Euro Trip Part I: The Balkans

I’m a bit sad as I start this post knowing it will probably be our last from Berlin, but I’m doing it in two parts so can prolong being an international blogger a little longer:) We got back earlier this week from our awesome “final Euro-trip” through the Balkans, Austria and Germany. We saw so many beautiful places and had so much fun, but are happy to be back home in Berlin. Now we have just two weeks to live it up in this amazing city before we head back stateside. But now onto the good stuff…

We flew to Dubrovnik on Saturday July 27. Only 55 euros/person- thank you EasyJet! We got in late and went directly from the airport to our apartment where we hit the hay early so we’d be fresh for our first full day in Dubrovnik. We woke up early, grabbed some provisions and hopped a bus to the Old City. Once there it was pretty easy to find the Old Harbor and buy tickets for the ferry to the island of Lokrum. Lokrum is just of the coast of Dubrovnik and can only be accessed during the day; the island must be vacated by 8:00 pm each day. It’s covered in hiking trails and houses an old fort as well as an olive grove and hoards of peacocks. Its also infested with cicadas and their roar is so loud you can hear it a few hundred meters away as the ferry approaches the dock. The island  was pretty crowded, but we found a private spot on the rocks by hiking away from the crowds. We had a fantastic morning swimming in the crystal clear Adriatic, reading, napping and trying to avoid the sun (it was 40 Celsius, which makes it around 100 Fahrenheit)!
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We spent the afternoon exploring Lokrum’s hiking trails, swimming and enjoying some ice cream at the restaurant near the dock. We also took the time to find the shooting locations Game of Thrones uses on the island…I’ll let Dave tell you a little more about that:
Last spring/summer Adrian and I got really into the Game of Thrones series and finished off all the books. After we’d both finished with the books we started watching the HBO series and are big fans. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s a fantasy story based upon George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Part of the reason we were so excited to visit Croatia was that we knew some of the show was filmed there and we wanted to check out a couple of film locations. Turns out, they were pretty easy to find!
Lokrum was a big part of the shooting in season 4 as it served as the location of Qarth, one of the shows key settings. You can tell why they selected it as the islands has an old monastery that looks like something directly out of a fantasy novel. In addition, it has a interesting, almost tropical feel to it with lots of vegetation and palm trees as well as beautiful gardens. Adrian and I were able to spot some places that looked very familiar before later confirming that the were definitely featured on the show. 
Dubrovnik itself serves as the shows version of ‘Kings Landing’, which is the capital city of the fictional nation of Westeros depicted in the series. The city was a perfect choice for this location: just like Kings Landing, Dubrovnik is a walled city that is directly adjacent to the sea. Some of the best, most beautiful scenes from the television show are simply just live shots of the city of Dubrovnik! Take this scene from the show:  
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and compared it to some of the shots above and below that Adrian and I took of Dubrovnik. It’s pretty clear that it’s the same place.
For some reason it is really cool to see film locations in real life and it was no exception in Dubrovnik. If you happen to be lucky enough to visit, make sure you try and check them out!
We ferried back from Lokrum a little after 6:00om and used our trusty guidebook to find a dinner spot. We shared a pizza and a Greek salad at a place called Tabasco  while overlooking the walls of the Old City. Post dinner we checked out the Old City at night and then made our way home to crash.
On Monday we made our way directly to the Old City so we could walk the city walls. The entry price is a little steep at 90 koruna (about $15) each, but the price was well worth it. The walls encompass the entirety of the Old City and were never breached since their creation prior to the 7th century. It takes about two hours to walk them completely if you go at a normal pace and take time for some photos (I probably took close to 100), but it was HOT! Dave likes to “beat the heat”, but I was dying. As soon as we finished the walls we grabbed some popsicles and water and found a place to jump in the ocean. The site of our swim wasn’t as picturesque as the day before given that we went right off the Old Harbor next to the Walls with probably 100 other people, but the water was cool and so salty that we just floated around for a few hours.
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After our swim we decided to do a little more walking and found our way to the top of the St. Lawrence Fortress (free with your entry ticket to the walls). It also had great views of the city and the coast, but way less people. We spent some time checking it out and then headed to the apartment for showers and a quick nap before dinner. We decided to go for a nicer dinner and read some great reviews for a seafood restaurant right in the middle of the Old City. I had spaghetti with mussels and Dave opted for the cuttlefish risotto. We split a bottle of Croatian wine (which only came in liters). Then we spent our last hours in Dubrovnik walking around the Old City and watching the lights of the city from the pier. A very relaxing and romantic way to end our time in such a beautiful city.
