On a Balkan Holiday

My mom really enjoys traveling, especially now since both Melissa and I have both left the nest, and so we booked a 13 day Balkan and Venice holiday.

Day 1 – Thursday, December 19 – Friday, December 20

The longest day ever. After a full work day and a work holiday party, my dad and I headed to the airport to catch a 7 pm flight. After a 10 hour flight to Zurich and then another 2 to Venice, we picked up our luggage only to board another bus north to Opatija. I couldn’t tell you very much about the bus ride. I fell asleep almost immediately. When we were finally dropped off at Hotel Paris, we showered, had a quick orientation, then dinner and went to bed.

Day 2 – Saturday, December 21

We woke up early today to have breakfast and take the optional tour to Pula to see the stadium and the old town. After an hour long drive, the stadium appeared out of nowhere in this sleepy mid-size town. The stadium was reminiscent of the Coliseum, a bit smaller and perhaps even in slightly better shape. 

We ate at Aligheri restaurant in the Roman town. The truffle soup was amazing, the pasta was also quite good. After lunch, we all hopped back into the bus to head to Rovinj, apparently the prettiest town in Croatia. The steeple was definitely quite photogenic. Unfortunately, as it had been raining all day, the cobblestones were quite slippery. Also, there was only one shop open, so there wasn’t too much to do. 

After another two hours, we headed back to Opatija, had a delicious dinner at Ruzmarin, which did have great cocktails, if a bit on the pricier side, took a walk in the park and went to bed.

Day 3 – Sunday, December 22

We packed up our things and headed to Zadar early in the morning. It was, unfortunately, still pouring this entire day. Zadar seemed quite quaint and its main attraction was its sea organ, tubes that played sounds when the sea winds blew. We spent most of our time huddled under our umbrellas wishing things were warmer.

We packed back into the bus in the afternoon and began the rest of the long drive to Split. Possibly my least favorite thing about tours is the extremely long bus rides between places. Due to the rain, Gate One felt bad for us and booked us a free meal at Epetium in Split. I had the meat dinner, which included unlimited wine and we were serenaded by a guitar and accordion player. After dinner, we headed back to sleep.

Day 4 – Monday, December 23

After dinner, we headed out for our tour of the Palace of Diocletian. The palace was incredible, but what I thought was most interesting was how the citizens built around and repurposed the ruins over the centuries. It made the ruins feel like a living piece of history, rather than simply a found, preserved archaeological site.

We had some free time after the tour and so we celebrated the end of the rain with some traditional fritules, chocolate-covered doughnuts. We also had some chicken nuggets and bruschetta at Terminal F, which I found a bit too oily. Around noon, we packed back into the bus for our drive south to Dubrovnik. We did make a bathroom stop in Nene, in Bosnia, which was pretty cool.

We had booked the optional dinner at Konvale, a traditional home where they grew and raised their own food. Despite all we heard about the slow cooked meal and the traditional methods, my family found the veal and potatoes both a bit too tough. The cherry and apple dessert was also quite sour and we were generally disappointed.

Day 5 – Tuesday, December 24

Our Dubrovnik hotel was beautiful. From the glass elevators in the morning, you could see the sea. After breakfast, we headed into town for a guided tour. I had been to Dubrovnik before, but there were far less tourists this time. Instead, all of the town had dressed up and gathered to listen to carolers in a Christmas Eve celebration. I felt quite underdressed.

We had a wall tour and the walls were equally as impressive the second time around. There were some older ladies in our group who complained vocally about the number of steps, despite being warned beforehand. Ah, tours.

After the guided portion, we had the afternoon to ourselves, with the option to go back to the hotel on the bus at 2. We had lunch at Sesame, outside of the old city, mainly because it was so packed. Lunch was altogether disappointing. My order was messed up, my mom found bones in her cod and service was incredibly slow. However, once we headed back to the old city, the crowds had mostly cleared.

We headed to the fortress but found it closed. Instead, we walked around outside the walls to find a place where we could watch the sunset. Once the sun set, it was a bit cold, so we stopped for some hot chocolate and mulled wine while waiting for the lights to turn on. We then headed back on the bus for the hotel and a buffet dinner at the hotel. There, we were entertained by a small girl who ran away from her mother and grabbed a bread knife, which I safely returned to the table.

