The Balkans beckon
Dubrovnik, the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic.’

The Balkans beckon

Joanne Rae M. Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - December 1, 2019 - 12:00am


That’s what a trip to the Balkans makes you do. Gasp in awe. Gasp in wonder.

Every day during our 10-day trip, my jaw would drop at the sight of scenery that even postcards don’t do justice to.

Curated by Shan Dioquino David of Corporate International Travel and Tours Inc., the “Best of the Balkans” tour that elicited more than a fair share of gasps from me included Slovenia (Ljubljana, Bled, Postojna, Plitvice), Croatia (Zagreb, Zadar, Trogir, Split and Dubrovnik), and Bosnia and Herzegovina (Medjugorje, Mostar and Sarajevo). All three countries were once part of the former Yugoslavia and one is connected to the other by efficient highways, with clean rest stops (read: toilets) in between.

As Shan is a believer in making her tour groups indulge in the local delicacies of each city we visited, our tour included not only sightseeing but also food tripping. In Ljubljana, we took a funicular to a castle-turned-restaurant on a mountain overlooking the city; and on another occasion, we hopped on a fishing boat in Ston where oysters were plucked from the sea, deftly shucked before our eyes and served in all their fresh succulent glory with lemon wedges and local wine. Talk about a floating oyster bar!


One cannot help but fall for S-LOVE-nia. 

Ljubljana, the capital, is a quaint city with a couple of charming bridges that seemingly form a roof over the river. Straight from the airport where we were welcomed by our Serbian tour director Stefan, we strolled through the city’s elegant Baroque streets, crossed the Triple and Dragon Bridge, went to a fresh market on the square where we nibbled on fresh figs (you have to press open the fig first to make sure there isn’t a bee inside) and fresh prunes.

The following day, we were up bright and early (the advantage of flying in from the East, which is about seven hours ahead of Southeastern Europe) and motored to picturesque Lake Bled, which from above, looks like a 360-degree, multi-dimensional painting with all the breathtaking elements in one canvas.                                             

In fact, Lake Bled frames all that is beautiful about nature. With tranquil blue-green waters, the lake is framed by the snow-capped Alps and a tree-shaded shoreline, while the lake itself embraces a tiny island. On the island is a 17th-century church, the Assumption of Mary, which you can reach by ascending 99 steps. By the altar is a rope dangling from the ceiling. Tug at it, make a wish or say a prayer, and tradition has it that if the bell chimes, your prayer will be granted. 

Pops of color glide across the lake — the pletnas, Slovenia’s version of the gondola. These traditional wooden boats, skippered by pletnars who row the boat while standing, have been taking visitors to the island for centuries. Before you leave the island, stop by its only ice cream stand, one of the best in the country and try its pistachio ice cream for 2 euros a cone.

After we returned to the shore on a pletna, we drove to Bled Castle, climbed another set of stairs and were rewarded with a stunning view of the lake — thus eliciting more gasps.

And that was just the first half of an incredible day. From Lake Bled, we were taken to the 27-kilometer-long Postojna Cave, a three-million-year-old virtual temple of nature’s pieces of sculpture, shaped by tiny droplets stubbornly finding their way down the cave and building nature’s own monuments.

We took a 3.5-kilometer train ride inside this subterranean cave, like the ride in the Indiana Jones cave in Universal Studios,  except that this one was for real and it comfortably took us through a labyrinth of stalactites and stalagmites, each one unique. The rest of the tour we took on foot on a 1.5-kilometer path, which allowed us to tarry longer at some stunning stalagmites like the magnificent five-meter-tall bright “Brilliant,” a symbol of Postojna Cave.


Our next destination was Croatia, and our first stop was the capital of Zagreb. We walked through the three historic parts of Zagreb, the medieval Upper Town (Gornji Grad), Kaptol, and monumental Lower Town (Donji Grad). A huge necktie flutters prominently in front of many stores, as the necktie was invented by the Croatians.