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Tuesday morning we were up and at ’em early to catch our bus from Dubrovnik to Kotor, Montenegro. The two hour ride went by quickly and we kept getting more excited as we made our way closer to Kotor. The scenery was fantastic- the mountains literally jut out of the ocean in some of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. When we arrived we easily found our apartment, enjoyed some ice cold beers courtesy of our host and then geared up to walk our second set of walls of the trip. Unlike Dubrovnik, where the walls simply encircle the Old City, the walls of Kotor head straight up a mountain to a fortress. The walk is about 45 minutes/1 hour straight up. Which would be unpleasant in normal weather, but given that it was again close to 100° it was pretty painful. Luckily the views on the way up helped assuage my heat-induced moaning and we were greatly rewarded for our efforts when we reached the top- Kotor is absolutely breathtaking.
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We repeated our post-wall procedure from the day before, stopping quickly for some popsicles and water before making our way straight into the ocean! We cooled off in the water for awhile, headed home for quick showers and then headed out for dinner and drinks. We found a great roof top bar at a place called Citadella. Cheap beer, Mussels alla buzara and fantastic views only added to our growing affection of Kotor. We watched the sun dip behind the mountains as we enjoyed the view and then finished up the night with a walk and some card playing and wine on the patio of our apartment.
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Wednesday morning we grabbed a quick breakfast in the Old Town before jumping on a bus to the capital city of Montenegro, Podgorica. The two hour ride allowed us to see some pretty awesome views of the Adriatic before heading inland.Montenegro was gorgeous overall, but Podgorica did not strike my fancy. This may have been due to the fact that while waiting for our connection to Foca I realized that I’d started updating the Kindle app on my iPad, but stupidly never let it finish, leaving me without access to my books for the upcoming 5 hour bus ride. It also could be that Podgorica was the first location I encountered the hole in the ground toilets popular throughout Bosnia. Seriously how do you not splash pee on your feet?! I had no reading material and pee on my feet, hence I was hating Podgorica. Luckily we were only stuck there for an hour.

The bus ride across the country was actually plenty pleasant. The bus was air conditioned and about half empty- so pretty comfortable. Additionally just before crossing into Bosnia we started to drive along the winding roads adjacent to the incredibly blue Piva River and Canyon. The view was amazing!
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The bus dropped us off right at the entrance to the Drina-Tara Rafting Club (drivers on the Balkan Express are very accommodating). The staff were so easy going and friendly. They gave us a key to one of the cabins and told us to head to the patio whenever we were ready for dinner. We paid for a two-day/two-night package that included lodging, the rafting trip and all meals. And when I say portions are generous, I mean it! They provided us with SSOOO much food. We had salad, a huge meat plate, meat wrapped in grape leaves, homemade bread, cheese curd spread, roasted potatoes and more! We stuffed ourselves and appreciated the view of the river from the deck. Then we played some cards, threw back a couple of beers and headed to bed.

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The next morning we woke up to another generous meal at breakfast and then had an hour or two to relax in the hammocks before we geared up for rafting. We got our life-vests, booties and helmets and headed back across the Montenegro boarder. We drove for about an hour before we finally unloaded and got going with the rafting. The water level was pretty low- back in June we were told it was 10 meters higher and the trip back to the center (approx: 22 kilometers, 3 hours) took only 50 minutes! Since it was my first time rafting I was glad for the easy flowing water and it gave us a chance to really take in the view. The Tara River Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon in Arizona and it’s absolutely gorgeous. We stopped a little over half-way for a beer break and a chance to take pictures. The trip was awesome and the freezing water felt great in contrast to the hot sun. Definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip.
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Lunch (a delicious pan of lamb and potatoes that had been roasting underground for hours) was waiting for us upon our return and we had a good time learning about the amazing trip one of the other rafters in our boat was undertaking. He’s a Japanese student studying in the US who’s taking about 4.5 months to bike solo from London to Athens and check out sites along the way. He built his bike himself and had been camping in the woods and people’s lawns along the way. A pretty amazing adventure.
