A few months ago, before we learned we were moving from London to Toronto, we decided to put together a road trip to visit the Balkans. With each “Well, we haven’t been to ____ yet…”, two more were generated, to the point where our road trip itinerary included nine countries. Rather than pare down our ambitious/foolhardy plan, we decided to do them all. Thus, our 16-day road trip (eleganza) extravaganza was born.
To plan the nightmarish logistics of this trip, I turned to my tried and true buddy, Skyscanner. It helped me find the best flights for our timeframe and, from there, build the perfect itinerary. We decided to fly into Zagreb, Croatia and out of Belgrade, Serbia, renting a car to take us through all the countries in between. After the departure and arrival flights were booked, I took to my Lonely Planet books (Croatia, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe for those interested) to plan our specific itinerary. Hotels.com and sightseeing musts followed, and before I knew it, I had 16 days shaping up quite nicely.
There were multiple places in Croatia we wanted to visit, so it made sense to spend the most time in that country. We flew Croatia Airlines to Zagreb, arriving about 11pm local time. The village around the airport reminded me of the one surrounding Dusseldorf in Germany: clusters of houses and fields for miles all around. Our Hotel, a place called “Cool Rooms“, had a bar that appeared to be the local hotspot, so we enjoyed the rest of our night Eastern Europe style, surrounded by a cloud of other people’s cigarette smoke, 90’s music videos, and cheap as hell (both in price and in taste) beer.
We picked up our rental SUV early the next morning and made the two hour drive to Plitvice Lakes National Park. Even if you don’t recognize the name, I’m pretty sure you’d recognize it by pictures. It’s always in “Must visit” travel lists and for good reason: the place is stunning with its crystal clear lakes, lush greenery, and waterfalls. We unfortunately arrived around 11am, and the line to get tickets was already a few hundred people deep. We waited in line for over an hour, munching on the snacks we picked up at a roadside gas station and commenting on how half the people in line weren’t dressed for hiking. Two pieces of advice for those visiting Plitvice: Arrive before it opens and don’t wear flip-flops and mini-skirts. Elliot wisely left his mini-skirt at home.
The wait was worth it from the second we entered the National Park. Walking around the lakes was felt like we were in a fairy tale. Pictures and describing it really don’t do it justice; we walked around seven miles and every turn was more beautiful than the last. At the beginning and end of our walk, when we were at the big lakes, it was so peaceful; part of the time it was just me, Elliot, and the fish. The water is off limits for swimming, and the only forms of water transportation are rowboats and the park run ferries, so everything maintains its ecological balance. That balance became disturbed the closer we got to the big waterfalls, however, when the wooden plank pathway became insanely crowded. At some points, we were walking so slowly it felt like we were the zombie Egyptians chanting “Imhotep” in The Mummy. Despite the people, we enjoyed hiking around the lakes, climbing into the caves, and forgetting about the outside world for a while.
We stayed in a super cute guesthouse out in the Plitvice Hills, where the owner greeted us with homemade shots of brandy. Apparently that’s a Croatian thing: get your guests nice and boozed with brandy. Our room had a spectacular view from its balconies and seemed newly renovated. After relaxing in the hot tub with this Dutch couple who was also staying there, we drove down the main road and grabbed dinner at a roadside place called Broje Camp. The waiter didn’t speak any English, but we somehow managed to order a “Peasant’s Platter” that consisted of four types of meat, fries, and bacon grease fried cabbage. After dinner, we relaxed on our balcony with a bottle of wine and a view of the stars. After living in cities for the past few years, it was beyond nice to see stars again.
The next morning, Marija the owner, made us a nice breakfast before we went on our way. We started the trek down to Split, passing countless cheese and honey stands manned by local residents, and the drive was a never-ending series of rolling hills with such thick vegetation that they looked like they were covered in tree blankets. The closer we got to Split, the hotter it got, and the darker the leaves and shrubs got from being scorched in the sun. As lame as it may sound, Elliot and I were both really impressed with Croatia’s infrastructure and commented more than once on the “gorgeous” and “well done” tunnels on the highways. Nope, it doesn’t take much to impress us.
Eventually, we saw the water of the Adriatic and the city of Split below us. It was too early to check into our hotel, so we decided to make the most of our day and take a ferry to one of Split’s many islands. We got tickets for the 11:00 ferry, despite it already being 10:55, because the lady at the counter said we could still make it. Even though we sprinted down the dock, we still arrived at the ferry just as it was pulling away. “I was gone for five minutes!” Determined not to let the day go to waste, we bought new tickets for the 11:15 to Supetar, on the island of Bol. Zlatni Rat, Croatia’s “most photographed beach” is in the town of Bol on the island (the island’s name is Brac), so it ended up working out in the end.
