Travel: Slovenia, Croatia, & Montenegro
Ten years. TEN. That’s how many years I’ve been married to Noah as of this fall. What a dream. I was in no position to make a remotely decent life-altering decision at age 20 when we met, but by golly am I grateful I found him and never let go.
For the past few years we’ve been talking about how to celebrate a decade of marriage, and the consensus for a long time was Greece. It’s still high on my list, but when it really came down to it, I wanted something just a little less mainstream. It seems like Croatia is heating up, and I wanted to see it before it gets too touristy. The more I researched, the more excited I got. This country looked beautiful, and there’s more to see than we could possibly squeeze in to one week.
As always, I started with Rick Steves. Together, we put together a pretty solid itinerary.
Day 1: Travel
Our trip started as they always do: with me physically sitting on top of my luggage, willing it to zip. Many of my travel policies were passed down to me by my dad, and one of those is that you never, ever, EVER check a bag. 9 days in Italy? Carry on. A week in Japan? Carry on. A week in Iceland, in the WINTER? Wear 4 layers onto the plane and CARRY ON. Frankly, 7 days in Croatia in the summertime was a breeze. Through lots of practice and Ziploc bags, I
still have to sit on my bag to get it to close have gotten to be something of a packing savant.
We didn’t leave the house quite as early as we planned (shocker) so I started our trip a little puckered up- but we live in Oklahoma City with the easiest airport ever and we waltzed through check-in and to the front of the security line.
Allow me to digress a bit. My adorable husband is the yin to my yang. I’m outgoing, he’s reserved. I’m a rule follower, he likes to test rules that seem pointless. I obediently follow the quart-sized Ziploc bag of liquids rule, he chucks large liquid bottles in his roller bag like a felon and DOESN’T EVEN TAKE THEM OUT AT THE SECURITY CHECK. Every time we travel, I ask him to do it right so he doesn’t slow us down, EVERY time he says he’s proving a point and ignores me, and EVERY TIME, HE WINS. They never pull his bag aside. I’ve even resorted to winking at the bag screener and nodding my head in his direction, trying to give them a heads up. Nothing. It’s bologna.
This day was no different. Noah confidently tossed his bag on the conveyor belt, strutted through the body scanner, and joined me to wait for our luggage (smugly, I might add). Out come his bags. Out come my bags. Suddenly… the scanner pulls my purse to the side and looks directly at me.
“Is this yours?”
“Come with me”
This is not helping the level of smugness emanating from my beloved. I’m racking my brain trying to figure out what I could have done. Did I forget to toss my water bottle? Did I accidentally leave a butter knife in my purse after taking it to work to butter toast again?
The bag examiner starts pulling things out of my bag, and stops.
“Is there anything in here that may cause me personal bodily harm?”
What do they think I have in there??
“Uhh, knitting needles? And tiny scissors?”
She tells me 3 times not to touch my possessions until she is done. I must look like the type to grab and run.
After poking around, she establishes that the suspicious item is indeed the Target sack full of factory sealed bags of candy. She pokes them, squeezes them, tests them with the little explosive swab, and squeezes them again.
You have got to be kidding me. My husband just smuggled a full-size can of hair mousse by you but my Swedish Fish are a security risk? Noah is now practically giggling… and after I slummed it in the non-pre-check line with him. The nerve.
Only 19 more hours of travel.
To spare you the graphic details of the day, I’ll cut to the chase: our long flight to Istanbul took FOR-EV-ER to do the following: arrive, load, taxi, take off, and fly to Istanbul. If you can think of a way to delay a flight, it was covered. Because of this, we missed our connecting flight to Ljubljana, Slovenia and got stuck for the night in Istanbul. Travel complications are a bummer in your own country, but when you have to work with customer service people who don’t care about your problems whose language you don’t speak, it’s positively maddening. Is there another flight sooner than tomorrow? No? Not even on another airline? No? Oh, we get a free hotel? But we can’t leave the airport without a Turkish visa? COOL! THIS IS GOING SO WELL!
*Chucks itinerary in near-by trash can because everything is ruined.*
It truly was one of our worst international travel experiences, but we were still riding high on the sensation of not being responsible for kids and eating travel snacks with all the calories and the excitement of everything ahead of us in the week to come. Plus: Now we can technically say we’ve been to Turkey! BONUS COUNTRY. After the customer service line, airline rebooking line, Turkish visa line, passport/customs line, hotel voucher line, and hotel taxi line, we got to the (actually very lovely) complimentary hotel about 5 hours after landing in Istanbul.
