A few years ago, we enjoyed a slow ride down the Rhine River to take in the small German villages and hillside castles. The Rhine starts in Switzerland and flows North through Germany and Netherlands before dumping into the North Sea.
If you haven’t cruised the Rhine, it’s something you will want to do.
I didn’t notice this until we reviewed our photos, but the one below is funny. Check out the kid at the bottom right of the picture. We had just passed the castle from the photo above and he is snoozing away as we drift. His Dad is getting it all on video for later ribbing.
As you drift down the river, you see castle after castle. It’s fun to speculate about who built and lived in the castles over the years.
If you do a bit of research, its not nearly as romantic as you might imagine. The castles were equipped with thick-walls and fortifications and were used mostly as customs control over trade. At the time, the Rhine was a major trade route for the Romans. During the 14th century, cannons pillaged the castles and were eventually abandoned.
Among the castles are vineyards. If you have the time, you can stop in and sample the famous German Rieslings.
There are numerous quaint German Villages along this route.
Germany is a leading maker of Cuckoo clocks. After our Rhine cruise, we traveled into the Black Forest to see where they’re made. A lot of workmanship goes into each clock.
The store that sold these clocks had a Cuckoo clock built into the top deck. At the top of the hour, it chimes and you get to see a couple dancing on the deck.
Ask most Americans if they would like to visit Slovenia and they would probably look at you funny. I’m well traveled but knew nothing about Slovenia until it happened to be along our path from Austria to Croatia — 2 countries we wanted to see.
Our first stop in Slovenia was Ljubljana, What an amazing surprise, this place is absolutely fantastic. After spending 3 days here, I would highly recommend a visit.
Ljubljana is the capital and largest city in Slovenia with a population of about 270,000. It is a very walkable city with well kept buildings, churches, and a river running through the middle.
On our first night, we dropped into the restaurant in the picture below. It was a river side restaurant and the food smelled great. We were shown to our table and the waiter (a Frank Zappa looking gentleman) says “let me guess: 2 wines and 2 beers!”. We broke up laughing, he thought he had us sized up (and he did). He was typical of the people we met in Slovenia. Warm, friendly and ready to clown around.
We liked that restaurant so much, we ate there 2 of the 3 nights. The town has lots of interesting art installations around town.
Notice the bumps in the street behind us. That is actually an art installation that are alien-like heads, check it out by looking closer:
They also have a bridge aptly named”Dragon Bridge”.
They also have a bridge of locks (similar to Paris).
At the highest point of the city lies a castle that dates back to medieval times (notice the castle at the top of this picture):
You can ride to the top of the castle or you can walk it. We rode up and walked down.
You are rewarded with beautiful views from the top of the castle.
Just a short drive from Ljubljana is Bled, a glacier lake set in an idyllic location.
There is a castle at the top of Lake Bled, complete with a small museum.
In the middle of the lake is a church that dates back to 1655, check out the island from the window of the castle (top right window pane).
To get to the island, you must take a gondola, as you would in Venice.
The owners of these boats are families who have passed it down from generation to generation for hundreds of years.
As you get closer to the church, you appreciate the effort it took for church goers to get there.
The view from the island is breath taking.
I’ll leave you with a final picture I took returning from the boat. Shouldn’t Slovenia be on your bucket list?
While in Austria, we had a chance to visit Hungary’s capital city, Budapest. Budapest was previously 2 cities (Buda and Pest), separated by the Danube River. One of the most iconic landmarks is the Hungarian Parliament building (red-top building in the background of the picture below) — I will include a closer image of that at the end of this blog.
We first stopped at City Park, a place where locals ice skate in the winter and hangout in the summer.
Imagine this entire lake being frozen during winter.
The castle across the lake takes you back in time. You can climb the tower for a better lookout.
As we drove around the city, you catch glimpses of haunting statues. These are not statues of nobility but of suffering.
If you visit, be sure to spend some time walking around the Buda Castle district (Budai Varnegyed) — there is so much to experience here.
From the Buda side, you get a peek at the Hungarian Parliament building.
