Joanie's Balkan Vacation
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So the "former Yugoslavia" was a good trip to christen my renewed passport: 7 cities, 5 countries, 2 weeks. Things went pretty smoothly flying (if only I could sleep) to Zagreb (Croatia) where we picked up a rental and immediately drove to Belgrade (Serbia). A 3+ hr drive on one highway into town, GPS found our address right away, if only all the drives were like this. Our Hotel Prag was decent and convenient with a massive breakfast buffet (which all the proper hotels on our trip offered). We basically only had two evenings and one full day here. The first nite was a nice dinner at the opera house looking Little Bay (full food report: on CHOWHOUND), only drag was all the smokers while you're eating. We walked around all over, Belgrade was jumping on a Mon. nite. On Tues. we saw St. Sava Temple, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, the Museum of Yugoslav History and Tito's grave, had an excellent sausage lunch, hit the market down the street from the hotel, walked thru Kalemagedan Par with a beverage break at the Belgrade fortress, saw the Danube River, shopped at Leila Records where the owner was very nice trying to find us Serbian music (Andrew had better luck than I did). He recommended a place for cevapi (https://www.youtube.com/all_comments?v=n8GTjduTB34) but it was just ok then a cold beer at this cool looking bar Antik and more walking around.
Left Belgrade for Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) around 9:30AM. Started off easy on the same highway we'd driven in on then things went downhill cuz the GPS wouldn't punch in our exact address and the roads turned to shit after about 90 min. It was a slog thru tunnels, super curvy roads, animals and tractors slowing us down but surprisingly nice restrooms at the gas stations. We got to the Hotel Michel around 3:30. While walking to the main drag, we passed an argument a few doors down with a big strapping guy and someone we assumed was his mother in her house. Who knows what was going on but she pissed him off enough that he went to his car to grab a bat and smashed her window. There's our rental parked 3 doors down on the street and we hoped for the best as we walked straight ahead (well I had to kind of peek). Went thru the Markale market, famous for being bombed during the Yugoslav War (or Bosnian War or Serbian or whatever name you want to use). Sarajevo was a learning experience because of that history and I was embarrassed at how little I paid attention to it as it was happening in the early-mid 90's. We booked a Sarajevo Funky Tours to the "Tunnel of Life", a tunnel that was dug from the airport to transport food being flown in to avoid the snipers. We had a great guide and nice folks in the van. Also saw "Sniper Alley" and the site of the '84 Olympic bobsled which is mostly a graffiti filled hangout for kids drinking. We saw some Sarajevo roses (mortar shell scars in the sidewalk) around town and many buildings had hunks taken out from the war. Later we stopped at "Kultura Sjećanja: 1991", a very heavy exhibit about the Muslims killed in Srebrenica. It was an insane war (and they still don't like each other much). I read a book called "Goodbye Sarajevo" that also gave some background. On a happier note, we had an excellent dinner at Dveri, great cocktails at the super funky Zlatna Ribica, got a drink at the kinda rock bar Marquee, took photos of roving packs of stray dogs (all the other cities had tons of cats but it's dogs in Sar.), hung out in Old Sarajevo, saw the Latin Bridge (where WWI started), heard people doing their prayers a few times a day, bought magnets, etc.
We took a route from Sarajevo to Kotor (Montenegro) that our hotel guy recommended. It was supposedly longer but better roads. Maybe the GPS just screwed with us but these roads were insane. Never mind the curves and the animals, it was like riding into farmland at times, or into people's backyards at other times. It didn't help that it was pouring for a good hunk (7 freaking hrs), just a drag but Andrew handled it like a pro and hearing the occasional She Bop or Dangerzone brightened the mood (yes really). We finally found our Apartmani Ćetković and Jadranka was so sweet bringing two bottles of beer and some homemade cake. Kotor has the southernmost fjords in Europe and I almost axed this off the itinerary cuz of the long drive but it was worth seeing. We headed into old town on a drizzly evening and ate good grilled octopus then a drink at a swanky hotel bar. The next morning was dedicated to climbing the 1350 steps up the fortress to the Church of our Lady of Remedy. It was a workout but worth it. Got a snack and walked around a little but we weren't sure what time she wanted us to check out so we headed back. Definitely could have spent at least 8 more hours here (as was the case in every city).
It only took a couple hours to drive up the coast to Dubrovnik (Croatia). The Hotel Neptun was in a section called Lapad, a beautiful area and a beautiful hotel (one of the splurgier places). I only put my feet in the Adriatic but did quickly dunk in the pool, got a good negroni from the nice bartender and after watching the sun set from the outdoor bar, we headed out to dinner of grilled squid then met Kevin from the Shods and Lauran from Cheater Pint at Exitbar which was on my list and their hangout. Whitesnake was playing as we walked in, nice. It was smokey as hell tho so we ended up sitting at an outdoor bar then saw the apartment they're renting while Lauran works remotely as much as possible. Sun. was gorgeous, we walked the walls that encircle the old city, got coffee at a café playing Tool, hit the market. That evening was my travel agent with drinks at Buzz and food at the fancy Restaurant 360°, eating outdoors, gorgeous views, good food and wine, very nice. We saw a Dali exhibit on Mon., split an octopus burger, sat outdoors at a swanky café, bought more magnets, hit a wine bar for snacks (then a subpar dinner down the street) and a final drink with Kevin that nite at Buzz (Lauran was too busy).
