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  1. #1


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    Trip Report: Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro 2015

    Page 1: The Gathering

    This summer marked two milestones for me and my wife: a "big" birthday and an equally "big" anniversary. We wanted to gather both our sons and their families to celebrate with us, and wanted to gather in a place none of us had previously visited. I had tried to work Croatia into a previous trip, so had some vague ideas about the country, but the logistics of that journey got too complex so the idea was tucked away for future reference.

    We have good flight benefits on British Air, which always means flying through Heathrow, and our younger son, due to living in England for two years, also had benefits, though on Virgin, so it was a natural for us to connect with this group of four in London. Our older boy and his family were coming from a work week at his company's Amsterdam office, by way of visiting friends in Vienna, and would meet us in Zagreb, arriving by train.

    So after collecting our two rental cars at the Zagreb airport, we all met up well after dark at our apartment/hotel in the heart of Zagreb.
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    Page 2: Zagreb

    In retrospect we all agreed we would have liked to have been able to spend more time in the city. We arrived fairly late, and by the time we checked in to our rooms it was a scramble to find someplace to eat as places other than the bars were closing for the night.

    We stayed at the ZigZag "Integrated" hotel. I have no idea what that term means, but this is a modern set of rooms and apartments in a couple of different buildings...very modern, clean, and well equipped: (http://www.zigzag.hr/en/).

    Due to our late arrival the office was closed, but we were provided complete instructions by email with the code to enter the building, how to park the cars, and how to access our rooms, with the payment deferred until the following morning when the office opened.

    The staff was friendly and helpful, and they use a neat chalkboard to suggest things to do, where to eat, etc. We were very pleased with the apartments and the service.

    In the morning we met for coffee and breakfast at what was really a bakery but which also had outdoor seating across the street...a practice quite common throughout the country. I wish I recalled the name of the place but we paid cash and I'm afraid that trying to get nine people to agree on where to eat was a bit challenging so I did not retain that...great quiches though!

    We did not have much time in the city, as we had a 2 1/2 hour drive that afternoon to Plitivice National Park...a universally agreed "must see." We did stroll through the old town and wandered through the large outdoor market, once again feeling depressed, as we always do in Europe, by the high quality and low prices of the produce.

    We did come away from Zagreb wishing we could have stayed longer. We were impressed with the cleanliness of the city as well as the modern and frequent running streetcars. But the lakes were calling, so it was with some regret that we climbed into the cars after some jewelry shopping by the ladies at what they thought were excellent prices, and motored out of the city.

  3. #3


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    Page 3: Golden Lakes Rooms

    A word about GPS in Europe. While I can access driving instructions on my iPhone, this does use cellular data if you want turn-by-turn directions and increased accuracy...something to be aware of relative to whatever international data plan you have.

    My Garmin Nuvi GPS is several years old, as are the European maps on SD Card. Despite this we were able to use it successfully throughout the trip. Many countries are expanding their use of roundabouts, and of course the new ones did not show on my unit, but it was fairly easy to figure out what to do to continue on the route needed. There was one exception which had nothing to do with roundabouts, but I'll mention that later.

    The drive was easy, all but the last part on new and lightly traveled divided toll highways...with few exceptions this was true for most of the entire trip. Much of the infrastructure of the Balkans dates from the end of the civil wars in the 1990s, and the almost-empty roads looked brand new.

    Our accommodation outside the park was at the Golden Lakes Rooms, which we booked through bookings.com. This is a family owned property and quite nice, with multiple buildings and a variety of rooms. The ones we had were modern and clean, and the staff was helpful, warm, and friendly.

    In fact, we found this to be true with all our rentals on the trip. In most cases language was not an issue at all, as particularly younger people all are quite proficient in English. While Italian is a second official language in parts of the country, only in an Italian restaurant in Rovinj did I find that language in use.

    The owners of Golden Lakes offered to cook for us, and for a quite reasonable price they prepared a platter based around fresh fish for the women and an equal platter based around meats for the rest of us. The second night they offered to make reservations for us at an affiliated place just down the road, which included a tray of lamb that was excellent.
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  4. #4


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    Page 4: Plitivice National Park

    There is little I can add to what I'm sure is everyone's reaction to this amazing place. The park is a series of mountain lakes connected by cascades which carry the water down the mountain from one lake to another. It is hard to believe that the 1990s civil war started in such a beautiful and serene place.

