King’s Landing, Westeros… er… Dubrovnik, Croatia

After we said goodbye to Della’s parents in Mostar, we returned to Dubrovnik. We needed to return our rental car there, but we also wanted to spend just a little bit more time in the “Jewel of the Adriatic” before heading on.

As we crossed over the border from Bosnia-Herzegovina, we decided to take advantage of the fact that we had our own wheels to take a visit to the top of Mount Srđ. Normally you have to pay to take a cable car up, but driving up is free. We followed the narrow windy road up the mountain and got great views down over the city.

For our two nights in Dubrovnik, we stayed in an apartment that was a little cheaper than the place we stayed with Wayne and Peggy on our first trip through the city. It wasn’t too far of a distance from the Old Town, but the biggest downside was that all of the distance was straight up a hill. At one point we counted and we had 421 steps just to get there! We did enjoy the nice views from the terrace though.

Catching the sunset from the stairs near our place

Catching the sunset from the stairs near our place

Catching up on the blog on the patio

Catching up on the blog on the patio

We didn’t have much of a sightseeing plan during our time in Dubrovnik, since we had seen the biggest sights on our first trip through. We were planning to take it easy… but then we heard that Game of Thrones was actively filming! So, we spent most of our time scoping out the the sets and trying to figure out what was going on.

By the time we got down to Old Town on the first night, it was dark enough that filming had wrapped up, we we were able to find the leftovers from a set that looked like it was going to be a marketplace of some kind. The amount of detail put into the tables and chairs was pretty impressive. We were also surprised to see that they were using real produce and bread!

IMG_1872

Those seemed to be real items of produce

IMG_2048

On day two, we knew there were two locations rumored to be active. When we tried to go to the first one, it seemed like they were in the middle of filming, because security guards were blocking all of the different alleys leading to a certain area.

We think there as filming going on up there

We think there as filming going on up there

At the second site though, they were still setting up for what looked to be a massive scene. There were gates up and security to prevent us from passing, but they didn’t seem to mind us taking pictures. We spotted banners with the Baratheon and Lannister sigils, banners with the Tyrell sigil and a litter that with Baratheon/Lannister sigils engraved on it.

Probably the most fascinating thing to note was all of the work that was being put into converting a modern street into something that looks period appropriate. There were people painting over drain pipes and electrical wires, people covering awnings with fabric, and people adding a vegetation-covered trellis to a terrace.

We even got to eavesdrop on a discussion of the next day’s filming! We were sitting on a part of the staircase that hadn’t been roped off, and we noticed that a lot of people with crew badges were suddenly gathered around. Then, one of them called a meeting to order and started to discuss how to position the cameras. We got to hear where Cersei and the High Sparrow will be standing. They planned for how to shoot how Cersei would walk down the stairs right where we were standing. They planned to shoot a lot of the walking from behind with a double doing the walking. We have different opinions about what this scene will be. Della heard something about a shift being removed, which when combined with the discussion of a double indicates one scene that book readers will know… but Eric isn’t so sure.

We lingered around for quite a while, and spotted some of the actors in the process. We saw a few extras walk by in costume, but most exciting for us was seeing two of the main actors. The first one we saw was Aidan Gillen, who plays Peytr Baelish (a.k.a Littlefinger). He was in costume, walking quickly away under an umbrella, but we did get a good view when he turned and smiled in our general direction. That was pretty exciting, so we thought we were done for the day. But then, when we least expected it, we were sitting on a fountain and we suddenly looked up and saw a lady in a blue hoodie walking towards us a few feet away. It took a second to realize that it was Lena Headey, who places Cersei. Her hoodie slipped off and we saw that she was wearing her blonde wig, but she was not in costume beyond that. She quickly moved on so we weren’t able to get a good picture.

We felt like we had been pretty successful in seeing the different Game of Thrones sights, so to cap off our time in Dubrovnik and Croatia, we went to one of the Buza bars. It is just outside of the city walls, perched over the sea – the perfect place to watch the sun set!

The sun sets on our time in Dubrovnik and Croatia

The sun sets on our time in Dubrovnik and Croatia

Bosnia and Herzegovina

The second half of our time with Della’s parents was spent in the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This country has been through some tumultuous times in recent history, but currently is quite welcoming to visitors. However, tensions still remain from the war. Still, we quite enjoyed our time getting to know this area just a little bit better.