Day 2: Ljubljana, Slovenia; Plitvice Lakes, Croatia; Split, Croatia
Day 2 started brrrrrright and early, with a 4 AM pick up back to the Istanbul airport, but compared to the day before, everything went smoothly and we touched down in Ljubljana at 8 AM. Also, here’s Noah smiling proudly with the WATER BOTTLE that he got through security:
Because we missed out on the evening before, we knew we had to hustle through the sights in about 4 hours to hit the road to Croatia by noon. Step 1: rental car. This should be easy.
5 minutes later:
Me: Oh, you don’t have any automatics?
Rental lady: No.
Me: OK, Noah- you can drive the stick shift ones, right?
Noah: I mean, I haven’t driven one for 20 years so-
Me: Cool, I’m sure it’s like riding a bike. *slaps Noah on back*
I trotted off to the restroom while Noah loaded our luggage in the car. Upon returning to the car:
We only have a 6 hour drive, WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
After a ‘dry run’ around the airport, we were off in a herky-jerky manner toward the Ljubljana city center. My trip planning buddy Rick Steves (henceforth referenced as Rick, as we’re on a first name basis) raved about the charm and character of Ljubljana, so I was pretty bummed to have lost half of our time there, but it was such a compact city that it ended up working out pretty well. We toured the beautiful bridges, sipped lattes at an adorable outdoor café called Lolita, took the funicular to the castle on the hill, and strolled the picturesque town holding hands. It was a quiet, calm, and sweet Sunday morning.
After hitting the high points, we hopped back in the car and made our way out of Slovenia into Croatia to Plitvice Lakes National Park. It was drizzly, but never came down very hard and probably helped reduce the crowd level. Being on a timeline, we chose to hike just the lower lakes. It was nice to get out of the car and walk around in nature, and we were amazed by the pool blue water- it was so clear and beautiful, and reminded me of the color of my dear husband’s beautiful eyes.
After about an hour, we were back on the road and bound for Split. The drive was easy (for me, because I wasn’t driving) and beautiful (so I’m told). I spent the entire ride like this:
We got in just in time for a late dinner at Trattoria Bajamont, which ended up being one of our best meals of the entire trip. The food was great (Noah got a seafood platter for two, passed out from excitement, came to, and then promptly ate the entire thing by himself), and we got a table in the most scenic little alleyway with people wandering by and a lightning show in the distance. It was cozy and delicious and perfect in every single way. I (and Rick!) highly recommend this place if ever you’re in Split.
We also immediately fell in love with our Airbnb, which was a 5-flight walk up but was worth every stair for this view:
Our host was darling, and personally met us for check in and check out to help carry luggage and answer all of our questions. He even tried to run and meet us at our ferry dock when he realized I’d left my hairdryer behind.
Me: I can’t believe I forgot that hairdryer! I left it out where I would see it.
Noah: Oh that thing? I put that away. That was yours? It looked cheap so I figured it was the apartment’s.
Me: It was a Chi. With an American plug.
Noah: *blank stare*
Me: It’s fine.
Day 3: Split
Day 3 was the one day of our trip that we got to sleep in as late as we wanted, which ended up being 12:30 PM. Oopsie. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever in my life slept until noon, but our bodies needed it after the jet lag and crazy travel days we’d endured. We hopped out of bed when we finally came to and took off to tour Split.
Stop 1: coffee at a cute little cafe with couches overlooking the Riva (promenade) and Adriatic
Stop 2: Tour of Diocletian’s palace & old town Split
One of my favorite features of Rick Steves’ books is that he includes a lot of walking tours. They’re usually detailed but not so long that we lose interest, and Noah and I wander while I read to him and try not to trip.
Diocletian’s palace was built for him when he decided he was ready to retire from ruling the world, and eventually became the core of old town Split. It is massive, was completely surrounded by a huge wall, had a foundation that was intentionally under water, and was somehow completed in 11 years. Considering they had no electricity, hydraulics, or machinery, this is unfathomable to me. It has taken us over a year to remodel our kitchen. #woof
After a day of walking, we made our way to a little wine & cheese tasting I’d set up at Paradox Wine & Cheese Bar.
