Bon Voyage: Croatia & Montenegro

It’s hard to believe that it has been two months since we were lounging on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, enjoying the last days of my twenties in Dubrovnik.  My how time flies!  Between finishing work in London, shipping a dog, coordinating an international move, and now getting settled back in the USA, I am just now getting the chance to upload photos from my 30th birthday trip to Croatia and Montenegro.  While I had the best intentions to get this done before leaving London, it’s been great to re-live it a little later….

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Croatia was an amazing place to visit, steeped in so much history, with great food and fantastic views.  We also managed to convince my sister and her boyfriend to join us in Dubrovnik, which made the trip even more memorable and fun.

We stayed in a rented apartment just outside of the old town walls, and with views of the sea and town from our patio, we never wanted to leave.

20150524-IMG_3101View of Old Town from our apartment

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We spent our first two days meandering through the Old Town (a.k.a. King’s Landing for any Game of Thrones fans), walking along the walls that encircle the city, eating freshly caught seafood by the seashore, and relaxing on the beaches right outside the city walls. Dubrovnik is a very clean city/town, and it is small enough to easily explore in a few days (the old town can be covered in a day).

20150522-IMG_3055Old Town Dubrovnik

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20150522-IMG_3052Getting some needed vitamin D for baby (@ 23 weeks )

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At the recommendation of a friend, we wound our way up hundreds of stairs to Lady PiPi for dinner our first night.  The views over the town and water, as well as the open grilled meats and seafood risotto, made our dinner well worth the effort to get there.

20150523-IMG_3079Lady PiPi 

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20150523-IMG_3074View over Old Town while walking the city walls

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Building up an appetite on our city wall walk, and a need for rest, we hopped in a cab to a nearby bay for lunch at the tiny Geveric Orsan.  A leisurely meal and near perfect setting–it’s hard to imagine being much more relaxed.
20150523-IMG_3090Lunch al fresco at Geveric Orsan

20150523-IMG_3091Taking a dip between courses in the bay at Geveric Orsan

Plans to spend my birthday ‘sailing into my 30’s’ were nearly thwarted by heavy morning storms.  Fortunately, the skies cleared (enough) to let us set sail for an afternoon at sea that was a highlight of the trip.  We set out from the new harbor and wound our way around some nearby islands and swimming holes and back along the shores of the Old Town.  Despite a few bouts of seasickness, we all had a blast and built up an appetite for continued celebrations that evening.

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IMG_0039Birthday dinner at Proto

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What a great birthday!!

After three days together, we parted ways with our companions.  Us, heading south to Montenegro, and them, going north to other parts of Croatia.

The Bay of Kotor is an easy, and breathtaking, 1.5 hour coastal drive from Dubrovnik, and while possible to visit in a day-trip, is best enjoyed when you can go at your own pace and not be rushed.  Also, border control (about 45 minutes from Dubrovnik) has been known to extend the journey.  We had no issues getting through quickly but have heard tales of people waiting in line for hours.

We arrived at the lovely Palazzo Radomiri in time for lunch on their terrace and a late-afternoon kayaking excursion out in the bay.

20150525-IMG_3143Bay of Kotor, from Palazzo Radomiri

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Taking advantage of the long day-light hours, we ventured into the town of Kotor (10 minutes away) for a hike up the old fortress walls and a pizza dinner in town.  Kotor is a smaller, less polished version of Dubrovnik.  Though still touristy, it’s hasn’t been restored nearly as much as Dubrovnik, which adds to its appeal.

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After a quick visit to Montenegro, the trip finally came to a close, and we went back to London relaxed, refreshed, and a little bit older.  What a way to herald the start of a new decade!

Stay:

Dubrovnik–You can stay inside the city walls at a few historic hotels or in many rooms/apartments to rent. Lodging in the Old Town is generally louder (right in the action) and older.  We opted to rent this apartment outside the city walls, just north of Banje Beach.  It was spacious and had two large patios overlooking the ocean and the old town as well as a private garden.  With a 5-minute walk to Old Town, it was perfect.  There are also several large, new resorts that are outside the Old Town and seemed really nice.  That might be a great option for honeymooners, or those who want a few more amenities (concierge, pool, etc).