    Upon getting our tickets we walked about 1/2 mile along a well paved road to get to the shuttle bus station. The bus took us to the top of the lake chain. From there the trail, part of which uses boardwalks over the streams and cascades, descends from one gorgeous scene to another.

    As I recall, the park claims there are 26 waterfalls, but I think that depends on how you count. If you include each individual cascade from one lake to another it seemed to us there were many more than 26.

    All in all the hike is over 8.5 miles, but for the most part is not overly strenuous. The heat and humidity, however, were a bigger issue. Southern Europe was experiencing an above normal heat wave during most of our stay, and combined with high humidity (at least by our Northern California norms) it was energy draining.

    Our passes included a boat ride across one of the lakes, where we had mediocre hamburgers and some cold drinks. There is also food and beverages at the park entrance, including what looked like a nice restaurant facility. With the heat we had beer rather than wine...what became a regular ritual over the rest of the trip.

    We did the entire trail in one day, although the passes allow you to split it over two. The second morning we used to rest and recover before starting the 4+ hour ride to Rovinj, on the Istrian Peninsula.
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  5. #5


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    Page 5: Villa Zonti, Rovinj

    Our older son wanted to reach the coast as soon as possible rather than staying on the toll road. I honestly don't recall where we made the transition, but once on the coastal roads we were taken by the sheer barrenness of the country...hardly a plant in the ground, which consisted almost solely of large rocks of a uniform bleached white color. Very austere, though softened somewhat by the deep blue of the water.

    With the GPS it was not difficult to find Villa Zonti...but without it I think it would have been nearly impossible. Though only 8km from Rovinj, the area is criss-crossed by one lane roads, and almost every intersection is marked by a sign indicating a new geographic area of some sort...though these clearly are not towns or counties or any division we in America would recognize. It would have been very frustrating and confusing. I did have the best maps I could find from Trektools (though they are now called "LongitudeMaps")...but even at a scale of 1:100000 these areas are barely discernible.

    The villa (http://www.rentbyowner.com/property/...nti/FK-1177390) was chosen because it was not easy to find a single accommodation for nine people within our budget. Although the immediate surroundings of the property at first look a bit too rustic, there was no real reason for concern, and the property itself is well equipped and has been updated well. A plus was that each of the four bedrooms has its own bathroom. The dining room/kitchen was big enough for all of us to work on and enjoy meals together. The nice and private pool was a real plus with the hot and humid days...a delight to come back to after wandering around Rovinj or being out on a boat. There is a well stocked grocery within a few kilometers, and major supermarkets within a couple more (and side by side in what seemed like a "supermarket outdoor mall").

    Once we learned how to go the trip to and from Rovinj or other areas was also quite straightforward.

  6. #6


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    Page 6: Rovinj

    Although we did like Rovinj, in retrospect I would not have stayed there an entire week. The old town is a little too cluttered with touristy jewelry stores and galleries of (for the most part) mediocre "art" for me.

    We did find some great restaurants and cafes. Possibly the best was called "Pane e Vino, Ma Non Solo, Di Marcello." Yup...our best meal in this Croatian town was Italian. This is a true "Mom and Pop" place and the elderly owners were delighted to converse with me in Italian (which the waiter, who might have been their son, did not speak). Wonderful hand-made pasta, fresh assorted light and dark anchovies, good wine, and complimentary grappa ("take all you want" said the waiter, leaving the bottle on the table. It was good enough that our younger son's wife bought a bottle).

    Another great find was Segutra. My wife had this restaurant on her list of places to try, but we literally stumbled into it and sat down without actually knowing where we were. It was only when I looked at the placemats that I realized we had accidently "just happened" to decide to sit down at the very place she had said we should look for. I did not keep track of everyone's meals, but my risotto with squid ink was excellent.

    Another "find" by my older boy was "Mediterraneo." This is literallly accessed through a low arch "hole in the wall" and is a tiny cafe right on the water (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractio...nj_Istria.html). You can swim or sunbathe right from the cafe, and we liked it so much we returned multiple times to "just hang out."

    Rovinj offers many leisure opportunities. We took a half day boat tour which included stopping at an island to swim...but the beach was so trashy we decided instead to jump into the sea off the boat, whose name was "Tonka" (who could resist that)?

    The captain's daughter, perhaps 10, was one of the "servers" offering snacks and drinks. She was quite serious about her work, and quite charming. The other crewman besides the captain was actually from Finland and works summers in Croatia but is a waiter in a town north of Helsinki the rest of the year.

