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Published: September 20th 2018
Over the course of two weeks, our tour covered a distance of approximately 980 km and traveling through Albania, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia. Three of these countries would be new to us. We spent two days in Albania which was only enough to give us a taste of the country before moving on to Montenegro. Again, we had not had much time in the country of Montenegro though it truly deserved more time to explore. However, it was long enough to appreciate its varied geography ranging from the high, lush green Bjelasica Mountains and national parks down to its golden beaches on the Adriatic Sea. Montenegro produces some excellent wines, honey, and figs which explains why dried figs are sold in farmers markets everywhere.
As past experience has taught us, tour schedules are not often varied from, but during this tour we did have some surprises along the way. We were originally scheduled to visit the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica and visit the museum at Cetinje but road construction interfered and to tell the truth, I was not too sorry to miss the museum. But fearing we all would be disappointed, our guide, Edo, promised us a later surprise. Traveling
along the coast we had only a drive-by sight of the ritzy Sveti Stefan, an exclusive resort island, before seeing a bit of the sun-kissed, seaside town of Budva -- apparently the Budva's star is now on the rise as it is changing rapidly due to an influx of foreign money -- certainly this once low on the radar, small town is becoming more touristy by the minute. It's a shame we couldn't see it though before it changes even more.
We continued on to see a sweeping view of the magnificent Bay of Kotor followed by a lunch-time stop in the historic, walled city of Kotor itself. Kotor is roughly a triangle lying at the base of a mountain and must be entered through one of several ancient gates in the city walls. We entered through the "Sea Gate." From this point on it was a challenge to see much of anything inside the walls and have time for lunch as it was incredibly crowded here. The sheer number of tourists inside the walls was unexpected and was frustrating to say the least though I guess we should have known better. It's a good idea to have a
map of the old city with you as the streets were often narrow, and maze-like which in some cases served to funnel the crowds and make for slow going. Kotor's ancient city walls extend up and around the base of the mountain and are punctuated by small churches or other places of note; I'm sure the more physically fit of our group would have given hiking these walls (sometimes with accompanying steps, paths, etc.) a try if there was more time here as it's a very popular thing to do and the reward for the effort are the outstanding views spreading out before you -- the old walled city below and of course the stunning deep blue Bay of Kotor.
The surprise promised by our guide to compensate for missing Podgorica and Cetinje was a visit to the little seaside town of Perast and taking a boat out to see the quite exquisite "Our Lady of the Rocks" (Gospa od Škrpjela) Church built on a man-made island in the Bay of Kotor --- a much better option than what was originally scheduled! Looking out toward the tiny island, the scene is incredible with the church's pale blue domes and
coppery terra cotta roof tiles so beautifully set above the mirror-like surface of the water. Boarding a motorboat we took the short ride out to the almost completely flat island which has only the church including a small museum, a navigation light at one end, restrooms, and a gift shop where I bought a small, glossy book about the history of the island and church. The story of how the church and the island itself came to be built is fascinating.
It seems that on July 22,1452, two brothers were fishing off the coast of Perast when they found a painting of the Madonna and Child lodged on a protruding rock. Finding this painting was taken as a sign from the divine, and the fishermen vowed to build a church on the spot. Upon returning from each safe voyage, they began throwing rocks into the sea at this spot to build up a base for an islet to support construction of a church; even old ships filled with rock were scuttled here to "build" the islet. You can imagine how many years it took to build even this small island in this fashion. In time the islet eventually became
large enough to build on. This custom of throwing rocks into the sea happens every year on the sunset of July 22nd in an event called the fašinada" which takes place with local residents steering their boats out to the area where they throw rocks into the sea; eventually this will increase the surface area of the islet.
Guided tours are given of the church and small museum inside with a regulated number of visitors allowed in at any one time. Our guide was marvelous as she explained about the church's trove of religious artwork, tapestry, embroidery, the imposing altar, historic artifacts and the ornate, and especially the embossed silver plates donated to the church by sailors and their families. One famous piece which hung in the small museum is a framed piece of embroidery sewn by a sailor's wife, Jacinta Kunić-Mijović, from Perast. For 25 years she worked on the piece of embroidery while waiting for her husband to return from a long sea voyage. Using not only golden and silver thread, she also used her own hair meticulously weaving it into the embroidery which is why this piece is so special and quite famous as well. Sadly,
Jacinta Kunić-Mijović went blind over the many, many years of creating this piece for her beloved. After the tour we had a short time to wander around the small island, look back at lovely Perast hugging both shore and mountain side, and think about how beautiful this part of the world is. We were very glad to visit what we could of Montenegro but undoubtedly there was much more to see.
