, it chimes at noon daily when its twin bronze figures ring the bell), Orlando's Column (a stone pillar on which messages were published and sentences carried out), the Church of St. Blaise (the patron saint of Dubrovnik), Onofrio's Fountain (a water supply system with a huge central dome and 16 faucets in the shape of heads), and the Franciscan Monastery (with its cloister and still-operating pharmacy [the oldest in the world], and small museum of pharmacy items, relics, and liturgical memorabilia)

Our guide Tom recommended that we dine at Kopun Restaurant for lunch, which was excellent. We ate outdoors on the restaurant’s umbrella-covered terrace that adjoins Poljana Square, where the Church of St Ignatius and the Jesuit Collegium Ragusinum are located. It is also a favorite spot for photographs on the "Game of Thrones" tours. (We do not watch the series, but visitors seemed to be reenacting scenes with swords and shield in front of key buildings.) The Church of St Ignatius is single nave, with side chapels and a semicircular divided apse, decorated by Baroque frescoes with scenes from the life of St. Ignatius de Loyola; in addition, its belfry houses the oldest bell in Dubrovnik, cast in 1355.

Afterward, we tried to visit one of the old city’s two Buza bars, but it was too crowded and no tables were available. Instead, we decided to walk the city walls. Although Tom recommended that we wait until about 6:00 pm to walk the city walls due to heat and crowds, we did not heed his advice, instead climbing after lunch. We purchased our tickets at the counter in the tourist information center near the fountain inside the Pile Gate, and we were able to use a credit card. Although it was the hottest part of the day, a nice breeze prevented us from becoming overheated. In addition, we were thrilled to discover that the walls are wide enough to accommodate two different locations of Bistro Salvatore, each of which also offers bathroom facilities. In addition, a few ice cream shops, an art gallery, and a souvenir stand are atop the walls, although most of these amenities are located on the part of the wall that fronts the Aegean Sea.

The city walls that completely encircle Old Town date back in parts to the 13th century. The wall is 1.25-miles long and takes about one hour to walk – longer in our case because we repeatedly stopped for yet another brilliant photo op. The walls include 16 small and large towers; among the largest is Sveti Ivan (built near the Old Town harbor), Bokar (at the Pile Gate, with its bridge and moat), and Minceta (on the western sea). The walls are 82 feet high and up to 10 feet thick in places. The walls incorporate the four city gates (Ploce, Pile, Peskarija, Ponta) that allow access to the city.

After we descended the walls, we enjoyed afternoon drinks on the terrace at Klarisa Restoran. (Saint Klara Monastery was the best known of eight women’s monasteries in the 13th century; girls of noble birth were ordained as Franciscan sisters called Klarisas.) We then returned to the hotel to relax, enjoyed the executive lounge happy hour, and then walked back to Old Town to dine al fresco at Pizzeria Domenica.

Sunday August 28: Montenegro

Again we rose early and ate breakfast in the executive lounge. Outside of the hotel, we met our guide Petar (from Dubrovnik Riviera Tours) for our first day trip to the nearby country of Montenegro, where we would visit both Perast and Kotor.

Our first stop was an abandoned beach community ruined by the war, which provided insight into the recent strife in the country. Next, after a 1.5-hour drive, we visited the town of Perast, located on the narrowest part of the Bay of Kotor. Perast is known for its proximity to the islets of Sveti Juraj and Dordi (St. George) and for the Our Lady of the Rocks church. Our Lady of the Rocks is an artificially-built 32,600 square foot island in the bay; its church is built on sunken shipwrecks atop a rock on which two Venetian sailors saw a picture of the Virgin Mary in 1452. Services (particularly weddings) are still held at Our Lady, although it functions primarily as a gallery for over 68 paintings and a treasury for various objects (including 2,500 golden and silver votive tablets hanging on its walls). Visitors take a 5-minute boat ride from the mainland to the island. Throughout the centuries, Perast has experienced a melting pot of ownership, including by the Byzantine Empire, Serbia, Venice, Hungary, France, Austria, and Yugoslavia. Although it is a tiny town (population 349), it contains 16 Baroque palaces, 17 Catholic churches, and 2 Orthodox churches, alluding to its affluent past. The old city does not have a defensive wall, but instead has 9 defensive towers built by the Venetian navy. (During that time, the city had four active shipyards, a fleet of about 100 ships, and 1,643 residents.) The citizens of Perast were allowed to trade with large ships and to sell goods without tax on the Venetian market, which made them wealthy. We enjoyed drinks at a local waterfront restaurant terrace before making the 15-minute drive from Perast to Kotor.

