Balkan Peninsula (part 1)

After our Alpine adventures we headed to Split, Croatia to kick off our month in the Balkans. As we’ve mentioned before, we had to get kind of creative with our travel schedule so as not to overstay our visas; this means that we had to find places to stay that are not in the Schengen zone. We had heard really great things about Croatia and Montenegro so were already planning to spend some time there, but decided to spend even more time in that region because it is all outside of the Schengen zone and thus didn’t count against our visa limits (Croatia is in the EU, but is not a Schengen country; Montenegro is not in the EU or the Schengen zone, but uses the Euro because it doesn’t have its own currency; and, just to make things even more confusing, Switzerland is not in the EU but is in the Schengen zone!).

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All told, we spent 22 days in Croatia (the longest we stayed in all of the countries we visited, tied with France), 9 days in Montenegro, and 3 days in Bosnia and Hercegovina (a country we never thought we would be visiting!). All of the places we wanted to get to didn’t really make the most logical itinerary given some travel and scheduling constraints, but we made it work! Some of it was a bit of a whirlwind, but we also had some good relaxation time and generally enjoyed our time in the Balkans.

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Split

August 13-15

We got to spend a few days exploring Split, a city on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. The city is an interesting mix of old marble buildings and modern clubs and bars, and attracts a pretty varied group of visitors. The Dalmatian coast, including Croatia’s islands, has become a destination for the young and hip of Europe and America to go to hang out on boats and party all night because it’s not yet become too expensive. The beautiful, clear Adriatic Sea also draws the elite set with their massive yachts.

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One of the main attractions of Split is Diocletian’s Palace, built as a retirement palace by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the fourth century AD, which is actually quite large and takes up a significant portion of Split’s old town. Less of a “palace” per se, and more of a walled fortress, we spent a fair amount of time just wandering through the little streets and marveling at all of the Game of Thrones-themed merchandise. It was pretty incredible to explore a place that has been around for millennia and that is still a vibrant, inhabited, and bustling city center.

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We also loved exploring the open-air market of Split, a huge open space of loosely organized stalls and vendors selling all sorts of fresh produce, dried fruits and nuts, breads, cheeses, and other local products and specialties. Our first full day in Split we were looking for a snack in the market and spotted a line at a bakery, so naturally we joined in and got our first burek of the trip. Mmmmmm… Generally, the food (and the cost thereof) in Croatia did not live up to our high expectations of being really good and really inexpensive, but we could almost always depend on the ubiquitous burek—flaky pastry rolled around fresh cheese, spinach and cheese, or meat, and then wound on itself into a snail- or oval-shaped coil and baked (or maybe fried?!?) until the pastry is crispy—to be cheap, often very good, and usually filling enough for a meal.

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Click here to see more photos from Split.


Dubrovnik

August 15

We rented a car in Split and drove south along the Dalmatian coast to stay in Cavtat (“Sahv-taut”) for a few nights. The landscape has the classic Mediterranean feel of Italy or Greece, mixed with some of the craggy desert hills of Nevada, and needle-y cypress trees piercing up through the brush. To get from Split to Dubrovnik, you have to cross through the Neum Peninsula of Bosnia and Hercegovina. So, we had to wait at two border crossings and exit and re-enter the EU in the span of about an hour, which was kinda funny.

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On our way to Cavtat, we stopped in Dubrovnik to check out the old town for a few hours. We didn’t do much in Dubrovnik because of our timing, and because it was really really hot, but we did hit some of the major sights: We walked around the wall of the old fortifications, we got ice cream, and we saw the “shame steps” from a particularly infamous episode of Game of Thrones. We marveled at the beautiful water, the rich red-tiled roofs, and the massive yachts anchored offshore.

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It’s pretty clear that Dubrovnik exists these days almost exclusively for tourists, capitalizing especially on its new-found fame from Game of Thrones (Dubrovnik is the setting of King’s Landing, among other places, in the show). It was definitely a cool place to visit, with interesting architecture and history (and fun for me, as a GoT fan…), but it was pretty overwhelmed with other visitors and I think we spent the right amount of time there.

