While I’ve wanted to visit England for a long time, it has never been at the very tip-top of my list. Rightly (or wrongly), I have wanted to spend my vacation time traveling to countries much more culturally different from my own. UK culture, with its music, television shows, movies, stores, and traditions (and celebrity chefs!), are very similar or the same as the U.S. But hey, there are some things I cannot complain about, like the fact that Gordon Ramsay can infiltrate my television any day of the week!
Regardless of my greater love for the other half of Europe, I could not pass up an opportunity to check out London. 🙂 We arrived in the late afternoon, quickly checking into our Hyde Park hotel and immediately heading over to the London Eye. The London Eye has been on my “must see” list for London since I can remember; I’m not sure what exactly sparked my interest. Was it hearing rave reviews from friends who had visited? Seeing photos of the famous Eye in skyline shots of London? Early 2000s era BBMak music videos? (Don’t judge!)
The Eye was pretty cool and much like most things in London, very expensive. We didn’t book online, but the ticket lines moved quickly enough that I didn’t mind the wait. We opted to get the package with the Eye and the river cruise (which we took the next day). The capsules were comfortable and clean, and luckily they didn’t cram us all into them like sardines, which is always a fear with popular tourist sights anywhere.
We were fairly lucky while on the Eye, because it had to temporarily stop, allowing us to spend an extra 15 minutes checking out the views over the Thames River. We visited on a foggy, drizzly day, but luckily the night sky gave us a lot to admire.
While heading back to the metro station, by happenstance we ran into an amazing night food market. Fresh burgers, piping hot waffles topped with ice cream, Indian curry puffed rice, and fresh squeezed juices! There were dozens of stalls serving international fare. We opted to get some freshly-made Portuguese pastel de nata (custard tarts) and dessert waffles.
After landing in Athens and getting ripped off by a Greek cab driver, we unpacked quickly, left the hotel, and hopped on the metro to check out the sights. We were fortunate (it was completely unplanned) to be in the city for European Heritage Days from September 24 to 26. This meant that all of the popular sights in the city, such as the Agora, Acropolis, and select museums were completely free!
For our first day, we grabbed lunch right next to the Agora. Greek food was a welcome sight after all of the Adriatic cuisine. We checked out the Ancient Agora and the surrounding grounds, which included the Ancient Agora Museum, the Stoa of Attalos, and the Hephaisteion. The Agora Museum was small and I wondered why they didn’t maintain some of the architectural features of the building. Walking in, I was slightly disappointed that the inside looked like it could have been in any modern building. The top floor was pretty awesome, though, with sculptures and views of the grounds and Acropolis in the distance. I don’t know too much about archeological treasures, but I enjoyed looking at the museum exhibits.
Afterward, we wandered over to the Acropolis area. It was a nice breezy day, and the area was packed. I don’t think I have anything creative to say about the Acropolis that hasn’t been said by someone else already. There was a lot of construction and preservation work going on in the area.
On our second day, I wanted to check out the City Sightseeing open-top bus tour. I know a lot of people dismiss these sorts of tours as too tourist-y, but I’m a tourist so I’m not above these things. 🙂 I had a really good experience riding these buses in the past, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out.
Overall, it’s not something I would recommend for Athens. The sights are pretty central in the area, and I found that most of the highlights were within walkable distance from each other. These sightseeing buses are much better for cities where the attractions are sprawled far from one another. There were also detours, due to a local marathon, which nobody notified us of, so there were a lot of skipped stops for the first half of the day. Still, it allowed us to hop-on and hop-off to different sights, including the Archeological Museum and the Temple of Zeus, and drive by the old Olympic Stadium.
One thing that stuck out to me in Athens was how sprawling the entire city is, and how much graffiti there is. There are definitely beautiful, well maintained areas, but the amount of graffiti even in the tourist center was surprising to me. It made it feel like a city that people actually lived in.
On our final day, we checked out the Acropolis Museum, which I liked but I found laid out really confusingly. The interior was beautiful and I especially liked the displays where they showed what the sculptures looked like right after they were created. There is always the vision of these pristine, white stone sculptures, but a lot of them were actually extremely colorful and ornate.