Later we crossed the border out of Montenegro into Croatia to reach Dubrovnik where we'd spend the next 2 nights. Border crossings between countries in the Balkans usually held up our tour bus at least an hour, while private cars went through in a matter of minutes. I believe I got only 2 or 3 passport stamps out of the border crossings we made and, except for Albania, these were EU stamps where countries are distinguished only by a circled letter or two in the upper left corner of the stamp.
Day 7 was dedicated to the well preserved, historic walled-city of Dubrovnik, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Though we had visited Dubrovnik several years before, at that time we did not have the advantage of a
local tour guide. However, on this trip we had an excellent local guide, Goran, who ushered us through this marvelous place on a tour lasting between one and half to two hours. We ventured into parts of the Old City which we had sadly missed previously -- specifically, the 14th-century Franciscan monastery with its 700-year-old apothecary and cloistered gardens (admission fee included in the tour), and also the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and Treasury. Built on the site of several predecessors, the current structure completed in the 1700's. The cathedral was a casualty of the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991 when it was hit by a shell, but has since been repaired and I don't remember seeing anything left of the damages.
We saw many more Old City sites (Roland's Column, Onofrio's Fountain, the Stradun, etc.) during the tour but afterwards we stayed in town on our own to further explore, shop, and have lunch at cozy restaurant named the "Art Renaissance." We rarely take a tout's advice for restaurants but this time we did and it proved to be a nice surprise on two counts -- ambiance and food. The restaurant had a surprisingly
beautiful interior with its Florentine-inspired, hand-painted arched ceilings, medallion portraits and gracious chandelier. Can you imagine having a salad, a plate of deliciously seasoned mussels, and dessert for only €7 in such a delightful place!
Since we had not climbed Dubrovnik's city walls on our previous visit, I was quite determined this time not to miss the chance to do just that on this visit. It’s a costly exercise (about $20 US), but a very rewarding one. After covering the mile plus wall perimeter, and climbing the approximately 1,000 steps in the intense sun and heat with a heavy backpack, I really felt like I accomplished something. It was a great day in the Old City and what great views all around! After catching our breath, we left via the walled city via the Pile Gate, and hopped on bus No. 6 back to the Valamar Lacroma Hotel in the Babin Kuk section of Dubrovnik where we spent 2 nights in a somewhat too warm, but lovely partial sea view room.
Day 8 - Oddly enough, due to a quirk of history we also had to pass through a small portion of Bosnia-Hercegovina (B-H) near "Neum" before being
able to travel farther north in Croatia. This small area has access to the sea and was "given" to the Ottomans at the time for their help in defending Croatia from the Venetians -- so from Croatia into B-H, and B-H into Croatia again. In B-H our time was restricted to a very nice rest stop only but a visit to Mostar is on my wish list.
Finally we were on our way to Split but first a lunch stop in the charming village of Makarska which has a long harbor-front promenade, and some of the best Margherita pizza we ever had thanks to the Marina Restaurant. We chose to have lunch on the sunny patio looking out on the harbor. Afterwards we walked to a nearby park for a few minutes as we didn't have time to properly explore the town itself.
Once in Split itself, we had a guided walking tour of 4th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site, Diocletian's Palace. The Roman emperor Diocletian built the palace in the 4th century for his retirement. So much of the palace is still intact that it was fun exploring the warren of narrow passageways, underground rooms, and cobblestone streets
where every turn brings a new and interesting sight. Here too we had a local guide to take us to the less explored points of the palace as well.
As I was hoping, once again we heard an all-male group of traditional Klapa singers in the Palace's wonderfully acoustic Vestibule. Being a fan, I really enjoy hearing the harmony and traditional songs in Croatian voices. I had already purchased a CD on our first visit to Diocletian's Palace, but I couldn't resist buying a CD from this group. Outside of the Palace, the waterfront promenade of Split is a very lovely place to take a stroll day or evening to enjoy the tropical breeze under the swaying palm trees. It would have been nice to have dinner in the Palace are, but dinner at our hotel was included this evening. Our Split hotel, The Atrium, was located outside of the historic area and a world away from the environs of the historic Palace. The hotel's itself was excellent but the immediate neighborhood was dominated by multi-story apartment blocks. Were it not for the colorful coats of paint sported by these buildings, and several unusual apartment building rooftop adornments --
an elephant, mermaid, a musician and others -- the concrete block buildings would be reminiscent of the Communist-era style of architecture which were anything but appealing --- featureless, austere, drab, and dark. Sadly, graffiti -- and not the good kind -- covers buildings here.
