It was a single photo that drew me to Slovenia, the photo was of Bled Gorge and I was immediately drawn to the green water, steep canyon walls and most of all, the trail that followed along – and sometimes over – the water. We love finding unique hikes to do such as Angel’s Landing in Zion and this one looked fun. I wanted to make sure there was more to do in Slovenia (seems dumb to wonder in hindsight) so I googled ‘cool places in Slovenia’ and quickly got lost in the hundreds of options. The next must-see destination I found was Lake Bled, actually right next to Vintgar Gorge, which is most famous for the beautiful church in the middle of a tiny island. So we made plans to see these two areas after stopping by Predjama Castle and Škocjan Caves on the way.
Bled is an awesome little town. It looks like it could be in Austria except being Slovenian, everything is half the cost. The town itself is situated on the Eastern edge of the small lake – you can easily walk around it and there is a nice path. The most obvious feature as you walk around the lake is tiny island with picturesque Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church rising sharply from it. You can get to the island via rowboat, captains depart from several spots around the lake. On the cliff overlooking the lake is Bled Castle. You can walk up there to enjoy the views for free but you must pay to go inside (we skipped it.) In the winter they have a small ski hill you can enjoy, in the summer there are many nearby areas to hike and it’s a great town to just relax in. Also, we ate at the best restaurant of the entire trip here. Penzion Berc, a ten minute walk SW from the town is incredible! I ate the best octopus dish of my life here and everything is affordable (like everything else in Slovenia.) They only take cash though so come prepared so you can avoid the mid-dinner dash to find an ATM (and call to your bank in our case.)
I’ve started to realize that I’ve been planning all my trips lately based on a single photo or comment from someone about a particular locale. For Slovenia, it was a photo of Vintgar Gorge (I’ll share photos from this place soon) which was amazing but I had to find other things to do as well. Turns out, Slovenia is amazing, especially if you like hiking. It’s filled with awesome canyons, caves, castles on islands, delicious food and its inexpensive compared to Western Europe. After just a few days it became one of my favorite countries in Europe. It’s easy to find cool sites in Slovenia and we found two on the way to Lake Bled from Croatia. Predjama Castle and Škocjan Caves, the latter of which is also a UNESCO site.
We visited Predjama castle first which is not just a castle but a castle in a cave (the best kind.) There’s a long and interesting history to the castle but I’ll just share my favorite anecdote. In the 15th century this robber baron named Erazem was holding down the castle. The kingdom of Hungary was mad at him and sent an army to try and take it over. For a year and a half, Erazem held off his enemy and by using a secret tunnel in the back of the castle could obtain fresh food to prevent being starved out. They taunted their befuddled attackers by throwing fresh cherries at them from the castle – the attackers thought witchcraft was at work – how else could they get the fresh cherries? Eventually, the besiegers bribed a servant to reveal when Erazem went to the toilet. When he did, they fired a cannonball at that part of the castle (the weakest section also) and killed him while he sat on his (other) throne. The tour inside the castle is 12 euros and worth it. Continue reading “Slovenia Caves and a Castle (in a cave)”
The first thing that comes to people’s mind when thinking of Croatia are the beautiful beaches and walled cities of the coast but the country has beautiful national parks inland as well. Plitvice National Park is easily the most famous but Krka National Park seems to be getting a lot of attention lately as well, we visited both after leaving Drubrovnik. Both parks have amazing waterfalls and winding paths that take you right on top of the blue-green water. But which should you visit? Take a look at the photos below but spoiler alert, my answer is both! Also, view more photos on my photography site.
Plitvice is the more famous of the two parks, photos of its beautiful waterfalls are all over Pinterest. But we heard Krka is much less crowded AND you can swim in the pool at the bottom of Skradinski Buk. We arrived a little after 9am and the parking lot didn’t have many cars which seemed like a good sign. It’s a 20 minute walk to the actual pools from the parking lot (a shuttle is available) and we walked immediately to the paths. I really wanted to get shots before too many people were around but already there were groups of people walking through sticking their giant ipads in the way of my shots. Another issue I didn’t consider was the vibration from people walking ruining slow shutter-speed shots.
