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 3

Here we are at Month 3. Hard to believe. We’re still going strong, though Della is going through her first bout of true homesickness. This was an emotional and eventful month. We dedicate our thoughts this month to two wonderful women who lived long, meaningful lives. We both lost our grandmothers this month. Lucille, Della’s grandma, was 101 years old. Marvis, Eric’s grandma, was 94. They were both kind, caring, and generous. They will be missed.

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited: 6 (Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro)

Beds Slept In: 16

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited: 8 (Levoca Spišský Hrad and the Associated Cultural Monuments, Budapest including the Banks of the Danube the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrassy Avenue, Škocjan Caves, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Historical Complex of Split with the Palace of Diocletian, Old City of Dubrovnik, Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar, Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor) Total on RTW: 23

We traveled by 0 planes this month!

We traveled by 4 trains (though one of them involved a train, a transfer to a bus, then a transfer back to a train!)

We traveled by 5 long distance buses.

We traveled by 2 different rental cars which took us from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, then Dubrovnik to Sarajevo and back!

Top Moments:

~ Our first top moment came at the very beginning of the month! We had long been looking forward to visiting Spis Castle. We had planned to do it as a day trip from Ždiar, but felt thwarted by it being a holiday weekend and therefore bad bus schedules. We switched our plan and it totally worked out for the best. We added one more UNESCO site of the old town of Levoča and were able to spend a wonderful day at the castle. The weather was glorious and the castle even exceeded our expectations!

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The amazing Spis Castle

 

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~ We had a top moment when, after a long day of traveling, we were able to successfully meet Della’s parents at the bus station in Zagreb. It involved both her parents making a train, bus, train connection as well as us doing the same. We converged on Zagreb one Saturday evening- Peggy and Wayne from Vienna and Della and Eric from Eger. Della and Eric arrived first, connected with our VRBO host, and then decided to head back to the train station to meet Peggy and Wayne’s train. It made for quite a happy reunion!

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~ During our two weeks with Della’s parents, we had the benefit of Peggy’s Rick Steves’ Guide Book. (Eric loved that book and might consider it a top moment by itself!) Rick had warned us not to expect too much from the people in the Plitvice Lakes region of Croatia, stating that often the service left something to be desired. We were so pleasantly surprised during another one of our top moments. We had a long day of driving to arrive in the Plitvice Lakes region. We met our Airbnb host, who was wonderfully friendly, making sure we had everything we needed in a great apartment. He even brought up some free beers from the local brewery where he works. We then headed to a restaurant that he recommended where we enjoyed the service of a wonderful man. He was friendly, funny, and competent. It was just a cherry on top when he gave us travarica (Eric’s new favorite liquor) shots on the house!

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The beer was actually quite tasty!

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Dessert with free shots!

~ Eric and Della returned to Dubrovnik after a few days in Bosnia-Herzegovina with Della’s parents. They said goodbye to Peggy and Wayne in Mostar before driving the rental car back into Croatia. We weren’t really looking forward to spending more time in Dubrovnik given that we had been slightly underwhelmed by our first experience (high prices and a LOT of tourists). We were also a little depressed after having to say goodbye to Della’s parents. However, we enjoyed another glorious, sunny day (after many of rain) upon our return. There was no drama with returning the car (which was unexpected) and we found our lodging quickly, despite having to hike up 421 stairs with our bags. But it was the next day that really brought the top moment- we found out that Game of Thrones was filming in the city at that moment. We slept in (which could have been a top moment also) and then headed into the city to hunt for the sites of filming. Turned out that it was easy to find. We were able to watch them setting up for a large scene this coming season. The excitement came when we, first, got to listen to what must have been the camera director explaining exactly how the scene was to be shot and getting some inside info about what was coming! Then we saw LITTLEFINGER walk right by us! Finally, when we weren’t even expecting it (sitting on the square, enjoying a Coke Zero and some snacks), we looked up and saw CERSEI walk right by. Della feels like she even got a smile. =) What fun!

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Eric is the King in the ever-continuing Game of Thrones

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We were right there with the official Baratheon/Lannister banner!

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It was quite fascinating to watch them set up for what is probably one scene. So many people and so much work involved.

