Help me get the most out of my vacation
January 20, 2017 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Hello! I'll be traveling to Croatia-Bosnia/Herzegovina-Montenegro with a small tour group in June of this year. I've not traveled to Europe since the late 1990s, and never to any points further East than Berlin. I'd like some tips/advice for getting the most out of my vacation. Details inside.

The tour has some built-in stops, tourist destinations, and places to visit, but there are also a few days where we are 'on our own'. I'll also need to find my own lunches and dinners most days. Now, having days to 'do my own thing' is precisely why I picked this tour - I love going off the beaten path and trying new things. The reason I went with a tour group at all was to have a guide because I don't speak the language (languages).

Can MeFi help me make the best of my 'free days'? Is there specific cuisine that I *must* try? Places I should avoid? I know and will abide by the standard tourist tips to avoid pickpockets and the like, but maybe there is something specific I should know about? How likely are the people in shops/restaurants to know English? Are there specific phrases I should learn (or try to) before I go? Are there things I should be aware of NOT to do? I have to make my own way from the airport to the hotel in Zagreb - they suggest a taxi, but what's the best way to do this? I have taxi anxiety even locally, so the better prepped I am the better I'll be.

I'm fairly comfortable wandering on my own, with or without a map. I don't expect people in a foreign country to cater to me in English (though of course being able to communicate is better than not). I know I'm going to come off as a clueless tourist no matter what I do, but I'd like to fall on the 'decent to deal with' side of that spectrum.

Places I'll have lots of free time:

Sarajevo - we'll be spending a couple of days here, the first is all scheduled activities, the second is a free day

Thank you!
posted by sandraregina to Travel & Transportation around Turkmenistan (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
" I love going off the beaten path and trying new things"

....yet you're asking us which path to take and what to try. Here's what I'd do (and have done...many times): go out and serendipitize. Allow yourself to have non-optimized experiences. And recognize that while all around you, natives are going about their normal grim, anxious, stressed daily experiences, you have a tremendous advantage: you're seeing it all fresh. Which will make interesting and memorable things happen to you (if you could do this at home, the same would happen, but few are able to adopt this perspective in familiar locales). Play with the anxiety about not having the optimally special vacationing experience. Recognize that by simply blending in with the local flow and flavor, with eyes appreciatively wide open, you're optimizing in another way.

I had a great experience in a big Dutch city once, trying to get my non-standard eyeglass frame repaired. Walked about 11 miles, spoke to about 25 locals. Finally, it happened, and I had dinner next door (the repairman recommended) and it was fantastic and I became lifelong friends with the waiter.

As for the transportation anxiety, use that. Lean into that. Have NO FREAKING IDEA how you're going to get to hotel, but relax into it, like doing a back float blindfolded. Let the city get you where you need to go, and let it happen as it happens. Ping a lot of locals for help and advice, pantomiming being preferred. It may take all night to get back (lots of wrong but serendipitously enjoyable turns), but you'll be meeting and interacting with people and seeing things. If you start to panic, maybe particularly nice people will appear to help you, or your own hidden powers of resourcefulness will kick in, and you'll learn something about yourself. The journey is the destination.

If you take this tack, you won't see The Best museum or eat The Best dish, but you'll learn an awful lot about the local culture and about yourself. Since the tour will be all about beaming in for The Best this and that, I'd imagine this would be the perfect counterpoint for your free days. Make them REALLY free.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:16 AM on January 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Croatia is a major tourist destination for west europeans. That means you'll be surrounded by Italians, Germans, Spaniards etc in most of the above towns, especially on the coast. Especially in June.

Given all the different languages, you'll find it easy to find English spoken as a common language. Especially true in Dubrovnik and Split. The locals don't expect tourists to speak to them in Croatian.

Zagreb is a great town to just walk around the center. I enjoyed the peacefulness of the Botanic Gardens right in the city centre. It also has quirky tiny museums such as the Museum of Illusions and the Museum of Broken Relationships.

