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Trip Report: Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia (now all in)

Trip Report: Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia,
Part 1, Split, Croatia

This is the first of several trip report postings on my recent solo trip to Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia. I am deeply grateful for all of the wisdom and info that I have gleaned from this forum over the last several years, so hope that I can give back a bit with this series of trip reports from the Balkans. I am a single 60ish woman, and planned this solo 2-week trip over a number of months, relying heavily on "Rick Steves Croatia/Slovenia" (includes Mostar, Bosnia), tripadvisor, Rough Guides, booking.com, and this forum. My nights were: 2 nights Split; 3 nights Dubrovnik; 2 nights Mostar; 2 nights Sarajevo; 3 nights Ljubljana; 2 nights Venice. I flew into Split, Croatia, using United points and home out of Venice using Delta points. My flight from New Orleans called on flight changes in Chicago and then in London. I arrived at Heathrow and had 5 hours to transfer to a flight to Split on Croatia Airlines out of Gatwick. This turned out to be a much more arduous transfer than I had anticipated; the walk through Heathrow with baggage (carry on only, the entire trip) felt to be well over a mile, and I needed the full five hours to find the Heathrow bus station, take the direct bus (booked ahead of time online, so had ticket in hand and didn't need to find a ticket line), and then deal with multiple security lines in Gatwick.

Once in Split, I had planned to take the bus from the airport to the central bus station along the waterfront in Split (as per RS's advice in the book), and had chosen a room in the Old City/Diocletian's Palace - within walking distance of the waterfront main bus station. However, nice folks on my flight offered me a ride in their pre-booked private shuttle to within walking distance of the Old City. I had booked at Toni Palace, and was given instructions about how to walk to the cathedral, from which I was to call them. However, the plane was late; it was now well past 10:00 pm; the gate into the Old City that I was to take had been locked, so I called Toni Palace, told them where I was, and a guy came to find me and escort me through the convoluted back alleyways, staircases and twisty turny streets that led to the hotel. Helpful hint: be SURE to have a phone that works in Croatia (I was on Verizon international plan). I am very good with maps, GPS, and directions, and studying "google maps street view" ahead of time, but the Diocletian Palace area is a whole different level of way finding.

Toni Palace was lovely. There are only 3 rooms, each with sofa, small fridge, desk, and well stocked, roomy bathrooms. The reception and breakfast area are on the ground floor, with the 3 rooms each on their own floor. The location is great; heavy windows kept out street noise; good AC; breakfast was good; comfy bed; I was right in the thick of Diocletian's Palace.

My one full day in Split was used to just wander and explore this amazing structure and city that has survived some 1,800 years of habitation. I joined the "City of Split Walking Tour" that I had pre-booked through Viator for $26 ("blue umbrella, outside Golden Gate") in order to get some understanding of where I was. The tour was well done, albeit with some 24 people in my group. The guide was smart, sensitive, and spoke English well and clearly. She was a graduate in archeology and focused on the Diocletian's Palace area, and also for a few minutes along the Riva (for bathroom and water break). I especially enjoyed the "klapa" music group singing in the Peristyle. I had an excellent lunch at Trattoria Bajamont (it's in the RS book) sitting in the breezy shaded area outside the restaurant. Fish "brodetto" is a local dish of two kinds of fish and polenta in a tasty thick red broth with herbs.

Next: Dubrovnik

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Part 2: Dubrovnik The next morning I took the public bus from Split to Dubrovnik. Be SURE to sit on the right hand (passenger) side for some gorgeous views of the high hills plunging down to the sea, villages with red rooftops hanging onto bits of beach, and orchards, vineyards and fields of lush fruit and veggies. The ride took some 4 hours, with one break at a rest stop. I followed RS's instructions to take a public bus from the central bus station to Pile Gate. Thing is, when I got on the bus and asked the #8 bus driver, "Pile Gate?" he nodded "yes" and took my money for the ticket. Then, along the road into town, he pulled over, yelled back "Pile Gate!" and motioned for me to get off; "Down steps!" he yelled. There was a staircase of (at least!) 120 steep stone steps down to the Pile Gate area. Once in the Gate, it was a short distance to Apartments Lepur. The owner had emailed good directions. There was a phone number on the door, which I called to reach someone. It took a few minutes, and a neighbor came out of her house to unlock the front door. I hauled my bag up three flights to my apt. where I found the key to my apt. in the door. Eventually the owner came, introduced himself and answered questions. The two-room apt. was clean, well stocked with kitchen, comfy bed, and good AC. I was on the top floor, which meant a bit of limited headroom in the bathroom. Be aware: one day the owner came in when I wasn't there and turned off the hot water heater, by its wall switch. I didn't know this until I took my (cool) shower the next morning. Dinner the first night was a wonderful meal at Kopun (in the RS book). Lovely seasonal salad, black pasta with sweet peppers and little shrimp. Great service, lovely setting. I got there early, but reservations are necessary later in the evening.