    On another occasion three of our group wanted to scuba dive, and planned another boat outing. However, the seas were too rough, so they did a "shore dive" instead while the rest of us just lazed about on the beach. Rovinj has a number of dive shops as well as multiple boat tour operators.

    On a whim, one evening we all went to a nearby go-kart track for some competitive racing. There are two of these tracks nearby. We also spent a day in Pula, taking in the Roman amphitheater and dining at a pizza joint which started out looking too small to seat nine of us but wound through several rooms, past the kitchen, and out onto the roof of an adjacent building.

    Speaking of pizza...it is the most ubiquitous food of Croatia. We did not find a single restaurant which did not serve it, ranging in quality form tolerable to mediocre...none really great by Italian standards. The time from order to service was so short it is clear that in Croatia there is some shortcut approach they take, but I never was able to find it.

    We took one day trip out of Croatia and into Slovenia and Trieste in Italy. Our kids had researched the Skcojan Caves in Slovenia and we agreed we should go. Of course we had worked this out before hand since we needed to get approval from the car rental agency to take the car out of Croatia.

    The part of Slovenia we saw was very pretty...green and lush and a real verdant change from Croatia. The caves are a match for Plitivice in sheer beauty, particularly the second half of the complex. The system is divided into two parts: the first is a guided tour underground, which is a very grand and imposing complex with lots of up and down stairs to navigate. The second part is an unguided walk through a part under and part overground system where the river crashes through holes in the surrounding rock faces and plunges underground only to reappear further on. There are suspended (but very sturdy and modern) bridges across the river which are bolted into the cliffs. It is an astounding complex and quite lovely. Overall it is another 8.5 mile day, but if you take your time and are in reasonable shape and health there is no reason anyone in their 70s could not do it.

    On the 11th of July we split up...younger son and family to Istanbul and then England, older boy and brood to Venice for a week and then home. We packed up the now empty and lonely house and left for Zadar.
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  7. #7


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    Page 7: Zadar

    Our apartment in Zadar was in the heart of the old town, which is on a peninsula a few hundred feet off the mainland. The apartment (http://www.homeaway.co.uk/p1411491) was small but adequate. It was modern and clean. The downsides were that the kitchen was not well equipped nor adequate for meal preparation, and parking was iffy. It was also two flights up, which might be a problem for some travelers.

    The owner was quite helpful, giving us a tourist map and circling the city highlights. At our request he also suggested four restaurants, writing their names and location on the map and telling us a bit about each. We ate at two of these, Bruschetta and Fosa. He also told us about the traditional oarsman who would row us across to the mainland rather than walking all the way down and back to and from the new pedestrian bridge.

    Bruschetta is large and family oriented, the Croatian equivalent of a trattoria. The outdoor tables are shielded by large umbrellas, and are right across the street from the sea side promenade. While it might suggest a tourist trap, it is well and efficiently managed, with a courteous staff and good and reasonably priced food. I had fried calamari which was excellent, and my wife had a large plate of shrimps in a spicy BBQ-like sauce.

    Fosa is an upscale ristoran right on the bay inlet of the same name. The outdoor terrace overlooks a tiny harbor and the bay. The service and food were very good, though of course the prices were higher than Bruschetta. But with an appetizer each of smoked salmon mousse, a main course of Mediterranean Sea Bass, a shared and very large and multi-ingredient salad, dessert and a glass each of a local white wine suggested by the waiter at my request, the bill was around $60.

    Zadar has an impressive Roman forum, with its signature "sea organ" where wave action forces air through tubes producing haunting whale-like sounds, and their solar "Welcome to the Sun" random light display, which is entertaining, particularly for kids. The sunsets are indeed spectacular...it is the only place I have ever heard a crowd applaud the setting sun...but perhaps they were just glad for the heat to end.

    Zadar came alive after dark, with whole families wandering through the streets with gelato cones or at street side cafe tables well into the night. There are many interesting historic sights such as a plaza with five identical wells , as well as a seaside promenade which is the town gathering place both before and after catching the sunset at the sea organ.
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    Page 8: The road to Kotor

    Maps are funny things. It is not totally obvious that to get to Dubrovnik or Montenegro from Zadar you will cross into at least a sliver of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nor is it obvious that you have done so while actually driving.