Driving Through Republika Srpska

As we did on our trip through Croatia and Slovenia, we decided to rent a car. The first leg of our trip involved driving from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Sarajevo, the capital of the country. This drive actually provided our first glimpse into the interesting politics of the region. We knew that we were in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but we saw signs for the “Republka Srpska” and plenty of flags that looked like the Serbian flag. It turns out that the Republic of Srpska is a separate entity within the country that is composed mostly of ethnic Serbs. They have their own government and are culturally much more similar to Serbia (Cyrillic was much more commonly used), but it is still part of the same country.

IMG_1831

A sign in Cyrillic and the flag of the Republic of Srpska

Sarajevo

We spent three nights and two full days sightseeing in the very interesting city of Sarajevo. This city is in the other main political entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The majority of the residents in this part of the country are ethnically Bosniaks, which means that they are mostly Muslim (as a holdover from the long occupation by the Ottoman Empire), Therefore, you see a lot of mosques around. We even had the chance to visit the inside of one of the most important mosques in the city, the Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque. However, Sarajevo has always been a place where the different cultures mix, so we also saw Serbian Orthodox churches and a Catholic Cathedral (for the Croats).

The Ottoman influence is definitely also felt in the architecture of the Old Town. The core of Old Town, called Baščaršija, looks and feels like a Turkish bazaar. We wandered through the narrow alleyways and took in the sights and smells (and sampled some cheap food!). Leaving this part of Old Town, you immediately see another culture that influenced Sarajevo: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another stretch of the Old Town feels a little like Vienna. There is an interesting spot within Old Town where you can clearly see the shift between the two styles.

WP_20140923_15_58_28_Pro_edt

The “Eastern” side of Sarajevo. Note the ottoman feel

WP_20140923_15_58_40_Pro_edt

The “western” side of Sarajevo. Note the Austro-Hungarian feel

The Austro-Hungarian occupation led to another event that Sarajevo is famous for: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event which set off a chain of events that led to World War I. There is a small museum at the assassination site that we spent some time visiting.

IMG_1805

The monument no longer exists. However, the sign marks the spot where the shot that began the chain of events leading WWI was fired.

IMG_1807

A reproduction of the Archduke and his wife in the small museum.

After immersing ourselves in the older history of the city, we knew that it was time to learn more about the recent war.We paid a visit to a moving and disturbing exhibit called Gallery 11/07/95 – a series of exhibits that attempt to explain some of the tragedies of the way, mainly the genocide at Srebrenica. Our guide gave us a brief overview of what happened there. It’s hard to give a concise explanation in this space, but the gist of it is that over 8000 Bosniak people in the town, mostly males, were killed and dumped into mass graves by the approaching Army of Republika Srpska, even though the town was supposedly under UN protection. We walked through the photo gallery, watched a documentary, and also listened to the stories of some individuals who were affected.

The gallery also included a small display and a documentary on the siege of Sarajevo. We vaguely remembered that Sarajevo was in the news when we were kids, but I don’t think we realized the scope of what the town went through. It was under siege for almost four years, which is the longest siege in modern history. The residents had to live in constant fear of being attacked by snipers in the hills surrounding the valley that the city sits in. The documentary, called Miss Sarajevo, was shot during the siege and showed the resilience of the residents in the face of this (and was later turned into a U2 song). It is extremely moving and worth a watch. (If you do watch the documentary, and you should… its linked in the previous sentences… and you find yourself as taken with the young girl in the beginning and the end as we were, here is a video of what she was doing in 2009!)

After leaving the museum, we went and walked through the downtown core which was the home of “Sniper Alley,” one of the areas that was most vulnerable during the siege. You could still see a lot of old damage, such as destroyed buildings and grenade and bullet scars, but at the same time, the city has also repaired and rebuilt many sites.

