The Balkans, Part 2 -- Croatia and Slovenia

Montenegro Travel Blog

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Bridge over Tara River Gorge, Montenegro

To recall a portion of my "The Balkans, Part 1 -- Albania and Montenegro" blog, we spent 2 nights (Days 4 & 5) in Kolašin , Montenegro, a 17th-century town founded by the Turks which is now probably most well known for being a ski center, as well as being in close proximity to 2 famous Montenegrin national parks. 

Our first full day spent in Montenegro was in the lush pine forests, and on the lakes of Biogradska Gora and in Dumitor National Park (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) where the air was cool and fresh and everything is so peaceful. In driving to the parks, we saw the impossibly deep Tara River canyon, listed as the second or third deepest in the world depending on the source. We stopped for photos at the impressive "Ðurdevica Tara Bridge," a major 20th-century feat of engineering spanning the Tara River and something Montenegrins are very proud of.

Moraca Monastery, Montenegro
It lies at the  crossroads of several small towns. The bridge was built between 1937 - 1940 when Montenegro was a part of Yugoslavia. Today, enterprising residents have capitalized on tourism in this area by opening small souvenir shops, a cafe where we had a capuccino, and even a zipline course over the river. Whitewater rafting is very popular here as well and something I would enjoy doing. Interestingly enough, during WWII the bridge was captured by Italian forces of the Axis powers, and a portion of the bridge was blown up by Yugoslav partisans with the help of one of the bridge's engineers (who was later executed) to thwart the Italians' war efforts. More recently the bridge was used in filming the movie, "Force 10 From Navarrone." Learning these facts about the bridge made seeing it that much more worthwhile.
Our Lady of the Rocks, Perast - Montenegro

Our lunch stop for that day was in Zabljak some miles away at the "Nacionalne Restoran," a cozy, rustic restaurant on the ground level of the chalet-style Hotel Enigma, where we were seated at an enormous wooden square table. The meal began in traditional Montenegrin style with dessert being served first, a sort of fried dough which you drenched in local honey.  The main course was Moussaka accompanied by a salad and a choice of white or red Montenegrin wine. 

We enjoyed visiting Montenegro and of the Balkan countries we visited, it may have been the least expensive to visit. By Day 6 it was already time to leave Montenegro on our way north to Croatia.

View from the Dubrovnik City Walls
We had not spent too much time in the wine-rich country of Montenegro, but we were glad to see what we could of it before crossing the border -- a drive by sun-kissed Budva, and a bit of historic Kotor. This area is also known for growing figs and wild fig bushes can be found by the roadside everywhere. The great surprise was opportunity to visit a bit of the seaside town of Perast. We sailed out to see the quite exquisite "Our Lady of the Rocks" Church built on a man-made island in the fabulously scenic Bay of Kotor. We had a marvelous guided tour of the church which is filled with religious artwork, tapestry, embroidery, an imposing altar, historic artifacts and embossed silver platework donated to the church by sailors.
Art Renaissance Restaurant, Dubrovnik
  The tiny, completely flat island has only the church, 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. Instead of Perast, we had been scheduled to visit the big museum at Cetinje but the main road into that area was, fortunately, closed.

Oddly enough, due to a quirk of history we also had to pass through a small portion of Bosnia-Hercegovina near  "Neum." This piece of land and access to the sea was "given" to the Ottomans for their help in defending Croatia from the Venetians and it is for this reason which creates the necessity to then cross the border into Croatia a second time.

Split, Croatia
Border crossings between countries here 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 5 border crossings and except for Albania, these were EU stamps where countries are distinguished only by a 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, which has an extremely scenic approach from its southern side -- probably the most well-known view of the city. Though we had visited Dubrovnik several years before, we did not have the advantage of a local tour guide. However, on this trip we had an excellent local guide, Goran, and were given an excellent historical city tour lasting between one and half to two hours.

