Year 3: The Balkans (Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

This is part 3 of my annual trip series. My brother, Jake, and I started this travel tradition in 2016 and have continued it with a yearly trip ever since. Once per calendar year, we plan a trip together somewhere internationally that we’ve never been before. Below is a list of the five trips we’ve done up to this point. Our sixth annual trip is scheduled for December 2021 (Year 6). In this blog, we’re focusing on Year 3, which took us to the Balkans (specifically Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Montenegro). 

Year 1 (2016): The Pacific Northwest (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver)

Year 2 (2017): Cuba

Year 3 (2018): The Balkans — Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro (and London!)

Year 4 (2019): Luxembourg (and Paris!)

Year 5 (2020): Africa (South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania)

Year 6 (2021): Belize

So, without further ado, let’s look at Year 3, which took place during my study abroad semester.

Year 3 Background

When I decided to go abroad during my junior year, it became the obvious time for the third iteration of our sibling trip. I planned to study abroad in London, the city where Jake also studied abroad during his junior year in college, so I knew that I would be in Europe already. We decided to visit a country that neither of us had visited. For me, this was fairly easy. I just had to plan my semester trips around whatever location we picked. For Jake, this was a bit harder. He already had an entire semester’s worth of travels under his belt. We knew we needed to be a bit more creative.

During the summer of 2017, I came across a video that featured underwater wine cellars of Croatia. While this isn’t the exact article that I read, it will give you a gist of the content. I was fascinated by the thought of combining a wine tour with scuba diving. As I wouldn’t even be 21 until September 2017, these were both new and exciting areas for me. I pitched the country of Croatia to Jake with this scuba diving experience as one of the main features.  

Our Itinerary

Below are notes from our itinerary in Croatia and our other add-on countries that I captured in a lightly edited email to my parents during the week of our trip.

April 7 (Zagreb)

On Saturday, I woke up early to catch my flight to Zagreb, Croatia. I had a layover in Dusseldorf and experienced a couple of delays. I didn’t end up seeing Jake until the early evening. He picked me up with the car we rented. We dropped everything off at the hotel and went to grab food. We saw some of the city on foot, but overall, there wasn’t that much to see. 

April 8 (Plitvice Lakes National Park)

The next morning, we headed out to Plitvice Lakes National Park which has the most beautiful waterfalls and turquoise water. I remember thinking it didn’t seem like the kind of place that would exist in the U.S. because the entire thing is covered with trails and wooden bridges with no rails. American National Parks are in no way that trusting, but it was packed full since it was a Sunday. It was absolutely breathtaking. 

April 9 (Split)

We drove down to Split (the second-largest city in Croatia after Dubrovnik). We based a lot of how we were driving on where there were Starwood (hotel and resort company acquired by Marriott in 2016) locations. This was relevant because Jake worked for a company at the time that partnered with Starwood and thus had copious hotel points. This was an amazing hotel because it had a waterfront view of the city. Commence the eating of the delicious bread and olive oil. 

April 10 (Dubrovnik)

Originally, we planned on heading to the Hvar on Tuesday. Hvar is an island and is supposed to be great during the summer, which is the case for nearly everything (we were a few months early). So, we decided to forego Hvar because it was going to be incredibly complicated to get there with little reward. We decided to head to Dubrovnik early and hit some of those sites because we had our eyes on a spontaneous half-day wine tour to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the next day. We arrived in Dubrovnik around 2 to 3 PM. We headed out into the city and go some great shots of “King’s Landing” from Game of Thrones and enjoyed some Adriatic seaside drinks after a quick dinner. 

April 11 (Bosnia & Herzegovina and Dubrovnik)  

On Wednesday, we woke up, grabbed a quick breakfast, and headed to Bosnia and Herzegovina! Our tour picked us up at the hotel, and it ended up just being us even though it said online it could have been “small-group.” Our tour guide was named Mela, and she is originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She ended up leaving during the Yugoslavia War in 1992 as a refugee. She left with her daughter and went to London where she still spends half her time each year.

The tour took us to four different locations: a local market with the freshest food I have ever tasted (highlights: sage honey, figs, strawberries, cheese kept in a sheepskin, and crema which was like cream cheese), a monastery where they make their own wine, a winery, and then a restaurant with local Bosnian food. The market was incredible and really makes you want to eat locally.

