Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina

After a few weeks in Italy and with slightly chunkier waistlines we decided it was time to make our way across the border to Eastern Europe starting with Slovenia. The journey only took a few hours by bus and as we made our way across the Slovenian countryside we couldn’t help but instantly fall in love with the lush green landscape, snow capped mountains and small churches dotted around. We arrived in the country’s capital, Ljubljana in the late afternoon and after settling in decided a drink was in order. A problem we commonly encountered in Italy and Greece was finding a cheap pint of beer (what economic crisis??) so Ljubljana instantly gained our approval when we discovered the drink prices.

The following day we began exploring. The first obvious sight was the dazzling hilltop castle acting like the city’s crown. Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanski Grad) mostly dates from a 16th-century rebuilding following the 1511 earthquake. It was a royal residence in the 17th and 18th centuries and a prison in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

The other striking feature of Ljubljana is it’s emerald green river and the many bridges that cross it. The most famous of these is the Dragon Bridge decorated with large bronze statues on either end. Legends say that the bronze dragons wiggle their tails whenever a virgin crosses the bridge. The dragon is the symbol of the Ljubljana and features frequently around town.

Lunch time arrived at the perfect time as we turned a corned and stumbled across the food markets. What to eat?? There was a mix of typical Eastern European food such as pork and potatoes along with German sausages, Indian curries and even Thai. For no more then 10€ we consumed a multi-course feast before continuing on with our day.

As we made our way into Old Town, the oldest and most important historical quarter it became obvious that a large portion of the buildings – with their traditional charm – had retained their medieval layout including the city hall which stands tall with a dragon statue high upon it’s roof. It must be noted that this traffic free section of the city is exceptionally clean which adds to the beauty of the place.

As we approached another important river crossing, the Triple Bridge originally built in 1842, the 17th-century salmon-pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation came into view. It stands on the northern side of Prešernov Square and holds the remains of Saint Deodatus in a glass coffin to the side of the main altar. Prešernov Square is a central and photogenic place that forms the link between the central modern part of town and the old. In it’s centre stands the Prešernov monument which was erected in honor of Slovenia’s greatest poet France Prešernov.

Before long we found ourselves at one of the many riverside bars enjoying a cold drink and admiring the views. Been a university city there are many bars to choose from all offering cheap drinks for happy hour usually around 6pm, perfect timing after a day of sight seeing. Although Ljubljana may lack the grandeur and big ticket attractions of other European cities it makes up for it with it’s many parks, architecture and atmospheric bars. While cities like Paris and Rome leave you feeling tired and weary at the end of the day Ljubljana leaves you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

Lake Bled

A trip to Slovenia isn’t complete without a visit to the nearby town of Bled so the next day we decided to take a day trip. The reason so many tourists visit Bled every day is to see its emerald-green lake, centered with the tiny, tear-shaped Bled Island (Blejski Otok) – the only true island in Slovenia. The tiny island has a small church which has been present since the 9th century.

Apart from the picture-postcard church on an island Bled is also identifiable by its medieval castle which clings to a rocky cliff more then 100m above the lake with some of the highest peaks of the Julian Alps and the Karavanke as a backdrop. As it was a clear, sunny day, we could clearly make out Mount Stol (2236m) and Slovenia’s highest peak, Mount Triglav (2864m), in the distance. Bled Castle is built on two levels which date back to the early 11th century although most of what stands is from the 16th century. For 800 years it was the seat of the Bishops of Brixen and is exactly how people would imagine a medieval fortress to be – with towers, ramparts and moats.

We began to walk around the circumference of the lake while avoiding the athletes who were competing in the annual bled triathlon that day. The walk is 6km long and as we made our way around we could hear the bells ringing from the belfry of the little island church. At the halfway point we decided against purchasing a ticket for a gondola ride to the island and instead decided to hire a row boat and make our own way there. After a rusty start, and what Matt refers to as “getting a feel for it”, it was smooth sailing to Bled Island. Once docked we made our way up the hundreds of stairs to the church. Stopping for a rest we noticed boats making their way across to the island decorated with flowers. It was a wedding but how was the bride going to ascend all those stairs to get to the church in her dress! Easy, the groom carried her.

