Montenegro: Hidden Gem of the Balkans

In the summer of 2017 we did about a 3 week road trip through some of the Balkan countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. This was the best trip of the year for us, we absolutely loved it and were totally in our happy places. We had been to Croatia before and were over the moon about it, so we knew we would enjoy that. The biggest surprise for us though was how much we loved Montenegro.

Montenegro is Croatia’s neighbor to the south. It is a tiny country…….We entered Montenegro from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our first stop was Kotor and before we even arrived, we were pressed up against the car windows oohing and ahhing over the scenery. Montenegro, meaning “Black Mountain,” has large mountains that seem to back right up to the coast. It is a dramatic scene with these beautiful walled coastal towns and towering mountains right behind them.

Kotor

abroadwife-Kotor 3

When we arrived to Kotor we were greeted by the surprise that cars were not allowed inside the city walls. We hadn’t realized that upon initial trip planning so we were a little caught off guard with trying to park, and pull in luggage. However, our friendly apartment host was there to assist and get us squared away. We had a wonderful family apartment in the old town. Our host went above and beyond to make sure we were comfortable and taken care of. You can find the link here

We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering the town, checking things out, stopping for gelato…you know, the perfect European afternoon! If you are a photographer, you will love Kotor’s white stone buildings and green shutters. There is something beautiful and charming to photograph around every corner. We enjoyed wandering, exploring, and looking at all the city’s most famous residents…the cats!

Kotor is a popular cruise port and when there’s a ship (or 2) in port, you will definitely feel the crowds. To get a better experience, try to stay at least one night so you can see the town after the cruise crowds have all left.

 

abroadwife-Kotor 1

 

Kotor City Walls

The next day we knew we wanted to hike the city’s walls or fortifications that wind up the mountain directly behind the town. The weather had been a bit overcast and raining on and off. So once there was a little window of sun, we decided to head up and see how far we could get with the kids and the weather cooperating. There is a small fee to enter the trail, and at the church midway up there are people selling waters, some snacks, and trinkets. My daughter really appreciated the shopping stop to break up the hike. She smiled and chatted with a lady selling stuff and the lady ended up gifting her a little princess hair clip. This happened to us multiple times in Kotor. People were so kind to the kids and kept gifting them sweets or little trinkets.

abroadwife-Kotor Walls 1

The magnificent view!

The views from the walls are phenomenal. We had some cloud cover restricting the full view of the Bay of Kotor, so I can only imagine how wonderful the view must be on a clear day. Next time, I would try to get up the trail early in the morning for 2 reasons:

1) less people

2) cooler temperatures

abroadwife-Kotor Walls 3

While not overcrowded, the trail did have quite a few people up there, and there was some waiting and jockeying for certain photo ops. It also was a little hot and sticky-the climb is all stairs and uphill. Add a toddler who doesn’t want to walk and now you’re carrying extra weight. Also, I totally get that you want to look cute in your photos with the amazing view, but be warned it’s a little tricky with loose rocks and hiking up a mountain. Decent shoes are recommended 🙂

abroadwife-Kotor Walls 4

Budva

From Kotor we drove south to Budva. Our original plan was to stay here a few nights but upon the recommendation of someone who had lived in the Balkans for years, we opted to change our reservation to stay in Sveti Stefan instead. However, we still wanted to see Budva, so we just stopped there for the day. Budva is also a walled city right on the ocean. Unlike Kotor, it also had a couple beaches for sunbathing and swimming.

abroadwife-Budva 4

Budva’s Old Town

 

The best thing we did in Budva was walk a path along the rocky coast to the right of the main beach. It gave us great views of the old city, and led to a more secluded Mogren beach. If we had more time to spend, we definitely would’ve camped on that beach all day!

abroadwife-Budva 5 (Mogren Beach)

Pretty much paradise!

Sveti Stefan

Our final stop on the trip was possibly our favorite. Although it’s hard for me to pick between Sveti Stefan and Kotor. Sveti Stefan has a tiny little peninsula that jets out from the mainland. This little patch of land is completely private and can only be accessed if you are staying at the resort or one of the rentals on it. It is very exclusive, and very expensive. But not to worry, if that’s not quite in your budget, there are plenty other hotels and apartments you can stay at where you can enjoy the magical view of the peninsula. Our apartment had a gorgeous view, the link to book is here.

abroadwife-Sveti Stefan 2

This is the actual view from our balcony, stunning!