The ferry took about an hour and a half and was crowded with people dressed in beach gear. There was a calm wind, and the ink blue water set against the old town of Split made for a beautiful ferry ride. Once we got into port, we still needed to get across the island to Bol. Fortunately, this taxi company does a ride share option that got us to Bol town center in thirty minutes and for only 5 euros a person. Compare this to an hour + bus ride or a $50 taxi, and it was a steal. The ride was pretty, and the island reminded us of Santorini with its winding roads going up and down mountains. Despite the beauty, our knuckles were so white they were translucent on account of the driver being on his phone the entire time.
Zlatni Rat beach is a pebble beach famous for both its scenery and powerful wind that drives its windsurfing tourism. The green and blue water of the Adriatic was a bit cloudier by the beach but still super stunning. Everyone on the beach was insanely tan, and it being our first day in the Med, we stood out like a sad-looking pale thumb. Despite wanting to fit in, we slathered ourselves in sunscreen; no sense in getting burned our first day on beach vacation. It was windy, but the beach and water were very relaxing, and there weren’t a bunch of vendors peddling shit to you, which was a bonus. We enjoyed our beach day with a swim, some Croatian craft beers (Zmajska Pivovara was one of our favorites), and a spectacle created by a sailboat that got stuck when it sailed too close to the shore. It was a comedy of errors getting that sailboat released, and it took multiple boats to get it back on open water.
After our taxi and ferry ride back to Split, we got to our “hotel” around 7:20, ten minutes before our scheduled arrival. No one was there, so Elliot went into a heavy metal bar across the street to get some water while I waited for the reception person to come back. He was gone for a good ten minutes, and when he came back he told me how the bartenders there started talking music with him. I loved how they thought that straight-edge Elliot looked like he was a metal expert. Long story, but Elliot and I always joke about how he thinks Muse is the best band in the history of ever. When the bartender asked him what bands Elliot liked, Muse was one of them, and with a straight face and dead seriousness, the bartender replied, “I think Muse is the greatest band of all time.” Day: MADE.
The hotel receptionist, a HUGE yoked guy, arrived shortly after and got us checked into our no frills room, like “no toiletries” no frills . We got cleaned up (we had to use hand soap to bathe) and asked the guy for restaurant recommendations. He pointed us to Bokeria, his favorite, located in Old Town. Old Town (or Stari Grad) Split is really unique because the entire Old Town (restaurants, shops, apartments) is located within the walls of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace. Parts of the walls are still there, and the narrow streets are so quaint that they’re beautiful.
Bokeria is a trendy restaurant, decorated with Aperol bottles for what seemed to be Croatia’s national drink: the Aperol Spritz. The service was spectacular, and the food and wine delicious. The wine was from the island of Brac, and my sea bass fresh from the Adriatic. After dinner, we explored a few bars in Old Town that didn’t wow much. The next morning, we made ourselves work out before walking around Diocletian’s Palace. The whole area was just so cool and full of historical significance. The Temple of Jupiter, converted later to a Christian baptistry, has sarcophagi that are hundreds of years old and a 15th century black Egyptian sphinx outside its doors. The nearby Cathedral was very Anglican in decoration, but the crypt to St. Lucy was the scene stealer. St. Lucy is one of my favorite saints, and I didn’t know that she had been killed under Diocletian, so it was something special to visit that crypt. We walked through the outdoor market and even saw the “basement” of the Palace where Dany kept her dragons on Thrones. It cost like 15 euros to actually go in, so we were content with just taking photos from the outside.
We picked up some pastries and got into the car to make our way to Dubrovnik. We were in the sun-scorched mountains just outside of Split when the car suddenly jerked and started making a whirring sound. Despite him putting his foot down on the accelerator, the car didn’t speed up and the check engine light quickly came on. We took the next exit to some town called Bisko, pulled over on a rural deserted road, and Elliot called Enterprise to explain the situation. They said someone from Split Airport would be there within the next three hours to pick us up. Elliot rightly thought it would be a good idea to wait on a busier street, since every serial killer movie ever usually begins with a broken down car on a deserted road. There was a toll booth nearby, so we briefly got back on the highway and parked within view of it. Not wanting to waste the sunny day, we slapped on some sunscreen and did a little white trash tanning on the side of the highway. Because semi-trucks and hot asphalt is basically the same thing as sand and sea water.
