So, What Were Our Favorite… Castles?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip, so we’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This edition will cover our top 10 favorite castles/fortresses around the world. These are not in order of preference, instead they are in the order in which we visited them.

Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa

The Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town was the first permanent European settlement in South Africa, built by the Dutch East India Company in the 1660s. It is quite beautiful, with yellow walls and a star shape. Entrance includes a tour which we quite enjoyed. We also were fortunate to see the “Key Ceremony” at noon.

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Český Krumlov Castle, Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

This building doesn’t quite look like a fairy tale castle, but was fun to explore! It’s free to walk around the grounds, but to go inside you do have to pay for a guided tour. There are a few different tour options; we chose the one that took us through Renaissance and Baroque era rooms (no pictures allowed inside, unfortunately). We also really enjoyed strolling through at sunset. You can get quite high in the castle which makes for lovely views over the city.

Spiš Castle, Slovakia

As you approach the town of Spišské Podhradie by bus, you are immediately struck by the enormous size and majesty of Spiš Castle on the hill above town. The entrance fee includes the use of an audio guide (free as long as you returned it within 90 minutes). We walked through the castle and listened to the stories on the guide. There actually wasn’t very much left of the castle. The royals stopped living in it in the early 18th century, and then in the late 18th century it burned down. What’s left has more of the feel of an archaeological site than the other castles we visited. It was built in the 12th century and went through many phases of construction and purpose. It has 3 baileys, which we learned were walls to protect itself. It is really more of a fortress. It went through many owners, but always was an imposing view over the valleys nearby.  The grounds of the castle are massive: there are multiple courtyards within the complex. After doing the audio tour, we spent some time just soaking in the ambiance from different places within the structure. The view was great as well!

Diocletian’s Palace, Split, Croatia

This palace takes up a good portion of old town Split. It was 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. It was awesome to see that the area had been inhabited for so long, with people still living and working inside.

Diocletian's Palace is in the background, with all the modern development now surrounding it

Diocletian’s Palace is in the background, with all the modern development now surrounding it

Fortress and City Walls at Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor has a very impressive defense system. Not only does it have thick walls to protect from attacks from the sea, it also has a series of walls running up the hill behind the Old Town that protect from attacks by land. Today, you can pay a small fee to hike up the old walls all the way to a fort at the very top. We took advantage of this one evening, and had great views over the bay as the sun set.

Gjirokaster Castle, Gjirokaster, Albania

The castle at Gjirokaster offered sweeping views of the valley, an eerie collection of old tanks from WWII, and even a tomb of Bektashi, the founder of the Bektashi sect. It also had an old US Air Force jet that was shot down during communism that was just there, ready to play on. It was nice to spend time in the castle where we didn’t see a lot of other tourists. There was also a museum of more old armory which we did not choose to visit. The views of valley and neighboring mountains were absolutely stunning.

Palamidi Fortress, Nafplio, Greece

We took an afternoon to visit the largest of Nafplio’s Venetian fortresses, which doesn’t have much in it but provides excellent views of the surrounding area. You can take a taxi up to the fortress at the top of the hill, but we decided to climb the steps. We didn’t start heading up until 2:00… and were disheartened when we saw a sign at the base that the fortress was closing at 3:00! We raced up the stairs and made it at about 2:30. The good news was that admission was free since it was the first Sunday of the month. We just had time to explore one of the seven bastions, but were quite impressed with the structure. (We think they should film Game of Thrones here!) We were kicked out at 3:00 and regret that we weren’t able to spend more time in the fortress, but we found a piece of the walls that was outside the gates to sit on, and read our books while looking down over the Old Town. It was a great place to relax and then later enjoy the sunset.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul was the home of the Ottoman sultan from 1465 to 1856. The palace has four different courtyards and many exquisitely decorated rooms. We toured through all of the areas open to the public, including the harem which required an extra ticket. The grounds were expansive and, despite sort of bad weather, we enjoyed exploring most of the nooks and crannies. We were particularly excited here because it finally happened!! – Someone recognized Eric’s Rice baseball hat. We met a current Rice student (Jones College) who was studying abroad. How fun!

Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

We spent a hot and crowded day in Bangkok exploring the ceremonial home of the Thai monarchy, the Grand Palace. We paid our steep (500 baht = $15) entrance fee and headed into the first part, Wat Phra Kaew, a.k.a.the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. We first explored the colorful chedis, then braced ourselves and dove into the big crowds squeezing in to see the Emerald Buddha itself. The statue was pretty, but far away and a little small, so we didn’t linger. We left the wat and then walked through the grounds of the palace. This was formerly the residence of the Thai royalty, and there are many fancy buildings that show a mix of Thai and Western architectural styles. Most are closed off to the public, but a few of the throne halls are open, so we wandered through them to see the splendor and take a brief respite from the heat. The splendor of the buildings with colors and sparkles is hard to beat. We also followed a tip from Wayne and Peggy, who had visited the previous day, and finished our visit at the slightly out of the way Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, which ended making our top 10 favorite museums list.

Imperial Citadel, Hue, Vietnam

The Vietnamese city of Hue was the seat of the Nguyen dynasty and thus the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. The main remnant of this ruling period is the ruins of the Imperial City, the home of the emperors. It is surrounded by a large wall, and then within the Citadel is another set of walls and the impressive Ngo Mon Gateway into the Imperial Enclosure, where all of the main activities took place. From there we explored the large site which had been largely destroyed during the French and American wars. However, there is a lot of ongoing restoration work. We explored the Thai Hoa Palace which was used for official receptions and important ceremonies before heading to the Hall of the Mandarins. The Forbidden Purple City was once reserved for the personal use  and residence of the emperor, but there is not much left now. Some of the the most beautiful parts of the entire enclosure were the Truong San Residence and the Dien Tho Residence for the wives and mothers of the emperor.

 

Monthly Recap: Month 4

Wow! Month 4! The month was characterized by slower travels and more connections! We are also so pleased to announce that we have become first-time uncle and aunt this month. Congrats to Eric’s sister Suzanne on the birth of her beautiful baby girl, Sofia.

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited: 3 (Montenegro, Albania, and Greece)

Beds Slept In: 12

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited: 7 (Historic Centres of Berat and Gjirokastra, Butrint, Meteora, Archaeological Site of Delphi, Archaeological Site of OlympiaArchaeological Site of Mystras, Archaeological Sites of Mycenae and Tiryns) Total on RTW: 30

We traveled by 0 planes this month!

We traveled by 0 trains this month!

We traveled by 20 long distance buses.

Top Moments:

~ Our first top moment came at the very beginning of the month! We had been looking forward to our visit to Kotor for a long time. We really enjoyed slowing down in Kotor at the end of last month and the beginning of this month. One of the best days we had there was when we climbed the fortress walls. It was an absolutely gorgeous day weather-wise. We waited until the late afternoon to miss the cruise ship crowds. We climbed up the mountain, enjoying amazing views, and even a sunset on the way down. It was lovely!

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~ Our second moment came in Berat, Albania. We knew almost nothing about Albania when we arrived (though learned a lot while we were there) so we didn’t know what to expect. We had heard that it was not really on the tourist track in Europe. We were so impressed with Berat! Our top moment came when we decided to take a tour of the city offered by the worker at our hostel. He was a native of Berat, and knew a ton about his city and the history of Albania. The tour was particularly personalized because there were only 4 of us. The other couple was an amazing pair of bikers from Belgium. The tour started at 10 am and after seeing the beautiful city of Berat, we sat down for Turkish coffee (tea for us) and then dinner with both our guide and the Belgian couple. It was a fantastic way to spend the day, full of everything we love about traveling – new friends from around the world and learning a lot about cultures we didn’t know much about!

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~ We mentioned above that this was a month where we made some really great connections. The first was our Belgian friends in Berat, the next was a couple of Americans from Washington state (and Idaho). There is almost nothing better than seeing another pair of travelers trying to make the same long travel day as you are. It helps with confidence, knowing that someone else is attempting the same trip, as well as company! It is even better when you find out that you have a lot in common and really enjoy chatting with each other. Our top moment was when we were able to visit the ancient site of Delphi with our new friends. Wow, we have to say, it is a wonderful experience to find another couple who enjoy reading Rick Steves (and other informational signs) as much as we do, and who enjoy talking popular culture, TV, and books (even the Wheel of Time series!!!) in the breaks. What luck! We had a great time!