On Day 9, only about a half hour or so after leaving Split, we found ourselves at yet another medieval city, Trogir -- also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walled, historic city occupies a small island but is connected by bridges to the mainland and the larger Ciovo Island.The city of Trogir-Tragurium is mentioned in the 1st century as a Roman city though Greeks settled here as well. We entered through the small north gate (topped by a statue of the Bishop/St. Ivan Orsini (St. John) the patron saint of Trogir), and enjoyed exploring some of the more interesting narrow cobblestone streets, seeing the clock tower and loggia, a bit of the 13th-century Cathedral of St. Lawrence, and the exterior only of the Cipiko Palace just opposite the Cathedral. After a walk on the seaside promenade, we had a coffee/latte at a cafe with our guide, Edo, then excused ourselves to look at a
few shops for postcards, and a mandatory magnet for my collection. I noticed that many shops display strings of natural sponges which have been gathered from nearby diving spots. We would have needed at least a day to fully appreciate this ancient town and to see the many details large and small which you find here.
Back on the road our destination for the night was Plitvice Lakes, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, our lunch stop enroute was in Krka-Belvedere, only a rest stop really but a very nice one, with a great overlook to the Krka River. Unfortunately lunch at the RESTORAN ODMORIŠTE KRKA was completely forgettable. I later learned that Krka is home to Krka National Park, a very beautiful park and similar to Plitvice Lakes but a smaller version having only 7 waterfalls. Yet another surprise in Croatia! With no time for a longer stop, it was back on the bus as we drove on what was perhaps the one and only straight road I remember in the Balkans.
Plitvice Lakes is surely one of the most beautiful places on earth! A multi-level area of lush greenery with 16 incredible turquoise blue and
jade green lakes and innumerable waterfalls. From the park entrance we took two short boat rides to reach the start of the wooden plank walkways/bridges which weave through the lake system. Although completely breathtaking, for me the setting was ruined by the hordes of incredibly rude tourist groups who hogged the walkways, pushed others aside rather than be separated from their group, cut in line, and covered each beautiful site with a multitude of selfie-sticks without then backing away to let others have a chance at photos so self-absorbed there were -- in short, the site I most looked forward to visiting was utterly ruined. Luckily the day was partially redeemed by our stay at the very welcoming Hotel Jezero where we had a very comfortable room with balcony which looked out into the deep forest; we could hear the sound of rushing water nearby -- or was it just the sound of wind rustling through the trees? We also had an excellent dinner here in their large dining room and a round of after dinner drinks in their bar. I was sorry we were only spending one night here.
It was already Day 10 as we traveled the
coast along Kvarner Bay and made our way toward the Istrian Peninsula, but first our morning stop was in Senj, known for the 16th-century Nehaj Fortress. The town's origins date back to the 2nd century B.C. We could see the Fortress from our road approach, but this was only a coffee stop really which we shared with a couple of our touring companions. It was not until having coffee in Senj that I realized a good way to remember some of our lesser tour stops was by the sugar packets/sachets which came with coffee or tea. Seems rather than having business cards or match books with the name of the establishment on them, the sugar packets actually had the name of the establishment printed on them -- glad I saved some to help me with my journals!
Exploring the Istrian Peninsula was not on our schedule and we would not get a chance to see Pula, nor its Roman Ampitheathre (built between 27 BC – 68 AD). Rather we stopped in Opatija for lunch where we had another tasty Margherita pizza at the Roko Restaurant. Opatija was a popular seaside resort town in the 19th century and wealthy people
built mansions here, many of which remain, though not all are still inhabited. Anyone with enough time should have a walk on the Lungomare, Opatija's very lengthy seaside promenade and we found it a pleasant break.
Buoyed by our excellent pizza lunch, we crossed yet another border this time into Slovenia and soon embarked on our major activity for the day which was visiting the amazing Postojna Cave Park. The 24,340m long karst cave is second in size only to Mammoth Cave in the U.S. The cave is so large that it is necessary to take an electric train you deep inside before you go further by foot on a rather long trek to see a seemingly endless system of tunnels, caverns and rooms or halls and galleries on a 1½-hour guided tour on foot. Probably the most famous stalagmite is a pure white named "Brilliant" in contrast to the reddish, taller pillar next to it. Near the end of our walk, we visited the vivariums containing the somewhat elusive cave-dwelling Proteus, a salamander-like creature which is completely blind. They are sometimes called olms, baby dragons or even human fish and can live a hundred years and go a
decade without food. Looking like a pale pink, eyeless alligator to me, I'm glad to have seen one in my lifetime!
The remaining 3.2km of the cave is traversed by the excellent electric train ride. Altogether we saw 5km of the cave where the inside temperature is cool and very damp as you might imagine and inclines can be quite steep --- good walking shoes and a light jacket are recommended. Visiting the caves is costly though included in our tour -- adult admission/child admission is €23.90/14.30 -- but educational and definitely worth it.
