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RTW 6 1/2 – The Balkans Edition

A Summer of Surprises in the Balkans

Posted by on Jul 29, 2011 | Comments Off on A Summer of Surprises in the Balkans

A Summer of Surprises in the Balkans

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This month has been quite an eye-opening experience for me. I learned that I’m not cut out for high altitude marathons, that maybe I do enjoy cruising and most importantly that the six countries that once made up the former Yugoslavia have more to offer tourists than I ever imagined.

Over the course of 5 weeks, I visited 19 different countries – 12 of them new to me – bringing my final country count up to 103 by the time I set foot back on U.S. soil yesterday. It was an amazing month(+), here are some of the highlights…

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Ever Awesome Amsterdam

Posted by on Jul 28, 2011 | 3 comments

Ever Awesome Amsterdam

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Sometimes I have good ideas and sometimes I have bad ideas. And then sometimes, though admittedly less often, I have great ideas.

Ending my 5-week trip through Europe and the Balkans with one final night in Amsterdam was one of those rare great ideas.

When I booked my ticket for the trip, the flight home from Bucharest had two layover options, one hour in Amsterdam or twenty hours in Amsterdam for the same price. For me, that’s not even a question, I went for the overnight.

Amsterdam is a great place for a layover even if you only have a few hours. The train to the Central Station takes just 20 minutes and costs less than 4 euro. After landing at noon, I was at my hotel shortly after 1:00pm with the rest of the day to wander.

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Brasov, Romania: The Best City in the World…Probably

Posted by on Jul 27, 2011 | 4 comments

Brasov, Romania: The Best City in the World…Probably

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After leaving Corfu, I was originally supposed to have an overnight layover in the Athens airport but I wussed out and changed my ticket.  You see, there are no decent, reasonably-priced hotel options near the Athens airport. I have no idea why this is but it’s the reason I’ve twice spent the night in that airport on previous trips.

There are two hotels near the airport, the Sofitel for about $300/night or the Holiday Inn Attica for around $200/night. Both lovely hotels, I’m sure, but not worth the money for just a 6-hour layover.

So, while I was in Sofia, I looked into some alternative flights. Spending Sunday night in the Athens airport and arriving in Romania dead tired just didn’t seem like a good plan so I was willing to throw some money at the problem. Not $300, mind you, but something.

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The Thrill of Albania & the Agony of Corfu

Posted by on Jul 25, 2011 | 4 comments

The Thrill of Albania & the Agony of Corfu

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I hadn’t originally planned on a stop in Corfu during my 3 week tour of the Balkans.

But I did want to visit Albania while I was in the region and the options for getting there were somewhat grim (no trains, limited flights). When I discovered that a popular way to get to Albania was via ferry from Corfu, it seemed like a sign. A sign that it was time to get back to the Greeks.

Corfu seemed the perfect place to base for the weekend and as a bonus, I’d get to spend a full day in Albania. There would be sun and sand and gyros (not together, hopefully), it was the perfect plan. I am travel genius, hear me roar.

I flew out of Sofia, connected in Athens and by 10pm Friday night touched down on the island of Corfu for what I fully expected to be the perfect weekend.

As luck would have it, smugness gets you nowhere.

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Sofia: A Bulgarian Beauty

Posted by on Jul 22, 2011 | 1 comment

Sofia: A Bulgarian Beauty

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We finally arrive in Sofia Bulgaria at 4:30am after a 6 hour overnight ride from Skopje. I catch a cab at the deserted bus station to the stately Sofia Hotel Balkan (a Luxury Collection hotel), praying that they will be willing to check me in this early. My frequent guest status pays off again and I am checked right into a lovely suite.

After two weeks of roughing it in the Balkans, I cannot tell you how happy I am to see this suite. The first thing I notice when I walk in (other than the cool flowing air from the A/C) is the office…complete with printer. I almost cried. I have been in serious need of a printer for a while, but it’s tough to find one around here.

Further exploration revealed fluffy towels, a robe & slippers, an expansive array of toiletries, a hairdryer and even an iron. It was heaven.

Now, all of these things are standard in the average US hotel, but in the hotels I’ve been staying in across the Balkans, they were virtually non-existent. The A/C is especially welcome as several of my hotels haven’t had it. I briefly consider spending the next 36 hours right here in this room but realize that I should probably at least get out and see a little of Sofia.

