The Balkan Peninsula?! Maybe you’re super geo-gifted, but I’m not, so I had to Google it when Matt suggested the trip…..
What better way to finish up our epic travel and tour-guiding extravaganza but take a few more weeks off and head to the beautiful land of the Balkan Peninsula. Why the Balkan Peninsula you might ask?! Well, for all the same reasons we choose most of our destinations…cheap flights!
Admittedly, we knew very little going into this trip and did minimal planning. We knew two things for sure when we left Tel Aviv….a rental car was only $10/day and we had about 2 weeks to burn. We heard so many wonderful thing about Croatia from friends and our other sophisticated destination selecting method….Google Images….so we planned to spend our entire time there…but more on that in a second.
First, lets talk about getting to Croatia. Due to our crafty (aka frugal and crazy) trip planning, we booked our flight to Zagreb, Croatia the same day we dropped Matt’s parents off at the airport. So after dropping them off, we drove back to the apartment, rested for a bit….oh yeah, got massages….then packed our bags, and headed back to the airport. Unfortunately, we had to check-in at the desk and Matt’s backpack got nabbed for being too heavy to be a carry-on. We reshuffled things to make sure the camera equipment didn’t have to go in the checked bag and crossed our fingers for it to make the switch in Zurich (#foreshadowing).
Our flight to Zurich was uneventful although a hair late and as we landed we realized we only had about 30 minutes to get to our next gate. Once we landed, we walked swiftly trying to figure out where our connection was…..and picked up pace a bit once we realized the transfer involved a tram and switching terminals! Okay….15 minutes to take-off…..not there yet….. 10 minutes to take-off…..not there yet BUT oh boy another security check and an announcement for “Davis – paging Davis party of 2, please proceed to your gate as soon as possible, your aircraft is leaving”. Time to run! We throw our bags through the security and I send Matt out ahead to get to the gate. He was greeted by a gentleman in the terminal and Matt yelled back “you don’t have to run”……oh mannnnnnn – “I don’t have to run because its too late?!”…..”no, we made it!”. We made it on the plane with 4 minutes to spare!
So as you might have guess since we only made it on the plane with 4 minutes to spare….our checked bag did not make it. After sadly watching the luggage carousel go round and round in Zagreb, we accepted it was not coming and started working on figuring out when our stuff would be coming to Croatia. We talked to the lost-bag office, the optimistic bet was the next day….so we coordinated for the bag to transfer down to Dubrovnik where we were headed in the morning. Luckily, I had my clothes in the carry-on…unfortunately, all of Matt’s clothes were in lost-bag-landia and Croatia was MUCH colder and wetter than Tel Aviv…..in fact it was raining….and Matt was dressed like a beach-loving Tel Avivian!
So…cold and wet, we made our way into Zagreb where we spent the night at a hostel. In the morning, with Matt sporting one of MY lovely v-neck shirts (which has never been the same) and teal R1 Hoodie, we set off to explore Zagreb before hitting the road. We perused the fresh market and checked out the Cathedral of Zagreb before picking up our rental car.
After grabbing the car, we made a quick stop at the mall to get Matt a clean shirt and started the journey down to Dubrovnik. As we got further away from Zagreb, the harder the rain got and the slower we had to drive….. the 6 hour drive slowly turned into an 8 with a bonus roadside conference call Matt had to take for work. Meanwhile, we also learned the bag of clothes was not going to make it to Dubrovnik until the next day….sigh….
Alas, the next day, Matt’s bag arrived and we hit the town of Dubrovnik! Dubrovnik sits on the Southern coast of Croatia and looks out over the Adriatic Sea. The beautiful, 16th century walled, old city boasts pristine cobbled streets, beautiful rooftops, and enough cafes to sufficiently caffeinate everyone who steps inside the walls.
Dubrovnik has a rich and storied past as a strategic coastal town and trade point since the 7th century. After many ups and downs until the mid 20th century, it started looking to tourism. Unfortunately it got caught up in war in the 90s and fell victim to significant shell attacks and massive destruction. Since the war, the city has rebuilt and restored the damaged buildings. From overhead, you can see which buildings were restored based on their newer roofs.
Matt and I cruised around the streets, admired the seaside port, and enjoyed the people-watching from cafes. Dubrovnik serves as a filming location for Game of Thrones – so without fail there were several Game of Thrones themed tours excitedly pointing out different scenes and reminiscing on special moments (we’ve never seen it, so we could only admire their excitement and believe it was really special). To get the full-experience, we headed up on the walls. Walking the walls offered an eagle-eye view of the city and enough breathtaking photo-ops to consume us for several hours.
After the wall walk, Matt set his eyes on the mountain top behind the city for a nice sunset hike. We were met with beautiful views at every turn up the mountain and made it to the top just in time for a lovely sunset!
With our time in Dubrovnik coming to an end, we took to the guide book to see where to go next. Matt stumbled upon a chapter on the Bay of Kotor and it sounded worthy of a stop. The Bay of Kotor sits just south of Dubrovnik in the country of Montenegro. It got mildly caught up in the war of the 90s but did not suffer the destruction the Dubrovnik did.
To get to the bay, we drove south along the coast and into the beautiful town of Kotor and wow! We were met by a walled city similar to Dubrovnik but smaller and less flooded with tourists – perfect! We walked the streets and eyed the amazing walls stretching up the mountain side.
After a lovely lunch at a cafe waiting for the rain to stop, we made the trek to the pinnacle of the city walls. The walls stretch up, up, up the mountain and gave us an amazing view of the city, the Bay of Kotor, and the surrounding mountains! Not to mention the light show as the clouds danced around the bay. Amazing!
