London, UK: The Last Hurrah

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Happy New Year! I’ve been a bit of a slacker; the holiday season makes it easy to lose track. ¬†I’ve been sitting on writing my final London musings, so here they are. ūüôā

We started our day by strolling through Hyde Park. It was a grey (gray!), drizzly day, the type you always hear about when someone talks about England, with the added bonus of the occasional thunderstorms and¬†wind. Many people proclaimed throughout the day that we were¬†in the midst of a hurricane! Regardless of the official rainy day nomenclature (I’m not sure if an English hurricane is the same as a U.S. hurricane), we set off to make the most of our time in the city.

The stroll through Hyde Park was nice, with its perfect fall foliage. The leaves covered the ground and the park foot traffic was light, as people were likely avoiding the rain. It’s definitely hard to believe that that much open space is right in the heart of¬†a huge metropolis. We walked by the Princess Diana memorial, using the park as a shortcut to make our way to Harrods.

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Hyde Park

See, I’ve wanted to go to Harrods for a long time – probably after seeing it on some Travel Channel special. I had heard about the glorious food market, which is the primary reason I wanted to go. The food market did not disappoint. I loved strolling past the glass displays of macarons, chocolates, and other house made chocolates. I grabbed some elderflower ¬†loose leaf tea – a flavor I don’t typically see a home. We spent a few minutes admiring the shops, mostly because the room fixtures and ceilings were adorned with fancy decorations, not because I dare buy something from a couture shop. My wallet thanks me!

We walked by Buckingham Palace, which wasn’t as grand as I had imagined. I don’t know – maybe I had never really paid attention on television or in movies when it showed the palace and the changing of the guards? I guess I was expecting an imposing palace, with large grounds and gardens in the front. Don’t get me wrong – if someone offered me the place to live rent-free, I wouldn’t refuse. ūüėČ But I guess I was expecting something… more¬†magnificent? To me, Buckingham looked like it could be another government building, rather than what my mind conjures up when I think of a royal palace.

We also checked out Westminster Abbey. Initially, the line in front made us worry that the wait would be long, but it moved pretty quickly! The Abbey was a bit pricey (something I noticed about London in general). It was really nice inside, and I enjoyed seeing the numerous interior rooms, and watching the history unfold by seeing the different era styles evolving as we walked through. It was hard to believe that some of the shrines, flooring, and marble there was from the 13th century! There were a lot of different historic periods represented and a lot of recognizable individuals from history buried there – Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are in chapels opposite to one another; Elizabeth had the grander setup, from what I remember.

Our last stop in London was visiting the Tower of London. We got there with about an hour to explore before the doors closed. It was cool walking along the walls, and enjoying the night time view of¬†the Tower Bridge. We saw the Armory building and some of the weapons/cannons/knights armor (armour ;)) displayed. Our last stop on the grounds was seeing the opulent crown jewels. They were a sight to see, and the building even had a moving sidewalk in one portion to make sure the crowds didn’t monopolize the standing room in front of the displays. It was crazy to think of how valuable those jewels are. It kind of makes me wish that I had somewhere to wear a crown.

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Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

Athens, Greece

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The Hephaisteion, the Agora of Athens

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.

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The Acropolis
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Athens from the Acropolis

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. ūüôā I had a really good experience riding these¬†buses in the past, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out.

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From the City Sightseeing bus

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.

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Graffiti glory

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!

Kotor, Montenegro: The City Walls & A Small Trip to Budva

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.

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Old Town Kotor and the Bay from the City Walls

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.

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Mountain views at the top of the City Walls

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.

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Sveti Stefan

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… ūüôā

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Kotor, Montenegro: Arrival Day!

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:

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Drive along the Bay of Kotor

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. ūüôā

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Kotor’s Old Town
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St. Tryphon Cathedral

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 ńźorńĎe. 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! ūüôā 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.

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Dubrovnik, Croatia: Day 2

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!).

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View from Fort Imperial

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.

dubrovnik_ konavoski.jpgThe 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. ūüôā

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Konavoski Dvori

We ended back to Dubrovnik in time to rush to the small harbor and watch the crashing waves and sunset on our last night.

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Lokrum from the Old Town

Dubrovnik, Croatia: Day 1

The first night in Dubrovnik, we explored the Old Town, scoping out potential food joints and getting an idea of where places were situated. Happily, and unlike our first night in Split, we were not drenched by an impromptu rain storm. Early the next morning, we set out to tackle the City Walls before the cruise ship crowds tendered. The walk along the wall was great (and highly, highly recommended). There were some dicey moments there, when I was convinced that some members of the selfie crowd might fall off of the sides while posing. Alas, everyone was safe by the time we circled around.