Our friends had just finished up a vigorous (and rainy) 200 mile cycling trip in Austria and met us in Vienna to start a trip that would span 3 countries and thousands of miles in the coming weeks. You would think they would’ve had enough of cycling but not so — we saw Vienna Austria via bike — what a great way to see the city!
Vienna is one of the largest cities in Europe with over 1.9 million residents. The city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so there’s lots to see. The State Opera house is a big attraction — you can enjoy opera or just take an inside tour.
We saw an Opera while there but not in the State Opera House. Opera is so plentiful in Vienna, it is easy to catch a show.
If you’re into horses, check out the Spanish Riding School. Here you can watch professional riders training for upcoming events.
As you cycle through town, you will catch glimpses of many churches. One of the most iconic is St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its Gothic architecture.
Another beautiful building is the Hofburg Palace.
If you have a flair for oddities, Hundertwasserhaus checks that box. Its creator Friendenserich Hundertwasser hated straight lines and angles, he was an ecologist and the buildings he designed are a combination of architecture and nature. It reminded us of some of the Guadi buildings we saw in Barcelona Spain.
One of my favorite areas we cycled through was Vienna University of Economics and Business. The architecture of the buildings is amazing. It was a collaboration of architectural firms from Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Austria.
If you have an extra day to spend in Vienna, be sure to visit Wurstelprater amusement park. It’s about like going to Six Flags in America — it has rides for every age.
Continuing our journey from Split to Dubrovnik, our next stop was Korcula, my second favorite city in Croatia. It is an old city surrounded by a fortress. Streets and buildings were designed in a maze to keep invaders from quickly exiting the city.
I love this city because of the unique castles and walls and the fact that Marco Polo spent a lot of time here. Some say he was born here (there is a Marco Polo house you can visit) but others say he was born in Venice.
Our next stop was Mljet, Croatia – a sleepy little fishing town with great seafood restaurants.
Next to it was a national park in an area called Pomena. Here you can cycle, swim or visit a local monastery. The waters are glacial so the colors are amazingly emerald.
A short boat drive takes you to the monastery and the surrounding area is astonishingly beautiful.
We ended our evening enjoying a sunset in a local restaurant.
The waiter’s fiance’s mother owned the restaurant and he introduced us to her and his fiance. Everyone we met in Croatia were so warm and welcoming. The waiter also looks a little like our oldest son, Cameron.
Ston is a walled city located at the south of isthmus of the Pelješac. Before visiting Ston, we stopped into an adjoining fishing village called Mali Ston.
From here, we took a boat to a local family’s oyster farm, where we tasted fresh oysters.
They explained how they raise the oysters before they gave us a taste.
This was the first time I’ve ever eaten oysters. I didn’t think I would like them but they were quite good.
After eating our fill of oysters, we made our way to the walled city of Ston. No, you’re not in China but they do have a great wall.
We needed to get more steps in for the day so we walked along the wall.
As you reach the top, you are rewarded with a nice view.
Prior to reaching Dubrovnik, we were offered a couple of swims — I took advantage of each opportunity. Living in the Gulf of Mexico, we are used to 80 to 85 degree water. This water was more like 60 degrees — pretty cold! But it was refreshing.
If you haven’t visited Dubrovnik, you’re in for a treat. You can take a walk along the city walls, I highly recommend that — you can take great pictures from there.
This walled city is where Kings Landing (Game of Thrones) was shot. This is the perfect setting for the quest for the Iron Throne.
One of the funnest things we did was to take a Game of Thrones tour. They took us around Kings Landing and showed us where they shot certain scenes and how they pieced scenes together. They also shared funny stories about how locals encountered the stars of Game of Thrones and the cost and intensity of shooting the episodes. Check out the pictures below — I am sure you will recognize some of the scenes (Red Keep, etc.).
I can’t say enough about how we enjoyed our trip to Croatia and our favorite city Dubrovnik. We also enjoyed the company of our 2 great friends, Kathy and Greg Tawes.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite pictures of Kings Landing (Dubrovnik), shot from the Red Keep:
We started our Croatian journey in Rovinj, a medieval seaside town in the northern section of Croatia. Rovinj looks imposing but only about 14,000 people live there today.
Inside this idyllic city, you stride along cobblestone streets and you can hear the locals chatting and going about their day. Fishermen unload their day’s catch. Markets are buzzing. Clothes are hung up for drying along the balconies.