We walked over to the Botanical Gardens, which was a little disappointing. I could see this being a welcome getaway from the hustle and bustle, while still remaining in the city, but I wish the grounds were better maintained. We saw a pond that was so crammed with turtles, that they were fighting for areas to rest out of the water. There were also deceased turtles floating in the pond. I really wanted to like the Botanical Gardens, but it struck me more as a park than a place to learn about different plants and see a lot of variety.
We left late morning the next day. The Athens airport was tiny, all of the shops and cafes were outside of the secure area, and what’s up with the lack of restaurants? We made the mistake of thinking we could get to the airport early and grab a leisurely breakfast before our flight. Not the brightest idea, since there were virtually no options. There were some nice stores to purchase Greek goods, though – so we grabbed some sesame honey bars, olive oils, and baklava for the road.
I am looking forward to traveling back to Greece someday and spending time outside of Athens, especially since we didn’t have time to spend on any of the numerous islands. I enjoyed the food in Athens, and it was great to see all of the sights I’ve read about my entire life. I think we spent the right amount of time in the city, and I don’t think we really missed much else. Also, we were sure to stay extra vigilant in the city. I read a lot of horror stories about pickpocketing and general theft in Athens, so we were sure to take extra care, especially during rush hour on the metro. I also found the restaurant owners extremely pushy in the city center, so keep your head down and keep walking!
Traveling within the Balkans is a very interesting, and sometimes stressful, experience. For the majority of our trip, we enjoyed traveling by rental car. It was awesome and highly recommended, because it allowed us to set our own pace, dictate where to go, and enjoy the scenic road travel.
One of our hurdles was figuring out how to travel from Podgorica to Tirana. Due to, as we were told, the lack of reciprocal insurance agreements and possibly high amount of car theft in Albania, it was impossible to travel with our rental car from Podgorica to Tirana.
When we were researching various solutions, we did not come across information about reliable train links between the two cities (we saw on forums that the train was slow, but had a hard time coming across any information about the train – I don’t even know if the train exists). We thought that perhaps a regional bus would be the best method of travel, however we were warned that the bus stops were not consistent, and sometimes you would be dropped off in locations outside of the city or would be expected to transfer between buses. A stressful situation for someone who wants to outline exact travel plans before departure.
We finally settled on traveling between the countries by taxi service, something that had not initially occurred to us. A little over 3 hours in a comfortable car, with no crowds, no mystery bus stops, and a schedule we dictate? Sign me up! The going rate was only around 90 euros, and we made sure to tip our driver well since he had to travel roundtrip.
As soon as we crossed over into Albania, three cows immediately walked into the street and we had to circle around them. What a welcome wagon. 🙂 The drive included fields with mountain views behind, fortress atop hills, and a lot of bicyclists. We also drove through a few towns along the way, able to catch small glimpses of everyday life.
We ended up staying at the Plaza Hotel, which was absolutely gorgeous and arguably one of the best hotels that I’ve stayed in. It opened this year and was pristine. The staff was hospitable, the room was clear and modern, and best of all? All guests had access to the spa. The location and price were also great, and we were able to walk across the street to the Albanian National Historical Museum and Skanderbeg Square.
The National Historical Museum did not allow photos, so I have nothing cool to show. The museum was pretty nice. A lot of the early archeological exhibits had English signage, but it become increasingly rare further into the chronology. I would have loved to read more about the Albanian Communist era, but by then the English signs were practically non-existent. Guess I’ll have to find a book on the topic instead.
Skanderbeg Square was undergoing a lot of construction to make way for a large pedestrian area. I’m sure it will be nice when it’s completed. 🙂
We spent less than 24 hours in Tirana, but are excited to go back to Albania and see more, especially the coastal areas. Tirana was a good departure point for our next stop: Athens, Greece!
We enjoyed an early morning breakfast in an abandoned Old Town Kotor before preparing for our trek to the country’s capital, Podgorica.