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Runners up for Top Moments:

~ We already mentioned in this recap that we really enjoyed our time in Albania. Another example of this was our time at the archaeological site of Butrint. This was a wonderful place with a lot of history, but the best part was that we got to experience it practically on our own! We didn’t see any other tourists almost the whole day! What was even funnier was that when we got back to our hostel in Saranda, we found out that 4 other people from there had done it as well, separately, but it was big and empty enough that we didn’t even see each other. This is not to say we don’t enjoy company, but there is something special about experiencing an ancient city (and tourist attraction) without having to dodge the crowds.

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~ Our second runner up was in Meteora, Greece. We were pretty excited to finally reach Greece, which we had been looking forward to for a very long time. Della has dreamed of visiting Greece for as long as she can remember. Meteora did not disappoint. We walked among the monasteries taking in the unique, impressive scenery and imaging what it must be like to make your home on the top of vertical pillar, high above the world. It was especially good when we were able to escape from the tourist bus crowds.

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~ We had a wonderful time with our new friends in Delphi, Greece. One of the activities that we did with them was to take a walk from Delphi, down the mountain, through the olive groves, and to the coast. It is actually the reverse of what many pilgrims did in ancient times on their way up to hear their fortune from the Oracle. We had a magnificent day, with perfect weather. The scenery was shockingly beautiful and our company was grand. It was hard to beat!

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~ As some of you may already know, we celebrated 10 years of being together as a couple this last month. We couldn’t have picked a better locale. Delphi, Greece was absolutely beautiful. It is hard to imagine a better way to remember 10 great years with a person you love while overlooking one of the most fantastic sunsets you’ve ever seen!

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Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

Discarded/Broken:

1. Simple Wine Opener

Added:

1. New toothpaste

2. More Complex Wine Opener

3. Butter knives

Packing Update:

We got to use our summer gear a bit this month which made us happy! We also have used our winter and rain gear, so we are glad we have it all. Della hasn’t used her dress since Budapest so is wondering if it is necessary. Eric is happy with all of his contents.

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Eric has read The Persian Boy by Mary Renault, The Golden One by Elizabeth Peters, Black Ice by Lorene Cary, Making Money by Terry Pratchett, Crescent Dawn by Clive Cussler.

Eric and Della have BOTH read The Greek Treasure by Irving Stone and Hope of Earth by Piers Anthony.

Make sure to catch up on all our monthly recaps: Monthly Recap 1, Monthly Recap 2, Monthly Recap 3

Budget: Montenegro

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Montenegro. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Montenegro we used the euro. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 1.3 dollars to 1 euro.

Total Spent (6 days): $471.77

Accommodation: $244.40

We stayed in an apartment that we found on Booking.com. We liked it a lot which is why we ended up staying for so long!

Activities: $29.90

This included the entrance fees to climbing the fortress in Kotor and the bell tower in Perast as well as Zumba classes.

Alcohol: $10.60

Our alcohol category does not include alcohol that we buy with food, so this includes a bottle of wine and beers in Perast.

Food: $91.58

We cooked at home for almost every meal during our stay in Kotor. We had one dinner out after we climbed the fortress. This also includes any alcohol we purchased with our groceries.

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Miscellaneous: $23.79

This included postcards, mailing postcards, a bathroom stop, and Eric’s haircut.

Transportation: $71.50

This included buses around Montenegro and from there into Albania. This is higher than it would have been because we ended up having to taxi into Albania because we were told that the buses weren’t running due to a holiday.

This divides out to $71.63/day which is under our $100/day budget!

 

 

 

 

 

Slowing Down in Kotor, Montenegro

Our next stop after Dubrovnik was the town of Kotor in the relatively new nation of Montenegro. Kotor is the main town on the Bay of Kotor, a giant inlet on the Adriatic Sea. After moving so quickly through Croatia with Della’s family, we decided to slow down in Kotor and ended up staying six nights!