Upon returning our row boat, we decided to spend our last moments in Bled with a refreshing swim in the beautiful, emerald-green waters before returning to Ljubljana for another quite night of beer and food.

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An early start the next morning followed by an international train ride followed by a short flight and we arrived in the coastal town of Dubrovnik. We previously visited Croatia back in 2012 and fell in love with Dubrovnik’s character and atmosphere so we made sure we had time on this holiday to revisit. We hired a beautiful apartment with views over old town and spent our first afternoon just relaxing while admiring the view. Last time we were in Dubrovnik we had one of the best meals of our life and we couldn’t wait for dinner time to return to the same dockside restaurant and relive the moment. It was everything remembered it to be, the seafood rice was fresh and delicious with lots of mussels, prawns and squid. We went to bed with happy tummies that night.

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Last time we were in Dubrovnik we were pushed for time and never got to walk around the spectacular city walls, Dubrovnik’s number one tourist attraction. This time we made it our main priority. The walls were built between the 13th and 16th centuries and are still fully intact today. The views while you walk are amazing consisting of clear blue water on one side and a sea of terracotta roofs and marble footpaths on the other side. Later that day while Hannah spent some time in the sun Matt decided to climb the nearby Fort of Saint Lawrance. Although built centuries ago to provide extra protection for the city. Matt’s motivation for climbing was not historical but because a film crew was up there filming his favourite tv show: Game of Thrones. Although he couldn’t spot any of the big name stars he did get a good look at the set and a sneak preview of the upcoming series.

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Our final night in Dubrovnik was spent appropriately drinking at one the many good bars on offer. Our bar of choice served up delicious cocktails in a unique way, in a sandcastle bucket complete with a spade for decoration. After a few of these we were ready for another amazing meal this time a large seafood platter. A perfect way to end our time in this perfect city.

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While based in Dubrovnik we took the opportunity to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina as the border is close and easily accessible with many tour companies offering day trips. We left in the morning and arrived in the town of Mostar just before lunch. A local guide was waiting to show us around town. He began his tour by saying

“Don’t think that just because I joke about the war I don’t take it seriously, making jokes about it is the only way we can deal with what happened here”

What an opening line. As he showed us around it was really obvious that this beautiful town with its green coloured, copper based river running through the middle had been to hell and back in recent decades. He showed us churches that had been rebuilt from scratch, mosques with bullet holes and we often saw written on walls “Don’t forget 93”.

The most famous site in town is Mostar’s new old bridge. Originally built in 1566 but famously destroyed by the Serbs in the early 1900s it was recently rebuilt to look exactly as it once did. In summer local boys dive of the 21m into the freezing river below to earn their right to manhood. Unfortunately there were no keen divers the day we visited but we still enjoyed crossing the bridge and taking in the spectacular views on offer.

Although only short we really enjoyed our short trip to Bosnia and Herzgovina. It was apparent to us that given time this small but amazing country will begin to experience more tourism and it deserves it as it has so much to offer. With the current election going on back home and everybody expressing their views about the big issues it became apparent to us how more Australians should visit countries like this to put into perspective just how lucky we are to have the option for free and accessible services like health and education. People in countries like this are just thankful to have a safe place to live and raise their families and a stable government let alone a prime minister that they actually like. An unemployment rate of 44% means things wont improve to quickly so make sure you visit Bosnia and Herzegovina on your next European holiday and help their economy! We promise you’ll love it.

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A one hour flight from Dubrovnik and we were in the nations capital Zagreb. We had plans to catch an early morning train to Budapest so we only had a few hours to explore this city before sunset. We ourselves like many others are guilty of visiting Croatia in the past without even considering a visit to the capital so we figured we should at least spend some time strolling the streets before dinner. We were really impressed with what we found including a beautiful cathedral from the late 1800s, cobblestone streets and beautifully maintained parks.

We ended the night with a beer in the historical part of town before an early night in preparation for our long train ride the following day. Our journey through Europe now continues into Hungary, tune in next time to see what we think of the Goulash soup.

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