When we arrived in Kotor, Petar parked the car and introduced us to our local guide Ivanovich (“Ivan” or “John”), who was a music professor. The Old Town is located in a secluded part of the Bay, an old Mediterranean city surrounded by fortifications built during the Venetian period to prevent invasion from the sea. You cannot help but notice the impressive ancient walls that stretch for 3 miles directly above the city. Although some people call Kotor a "fjord" (a narrow deep inlet of the seat between two high cliffs), it is actually a "ria" (a submerged river canyon). Together with nearby overhanging limestone cliffs, Kotor and its surrounding area form an impressive landscape. Kotor is included in UNESCO's World Heritage Site list because of its well-preserved Venetian architecture visible as you stroll the winding cobblestone streets of Stari Grad ("Old Town"). On our walking tour, we saw the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon (built in 1166), Square of Arms, Clock Tower, Venetian Arsenal, Town Hall, palaces (Bizanti, Prince, Flour, Pima, Buca, Drago, Bishop, Gregorina, Lombardic), squares (like St Lucas, and Navy), and gates (Gurdic, Sea, and River).

We ate lunch at San Giovanni Caffee Bar before beginning the 2-hour drive back to Dubrovnik. After we made our daily trip to the local market, we visited the hotel’s executive lounge for happy hour, then ventured out in search of our evening meal. We ate a plentiful al fresco harborside dinner of mussels and (head-on) shrimp at Konoba Lokanda Peskarijan.

Monday August 29: Bosnia and Herzegovina

As with past days, we rose early and ate breakfast in the executive lounge. Outside the hotel, we met our guide Petar (from Dubrovnik Riviera Tours) for our second day trip to the nearby country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where our destination was the city of Mostar.

After a 2.5-hour drive from Dubrovnik, we arrived in Mostar, where Petar introduced us to our local guide Maya, a teacher. Maya was only 6 or 7 at the time of the war, so she provided us with a youth’s viewpoint of the events during our walking tour of the old city. Mostar, the fifth-largest city in the country and the most important in the Herzegovina region, is a cultural capital that over 105,000 people call home. Positioned on the Neretva River, Mostar takes its name from the medieval "mostari" (bridge keepers) who guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the river. The old town area of Mostar retains some architecturally noteworthy buildings such as the Italianate Franciscan church, the Ottoman Muslibegovica house, the Dalmatian Corovic House, and an Orthodox church. When Mostar's original indigenous people converted from Christianity to Islam, they founded 13 mosque complexes that included Koranic schools, soup kitchens, and markets; only 6 remain today. Several Ottoman inns also survive, along with fountains and schools and houses (where the upper story is for residential use, and the first floor contains a hall, paved courtyard, and verandah). Many early trading and craft buildings still exist today, including shops made of wood or stone, stone storehouses, and a group of former tanneries arranged around an open courtyard.

The Old Bridge (also called the Sloping Bridge), first built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of the country's most recognizable landmarks, and is considered one of the most exemplary pieces of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. Originally built of wood to connect the market on the river's left bank with a residential area on the opposite side, the bridge was used by traders, soldiers, and other travelers en route from the Adriatic to central Bosnia. Later, the wooden bridge was rebuilt in stone. During the war in 1993 (in which over 2,000 people perished), the bridge was destroyed, then later rebuilt, still as a single stone arch that spans 94 feet in length and 69 feet in height. The arch itself is a perfect semi-circle that is 28 feet wide and more than 13 feet high. The bridge footpath and the pedestrian-only roads leading toward it are paved with cobblestones, and stone steps allow people to ascend to the bridge on either side. The bridge retains its original watchtowers/ammunitions storehouses on either end (named Halebija and Tara), as well as some ramparts. In 2005, UNESCO added the Old Bridge and its vicinity to its World Heritage List. If you visit Mostar on the right day, you might see young men collecting money near the top of the bridge: after tourists donate at least 50 Euros, the men leap/dive off the bridge, landing in the cold Neretva River 65 feet below.