Day 6 – Wednesday, December 25

Christmas Day turned out to be our longest bus day yet. We packed into the bus early for our long drive to Sibenik. 

The only break in our drive was lunch at Etnoland, one of few places open on Christmas Day. Etnoland was a Disneyland-esque place made to represent Croatia in historical times. This by itself made me apprehensive. The food though was actually quite good even if the drinks we paid for were overpriced.

We arrived in the late afternoon in Sibenik, after which we had possibly the most boring city tour. We were able to go into Jakova Cathedrale though, which was kind of our guide. The baptistry carvings were amazing. Our dinner at the hotel was also really good. My family headed out to check out the Christmas festival at the local park. We didn’t find too many people there and so headed home.

Day 7 – Thursday, December 26

We headed out early the next day to begin our long journey to Zagreb. First stop though, was lunch at a local cafe. While most of our group got goulash, my family played it safe by sticking with pasta. By early afternoon, we arrived at Plitvicka Falls. The waterfalls view was quite incredible. It was also incredibly lucky that the area hadn’t been bombed during Croatia’s war for independence. Bine told us that if it had, the area would be unusable.

We did a hike, read walk, down to the falls and then back up again. It was nice being in nature for awhile though, especially after so many bus rides and city tours. By the time we made it to Zagreb, it was dark. We had lunch provided at the Hilton Hotel, which was also mediocre. Although the hotel looked nice from the outside, the inside was a bit of a disaster. Our shower didn’t drain or change temperature–someone else’s toilet didn’t work. 

Still, we headed out for the quarter mile walk to Zagreb’s famed Christmas market. Apparently, it’s won best in Europe three times in a row! The Christmas market took up most of the town, with lights both in the upper and the lower city. We didn’t buy anything but walked around and admired the lights and the view.

Day 8 – Friday, December 27

The plan for today was to do a city tour of Zagreb, then drive through the border and do a city tour of Ljubljana, then finally head to Bled. In anticipation, we woke up early and packed before embarking on our half-bus, half-walking tour of the city. What amused me the most was that the Museum of Broken Relationships lay in between the church and city hall, two of the most popular marriage spots. The chandeliers in the main cathedral were also important from nowhere else but Vegas.

Although we planned on getting to Ljubljana by mid-afternoon, the border crossing we had planned to go through was shut down. This meant that we had to go through a two hour long detour. By the time we made it to Slovenia, we were all hungry and so got some goulash at a gas station. The gas station’s food was really nice.

We decided to postpone the city tour until tomorrow and went straight for the hotel. I had booked dinner a few months in advance at Penzion Berc, which, by luck, was located right across from our hotel. One reviewer said that it was the best meal he had had in years. While we didn’t think it was quite THAT good, we did polish off our desserts despite being stuffed from the goulash earlier.

Day 9 – Saturday, December 28

We woke up early to begin our Bled Castle tour after breakfast. We had strikingly good weather during the tour. First a gorgeous misty fog and then bright sunlight. Even the local guides were impressed and had our their binoculars to see the view. After copious photos of the view, we headed back down to the capital.

Ljubljana was also fog covered and quite cold when we arrived. My toes were freezing in a very foreboding Chicago-reminiscent manner. By the time we finished our sped up city tour, I couldn’t feel them very well. We stopped by a local restaurant for mushroom soup in a bread cup in Sokol by Bine’s suggestion. I expected a cup but received a full-size bowl. It was quite tasty though.

After the city tour, we dropped off some people at the hotel before setting off on our optional Alpine tour. First we headed up a gondola to the Vogel ski slopes, where we admired the view while consuming a cheese plate and some blueberry liquor. It was cold. I wanted to ski. We then drove down to Bohinjsko Lake to take some photos before sunset. We ended the tour with a visit to the Plansarki Museum of Cheese. As someone who is lactose-intolerant and doesn’t like cheese very much, this part was probably the least interesting leg of the tour.

We went back to the hotel, warmed up a bit, and headed down to a goodbye reception for the first leg of our tour. The next part in Venice would be mostly self-led. Although I was full from the finger sandwiches, my mom wanted to see Vila Bled, the old-Tito-summer-resort-turned hotel. The walk was further than anticipated and my mom made me bring a massive red flashlight. On our way back, we stopped by Restaurant Sova which another member of our tour group. The food was good and the restaurant was very cute.

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