Monday, February 5, 2018

Bucket list Vacation: Adriatic Roadtrip! (Part 1 of 3)

Travis and I studied abroad way back in the spring of 2003 in Prague (our dear friends make fun of us for starting conversations like this all the time!), which we can easily say inspired us to go in all sorts of directions in life. The summer after our studies we backpacked through Western Europe, which seemed amazing while planning it, however during our travels of hot and crowded big cities I suspected there was more to Europe than Paris,  London, and Rome. My Finnish roommates, who had already seen a lot of Western Europe, spent a few weeks traveling the Adriatic coast. And I have been jealous of what they saw and did ever since!! Thus, the idea for a visiting Croatia has been in the back of my mind for a long time. It's not one of the more popular destinations people go to from Saudi, so it's really only in the last year that we have known some people that have gone.

This is actually the third time we've tried to plan this trip. The first couple times the logistics were a little overwhelming. Initially I wanted to do a cruise, but I was having a hard time finding a child friendly one. Then we looked at going with friends, but as I explored where to go and what to see, the locations I wanted to go kept adding up, which makes group travel really complicated! We finally decided on a road trip style adventure and narrowed (ha!) the destinations down to six locations in four countries, with 1,100 kilometers of driving in between. (Or, as Travis likes to refer to the distance, "1.1 megameters".) I shamelessly stole an itinerary from a friend (with permission! Thanks Allison!) who went last summer and started booking AirBNB's.

Due to the length of this vacation (and honestly, the number of pictures I want to post), we are splitting this blog entry into three parts. This is Part 1- Dubrovnik, Croatia and Kotor, Montenegro.

A few weeks before leaving I decided I wanted the kids to have "Travel Journals" since we were going to be spending a lot of time in the car. We printed off a page for them to fill out each day with where they were, what they saw, and what the weather was like. Then we had a section for flags! I was hoping we'd see a lot of flags since we were going to 4 separate countries! They had a page with the flag from each country and the EU to color in, and a graph to chart how many of each flag they saw. We printed off a separate map for each leg of our journey for them to trace along. I also found some coloring pages of medieval looking cityscapes that I hoped were similar to what we would see! Finally the last section was random coloring pages I printed off the internet (Thanks Disney Family!) and some printable tic-tac-toe and dot games. The games I put in sheet protectors so they could write on with dry erase markers and play as many times as they like.

I'll come back to this at the end of the post and discuss how they turned out.

Vacation started like all the others do, in the middle of the night. The kids were super excited but I told Lucy she had to go to sleep first or our car wouldn't come. Somehow we transferred 3 sleeping kids to the car after we loaded the luggage in and miraculously THEY STAYED ASLEEP. I even slept most of the trip to the airport!

It's hard to wake up in a hot and smelly airport... even for a great vacation

Nothing unusual happened at the airport, except as I passed by the Starbucks (which has only been open a couple years... let that sink in for a second... that's how behind the times this airport is) I saw a sign for the CHAI LATTE. This used to be my favorite Starbucks drink, but it has never been available in the entire Middle East. I was so excited!! The cashier was also excited that I knew about it and was ordering it. He made it a little too sweet for my taste but it's possible it was the first time he'd made it so I was forgiving.

 5 people take up a lot of room on an airplane...
When we got on the plane it was about 1:30 am. I thought "great, the kids will fall asleep, and we'll wake up in Istanbul after a few hours rest." No. Instead, the lights were dimmed for just long enough for everyone to feel sleepy (like maybe 10 min), and then ALL THE LIGHTS CAME ON and they started the breakfast service. At 2:30 am!!! I was so irritated!! So we maybe got a couple hours of sleep before arriving at Istanbul. There we had a short layover, so we popped into the lounge for a snack before heading to our gate. The next flight was only an hour and a half and we had a beautiful view of the mountains most of the flight.

Stunning scenery from the car as we drove into Dubrovnik from the airport! Old town is distinguished by the red roofs and stone walls. The island of Lokrum is on the left.
 Once in Dubrovnik our host, Niko, met us at his apartment but since the previous guests had just checked out we had a few hours to spare before we could 'move in.' Niko graciously let us leave our luggage and use the bathroom before heading out on the town.

Our AirBNB was in a near perfect location. The only downside was that there were two flights of stairs to get into the apartment. But since the entire city is built on a hillside most apartments have even more stairs to get inside. We were so pleased that the apartment was easy to get to from the road (so we weren't hauling luggage through the old town). It was also closely located to the Ploce Gate, a grocery store, a bakery, a park, and lots of restaurants!

We spent the next couple hours getting some food and exploring old town Dubrovnik! Dubrovnik is currently best known for being the filming location of "King's Landing" in Game of Thrones. We (finally) started watching the show while preparing for this trip, and it was a lot of fun to see familiar sights from the silver screen!

On the bridge going to the Ploce Gate--great view of King's Landing!

Onofrio's Fountain, a 16 sided container with a cupola that was the ending point of an aqueduct system that collected fresh water from the hills above Dubrovnik. Still in service!

On the Stradun! Lucy examining other tourists' ice cream while they examine her hair

We found a really fun park just down the street from our AirBNB!

The view from the playground!

How Lucy was sold on Dubrovnik

We went back to our apartment to get organized and try to take a short nap. We had to be at the fountain at 3 to meet our guide for a food and wine tour. I knew it was ambitious to schedule a tour the same day we arrived but we also knew that would keep us going instead of accidentally napping all afternoon. I was also hoping the tour would give us a good overview of the city to start off our explorations for the next couple days.

The food tour was amazing! We learned a lot about the city and I tried foods I never would have been brave enough to order! The tour guide was very sweet with the kids. And thankfully so were the other people on the tour.

From left to right: Anchovies marinated in balsamic vinegar, salted anchovies, local goat cheese, tuna carpaccio, and a raw oyster. I cleaned my plate! I learned that you're supposed to swallow oysters whole and they are supposed to pleasantly taste like the sea. This one did! The tuna was kind of chewy, the cheese was crumbly, and the anchovies were actually enjoyable! Our guide told us that Croatians always keep jars of salted and marinated anchovies in their cupboards for guests that might stop by or just to snack on.
This was where we stopped to eat a "burger". These stairs continue for what looked like hundreds of steps.

We started eating this burger and thought it was delicious long before we knew what it was made of--Ground Octopus!! I never would have tried this on my own! But it was really good! One of the best things we ate the whole trip!

This was my favorite wine of the trip! 

A sampler of pate, spicy salami, regular salami, prosciutto, and... i just don't remember. The prosciutto is a local specialty and has a certain flavor that can't be replicated. The ham hocks are dried in the hills by a salty wind blowing in from the Adriatic (or that's my understanding)

This was the entrance to "Buza Bar", translated as "Hole in the Wall". 
What a surprise behind the hole in the wall! 
The tour was one of our favorite experiences of the trip. A great way to start vacation!

Day 2
Our plan for day 2 was to get croissants and coffee from the bakery down the street and head up to the cable car for a great view of the city, then to walk the walls. The croissants did not disappoint!

View from the top! Island of Lokrum on the left. Old town is in the center

Just can't get enough pictures of these two being cute.

Ellie found this hat in the gift shop and wouldn't stop talking about it!

Looking north of the old town at the 'newer' part of Dubrovnik and the Elefiti islands.

Of all the beautiful things to take a picture of, Ellie insisted I take a picture of this "beau-fi-ful window". She was upset that I protested.

We enjoyed exploring the hilltop and seeing the views, but after an hour or so decided it was time to ride back down and eat some lunch.

The girls enjoyed watching this guy chop some wood for this wood fired pizza restaurant

The servers at every restaurant were so friendly!

After lunch it was time to walk the famed Dubrovnik City Walls! We had walked the walls in Rothenberg, Germany so I thought I knew what walking walls was like... I was wrong. These walls are  "considered to be amongst the great fortification systems of the Middle Ages, as they were never breached by a hostile army during this time period " (per Wikipedia). 
They stretch continuously for 1.2 miles around the old city and it took us about 3 hours to walk around them. We only stopped for ice cream once. They offer amazing views of the city and surrounding area.

The steps to enter the walls

Looking south

The house in front with the three dormer windows is our airbnb! That's how close we were!

This must be where they are storing the roof tiles for repair.

Red Hair and Red Roofs

Such a cool view of the city from the walls! Most of the city is relatively unchanged from the 1600's!!

My heart!!

The Stradun from above

A basketball court, soccer field, and tennis court all in one! You have to be creative when the only free space is on rooftops!

Had we given them a little more time I'm pretty sure they would have figured out how to operate it

So many fun peepholes to look through
 We still had several hours of daylight left once we walked all the way around so decided to try to find the public beach our foodie guide had told us about. The 'walk' along the beach was a little more challenging than we anticipated!

Not exactly a beach but a cool view of King's Landing!

We had to climb down that wall to get to this part. Not the scariest moment of the trip but not something I'd recommend doing with three very small children.

Here's the public beach! But it will cost you to sit in those chairs... 

...Go ahead add this to the list of "weird places I've nursed a baby".
We went back to our apartment to rest up for a little before dinner. It looked like there was going to be a nice sunset so we chose a restaurant close by that had great reviews and good views, Horizont.

Unfortunately the clouds rolled in right at sunset! 

The girls working hard on their travel journals while we waited for food.
We ended up moving inside because it started raining! I was prepared though--I had brought rain jackets for the kids and umbrellas for me and Travis. The girls were also in their water shoes so their tennis shoes wouldn't get wet. This might have been our favorite meal/restaurant experience of the trip... highly recommend Horizont if you're in the area!

Day 3
We had picked up some groceries the day before so decided to eat breakfast in our apartment. We  planned to go to the farmers market to pick up some food for lunch before catching the ferry to the Island of Lokrum, however the farmers market wasn't exactly selling picnic food. There are lots of tour operators everywhere selling tours for lots of islands, but Travis and I decided going to the island that was only a 10 minute ferry ride away was more our speed than an hour + speed boat ride. Plus, it is the filming location for Qarth. :)

We picked up some honey and snacks, but ended up having to go to a little grocery store to get fruit and lunch things.
The island has several hiking trails, restaurants, some forts and ruins, and some beaches, but for us the main attraction was the free roaming peacocks and bunnies :)

The first peacock sighting!

An entire field of bunnies!

Maybe you can't tell from the picture... but this hill was steep!

Beautiful scenery though!

We made it to the top! Note Ellie's "Stabulous" vest--she said it was both Stylish and Fabulous. 

Maybe I'm going out on a limb here... but I think he has to be the cutest baby to ever hang out at the ruins of this old fort.

Enjoying our picnic with a windbreak from the fort. 

At the "Dead Sea"

We came across a park that also had an outdoor gym. The girls had so much fun trying out all the equipment!

Weighted dips... Max was barely even trying.

Stirje Rocks
Dubrovnik from the water as we returned on the ferry
Once back in the city we attempted to go to the Buza Bar for dinner to see the sunset. We found it, but it was pretty crowded and since it was literally carved into the side of the wall didn't really seem safe for us. So we kept going and ended up at a restaurant recommended to us by our Airbnb host.

So many stairs in this city!

Another playground! The girls were thrilled!

Buza Bar- Super cool spot for sunsets... terrifying for the mother of 3 small uncoordinated children.
We turned around and went back inside the wall where it felt much safer!

How did those people even get over there??

After dinner we found ANOTHER playground. 

This might be familiar to Game of Thrones fans... the spot where someone threw poop at Joffrey. 

The daily ice cream
Enjoying the ice cream at a 16th century fountain

The Ploce gate at night. Notice the drawbridge on the other side.
Our last morning in Dubrovnik we had to return to the bakery for those delicious pastries, and then we walked around for awhile since we had some time to spare before we needed to check out. The old town was very quiet and we had the streets almost to ourselves!

These donuts were so good!

So many weddings took place in this beautiful city while we were there!

Obviously it is good luck to touch his nose, hands, and knees.

In this picture you can see straight up the hill where the cable car goes
The square where public floggings took place

The first set of stairs to our AirBNB
With that our time in Dubrovnik was up. Travis picked up our rental car, we loaded up and took off for our second destination: Kotor, Montenegro.

Goodbye Dubrovnik!

We planned to stop for lunch along the way at a restaurant recommended by friends, Catovica Mlini. The restaurant was on the site of an old mill and the setting was absolutely stunning! The food was excellent too.

Who doesn't love walking through a tunnel of bamboo? 

There was also a playground but somehow we completely missed taking a picture of it! The girls had so much fun running around the grounds and watching the ducks in the stream before it was time to eat!

Possibly the most picturesque restaurant ever!

My meal was really yummy! Shrimp wrapped in zucchini on rice and topped with carrot sauce.

After lunch it was only another 30 minute drive around the bay into Kotor. One of our favorite things about road trips is enjoying the beautiful scenery along the way. This drive did not disappoint!

Upon arrival in Kotor we checked into our AirBNB and then went into the old town to explore. Old town Kotor was charming, with narrow streets connecting open squares, beautiful old churches scattered throughout, and incredible views of the surrounding mountainside and fortress walls everywhere you looked.

Tito's gate at the entrance to old town.
The fortress (and about a million steps leading up to it) can be seen in the background.

One of many cute narrow "streets" in the pedestrian-only old town.

Church of St. Luke, dating back to the 12th century 

A platter of local salt-air dried proscuitto and cheese... can't beat it! Ellie says, "hallelujah!"
As became our normal routine on our day of arrival in a new city we spent the first evening getting our bearings, diving into local pork-based specialties and beer options, and planning out the next day's adventure.

The view from our AirBNB, across the bay from Old Town.

We got up at a decent time the next day and headed into town for breakfast before taking on a hike up the town walls to the fortress atop St. John's hill. The hike is 1200 meters up, including 1350 steps and a 260 meter vertical climb... not for the faint of heart! Jeanette wore Max on her front, and Travis wore a carrier backpack that the girls took turns riding in. Honestly, they did surprisingly well!

At the start of the hike. Here we go!

A rare moment with both girls walking

Making progress... and the view just kept getting better as we went!

We made it!!!

We had a blast climbing around the fortifications!

We could see the flag all the way from the bottom...
That was our goal the entire hike. So excited to get there!

Getting a breather atop the fortress
Obligatory "we did it!" family
After carefully making our way back down, it was time for a good lunch. We picked a restaurant recommended in the Rick Steves guidebook, known for it's local wine selection. I can't remember what it was called but it was across the street from this shop:
Ellie was very excited about the Cat shop

Pork tenderloin. So so so good!

Max had a great time riding on daddy's back!

Ellie, the proud owner of a pink kitty cat had she got from the cat shop.

View of Kotor at night. I believe the walls we walked were on the left side, but not exactly where the lights are. I know we stopped at that church lit up in the middle.

Next up, Bosnia! Hopefully it won't take an additional 4 months to write that blog post!