After our tour of Mostar, we enjoyed an al fresco riverside lunch at Restoran Labirint, where we dined on an incredibly plentiful grilled meat platter followed by dessert. Afterwards, we made the 2.5-hour journey back to Dubrovinki, made our daily trip to the local market, visited the hotel’s executive lounge for happy hour, and enjoyed our last evening meal in Dubrovnik on the terrace at Poklisar Restoran.

Tuesday August 30: Dubrovnik to Split

After a hearty buffet breakfast at the Hilton’s main restaurant (on previous days, we dined from a smaller buffet in the executive lounge), we transferred from Dubrovnik to Split. Initially, we had booked seats on a European Coastal Air (ECA) seaplane from the Dubrovnik Airport to the Split Downtown Airport; however, the airline was grounded. So our guide in Split (Mate from Private Guide Split) arranged a ground transfer for us with Dubrovnik-Transfer-Services for a total cost of $260 Euros. Our female driver Ulia (“Julia”) was personable and professional, and she provided good conversation and a nice tour along the way.

After driving for about one hour, we arrived in Ston, a town known for its salt works. In medieval times, a pound of salt was worth the same as a pound of gold, so whoever controlled the salt was rich. Ston was a major fort of the Ragusan (Croatian) Republic whose defensive walls are regarded as a notable feat of medieval architecture. The town's inner wall measures nearly 3,000 feet in length, while the Great Wall outside of town has a circumference of over 3 miles. (Looking at it from afar, as it climbs up a nearby mountain, reminded us of that famous wall in China.) Unlike most city walls, these walls were not built to surround a town, but instead were built up over the hills to protect the salt pans. The walls extend to Mali Ston ("Little Ston"), a smaller town on the northern side of the Peljesac isthmus and at the end of the Bay of Mali Ston, notable for its seafood, particularly oysters. In Ston, we climbed the walls and strolled along the ramparts, before we rejoined Ulia and traveled a few minutes by car to adjacent Mali Ston to share some al fresco oysters and dessert on the terrace at Kapetanova Kuca.

On our 2.5-hour journey from Mali Ston to Split, it was necessary to pass through a small part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The border crossing is controlled by the Croatians, and our passage was easy. In Split, Ulia dropped us in the waterfront promenade (Riva) parking lot lined with palm trees and adjacent to many sidewalk cafes. The historic part of Split is pedestrian-only, so our driver discharged us at the city gate closest to our hotel. We walked through the palace walls to the Vestibul Palace; however, even though we had explicit directions, it was difficult to locate. After we checked in, we enjoyed a few drinks at the hotel’s terrace bar/restaurant before we met our guide Verdran (arranged by Mate from Private Guide Split). For $90 Euros, Verdran showed us around Diocletian’s Palace on a 2-hour walking tour.

The city of Split draws its name from a common shrub in the area called the spiny broom. The Greeks first founded Split as a replacement for their previous capital of Salona. In 1979, the historic center of Split was included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites because of its architectural preservation. Old Town Split is home to Diocletian's Palace, built for the Roman emperor in 305 BC. The palace had more than 200 buildings and 3,000 residents within an 8-acre enclosed space. In fact, the “palace” is a mini-city of its own, full of a maze of stone pedestrian pathways and passageways that lead to a Romanesque belfry, a 16th-century synagogue, courtyards, squares, shops, restaurants, lodging, and apartment homes. Old Town Split contains some of the most impressive Roman ruins in the world, including the Cathedral of St. Domnius (filled with murals, altars, and a steep bell tower that we climbed), and the Temple of Jupiter (guarded by a headless black granite sphinx from Egypt).

Originally, we had planned to visit Salona (Solin) after our walking tour, but we changed our mind in favor of some relaxation time. We shopped at the Tommy Market to purchase beer, soda, and water to drink in our room. Next, we enjoyed an al fresco drinks on the patio at Tiffany’s, followed by an outdoor dinner on the terrace in the square at the Nostress Caffe Bar Bistro.

Wednesday August 31: Hvar

After a filling buffet breakfast in the Vestibul Palace’s restaurant, we walked to the harbor to catch our ferry to Hvar, an island located off the coast of Split. This was the only day of our entire Balkans trip that we had not pre-planned, so on the evening prior to our trip, we booked round-trip tickets from Split to Hvar Town online on the Jadrolinja website. Although our tickets were emailed to us, we had no way to print them, and the hotel was unable to help.) Fortunately, the ferry accepts mobile tickets, so after we scanned our mobile phone, we were permitted to board. All passengers rode indoors during the 1-hour passage; a bar served drinks and snacks, and restrooms were available.