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Skopje Macedonia – A Work in Progress

Posted by on Jul 21, 2011 | 0 comments

Skopje Macedonia – A Work in Progress

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I arrived in Skopje Macedonia a little lighter than expected thanks to Jat Airways forcing me to check my carry-on bag and then promptly proceeding to leave it behind in Belgrade. With a completed claim form in hand and a promise that it would be delivered to my hotel the following morning (I was certain I would never see it again) I caught a cab into town to check out Skopje.

When Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, it was the only nation to do so without a fight…from Yugoslavia, anyway.

Greece immediately protested – accusing the new country of staking claims to Greek territory and trying to separate ancient Macedonian civilization from Hellenic culture. Athens refused to recognize the Macedonian name or flag and organized an embargo which was later lifted when Macedonia agreed to be referred to internationally as the Former Yugoslav Republic (FYR) of Macedonia.

To this day, both sides are still negotiating a new name and tensions remain.

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Surprisingly Serbia – Belgrade & Novi Sad

Posted by on Jul 20, 2011 | 2 comments

Surprisingly Serbia – Belgrade & Novi Sad

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I’ll be honest. I didn’t have high expectations for Serbia. But it didn’t make sense to plan 3 weeks in the Balkans without a visit to one of the region’s most prominent nations. So here I am, with two days to explore the country once considered the “bad boy” of the Balkans.

The break-up of the 6 nations that made up the former Yugoslavia was a complicated and bloody affair that dominated international headlines for most of the 1990’s. Since I am visiting all 6 former Yugoslav nations on this trip, I thought a quick history re-cap was in order as I knew embarrassingly little about Yugoslavia myself before arriving here.

In the past few weeks I’ve found that the story of the break-up varies quite a bit depending on who is telling it, but I’ll try to piece together as accurate an account as possible.

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The Jerusalem of Europe – Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Posted by on Jul 19, 2011 | 0 comments

The Jerusalem of Europe – Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Nestled between the rugged mountains of Romanija, Bjelašnica and Trebevic and divided by the Miljacka River, lies Sarajevo – the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Historically, Sarajevo was famous for its religious diversity. Followers of Islam, Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Judaism coexisted here for centuries inspiring the nickname “The Jerusalem of Europe.” In the 1980’s Sarajevo gained world notoriety as the host city for the 1984 Winter Olympics but today it is more likely remembered as ground zero in the Balkans conflict.

After suffering tremendous losses during World War II, Sarajevo was rebuilt and greatly expanded. In fact, the city almost tripled in size during the formative years of socialist Yugoslavia. By 1984, when Sarajevo hosted the 14th Winter Olympic Games, it was a modern city of half a million people.

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Ljovely Ljubljana

Posted by on Jul 17, 2011 | 0 comments

Ljovely Ljubljana

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Shannon and I arrived in Ljubljana around 10:30am after a pleasant bus ride from Rijeka. As we made our way into town in search of our hotel, we got our first glimpse of the town. It was enough to make me forget all about the lousy ferry ride from Dubrovnik the night before.

Known as one of the greenest countries in the world due to its expansive forests, tiny Slovenia is bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and a small stretch of the Adriatic Sea. Like Croatia and Montenegro, it was part of the former Yugoslavia before gaining independence in 1991. Since then it has turned itself into a pint-sized tourism machine.

The heart of that machine is the capital city of Ljubljana. Translated loosely in Slovene as “beloved” it’s easy to see what draws visitors to this colorful town.

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(Not Exactly) A Ferry Tale: The Jadrolinija Ferry from Dubrovnik to Rijeka

Posted by on Jul 16, 2011 | 29 comments

(Not Exactly) A Ferry Tale: The Jadrolinija Ferry from Dubrovnik to Rijeka

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We had high hopes for our 23 hour ferry ride from Dubrovnik to Rijeka, Croatia. After all, we’d recently had a wonderful 7 days at sea aboard the MSC Splendida so cruising the famed Dalmatian Coast on Croatia’s Jadrolinija Line sounded like the perfect way to get from Dubrovnik to our next stop in Ljubljana, Slovenia (Rijeka is about 2hrs away by bus).

We’d taken all reasonable precautions to ensure a delightful experience. We splurged on an outside cabin with ensuite bath versus riding out the hours in the ship’s lounge or on deck (like many others). I’d been on an overnight ferry before (from Tallinn to Stockholm) and it was a fantastic experience. Just like a mini-cruise ship with all the amenities. My cabin was adorable.

