Croatia

Walking the city walls in Dubrovnik. 

Walking the city walls in Dubrovnik. 

For the past 12 days, we've been chilling in Croatia.

Now, Croatia was not one of the countries I had oringinally been longing to visit on this trip (compared to New Zealand or Spain, for example), but I had heard many people talk about the Dalmatian Coast and its beauty, so we decided to include it. When we looked at our options for visiting the Dalmatian Coast, we settled on the idea of doing a bicycling trip there, and then built the rest of the days around that. 

As a primer, it helps to know that Croatia is shaped like a sideways V pointing to the west. The top part is inland, the bottom part is a thin strip along the coast and includes a number of islands. 

Walking around in Zagreb.

Walking around in Zagreb.

We came into the country from the northeast as we were in Budapest and traveled by train to the capital: Zagreb. The whole population of the country is just over 4 million people and 1.1 million of them live in the Zagreb metro area. 

Our 1.5 days in Zagreb consisted of a lot of walking around, relaxing in parks, and finding food and bakeries. We did have to spend a morning doing laundry, so we didn't get as much time in this lovely city as we wanted...alas. 

Stopping for the important things.

Stopping for the important things.

Then we packed up and traveled south about two hours by car to get to one of Croatia's most popular national parks. It's called Plitvice Lakes and it's a series of small lakes and waterfalls that are just beautiful. This area gets a lot of visitors and it's easy to understand why. The blues of the lakes and the greens of the surrounding forest are brilliant. There are boardwalks to walk on out over the lakes and practically through the waterfalls, so it really feels like you're in the middle of this natural beauty.

You know what didn't feel as beautiful? The big tour groups all coming through the paths at once. I know they want to visit as well (and they should!), but getting stuck behind of a group of 40 people on a small path always pulls me out of my groove. To avoid them, we did some of the less popular trails and found much more solitude. 

We stayed at the rustic hotel in the national park and it was delightful and relaxing. After our high-speed trip around of the past few weeks, the time in Plitvice was a welcome break. 

The view of Split from the harbor. 

The view of Split from the harbor. 

Continuing south after Plitvice brought us though the mountains, away from the green trees and onto the coast. Now the terrain looked more like California. We spent a day in the historical city of Split gawking at the beautiful old white buildings and our first glimpse of the Adriatic Sea. Split is where we met up with our 6-day biking trip AND our two special guests for the week....our dads! We invited them to join us to explore this part of the country by bike and they were both willing to come! It was awesome to see familiar faces of family after being away for so long.  

Downtown Split.

Downtown Split.

Early May is the very start of the main tourist season in Dalmatia, so it was still a bit chilly, and a lot less crowded most days. For biking, that was perfect! 

We visited three islands off the coast: Brac, Hvar, and Korcula, and then finished up in the city of Dubrovnik. 

All three islands were charming. They had little towns with white limestone buildings, tons of small individually owned grape vines (and lots of wine), and a lot of hills. Yep, the biking was not easy. Luckily, the views made it totally worth it. I've never seen ocean that color before - it was amazing!

I couldn't narrow down my photos quite enough, so here are a few too many of the sights along the way. 

Walking in the old walled city of Dubrovnik.

Walking in the old walled city of Dubrovnik.

We finished up in Dubrovnik (famous these days for being the filming location of King's Landing in Game of Thrones). I liked it a lot! The old walled city had a lot of charm and didn't feel overly packed with tourists, probably because it was so early in the season. 

I can't get over how blue the water is! The color combination is brilliant

I can't get over how blue the water is! The color combination is brilliant

Aside from all the sightseeing and beauty, we learned a lot about the history of this country from our biking tour guides. As expected, Croatia's path to its current status was long and extremely complicated. It was especially fascinating and upsetting to learn about the war that destroyed a lot of the area in the early 1990's. Croatia had been part of Yugoslavia, but as it fell apart, there was fighting and shelling in a lot of the country. You can still see remnants of the damage in Dubrovnik.