There's a shuttle from Zagreb airport to the city centre. Ask for help at the Tourist Information Office in Zagreb airport.
posted by vacapinta at 8:34 AM on January 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

I did a trip around several former Communist Bloc countries, including Croatia, and I found that it was incredibly, incredibly easy to get around with just English. If it makes you feel better, it's not really a question of expecting the locals to "cater" to English-speaking special snowflakes but that English is the lingua franca for an area already linguistically fractured, with a tourist pool that is drawn from so many different countries. English native speakers are actually far in the minority, but menus and signage and are often bilingual in English because it's not practical to have them in, e.g., Croatian, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, Hungarian, etc. etc. We didn't even stay in the biggest tourist cities (e.g. Sibenik instead of Split or Dubrovnik, Krk Island rather than Hvar) and the language was never a problem.
posted by drlith at 8:49 AM on January 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes, the further you get east, the more likely you are to hear people who don't share a mother tongue using English as a lingua franca, because there are so many ethnic groups churned together in the Balkans (plus the tourist trade). (I suspect, but didn't verify that it may also be less politically charged to make your sign bilingual in English rather than a local language.) Unfortunately, this does make it harder to memorize a few foreign phrases to smooth your way.

As for the transportation anxiety, use that. Lean into that. Have NO FREAKING IDEA how you're going to get to hotel, but relax into it, like doing a back float blindfolded. Let the city get you where you need to go, and let it happen as it happens.

Going to take a wild guess and say that you're not a woman.
posted by praemunire at 8:57 AM on January 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

Jealous! I was in that region a couple of years ago and I had a blast. My trip took me in a different direction than you (I did not go to Croatia, I went to Serbia and Hungary), but I can help you with Bosnia.

Bosnia is a small country so going from town to town isn't nearly as long a process as it would be in the US for example, but I am not 100% sure about buses, etc. since we rented a car (check out the wikitravel guide for some transportation info). Sarajevo itself is small, and there is an interesting mixture of fancy shops (with lots of tourists from the middle east) and historic sites. There is a bazaar in the city center (Old Town) but it felt a little too touristy to me - although I do regret not buying traditional slippers there. About food: definitely cevapi (little kebabs made of lamb and beef, served on homemade bread and usually eaten with beer or kefir), oh and the million billion types of desserts they have in little bakeries around town, and Turkish style coffee, of course. The beer is really good as well (Sarajevo pivo). Overall you can't really lose foodwise in that region. You will find small stalls that sell pita (pies) with cheese (sirnica) or beef (burek). Oh and also croissant type bread rolls that are so good. Now I think about it I feel like I ate non-stop in my trip. The food tends to be similar in the whole region, with the main difference being that Croatia and Montenegro would probably add pork to minced meat dishes like cevapi or pljeskavica (effectively cevapi but in hamburger format), while Bosnia may or may not depending where you are (sounds like within Bosnia you will be in the Federation region (predominantly Muslim, so no pork), rather than the Republika Srpska region (yes pork)). In general the beauty of Bosnia is that it has a really interesting (and delicious) mixture of Western European and Turkish/Middle Eastern culture. So for example you could have a truly authentic and delicious baklava with Turkish coffee, or you could have an amazing slice of black forest cake.

That said, I had most fun outside the city. If you can make it a day-trip, you could go to Blagaj and visit the Dervish monastery by the river, which has these amazing turquoise colors. It is truly gorgeous and the ride is so beautiful. there are little restaurants on the road where you can find trout or roasted lamb (both great, but I kind of prefer the trout). You can also go to Mostar (on the way to Croatia, so convenient!), and visit the famous Old Bridge (Stari Most) - which isn't just a bridge, it's a bridge with a town built around it, and just in general admire the beautiful city full of little shops and cafes. I went in the summer so it was crowded, but hopefully it won't be so when you get there. It's really easy to get around.