Next was a lovely walk along the water, followed by dinner at Bajamonti (not to be confused with dinner the night before- that was Bajamont without an i), followed by ice cream, followed by drinks in the town square with live music and dancing. In other words, this was the perfect European day.
Side bar: Our dinner restaurant had these cute little buttons on them that called the waiter. How is this not a thing in the US? Brilliant.
Day 4: Split, Croatia; Hvar, Croatia
The next morning we got up extra early because we were so bummed to have slept through the entire morning the day before. We admired the view from our rooftop one last time and then wandered through the most touristy parts of the palace so we could
see them without the throngs of people. Then we walked back down to the Riva area and had a lovely breakfast with lattes.
Current latte count: not sure, in the teens tho
At 9 AM we hopped on a ferry boat (which you can and SHOULD book in advance online) to the island of Hvar where apparently all the celebs party. We checked our luggage at a little storage place in town and wandered the old town. Then we hiked up a very steep hill to a fortress to get amazing views of the island.
After recovering from the hike, as well as the shame associated with how out of breath we were, we headed off to Hotel Podstine to check in and clock some beach time. I love finding boutique hotels when we travel, and this one was everything I thought it would be, and more. The staff was incredibly helpful, the complimentary breakfast was amazing (lattes were included and that’s all I really need, tbh), and the spa/pool/ocean amenities were top notch. Additionally, the location was out of town enough that it was quiet and felt private, but close enough that you could walk along a sidewalk for 15 minutes and be in town.
Images from hotel website.
We spent the afternoon laying out, ordering burgers by the pool, knitting, and dodging cats. Did I mention that there were cats everywhere in Croatia? So many cats.
The weather was perfect. It was quiet and isolated. Noah convinced me to jump off a rock into the Adriatic Sea. In other words, we had the best afternoon.
We walked to Hvar town for dinner at Dalmatino, a very popular restaurant for good reason. The truffle gnocchi was my favorite meal of the trip, and the wait staff was meticulous. The setting was romantic and our waiter would NOT stop bringing us complimentary appetizers and liqueurs.
After dinner, our hotel arranged a couples massage from 9-11. Initially I thought it was a little weird to have a massage so late at night, but I’m not one to ask questions about massages so I signed us up. When we got there, we realized that they book couples massages late because they shut down the entire spa and swimming pool and you have the entire place to yourself. We had a platter of fruit, a bottle of champagne, and after our massage, got to swim and lay around the pool. I’m not sure if we were just extra sore from traveling, or if our masseuses practice black magic, but this was the best massage either of us have ever had in our lives. I fell asleep. My cheap husband asked if we could book another one. It was a good day.
Day 5: Hvar, Croatia; Dubrovnik, Croatia
The next morning we started with a picturesque and delicious complimentary breakfast on the terrace of our hotel. #allthelattes
Next up was a ferry ride from Hvar to Dubrovnik for our last city of the trip. We got in around noon, grabbed some salmon pizza, and made our way to our Airbnb. Now I don’t want to oversell this, but suffice it to say this entire trip was worth it JUST to stay in this darling apartment. It was in the BEST location with a view of the Adriatic and the most GORGEOUS infinity pool on the roof. The adorable owners met us and walked us through everything. They set up our airport taxi weeks before we even arrived. They left us wine. They left us Pringles. They checked in during our stay via e-mail. If you are going to Dubrovnik, do yourself a favor and stay in one of their 3 apartments in this darling building.
That afternoon, after we stopped grinning at each other about how cool our apartment pool was, we walked to nearby Banje Beach, which is one of the most popular (and crowded) beaches in Dubrovnik due to its location just a 5 minute walk from the old town. To say it was small and crowded is probably being kind. It was, as we say in my house, asses to ankles on this beach. We miraculously found a spot to lay our towels and enjoyed lounging in the water, but it wasn’t the private beach scene we were envisioning.
For dinner we tried an Asian fusion restaurant in the old town called Azur which was located in a darling little alley in the old town. The food was fresh, beautiful, and delicious- though a bit spicy for my pathetic palate.
After dinner, we went to a cool bar called Buza (it means ‘hole’) that Noah found online where people dive off of rocks while drinking cocktails, #wcgw. While we did not dive off of rocks, we did sit on what essentially amounted to a cliff face enjoying drinks overlooking the Adriatic Sea. According to Rick, this is where Bill Gates comes when in town, and like I always say: ‘if it’s good enough for Bill, it’s good enough for me.’