Dubrovnik, like Split, was packed with tourists. Sun hat again very necessary. I spent my first day there on a day tour to Korcula with Select Dubrovnik. Turns out, S.D. subcontracts with Sombrero Tours to run the tour. There were 20 people on the small bus, and the guide was great, animated, full of good info, thoughtful, responsive. Downside of this tour was that it was a multi-lingual tour. About half the folks were Spanish speaking, so guide would speak for quite awhile in English then quite awhile in Spanish. This limited how much info she could actually share. We stopped for about 30 minutes in Ston, in order to see the salt works and walk briefly on our own around town. We were in Korcula for about 4 hours; 1 hour as a group (though I broke off from the group quite soon), and then about 3 hours on our own. It is a lovely small island town. I had a good meal right along the waterfront at Morski Konjic, with a gorgeous view of flowers, trees, glittering waves, boats, and the seawall of the city. The lunch special (choices for each course) came quickly and was quite good. I chose "seafood homemade macaroni", salad, chocolate mousse cake/pie. The tour stopped at a vineyard on the way back, for tastings of multiple wines and liqueurs. I thought that the reds were fairly mediocre, but the one white served was quite good. The liqueurs were scrumptious!

The next day in Dubrovnik I met up with a young Romanian/British woman who had been on the Korcula tour at 8:00 am and we ascended the town wall at Pile Gate. Going early was certainly a good idea. If Pile Gate is the 9:00 point on the circle, there are small cafes/bars up on the wall at 6:00, 3:00 and 12:00 (everyone goes counter-clockwise). The one at 6:00 (1/4 of the way around for us) was by far the nicest; best views of the water, breezy and shaded. We had delicious fresh fruit/veggie juice and enjoyed the view from our seaside table for awhile, before the crowds started to catch up with us. The views all the way around the wall are stupendous. As we climbed and descended slowly, we took 4 hours altogether on the wall.

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Part 3: more Dubrovnik
After descending from a full circuit of the wall, it was lunchtime. The food, I thought, was mediocre at RS recommended Toni Spaghetteria. We visited the synagogue, which was beautiful. My well educated young travel companion (born and raised in Romania; grad school and now working in London) had never been in a synagogue, knew almost nothing about Judaism or about the Holocaust, so we explored the history and meanings of being Jewish in Central Europe together.

As the day was quite hot, and we really needed to find someplace cool, we took the ferry 15 minutes to Lokrum Island. Tickets are sold right on the dock of the Old City port, and the ferry runs frequently. Helpful hint: Take a photo of the posted return ferry schedule; there are no paper schedules. Lokrum is lovely, shady, green, and relaxed. There are a couple of cafes, a botanical garden (mostly succulents) and various staircases down to lovely rocky small beaches. The most beautiful spot was the "Dead Sea" - actually a sea inlet, surrounded by land, which is a calm, lovely semi-shaded swimming area with several small pebbly beach areas. Several families had spread out and were enjoying the peaceful cool (!) afternoon. We went wading (love my Tevas!). Dinner was a spinach/cheese burek in my room. Next: Mostar and Sarajevo, Bosnia. (It's going to take me another day or two, but the next sections are coming!)

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1425 posts

So far I'm enjoying your report immensely. Brings back many wonderful memories. (I loved Kopun -- ate dinner there twice!)

Can't wait for the next installments!

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1664 posts

Really enjoying your report!

Did you catch the names or distilleries of any of those tasty liqueurs you sampled at the vineyard?
Were they mostly herbal or fruity or ??

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1050 posts

Hi, avirosemail, All of the wines and liqueurs served at the winery were products of that specific vineyard. They served us choices from six proferred liqueurs. I recall a great blueberry, a honey, and a delicious "herbal". And there were others. My photo of a bottle of red wine has this on the label: "Plavac Ma[...]; Vrhunsko Vino; Bezek." I believe that the "Vrhunsko Vino" means something like "top quality." I think that the vineyard is the "Plavac Ma[...]" The last letters of the word are out of my photo.