Now that we had spent 4 days living the city life, we NEEDED to get back to nature! To do this, we set out on a hair-raising, 25 turn switchback drive up to Lovćen National Park. We rose higher and higher and with each breathtaking view, came another WOW and photo-stop. Entering Lovcen National Park was our first real burst of Fall colors and we headed up to the the mausoleum of Petar II Petrović Njegoš. This gentleman was one of Montenegro’s most beloved leaders, poets, and philosophers. This seemingly out of place structure on top of the mountain was highly unexpected yet very impressive.
Smitten with Fall colors and wanting more nature time, we set off to check out Montenegro’s other national parks. Next on the list is Biogradska Gora National Park. On the way here, we drove through Skadar Lake National Park with a few road side photo ops. Upon arrival at Biogradska Gora, we were blown out of the water by the colors and reflections around the lake. We had to enact a “20 step rule” between pictures or else we’d never make it out before dark!
Our home-base for the next two days was Durmitor National Park. Similar to Yosemite, this park was formed by glacier activity and reminded us of driving through Wyoming. We enjoyed a lovely hike and shared lunch and some hiking time with an American-Israeli couple we met who also lives in Tel Aviv. With dropping temps, cloud cover, and only sandals on our feet – we opted for a scenic drive to explore more of the park. This stop was kind of a tease though, we would love to return to explore the peaks and walks in this area.
We also stopped for a photo-op of an old barn….then it promptly collapsed as we got in the car! (its the barn on the left….before it collapsed!….then we heard “crriiickkkkk…..craccckkkkk…..booooom!”)
The next day, we set off to check out one more sight in Montenegro before heading back North. Enticed by Google Images and a glowing guide book review, we couldn’t pass up stopping at Ostrog Monastery. Built into a massive mountain-side cave, the Monastery attracts thousands of pilgrims each year and is home to the remains of Saint Basil of Ostrog, the Orthodox Christian Saint of Miracles. (oh! and I almost stepped on a wild hedgehog!)
Back on the road, we headed north towards Bosnia and Herzegovina…on a questionably remote road suggested by Google maps….towards Mostar. Mostar came to life in the 15th-16th centuries as an Ottoman frontier. Its idyllic bridge was destroyed in the conflict of the 1990s and recently rebuilt. The city stands as a symbol of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians.
Our final destination for the day was Split, Croatia. We found a lovely apartment situated just outside of town and spent the next two days walking around the Diocletian’s Palace and the hillsides of Split.
Tired of city life yet again, it was time to head back to nature. Something else we knew before coming to Croatia was that they had some AMAZING waterfalls! Croatia has two main national parks with beautiful travertine waterfalls. Our first stop was Krka National Park. We were greeted by A LOT of WATER and endless boardwalks winding through the park.
The real show-stopper for the Croatian waterfalls came when we got to Plitvice National Park. WOW! Turns out Krka was merely a tease…Plitvice was OFF-THE-HOOK! Flanked by more Fall colors, the countless waterfalls and twisting boardwalks kept us speechless for hours while Matt’s camera got the workout of its life! At the end of the day, Matt was preparing for a work-call and realized his phone was M.I.A! ACK! While Matt set off to find wifi to make his call from the laptop, I set off to re-trace our steps….no dice. It was a bit of a downer….but we decided to go back in the morning and someone had found his phone and turned it into the office! WOW! With that bummer off the plate, we opted to spend another day in the park and explore some of the trails off the beaten path.
We also enjoyed a “meat plate for two”…..more like two-hundred…..jeez!
Our final stop for the trip was a bit further north in Slovenia. Since the thing we miss most in Israel is mountains, we had our eyes set on Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj. Nestled in the Julian Alps, these two lakes burst with relaxing vibes and were a perfect place to end our adventure. In addition to a sunset walk around Lake Bled, we also explored The Vintgar Gorge, Savica Waterfall, and took a gondola up Mount Vogel.
On the top of Mount Vogel, we enjoyed a breathtaking view of the Julian Alps stretching for miles in every direction. I could see Matt dreaming of coming back for a bromantic adventure with one of his backcountry buddies.
After soaking it all in, we thought it would be lovely to hike down from the peak and the lady selling the gondola tickets made it sound like a reasonable thing to do. So after exploring the peak, we set off to hike down to the lake. The ticket lady said it was an easy 2-3 hours so we set off down the mountain around 2pm. The trail was a bit rocky at first but totally reasonable. About a third of the way down, though, it turned into the “trail” from hell! It turned from rocky but generally well made trail to a steep and wide ski run cascading straight down the mountain covered in skree! I had to traverse the ski slopes like I was skiing to avoid sliding down on my butt. What the Heck?! We double, triple, and quadruple checked the map to make sure we weren’t missing something….. and sure enough, it LOOKS like a trail on the map……just when we’d get down a particular section or we couldn’t see around the corner, I’d think, “OH it can’t possibly be worse than the last section!”…..oh but it would be! So we slipped, scrambled, and cursed our way down the mountain for about 2.5 hours. That was fun……
We eventually made it down and were in pursuit of a nice place to spend our final nights. We entertained the idea of heading West to Venice but came to a sobering conclusion…we were tired of traveling! We managed to find an apartment with a Jacuzzi and spent our last two days RELAXING!!! We also found a nice water park in Bohinj with a sauna COMPLEX – it had THREE different TYPES of saunas and a hot tub! AWESOME!!
In the end, our Balkan road trip looked something like this….