On our drive, we decided to cross through the Lake Skadar National Park. We had seen photos of the beautiful lake and it was on the way, so we thought “Why not?” The national park was indeed beautiful, but we were a bit disappointed. I’m not sure if it’s the particular route that we picked, but we had a difficult time finding a place to stop and enjoy the scenery. There was a small stop off, with the tourist office and a small shop. However, there were few places to actually enjoy nature. Instead, there were groups of men who would jump at the opportunity to sell you boat ride tickets as soon as you exited your car. I think the next time in Montenegro, we’ll have to do better research about where exactly to go in the Lake Skadar region, rather than deciding to drive through aimlessly.
We were a little afraid as we got closer and closer to Podgorica and it seemed we were no closer to civilization. Luckily, the city emerged from the empty fields pretty quickly. I felt a little bad for Podgorica, as I heard it referred to as the “most charmless capital city in Europe” with warnings on online forums that included “If you have to skip anything on a Balkan itinerary, skip Podgorica.”
Granted, we were only in the city for a day and a half. We walked a bit around the city center, grabbed some food, and enjoyed the parks. The city has a ton of greenery, which is always welcome in my book. Podgorica was a good place for us to recharge before our trip to Albania. There were a lot of small coffee shops and the pace was very relaxed. I’m not sure if it’s somewhere I would say I have to return to but I certainly wouldn’t mind returning, especially to use it as a jumping off point to explore all of the places in Montenegro we did not have a chance to experience. We definitely want to come back to see the old royal capital, the Northern mountains, and the monasteries and historical sights dotted around the country, so returning though the airport in Podgorica is a very real possibility. Note to travelers: You will get very confused at the lack of car rental return signs at the airport. They don’t exist. Park the car and look for someone with an orange vest.
On TripAdvisor, the number one place to see was the Hram Hristovog Vaskrsenja, a large church in the middle of a huge gravel parking lot. The church is very new and while it was nice to see, nothing really stood out to me as overly special.
The weather was absolutely perfect during our stay in Kotor. We woke up on our third day, ready to conquer the City Walls. When I first arrived at Kotor, I questioned why one would build walls up the side of a mountain to protect the city below. When I climbed said walls, I really wondered why one would build walls up the side of a mountain. Its actual function and usefulness to protect a city aside… (maybe someone can explain it to me), it was nice spending the day outside, enjoying the weather, and enjoying a leisurely walk.
To me, the climb wasn’t difficult. But I would suggest going up at a reasonably cautious pace. There are stairs, but they are fairly narrow and congested by the crowds traveling in both directions. Often times, people had to step aside onto the rock or gravel paths to pass a group of travelers using the stairs. I could not imagine how some tourists were walking up the paths with flip flops. The bottom of my feet hurt just thinking about it! All in all, it took about 30 to 45 minutes to hike all the way up.
Still, the views were quite nice. I preferred the views of the Old Town from about halfway up, since you could see the entire city. Once you get to the top, you get excellent bay views, but the city is a little bit hidden due to the angles. There was also excellent mountainous scenery behind us.
After trekking up the mountain, we decided to spend the rest of our day checking out Budva and finding the famous Sveti Stefan. While the island was beautiful, it was uneventful since it’s limited to people staying at the resort. There were groups of people standing at the road scenic outlook point, snapping photos of the island below.
We got caught in a rain storm and found a little tavern to have lunch, so it was still a nice, albeit slightly uneventful outing. I am sad that we didn’t get to experience more of Budva, so I just have to add it onto our “for when we return to Montenegro” list. The drive between Kotor and Budva was nice; we found a little backroad and got to see some cool clouds hovering over the mountains. Oh, and Budva’s newest waterpark… 🙂
The drive from Dubrovnik to Kotor was stunning. The most gorgeous landscape I’ve ever seen in my life. Well, rather than describe the landscape (which I cannot do justice), I’ll show you:
The drive was absolutely spectacular and around every bend was another perfect view. I wanted to stop every 10 feet and snap another photo. When we first saw the bay, our initial thought was “we cannot wait to get back here!” Even for such a stunning drive, the roads were uncrowded. Just us and the open road.