 

The beach in Sveti Stefan was rocky (like most other European beaches) but the water was warm and clear. There’s plenty of chairs to rent, also little paddle boats if you wanted to paddle out on the ocean for a bit. There is a restaurant called Olive not far from the beach, and there is a playground outside. Always nice to have the kids get some playtime before asking them to sit nicely at a restaurant for dinner.

Our first night there also happened to be our son’s 2nd birthday. The restaurant was very sweet and brought him a chocolate cake and sang to him. It was unexpected but very appreciated!

abroadwife-Sveti Stefan 6

Sveti Stefan was a nice relaxing oasis. We didn’t tour around, no hiking, no sight seeing. We just hung out on the beach and enjoyed relaxing and the beautiful views! It is a welcome respite after enduring the crowds of Dubrovnik.

Overall

abroadwife-Budva 2

I’m the first one to say that I absolutely love Croatia. I love the gorgeous blue water, the warm summer air, the beautiful architecture of the old cities. But just as I love it, so do a lot of other people! There was a very noticeable increase in tourists from our first visit in 2014. Montenegro is still a little bit under the radar, though I’m sure it will quickly catch up. So go there quick, before everyone else figures out how wonderful it is! We found it to be less crowded and less expensive than Croatia.

Kotor is an easy day trip from Dubrovnik, but Montenegro is really deserving of a dedicated vacation. Besides the three coastal towns we visited, there are many more. There are also some expansive national parks inland that have great hiking and kayaking opportunities.

We had a rental car and found the driving to be relatively easy, but there are winding mountain roads. Be sure to check with your car rental agency if you will be driving from another country because sometimes there are country restrictions on where they will allow you to take the car, or you may need special documentation.

If you’ve been to Montenegro, I’d love to hear your experiences! Or if you have questions please feel free to reach out!

Montenegro GUide

 

Top 3 Things to Do in Slovenia

Slovenia was a true gem to visit. We spent a few days here last summer as the first stop on our Balkans adventure. Flying into Slovenia was exciting, we could see green mountains, castles, and beautiful churches. It truly looked like a fairy tale. Our brief time there would only reinforce those feelings. Between exploring the modern yet charming capital city, hiking river carved gorges, and relaxing at picturesque Lake Bled there’s something for everyone. Here’s our top 3 things to do in Slovenia!

Ljubljana

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Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia. It is a very clean, walkable, charming city to explore. We loved strolling through the old town admiring the candy colored buildings. In the center of the town are three bridges crossing the river. The dreamy pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation makes a stunning backdrop. There is also a castle looking over the city. Don’t forget to visit Ljubljana’s iconic dragons at the dragon bridge. We were in Ljubljana on a Sunday when there was a flea market going on. It was full of treasures, if you’re able to drive to Ljubljana you may find something special here to take home. Tivoli Park is also a great place to spend some time. There are wide open spaces for kids to roam, gardens, playgrounds, and a lakeside cafe. 

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Vintgar Gorge

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About 45-50 minutes outside of Ljubljana is Vintgar Gorge. It is part of Triglav National Park and a beautiful place for a hike. The hike we did was an easy out and back walk along a beautiful river-carved gorge. The hike was easy enough to do with kids and toddlers. You just have to keep a close hand on them for some portions without protective rails. Once you reach the halfway point, you can stop and buy a snack and a drink from the little snack stand, sit down and enjoy the view. There are also bathrooms at this point. Then you can decide to head back, or keep hiking. We chose to head back because of time constraints but a longer hike would’ve been enjoyable too!

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Lake Bled

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Just about 10-15 minutes away from Vintgar Gorge is Lake Bled. The beautiful turquoise blue lake has a fairytale castle perched above it. Bled Castle has a wonderful view of the lake. Don’t miss their outdoor restaurant where you can dine on gourmet food while taking in the breathtaking view. You can also tour the interior of the castle, which we did not do only because we didn’t have enough time. Once you hike back down to lake level, you can wander the perimeter of the lake or hire a rowboat (or row yourself) to the island. On the island is the Assumption of Mary Church where you will have to climb up 99 steps to visit it! We walked around the lake looking for fish, checking out the shops, and enjoying some gelato.

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We loved our time in Slovenia and would love to return to explore more. Is Slovenia on your travel list? Have you been there before? I would love to hear about what others have enjoyed there!

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Breakfast at 10,000 feet

Our final morning in Murren, we decided to have a special breakfast at the Schilthorn above our little mountain town.  Baby girl was exhausted before we even left the room.

