March 13, 2013 0

West Balkan Trip Part 1: Overview

By in Balkans, Croatia, Slovenia

It’s been almost a year since my trip to the West Balkans where we visited four countries: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. That’s 4 out of the 6 countries that were used to be known as Yugoslavia. Since a new trip + the 3rd season of Game of Throne is coming up soon, I figured it’s really time to blogged about my trip, for record sake at least!

St Mark's ChurchFor our two weeks trip, we started at Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. As a former member of the Hapsburg Empire, Zagreb reminded me a lot of Prague but far less polished, quirky and gentrified. Austrian influences are visible everywhere. There are lots of gorgeous old buildings that’re waiting to be fixed up and converted into nice boutique hotels and businesses. However since it’s a city that’s still under the radar for most tourists so most businesses cater to locals.

courtyard and CastleFrom Zagreb, we took a train to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Slovenia is a Euro zone country so the price gone up significantly. Just like Zagreb, it was under Austrian rule for awhile. It reminded me of Prague even more, especially the quirky public art. The old town area is almost too cute and looks very quintessential “europe”. However we spotted quite a number of neo-Nazi graffiti here and there.  I’ll elaborate more in a separate entry.

Latin Bridge From Ljubljana, We flew to Sarajevo, the Capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Drastically different from the cute Ljubljana, Sarajevo would not be on most people’s “beautiful city list”. In fact they have some of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen. However, it is a fascinating city due to its history and the mixture of cultures/ religion. Ex: The bridge in the picture above is where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and thus WWI started. The scars of the 1990s Bosnian war are also highly visible everywhere. We also had some of the best food in Sarajevo as there’re lots of Turkish influence in Bosnian cuisine. I’ll go into more details in a separate entry.

Taken from my cameraNext day we took a bus and spent a day at Mostar, a beautiful medieval town locates at southwest of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The bus ride through Bosnia’s country side was breathtaking. Mostar is one of the most beautiful and picturesque places I’ve been to. Its beauty made the devastating destruction during the 1990s Bosnian war even more heartbreaking. In fact many of the surrounding area of the bridge are still in ruins or covered in bullet holes.

View from Minceta Fortress
From Mostar, we took a bus return to Croatia to the famous coastal old city of Dubrovnik. For Game of Throne fans, Dubrovnik is also known as “King’s landing”, it was also used as the film location for most Daenerys’s scenes. You get why Dubrovnik is so famous as soon as you see it for yourself, the beautiful wall city with lots of Venetian influences sit next to the blue Adriatic ocean is really quite amazing! It also got bombed the shit out of during the Bosnian war but the scars were fixed up well. More detail report in a separate entry.

Bay of Kotor
One of the days we’re at Dubrovnik we did an excursion to the nearby Kotor, Montenegro. It was a weird trip as the Croatian driver who drove us clearly hates Montenegro, perhaps due to the Bosnian war? Once we asked him to stop at a town for breakfast because we’re starving, he responded: “Why do you want to go there? There’s nothing there. My friend was tortured horribly in that town.”  Ok nevermind! The whole trip he anti-recommended us to most of the sights: “oh it’s nothing to see there, it’s not worth to go there…etc etc”. Perhaps due to his attitude, my impression of Kotor isn’t that good either. It’s an old wall city similar to Dubrovnik but a lot more run down and much less pretty. The top sight is actually the walls up on the hill. On our drive back, our driver perked up finally and told us how he was the driver for the cast of Game of Thrones. He showed us pictures on his phone where he’s photographed with Peter Dinkage and the actor of “Sandor”. He also said Emilia Clark is a very nice girl. Apparently all the local big and tall guys became extras for the TV show too.

IMG_6175
After Dubrovnik, we took a northbound bus to Split, an ancient Roman coastal city in Croatia. By this point we’re pretty tired of “old wall city by the ocean” but Split is interesting in a different way than Dubrovnik. It’s much less touristy and there are a lot more businesses cater to locals. The vibe is also a lot more youthful and you see a lot more local young people hang out at night, thus more cool bars and places to hang out. There’s not much to do there as most people use it as a launching point for the nearby islands. Next day we flew back to Zagreb and Jon proceed to an amazing culinary adventure at the Istrian peninsula of Croatia while I return home.

In hindsight, we packed in a bit too much on the first half of the trip so we both felt fatigue towards the end. It also took a lot of planning to figure out all the transportation and connections. It isn’t the easiest to track down reliable bus schedule in general so we missed some buses here and there which was tiring also, but I guess that’s part of the joy of traveling.

Other general impressions:
-The Balkans really love Cafes! So many cafes everywhere and they seems to have lots of time to hang out there too.

-Croatian and Slovenian cuisine taste like somewhere in between Italian and Austria.

-Squid ink Pasta is everywhere and no matter how tasty it is, you get tired of it pretty fast. I learn that too much umami flavors is not a good thing.

-Felt like almost everyone speaks English there.

-Like many former communists countries, customer services could be lacking.

-The radio on the buses, Taxi and bars seems to play nothing but American pop songs. Whenever we turned on the TV, American TV shows were on. The only time we heard local music was at the bus from Sarajevo to Mostar.

-There seems to be a lack of control regarding Graffiti in Zagreb and Ljubljana.

-Scars of war is still visible, especially in Bosnia.

More detail reports next and report of the best restaurants we had!

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