We spent the afternoon napping, reading and walking around the surrounding area before tucking in for our third big meal of the day! We ate with a lovely Slovenia couple we met, Emelina and Dan. The next day we had breakfast with our new Slovenia friends before hitching a ride with one of the staff to the nearby town of Foca where we began the long trek across Bosnia. We took a bus first to Sarajevo, then a taxi to a different bus station in the city, then a second bus for a 6 hour ride (made an hour long from an unexpected maintenance stop) and one final taxi to our hotel, Hotel Kostelski, in the city of Bihac.  The hotel was the most luxurious of our trip with a big fluffy bed, huge shower and spacious balcony. We had dinner at their restaurant and our huge feast (a Bosnian theme?) came out to only 16 Euros! What a deal. The front desk staff were also were able to work out a taxi to take us directly from the hotel to Plitvice National Park in Croatia the next morning- a really great hotel experience at Kostelski.
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The taxi picked up us right after breakfast and took us across the board and directly to our hotel, Guesthouse Sven, in Plitvice, Croatia. Guesthouse Sven is located directly across the street and a 10 minute walk from the entrance of Plitvice National Park. We discovered a “secret” path into the park that let us bypass the entrance counter (and pricey entrance fee), but I’m a goody two-shoes and also wanted to take the little ferry ride our entrance ticket included so we ponied up the cash. We spent the next 8 hours exploring almost every path in the park. We walked the low trails right off the water with the hoards of other visitors and hiked up the high trails where everyone magically disappeared. The views were amazing from both and the water clearer than any we’d seen. The system of lakes pouring into one another through waterfalls is so impressive and we were in awe of the natural beauty all day. We took tons of photos, but really non can do the park justice.
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We cooked dinner at home that night and collapsed, happy to find an English language channel veg out to as we had to be up early for another travel day. Sunday we were up and on the bus to Zagreb by 10:00. When we reached the capital we found that the online bus schedule was incorrect and there were no further buses to Ljubljana that day. Luckily we found a train to Ljubljana, but it didn’t leave until 6:00pm- giving us 5 hours to kill. We decide to explore a bit of Zagreb with the extra time, but the city was dead. Literally no people and nothing open. We eventually found the city’s cathedral to be open (and quite beautiful) then a McDonald’s for some much needed lunch and we passed the rest of the afternoon at a local park, cooling our feet off in one of the fountains. Our train ended up being delayed by an hour and then getting breaking down at the Slovenian boarder, pushing our arrival time in Ljubljana to almost 11:00. Additionally the air conditioner was out on the train and it was packed to standing room only causing the compartments to feel like saunas. A long day to go just about 260 kilometers. Thankfully our hostel in Ljubljana was extremely central and we were easily able to find a spot for dinner and some much needed beers.
IMG_2579 IMG_2584Tuesday we ate a quick breakfast at the hostel and headed back to the train/bus station so we could make it out to Lake Bled. The ride was about an hour and 20 minutes and we spent the morning relaxing and swimming in the crystal clear waters of Lake Bled. The breeze made the bell in the church on Bled Island ring continuously and the sail boats provided a picturesque backdrop. It was the perfect way to unwind after the previous day’s travel complications.
IMG_2594 IMG_2631 IMG_2611 IMG_2605We bused back to Ljubljana in the early afternoon, showered up and headed out into the city. We walked along the river checking out the many bridges (triple bridge, butcher’s bridge, shoemaker’s bridge, dragon’s bridge etc…) and then took the funicular up to the castle. The castle is beautifully restored and provides some fantastic views of the city. There was also a fascinating exhibit about a Slovenian woman named Alma Karlin. She traveled around the world by herself in the early/mid 20th century and her story is captivating. She traveled for 8 years, visiting every continent and writing about her experiences. She’s a great example of a forward-thinking woman with a strong moral compass- read about her!
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We walked back down the hill and found a great bar on the river that served a local beer we’d been wanting to try, HumanFish. We spent the rest of the evening wandering around the city, grabbing some dinner and then ended up in Prešeren square where an impromptu brass band set up and started playing. Ljubljana is an ideal, picturesque European capital. I wish we could have had more time to explore and see the city- next time!
IMG_2720 IMG_2733 IMG_2735 IMG_2743The following morning we were on the 7:30 am train towards Germany, leaving the Balkans behind….which also means that part one of this post is complete! I’m going to get to part two soon, but give you a breather for now. Next time- Germany and Austria.
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