Here is the map again so you can see where Murren and the Schilthorn are for reference.

We had to take another cable car to reach the top where the restaurant is.  This restaurant and area are even more special because they were featured in a James Bond movie in the late 60’s.  In the building at the top they not only have a restaurant and gift shop, but there is also “Bond World” dedicated to the filming of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

The Schilthorn restaurant from below.
We enjoyed our champagne breakfast at 10,000 ft.

Breakfast was great and the views were stunning.  The restaurant rotates 360 degrees so you really get the full panorama while you’re up there.  After lingering over coffee and croissants at breakfast we took more time to take in the views and explore the James Bond exhibit before heading back down the mountain.

We stopped again at the station at Birg which is between Murren and the Schilthorn.   More beautiful photo ops and scenery all around.

Looking down at Murren from Birg.

Laron practicing his National Geographic wildlife photography.

Back down in Murren we still had gorgeous weather and the whole afternoon.  So we started wandering from Murren down to Gimmelwald to check it out.  As far as the different towns were concerned I thought Murren was a wonderful place to stay.  Wengen seemed to be a little more established/commercialized.  Gimmelwald seemed much more quiet and didn’t have as many restaurants or shops.  Murren was right in the middle, didn’t feel overrun with tourists but still had plenty of restaurants and amenities to keep you happy.

Swiss bunnies with their own little house complete with miniature Swiss flag!
Dad trying out the Ergo.

We hiked down to Gimmelwald but opted to take the cable car back up.

A paraglider taking off.

That wraps up our adventures in Switzerland!  We had a wonderful time relaxing, hiking, and taking in the magnificent views.  We loved being able to drive fairly short distances to each place.  It really let us explore different areas and parts of Switzerland without making us feel like we spent half our vacation in the car.  And for the record we did find an authentic cowbell which now resides in our living room.  Ellie (our dog) is not a fan.

Until next time!

Kleine Scheidegg

Our next morning in Murren, we decided to set out on what Rick Steves describes as his favorite hike in the area (it had to be good).  We got an early start with a leisurely 45 minute stroll from our village to Grutschalp where we would catch the cable car down to the bottom of the valley.

Little Miss enjoying her morning nap underneath the mountains.
Clear view of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.

We took one cable car down to Lauterbrunnen, then a train from there to Wengen, and the another cable car up to Mannlichen.  These names and descriptions are hard to picture, so here’s a map of the area so you can kind of follow our path.

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The cable car we took up to Mannlichen was packed.  Not much room for a nervous mom scared of heights with a baby that was getting a little fussy.  While we were in there the pressure of the altitude made our pre-packaged sandwiches pop, startling everyone in the car…oops!  When we got out, we were surrounded by blue skies and gorgeous scenery.

The cable car station at Mannlichen.
Ready to start out.
Snow in July!

We hiked about halfway before stopping for a picnic.  We had a great view of these famous mountains and were able to find a secluded place for just the three of us to eat lunch on top of the world.  Even tough we were only eating pre-made sandwiches and juice, it was one of the dining experiences we’ve had.

Picture time from our picnic stop.

 The clouds really roll in in the afternoon, so eventually we got up to finish our hike.

Sky reflecting perfectly in the water.

 We paused again at the Kleine Scheidegg for a glass of wine and to hunt for authentic cow bells like the ones the cows wear on the mountains.  No such luck.  But we did encounter a 9 month old St. Bernard puppy named Scarlet, she was a cutie!  While we made it to our destination we still had to get back down to Wengen.  So we hiked a little further to Wengenalp before taking the train the rest of the way.

The views we had on this hike were surreal.  It is amazing to be amongst these massive mountains and secluded villages.  Pictures can not do it justice but it is definitely one of the most beautiful places we’ve been in Europe.

One last look at the cable car up before heading back to Murren for a lovely dinner in the rain.  It was pouring by the time we got back so we ran to the closest restaurant we could find.  Luckily they had very good italian food :).  One more day left in the mountains, and we were in  for a special agent breakfast…

Murren

Murren was our final destination in Switzerland.  It is a tiny mountain village that has to be reached by cable car.  It sits in the Lauterbrunnen Valley just outside of Interlaken.  We parked our car at the bottom of the valley in Stechelberg and then loaded up our bags onto the cable car, and up we went!  Our hotel was a cute little alpine lodge, and unbeknownst to us, it was recommended by Rick Steves, hooray!

On our way to lunch before the hike.