After a good night’s rest, we headed for the UNESCO-listed 30-hectare Plitvice Lakes. Like a wedding cake, it has 16 tiers, each tier a crystal-clear lake. Each lake is connected to the next by a waterfall, which in the spring and summer could be thunderous. We meandered on the paths that took us from lake to lake, beheld falls the height of a building and falls that were as tiny as a gurgling brook. Gasp. Some. More.

We then set out for a walking tour of Zadar, famous for its 16th-century walls built in by Venetians and the largest cathedral in Dalmatia, St. Anastasia. However, what sets Zadar apart from any other city in the world is its unique sea organ. The organ makes music by way of sea waves and tubes located underneath a set of large marble steps. There are 35 holes on the marble steps by the sea, which are like the speakers that relay the music composed by the waves and the wind. The music from the sea organ (conceptualized by man architect Nikola Basi?), is like no other, soothing, harmonious, divine.


We next visited Trogir, a coastal Mediterranean city with beautiful Romanesque churches complemented by the outstanding Renaissance and Baroque buildings from the Venetian period.

The next day we drove to Split, where many scenes of the hit series Game of Thrones were filmed. We toured the third-century Diocletian’s Palace (built by some 30,000 workers for the Emperor Diocletian, who retired there after he abdicated his throne) in the heart of Split’s old town. Thanks to Game of Thrones, Diocletian’s Palace is now also known as part of Meereen, one of the city states conquered by Daenerys Targaryen.

From the Diocletian’s Palace, we drove up to the mountain village of Klis, about 20 minutes outside Split. In this tiny village lies Klis Fortress, which stands tall on the edge of a rocky cliff. The scenes, which show the exterior shots of Meereen and the walls of Meereen, were all shot on Klis Fortress.

That night, we drove to Dubrovnik where we were billeted in a hotel with an expansive view of the Adriatic Sea from our room’s terraces. Dubrovnik is known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” perfectly preserved Baroque city state.

I have been to Dubrovnik before, and can go back again and again. This ancient town, surrounded by ramparts and fortresses, is a treasure trove of architectural and cultural master places, preserved over the centuries. Walking around the Old Walled City is like conquering the past in an hour. You see everything. If you can, venture up its walls for an even more magnificent view.

 Bosnia & Herzegovina

After a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel in Dubrovnik, the five-star Dubrovnik President, we headed for Medjugorje, an important Catholic pilgrimage site since 1981, when apparitions of the Virgin Mary were reported. We were able to climb up a quarter of the rock-strewn Apparition Hill where the young visionaries first encountered Our Lady. We were not encouraged to climb to the top of the hill because of the weather.

With umbrellas in hand, we next toured Mostar in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar’s Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most recognizable landmarks. Destroyed in 1993 during the Homeland War in the region, it has been rebuilt and was opened to the public in 2004 — a testimony to its people’s determination to move on after the war. Gasp.

Our final stop for our Best of the Balkans tour was Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which reflects traces of four empires: Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian. At a glance, it reminds me of the old town of Istanbul. (Don’t forget to have Sarajevo coffee in one of the quaint coffee shops in the old town — serving and enjoying it is an art. For instance, you only dip the sugar cube in the coffee, nibble on the cube, set it aside and sip the coffee black.)

According to a travel guide, “Sarajevo connects East and West — not only as different halves of the world, but also culturally — with the East considered Ottoman and Islamic and the West seen as Austro-Hungarian and Christian.” Did you know that Sarajevo is said to have ignited World War I because of the assassination there of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand?

A must-visit is the line that connects, instead of separates, the  two distinct parts of the city. The location of the marker, “Sarajevo — Meeting-place of Cultures,” is unique in that it is right where these two cultural influences clearly meet. If you face east, you see a mosque where Bascarsija (the Ottoman side of the city) starts, with its Eastern look, aromas and flavors. If you turn toward “the west,” you’ll be met by Ferhadija St., which is lined on both sides by the many structures that were built in a more Western style, during the time of Austro-Hungarian rule.

So, are the Balkans beckoning you now? *

(For inquiries, call Corporate International Travel & Tours

at 631-6541 or e-mail at info@corporateintl.net.)


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