IMG_1851_edt

Sniper scars in the buildings

IMG_1876_edt

Monument to the children who died during the siege

WP_20140923_16_15_37_Pro

A “Sarajevo Rose” A grenade blast memorialized with red resin

Even with all this tragedy in the city, we still found our time there enjoyable. People are friendly and the food was interesting, cheap, and easy to find. Sarajevo has had a lot of bad things happen in the past, but we felt perfectly safe visiting in the present. We didn’t get a chance to talk to too many locals about the war, but the ones we did talk to said that they hoped to move forward as a united nation. However, they also made it clear that many in the older generations do not feel the same way, and the same ethnic tensions remain. It is clearly hard to forgive other ethnic groups for the terror everyone went through.

Mostar

After our time in Sarajevo, we spent one more day in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the town of Mostar. This town provided another interesting glimpse into the complex fabric that is Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was the site of major battles during the war, but this time between the Croats and Bosniaks (as oppose to the more Serb/Bosniak conflict in Sarajevo). Even though they have rebuilt since the war, you can still see many damaged buildings, and also damaged relations: there is a clear geographic divide between the Croats and their Catholic churches on one side of the city and the Bosniaks and their mosques on the other side of the city.

The big attraction in Mostar is the famous Old Bridge. It was originally built during the Ottoman era, and was an architectural marvel of its time. Unfortunately, the original bridge was destroyed during the war. However, post-war, multiple sources chipped in and the bridge was rebuilt in the same manner as it had been previously, once again spanning the Neretva River. One interesting tradition that has regained popularity is that locals will collect tips and then dive off of the bridge into the river far below.

On our last night in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and our last night together as a group of four for a while, we ate dinner at a nice restaurant overlooking the bridge. As the sun went down, we were serenaded by multiple calls to prayer from the mosques in the area. It was a fitting end to our fascinating trip through this interesting nation.

IMG_1979_edt

The lovely bridge at sunset from our dinner table

WP_20140925_18_38_16_Pro_edt

Sunset over the mosque across the river

Dalmation Coast, Croatia

This is a guest post by Peggy, Della’s mom, who joined us, along with Wayne, for 14 days in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia Herzegovina.

After finishing up at Plitvice Lakes National Park, we headed directly to the coast. Our first stop was Zadar. This was high on Della and Eric’s list because Zadar is home to Maraska, a maker of slivovitz. We didn’t find a brewery tour but we did find the equivalent of an outlet store. We bought several small bottles. Peg’s favorite was Orahovac, made of green walnut.

Zadar is famous for its sunsets and we were not disappointed. It’s really nice sitting on the sea wall listening to the eerie but somewhat repetitive sounds of the sea organ. Embedded pipes in the sea wall produce the sound. We were a little disappointed by the Salute to the Sun but maybe it wasn’t quite dark enough to fully appreciate its virtues. It reminded us of water fountains, like the one in front of Denver’s natural history museum. Instead of randomly shooting water it randomly produces lights in the pavement. (Editor’s Note: We tried to take videos of the Sea Organ and Salute to the Sun but neither came out great). In the morning, Della and Wayne took a quick swim on the more sheltered side of town.

Then we were off to Split. The main attraction here is Diocletian’s palace, built for the retirement of the emperor of the Roman empire around 300 AD. There are an interesting mix of original roman structures and other houses and shops built during the next several centuries after villagers moved inside the walls following the Slavic invasion in 700 AD.

In both Zadar and Split we had excellent airbnbs in fairly ugly high rise Tito era buildings, but with modern interiors. We think both cities warranted longer stays.

The view from our highrise during a rainstorm

The view from our highrise during a rainstorm

The next day we drove to Dubrovnik. We had a bit of a snafu when our airbnb canceled at the last minute due to a roof leak. Our host helped us find something else, though not quite as nice. We also had a snafu with the rental car. The office was closed so we left the car and hoped for the best. It all turned out OK.

Dubrovnik is a beautiful walled city which oozes charm.  But it was packed with tourists and felt a teeny bit like Disney world. Or perhaps the set for a film. Which indeed it was. We missed Game of Thrones filming by a couple of days!  We spent 2 days in Dubrovnik. We enjoyed walking the wall and also swimming in a cool lagoon.