 

So that was Croatia. Now, on to ICELAND, the last country on our trip. 

Europe on the Clock

The Grand Canal in Venice.

The Grand Canal in Venice.

Gelato in Italy is a must.

Gelato in Italy is a must.

For the past 2 months, we've been traveling leisurely. We've had multiple days to take in a place once we make it there. We take things out of our suitcases, we make sure not to rush ourselves, we break for reading and relaxing time most days. 

This week, we tested out a different way to travel! 

Biking through a Slovenian neighborhood. 

Biking through a Slovenian neighborhood. 

We spent the past 7 days with a small group tour of 14 people and we sped through Venice, Slovenia, Austria, and Budapest. The name of the company that ran the trip is G Adventures. The tour included all of the logistics as well as some basic sightseeing in each city, but we were mostly on our own during the days to do what we liked.

Seeing the sights like this has a different feel to it. First of all, it's a lot more exciting. It feels like something awesome is always just around the corner. It also makes the days go by so much faster.

The Austrian Alps through the window of a train.

The Austrian Alps through the window of a train.

High up above Lake Bled!

High up above Lake Bled!

We don't have to pore over our map as much because in another day or two, it won't be relevant! Don't like a certain hotel? We'll be gone in the morning anyway. 

In this way, we've visited Ljubljana, Lake Bled, Salzburg, and Vienna. We started the group tour in Venice (but got there 2 days early) and ended in Budapest (but stayed an extra 2 nights). 

Salzburg from above. 

Salzburg from above. 

The down side to this week was that I didn't get enough time in each of the locations! OY! I feel like I passed through Austria, but didn't visit it in a meaningful way. It was like taking one bite of a delicious plate of pasta/wienerschnitzel/strudel/goulash, but not finishing it. It left me somewhat unsatisfied. From that, at least I learned a lot about how I like to travel.

The beautiful Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. 

The beautiful Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. 

During the week, we traveled by train to our different locations and I found that it is delightful to sit on a train for a couple hours and step off to a different language on the signs and in the air. Because there are so many languages spoken in these parts of Europe, almost everywhere we've visited, we can easily communicate in English. 

Springtime! Or is it?

Springtime! Or is it?

We also tested out a different climate. Traveling north into Slovenia and Austria meant higher elevation and colder temperatures. It didn't feel like spring here quite yet! With temps in the 50s and even 40s, I wore all my warm weather clothes.

 

High up above Budapest looking toward the Pest side of the Danube River.

High up above Budapest looking toward the Pest side of the Danube River.

My favorite place of the week was Lake Bled. It's so charming and picturesque. The Bled castle sits high up on a granite cliff and overlooks a green/blue lake with a tiny island in the middle of it. A great spot for running, walking, and biking. I want to return in another season someday! 

Some sunshine on the edge of Lake Bled.

Some sunshine on the edge of Lake Bled.

Budapest's parliament building lit up at night. 

Budapest's parliament building lit up at night. 

Now we've got under 3 weeks left before finishing our trip around the world. We're heading to Croatia (for sightseeing and biking) and Iceland (to feel like we're on another planet). 

Can't wait!

A Week in Barcelona

The view of Barcelona from the top of Park Guell.

The view of Barcelona from the top of Park Guell.

As you might recall from my post last week, when we planned this trip, Spain was high up on our priority list. We knew that a big part of our time in Spain needed to be in the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona, located in Catalonia. Why? Because it seems that everyone we know has been there and loved it!

One week is the longest time afforded to a city in our whole trip and we bestowed it upon Barcelona. We visited for 7 nights and it was a great choice! There was a lot to see and do and I feel that I really got the hang of the city (well, as much as any visitor can in a short time). Let's break it down...

Roman columns.

Roman columns.

I like to think about Barcelona as divided in the "super old" stuff and the "not as old, but still not new" stuff. 