Hvar, the fourth-most populated of the Croatian islands (with more than 11,000 permanent residents), lies off the Dalmatian coast in the Aegean Sea between the islands of Brac, Vis, and Korcula. Hvar is approximately 42.25 miles long, made of limestone and dolomite but with a fertile coastal plain and fresh water springs. Its hillsides are covered in pine forests, vineyards, olive groves, fruit orchards, and lavender fields. (In fact, the lavender fields of Hvar are a UNESCO World Heritage Site; unfortunately, the blooming season was over when we visited, so we did not see a lush purple countryside.) Hvar's location at the center of Adriatic sailing routes made it a desirable naval base, including the main town of Stari Grad. Remaining buildings such as public theatres, nobles' palaces, and communal buildings exhibit Greek and Venetian architectural elements; however, its more unusual fortified structures and city walls on the nearby hillside indicated that the town once needed protection. Today, Hvar is a popular tourist destination, consistently listed as one of the top 10 islands by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. As we approached by sea, we were greeted by a lovely view of the waterfront promenade with rows of palm trees fronting a Venetian public loggia, with shops, restaurants, and accommodations. Behind on a hillside overlooking Old Town, we could still see the old city walls and the Fortress Fortica Spanola that offered protection to the residents.

On Hvar, we debated about taking an organized tour because we wanted to see more of the island than just the port/harbor of Hvar Town. Instead, we organized a private taxi to the town of Vrboska, a small fishing village known for its fortress Church of Sveti Marija (St Mary) and its canals. We ate an al fresco waterside lunch at the Trica Gardelin, but our excursion to Vrboska was largely disappointing. (Somewhere we remembered reading about the canals being a smaller version of Venice; however, that could not have been farther from the truth!)

Back in Old Town Hvar, we enjoyed drinks at two side-by-side bars/restaurants (Caffee Bar El Clasico and Caffe Bar Gentile) at the rear of the harbor across from the arsenal and near Trg sveti Stjepana (St. Stephen’s Square). Then, we looked in a few shops, later visiting a bakery to purchase two ”burek” (dough filled with either meat or cheese) so that we could try some local snack food. (Our guide in Dubrovnik, Petar from Dubrovnik Riviera Tours had mentioned burek to us a few days ago.) We took a long walk on the seaside promenade, stopping for a drink at the elegant harborside Restaurant Bonj (and beach club). Back at the harbor, we dined outdoors on the terrace at the Riva Hotel’s Fresh Pasta House, which overlooked the small port.

In the evening, we took the 1-hour ferry ride back to Split. Because we had eaten dinner on Hvar, upon arrival back in Split, we did not need to stop for a bite to eat, instead retuning to the hotel to prepare for our onward journey the next day. En route, we stopped at one of the counter-service cafe windows on the Riva promenade to pick up a few drinks to enjoy back in our room.

Thursday September 1: Split to Trogir to Rakovica

After breakfast in the Vestibul Palace’s restaurant, we had a few hours remaining to re-trace our steps around the historic area of Split, take some photographs, and do some last-minute shopping. We could not find the Tommy Market that we had visited two days previously (proof of how confusing and winding the passageways within the palace are!), so we instead stopped at the Studenac Market to purchase wine and bottled water to take with us on our journey to Rakovica, where our hotel would be too isolated to walk to a nearby market.

In the late morning, we departed Split on our journey toward Plitvice Lakes. Our guide in Split (Mate from Private Guide Split) arranged male driver Mitja for us. First, we made a short sightseeing stop in Trogir, which is located about 15 minutes west of Split. Although Mitja was friendly and punctual, his English-language skills were lacking (he is more of a driver than a guide), and we did not receive as comprehensive a tour of Trogir as we would have liked; however, we did not have time to adequately investigate the city anyway. Had we to plan our trip over, we would dedicate more time (half a day, perhaps) to explore Trogir.

The historic area of Trogir, located on a small island, is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites because of its preserved Venetian architecture, including Renaissance and Baroque buildings and palaces, Romanesque churches, the Fortress Kamerlengo (a castle with towers), and the city loggia (a furnished public gathering space). Trogir is considered the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex not only in the Adriatic, but in all of Central Europe. The city gate and city walls, Duke's Palace, and the Cathedral are among its most important sites.