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Click here to see more photos from Dubrovnik.


Cavtat

August 15-17

We spent a few low-key days in Cavtat, where there wasn’t much to do other than wander around the small harbor and jump in the water. There aren’t really natural sandy beaches along the Dalmatian coast, so to go swimming you often have to gingerly scramble over jagged rocks or find a place where you can jump right in (and then climb back out); people bring pads and cushions to the “beaches” so that they don’t have rocks poking them while they try to relax, but we just had to make do with our pack-towels. Also, there are a bajilion sea urchins along the shore, so just walking into the water can be risky.

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Our first time jumping into the water, we fell immediately fell in love with the Adriatic Sea. The water is incredibly turquoise and clearer than any body of water I’ve ever seen before; it’s a perfect temperature (especially in the roasting Croatian summer), and so salty that you barely have to work to stay afloat. I’m usually not the biggest fan of swimming in open water (thanks in part to a pesky jellyfish in Mexico), but I could not get enough of swimming in the Adriatic.

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Click here to see more photos from Cavtat.


Kotor

August 17-22

After two nights in Cavtat, we headed into Montenegro to spend five nights on the Bay of Kotor. We stayed in an apartment about a twenty minutes’ walk (along a busy street with no sidewalks) from the old town of Kotor. It was quite hot while we were there, but we enjoyed getting local products from the open-air market and cooking at home, wandering around the old town in the cool of the mornings, and soaking up some local culture.

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The old town was like a quaint, smaller version of Diocletian’s Palace, or Dubrovnik’s old town, with stone buildings and many narrow alleys converging into open squares; like, a lot smaller, since one day we wanted to go to a restaurant we had previously seen but couldn’t remember the name of so we just walked down every street in town until we found it again (which took us about twenty minutes).

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The town lies on the Bay of Kotor, one of Europe’s southern-most fjords, and the landscape is quite stunning. Unfortunately for us, the beautiful Adriatic water had become quite contaminated with all of the cruise ships and activity in the bay, so we were not very tempted to swim in it. It is a popular stop for cruises, so while we had a nice view of the bay from our apartment it was often obstructed by massive ships whose pollutants also settled into the basin around the bay.

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In Montenegro we experienced our second country that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet (Morocco being the first): Montenegrin is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. (Funny story: Croatian, Montenegrin, and Bosnian are all pretty much the same language except the name of the language changes in each country; Montenegrin and Bosnian are in Cyrillic, and all three are fairly similar to Russian.) This didn’t really cause us any trouble since Montenegro is becoming more and more of a tourist destination and so everything is also written in English, or at least written out using Roman characters, and pretty much everyone speaks at least some English.

The cuisine is pretty similar along the coast of Croatia and into Montenegro, so we already knew some good things to eat: burek, black risotto (made with cuttlefish and its ink), cured ham (almost every country we’ve visited (except Morocco…) has had their own version of prosciutto, which is usually really good; I promise we didn’t plan solely on that!), figs, gypsy peppers, and fresh produce in general. And so many mushrooms! They literally had trash bags full of dried porcini mushrooms.

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One afternoon as we were walking through town, we happened to notice many different groups of locals working on decorating little boats—or making “floats” as it were—for what appeared to be a kind of parade. We looked it up, and that weekend there was a big festival called Boka Night which involves parading these little floats around the bay at night, followed by fireworks and copious amounts of partying. It was really fun to see this little slice of life! We tried to watch the parade by peeking around the crowds who had staked out their places earlier; the floats ranged in their level of execution and ambition but all were cute and we enjoyed watching them. It was a very big to-do, like a county fair, for which the whole area comes out; and then once the parade is over, everyone goes into the old town which has been turned into a club for the night, replete with thumping music, strobe lights, and tall cocktail tables. It was pretty fun, but we opted not to join in and after we watched the fireworks we went back to the quietude of our apartment.

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Check out more photos from Kotor here.

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