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Trip Report Trip report: Balkans-September 2015

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We returned from our three week adventure in the Balkans early last month. As others have already said, this forum was an invaluable resource in planning our trip. Perhaps our insights and experiences may assist others who are planning a similar holiday in the future.

We travelled (on points) from Vancouver, Canada with a stop in Chicago en route. We had a day and a half in Chicago, which we really enjoyed. Travelling on points often offers less flexibility for routing, but we were able to make the best of a very early departure from home and an overnight with late evening departure from Chicago. We ultimately flew into Ljubljana, Slovenia. We were met by our private driver and transported to Lake Bled (approx. 30 minutes away) to relax and recover from jet-lag for the next few days.

After research on this forum and other travel guides, I chose the destinations most important to us. The itinerary was ultimately arranged by Secret Dalmatia. Their arrangements were excellent and I have no hesitation in recommending their services. We often drive ourselves in Europe, but this time we chose private tours and drivers throughout. For once, my spouse was able to relax and let someone else take care of driving and parking. This is a much more expensive proposition, but for us it worked well.

Our Itinerary was as follows:

Bled (3 nights): private tour and boat trip
Ljubljana (overnight): private walking tour and stop at Postojna Caves
Rovinj (2 nights): private walking tour and day-trip to Pula
Plitvice Lakes (overnight)
Split (4 nights): private walking tour, day-trips to Trogir, Sibenik, Zadar and day-trip to Brac
Sarajevo (2 nights): private tour of Mostar en route, private tour of Sarajevo
Dubrovnik (4 nights): private walking tour, day-trip to Montenegro

We prefer an active itinerary and this worked well for us. Many of our scheduled tours occupied only the first part of the day so we frequently had afternoons and evenings as downtime to explore on our own. Lake Bled was a great place to recharge after a long transatlantic journey. For avid hikers and nature lovers, it is a great location. The town itself is very small and touristy, but that did not detract from the overall beauty. My spouse would have preferred one less night in Lake Bled and to have had another day in Ljubljana, which was a beautiful and very walkable city. Hotel Cubo was excellent!

We enjoyed the Postojna Caves, though they are similar to other caves that we have seen in other parts of the world. It is difficult to manage multiple large groups of international tourists for a 90 minute visit. The caves are commercial but interesting nonetheless. It helps to stay close to the guide so as to benefit from the commentary.

Our next stop was Rovinj- a beautiful little seaside town. Again, it is small and very walkable. We probably did not need the walking tour here as we had already seen most of the sights on our own the afternoon before our scheduled walking tour. There are some lovely restaurants in Rovinj with tables situate on the rocks by the ocean. It is spectacular on a warm, clear night. We wished we had skipped one of our tours to go swimming here as the water was very inviting.
We did a daytrip to Pula to see the roman ruins. We were underwhelmed. We have seen Roman ruins throughout Europe and North Africa and for us, Pula offered nothing special. We wished that we had spent the extra time relaxing in Rovinj.

We seriously considered omitting our visit to Plitvice Lakes. Many on this forum, and several guidebooks suggested that it was a “must see”. We made the long trek inland to see the park and to spend overnight. Accommodation inside the park is limited and Secret Dalmatia had advised that they do not usually recommend an overnight there. We should have heeded that advice. The park is pretty and offers opportunities for hiking: the waterfall formations are unique but certainly not as spectacular as the scenery where we live. That we had been in Iceland just four weeks previous, likely contributed to our disappointment with this “must see”. The walkways are crowded and there are long lines for the boats that transport visitors. Those who wish a peaceful experience should search out the more isolated trails.

We based ourselves in Split for the next four nights. We loved the city and our hotel, the Cornaro was right on the edge of the old town. This was a great base for the day-trips that we had arranged. Again, we were usually back at the hotel in the early afternoon and had plenty of free time to explore on our own. We did not particularly enjoy Trogir or Sibenik-they were not bad, but it was often more of the same commentary offered by our guide. We loved Zadar. It is a vibrant city by the sea and we could have spent much more time there. We chose to go to Brac rather than Hvar. Secret Dalmatia offered a private lunch and wine tasting, together with a tour of the island. We ended up at the beach at Bol where we swam with local families. It was a delightful day.

We had the same driver from Rovinj through to Sarajevo. This added an extra dimension to our trip. He was not only a very safe driver, but an engaging travel companion and ambassador for Croatia. We spent hours in his company and were sad when he left us. We stopped at Mostar en route to Sarajevo for a two hour walking tour. For us, the tour was too long. After seeing the bridge, the old town and the mosque, it seemed like the tour guide was trying to embellish aspects of local life (i.e. the Turkish House Museum) which were of little interest to us. The old town is interesting and full of tourist shops; the Ottoman influence was apparent. It did not help that the temperature exceeded 40’ C that day in late September! It would be truly oppressive in the height of summer….

Sarajevo was a true highlight. Our guide was a 12 year old child at the start of the war. She escaped through the famous tunnel with her grandmother. She brought wartime Sarajevo to life. She also introduced us to Bosnia “fast food” which was absolutely delicious! The old town reminded us of parts of Istanbul. Restaurant prices were substantially less than in Croatia (which is already fairly reasonable).

Our last stop was Dubrovnik. Our new driver from Sarajevo navigated us carefully through a torrential rainstorm as we made the four hour drive to Dubrovnik. He stopped to point out other points of interest that were not included in our original itinerary. He was well-educated and we had some very stimulating discussions about world events. The sun broke through the clouds as we arrived in Dubrovnik.

We had a wonderful guide for our walking tour inside the walls of the old city. All the stories of hordes of cruise ship passengers are true….they were there en masse. It was not really a problem as there were just two of us and we were able to dodge most of the crowds with the assistance of our guide. The view from the top of the walls is spectacular!

We stayed at the Lacroma which was a wonderful full -service hotel. We found a board-walk near the hotel which led along the seafront into Lapad. There were a number of interesting restaurants and places with ladders and easy beach access for swimming.

Our last day tour was to Montenegro. We had a private walking tour of Kotor. Though the scenic two hour drive was pleasant enough, there was absolutely nothing unique about this town. It was even more crowded than Dubrovnik with passengers from at least two cruise ships that were in port that day. We had a much more agreeable visit at Perast, about 20 minutes down the road. After visiting the island church, we had a fantastic, lazy lunch by the waterfront-a nice way to end the afternoon!

On our final night in Dubrovnik, we ate in a private gazeebo on a hill above the waterfront at the Hotel More, not far from our hotel. We agreed that it had been an active and interesting trip. The Slovenian, Croatian and Bosnian people are warm and friendly. The wines were drinkable and the food was always fresh. Parts were very European but much more affordable.

The weather was glorious until the day of our departure-we were very fortunate. The weather was set to turn and did: our departure was delayed by extreme thunder and lightening, which hit our plane as it was landing in Dubrovnik. After a 5 hour delay we were on our way home, abandoning our plan for a romantic dinner in Vienna where we had an overnight stop. That will have to wait for another trip!

Though it was still considered tourist season at the end of September, it was apparent that the season was winding down. Dubrovnik remained crowded within the city walls, yet a number of shops and restaurants were closed for the season in the area near our hotel and many boutiques were clearing our their summer stock. We swam in the ocean in both Brac and in Dubrovnik. The water temperature was refreshing, not really warm....

All in all it was a great trip. We returned relaxed yet reinvigorated....looking to find our next adventure!

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