    We had booked two nights in Kotor, Montenegro, located on a spectacular fjord that cuts into the country from the Adriatic. I had been unable to find a satisfactory map of the country at online sources, but figured the GPS would get us there just fine. I did have my cellphone and its map apps as a backup, but as it turned out neither was really up to the task, and the latter wound up getting me an unexpected and large phone bill besides, since Bosnia is apparently not on the list of countries served by my provider.

    Rather than go down the coast and through Dubrovnik, I thought we would be better served and have less traffic going a bit inland. Besides, from Montenegro we were going to Dubrovnik and why travel the same route twice?

    Several hours later, and after crossing what I now realize was a border between Croatia and Bosnia, the toll road ended. I did not really have a sense where I was, nor did I look at the new stamps in our passports. Besides, all the signs were lettered in Cyrillic and the border guards spoke no English at all (I suspect few Anglo tourists use the route).

    Stopped at the toll booth I meekly suggested "Euros?" The woman in the booth shook her head. "Kuna (the Croatian currency)?" Again a head shake. Uh oh...where am I? She then said what I suspect were the only English words she knew or was willing to admit to..."Credit card." I later saw this $.68 charge on my bill but still have no idea what the currency was.

    Then things got tense. Herds of goats and/or sheep/cattle on the narrow two lane road, run-down houses, some still showing the impact of artillery shells...and a GPS that had no idea where we were, along with a phone that sort of did but was quickly losing power and satellite coverage (why did I not bring the car charge on this trip?)

    We did finally manage to reach Kotor, and the last part of the drive, through the mountains and down to the fjord, was spectacular (with yet another border crossing into what was called Cyrna Gora and not Montenegro, by the way), and into Kotor...most of which was pretty ugly.

    We could not find our apartment from the instructions we had, so we used our dying phone to call the owner, whose English is marginal, and sat at a bar waiting for him to find us.

    Turns out we were literally within about 100 yards of the building.

  9. #9


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    Page 9: Kotor

    Windrose Apartments are truly beautiful and could not be better situated; (http://www.windrosekotor.com). We had what the owner identifies as "Apartment South West" on the web site. The terrace looks straight out on the fjord and the view is magnificent. However, this is facing west and is only really usable in the morning, but it was great to sit out and have a light breakfast there.

    The apartments really are luxurious, on street parking (and off if needed) is nearby, and there is a delightful promenade along the water with numerous cafes and casual restaurants (find one with misters if it is hot!), leading past a beach that is attractive but has zero shade, directly to the old town, which is amazing.

    The mountains have forts connected by walls that look like they had to have been made by mountain goats...they are that steep. The fjord is beautiful. The only thing that can mar it is when one of those over-large cruise ships comes in. Fortunately for us only one that could not moor at the port appeared the morning we were leaving.

    By this point the heat was really wearing us down, so we tended to eat based solely on whether the place looked like it could cool us off a bit. Nothing really memorable, but good food and reasonably priced. Again, we were drinking beer and not wine, and eating a lot of gelato, just trying to weather the hottest parts of the day by staying home in the AC.

    There is a tour by bus that runs from Dubrovnik but it is a 13-hour day with much of it on the bus...and of course you don't get to see the fjord lit up at night, which is quite pretty. Also, you are forced to "enjoy" the old town with all the other day-trippers rather than at your leisure before they arrive or after they leave.

    I definitely recommend staying overnight rather than taking that trip.
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  10. #10


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    Page 10: Dubrovnik

    From Kotor we returned to Dubrovnik "the easy way," which is around the fjord and through Hercegnovi. This is an interesting drive and much shorter (and less tense) than the route we had taken into Montenegro.

    Our room was in Villa Adriatica, which is spectacularly located just outside the old city walls. Two of the rooms open directly onto a terrace which overlooks the old harbor and one of the two city gates. The view is just spectacular, but unfortunately unless that view and the convenience of your front door being less then 50 yards from the old town is your only concern, I cannot recommend the place.

    While the photos on the web site are enticing (http://www.villa-adriatica.net/html/accommodation.html) , relative to the actual condition of the place they appear to have been taken many years ago and neither they nor the villa has been updated since. The kitchen is simply unusable in terms of either appliances or equipment (ONE spoon?), the sitting room has no air conditioning and looks like a storage room for old furniture, and our "premium" room was run down and scruffy.