While everywhere we went in Croatia had great natural beauty and grand historic sites, there is also ample evidence of the recent ugly past and the damage from the Yugoslav wars. The area around Plivice had been home to many Serbs, placed there by the Austrians to serve as a first line of defense against the Ottomons.  You could see many abandoned homes.  And of course Dubrovnik was subject to a siege, although the war stories in Croatia paled in comparison to those we heard later in Bosnia.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

This is a guest post by Peggy, Della’s mom, who joined us, along with Wayne, for 14 days in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia Herzegovina.

We drove from Skocjan Caves in Slovenia to a town near Plitvice Lakes National Park back in Croatia. We stopped midway at Opatija, an old resort town from the Hapsburg Empire era.  We enjoyed strolling along the seaside path.

We stayed at an apartment rented through AirBnB in the small town of Rudanovac, about ten minutes from the park entrance. Our host worked at a local brewery and brought us several bottles of beer to enjoy. We ate one of our best meals at a nearby restaurant. It was all such a pleasure because everyone was wonderfully friendly, which came as a surprise since Rick Steves told us to expect otherwise.

Our day for visiting the park was very cloudy and misty. While it never really got sunny, it fortunately cleared enough that we could see the wondrous sights.  We were charged the winter admission charge of 55 kuna, about $10, half the normal summer rate. It turned out many paths along the lakes were underwater, so we missed some of the neat things in the park.  Nevertheless, it was quite something. Lake follows lake down a mountain slope, separated by travertine rock dams, and hence, waterfalls. Some of the waterfalls are high, others short and wide.  It is an incredible world of still and running water and mist. You walk along numerous paths, sometimes high above, sometimes just below the falls.  Many of the paths are boardwalks constructed of non milled timber (in other words – from logs and branches). There is a boat ride for one stretch and a shuttle bus that takes you from the upper lakes back down to the lower lakes.

We were there in shoulder season, on a not so nice day, in a relatively remote part of Croatia. Even so this park is CROWDED. We were ahead of the big tour groups, but even so there were lots of people. It was a bit hard to get unobstructed views but people were generally in good spirit about jockeying for position.

We were told that Krka Park (another in Croatia that is somewhat similar to Plitvice) has somewhat similar formations and allows swimming. At Plitvice you are not allowed in the water. Had it been hotter, that rule would have made us very unhappy because the water was clear and beautiful.

Budapest, Hungary

After saying goodbye to Slovakia, we headed south to Hungary. Our first stop was the capital city of Budapest.

Where We Stayed

Paprika Hostel – For our first few nights, we picked out this hostel online because the reviews made it seem like a low-key place (unlike a lot of other places in Budapest, who seem to be advertising how crazy they will be). We booked in a four-bed dorm room and shared with just one other person all three nights. The facilities were nice except another toilet would have been great), but we never quite clicked with the rest of the people staying here.

IMG_1058

Pal’s Hostel – For our last two nights, we decided we wanted the comfort and privacy of our own room, so we found a private room in this place. Even though it calls itself a hostel, it actually feels more like small apartments. We had to share bathroom and kitchen facilities, but only with one other couple. We really enjoyed our stay in this spacious room – and the location right next to the main basilica was amazing as well!

IMG_1087

 

What We Did

Budapest Free Walking Tour – It’s basically become our standard practice to take a free walking tour of a city on our first day there to get a feel for it. In Budapest, there were a few different companies, but we went with the one that had the best reviews. This overview tour started on the Pest side (Budapest is actually the union of Buda on the west of the Danube and Pest on the east), where we saw a few different squares and the beautiful St. Stephen’s Basilica. We then crossed the Chain Bridge over into Buda. We climbed up the steps to the Royal Palace, and then the tour finished at Matthias Church. From here, we walked down on our own through the Fisherman’s Bastion scenic overlook and back over into Pest (where our hostel was).

Free Pub Tour – Budapest is known for its nightlife, so we decided to get a little crazy and join a tour of some of the different watering holes. The free walking tour company offers a free pub tour – they make sure to emphasize that it is a tour, and not a pub crawl where the point is just to get drunk. A guide led us to three different places, and at each one we got a free shot! The last stop on the tour was one of Budapest’s famous “ruin bars” – an abandoned building that has been turned into a large bar (and usually with random decorations). We had so much fun that after the our was over, some of the group even went on to another ruin bar!