A little over an hour later, a super tan tow truck guy speaking no English showed up and started hooking up our car. He could have been taking us to his sex camp for all we knew, but there were no other tow trucks stopping, so I guess ball gags were in our future. To be honest, I was more concerned with the pile of cigarette butts that rivaled Burning Man in his truck’s ashtray. After thirty minutes of silent driving, a fuck ton of confusion at the airport, and a new car later, we were back on the road to Dubrovnik. Our new car was a manual, annoying at the moment but a literal life-saver later in Macedonia. More on that to come.
So because Bosnia and Herzegovina require at least part of their border to be on the coast, you can’t actually drive from Split to Dubrovnik without leaving Croatia. As we drove through stunning mountains and past religious shrines erected on lake islands, we shortly arrived at the Bosnia & Herzegovina border. We pulled up to the guard box and were immediately waved through by the border guard who didn’t even bother to look up from his computer screen. Hideout from crime spree, thy name is Bosnia.
Bosnia and Herzegovina gets a bad rap, and all of my preconceived notions were that it was a bleak and depressing place. I half expected it to start snowing the second we crossed the border. On the contrary. We stopped at Neum, a bustling beach town, to grab a beer and be able to say that we had visited Bosnia and Herzegovina. Much like the Croatian coast, the Neum beach was pebbly and on warm water. Everyone in town seemed to be on the beach that day, enjoying the warm weather, and had we not had to meet Marija (our Airbnb host in Dubrovnik. And yes, that was our second Croatian Marija host in as many days) as soon as possible. Fortunately for us, we still had data and phone access in Croatia and were able to communicate with her.
The rest of our drive was, shocker, beautiful and soon we saw the terra-cotta roof tiles and huge bridge welcoming us to Dubrovnik. We pulled over to get some pictures, and I naturally took a video of me humming the Game of Thrones theme. For those of you not completely Illuminati’d by the show, Dubrovnik is the filming location for the capital city of King’s Landing. Tourism has exploded in the city, evidenced by the number of cruise ships we saw docked nearby.
Marija’s second floor apartment was on the hills outside of Old Town and had an amazing view of that, the sea, and the nearby Minceta Tower. Marija #2 also greeted us with homemade brandies, one walnut and the other almond based. We each did a shot of one for her and, with a shriveled face and despite our insides were burning with the power of a thousand suns, complimented her on how good it was.
We walked down the never-ending steps to Stari Grad (Old Town) and passed through the famed stone walls that encapsulate it. The streets were buzzing with cruise ship passengers, and there were countless little umbrellas being held in the air by the guides leading them. On the water by the harbor, kids had set up a water polo net and were busy keeping cool from the hot sun. We walked up and down the alleys and commented on the tiny little apartments that were located in these historic stone houses. We stopped for a white wine at Buza Bar, a literal hole in the wall spot that gave us a view of people cheering on others to cliff jump. We heard a lot of American accents both there and at the two craft beer bars in one of the nearby alleys. We stopped for dinner at Lucin Kantun Dubrovnik, where everything was delicious. We sampled the local island Pag’s cheese (like a cheddar), an olive oil and lemon tuna tartare, and I had beef and cheese pasta while Elliot had a locally sourced honey pork. The space was cozy, and the food unique and fantastic, and I highly recommend it to Dubrovnik’s visitors.
We were feeling a little loose from all the wine at this point, but it was too early to head back to the apartment. We decided to check out an Irish Bar called Karaka. When we were living in Spain, we would actively seek out Irish pubs in cities we visited. Now that we had actually been to Ireland, and lived in the land of pubs, an Irish pub was usually the last place we wanted to be. We probably should have followed our new instincts because, before we knew it, we were chatting with an Irish guy who bought us beers and his American fiancee. While highlights from the McGregor/Mayweather fight played in the background, we had beers and laughed with these people whose names we never actually got. Right before we left, the Irish guy bought us a round of the worst tasting shots I’ve ever had in my life. Malort tasted like a fine wine in comparison.
Because of those damn shots, we woke up the next morning feeling less than stellar. We had an early morning Game of Thrones tour though, so we tried to bring our bodies back to life with a shower and walked down to Old Town. The cruise ships hadn’t yet arrived, so Stari Grad was pretty quiet. The number of tours later walking around the city was seriously insane, and we were about to add to the congestions. The group met at the 14th century Onofrio fountain that spouts potable water.