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1664 posts

Plavac Mali is the grape varietal -- it's a Croatian red that used to be thought of as part of the Zinfandel family, but now is understood as a hybrid of Zinfandel and a more obscure grape from right there around Hvar:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plavac_Mali

You've piqued my appetite with the honey and blueberry drinks!
There are doubtless a lot of small-batch interesting items to be had ...

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681 posts

Hi jmauldinuu,
Fabulous start to your trip even with the long travel day. I am enjoying reading and remembering our trip a few years ago. Korcula was one of my favorite parts as well as Ljubliana. Can't wait to read more.

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Part 4: Mostar, Bosnia
Bosnia... in many ways the most intense, surprising, beautiful, friendly, and disturbing of the three Balkan countries that I visited. MOSTAR: I took a "day tour" with Select Dubrovnik (again) because they were willing to leave me in Mostar. The small bus that picked me up had some 20 people; the guide offered good info about Croatia and Bosnia as we drove. After the border we stopped for about 20 minutes at a cafe/rest stop. Once in Mostar, our 20 folks were put together with another 12 folks from another group so we were now 32 folks with one local guide. Too big! However our blonde, blue-jeaned local guide was energetic and laughingly explained that she was a modern, "European Muslim," and offered herself as an example of how our expression of our religion is shaped by our national culture. Leaving the group mid-day, I retrieved my bag from the bus and found my way to Panzion Villa Cardak (in RS book), which was blissfully comfortable - a large room with sofa, tea kettle, mini-fridge, super comfy bed, good AC, outdoor patio with table and chairs, and a host, Suzanna, who was magnificent and couldn't do enough for me. Villa Cardak is also fabulously well situated in Mostar, on a quiet side street yet just steps from the Old Bridge. Mostar was truly beautiful. The people are friendly, welcoming, and kind. The history of the town is complex; they suffered mightily during the 1990's War, and several short videos around town (I saw 3) are quite similar, but offer slightly different bits of footage, especially re. the Old Bridge (Stari Most) which was destroyed during the War, and then later rebuilt. Mostar is full of day trippers from approx. 10:00 am - 4:00 pm, so those turned out to be good hours during which to relax at a restaurant, or explore a small museum. I walked up to the Museum of Bosnia Herzegovina; it's a small museum, but worth the walk; I was the only person watching the video, and a museum employee stood near me and explained what was happening, and more of the history of the destruction during the War and the rebuilding. It seemed that folks throughout town really care that visitors understand their history and their dedication to their town. Lunch my first day was at the RS recommended Babilon, overlooking the river and the Old Bridge. The whole trout that I had here was the best fish of my entire trip; it was so fresh and tender it was like butter in my mouth. I also ate three times at Behar 2, on the side street breaking off of the main walking street toward the Crooked Bridge. The shaded tables on three levels hang over lush greenery, low waterfalls and a smaller river. The service was thoughtful and friendly and the food excellent and cheap! I was SO glad that I did not do Mostar as a day trip, but had mornings and evenings to explore and enjoy the town when it was not thronged with day trippers.

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Thanks for the trip report for a region rarely mentioned on Trip Reports.

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Part 5: Day Trip Mostar to Sarajevo

This was the most beautiful, insightful and enjoyable day of my trip. I pre-arranged with Ermin Elezovic (in the RS book Croatia/Slovenia), p. 429) to pick me up at Panzion Cardak in Mostar and eventually deposit me at the Old Town Hotel in Sarajevo. Ermin is warm, witty and wise. He was dependable, helpful, a great driver, and loves his country passionately yet with insight and honesty. Immediately in the morning we went to the historic gorgeous Sufi site at Blagaj, where the old Sufi Dervish house is built right beside/over a river and beside the cave that is the source of the river. Ermin got us there before any other tour groups or individuals, so we wandered through the house alone, feeling the strength of the ancient stones, the water, the soaring swifts overhead, and the cliffs hanging high above us. He knew about each room, its history and use, and clearly loves and reveres the place. Next we visited the historic old village of Pocitelj, where I explored up high stone stepped streets, and then rejoined Ermin to relax at the shady table of an outdoor cafe run by a friend of his, enjoying the views and the cool drinks. Finally, we had an incredible lunch at a country restaurant down a quiet lane, alongside a small river, that had pools full of fresh trout, and a stone mill where they grind their own polenta. Wowee! For under $10 US I had fabulous grilled fresh trout (those guys were probably swimming earlier that morning), polenta with herbs and butter, salad and bread. Oh my. And we sat in the shade beside a pool, watching other trout swim unaware of their eventual grilly fate. Finally, Ermin drove me into Sarajevo and made sure that I was within a few steps of my hotel. This private tour was my "splurge" of the trip and worth every penny (Bosnian mark).