A small waterfall in Krka National Park, Croatia
Looking down at the pools of Krka National Park
George & Cindy walking through the paths of Krka National Park
The colorful water under a walkway in Krka National Park
It didn’t even dawn on me that when driving from Dubrovnik to Trogir, our next stop, we’d have to pass through a tiny little piece of Bosnia that reaches the coast until our trip began. The Balkans have experienced countless wars over the centuries one of which was the Austro-Ottoman War. The war ended in 1699 with the Treaty of Karlowitz creating the majority of the borders in the area that exist still today. The border crossing in and out of Bosnia turned out to be trivial, they looked at our passports quickly and didn’t need to see paperwork for our rental car. The only restaurants or hotels that exist on the 20km of stretch of land is the small town of Neum. The little resort town is cheaper than surrounding Croatia and we ate a delicious café (Restoran Bonaca) overlooking the ocean. Excellent and cheap seafood – definitely the ideal lunch spot if driving between Dubrovnik and Split/Trogir.
Restoran Bonaca is a great restaurant in Neum with a beautiful view
Trogir itself is very close to Split, one of Croatia’s largest cities. Split gets more tourists than Trogir and is supposedly a very nice city but Trogir was absolutely perfect for us. Trogir itself is a tiny little medieval town (and a UNESCO World Heritage site) on an island wedged between the mainland and a larger island in the Adriatic. Our AirBNB was in a great spot just across the bridge from the Old Town and was an easy walk (AirBNB is a great option for Trogir, there are very few hotels.) Trogir is great to walk around at night and so small you can become familiar with it in just an hour or so. The first night we ate dinner at a pretty forgettable place but the second night we ate at what would end up being my second favorite restaurant of the trip. Kristian Pizza is truly amazing. The food and service were so great we ended up going back a second night. The restaurant is family owned, the father walks around greeting everybody and the son was our server. I would eat the seafood gnocchi and the homemade pasta everyday – please excuse the gratuitous food photos here.
Between traveling and dealing with the chaos here (maybe I’ll write about that later but when I sit down to think about it I just get aggravated) I’ve had little time to post the rest of the photos from our Europe trip. With our next Europe trip just two weeks away (I promise we do work!) I’m going to try to get caught up.
High on our list of places to visit in the Balkans was Dubrovnik. Yes, it’s touristy but everyone I know who went has loved it. Plus, with three of the four of being big ‘Game of Thrones’ fans we had to see King’s Landing for ourselves.
From Kotor, we hired the same driver to take us to Dubrovnik and after a bit of confusion finding our AirBNB we managed to locate it and check in. The owners were a charming older couple who took quite a bit of time making sure we knew every single little detail about the home – maybe overly friendly but not that surprisingly given how friendly we found people in the Balkans to be. As soon as we checked in we walked to the Old Town to take a look. All of the old walled cities along the Dalmatian Coast are similar but this one was much larger than Kotor.
The entrance to the old town of Dubrovnik
Apparently there are two species of turtles that live in the area. I had no idea until I came across this guy
Escaping the crowded main drags of the Dubrovnik you find quiet spots like this
Ah, Kotor. Somehow this tiny little town in a country I couldn’t place on a map a year ago has popped up again and again as travel bloggers I follow visit. Based on little more than a photograph I saw last summer, I googled ‘How to get to from Belgrade to Kotor,’ learned about the Belgrade to Bar train and planned the rest of this trip around it. Did Kotor live up to it all? Yep! Cheap (and delicious) food, friendly people and spectacular views. There’s not a lot of secrets left to tell in Kotor, everyone seems to write about Kotor now. Avoid the cruise crowds midday, bring water when you hike up the town walls and eat a lot. Maybe it was just because I’ve been living in the most land-locked country in the world for the past year but man, the food here was excellent. I don’t have anything else to say but I took a lot of photos, here ya go!
Arriving at the ocean finally, after a year in KG. All I wanted was seafood.
Kotor is filled with small, quiet, cobblestone streets
As you climb the town walls, you pass fruit trees at first
The view of Kotor Bay is amazing from halfway up, better even than from the top I’d say
This is the hill you come down as you enter Kotor by car from Podgorica
As you climb the town walls, keep a look out for small hidden areas such as this
Taylor at one of the many viewpoints on the way up
On the way up the wall there are a LOT of stairs
The view from the top of the town walls isn’t so bad!