Our last stop on Day 10, was the town of Bled nestled high in the Julian Alps. We checked into our hotel for 2 nights, the Park Hotel which overlooked Lake Bled. Though we were already very tired from the jammed-packed day of activities, that night we took an optional excursion to old town of Radovljica (with preserved 15th & 16th-century houses) to a wonderful little restaurant where a visit to their wine cellar included tasting of a variety of local wines, cheeses, and Slovenian sausage all the while watching and participating in some traditional Slovenian dances.
This was followed by a dinner
of fresh trout with accompaniments. While having dinner, there was again some traditional Slovenian dancing, and games which we would take part in. The dancing was fun, but the games even more so -- a version of musical hats accompanied by accordion music -- separate games for men and women. Simple but extremely fun! Winners, which happened to be my husband and I, were given a glass of Terrano wine. While I admittedly have no palate for wine, this wine was fruity, very special and I liked it very much. Wisely, in 2006 the Slovenians basically patented this wine with a protected designation of origin (PDO) within the European Union under the name "Teran." The Slovenians also protected a popular Slovenian sausage particular only to this country.
Day 11 dawned clear and sunny. We had little time to linger over our buffet breakfast before setting off to visit the medieval Bled Castle which has an unbelievably scenic position on a steep cliff overlooking the glacial Lake Bled. A short wooden bridge crosses a moat leading to a winding cobblestone incline and the entrance of the Castle and a level area where the entrances to the museum, shop, terrace cafe,
and other lookout points can be found. Though the museum here was interesting, we found the ancient working printing press and shop here even more interesting. A young man skilled at using the press explained a bit about how printing was accomplished in earlier times and demonstrated the operation of the press and the quality of the results was very impressive.
Visitors could choose a lovely piece of 5" X 7" handmade paper, and a design to have a print made, stamped with wax, and matted for only 8 Euros. I thought this made a unique souvenir. If this wasn't to your liking, one of the two gift shops here most probably had something you would like to mark your visit to the castle.
At night the castle is really enchanting as it is lit, and the cliff below is lit as well. The site is really unforgettable but not to be outdone by another special place on the lake -- Bled Island and the tiny Church of the Assumption and bell tower with its wishing bell is equally as special. Visitors must take a pletna boat out to the island which is a treat in itself. The
pletna boats with colorful, striped awnings are rowed gondola-style to the island landing just at the bottom of the 99 stone steps you must climb to the level on which you'll find the church, shops, and a cafe with terrace seating. After visiting the church, Bled Island is a beautiful place to spend a relaxing hour or two to enjoy the scenery if nothing else.
Once onboard the Pletna boat for our return to the lake side, we had a clear view of the building which was the Villa of the former Yugoslavian dictator, Josip Broz Tito. Other than Bled Castle itself, the villa has the best view of Lake Bled. The villa has a separate tea house also facing the lake. As explained to us, Tito apparently was popular with a segment of the population when he was in power, and as we were having lunch later in the day at Bohinj, we noticed there was a portrait of Tito still displayed in that particular restaurant.
As an optional tour, the 26km drive to Bohinj took us to where we had lunch at the Center Hotel Restaurant, on Ribcev Laz, only 100m from Lake Bohinj. We had
a decent pizza here, though not quite as good as its Croatian counterparts. We attempted to visit the nearby Cerkev Sv. Janeza Krstnika (Church of St. John the Baptist) just past a small bridge spanning Lake Bohinj but it was not open which is a shame since a glimpse through the window revealed the interior has richly painted religious figures, frescoes, and carvings; yet we still had some view of the fresco of St. Christopher on its exterior wall through the arched, iron gate. The church is thought to date well before to 1300AD.
Some lucky chap was doing a bit of fly fishing in the Sava River, which it is known for, at a place just beyond the bridge -- no surprise as this area seems so pristine and natural. The time spent for a walk around a portion of Lake Bohinj in the rain could have been better spent elsewhere but c'est la vie.
Day 12, and our long-awaited trip to the Balkans was already over. As our flight was leaving from Venice, we had to be in the hotel lobby at 4:45am to meet our driver for our 3+ hour transfer to the Marco Polo
Airport. The hotel furnished us with a boxed breakfast which was much appreciated though a good cup of hot coffee might have even been better!
My final impression of the Balkans is that while gaining in tourism, most of the countries continue to feel somewhat undiscovered which lends them a particular charm. Several countries are still in the process of trying to establish economic independence and are desperately in need of an updated infrastructure, but you can see progress is being made in some sectors including tourism.
Although getting tired from a somewhat grueling schedule, I was sad to be going home. It was a terrific tour and I loved seeing this incredibly interesting part of the world!!
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