Before departing Trogir, we enjoyed some al fresco drinks on the terrace at Restoran Krka, a cafe positioned alongside the Konoba Riva. Because our drive toward Plitvice Lakes took approximately 3 hours, we made a stop at a roadside rest area along the way. Upon arrival in Rakovica, just outside Plitvice Lakes, we checked into the Hotel Degenija, enjoyed happy hour drinks at their on-site Plum Caffe, and experienced our most memorable dinner of the entire trip at neighboring venue Degenija Restoran. There, we dined on the unforgettable veal peka (veal cooked under the iron bell), which we had to reserve ahead of time when we booked our table.

Friday September 2: Plitvice Lakes to Ljubljana

We ate breakfast at the hotel, then our driver Mitja picked us up to transport us a few miles to the park. Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the oldest (founded in 1949) and largest (covering 73,350 acres) national parks in Croatia. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979 because of its outstanding natural beauty and its travertine dams. The national park is famous for its interconnected series of 16 lakes arranged in cascades that result from the confluence of several small waterways and subterranean karst rivers. Natural travertine (tufa) dams formed by layers of moss, algae, and bacteria continue to grow with time, separating the various lakes into upper and lower clusters. The lakes are renowned for their distinctive colors, (ranging from azure to green, gray, or blue) that change depending on the minerals or organisms in the water and the angle of sunlight. The highest waterfalls are the Large Waterfall (255 feet) at the end of the Lower Lakes, and Galovacki Buk at the Upper Lakes (82 feet).

After our 4-hour trek throughout the park (including the boat and bus rides), we had enough time to enjoy lunch at Licka Kucka Restoran, which is located adjacent to the park. Then, we began our journey from Croatia into Slovenia, with the Hotel Slon in Ljubljana as our final destination. To break up the long journey, Mitja stopped twice, the first of which was a brief stroll through the village of Rastoke, about 30 miles from Plitvice.

Rastoke is the historic center of the Croatian municipality of Slunj, where the Slunjcica River meets the Korana River. Rastoke is sometimes known as "the Small Lakes of Plitvice", and is actually connected to the Plitvice Lakes by the Korana River. Because of its many waterfalls, rapids, cascades, and basins, Rastoke was once home to 22 water-powered mechanical mills. The lower part of Rastoke consists of 23 waterfalls (with heights between 32 and 64 feet). The ground-floors of the mills are made of travertine, whereas the second stories are made of wood, covered by shingle or tile roofs. Horizontally aligned paddle wheels drove the mills by directing water over the wheel, which in turn powered a rotating millstone that was used to grind corn, maize, wheat, rye, barley, millet, and oats. The water power was also used to pound woolen cloth for clothing; clothes were washed in a rotating barrel with holes that was geared by the water flow. Although we did not have much time in Rastoke, it provided a pleasant diversion and a chance to stretch our legs.

On our 2.5-hour drive from Rastoke to Ljubljana, we stopped at a rest area on the Autocesta A1 Motorway to use the bathrooms and to buy some snacks. At this stop, visitors could also enjoy a sit-down meal at the Krka Belvedera restaurant, buy some snacks from a tiny market, or purchase an ice cream cone. We also took a moment to view the Krka Bridge from the lookout. Other rest areas (but not this one) also offer lodging, require an entry fee of a few coins to use the restroom, and have a bar where you can drink a coffee or an (alcoholic) drink (perhaps not the best idea for someone driving a car!). When we were ready to cross from Croatia into Slovenia, in order to avoid the sometime lengthy lines at the main border crossing, Mitja tried to use a secondary crossing, but we learned that it was only for EU passport holders, so we returned to the main crossing and passed through after just a short wait.

When we arrived in Ljubljana, we checked into the Hotel Slon. After we walked around the historic area, we bought some drinks and snacks at the nearby Spar grocery store, then ate an al fresco dinner on the sidewalk terrace at Soba 102.