Trogir, Croatia
Afterwards we stayed in the walled city 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 -- for both 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 and after you have covered the mile +, or closer to two-mile wall perimeter, and climbed the approximately 1080 stair steps in the heat of the day, you really feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Sponges for sale in Trogir, Croatia
And what views! 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 partial seaview room. A great day in Dubrovnik!

Day 8 - We were off to Split with a lunch stop in the charming village of Makarska which has a seaview, a long harbor-front promenade, and some of the best Margharita pizza we ever had thanks to the Marina Restaurant. We chose to have lunch on the partially shady, partially sunny patio with a seaview -- what luck and incredibly inexpensive too!

Once in Split itself, we had a guided walking tour of Diocletian's Palace, the entry to which may not be immediately seen. It was more fun this time exploring the warren of narrow passageways and cobblestone streets where every turn brings a new and interesting sight.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Once again we heard an all-male group of traditional Klapa singers in the Palace's Vestibule -- I am a great fan of Klapa singing and marvel at the strength and harmony of Croatian voices. We had visited Split some years previously, and like on that visit, I bought another CD from this group of Klapa singers. Outside of the Palace, the waterfront promenade of Split is a very lovely place to take a stroll or sit to enjoy the tropical breeze under the swaying palm trees. 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 area was dominated by multi-story apartment blocks. Were it not for the colorful coats of paint sported by these buildings, and several unusal 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.
Plitvice, Lakes - Croatia
Sadly, graffiti covers the buildings here, whether on a colorful building or drab one.

On Day 9, only about a half hour or so after leaving Split, we found ourselves at yet another medieval city, Trogir -- 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 ubiquitous Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, mentions Trogir-Tragurium in the 1st century as Roman city though Greeks settle here as well. We entered through the north gate topped by a statue of the Bishop/St. Ivan Orsini and enjoyed exploring some of the more interesting narrow, cobblestones streets, seeing the clock tower and loggia, a bit of the 13th-century Cathedral of St.

Krka Belevedere, Croatia
Lawrence, and the exterior only of the Cipiko Palace just opposite the Cathedral. After a short walk on the seaside promenade, we had a quick coffee/latte at a cafe with our guide, Edo, and soon we were on the road to spend a night in Plitvice Lakes, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our lunch stop enroute was in Krka, only a rest stop really but a very nice one, with a great overlook to the Krka River. I later learned that Krka is home to Krka National Park, very beautiful and similar to Plitvice Lakes but only a smaller version having only 7 waterfalls. Another beautiful 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 straight road we traveled in the Balkans.

Plitvice Lakes is surely one of the most beautiful places in Europe! Another area of lush greenery with 16 incredible turquoise blue and jade green lakes and innumerable waterfalls.

Postojna Caves, Slovenia
It is a setting almost too beautiful to put in words. However, for me the setting was ruined by the hordes of incredibly rude tourists who hogged the walkways, 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 -- in short, the site I most looked forward to visiting on this trip was utterly ruined. Luckily the day was partially redeemed by the Hotel Jezero which was very comfortable, had a nice gift shop, and a restaurant where dinner was excellent. Our room looked out onto the deep forest, but we could hear the sound of rushing water nearby -- or was it the sound of wind rustling through the trees?

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.

Bled Castle, Slovenia, in evening light
The town's origins date back to the 2nd century B.C. We could only see the Fortress from the road, since this was only a coffee stop which we shared with a couple of our tour traveling companions. It was not until having coffee in Senj that I realized a good way to remember some of our lesser stops was by the sugar packets/sachets which came with coffee or tea. Seems rather than having business cards or matches with the name of the establishment on them, the sugar packets actually had the name of the establisment printed on them -- glad I saved some!

Exploring the Istrian Peninsula was not on our schedule and we would not get a chance to see Pula, nor its Roman Ampitheather (built between 27 BC – 68 AD). Rather we stopped in Opatija for lunch where we had another tasty Margherita pizza at the Roko Restaurant.