St John’s Fortress at the top of the Town Walls
The interior of the fort at the top of the walls
Posing at the top
The Church of Our Lady of Health halfway up the town walls
Looking down at the some of the Town Wall switchbacks
The streets of Kotor are lined with tiny cafes
The walls by the East town entrance
This square in Kotor isn’t busy now but when the cruise ship traffic shows up, watch out
Kotor Harbor boats under dark skies
Toasting on a rooftop bar in Kotor. Yep.
The streets of Kotor at night are usually quiet and empty
There’s many reasons to visit both Serbia and Montenegro but let’s skip all those for now – they are awesome and I know you’re already planning a trip there. If you are trying to figure out how to get from Belgrade, Serbia to Montenegro you may be skimming Tripadvisor forums and finding all the suggestions about renting a car or taking the super convenient and cheap bus. Ignore that. Take the train.
The (somewhat infamous) Belgrade to Bar train opened in 1975 some 23 years after construction began (15 years more than expected according so some sources online.) The massive delay to the opening was perhaps a sign of the problems to come. In the 1990s the train systems were chronically underfunded resulting in deterioration of the line. In 1999, UN bombing destroyed a large section of the train line and the 6 mile stretch that runs through Bosnia was blown up by UN ground forces whose mission was to maintain stability in the region. The track was rebuilt however in 2006 just north of the Montenegro capital of Podgorica, a southbound local train derailed killing 45 people and injuring another 184 (this was not the same train as the Belgrade-Bar but they shared the same route in this section.) Following the accident the maximum speed permitted was further reduced and a ride that originally took 7 hours now takes 11 assuming no delays. Lastly, in the summer of 2014, serious flooding in the Balkans damaged the track again. This was also rebuilt and as of May, 2015 the train is back on the normal daily schedule.
During summer months, there are 2-3 daily trains in each direction (the schedule changes depending on the year) with at least one day and one night train. We opted for the day train after hearing it’s one of the most scenic train rides in Europe. Leaving the train station shortly after 9am there was immediately scenery, but not the type I was expecting. Lining the tracks as you depart from Belgrade are a large number of inoperable, graffiti-covered train cars. Are couchette-mate, a talkative man in his 60s, was quick to point out these have been inoperable since being bombed by American and England (knowing we were one of the two but not knowing Taylor’s father could understand his German.) True or not, it definitely set the mood for the rest of the trip and is a sentiment for the rest of the trip. The older folk in Serbia tend towards being reminiscent about the past and seem to gloss over the atrocities of the 90s, stating things as fact, not judging you if you come from a country that participated in the bombings. True to form, after returning from a smoke break the man brought George and me a beer. No hard feelings, the facts just are what they are.
One of my favorite things about riding on trains is relaxing with a beer while watching the world go by. Here, a Serbian dark beer.
A typical small Serbian countryside farm you’ll pass by
A typical couchette on the Belgrade-Bar route. If you reserve a seat, it’ll be in one of these.
As the train heads South it begins to run alongside this river valley
Reading about Belgrade before our trip I kept reading about how despite the ‘grit and rough edges,’ Belgrade is ‘actually a pretty decent city.’ We were going to Belgrade based on the recommendations of friends so I suspected we’d like it more than the lukewarm praise online made it sound. It took about two minutes of walking outside our apartment and I knew my friends were right – Belgrade is awesome. There are a handful of cities around the world that Taylor and I loved it instantly and this is definitely one of them. Great people, awesome food, plenty to do, easy transit system, super cheap, the list goes on. Everywhere you go people are eating outside, you can drink anywhere you want in the city and enough people speak English there is rarely a challenge trying to order food or get a drink. Throw in the fascinating history of Yugoslavia and I already can’t wait to go back. We actually flew in and out of Belgrade, travelling a large loop in between, and had nearly a week there total. Here are our favorite parts (and lots of pictures.)
Rising above the rest of the old city and set in Kalemegdan Park is Belgrade Fortress. The Balkans are covered in castles and fortresses but this one is unlike the rest (or any other I’ve been to.) The entire fortress is a multi-use facility now and open 24 hours a day. There’s a museum, several restaurants, public basketball and tennis courts and pretty killer views the Danube & Sava River confluence. Some sections such as the Clock Tower are an extra cost to enter but most of it is open for exploring.
The Clock Tower and Entrance to Belgrade Fortress
Middleton’s hanging out on a bridge in the Belgrade Fortress
Belgrade Fortress is surrounded by this ‘dry’ moat. Now, it’s just a park.
These cannons are part of the Military Museum but on display outside on the park grounds.