Our first day in Belgrade was a little hit-and-miss, but we soon found our groove and had fun exploring this city of contrasts. There’s so much history in Belgrade and it’s been layered on, partially destroyed, rebuilt according to the tastes of the rulers of the day. I found the remnants of the Ottoman Empire particularly fascinating and an early stop was at the 19th century residence of Princess Ljubica. Not what we might think of now as a palace or chateau, the residence is relatively modest. It hasn’t been restored to an exact replica of when the ruling Serbian Obrenović family lived there (1831-1842), but rather has rooms furnished with objects belonging to the Obrenovićs and other wealthy Serbian families which reflect the changing/Westernizing of tastes of the period. The blending of east and west and the effects of moderization and trade is fascinating to see. I particularly enjoyed the portraits and displays of clothing reflecting a clear, but waning, Ottoman influence. For less than $2 apiece (200 dinar), the princess’ residence is more than worth it. The bargain prices in Belgrade are a treat!
Serbia hadn’t originally been part of our plans, but it caught my attention when I stumbled across a really intriguing-looking train ride from Belgrade/Beograd to the Montenegran coast (which was, along with Slovenia, on my must-go-there list for this trip). Although further research convinced me we would not like the train ride after all. Reviews described spectacular views, but also an 11-hour trip with the potential for hours more in the event of flooding, uncomfortable seats, filthy bathrooms. Nope, we’re too old and too addicted to at least a moderate level of comfort for that. But, in the meantime, Belgrade had caught my imagination.
Ever since a Venetian restaurateur had told us about Slovenian “orange wine,” David and I had been dying to try it. To our frustration, few people seemed to know what we were talking about and the ones who did had none on offer. We decided to venture into Slovenian wine country to find this elusive wine.
Slovenia has 3 wine districts. The most prestigious–and by all accounts very beautiful–is on the Italian border. Another lies to the north with the city of Maribor at its heart. Finally, there is the eastern wine region, Posavje, that borders Croatia. It’s less well-known, but boasts the award-winning Prus winery (“Vinska Klet Prus”) near the village of Metlika. Not only has the proprietor be repeatedly named best overall winemaker in Croatia, but the winery has begun making an orange wine that has been named best in class. We were intrigued. I called ahead, and with some language difficulties, determined that an English-speaking tasting would be available. http://www.vinaprus.si/en/
While we thoroughly enjoyed Slovenian wines, David is not going to let a new city pass without at least trying to find a good beer pub to sample the local beer. In Ljubljana, David’s research led us to try to local beer institutions: Sir William’s Pub on Tavčarjeva ulica 8a, and Patrick’s Irish Pub on Prečna ulica 6. Both obviously sporting non-Slovenian names, but both also carrying a good selection of local craft beers as well as foreign beers.
Of the two, Sir William’s has the more upscale ambiance with gleaming dark wood and comfortable banquettes. In good weather, seating is available outside on the sidewalk as well. The tap selection is modest, but there is a large variety of bottled beers. We ended up sampling foreign brews: a rich, boozy Schneider Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock from Germany (12.5% alcohol) and a Thornbridge Jaipur IPA from England (5.9% alcohol). Very different beers, but both delicious and with top scores from some of our favorite beer sites, BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. http://sirwilliamspub-eng.webs.com/
Lake Bled was on my absolute must-see list while in Slovenia. Photos showed something like a scene out of a fairy tale: a castle on a cliff overlooking a crystal clear lake in the middle of which sits a jewel of a little church on a tiny island accessible only by rowboats. But, as I did more research, nearby Lake Bohinj popped on my radar screen, begging to be visited as well.
Once again, we enjoyed the benefits of a small country: Google Maps said Lake Bohinj was only a little over an hour from our apartment in Ljubljana Old Town, and only 30 minutes past Lake Bled. Since the weather forecast called for more sun in the afternoon, we opted to drive through Bled to visit Lake Bohinj first, saving my top destination for last.
Secured courtyard parking in old town Ljubljana was the perk that sealed this AirBnB apartment for me. But, even without the need to safely park the rent car, I would have been tempted by the rave reviews and lovely photos. From the time I booked, our host Aljosa (pronounced “ah lee OH sah”) was quick to respond to my emails in excellent English. On our arrival, he was waiting to let us into the apartment as promised.
The apartment–in an old building, as I usually prefer when in Europe, was spotlessly clean and stylishly renovated. We particularly admired the ceiling mural and one wall on which he had left the partially-exposed old wallpaper.
SIM cards are always on my list of things to look into when I’m going to spend any time in a country. Overpriced roaming charges on my American AT&T account are out-of-the-question except for the occasional first text to a landlord, etc. (I absolutely detest being gouged.) I try to keep a French and a Belgian SIM card active, but with no non-roaming EU-wide SIM (yet), I often need a new SIM card when I’m in Europe. Options vary widely from country to country, but Eastern Europe can offer some great deals. Unfortunately, those great deals are often hard to take advantage of if you don’t know the language.
Venice for most of us means wine, not beer. But, for my awesome husband, everywhere now means beer. Craft beer, to be specific. So, I can’t leave Venice without a quick nod to Il Santo Bevitore, the fun little beer pub we found (after much wandering and inquiring of strangers).
To explain David’s and my fascination with good beer, you need to understand that in the last couple of years, we have spent a couple of months a year–in 1-month stretches–in Antwerp, Belgium. We cat- and house-sit there for a couple who have become friends and to whose cats and home city we’re always happy to return. We’ve developed a real love affair with tiny Belgium and along with that a real love for fine beer. David, in particular, has become very knowledgeable about all things beer and we’ve been privileged to make some world-class “beer pilgrimages:” We’ve made multiple trips to the monastery at Westvleteren, Belgium, scoring cases of rare “Westy 12,” the Holy Grail for many beer enthusiasts; we’ve visited the Cantillon beer brewery and museum, to taste unique samples of that legendary sour beer; we’re regulars at renowned beer bar/reliquary/dive “Kulminator” in Antwerp.
Venice is an expensive city so we were willing to pay more for the right AirBnB apartment than we might elsewhere. Still, $429 for 3 nights (inclusive of all fees) seemed like a good deal for the lovely 1-bedroom apartment we rented from Maurizio and Francesca. The location was perfect: very near the famous Gritti Palace Hotel and an easy walk to San Marco square, but far enough to be away from the crowds and the noise.
Maurizio was very responsive prior to our arrival and provided detailed information for guests arriving in Venice by any means imaginable. After taking the People Mover from the cruise ship we took a vaporetto (public transportation boat that is essentially a water-bound bus) to the Santa Maria del Giglio stop where we were met, as promised, by Francesca and escorted the short distance to the apartment, down a smoothly paved (easy on the rolling luggage) path.
Our 3-week Caribbean and trans-Atlantic cruise on the Costa “Deliziosa” dropped us off in Venice, Italy, on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016. It was my 4th time in Venice and David’s 2nd, but our first time together in that magical city and we were excited. It was my first time to arrive by ship and I was surprised to find that our large ship was allowed to dock just beyond the main train station. Undoubtedly convenient, given the 2-minute ride to the train station on the super-cheap “People Mover” to which we walked from the ship, it’s still disturbing to think of allowing these sea-going behemoths so close to the fragile old city. We heard later that there are plans to ban such ships from docking so close and I can’t help but think it’s wise. If you’re going to Venice by ship, I’d keep tabs on that potential dock change.