Runners up for Top Moments:

~Della, especially, loved all of Hungary. She doesn’t have any really great reasons except that it was extremely enjoyable and she somehow identified with the place and people. She wishes that she could list the whole time in Hungary as a top moment, but we try to be a little more specific in these recaps. So, we picked a moment that was in Eger, Hungary. You probably read how we experienced some pretty depressing, rainy days in Eger. There was one day in particular where we were quite annoyed. We had a lot we wanted to do, but we just weren’t feeling like getting soaking wet while trying to do it. So, we headed back to our pension to relax and read. All of a sudden, after a few hours holed up in the room, we glanced to the window and saw the sun peeking from behind the clouds. We dropped what we were doing and ran out to visit the Eger Castle before it closed. What views!

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The clouds actually added to the effect

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We love castles and views…

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so happy the sun came out!!

~ The middle of our trip with Della’s parents was plagued with a bit of bad luck: we experienced days of gloomy rain, bouts of bad colds (all of us in succession), injuries (Della tweaked her back, Peggy’s toe continued to bother her, and Wayne sprained his ankle badly), unpleasant experiences (lodging being cancelled on us at the last minute and then having to pay more for less, car companies who didn’t do what they said and then literally yelled at us and hung up on us, threating to let the car be towed instead of allowing us to return it: Sixt Car Rental, by the way), some sad family news from back home, etc. I tell you all of this because it was the backdrop for one of our runners up for top moment. After all of this stuff to make us unhappy, we arrived in Sarajevo. Sarajevo is a difficult city to visit for a number of reasons, but we found it amazing. We also were able to finally find affordable, good food. This may sound like a small thing, but, somehow good dining options seem to be able to make or break a place for us. We found multiple pleasant restaurants with genuine servers, good prices, and tasty food. (Even the hardest person to please among us was happy!) Our last night with Della’s parents was amazingly pleasant. We dined in our second town in Bosnia Herzegovina, Mostar. The evening at a restaurant with all the above, plus a great ambiance, and amazing views of the wonderful Old Bridge of Mostar.

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Happy campers… er… eaters!

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Local food delicacy called Burek. Yum!

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Our meal, see the view in the background.

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This lovely bridge!

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Sunset in Mostar, adding to the wonderful ambiance of our final dinner

~ See above for the lead up to this second runner up as well. We had had many days of rain during our trip and expected many more. We arrived in the Plitvice Lakes region on a cloudy evening, had a wonderful dinner (see above top moment), and slept well (except for Della who was fighting the cold at that time). We woke up to more cloudy, gloomy weather, which was truly unfortunate for our trip to the amazing Plitvice Lakes. We had been looking forward to this for a long time, reading blog after blog about how wonderful these lakes were. This is what they are supposed to look like.

Image Credit: adventurouskate.com

This is what they actually looked like when we arrived.

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The rain had also caused many of the wooden paths to be closed due to flooding. We were quite distraught but hiked on anyway. The top moment arrived when, at around noon, the sun was able to peek through the clouds! It wasn’t perfect, but it gave us the light that we had been hoping for. The mist cleared and we were able to enjoy the second part of the lakes!

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The lovely upper lakes

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The sun is out!

~ We had a wonderful time with Della’s parents, however, because their trip was short and there was a lot they wanted to see, we moved very fast! We rented cars and zipped from city to city, mostly spending only one night in each location. This was great because we saw a lot, however, we were quite exhausted by the time Peggy and Wayne left. Traveling like that is OK when you get to go home after, but on this long trip, we can’t keep up that kind of pace. We knew we wanted to slow down and thought that maybe we had found the place to do it. We headed to the bayside town of Kotor in Montenegro. We had booked an apartment through booking.com and didn’t exactly know what to expect. We arrived to a great place! Spacious, homey, and with almost everything we could want. We had already decided to hunker down for a few days, but now we think we might even go for more!

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Stay tuned to the blog for more pictures of the actual town. It is lovely.

Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

Discarded/Broken:

1. Eric’s computer. We were quite frustrated because we had bought a lightweight netbook for the purpose of this trip, but by the second month of the trip, it was starting to malfunction. It wouldn’t start up regularly and we began to worry that it was on its last legs. Luckily, we were able to buy a new one, ship it to Della’s parents and have them bring it to us.

2. Della’s cell phone battery. While in Budapest Della’s phone died. Luckily, it turned out to just be the battery. Unluckily, we were told that the specific battery she needed was not sold anywhere in Hungary. Cue a late night rush to the store in Denver by Wayne (Della’s dad) the day before they left to meet us.