The monastery was beautiful, and the pictures on my Instagram are from there. We tasted 4 wines there. The second winery was much larger, and we ate cheese and prosciutto while tasting because it changes the flavor of the wine. The meal at the restaurant called Stara Herzegovina was a great experience (even though I was very full at this point). All local food and one dish I had never tried before: lamb and veal. I can’t say I was a fan and don’t foresee ordering it again. However, this was exactly the kind of occasion that I went off my vegetarian diet for. Mela told us “vegetarian” is not a word that exists for this meal (called “peka”), and I’m not sorry that I wasn’t vegetarian. After the wine tour, we headed back to Dubrovnik for the rest of the day. 

April 12 (Ston and Drace)

We couldn’t decide the best way to spend Thursday before our wine dive at 3 PM in the afternoon. We ended up sleeping in a bit before grabbing breakfast. This worked out well as I had just finished up a paper to submit. We then drove about an hour to Ston which has the second-longest wall in the world after China. Honestly, there wasn’t much else there. At 1:30, we started heading towards Drace where we would be scuba diving.

Jake’s previously snorkeling experience served him well, and he picked up scuba diving fast. I actually found scuba diving more challenging than sky diving. A lot of the experience is figuring out how to breathe which I struggled with for the first half of the dive, and then I also found it very easy to feel smothered and confined under the water. I would go again, but it was a good learning and challenging experience. After that, we went and tasted wine at the bar about 10 km from the diving center. Jake could not taste unfortunately because he was driving. We did grab a bottle though to share in London. 

April 13 (Montenegro, Dubrovnik, and London)

At 6 AM on Friday, we headed out to Montenegro. This was a sleep-deprived day for me because I finished a second paper the night before post-wine dive and pre-Montenegro. We went to Kotor, Montenegro which was breathtaking. It was a small town, and there was only a small old town to walk around, but it’s always nice to expose yourself to another part of the world. The drive was also along some pretty lakes. After our brief venture in Montenegro, we headed straight to the Dubrovnik airport.  

We were early enough to use Jake’s lounge access for free food and coffee. We hopped on our flight and landed in London about two hours later. I had purchased our train tickets before I left London (17 days prior), so we were able to hustle to the train leaving in 2 minutes. We made it to Borough Market before they closed to buy some fudge to snack on as we walked back to my flat. We then got ready and headed out to the Sofar concert we were seeing.

We had to leave after the second act to head to our reservation at Duck & Waffle. Think chicken & waffles but classy and in a skyscraper with a great view of the city. Absolutely delicious, but at this point, we had been up many hours so a good night’s sleep was in order. 

April 14 (London)

We left my apartment around 10 AM to go up to Camden Market, which Jake observed has been updated quite a bit since he was here. We tried a cereal milkshake, a doughnut, and a cupcake. We took a long walk to The Queen’s Gallery which is in a building right on Buckingham Palace’s property. After the gallery, we popped over to The Rubens at the Palace for afternoon tea. Our table was set up so we could people-watch as we drank our tea. We had finger sandwiches, scones, and desserts along with Superfruity (mine) and Moroccan Mint & Rosewater (Jake’s) tea. After tea, we walked off some of those calories before hopping on a train to Richmond where our show was. Jake found the show we saw: Humble Boy. It was in a small, 360 theater which was a different experience than I had previously. It was funny and thought-provoking. 

April 15 (London)

We woke up early to avoid the inevitable Sunday morning line at The Breakfast Club (one of Jake’s favorite spots). After breakfast, we took another long walk around London to find some doughnuts (does the food ever stop?!). We then headed back to my flat for Jake to get packed. He very kindly took some of my stuff back with him to help alleviate my load in May. I gave him a lot of sweaters, coats, and souvenirs I’ve purchased for others. We stopped at, yet again, another pub to grab a few sweet treats before he headed to the train station. 

Memorable Moments

By Year 3, Jake and I had started to develop a cadence when traveling together. We had two years of annual trips under our belt, and Cuba hadn’t exactly been an easy trip. Additionally, by April of my semester abroad, I had done quite a bit of my own traveling either with friends or solo. I was becoming a sufficient traveler in my own respect, and there was more of a balance between us due to that.