Wine tasting in Radovljica, Slovenia
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.

Buoyed by our excellent pizza lunch, we crossed yet another border 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 Mammouth Cave in the U.S. The cave is so large that an electric train takes you deep inside before you begin a walk to see the network of "rooms" -- the red room, the white room, the sphegetti room, etc.  The visitor sections of 5km of the cave can be seen on 1½-hour guided tour on foot.

Radovljica, Slovenia
The remaining 3.2km of the cave is traversed by the excellent electric train ride. Inside the temperature is cool and very damp as you might imagine and inclines are quite steep in places so good walking shoes and a light jacket are recommended. Visiting the caves is costly -- adult admission/child admission is €23.90/14.30 -- but educational.

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 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 took 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 moreorless copyrighted this wine with a protected designation of origin (PDO) within the European Union under the protected designation of "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 enjoy much of 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 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.

Lake Bled Castle
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.

Be prepared to climb the 99 stone steps 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.

One view from museum at Lake Bled Castle

Later we traveled the 26km to Bohinj 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 the Croatian counterparts. We attempted to visit the nearby Cerkev Sv. Janeza Krstnika (Church of St. John the Baptist) just past a small bridge over Lake Bohinj but it was not open which is a shame since 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, just beyond the bridge -- no surprise as this area seems so pristine and  natural.

Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria on Lake Bled Island
 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.

Lake Bohinj - Cerkev Sv. Janeza Krstnika (St.John the Baptist)
Slovenia is considered the economic powerhouse here.  But investment in the Balkans is often driven by more dominant countries in the region and unemployment is generally high and wages low except in Slovenia. That being said, traveling in these countries is a currently a real bargain and they are definitely worth visiting!

starship1 says:
@vicIII, thank you so much! There are many more countries I'd love to explore in that part of the world. Thank you for your smiles and nice comments on so many of my pages. Best wishes to you, Victor!!
Posted on: Sep 29, 2017
vicIII says:
Sylvia, I see you have explored the Balkans a lot! Well done!
Posted on: Sep 29, 2017
Toonsarah says:
And I only just noticed your reply! Isn't it rotten when a couple of people can spoil everyone else's precious holiday time like that?
Posted on: Aug 31, 2017
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Bridge over Tara River Gorge, Mont…
Bridge over Tara River Gorge, Mon…
Moraca Monastery, Montenegro
Moraca Monastery, Montenegro
Our Lady of the Rocks, Perast - Mo…
Our Lady of the Rocks, Perast - M…
View from the Dubrovnik City Walls
View from the Dubrovnik City Walls
Art Renaissance Restaurant, Dubrov…
Art Renaissance Restaurant, Dubro…
Split, Croatia
Split, Croatia
Trogir, Croatia
Trogir, Croatia
Sponges for sale in Trogir, Croatia
Sponges for sale in Trogir, Croatia
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Plitvice, Lakes - Croatia
Plitvice, Lakes - Croatia
Krka Belevedere, Croatia
Krka Belevedere, Croatia
Postojna Caves, Slovenia
Postojna Caves, Slovenia
Bled Castle, Slovenia, in evening …
Bled Castle, Slovenia, in evening…
Wine tasting in Radovljica, Sloven…
Wine tasting in Radovljica, Slove…
Radovljica, Slovenia
Radovljica, Slovenia
Lake Bled Castle
Lake Bled Castle
One view from museum at Lake Bled …
One view from museum at Lake Bled…
Pilgrimage Church of the Assumptio…
Pilgrimage Church of the Assumpti…
Lake Bohinj - Cerkev Sv. Janeza Kr…
Lake Bohinj - Cerkev Sv. Janeza K…
Villa of former Yugoslave Dictator…
Villa of former Yugoslave Dictato…
Our Lake Bled Pletna boat and dri…
Our Lake Bled Pletna boat and "dr…
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik, Croatia