The tour was led by a Thrones extra named Eva, and she had all sorts of pictures of her with cast members. She does a lot of extra work in Dubrovnik and, considering how Hollywood has been flocking there in recent years to film, she has been pretty busy. She told us all about being an extra, like how you can’t be too tall, have hair highlights, tattoos, piercings, or plastic surgery. It apparently pays off though because she gets between $4,000 and $5,000 for her work.
As we made our way through the tour, Eva shared all sorts of interesting tidbits about working on the show. The tour started on the hill to the “Red Keep” (the aforementioned Minceta Tower), which is digitally moved each episode to best suit the camera shot. There she gave us a history of Dubrovnik, about how they had to pay for protection from other countries, the earthquake of 1667 that destroyed many buildings in Old Town, Napoleon’s stint here for 9 years, the bombings of 91 and 92, and how Croatia has only been a country since the ’90s. For a history nerd like myself, the tour was already worth it for the lesson.
The view from Minceta Tower aka The Red Keep was incredible, and we saw the filming spots for numerous scenes involving Littlefinger, the fights on Joffrey’s name day, the “Power is Power” scene from Season 2, and the spot where the Purple Wedding was filmed. Eva told us how all the extras cried and threw Joffrey the biggest goodbye party when his character died because he was their favorite. She said everyone was really nice, but that he was beloved by everyone. Considering how sadistic he is on the show, that was hard to imagine.
As we were standing on the tower, Eva pointed to the close forested island of Lokrum and asked if anyone knew what mythical city was filmed there. Everyone was silent until I said “Qarth” under my breath. Eva heard me and asked who said that. I meekly identified myself, and she said that I was right. Elliot just goes “Nerd!” and everyone laughed. Thanks for the confidence booster, Boo. Blackwater Bay was the next spot on our location, although it’s hella digitally enhanced on the show. In fact, no ships can actually enter that area because it’s too small; the only boats allowed in there are kayaks. For being such a tiny spot, it’s the location for many scenes including where Robert’s bastards were killed, where Sansa and Shae were talking to Littlefinger and Roz, and the spot where Myrcella left alive and later returned dead. Because the area is so small, Jaime’s boat was digitally added later. So Lena Headey had to stare at an orange balloon in the water and still manage to show all the emotion necessary for a scene where she learned her daughter was dead.
We walked back into the city walls, where the riot scene in Season 2 was filmed, and Eva told us how the episode’s director first told the extras that they could only yell in English. Since most people only knew a few words, the end result sounded like chanting. Everyone was then allowed to shout in Croatian, and people were yelling whatever came into their heads; one guy can be heard shouting “Buy my potato! 20 koruna!” in Croatian.
As we walked to the infamous “shame” stairs, Eva told us how St. Blase is the patron of Dubrovnik not because he was Croatian (he was from Byzantium), but because the Croats wanted to suck up to the Venetians. EVERYTHING I’VE BEEN TOLD IS A LIE. Anyway, the whole shame scene was a massive endeavor because of all the businesses and apartments in the area. Production basically had to shut down all the surrounding streets, pay compensation to shop owners and residents, and get non-disclosure agreements from everyone who lived in an apartment with a window overlooking the stairs. Eva was actually the first person to do Cersei’s walk (for rehearsal), and she said it was weird to have family and friends, including an ex-boyfriend who called her a whore, scream insults at her. Lena Headey was pregnant, so producers had a body double do the walk to not cause stress to the baby.
Our last stop was a picture on the Iron Throne in a GoT themed souvenir shop. After thanking Eva for a fantastic tour, we spent the rest of the day walking around Old Town atop the city walls. It was grossly hot, but the stunning views of the rooftops and water were second to none. We cooled off back at the apartment with some white wine we got at a local grocery store and bootleg watched the season finale of Thrones. We felt like we had to watch it while in King’s Landing. We wandered back into Old Town and had a late dinner (only reservation we could get was 9:30) at Taj Mahal, which was deceivingly a Bosnian restaurant. I had something called the “cheerful Bosnian”, a rumpsteak stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, and eggplant, while Elliot got some sausage sticks in a pita pocket. Elliot and I also split some flatbread with grilled red peppers that was actually pretty gross. Oh well, can’t win em all. After dinner, we had a long drive to country #3, Montenegro, so we went back to the Airbnb and hit the hay.
I really can’t say enough about how incredible Croatia is. It has it all: islands, beaches, waterfalls, wine, food, and especially for us, Game of Thrones. Go on and book a trip there; I guarantee you’ll love it. And if you don’t, well, you know what to do….
Coming up in Part 2: Montenegrin handshakes and Tirana Gypsies
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