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In Dubrovnik Summer Sizzles but Winter is Wiser

Posted by on Jul 15, 2011 | 0 comments

In Dubrovnik Summer Sizzles but Winter is Wiser

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With marble streets surrounded by blistering white city walls edging the emerald-colored Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik is a real stunner. We arrived at noon from Montenegro after one of the most scenic bus rides I’ve ever taken along the Bay of Kotor. As you follow the cliffside road by the sea, you get your first views of the city walls of Dubrovnik from above. It’s almost enough to make you gasp.

We made our way from the main bus station to the old city and entered the city walls through the Pile Gate. Just a few steps from the Stradun (Dubrovnik’s main boulevard) we located our apartment for the next two nights, Apartment Bete. We’d booked through AirBnb for the first time and I was curious to see what the apartment would be like. It turned out to be just as advertised and the owner was lovely. After settling in, it was time to head out into the heat of the day and see the sights.

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Montenegro & the Bay of Kotor

Posted by on Jul 12, 2011 | 4 comments

Montenegro & the Bay of Kotor

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It’s often described as Southern Europe’s most spectacular fjord. Though it’s technically a submerged river canyon, it’s easy to understand the sentiment behind that label.

Surrounded by sapphire bays on one side and Mount Lovcen on the other, Kotor’s Stari Grad (Old Town) is protected by sturdy walls built in the 9th century that have protected Kotor from centuries of would-be invaders. The marbled lanes of the Old Town contain a labyrinth of churches, cafes and shops – each piazza more delightful than the last.

Up the face of Mount Lovcen are miles of ancient fortifications reminiscent of a mini Great Wall of China including a castle and a monastery. If we’d had more time – and I do wish we had – we would have climbed them, the views over the bay are said to be spectacular.

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The Meaning of Mykonos

Posted by on Jul 11, 2011 | 3 comments

The Meaning of Mykonos

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It was the first time I ever needed a passport. My very first trip “across the pond.” At the time, it seemed like a big adventure. Just a trio of 20-something girlfriends hitting the Greek island of Mykonos for a week. I had no way of knowing how much that trip would change my life. You see, from the minute I stepped off the plane on that tiny little granite island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, I was hooked. It was quite simply the most beautiful place I’d ever laid eyes on.

From the exquisite beaches edged by clear turqoise waters to the white-washed homes adorned with blue shutters to the imposing shadows of the windmills that welcome every traveler to the harbor – Mykonos is a work of art.

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A Mediterranean Cruise: Spain, France, Italy, Tunisia & Mallorca

Posted by on Jul 8, 2011 | 0 comments

A Mediterranean Cruise: Spain, France, Italy, Tunisia & Mallorca

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The marathon is done (thank God) and now it’s time to move on to the fun part of this trip! After a lovely day in Geneva, I flew on to Barcelona to meet my friend Shannon who was flying in from Atlanta the next day. We’ll be traveling together for the next 2 ½ weeks, starting with a 7-night Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona.

I’ve always wanted to try a Mediterranean cruise. It seemed like the perfect way to get around to a variety of beautiful places and only have to unpack once. And when you’re traveling for a month to a dozen different countries, a week in one bed is a good thing! So when we found a terrific itinerary that included Italy, Spain, France and Africa, we couldn’t pass it up.

Shannon’s flight into Barcelona arrived right on time Thursday morning and I found her in the arrivals area without any trouble…I love it when a plan comes together. 

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France for the Fearless: Chamonix & the Mont Blanc Marathon

Posted by on Jun 29, 2011 | 2 comments

France for the Fearless: Chamonix & the Mont Blanc Marathon

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It is 7am and I have awoken in an Alpine wonderland. Arriving in Chamonix late the night before, I checked into the Chalet Vert et Blanc in the dark, not knowing what dawn had in store outside my window. I sensed it would be exceptional but I hardly expected this.

I am, quite literally, staring at a glacier. Glacier des Bossons, to be exact. I expand my gaze and realize I am surrounded by 360° chin-dropping views of the Alps. Their jagged, snow-covered peaks rising like marbled glass in the distance. I have flown over the Alps many times but never seen them up close. I wonder now what took me so long.

Best known as an Alpine ski mecca and the host to the world’s first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, the resort town of Chamonix transforms into an extreme sports playground in the summer. From hiking famed Mont Blanc to canyoning, mountain biking and paragliding, it’s more a place for the fearless than the feeble. Mountaineer Mark Twight once called it “the death-sport capital of the world.”

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