Day 6: Dubrovnik, Croatia
I decided months before our trip that I wanted to find a photographer to take a few photos of us to document our trip and 10-year anniversary. I ended up using Flytographer and was particularly glad I’d booked them when I realized on day 1 that, while I had neatly packed my nice camera, lenses, and accessories, I’d left the battery charging in my kitchen in Oklahoma. Not my best moment.
Anyway, I knew this would not be the highlight of Noah’s trip, but I really doubled down on his misery when I agreed with our photographer that 6:30 AM light was the optimal light for our shoot.
So! Day 7 started with a 5:30 AM wakeup call, but I’m so happy we took these! It went smoothly, Bozo was great to work with, and we got our edited photos within a week. We will use this service again for sure. All of these photos were taken by Bozo in Dubrovnik for Flytographer:
Since we were up bright and early, we obviously went for breakfast and lattes and then hit the main tourist attraction in Dubrovnik before the crowds got too bad: the city walls. Rick has a walking tour, which I read aloud to Noah as we walked. It was neat to get to see Dubrovnik from a birds eye view, and the entire loop only took us about an hour.
The history of Dubrovnik is really neat and I found it particularly interesting because some of its most intriguing events happened in my lifetime (Croatia was at war in the early 1990s).
After our tour, we decided to find a quieter beach than the one we’d been to the day prior, so we walked about 20 minutes to St. Jacob’s beach and boy, was it worth it.
Look at this water! I’ve never seen water so clear. Was the bottom made of slippery, hard rocks that forced me to wear goofy black ‘beach booties’ that totally ruined my outfit? I’m glad you asked.
After a morning swimming and dozing and reading and frolicking on the beach, we headed back into the old town to try a seafood restaurant Noah found online. This place was called Barba, and it was the cutest little casual seafood diner. It’s run by one family (some of them even go fish every morning for the food- are you kidding me??) and the food was so good. Noah took one look at the menu, grinned sheepishly at me, and then ordered us the seafood platter for two. It’s not his fault; he can’t control himself around seafood. You just have to love him through it.
We got to try an octopus burger, ceviche, fried sardines, and fresh oysters… among many other things. Also, this place was COVERED in forks. People from all over the world decorate forks while they wait for their food and there were probably over a thousand forks hanging from light fixtures, walls, cords, and anything people could get them to hang on. I asked our waitress and she said they throw them all away every TEN DAYS. This place is apparently THE place to be.
Next, Noah convinced me that our trip wouldn’t be complete without renting a kayak and taking it into open water.
Me: Noah. Noah. Those boats are really close. They’re coming at us. Noah.
Noah: It’s fine.
Me: It’s not. They’re going to kill us. Noah.
Noah: It’s fine.
Me: Is that… that’s a cruise ship. It’s getting closer. OMG. Noah. A cruise ship is coming.
Noah: That’s an island.
For dinner, I had arranged for us to eat a picnic on top of Mt. Srd overlooking the city. Mt. Srd is a fortress on a hill near Dubrovnik’s old town, and was built to help defend the city. It was used as recently as the 1990’s, and you can get there via a quick cable car ride.
As I researched Dubrovnik, I found the cutest little company that puts a picnic together for you called Piknik Dubrovnik. Alexandra was so helpful with my (many) questions. She packs you a local, hand-made dinner complete with your preferred drinks (we got local beer and wine!) in a convenient and adorable backpack with a blanket and everything. She even chased us down (up a hill) when she realized she’d forgotten to pack the bottle opener. I was smitten with everything about our picnic. We ate it in a quiet little area on Mt. Srd while the sun set over the water and it was magical.
Our night ended people watching in the town square listing to live music and sipping decaf lattes (because we’re not masochists).
Current latte count: probably better to measure in gallons at this point.
Day 7: Dubrovnik, Croatia; Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
For our final day in Europe we took a day trip to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. This came highly recommended by Rick, and the drive was beautiful. The historic significance of this area is very interesting, and Rick tells you all about it in his book. We were warned the border can be a bear, but it was only about a 10 minute wait each way. On the way home, the Montenegrin border patrol agent walked up to our car on his cell phone, took our documents, walked 5 feet away from our car, continued talking on his phone, failed to open or even glance at our passports, and handed them back to us. I love other countries.