Added:

1. See above: New computer and new cell phone battery, purchased at home and brought to us

2. New soap

3. New toothpaste and two new toothbrushes

Packing Update:

We’re still mostly happy with the contents of our bags. We probably have more than we really need. We still feel like we haven’t used some of our summer clothing. Shorts haven’t been worn virtually at all. We have finally used our swim suits (swimming in the Adriatic, next to the walls of Dubrovnik, and in Zadar) and we made use of our cold weather gear again during our time in Sarajevo. We also have been potentially carrying more books with us at a time then strictly needed.

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

Della has read Poland by James Michener, Everything is Going to be Great by Rachel Shukert, The Bridge at Andau by James Michener, Final Epidemic by Earl Merkel

Eric has read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Eric and Della have BOTH read Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell.

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

Levoča and Spiš Castle, Slovakia

One of things we were most looking forward to in Slovakia was visiting Spiš Castle. We had originally planned to do it as a day trip from our hostel the Ginger Monkey in Zdiar, but we were there over a holiday weekend and the buses weren’t running nearly as often as we would have liked. This meant that it was not likely that we could make it there and back in a day with a reasonable amount of time to spend at this amazing UNESCO heritage site. So, at almost the last minute, we decided to move to Levoča, a town that was quite a bit closer to the castle. We are glad we decided to do this as Levoča is quite a nice, small, not too touristy town.

Where We Stayed

Pension Oaza – We quite enjoyed this pension, especially after staying in the dorm in Zdiar. We had a very large room all to ourselves. We had plenty of space to spread out, a refrigerator and microwave, and our very own bathroom! The woman who owned the pension was kind and offered us homebaked goodies. She also told us to grab some of her many tomatoes growing in her garden. It was quite a nice location too, located midway between the main train station and old town.

What We Did

Old Town Levoča and Church of Saint James – We enjoyed visiting this small old town square. We visited in the late afternoon so we didn’t go into any of the museums, however, we did enter the Church of St. James. The Church is UNESCO listed and is famous for having the tallest altar in the world. We paid 4 euros to enter, but were quite disappointed that the altar was under renovation so covered by scaffolding. Also, there were no pictures allowed inside. We did enjoy some of the other carvings though, done by the famous Master Pavol. Levoča is also unique within Slovakia because it is still surrounded by most of its original city wall. We particularly enjoyed walking around town observing the wall and imagining its past.

Spiš Castle – Spiš Castle is the real reason we came to Levoča in the first place. We had to take a bus to the town of Spišské Podhradie which is situated in the valley right beneath the Spiš Castle (this leaves from Levoča regularly). Even approaching the town in the bus, you are struck by the enormous size and majesty of the castle.

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The bus drops you off in the middle of town, so you will need to do a bit of walking to reach the castle. We headed out of town, following the signs for Castle parking. Strangely, there were almost no cars in the parking lot, but we did see a path heading up towards the castle. We followed and enjoyed the sights while hiking up the surprisingly steep hill. We also were surprised to see big trucks driving past us on the grass up to the castle. We followed them and entered the castle through a lower back gate. We later realized that we had only been allowed to enter there because it was open for the trucks who appeared to be bringing equipment in to set up some sort of stage. The normal entrance is on the far side of the hill, away from the town.

We were honest though, and still paid our entrance fee even though we had entered through a back door. The entrance fee did include 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 isn’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 have visited so far. 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. It is actually lucky that it burned down in 1780 and no one rebuilt it. Therefore it looks more like it did when in use than many of the other castles we’ve seen during our travels.

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!

We really enjoyed the castle and finally had some good weather! The sun was out and it was warm (actually a bit humid), but we were so excited that it wasn’t cloudy! We highly recommend making time for this castle if you visit Slovakia.

Where We Ate

On our first night in Levoča, we found a small place just off the main town square that seemed to have reasonable prices. We ordered some regional specialities:

  • Bryndzové halušky  a national dish of Slovakia. Halušky are small potato dumplings, similar in size to macaroni almost. Bryndza is sheep cheese, so the dish is potato dumplings covered with sheep cheese. It usually comes with some sort of meet on top, like bacon or sausage. It tastes somewhat like macaroni and cheese, and is very good and filling.

  • A pototato pancake filled with a meat mixture

For drinks we had a Šariš beer.

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The halušky is in front of Della

On our second night, we decided to eat at a restaurant was built into the old city walls. Probably a little touristy, but seemed like a fun opportunity!

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