Where We Stayed

Apartments Samardzic – Part of the reason why we decided to stay in Kotor for so long was because we really enjoyed our space in this apartment. We had a nice queen-sized bed, a good bathroom, a kitchenette, a big living room, and our favorite feature: a view over the bay. We spent most of our afternoons just relaxing the in the living room, looking out over the bay and catching up on things. The hosts live right next door, and were always very kind whenever we had a question.

What We Did

Honestly, not too much. Even though we stayed in Kotor for many days, a lot of our time was spent catching up on the blog and reading books. We did try to do a little sightseeing most of the days. So, we did do these activities:

Explore Old Town – The Old Town of Kotor is known for being small but also like a maze. We spent a few different days trying to get lost in its different alleyways. We never got completely lost, but we did find a lot of picturesque little corners. We also found a lot of cute cats!

Climb the City Walls – Kotor has a very impressive defense system. Not only does it have thick walls to protect from attacks from the sea, it also has a series of walls running up the hill behind the Old Town that protect from attacks by land. Today, you can pay a small fee to hike up the old walls all the way to a fort at the very top. We took advantage of this one evening, and had great views over the bay as the sun set.

Day Trip to Perast – On one of the days in town, we also decided to take a day trip to the another interesting town near the mouth of the bay called Perast. There wasn’t too much going on there, but we enjoyed a lazy afternoon admiring its Venetian architecture and exploring its sights.

Zumba Classes – See our separate post.

Got Eric’s Hair Cut – It hadn’t been cut since before we left on our trip. As fun as it would have been to see him in a ponytail, he felt it was time. We asked around and heard that a place in Old Town would do it for a reasonable price. One evening we headed over there, and he got the exact cut he wanted in less than ten minutes!

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Where We Ate

Our Apartment  – For as much as we enjoyed Kotor, its one downside was a lack of cheap, non-touristy restaurants. So, for every night except one, we cooked dinner in our apartment! We found a nice grocery store (in the same fancy shopping mall as the Zumba classes), so we were able to vary the menu each night. We were also able to get a local beer or wine each night for pretty cheap.

Pizzeria Sara – The one exception to our cooking at home was the night we climbed the City Walls – all of those stairs made us pretty hungry! So instead of figuring out what to cook, we decided to eat some pizza. We both tried to get pizzas with a little bit of local flair – Della had a topping of local ham, and Eric had some prosciutto.

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Our table had a nice view on the square in front of the cathedral

Final Thoughts

We may not have done as much sightseeing during our week in Kotor as we had done other weeks, but we really enjoyed the chance to relax and recuperate. The few activities we did do were fun, and Kotor is definitely high on our list of places we have enjoyed visiting!

Zumba Round the World: Kotor, Montenegro

We decided we needed slow down a little bit after a fast paced 14 days with Della’s parents, so we found a place we liked in Kotor, Montenegro. We hunkered down in a comfortable apartment for a week, a few minutes outside the old town. We were only a 5 minute walk to a pretty fancy mall, which surprised us. The great thing about this was that there was a gym within this mall that offered Zumba every day! We went to our first class on a Monday afternoon at 4 pm. The instructor, Duda, was super welcoming and excited to have us! She explained that her Monday classes are a bit smaller because they are early in the day and we were glad to have some space to dance. There were about 6 students in that class and they were all friendly and really made us feel welcome in their class. Unfortunately, Duda also mentioned that in Montenegro, it was not very typical for men to dance, so Eric felt a little uncomfortable. The class was a lot of fun! Duda incorporates some isolations at the beginning of class and some yoga at the end, so it was unique!

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Anticipation: before class starts!

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Sweaty after class with the lovely, talented Duda!

Della enjoyed the class so much that she went back a second time later in the week. The second class was quite a bit bigger as it was later in the day, but again, everyone was so kind! It was a blast and really helped with a little of the homesickness we’ve been feeling to have a regular Zumba class to attend. Thank you, Duda for a wonderful time! If you ever find yourself in Kotor, Montenegro, check out her Zumba classes!