Kotor–We stayed just outside of Kotor at the lovely Palazzo Radomiri, a converted 18th century villa.  We were there only one night, but found it to be a great little hotel, right on the bay, with very friendly staff.

Eat (all Dubrovnik):

Lokanda peskarija, in the old port serving mainly seafood.  Touristy.
Lady Pipi–highly recommend, sit up top on the high terrace for incredible views.  Worth the hike up the steps for very good grilled meats and seafood.  No bookings, so go on the early side for dinner or prepare to queue.
Geveric Orsan–About a 10-15 minute drive north from the old town.  Very good food (med/Italian) in a perfect setting right along the water.  You can jump in the water and sunbathe during or after your meal. Well worth the drive.
Taj Mahal–Bosnian cuisine in a side street in the old town. Must get the pita bread and homemade cream cheese. The cevapi was a hit. Refreshing change from the seafood/Italian everywhere else.  We went for lunch but would be great for dinner too.
Proto–highly recommend for a nicer meal.  Request a table on the upstairs terrace. Very good seafood.

Do:
-walk the walls of the old town for great views and some exercise.  The whole loop is only 1.25 miles.  Costs 100kuna. Warning, there isn’t much shade so go early or late in the day and bring water!
-take a boat out to explore nearby islands and swimming holes.  There are plenty of opportunities to get on a big boat with many tourists that can be booked the day of, but if you want a private option, it’s best to book ahead.  If you have a group, the cost for a priviate boat isn’t much more than the big boats and you can tailor it however you want.  I highly recommend Dubrovik-Sailing.  They were very flexible when the weather was bad the morning of our trip, and despite a tiny bit of rain, this was a highlight of the trip.
-Spend an afternoon at Banje Beach.  There are loungers that you can rent, though we were fine with just towels on the sand.
-Walk through the old town, down the main street but also wind through the side streets
-Have drinks at Buza Bar I (preferable to Buza Bar II).  Literally through a hole in the wall and on the edge of the cliffs. Great for an afternoon or casual pre-dinner drink.  If it’s hot, there will be people jumping off the rocks into the sea.  A bit hard to find but well-known, so can ask around for directions.

-In Montenegro, kayak on the Bay of Kotor for an incredible perspective and then hike up the city walls to St. John’s Castle for even stunning views of the bay/fjord.  Warning–while not really a hike, it’s definitely an uphill ascent that had us huffing and puffing.  Bring water, go late in the day, and plan on it taking an hour or so.

TTN:
-the airport is about 20km south of town.  There is an airport bus that drops you near the Pile Gate (west side of old town) or you can arrange a taxi which is about €30 and drops you at your hotel/apartment
-local food is heavy on the seafood and pastas, as well as local meat dishes like Cevapi (mixed meat grilled sausages)
-most places take payment in Kuna or Euros, and cards are readily accepted.  There are plenty of ATMs in the old town

Bon Voyage: Andalucia, Spain

Ah, Andalucia, you will always hold a special place in my heart.  I hadn’t been back to southern Spain since I studied abroad in Sevilla during college, and I really wanted to experience it all again with the Doc in tow.  With its romantic cobblestoned streets, great food, and warm weather, it was the perfect place to celebrate our five-year anniversary.

Our days in Sevilla were spent ambling through the maze of ancient streets covering the main sights in town, eating long, tapas filled lunches and late dinners, watching FC Sevilla in a heated game against Real Madrid, and relaxing by our roof-top pool watching the sun set behind the Giralda.

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After an early morning flight out of London, we unloaded at our hotel and went straight for lunch at Eslava, a tapas bar in the less touristy San Lorenzo neighborhood.  Perched on a sidewalk table in the sun, we feasted on tapas and had some of the best salmorejo (chilled tomato soup) of the trip.  Re-energized, we made our way down the street to ‘Las Setas’ (the mushrooms, as its locally known), a parasol structure that was just finished in 2011 and offers amazing views over the city.