IMG_0993

IMG_1004

Szimpla Ruin Bar

Free Communism Walking Tour – We definitely love our free walking tours! The tour company also offered a special tour that was a little different than the overview. It was less about seeing sights and more about hearing the stories of what life was like in Budapest during the Communist regime (with appropriate backdrops). We felt like we learned a lot and would highly recommend this!

 

Margaret Island Fountain Show – Our hostel gave us a tip that every night at 9, the big fountain on the southern end of Margaret Island puts on a light, music and water show. We grabbed a bottle of wine and headed over there. We were definitely impressed with the hour-long spectacle. This also gave us a good view point of the Parliament and Castle by night!

 

Watching the Cowboys Game

Central Market Hall – On our own, we walked down to this giant market housed in a pretty old building. The market was closing, so we didn’t have time to do much shopping, but we did manage to grab a lángos, which is basically just fried dough topped with a variety of things. We overheard someone say that the traditional topping was just cheese and sour cream, so we went with that.

Walk Around Parliament – Also on our own, we walked around the massive and impressive Hungarian Parliament building. We had thought about doing a tour of the inside, but it is actually pretty expensive. Also near the Parliament on the Danube we found a memorial to the Jews who in 1944-45 were killed on that spot so that their bodies would be washed away in the river. The shoes symbolize the fact that they were often ordered to take off their shoes beforehand.

Szechenyi Baths – One other thing that Budapest is known for is its baths. There are many springs in the area surrounding Budapest, and these are often used to create public baths. We went to the largest at Szechenyi. We spent a whole day exploring the different thermal pools, saunas and outdoor pools. Definitely very relaxing!

Where We Ate

Compared to other cities we have been to, we actually found it quite hard to find traditional local food in this city! Most of our meals were not Hungarian. We had Thai food, Turkish kebabs, and even Mexican food! On our last night we did finally eat at one place that offered a multi-course menu of Hungarian specialties.

Final Thoughts

We enjoyed our time in Budapest. There are a lot of different sights to see, and certainly a lot of different ways to have fun. A little more touristy than Krakow and Bratislava, but not as bad as Prague. We’d recommend a visit!

Bratislava, Slovakia

We weren’t sure that we were going to make it to Bratislava, but ultimately decided it was worth it. We needed a place to stop over on our way from Zdiar to Budapest, and Bratislava was on the way. Also, we read up on Bratislava and it sounded like it had plenty of cool sights of its own!

Where We Stayed

Airbnb Apartment – We were lucky to find a convenient, inexpensive Airbnb. We were about a 15 minute walk to the east of Old Town. We enjoyed our apartment as it was on the first floor and had all the conveniences we needed, including a washer! The washer was a bit of an adventure though. We couldn’t get it to work, and ended up having to call our host. It turned out that some work had been done in the room and the water was turned off. It was hard to figure though because the sink was in the same room and the water to it was fine, but eventually managed to get it going. Our host thoughtfully provided a drying rack, iron, and hair dryer! He also included fruit and supplies for breakfast!

What We Did

Free Walking Tour – We feel like we’ve become pros at the free walking tour. What a great thing to do in many of the cities we’ve visited! We like to do the tour on our first full day because they often give us a good lay of the land and help us orient ourselves. Like many of the others, our guide was great and gave us a good overview of the city. We enjoyed this particular tour because our guide gave us a little bit more of the recent history (since communism) and a bit of the current political situation. Namely, she explained that the country was moving in a capitalist direction and many of the young people agreed. She did state that there was a significant population of mostly older people who believed that they had been better off during communism. Their unemployment rate in Slovakia is high, mostly in the country. In Bratislava itself, it was not that bad.

We started out in the Hviezdoslavo Square, admiring the Carlson hotel and then the Opera House. We then headed into Bratislava’s small Old Town. We stopped by the statue of “The Watcher” peeping out of a manhole, then to the main square, where we found a cannonball embedded in a clock tower. We walked out of Old Town through the St Michael’s Gate (and found the second narrowest building in Europe. which is now a Kebob shop). Our next stop was near the Trinitarian church where we also looked up at the castle but did not walk to it. We then walked past the Presdient’s residence and the Slovak National Uprising square. We stopped at the Art Noveau “blue church”, then our final stop was at a small square where a communist uprising occurred.