 We made a stop at a nearby restaurant for some rosti which is a delicious swiss version on hash browns with cheese.  SO good!  Next we made our way to a little train to take us up to the next village higher to start our hike back down.

They really do live here!  Although he was missing his miniature keg of brandy around his neck.
The Monch peeking through the clouds.
The Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau (hiding behind the clouds a bit).
Beautiful scenery on our hike.

Way-ward cow on the path.

We hiked down to a town nearby Murren, then caught the train back before the weather turned south.

Hiking buddies.

 While we were walking back through Murren, we spied some wing suit divers ready to jump off the mountain.  I can’t imagine why people would want to do this, but Hubby thinks it looks really fun.

Successful day one!  These villages are so idyllic.  You can’t ask for better scenery and it is so relaxing to be up away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Mt. Pilatus

We spent the day after hiking Mt. Rigi back up on a mountain. This time it was Mt. Pilatus.  We drove to a little town called Alpnachstad where we took “the world’s steepest cogwheel train” up to the summit.  The train has a 48% grade, pretty steep.  Makes for a very interesting and dramatic ride.  The summit is almost 7000 feet (about 1000 feet higher than Mt. Rigi).  Unfortunately we didn’t have great weather this day, but the views were still pretty amazing, despite the clouds.

There is a very nice welcome center at the top with restaurants, a gift shop, information, etc.  There is even a hotel you can stay in. We came up by the cogwheel train but you can also take the cable car on the other side of the mountain.

Lines for the cable car.

 There are a few short hikes/walks at the top to get different views out from the mountain.

Hiking up.
Going down.

Imagine going to church here, hard to tell but it’s sitting on a cliff.
View of the train we took up.

Walking through the rock tunnels, there are some old legends about dragons living in the mountain but we didn’t see any.
Afraid of heights.

In his happy place.
Pretty flowers.
A view of those rock tunnels we were in earlier.

After exploring the top for a while and having some lunch, we figured out our grand plan for the rest of the afternoon.  We were going to take the cable car down to the next station so Hubby could do the luge, then hike an “easy” 2 hours down the rest of the way to a little town and take the train back to where our car was parked and be in Luzern (where we were staying the next 2 nights) for dinner.

View from the cable car.
Did I mention I’m scared of heights?
Ready to ride the luge!

And so we began out on the trail.  Now even though it was a downhill hike, it wasn’t as easy as I had pictured.  It was a really steep downhill hike with a lot of roots, rocks, and paths that weren’t always very established.

Huge snail we found on the trail.
We went from hiking in this…
…to this.
Trying to hide my frustration.

There were some points where we thought we had gone off track and were hiking to a different town than we intended.  Sometimes the trails weren’t clearly marked so we weren’t sure if we were going the right way or not.  What was supposed to take 2 hours took us at least 3.

Finally!  The town was in our sights!

After that long hike, I was looking forward to a shower and some dinner.  But there was one more set back, we had left the lights of the car on and our battery was dead!  UGH!  Luckily Hubby was able to flag down a couple nice ladies who didn’t know how to jump a car, but were willing to help us anyway.  Thank goodness because it was about 8 PM and most of the cars in the lot were gone.  We could’ve been sitting there a long time if it weren’t for them.  We ended up having a 10:00 dinner that night but it was really good Italian food, with really good wine! Thank goodness because I needed a glass after that afternoon!

Mt. Rigi

Instead of spending another day in the city, we decided it was time to get out into the mountains and see what Switzerland is all about!  We drove not far from Zurich to Mt. Rigi.  We took a train up to the top of the mountain and hiked part of the way down.

At the summit.
View from the top.
Working on our wildlife photography.
First glimpse of alpine cows.
Alpine sunbathing.
Just casually taking in the view!
I love this sign, you have to decide if you want the young  man’s trail up (steep) or the old man’s trail (easy)
This cat came out of nowhere and ran out from behind us, I about jumped out of my skin!

We stopped for lunch at a small cheese farm on the mountain.

Some of the cheese farm employees.
Hubby couldn’t resist trying the house buttermilk, he said it tasted like “cheese milk”.
Lunch, an array of fresh cheeses from the farm.
Hiking is hard work.
It’s amazing how close you get to the cows, they are literally scattered all along the trails with no fences to separate you!
My friends, the cows.

This was a pretty easy downhill hike.  It was a beautiful day and really peaceful.  We were pretty much the only people on our particular trail most of the day.  It was fun to stop at the farm and try the fresh cheese and to listen to the chorus of cowbells all day.  A great day in the mountains!