Saturday September 3: Ljubljana and Predjama

We ate a filling buffet breakfast in the hotel’s dining room before we met our guide for the next two days, Goran (“George”) Maczen from the organization Ljubljana Tour Guide. Goran gave us a combination walking/driving tour of the historic area of Ljubljana before he drove us to the nearby Ljubljana Castle. (Alternatively, we could have reached the castle using the aerial tram/cable car.) Located on the summit of Castle Hill, Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanski grad) is one of the most famous sites in the city. The 12th century castle was the residence of the Margraves, the Duke of Carniola. The castle's Viewing Tower (built centuries later) was inhabited by a guard who fired cannons for important events. Since 2006, the castle has been linked to the city center by a funicular, another favorite tourist site.

Ljubljana is the capital of and the largest city in Slovenia. Its historic center remains intact, with Roman, Baroque, Italian, Venetian, and Viennese characteristics exhibited in its many buildings and squares. Preseren Square's (the city's central square) contains the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation (Franciskanska Cerkev), an early-Baroque basilica with one nave and two rows of lateral chapels. Town Square contains Town Hall (Mestna hisa, Magistrat). Cyril and Methodius Square (Ciril-Metodov trg) near the Ljubljana Central Market and Town Hall contains Ljubljana Cathedral (Ljubljanska Stolnica) / St. Nicholas's Cathedral (Stolnica sveti Nikolaja), with its green dome and twin towers; it is a Baroque church with two side chapels shaped in the form of a Latin cross. Republic Square (also called Revolution Square), includes The National Assembly Building, Cankar Hall, and a Maximarket. Congress Square (Kongresni trg), built in 1821 for ceremonial purposes now contains buildings such as the University of Ljubljana Palace, Philharmonic Hall, Ursuline Church of the Holy Trinity, Slovene Society Building; and Star Park (Park Zvezda). Ljubljana is famous for its bridges, including the Dragon Bridge (Zmajski most; its dragon statues on all four corner are a symbol of the city that represent powerful and courageous Saint George and how Christianity overcame paganism), Butchers' Bridge (Mesarski most, with its mythological bronze sculptures and "love" padlocks), Triple Bridge (Tromostovje, with stone balusters and lamps leading to terraces), Fish Footbridge (Ribja most), the Cobblers' Bridge (Sustarski most, with its Corinthian pillars that mimic the shape of the bridge and its Ionic lamp-bearers pillars), the Hradecky Bridge (Hradeckega most, made of cast iron), and the Trnovo Bridge (Trnovski most, with its pyramidal corners, male sculptures, and statue of St John the Baptist).

Next, we drove to Predjama Grad (Predjama Castle). Predjama Castle is a Renaissance castle built within a cave mouth; it is located near Postojna Cave, another popular Slovenian tourist attraction (which we opted not to visit). The original Predjama Castle was built around 1274 in the Gothic style, perched high under a natural rocky arch in a stone wall in order to make it difficult for foes to access. It would have remained standing even during the Habsburg conflict, but Erazem Lueger (lord of the castle) was betrayed by one of his own men and killed by a cannon shot. During the seige, Erazem was able to secretly supply the castle with food because of a mechanically enlarged natural vertical shaft that led out of the original castle to an exit 82 feet high at the top of a cliff. A second castle was destroyed in an earthquake. The third (and current) castle still stands today. In 1846, the castle was sold to the Windischgratz family, who remained its owners until the end of World War II, when it became a museum. Seeing the family name "Windischgratz" led me to question our guide Goran, for my maternal grandfather's family ethnicity was "Windish" (which we always viewed as a nationality without a country). After speaking with Goran, it seems plausible that my ancestors originated from somewhere in Slovenia.

When we returned to Ljubljana, we ate an al fresco lunch on the sidewalk terrace at Gostilna Vinoteka Sokol. Later, we visited the Spar grocery store for our daily supplies, returned to the hotel to relax, then ventured back out for our evening meal on the outdoor riverside terrace at Aroma Restavracija and Pizzeria. On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at Kavarna Zvezdica on Wolfora (street) for a sweet treat. (Kavarna Zvezdica also offers a sit-down dining area in addition to the take-away ice cream shop.) For about $3 Euros, we purchased two ice creams (sladoled) and a bottle of water. Our guide described Kavarna Zvezdica as one of the best gelaterias in Ljubljana.