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Part 6Sarajevo:I loved this city. I loved the tough, gentle people, the ornate beauty of the copper work and architecture, the centuries of history manifested in the places of worship, and the honesty and struggle that it's taken to regain some kind of predictable life after the recent War. Maybe it's because I live in and love a city that had its own terrible disaster (Hurricane Katrina & Federal Flood of 2005) that Sarajevo felt in some way oddly familiar. However, the trauma and recovery that Sarajevo's people had to endure is far and away different from a single-event disaster. 1991-1995. 1450 days under siege by mortars, rockets, and snipers, defying hunger, cold and constant fear of sudden death. This endurance feat is the defining event of modern Sarajevo history and, I found, the defining event of the modern Sarajevo psyche. During my 3 days & 2 nights there, I deeply appreciated the openness and honesty that I experienced from both tour guides and folks that I met in shops and cafes. There is a toughness and a witty irony that has helped these folks survive. One story that I was told: when under siege, they were aware that theirs was coming close to being longer than that of Stalingrad during WWII. When the day came that the length of their siege overtook that of Stalingrad, to mark that "accomplishment" a DJ played "We Are the Champions" over and over on the one radio station broadcasting to the city. The Old Town Hotel, right in the old city pedestrian area, was super clean, well supplied, great bed, a "business-type" hotel, with supremely helpful front desk staff. They went above and beyond over and over, helping me get info about sights, print boarding passes, arranging taxis and even walking me and my luggage a couple of blocks to a taxi to make sure I got in the right one. These guys were amazing, and - with the intensity of being in Sarajevo - I was grateful for their gentle excellence in all that they did, and their peaceful, professional welcome each time that I walked in the door. Breakfast was fantastic with many choices of proteins, fruits, dairy, and caffeines. I had a great "free tour" one morning with Insider City Tours. I was the only person who showed up for the tour but off we went. Malik, my young guide, was smart, articulate, and responsive to my interests. He explained the architecture, historical events, and effects of the "recent war" on the city, describing the "Sarajevo roses" and hills from which snipers had aimed, as well as mosques, synagogue, and cathedral, as we walked. He was deeply proud of the 400 years of people of different faiths living side by side rather peacefully - until so recently! Later, I took the "Tunnel Tour" also with Insider Tours. There were four of us with driver/guide Mermin, who had been a Sarajevo policeman in the 1990s and had been back and forth in the tunnel many times during the war, helping to bring food & supplies to his starving city. His personal experience and insight was powerful and it felt like quite a gift that he was willing to share even a little of the pain and struggle of those years. I really enjoyed dinner at To Be [or not] To Be, a cafe/restaurant right in the Old City - also in the RS book, eating outside, in the shade - wonderful "seafood spaghetti", great mixed salad with sweet peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, and such a lovely owner/chef. Finally: there was a wine bar across the (pedestrian) street from the Old Town Hotel, where I got a perfectly decent glass of house wine for (the equivalent of) $3, and sat and enjoyed the evening. First night, the waiter mistakenly took my pen and I later had to ask for it back; he graciously and embarrasingly returned it. Next night, I brought my second pen, found him behind the bar, and gave it to him with a flourish and a smile. After I sat down and ordered my glass of wine, he brought me not only my wine, but also small plates of cheese and olives, gratis. Sarajevo. It's that kind of place.

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What an amazing journey! We are enjoying your incredible descriptions along the way. It has reinforced our excitement for our upcoming tour. Your heartfelt story of Sarajevo was beautiful.
For anyone going there I highly recommend reading "The Cellist of Sarajevo." By Steven Galloway.
It truly was a moving portrayal of the survival of the human spirit.

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Enjoyed very much reading your account of your travels. Can you comment on where you might have wished to spend more or less days, if you were to do it again? Awaiting Ljubljana and Venezia!

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Hi, Sally. I do wish that I'd had more time in both Sarajevo and Ljubljana. In Sarajevo, I just didn't have time to explore several museums that I had wished to see, or to take another couple of half day trips into the area. I also was really moved by the city and its warm, welcoming, strong and kind people. In Ljubljana (report coming within a day or so), there are multiple day trips into the countryside that I wish I could have done, including to some beautiful caves. As Ljubljana is only a 3-hour GoOpti trip (26 euros) from Venice, I hope to be able to return soon, and perhaps combine that with some time in Istria, northern Croatia, which did not make it onto my itinerary this time.