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That evening, we went out for a tapas crawl starting at El Rinconcillo, founded in 1670 and one of the oldest spots in town, followed by an al fresco tapa or two nearby, and finishing at hole-in-the-wall La Carbonería for some live flamenco.

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We woke up on our anniversary to sunny skies and a day filled with a self-guided walking tour of historic Sevilla. First stop, the Real Alcázar, the Royal Palace originally constructed by the Moorish Muslim kings in the 12th century that is still in use as a royal residence today.

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After our morning spent in the Alcazar’s beautiful gardens and rooms, we stopped for an excellent lunch at Azotea and wound our way down toward the river for a tour of the Plaza de Toros, one of the most famous and oldest bullrings in the world.

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We strolled along the river, grabbed some ice cream cones, and found our way back to the hotel for a rest before our late dinner at Abantal.

20150430-IMG_2976View of Triana, along the shores of the Guadalquivir River

20150501-IMG_2984At the hotel before our anniversary dinner date

Determined to beat the heat and the lines (though ultimately successful in neither) we awoke on the early side Saturday and went straight for a visit to the Cathedral and Giralda.  Seville’s Cathedral is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world and is stunning. It’s a must-see, along with a walk up to the top of the Giralda (belltower), originally a minaret designed as a replica to the minaret at the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech.

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20150501-IMG_2996Views from the Giralda overlooking Sevilla

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From the Cathedral, we walked down to the through the University of Sevilla (one of the loveliest campuses in an old tobacco factory) to the Plaza de España and Maria Luisa Park.  The Plaza was built when Sevilla hosted the World’s Fair in 1928 and now functions as very attractive government offices.

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Worn-out from all our walking, we grabbed an unmemorable lunch nearby and went back to the hotel to rest-up before our football/soccer adventure that evening.  Spanish soccer, much like SEC football, is a religion of its own. When we found out Real Madrid was in town the same weekend as us, we knew we had to go watch them battle it out against Sevilla.  Sevilla FC (one of the two teams in the city), who had not lost at home in over 30 matches and Real Madrid, ranked 2nd in the world and trying to get ahead of number one Barcelona, both had a lot at stake.

The pre-party was in full swing in the streets surrounding the stadium, and with 90% of the crowd cheering for Sevilla, we made sure to wear our red and white.

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Despite an ultimate victory by Real Madrid, it was an energetic, exciting game that kept us cheering the full 90 minutes.

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Though much of Sevilla remains the same as it did when I studied there, I think it has changed for the better over the past ten years.  The dining scene is more dynamic, offering more than just traditional tapas, the streets are cleaner, and the hotels have improved.  After spending three great days in the city, we were sad to leave but were looking forward to getting to the coast and doing little more than sitting on a beach.

Sunday morning we hopped on a quick train to Malaga and boarded a bus to take us an hour east along the Costa del Sol to the lovely beach-side town of Nerja.  While much of the coast is overbuilt with high-rises and all-inclusive hotels, Nerja (though still touristy) retains small town charm and was the perfect place completely relax.

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Finally, it was time to say adios, but our five nights in Spain were a very good way to spend our celebration of five years of marriage.  Here’s to many more adventures together!

Sleep

Sevilla: Palacio de Villapanes–boutique hotel in a renovated 18th century palace.  Great service, the most comfortable beds, and good location just north of the central tourist area.  Highly recommend.

Nerja: Hotel Carabeo–small (only 7 rooms), sea-front hotel in central Nerja with most rooms having balconies or terraces overlooking the ocean.  Breakfast included.  Highly recommend.

Eat

Tapas, tapas, tapas!  Small plate eating rules the dining scene in this part of Spain and is a great way to sample a wide-variety.  You can either settle into a table to order a number of tapas to share, or you can get one or two at the bar and hop around to different restaurants.  Our favorites were Eslava, for traditional tapas with a modern spin in the less touristy San Lorenzo neighborhood; Azotea near the Cathedral for delicious and creative fare; El Rinconcillo for old-school food in a very traditional setting; and Mamarracha for a new, young and fun tapas scene.