In my experience people are ridiculously friendly and welcoming. It is super safe as far as I know although of course use regular caution. And obviously do not discuss the war! (I have a feeling you wouldn't but it bears repeating). Pretty much everyone in Bosnia lost one or more loved ones in the war and the lines are really blurry (by which I mean a Muslim person could very well have Orthodox or Catholic relatives, so there are no safe assumptions). Depending on who you talk to, people sometimes can have strong opinions re: USA, Russia, etc. so it's really just better to not go there, because things could get awkward really quickly.
posted by Tarumba at 9:18 AM on January 20, 2017

I meant "it's better to not go there" as in "better not discuss that subject", not "better not go to Bosnia"!

Sorry I can't English
posted by Tarumba at 9:27 AM on January 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

You'll be fine using English in all these cities. The locals are well used to speaking English with tourists.
posted by frantumaglia at 10:13 AM on January 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Be careful about your credit cards. After a trip to Croatia my wife and I had to fight credit card charges for their toll highways for about a year even after cancelling the card (because HSBC don't care).

Also there are lots of places where you can take a daytrip by ferry to Venice if that is something you'd like to see.
posted by srboisvert at 10:45 AM on January 20, 2017

Also let your credit card company know where you are going in advance so your cards don't get blocked. Particularly if you taking a ferry to Venice.
posted by srboisvert at 10:46 AM on January 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was in Pula and Zadar Croatia this past summer and nthing English is fine everywhere.

You want to enjoy fresh local seafood and things like olives (really good) and cheese while you're in Croatia for sure, I enjoyed a nice mixed charcuterie-type plate for dinner one night. Try to avoid "tourist-trap" menus (menus with pictures usually) but don't sweat it too much. I found that there were really great salads (fresh and full of veggies and excellent feta cheese) at most restaurants for very good prices (relative to meat dinners which are also not very expensive given exchange rates) which was nice to balance out the desserts.

I loved the nightlife and cafe culture, it's very chill and happy for the most part, people are out with their families walking around until late, you can buy pastries and other treats while walking around and take in the great architecture, people watch, etc.

One adjustment I had to make was that if you order water, you're paying for a bottle of water. Keep an empty bottle to fill with tap water to save a bit of money, the water should be fine everywhere you are. I personally hated the carbonated water and if this is also you look up the word for flat water so you can confirm you're not paying for water you won't want to drink.

I found everyone super friendly and easy-going so don't worry about being a tourist, most people out in these cities in the summer are tourists, no one cares. :)

One thing I did that I was happy I did was pay for a data plan to use in Europe, it helped with finding places on the fly and navigating - ahead of time just download the areas you'll be in on google maps, it worked great for me and saved some hassles with getting lost, if you use your phone you'll need a plug adaptor. I found it easy to take money out of atm's there and that was best, just taking out what I thought I'd use in each location, not using credit at all. It looks like taxis are pricy if you just take one out of the airport, maybe there's a bus, or maybe you can share a cab with someone.
posted by lafemma at 12:04 PM on January 20, 2017

One of the most influential events of the 20th century occurred in Sarajevo with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand near the Latin Bridge.

I have no idea what's there now, but I think if I were visiting the city and anywhere nearby I would divert out of my way to stand and reflect in the spot where an event occurred that changed the history of Europe forever.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:10 PM on January 20, 2017

Avoid using the "3-finger salute" hand gesture while in Croatia (and probably also Bosnia, although that might depend on region, but still, better safe than sorry). Cross-reference any phrases learned from locals with Google Translate, as they'll probably teach you some swear words. Avoid the subjects of war, politics, communism, partisans or chetniks or ustashe. Don't go on hiking trips in keds or flipflops. As mentioned above, don't worry about language.
posted by gakiko at 1:16 PM on January 20, 2017

The centre of Split is worth plenty of time. Its heart is Diocletian's Palace, so if you've ever wondered what it would be like to wander round a piece of Ancient Rome if it had survived into the present and people lived there...

Also definitely worth a visit is the Meštrović Gallery, just 20 minutes' walk from the centre of the old town. If you're spending any time in Croatia then you'll run into some of his work (his statue of Tesla in Zagreb is a delight), but try not to miss this.

I would also second the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. First museum to ever make me tearful.
posted by mushhushshu at 10:22 AM on January 22, 2017

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