We stopped for lattes (DUH) at a scenic little pit stop called Verge 65 which had the most AMAZING views of the bay. We could have sat there all day. This is where Noah had the revelation that he was supposed to be born thousands of years ago when people fought to defend their civilizations, and also that he was meant to live on the water. It’s 2018, and he lives in landlocked Oklahoma, so… almost.
This cute little pit stop was one of the highlights of the day. If we didn’t have all day to drive around the bay, we probably would have been happy to come here, sit on the patio for a while taking in the view, and then head back to Dubrovnik.
Next, we stopped in Perast to climb a bell tower, where the nice lady taking money kindly accepted the coins I could scrounge up, which were neither sufficient in quantity, nor in the correct currency (#facepalm #tourists). Her only instructions were “watch your head,” which we promptly ignored and both cracked our heads on giant wooden and rock structures jutting out so low that I had to bear-crawl up part of the staircase. Say what you will about America… we take our head space and hand rails seriously.
Rick told us to stop for lunch at Stari Mlini for exceptional seafood, where you can PICK YOUR OWN FISH OUT OF A STREAM to eat and the owner goes out early every morning to catch the fish for the day. Noah was positively giddy. The waiter de-boned our fish in front of us. The venue was picturesque (operational water wheels? But of course) and the food was as fresh as it comes. It was on the pricey side, but you can see why. It was a lovely lunch.
Our last stop was in Kotor, which is yet another amazing old walled town, complete with a moat. We perused antique stores, where I very pragmatically bought an area rug which we had a blast trying to accommodate in our carry-on luggage. Whatever, it’s hand-made and vintage and from MONTENEGRO, and it’s an AWESOME souvenir no matter what anyone else says.
We got to see a lot and had a great day, but it was a long day. Driving was slow going, so even though the mileage wasn’t very much, it took us a solid 8 hours to make the loop. We’d wanted to hop over to one last island when we got back to Dubrovnik, but didn’t get back until 5 and had to get ready for dinner.
We ate our last dinner at Kopun in Dubrovnik, where we were seated near a lovely British couple working a crossword puzzle over dinner. They were in town for a friend’s 70th birthday, and we talked to them for the duration of our meal. We’re now e-mail pen pals. I love making friends from around the word!
The very last thing we did on our trip was, appropriately, a final decaf latte on the main square.
Day 8: Travel
Not much to say here. We sat on planes for 25 hours, went through security 17 times, and never want to see the inside of an airplane again. Woof.
Here’s a map of how we split our time, because I’m a visual learner. Day 2 was a real booger.
We had the best time on our trip. True to form, it was probably a bit over-scheduled (3 countries, 4 cities in 7 days…) and we could have done with a bit more beach/pool time, but when we travel this far I just can’t resist squeezing in every little thing that there is to see. We can lay at a pool in Oklahoma.
Ljubljana was great, but we didn’t get enough time there. It was far enough away from the rest of our trip that I probably shouldn’t have crammed it into this trip as we could have used another day in Split or Hvar.
Croatia, particularly Dubrovnik, was MUCH more touristy than I expected. It seemed that very few locals really live in the old towns. Instead, those are all rented out to travelers and the locals live a bit farther out. And when the cruise ships dock in Dubrovnik… run. This is coming from a people person.
Our favorite town was Split. Rick suggested we spend more time in Dubrovnik, but if I had it to do over I would have added one more day to Split. We loved all of the open air restaurants right on the water and the vibe just felt really relaxed and energetic.
Everyone spoke English, and Croatians were generally friendly and helpful if you were friendly to them. Most of them spoke 3+ languages, which I’m so jealous of I can barely stand it.
We talked to so many Croatians who all told us that they all work 7 months straight during the busy tourist season. We’re talking no weekends. No holidays. 7 months straight. When the tourists stop (~Nov), they have about 5 months to relax, sleep, travel, and live off of the income they made in the summer. That said, unlike many places I’ve been, they all acknowledged that tourism butters their bread (so to speak) and they seemed generally appreciative that people come visit their country.
Noah and I noticed so many couples wearing matching outfits. It was adorable and I can’t wait to try this at home (mwahaha)
Last, but not least: Croatians are into crocheted clothing. Not ironically. Not for old people. The cool young folks wear clothes with crocheted accents. I think I’ve found my people.