Roads in Croatia were great so the 5 hrs to Zadar (Croatia) further up the coast was easy (I drove at this point cuz there were no border crossings. I was afraid they might hassle us for my name not being listed as the driver). We just stopped once for a gas/bathroom break where we were lucky enough to see some poor sod who had peed and/or shit himself heading into the bathroom (and Andrew saw even more of him, yikes). Plus a bunch of army guys were at the rest stop, maybe dealing with the immigrant issues but we saw no evidence of that at any of the borders. Our Apartments & Rooms Andrea was certainly tucked away and tiny but convenient. Zadar is a cute old city with its own forum and ruins and there's a surprising amount of stuff there. One of the biggest attractions is the "sea organ" where people gather to watch the sunset (Alfred Hitchcock describes it as the nicest in the world) and hear the sounds the "organ" makes from the ocean. We had a good super cheap Croatian dinner then stopped at rock bar Lotus for a drink, but the music wasn't that great and it was smoky. Wed. morning we hit a pastry/coffee stop and another stroll thru town before we got on the road again.
The drive to Ljubljana (Slovenia) on Wed. was beautiful. One stretch was slow but not bad overall. City Hotel was generically modern but in a great location. Quickly took a walk to Spin Vinyl and bought some local stuff, nice guy trying to help us out. Grabbed a snack and came back to find the Patriots vs. Colts game being replayed on TV w/ Slovenian announcers. That was odd. We wandered into this spot Robba for a drink and it turned out great, ask that "Gogo" be your bartender. Dinner down the street at Valvasor was delicious but after, we got woefully turned around on our way to this area of town called Metelkova, it's kind of a free for all hippie/punky area (like Christiania in Copenhagen). It was an interesting scene but the music room had a private party and while the smaller bar was playing punk music, Andrew wasn't into it so we ended up at a pub by the hotel. On Thurs. we rode the funicular to Ljubljana Castle, hit the market, did more shopping and I hung out with John Keegan's friend Žiga who showed me around for a couple hours. I liked the bar Robba so much that we went back for another cocktail where Gogo tried a new recipe on us so we got a free drink. We took Žiga's recommendation for traditional Slovenian food and went to Sestica for a good dinner topped off by a free shot of brandy from our crazy waiter. Passed up a black metal show for the rockabilly-ish bar Strings, it was nice that you can't smoke in Slovenia. On Fri. morning we grabbed a good coffee next to our hotel and it was time for the short drive. BTW, it was 9 days before I saw a black person over there.
Who knows if we dealt with Slovenian tolls properly and the GPS kept trying to take us off the main highway, but we got to Zagreb (Croatia) fairly quickly and left the car at the airport. It was nice to not think about that anymore. The Palace Hotel is a gorgeous Art Deco building down the street from everything. We hit the indoor and outdoor market, grabbed a cevapi, saw a bunch of sights including the beautiful Cathedral of the Assumption and St. Mark's Church. Took a bunch of pics, climbed the Lotrčak Tower where a cannon goes off at noon each day. Hit the bar at Hemingway's where the bartenders were again super happy to talk to people who care about cocktails(which they say isn't a big thing in Zagreb). Dinner at a highly recommended place had varying degrees of success and we ended up at the Old Pharmacy Pub with their cool old furnishings. Sat. was apple strudel, magnets, a fair on the main drag (with cheap wine tastings) and hitting a bunch of record stores. I thought I was avoiding buying vinyl but that changed. Roxy had cool stuff and the owner was helpful but he had bad BO and was cash only. Around the corner I stumbled into Woodstock and Ian there played a bunch of stuff for me. Both places gave a deal which was nice. Then a couple doors down was Freebird where Tomaslov was very helpful, no discounts tho. Plus Andrew shopped at Aquarius Records, what's up with the hippy names? We went to this cool place, Vinoteka Bornstein, for an informative Croatian wine tasting w/ an excellent cheese platter. Dinner wasn't the homey Croatian cuisine I'd envisioned but pizza hit the spot then we ended at metal bar Valhalla where we could barely hear whatever they were playing. We wanted to get out of there quickly before the smoke infiltrated out clothes. Sun. morning we had a final walk and cappuccino then splurged on a cab to the airport w/ a really nice driver. We had a good flight back to Boston where surprisingly, I could watch the Pats game on the airplane TV. I had been worried about the refugee crisis and stories about shady border guards looking for bribes and stuff but it went super smoothly and we had a really successful, interesting, fun trip.