Kotor turned out to be everything I’d hoped: beautiful, friendly, and a great base to explore. We spent the morning of our first full day in Kotor hiking to the top of Kotor’s St. John Fortress. Two access points from the old town to the path up are manned buy locals who exact a fee of around €3pp. Steep stairs and rough, cobblestone paths make the ascent easier than mountaineering, but it’s still 87 stories-worth of climbing! The fortress is entirely in ruins, with occasional small shrines and a little church along the climb and a surprising wealth of wild purple irises and bright yellow wildflowers covering the rocky terrain. We thoroughly enjoyed the climb, but were told it could be hot and crowded in the summer. Thankfully, we had neither of those problems.
I’d wanted to visit Montenegro when my boys and I had been in Dubrovnik back in 2003. It was so close!…but I’d decided against making what, in essence, would have been little more than a toe-touch in the country. Now, finally, I was going back and we had 5 nights in Kotor to explore this mountainous country. I was thrilled.
The getting there from Belgrade was both easy and fun. Pre-boarding, we enjoyed the amenities of the airport Business Club courtesy of our Priority Pass membership (an AmEx Platinum perk). Once aloft, we flew over the rugged mountains I’d originally thought of crossing by train, enjoying the views…and convinced we’d made the right decision to skip the train. The Air Serbia flight between Belgrade and Tivat, Montenegro, was barely more than an hour and as pleasant and efficient as our Ljubljana to Belgrade flight had been (with yet another “$0” free meal). Eventually, the mountains gave way, but only somewhat, to a spectacular Adriatic coastline.
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!
David and I were both curious about Belgrade and I had my nose pressed to the window as we landed at Nikola Tesla Airport. We flew in over a sprawling metroplex constrained by the Danube River to the north and bisected by its tributary, the Sava River. More familiar looking structures gave way to massive, uniform blocks of high-rise housing as we neared touchdown.
Nikola Tesla Airport felt enormous after little Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport. It was modern and bustling…with working free wi-fi! While we waited for our luggage, I texted with our AirBnB hostess, Vesna, via WhatsApp (invaluable for travel, expecially since nearly every AirBnB host I’ve dealt with has an account) and she promised her husband would be waiting when our cab dropped us off.
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/
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.
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.
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.