We stayed in Rovinj for about 3 days in this impressive hotel (Spirito Santo Palazzo Sterico). It was recently converted from a set of decrepit homes and they did an amazing job with the design and construction (we highly suggest staying there if you visit).
We hired a private tour guide for 2 days who showed us the entire Istria area (the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea) — Rovinj (along with many other cities) are in this area. We had wine tastings, olive oil tastings and visited Pula — a city just south of Rovinj.
When you roll into Pula, you may think you are in Rome, check out the arena.
Split to Debrovnik
After visiting Rovinj and the surrounding areas, we hopped on a small yacht with 36 other people to island hop from Split to Dubrovnik.
Split is a beautiful seaside city where many of the Game of Thrones scenes were shot.
They used the Palace of Diocletian as the place where Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons were raised.
The palace is huge and incredibly interesting — it has lots of shops and restaurants. It also has a Game of Thrones museum that I highly recommend visiting. They will tell you where each of the scenes were shot within the palace.
Bol, Hvar, Croatia
When you first sail into Bol, you will see the beautiful beach that lies just outside the city. Seas were rough and we had rain, so we did not get to swim here but it would be great to do if you get the chance.
We strolled a pretty empty city, visiting shops, a local church, and a winery.
Jelsa and Stari Grad, Croatia
We continued our journey to Jelsa and Stari Grad, seaside cities in route to Dubrovnik.
All of these medieval cities have squares and churches. I can only imagine what it was like to live here in older times — probably lots of community and plenty of gossip!
We capped off our day with a local dish called Gregada. Fish and potatoes cooked in the oven for about 45 minutes, it was the best fish I’ve ever tasted.
In an upcoming blog post, I will talk about our continuing journey to Dubrovnik, where we visit Korcula, Mljet, Ston and then Dubrovnik.
I will leave you with a lonely lighthouse we saw during our journey towards Dubrovnik.
If you’re familiar with St. Paul (he wrote most of the books of the New Testament), then you are probably familiar with the Book of Ephesians. At the time, people of Ephesus worshiped idols (Greek goddess Artemis) and Paul was there to spread the Christian gospel. He spent 3 years there but eventually was run out of town by the silversmiths who created the idols because it was cutting into their business and causing them economic hardship!
Covered up by volcanoes for several centuries, the ruins of Ephesus were discovered in 1863 and are in amazing shape for their age.
As we began walking the cobblestone streets of Ephesus, it felt amazing to be walking the same streets as Paul, Alexander the Great, Antony and Cleopatra.
The architecture during this time frame was amazing, everything was hand carved — imagine the effort that went into this.
Palaces of Ephesus
If you visit Ephesus, you will have the option to visit the Palaces (for an extra fee) — I recommend you do it. The palaces were the homestead for royalty and many of the palaces are up to 10,000 square feet — absolute mansions.
Nike – Just Do it!
In Greek mythology, the goddess Nike flew around battlefields awarding victors with glory and fame, symbolized by a wreath of bay leaves. There was a carving of Nike at Ephesus:
Oh look, Nike must have lost her hat while flying around and Lynn picked it up:
It’s amazing to know that only about 20% of Ephesus has currently been excavated — 80% of the city still lies below the earth’s ground cover.
We found the Turkish people to be very friendly and warm. Our tour guide was Turkish and he knew as much about America as most Americans (he knew the states, local culture, etc.). They are a proud people but are challenged economically. You will find that many will come up and try to sell you things as you walk around, we did not see that in Greece. But they are polite and will not bother you if you decline their offer.
They also create a lot of knock-off watches, purses and other items. You can buy a Rolex for about $20 but it may not be working by the time you get back home. I love the sign below, how can it be genuine and fake at the same time?
I’ll leave you with our view as we docked at Kusadasi. Notice the Hollywood style sign on the hill and the multi-colored houses:
Milos Greece was a perfect spot for snorkeling — it has crystal blue waters, amazing landscapes, and accessible caves. We took an afternoon cruise to the best spots.
As we sailed, we saw amazing port villages and pumice walled cliffs with ocean caves.