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Part 7: Ljubljana... What a beautiful, lush, modern yet historic Western European city! Right under the Alps, with strong Austro-Hungarian architectural influence, it feels to me somewhat like Salzburg felt some 40 years ago (back in my youth hostel days). The river through the middle of the city is much treasured and enjoyed, with sidewalk cafes, bars, trees, benches, all along it through the center of the city. I flew there easily on a one-hour Adria Airlines direct flight from Sarajevo. (I was glad that I had opted for a window seat, as I could see the villages, fields, and approaching mountains on that clear day!) I also took RS's advice and pre-booked a GoOpti shuttle (9 euros) from the airport to the hotel which was waiting for me and took me directly to my hotel. (There were several other folks in the van but I was first drop off). Pensione Pod Lipo was quiet, clean, a ten minute walk from the river. (It is described as having AC, but their was no portable unit in my room the night I arrived; I made a bit of noise and a unit was put in my room the next day). There is a great kitchen in the Pensione, and I appreciated a welcoming bowl of fresh cherries on the table. My one full day in Ljubljana began with the "Free Tour" in front of the Triple Bridge. There were about 20 people in my group and my guide was exuberant, articulate, funny, and passionate about Slovenia, architecture, art, history, and really helped me appreciate his city. (One good story: when we saw the fascinating fairly modern structure of the University Library, he told us that the building was completed just before the Nazis entered Ljubljana and determined that the new empty building would become their headquarters. The people of Ljubljana disagreed, and one night created a human chain some 3 kilometers long. They passed thousands of books hand to hand all night down the human chain from the old library to this new library, filling it with books and thwarting the Nazi's plan to take their library.) I enjoyed shopping at the stalls of local artists and craftspeople in the covered arcade near the Triple Bridge and then cooled off and ate a great grilled fish sandwich in the fish restaurant in the lower level of that arcade (directions in RS's chapter on Ljubljana) with a table right on the breezy river. At that point, a castle sounded like a good idea, so I took the funicular up to the top of town. There are a number of museums, and castley rooms to see; I just didn't have enough time or energy to see them all, but especially enjoyed the very well done special exhibit on the mythology of dragons! On my second day, I had a GREAT day trip to Lake Bled with Roundabout Tours, their "Alpine Fairytale" tour. There were 8 of us in the van plus guide, and (with 4 Aussies & a Kiwi aboard) we enjoyed a lot of laughter and good conversation. I especially appreciated that our guide gave us options and choices throughout the day. We all (but one) chose to take the "pletna" boat out to the island in Lake Bled, which was truly beautiful. Afterwards, as the Aussies went hunting for cream cake, I wandered around the lake into the shops area, and found a stunning special exhibit of Picasso prints and paintings at the town arts gallery! Lunch was on the shady porch of a local restaurant in a nearby small town. I chose a delicious homemade pasta with a light cream sauce full of local mushrooms. And great local beer! We hiked a shortish distance along Lake Bovinj, a national park area, which was stunning in fresh green, with the roaring river pouring into it and finished the day with a short visit to a medieval village on the way back. A very well organized, yet relaxed, day tour.
The next day I arranged an early morning pickup from my hotel with GoOpti (under 30 euros) which took me (and 7 others) to Venice - some to the airport, some to Piazza Roma. I'll finish with one last post with a few notes about Venice and some conclusions about traveling in the Balkans.

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Jmauldinuu,

Thank you so much for your detailed report on this part of Europe. My husband and I went to many of these same places 2 years ago, and while all of these places had their own special charm (really enjoyed Dubrovnik, Ljubljana, and Zagreb), we really loved Bosnia and it now holds a special place in our heart. We did not make it to Sarajevo on that trip but we will be going there (along with Serbia) in September. We can’t wait and reading reports like this just makes us more excited!

Plus it’s nice to see someone else from Louisiana who’s interested in that part of the world (rather than the normal reaction we usually get regarding these destinations - either “Where’s that??” or “Why would you want to go there??”)

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1050 posts

Beth, How wonderful for you all to be returning to Bosnia, and adding Serbia... a country that I haven't yet explored. I appreciate your words of support for my lengthy (!) trip report. There hasn't been much written about the Balkans, that I can find (besides Croatia) on these trip reports, so I wrote a lot, to hopefully add to the conversation and the common knowledge. And, yes, I do find people saying "Bosnia? you mean Boston?" when I begin to speak about a recent trip. You all surely have much to bring back to Lafayette in new understandings and insights! Have a great trip in September!

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Very much enjoyed reading your trip report. Thank you.