    Despite this we really like the town. The old city is both impressive and beautiful...in fact the most beautiful ancient town center I have ever seen. The streets are wide and paved in marble rather than cobblestone, the baroque buildings and towers are in great condition and show little sign of the shelling they received during the 1990s civil war, and a number of the plazas are wide and open, as is the main street, which bisects the town from one gate to the other. During the day the town is attractive and at night simply magical.

    Old towns are not conducive to wandering through during hot and humid days. The stone buildings and streets radiate heat, and the nature of buildings adjoining each other is that there is little opportunity for air circulation or for any breeze to penetrate. Add in crowds of day trippers from tour buses and cruise ships and in particular the main street, where tourists of this type seems always to cluster in, can be oppressive.

    We found that, as in other places on the trip, we had two solutions. Since we were staying for multiple days we had no real need to be out in the hottest part of the day, so spent this time reading in the air conditioning and only venturing out early in the morning or late in the afternoon after the crowd thinned as the day trippers left. The other technique was to largely avoid the main street. Uphill from Placa Stradum is a street which parallels it for its entire length. Prijeko is narrow, way less traveled, and almost totally shaded by the awnings of the back-to-back restaurants along its length.

    A word about these. The towns we were in all seem to be trying to build an economy totally focused on tourists eating and drinking. The menus tend to be virtually identical, and the competition means that each has a polite and well-dressed, usually young greeter out front trying to entice you to sit down. While never pushy and always friendly and even helpful, giving directions to folks looking for specific sites, for example, it nonetheless gets a bit wearying politely declining these invitations every 30 feet or so for the entire length of a street.

    Old town is indeed beautiful though, with the wide street and plazas and well maintained/restored baroque buildings. It is large enough that there is always something new to stumble unexpectedly across. On our last night we found a street we had not been down before, discovering at the end of it a “Spanish Steps” look alike, which unfortunately ended in a rubble filled plaza which may perhaps have not yet been restored from war damage.

    We were fortunate to be in town during their Summer Festival, which included performing arts like dance and theater as well as music and graphic art exhibits. We managed to attend all or part of three different concerts, one classical in a small and very sultry church setting, and two outdoors in the main plaza. One was a concert by 10-14 year old students and offering both classic and pop selections at a level of competence beyond that I would have expected from such young musicians.

    The other was by older students of a music school. This was Sunday night and there were numerous signs that this "Oakland funk" performance was mainly for local friends and family. We were glad we caught the end of it after finishing one of the best meals of the trip.

    It is difficult to find something different from the offerings of virtually every restaurant in town, but we managed to locate two. Taj Mahal offers Bosnian cuisine, while Proto concentrates solely on the sea. Both were good and one was beyond excellent.

    I was not sure, given a painful history that is still very current, how a Bosnian place would be received in Croatia. There certainly was no overt sign of tension, and Taj Mahal was clearly quite popular. Despite the time of year we never made a reservation in Croatia and were able to walk in and be seated everyplace but here. We had to wait 40 minutes for a table.

    Despite the name, which seemed odd given the theme and menu, Taj Mahal serves really good food, which was a welcome change from the uniformity of the other places in town. The lamb in particular was superb, and the ethnic costumes worn by the staff actually did add to the feeling of uniqueness.

    Proto is a well above average ristoran concentrating on fish and seafood. In fact their sign clearly says “Riblji” right over their name. It is family owned and operated, with the recipes coming from the current generations' grandparents. I had a creamed crab soup which was delicate but flavorful, we shared a large and varied very fresh salad, and we both had the best sea scallops we can remember, followed by dessert. With a Campari spritz each (OK, I had two-they were really refreshing) and the local white wine suggested by the waiter when I asked for a recommendation, the bill barely touched $80US.

    Through the manager for Villa Adriatica (and the staff was quite helpful) we had requested car service to the airport, having also been picked up there upon dropping our rental when we came to town. This was a private big black Mercedes with a well dressed and courteous driver, for the equivalent of $30 each way, a bit lower even than cab fare.

    Dubrovnik Airport is quite small, as the main port of entry and exit for the country is Zagreb. The flights are limited and vary based on time of year and day of week. Keep this in mind if you are planning to visit and do not want to contemplate somehow getting back to Zagreb.

    And I do recommend visiting. Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro have much to offer, and the coast, with 350 years as part of the Venetian Republic, will seem somehow familiar to “Italophiles”, though with its own unique cultural spice added.

    *
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