Walk to the Bratislava Castle – The Castle is up on a hill overlooking the town of Bratislava. It was destroyed in the early 1800s by fire and then was not restored until 1953, during communism. Due to this, it was not restored lavishly and today is pretty simple. It still is impressive and offers great views of the rest of the city.

Zumba – We were so excited to participate in our second Zumba Round the World class. Read about it here!

Where We Ate

Slovak Pub – We followed a recommendation and visited the Slovak Pub for dinner our first night. We enjoyed the many rooms relating to Slovakian history as well as the delicious food. We ate a combo platter of the Slovak national dish of sheep cheese halusky, sheep cheese pierogi, and cabbage halusky. Halusky is small thick noodles, kinda like gnocchi. Here in Slovakia, they are normally covered with cheese and bacon. As a dessert, we had sweet dumplings filled with blueberry and covered with cocoa powder- YUM!

IMG_0863_edt

Ždiar, Slovakia

After our time in Krakow, we headed south out of Poland and into the country of Slovakia. Our first stop in Slovakia was the small town of Ždiar, nestled in the Tatra Mountains.

Getting There

Getting to Ždiar from Krakow was actually not too hard. We first took a bus to the Polish town of Zakopane. From the busy bus station in this town, we were able to find a bus that headed into Slovakia. There was some slight confusion over bus times, but we eventually got on the bus and got to Ždiar.

Entering into Slovakia

Entering into Slovakia

Where We Stayed

Ginger Monkey Hostel – The primary reason that we chose to stop in Ždiar was that it contained this hostel that received glowing reviews from multiple sources. We definitely enjoyed our time here as well! We spent every evening just hanging out in the cozy kitchen and having fun with the other travellers.

What We Did

Široké sedlo hike –  While we were staying in a mountain town, we wanted to take advantage of the surrounding scenery and get out and do a hike! The staff at the Ginger Monkey recommended a few different routes, but it seemed like the most standard one was the “saddle” loop trail. It was supposed to take 8 hours, so we decided to make a day of it.

The first part of the trail was more of a flat road along a river. But then it turned left and headed up into the mountains. It continued higher and higher at a steady pace upwards. We were pretty exhausted, but definitely enjoyed the views looking back at where we had climbed from.

As we approached the saddle, we were a little nervous because it seemed to be covered in clouds. Luckily, as we got to the top the clouds cleared and we enjoyed excellent views.

The hike continued on along a ridge to a few more saddles, then started to head down. Going down was less strenuous but still quite difficult on our feet and knees! We were also on the lookout for a restaurant – we had been told there was a nice place to stop by a lake, but weren’t quite sure what to expect. It took a while, because the hike from the top to the lake was a bit longer than expected, but we finally found it! We were able to enjoy some Slovakian beers and sheep cheese dumplings.

We eventually got up the energy to leave the restaurant and head down the rest of the trail. It was another two hours of downhill which ended out on a highway, where we had to wait another half hour for a bus to take us back to Ždiar.

In the end, we hiked over 12 miles with over 3200 feet elevation gain! We were pretty sore for the next few days, but the views still bring back good memories!

Where We Ate

Pension Zdiar –  On our first night in town, we headed to the restaurant attached to this pension in town. The food was decent, but the most memorable part of the meal was the fact that we were able to order without a menu or the waitress speaking English! We were able to recognize a few dishes in what she was saying, and ended up with some decent food.

IMG_0419

Goulash Man – We had another memorable meal from this “restaurant”. It was actually just a little trailer that a kind man served goulash and beer from. We had lunch here during a rain storm and had a nice conversation with another tourist from Sweden.

IMG_0756

Final Thoughts

The town of Ždiar is definitely situated in a beautiful place, and the Ginger Monkey was a fun place to stay. However, our timing wasn’t great, because the weather was rainy, and we were in town on a holiday weekend, which meant that bus connections to other attractions in the area were almost impossible. This meant we actually didn’t stay in Ždiar as long as we had originally planned. So we’d definitely recommend Ždiar and the Ginger Monkey for a stopover, but make sure you check a calendar first!