There are two moments from our Year 3 Croatia trip that constantly get brought up. The first is the police incident that happened on the very first day. In the email to my parents, I wrote that Jake had “picked up with the car we rented” and then “we dropped everything off at the hotel and went to grab food.” 

This is truthful in every single way, but it omits details of an incident that could have been catastrophic. Right after Jake exited the airport and got on the freeway. Unfortunately, along the way, I gave him incorrect directions to exit. This resulted in him entering some sort of police facility. All we needed to do was turn around, and full of privilege, I naively said, “Don’t worry. The police can tell us where to go. 

Well, the police didn’t want anything to do to us. When Jake pulled up to the guard gate of this facility, the police absolutely chewed us out. “Didn’t you see the DO NOT ENTER sign?!”

 “Oh…no…sorry. We just need to turn around.”

“This is a private area. You are trespassing.”

“We’re really sorry — we just need to turn around.”

“In your country, if you did this, how much would you get fined?”

“Uh…I don’t know…50 bucks?”

 Jake’s poor attempt at a bribe was met with silence. Neither of us had cash, and we both knew this guard was absolutely livid with the stupid Americans in front of him. He had already told me to shut up once. Things were not looking good, and I had been in the country for less than an hour.

After an angry sigh, the police officer raised the gate and told us to turn around and get out of his sight. We reentered the freeway, and it was a few minutes before Jake and I dared talk to each other. Some shaky, nervous laughter broke out. We both knew exactly how badly that could’ve turned out.

Since then, any time there’s been a close call during future trips, neither of us hesitates to throw out “I don’t know…50 bucks?” to help break the tension.

A Year 3 Anecdote: Send Us the Truffles!

When we first arrived at the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel, they left a welcome gift of chocolate truffles in the room. And I don’t know about anyone else, but an unsolicited gift is right up my alley…and a gift of chocolate? That’s my love language right there.

I was delighted to find those when I arrived in the room, and I wasn’t shy about showing that glee. Jake even gave me his extra truffle after seeing this excitement.

Following our wine tasting on April 12, we decided to go to a wine bar in Dubrovnik to test our skills. We enjoyed sipping different wines and conversing with the knowledgeable waitress. While Dubrovnik got a bit chilly after the sun went down, the wine bar had comfortable chairs and blankets for all their patrons. As such, we spent a good couple of hours sipping wine and chatting.

I still had a paper to complete that night, so I wasn’t indulging too much, but Jake was off driving duty as we had Ubered into the city. So, he was having a good time, and it wasn’t long before he was getting both tired and tipsy. While this was happening, my mind was moving to the chocolate truffles. Could I get some more to work to motivate me while I worked on my paper? Who did I need to ask? Would they be available on a room service menu? Would room service still be available when I got back?

I was fully engrossed in these thoughts before I noticed that Jake was all but falling asleep under his blanket. He hadn’t had that much wine, but he was well on his way to bed. 

  • Order the check ✔️
  • Call the Uber ✔️
  • Get back to the hotel ✔️

Now to get the truffles. I knew I would need Jake’s assistance before he fell asleep. After a quick look at the room service menu, I knew that the chocolate truffles were strictly a welcome gift, and I felt he had the best chance of getting more with his Marriott Bonvoy membership level.

“Could you call down and ask about the truffles, please?”

He knew I wanted them given how much I had talked about them at the wine bar. He picked up the phone and proceeded to have an incredibly amusing but confusing conversation with someone at the front desk. “Send us the truffles!”

Not even 10 minutes later, Jake was fast asleep. Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock on the door, and a bewildered employee handed me 11 chocolate truffles on a plate. I couldn’t have been more pleased. A long chocolate-filled night later, my paper was done. 

Final Thoughts

Our Year 3 trip took us to so many more destinations than we had planned. Originally, we had Croatia and London on the docket. At the last minute, we decided to add in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Montenegro, two of the more off-the-beaten-path countries I’ve visited in Europe.

Come back next week to read about Year 4 — another adventure in Europe!