Sunday September 4: Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj

We ate a substantial buffet breakfast in the hotel’s dining room before we met our guide Goran. Our plan today was to visit Mount Vogel, Lake Bohinj, and Lake Bled. We drove about 1.5 hours from the hotel to reach our first stop, Lake Bohinj. At 2.6 miles long and 0.62 miles wide, it covers 790 acres and is the largest permanent lake in Slovenia. The lake lies within Triglav National Park, which is part of the Julian Alps. Bohinj is a glacial lake dammed by a moraine, which allows visitors to fish, swim, and do other water sports. Here, you can ride the funicular up to a panoramic viewpoint on the top of Mount Vogel (about 5,000 feet) in order to enjoy spectacular views of the mountains and lake.

Next, we drove about 30 minutes back towards Ljubljana to reach Lake Bled, the star of today’s show. Lake Bled was originally a health resort for the wealthy and powerful, including by Yugoslav dictator Tito, who had a villa there (which you can still visit). Lake Bled is 6,960 feet long and 4,530 feet wide, with a maximum depth of 97 feet. The lake lies in a picturesque environment surrounded by mountains and forests with a small island (Blejski Otok) in the middle. You reach the island by taking a 20-minute ride on a 20-passenger traditional flat-bottomed wooden boat called a “pletna”, a sort of gondola-like row boat with a canopy. (The profession of pletna oarsman is a skill handed down in families from generation to generation.) Visitors can also reach the island by swimming, as we saw some adventurous young adults do! A 99 stone-step Baroque stairway leads from the lake to the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary (Cerkev Marijinega Vnebovzetja). Traditionally, when people marry at the church, it is considered good luck for the groom to carry his bride up the steps before he rings the "wishing" bell inside the church. The church’s 171-foot bell tower was built in the 17th century and is decorated with Gothic frescos. While on the island, we sampled the potica (Slovenian nut roll cake) from the Poticnica shop/cafe. (We had already sampled the famous Bled Cream Cake two days previously at Degenijan Restoran in Rakovica near Plitvice Lakes.) On our boat ride back to shore, we saw medieval Bled Castle standing prominently above the lake (although we declined to visit).

After a one-hour drive from Lake Bled, we arrived back in Ljubljana, where we enjoyed an al fresco lunch on the riverside terrace at Zlata Ribica. Because we wanted to savor our last day in Slovenia, we next visited the Cutty Sark Pub for a few drinks on their outdoor patio. We made our last trip to the local grocery store, then returned to the hotel to relax and pack. Later in the evening, we took a last stroll around the historic area, ate some doner kabobs street food as our dinner, then sat down for a nightcap and dessert at a free-standing riverside cafe near the main bridges.

Monday September 5: Ljubljana to Vienna to Newark

Because our flight departed early, we had no time for a last breakfast at the hotel. We had pre-arranged an airport transfer through the hotel; however, when we were ready to depart, they simply called a taxi/van for us. It took approximately 30 minutes to reach Joze Pucnik Airport. We flew from Ljubljana to Vienna on Austrian Air partner Adria Airways; our 7:35 am flight arrived in Vienna a short hour later. We had nearly two hours before our Austrian Air flight departed for the US, so we spent our time in the airline lounge. Our 10+ hour flight to Newark departed at 10:15 am, and the Boeing 767 arrived back in Newark that afternoon at 1:50 pm. Our long-awaited trip to Croatia and Slovenia had come to an end.

Conclusion

We had been scheduled to take this trip to the Balkans one year previously (August 2015), but we had to delay because of some health concerns. Thus, we were thrilled when our eagerly anticipated journey came to fruition. We loved the locations that we visited in Croatia (including Dubrovnik, Split, Ston, Mali Ston, the island of Hvar, and Plitvice Lakes). We were pleased to visit so many walled cities (prior to visiting, we only knew that Dubrovnik had walls), and surprised that they were all different in certain ways. We enjoyed our day trips to Kotor (Montenegro) and Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina) from our base in Dubrovnik. Our quick tour through Slovenia, including Ljubljana and Lake Bled, provided a nice contrasting European feel to our experience in Croatia. We had some good guides on this trip (particularly Petar from Dubrovnik Riviera Tours, who we want to accompany us on all future border crossings!), some great facilitators (Mate from Private Guide Split), a nice although not fluently bi-lingual driver (Mitja), and one less-recommended guide. We ate some great meals (veal peka, piles of mussels and shrimp, and a huge grilled meat platter), and we had some unforgettable drinks (at Dubrovnik’s Buza Bar and at the Hvar Bonj beach club). We will fondly remember our trip to the Balkans!
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