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Sea views from the City Walls
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View of Dubrovnik’s red rooftops from the City Walls

We grabbed lunch at Bosnian restaurant Taj Mahal. As vegetarians, we definitely enjoyed the grilled vegetables that Bosnian cuisine had to offer (a nice break from the pasta and risotto heavy Dalmatian cuisine). The food was great, and the location was a little less crowded than restaurants on the main boulevard.

Afterward, we meandered over to the docks and bought our tickets to check out the nearby island of Lokrum. And I¬†really mean nearby; less than 15 minutes by boat. Lokrum is touted as an “oasis outside of the city.” I like the outdoors, so why not? The botanical gardens weren’t particularly of note, but I don’t find too much joy in reading signs about plants. There were rabbits and peacocks roaming around (and the rabbits knew to hop over once they heard the sounds of food bags opening. They were conditioned well.) ūüôā

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Lokrum greenery

Overall, I enjoyed Lokrum for a break away from the crowds, strolling in the shade among the water,¬†greenery, and town views. Fort Royal offered fantastic views of the sea and the city from afar, although the fort itself was in disrepair. Luckily, I think they’re working on renovating it, but there was a lot of construction ruble strewn about. We found a small hidden, lonely path and it led us right down to the water. My travel buddy was able to take a dip in the Adriatic, while I relaxed on the rocky shore.¬†Bonus: I didn’t see any nudists! Why is it never the attractive people?

Our first full day in Dubrovnik ended with us seeing a show during Dubrovnik’s¬†International Late Summer Festival. The show was hosted at the Rector’s Palace by¬†the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra. The venue was beautiful, with an open air roof. There were no photos allowed, but that directive didn’t stop the hoards of people from holding up large tablets and phones to take video – that took away from the charm a little. Still, the¬†night was warm, the building was beautiful with its stone and column¬†sculptures, and relaxing to¬†Beethoven, Mozart, and¬†Rossini made for a lovely evening.

Border Crossing Frenzy!

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Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina – View from the Stari Most

After much intense deliberation, we decided the best way to see the area was via a rental car. There wasn’t much in the way of consistent bus scheduling (and often times, you have to purchase the tickets in person. I’m too much of a planner¬†to not get slight anxiety at the idea of not having tickets in hand before going on a trip with a¬†somewhat rigid schedule) and lack of consistent train availability. Overall, I’m glad that we decided to rent a car and see the region at our own pace.

On our last morning in Split,¬†we picked up our rental car in the late morning.¬†We decided to take a detour to Mostar on our way to Dubrovnik, as Mostar was one of our “must sees” for the trip. The trip through the Croatian and Bosnian (or, I guess technically¬†¬†Herzegovinian?) countryside was fantastic. The drives was one of the highlights of the trip, seeing small towns and villages, with minarets and colored domes, while driving through the mountains. Here is the gorgeous view from one of the numerous scenic roadside stops that were available on the drive (and photos don’t do it justice):

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A drive through Croatia

We were only in Mostar for a few hours to grab lunch and see the famous Stari Most (a.k.a. the Old Bridge). The bridge and historic town were nice, albeit a bit crowded. It appeared that some folks were planning to dive from the bridge, but they didn’t end up doing so (at least while we were there!). We checked out the bridge from the river banks, then followed up by walking across. The bridge was definitely super slippery. Luckily, there were ridges along it, or I would have slipped!

From the little I saw of the town, it reminded me a lot of Prizren, Kosovo (the mountains, the river, the stone bridge, the minarets!); Mostar had the benefit of more greenery with a natural river bank.

We enjoyed the views, snapped some photos, and continued onto Dubrovnik. Our visit was quick, and¬†I’m definitely looking forward to returning and seeing more of Mostar, and of Bosnia and Herzegovina in general, in the future.

Let’s recap the day so far:¬†departed Split, entered Bosnia and Herzegovina. Departed Mostar, re-entered Croatia. Re-entered Bosnia (and drove past Neum and¬†along¬†Bosnia’s 12 miles of coastline) before re-entering Croatia. Which is a long winded way to say, “Wow! I’ve never crossed this many borders in a single day in my life.” And probably, never again). A border crossing frenzy.

The drive along the Adriatic Coast was¬†beautiful –¬†the mountainous terrain, the islands dotting the sea… The small towns with their red roofs and harbors. The drive was fantastic and the small towns seemed like the perfect escape¬†to take a quiet and relaxing vacation. Maybe someday!

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Right before sunset, we finally arrived.

Welcome to Dubrovnik!

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