 

The Super Old Stuff

A mosaic ceiiling at the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau.

A mosaic ceiiling at the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau.

Barcelona has been inhabited for thousands of years and the heart of it, called the Gothic Quarter, currently sits on the ruins of a small Roman city. Plenty of ruins to see, mostly because parts of the city's Roman wall still exist within other buildings! As the city was ruled by different civilizations, it expanded and the whole area is narrow windy streets. This feels like much of the rest of Spain and turning a corner to discover another hidden alleyway is a delight. 

The Barcelona Cathedral

The Barcelona Cathedral

The Not as Old, But Still Not New Stuff

In the 1870's, Barcelona outgrew its confines. A plan was drawn up to extend the city beyond the old sections in a very organized grid with square-shaped intersections and lots of wide avenues. This was called l’Eixample and it became primo real estate for wealthy Barcelonians as a new architectural movement primarily based in Catalonia called Modernism came into fashion. 

 

As a Visitor...

Any tourist to Barcelona will hit up attractions in both sections of the city. The Barcelona Cathedral and the central government buildings are in the Gothic Quarter, along with one of the busiest walking streets in town - La Rambla. BUT, the most well-known attraction in the city is La Sagrada Familia and that, along with most other examples of modernism architecture are in l'Eixample. 

This is great news because it means that visiting Barcelona is like visiting two cities in one! 

The modernist Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau.

The modernist Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau.

 

Below are some of the highlights of the city, roughly in order of how important they are in a visit to Barcelona (only according to me, of course!).

La Sagrada Familia: No messing around, this imposing and dramatic basilica designed by modernist poster boy Antoni Gaudi is the number one thing to do in town for a reason. Believe the hype, this building is amazing. We got tickets a couple weeks in advance and did the audio guide, as well as a visit to the top of one of the towers. There's also a museum about the building and Gaudi in the basement.

Walking around the Gothic Quarter: The model of a "you pick the price" walking tour is extremely popular in Europe these days, and we had a great time on one learning about the history of the neighborhood. Seeing the Barcelona Cathedral and some ruins of the old Roman City brought history to life. 

Walking the major pedestrian streets: I'm sort of torn about this. I hate fighting my way through hordes of people, so if you're like me, maybe just skip these. BUT, then again, I think walking La Rambla, Passeig de Gracia, and Plaza Catalunya at least once or twice is necessary in a visit to Barcelona. Here's an idea, go for a run in the morning along these streets when it's still quiet!

Find modernist architecture somewhere: Much of the city has modernism components, so once you know what you're looking for, you see it everywhere. That said, there are a few famous buildings to check out. By Gaudi - La Pedrera and Casa Battlo (we didn't go in these, just visited the outsides), and Park Guell (we did visit the monuments here, it's imperative to get tickets in advance). By Montaner - Palau de la musica Catalana (again just visited the outside), and Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (took a tour here). The modernisme movement was fun and beautiful. It was about using inspiration from older styles and being creative. Many modernist buildings look extremely different from each other and I think that's part of the fun! 

The Picasso museum: Picasso had a long relationship with Barcelona and the museum here bearing his name was created while he was still alive (although living in France). It focuses on his younger years and his training as he established himself as an artist. Don't visit thinking you'll understand his entire oeuvre - you won't. But you can understand his origins. 

I want to stop here because while we did more than this, I don't want to bore you! And what good is a highlights list if it's too long? SO, one final thing: don't forget to eat and drink! There are places to eat everywhere and more bakeries per block than most cities I've seen. The wine is cheap and good and a majority of eateries have English menus. Although tapas aren't native to this part of Spain, when tourism picked up in the 1990s due to the olympics, tapas restaurants flourished. Now you can find food from all around the world in Barcelona ranging from extremely casual and cheap to Michelin-starred fine dining. 

 
After an amazing 7 days, we are saying goodbye to Spain and heading east for the next couple of weeks: Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia!