After a long travel drought due to C19 restrictions, this late-autumn tour of Central Europe got my travel back on in fine style. It’s always fun to explore new places in the big world and I had never been to Croatia or Slovenia. I have been to Hungary before but always great to reconnect with the motherland.
I wanted to end up in Asia for winter, and a stopover in Europe along the way seemed like the best way to maximize my value on the long haul journey. It was a little complicated coming up with a Europe/Asia travel plan I was in love with as I had to navigate the constantly shifting C19 regulations. On top of that, I was making my first business class booking on reward points, so many factors to consider there as well. In the end, with a little luck and a lot of planning, I really did love my plan with the adventure kicking off in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
Croatia has been high on my list of places to visit for a while now and it did not disappoint Croatia, part of the former Yugoslavia, is on the Adriatic Sea just opposite Italy with many similarities to it. Zagreb is located close to Croatia’s northern border, which makes it a great overland travel hub for Slovenia, Hungary and Italy. I never really had an agenda when I was in Zagreb but I kept coming back to it for its handy location and the good vibes. I think it is a destination that a lot of people overlook because though it is pretty scenic in the old center, it is not as jaw-droppingly beautiful as neighboring capitals like Budapest and Ljubljana.
I had a good example of the positive vibe there on the evening of my arrival. I had no idea where to go, even for a bite to eat. I was staying close to the train station so I thought I would take a look around that area. I did not find a place to eat but another thing I did not find was any sense of danger. In most cities I have been to, usually, it is not advisable to be around the train station at night as that is where the shadiest characters will be. In Zagreb, I felt perfectly safe there, even as a slightly lost foreigner. I wandered some more and I came upon a large park, part of what is known as Zagreb’s Green Horseshoe. There again, only good vibes with loads of people, even families, hanging out in the park at nighttime. Finally, I arrived at Ban Jelačić Square, which is the lively heart of Zagreb, and again only good vibes.
That first evening I finally did get a bite to eat, the amazing, gigantic Zagrebački (Zagreb steak) sandwich. I hit this same sandwich up a few times over my trip. Check it out, it is the quintessence of sandwiches.
The other Croatian city I spent time in is Split. It is about halfway down the Croatian coast on the lovely Adriatic Sea. At the waterfront is the remarkable Palace of Diocletian. It is a massive castle, a testament to this prime coastal location sought after by Romans, Venetians, Ottomans and even Hungarians. What I found most amazing is that the castle is still fully inhabited, home to hundreds of restaurants, cafes and shops. There are also many private residences and rental accommodations. I loved getting lost in the countless narrow alleyways, trying to find that certain cafe or restaurant tucked in the massive stone walls, and imagining all the drama that unfolded there over the centuries. Speaking of drama, parts of Game of Thrones were filmed here in the castle, any fans out there?
I took an enjoyable day trip to the nearby ancient village of Trogir. It has a beautiful mix of several architectural styles, a testament to its centuries of history. It was super laid back there, though I am sure in high season it is bustling. The Old Town is on a small island that is connected to the mainland by a bridge.
I didn’t know how I would like Split when I made my booking, so I only booked a couple of nights to start out with. I loved Split right from the start and ended up extending my stay multiple times. The people of Split are really friendly, including my great Airbnb hostess Neda. Her place, the Center Stone Apartment, blew my mind. It was outside of the castle but it was a fortress of its own, with the stone walls two feet thick! I slept so well, you can’t help but feel secure and cozy in those walls. It had all the mod-cons too including a very well-equipped kitchen, though the food in Split is good and affordable so I never took full advantage. After 30+ Airbnb stays, this place has taken the crown as my all-time favourite. Bravo Neda!
Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, a mountainous and forested country. When I saw how enchanting the capital looked and how close it was to Zagreb, I had to go. I took the train there and it is a wonderful ride. As soon as the train crossed the border into Slovenia, the scenery exploded, especially lovely with the autumn colours.
After a couple of hours of the leisurely train ride, I arrived in central Ljubljana in high spirits. It is a small capital city and I set out on foot from the train station to my accommodation. As it was late fall (low-season) and also pandemic, I was able to get a really stylish Airbnb for a reasonable rate. It is located on a very cool walking street, Trubarjeva, which is packed with restaurants, cafes and cool shops. It’s a great area to stay in.
The evening I arrived was cool, just above freezing, and there was a shroud of mist over the valley which added to the atmosphere of the marvelous historical architecture.
I took a tour of Ljubljana Castle up on the hill. There is a fun funicular ride to the top which was included in the tour price. Besides the beautiful view of the city, there is a puppet museum in the castle which was enjoyable
After three days in Ljubljana, it was time to move on. I wanted to pop over the border into Italy to take in Trieste, a beautiful, interesting coastal city with great food and coffee culture. Unfortunately, the Italian C19 regulations were many and unclear so I headed back to Zagreb en route to Hungary.
I have written before about Budapest, you can check out my blog here. This was my third time in the city. A couple of interesting things came up when I was booking accommodation. I really combed through the Airbnb listings (which I used my last stay) but hardly anything was showing up. I then went to Booking(.com) site and found that the deals and options were as good or better than Airbnb. The biggest surprise was when I came across the listing for Helios Panzio. This is a small family-run hotel where I stayed on my very first trip to the city some 20 years ago. I knew it was a pretty good accommodation, albeit quite a trek to the city center with its quiet location high up in the Buda hills. I went for it and it turned out rather well.
This little trek around central Europe was a great way to kick off post-lockdown travels. The biggest revelation of the trip was what a gem Croatia is, with its friendly people, great food, scenery and value for money.
I kept things really flexible and unscripted and with the low travel demand, it worked out just fine. I booked a lot of stays last-minute and still managed to get good accommodations at a fair price. The icing on the cake for me was that, after a few weeks in Europe, Thailand did finally open up with reasonable entry requirements which led to a six-month stay there. But that is a story for another day……