Snorkelers dove off the boat from about 15 feet up — you could never do that in America! Why not – I happily joined the few that dared.
We approached the infamous Sarakiniko Beach — a local hangout with stellar pumice beaches and cliffs that people dive from. Our boat sailed right along the beach and we later visited the beach from the land.
After leaving the beach, we stopped in at Plaka to view the sunset.
What a place!
We made a quick stop in Crete to see Knossos, a bronze age archaeological site that is referred to as “Europe’s oldest city”. Knossos was built and inhabited by Greek royalty from 2700 to 1100 BC. Marked by huge palaces and complex architecture, the ruins of this site are awe inspiring.
Amazingly, they had running water, flushing toilets and elaborate architectural designs — all over 4,000 years ago! They painted frescoes on the walls eliciting hints as to how life was at the time.
There were also a lot of pottery found in this ancient city — notice the detail.
During the 16th century, Venetians took advantage of swift sea breezes by erecting windmills to crush grain (like wheat) in Mykonos and other Cycladic islands. As grain production became less profitable in the 20th century, most windmills were removed. Only a few survived and are used a museums. They also make a great backdrop to the sea.
We booked a small group tour of Mykonos – our guide moved there 50 years ago from Canada. He visited the island, fell in love with it and has never left. He spent the day showing us his favorite spots. We started at the lighthouse — the gateway to Mykonos.
The views from the lighthouse are inspiring.
We then went to one of the many beaches Mykonos offers. We learned that Mykonos has more beaches than any other of the Cycladic islands.
He then gave us a tour through the town, pointing out areas of interest, bars, restaurants, and gave us insight into daily life. He weaved in stories of houses he lived in, neighbors he had, and his favorite bakeries (best chocolate / peanut butter balls I’ve ever tasted), check out the bakery:
Mykonos has so much eye candy, it was hard to fully capture the beauty. Here are some of my favorite pictures — I just love the colors.
If you visit Greece, be sure to spend a few days in Santorini. Perched upon imposing cliffs, you have the option of riding a donkey or taking a cable car ride to the vista.
Like all Cycladic Islands of Greece, it’s a sea of white and blue homes, businesses and churches. Over 100 years ago, building codes were made to enforce this color scheme and that decision has paid dividends.
The white and blue matches their flag and represents the blue and whitecaps of the ocean.
When visiting, we highly recommend a private tour. We booked ours using Viator, it was supposed to be a 6 hour tour of the island but as we noticed with all our time in Greece and Turkey — tour guides are warm and want you to have the best experience possible. That usually means that they add a couple of hours to your tour (at no additional cost) to ensure you see everything!
Starting our tour in Oia – we were surrounded by whitewash buildings with blue tops.
There are lots of small boutique shops and a cool little bookstore called Atlantis Books. You walk down a set of steps and land in a funky 2-room bookstore — it’s a must see!
Our tour guide (Nicholas) told us he lives in a Cave Home (I guess you can call him a Cave Man). Yep – the home was built in the side of a hill and this is not an uncommon thing for the area.
Being underground, it does not require heating or A/C — it stays naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The monthly rent for a 2 bedroom cave home that is beach front? $500 per month! He stopped by and showed us his home:
Black and Red Beaches
Being from the Gulf of Mexico, we are used to white sandy beaches. Santorini’s beaches are either black or red and favor pebbles over sugar-like sand. This would take a bit of getting used to, but the locals say they prefer it over sandy beaches.
Driving around the island, you see lots of shrubs with vines. Wait — these are grapevines!
Since Santorini has a very dry climate with very little rain, they teach grapevines to grow in a circular fashion that makes a basket that traps moisture. The island is full of these vines with a bustling wine scene. We visited several wineries while there (Artemis Karamolegos, Avantis Wines, and Santos).
One of the smaller wineries is called Faros Market. They have a donkey named Marco Polo that you can feed before starting your wine tasting!
Our guide Nicholas took us to a special spot to end the day — sunset from a church that requires a 10 minute hike down a hillside.
Just before dusk, the donkeys make their way up to the top of the mountain to close out a busy day of transporting tourist from the bottom of the mountain.
Then night falls and Santorini comes alive. It’s so easy to enjoy the view!