We arrived to Old Town Kotor in the afternoon. The Old Town struck me as a lot more gritty, and some describe it as more “authentic” than Dubrovnik. An easy web search on both towns will show that people like to compare the two walled cities. I think they both have something to offer. Each town is geared toward tourists, mostly with restaurants, hotels, hostels, and souvenir shops. Dubrovnik was larger (and actually had street signs) and was more “pristine” and well-maintained than Kotor. I felt Kotor was more relaxed, and while the Old Town itself wasn’t as glamorous as Dubrovnik, Kotor’s bay views were incredible. To me, both places are worth seeing, so I’m lucky that they’re close enough to one another. 🙂
In the afternoon, we walked to the docks and decided to go on a two-hour sailing trip to check out Perast, Our Lady of the Rocks, and Ostrvo Sveti Đorđe. The ride was amazing; we enjoyed a nice breeze, enjoyed the 360 degree views, and circled both islets at a close distance. One of us (hint: not me) took a refreshing dip (too cold for me! 🙂 and was dragged behind the sail boat with a rope. We watched the cruise ships depart from the Bay, and enjoyed our sail trip back to the town, while listening to Montenegro folk music, as the sun started to set.
The next morning, we awoke to grey skies and scattered showers. We made our way early to the cable car, but it was shut down due to high winds. It was suggested that we try back later, as they constantly reassessed weather conditions.
To wait out the drizzly weather and high winds, we checked out the War Photo Limited exhibit. The photography exhibit was very touching, and somber. If I had any criticism of the exhibit, it would be that more floor space was not dedicated to the “post-Yugoslav” conflicts. Being in the area, I thought it was really interesting to look at the photos of Dubrovnik and Croatia under siege, as well as neighboring Bosnia. I wish more of the exhibit showcased the local experience in the 1990s, rather than the Middle Eastern conflicts. Not to discount any of what the exhibit showcased, but seeing more footage, photography, and personal stories of people in the area affected by violence, while seeing how the region has recovered, would have been more impactful, in my humble opinion.
We came back to the cable car a couple of hours later with perfect timing. Within 20 minutes of waiting at the quickly forming line, they opened the cable car. We were in the first two or three cars, but by the time we came back down, the line was wrapped around the corner with over 100 people.
Once we arrived at the top of the cable car, we checked out the scenes of the Old Town from above, but only took a few moments for photos, as the crowds were quickly forming on the platforms. We bought the dual ticket package, which allowed us entrance to Fort Imperial. In the fort was the Museum of Croatian War of Independence, on the 1990s conflict, which helped to fill the gap left by the War Photo exhibit. The museum’s old fort setting was pretty cool, and it was surprisingly not crowded. There were traditional museum exhibits and a few photography displays. The best part for me, however, was the rooftop. The fort does need a little bit of tender love and care, as there was some graffiti, overgrown weeds, and cordoned off areas where stones were falling from the walls. There were warning signs that cautioned visitors to stay away from the walls, as there was risk of falling off. Still, the views from the top were incredible, and arguably better than from the cable car platforms (the angles from the fort allowed for nicer views – and no cable car wires!).
We wanted to find a nice dinner spot and see some of the new town, so we hopped into the rental car and drove around. While it was nice to see the sights, that tactic wasn’t particular successful in finding a restaurant. We flipped through some of the free city brochures we had grabbed while sightseeing and decided to check out the Restaurant Konavoski Dvori, which was about 45 minutes away. The drive was incredible, with sea views for the first 10 minutes (don’t fall off the sides!). Then we started seeing the countryside, small villages, and the mountains. The restaurant was set in the middle of the woods, along a river.
The restaurant was beautiful, and had several walking paths to stroll around the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, I think the restaurant is more catered to large tour groups, which made me feel like the food was previous prepared and the quality was not up-to-par with the other food experiences we had in Croatia. Keep in mind, though, that we’re vegetarian so that our experiences might not reflect the food quality for carnivores. 🙂
We ended back to Dubrovnik in time to rush to the small harbor and watch the crashing waves and sunset on our last night.