For our anniversary dinner, we went to Abantal, one of two Michelin-starred restaurants in the city.  Don’t be put off by the location just outside the tourist area and in a somewhat gritty neighborhood.  The minimalist dining room only has about seven tables (so its very quiet) and the food and service are excellent.  We opted for the tasting menu and thought it was a great value for the quality.

In Nerja, there are a number of touristy restaurants all around the central square but our recommendations would be Ayo’s for paella lunch down by the beach and dinner at 36, the restaurant at Hotel Carabeo that serves fantastic seafood in a romantic poolside atmosphere overlooking the ocean.

Do

-The must-sees in Sevilla include the Cathedral, top of the Giralda, the Real Alcazar, and the Plaza Espana/Maria Luisa Park.  I also recommend seeing the Plaza del Toros, the Metropol Parasol (Las Setas), and walking along the Guadalquivir River down into Triana neighborhood.

-La Carbonería off a side street in Santa Cruz for flamenco.  We went almost each night for a night-cap.  It’s free, shows start around 11, and you can come and go as you please.  Some nights are better than others, but its a great introduction to flamenco guitar, singing, and dancing.

TTN

-Get tickets ahead of time for the Real Alcazar and the Catedral/Giralda.  We read that it wasn’t necessary, but it would have saved us about an hour in line at each site.

-The Sevilla airport is about 20 minutes outside of town.  You can either take a taxi into the center for 25 euros or hop on the bus that will take you to the Santa Justa train station for about 3 euro a person.

-Pack walking shoes (lots of cobbled streets) and bring plenty of water with you during the day.  Sevilla can get extremely hot in the summer and was already pretty warm by early May.

-Lunch usually starts around 2pm and dinner around 9pm or later.

Bon Voyage: Marrakech & Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Back in the fall, my mom and dad decided they wanted to take one more trip to see us before we moved back, but instead of coming to London, they wanted to meet somewhere new.  It was going to be my 30th birthday present, as well as a birthday present for my dad.  Woo hoo! Pulled by the promise of warm weather and sun, we persuaded Mom that Morocco would be the perfect spot for our family rendezvous.

Stepping off the plane in Marrakech into 80 degree weather with crystal blue skies, leaving the cold and drizzle of London far behind, we knew we made the right call.

Mom & Dad had spent the previous week in other areas of Morocco, and we joined them for the last leg:  three nights in the madness of Marrakech and two nights of relaxation in the high Atlas Mountains.

Over the next few days, we covered all the major sites in Marrakech, explored the souks in the medina, and took breaks in the quiet comforts of our riad, lounging by the pool under the orange blossoms…

20150331-IMG_2478Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech’s most famous symbol

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20150331-IMG_2482Within the medina

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20150331-IMG_2493Bahia Palace–built in 19th century by the Prime Minister and named after one of his wives

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20150331-IMG_2500Ben Youssef Medersa, a Quranic school, founded in the 14th century

20150401-IMG_2561Tale of two cities

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20150401-IMG_2549Baadi Palace

20150401-IMG_2552En route to Majorelle Gardens

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The medina and the streets can be overwhelming, hot, and crowded but with most riad-type hotels offering a calm oasis within walking distance of the main areas, you can easily escape when you need a break.

20150331-IMG_2474Villa des Orangers

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On our first evening, we made our way to Jemma al Fna Square which becomes a carnival of story-tellers, dancers, and snake charmers as the sun sets.

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20150401-IMG_2526Dusk over Jemma al Fnna Square, view from Le Marrakchi

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Little did Dad know, but we had a birthday surprise for him up our sleeves.  On his birthday eve, we asked him if we would be willing to meet us in the lobby at 6:30 the next morning.  Always up for an adventure, he quickly agreed, and we even invited Mom (who was in on the surprise) for good measure.

We were driven 45 minutes outside of town and were greeted with this view at our desitnation.

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It didn’t take dad too long to figure out what we were up to when our hilarious guide, Hamid, started inflating our next ride.

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20150402-IMG_2628Breathtaking sunrise over the Atlas Mountains

20150402-IMG_2671Morning routine in a local Berber home

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Landing safely back on terra firma, we enjoyed breakfast at the home of a Berber family and toasted to the start of a great birthday with fresh mint tea.

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On our way back into Marrakech, we had one more surprise stop to make–The Palmerie.  Turns out dreams can come true…

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We had a nice walk/trot around the lush Palmerie–about 20 minutes is all you want and need on a camel–before heading back to the hotel for a much needed rest before spending the afternoon shopping around town.  I’d highly recommend Marrakech by Air for the sunrise/morning excursion.

The following morning, we packed our bags, waved goodbye to Marrakech and drove about an hour up to Asni, a small town in the Atlas Mountains.  We made it in time to explore the weekly market.  The men, who primarily do all the food shopping, swarm in, haggle, and load up their donkeys with the weeks’ provisions.

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20150403-IMG_2805Food stalls, where you can have your meats and tagines cooked while you do your shopping.

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20150403-IMG_2810The ‘parking lot’ at the rear of the market.  

After the market, we made our way a little further up the mountain to Kasbah Tamadot, a sprawling home that was bought and completely restored as a small hotel in 2002.  We stayed here for a very enjoyable two nights and didn’t do more than eat, hike, and relax.  Despite some chilly and foggy weather on our last day, it was perfection.

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20150404-IMG_2858Berber village along our hike where we enjoyed tea at the home of a friend of our guide.

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After five fun-filled days, we parted ways with my parents and returned to London, bringing many memories and the sun (but not the heat) back with us from Morocco.  It was an amazing trip that will stay in our Top 5 for a long time to come.  Thank you Mom and Dad!!!!

Stay

Villa des Orangers in Marrakech was fantastic.  The service was some of the best we’ve ever hard, and with 27 rooms, the size was perfect.  Very comfortable bedrooms, plenty of common areas to lounge in (the pools are beautiful), and breakfast and lunch, served wherever you would like around the hotel, are included in the rate.   A true oasis in the heart of the city.

Kasbah Tamadot is Richard Branson’s heavenly retreat high up in the Atlas Mountains, about an hour from Marrakech. With just 19 rooms and 8 Berber tent-suites, it is another intimate stay with service, food, and comfort that would be hard to beat.  The grounds are extensive with beautiful views of the Atlas mountains and plenty space to explore.  Definitely a splurge but highly recommend!

Eat

Tagine, couscous, and lots of mint tea! Traditional Moroccan high above Jemma al Fnaa Square at Le Marrakchi.  Ask for a table by the window so you can see the action below.  Touristy, but good food, attractive dining room, and not overly priced.  Pre-dinner drinks on the terrace at La Mamounia followed by a break from Moroccan at Catanzaro, an Italian place serving simple pizzas in the new town. It’s very popular with the locals and a reservation is needed (though we got one the same-day).  A wonderful and full-on birthday dinner in the garden at Dar Moha. Traditional Moroccan set menu with a modern twist, pool-side music entertainment, in a beautiful 19th-century riad and former home of Pierre Balmain.

TTN

*The airport is about 20 minutes outside of the center of town.  Pre-book your taxi or a driver via your hotel so they will know exactly where to go.

*Within the souks and medina, there are very few street signs.  Most streets will lead you back to the Jemma al Fna square, but you need to be ready to get lost or hire a guide for the day to show you around.

*Bring plenty of small change, people do not help for free.  Expect to pay a few Dirham to anyone who helps with directions, takes a photo of your, or lets you take a photo of them (especially in Jemma al Fna sq)

*Moroccans eat on the later side with most restaurants not serving until 7pm.  8:30 or 9pm is a standard time to book.

*Bring hand sanitizer and don’t eat foods that would have been washed in water (lettuce, etc) and not cooked.  No one in our group got sick, and we were eating some salads by the end of the trip, but best to be safe.

*The Moroccan Dirham is a closed currency, meaning you can’t really exchange it back into your home currency, so only take out what you think you’ll need.  We didn’t have trouble finding ATM’s and could use credit cards in all restaurants.