Montenegro

We had a spare day in Dubrovnik, so we decided to take day-trip to Montenegro, as I’d seen gorgeous photos of Kotor online a few weeks before our trip. I contacted a few highly-rated tour companies and booked the cheapest one. At 7:15 am, we were picked up in front of a Hilton hotel monstrosity outside Old Town and shared a van with our tour guide, a man from Greece, and three women from England.

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With our van

As we left sleek and tidy Croatia for raw, gritty Montenegro, I fell asleep in the van until we reached the border crossing. Montenegro is not part of the EU (even though it uses the Euro), so we had to hand over our passports to the border agent. Once again, I was grateful that we weren’t visiting in the summer, as sometimes the wait can take hours. After just a few minutes, we continued on our way to the Verige Strait, where we caught a ferry across the Bay of Kotor. Narrow enough to easily monitor but deep enough to allow huge ships through, the Bay of Kotor has been a prized location for millennia and is the single best natural harbor between Greece and Venice.

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Riding a ferry through the Bay of Kotor

We got off at Budva, our first town in Montenegro. Much of the Budva Riviera feels like a resort sprawl catering to wealthy Russians, but Old Town Budva had some charm. There was a mix of Catholic and Orthodox churches, a huge citadel, souvenir shops crammed into the old stone buildings, and a mediocre beach.

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Budva harbor
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Pretty, but nothing compared to Kotor
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Citadel

When we were done with Budva, we drove the rest of the way to Kotor, the whole reason I wanted to come to Montenegro. Montenegro is one of the youngest countries in Europe and gained independence in 2006. It finds itself in a very unique position: It has become a magnet for multimillionaires from Russia and the Middle East, who have chosen to turn this new country and its lovely coastline into their very own Riviera. On the other hand, Montenegro is still struggling to upgrade what is nearly a Third World infrastructure. When it first declared independence, its economy was weak, but the privatization of its aluminum industry and the aggressive development of its tourist trade have turned things around. In fact, Montenegro has one of the highest foreign investment rates in Europe, despite its unemployment rate hovering at 19%. Regardless, nothing can mar the natural beauty of its mountains, bays, and forests.

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Kotor

With dramatic cliffs, the glimmering Adriatic, and a UNESCO-protected Old Town, Kotor is easily one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. It has been shielded from centuries of would-be invaders by both its position at the deepest point of a fjord, as well as by its imposing town wall, which scrambles in a zigzag line up the mountain behind it.

If you only do one thing in Kotor, hike the Town Walls. I was in awe the entire time we were hiking.  The 1,355 stairs climb up the sheer cliff behind Old Town. It’s about three miles long and will take about an hour and a half round-trip if you’re in shape.

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Climbing up the stairs
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Leaving Old Town
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Obligatory couple’s selfie
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Look how high we are!
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It’s windy up here!

After a well-deserved lunch and another hour of roaming around Old Town, it was time to head back to Croatia. Довиђења, Montenegro!

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Catholic church, even though most Kotor residents are Orthodox

Tips for future travelers:

Eat at City Restaurant for delicious grilled meats and a whole fish for less than what you’d pay for an appetizer in Dubrovnik.

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Lunch

Wear sneakers when climbing the wall. The marble stairs are not in the best condition and are very slippery, even when dry, as they’ve been polished by centuries of visitors.

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Slippery and crumbling marble stairs

Once you reach the top of the wall, take your time up there. You deserve it! We spent about twenty minutes taking photos of the view and the old fortress, but most people were hanging out for even longer. There’s lots of space at the top, so relax and drink some water before heading back down. This is an experience to cherish.

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Old fortress
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Taking our time coming back down

 

Neuschwanstein

For those of you who don’t know my husband, Anthony likes to make Metal Earth models for fun. He’s really good at constructing these intricate, laser-cut metal models and has even become a minor celebrity on Instagram because of them. Many of them are iconic landmarks from around the world, so he usually brings at least one on our numerous vacations. Since we were in Munich this summer, we decided to take a day trip down to see Schloss Neuschwanstein (Neuschwanstein Castle), as Metal Earth happened to design a model of the stunning castle.

You probably recognize Neuschwanstein even if you’ve never heard of it. The castle has been featured in several movies such as The Monuments Men and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and served as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. This is the castle of all castles, the epitome of fairy-tale castles throughout time. Perched high above the town, even its setting on the lush foothills of the Bavarian Alps is dramatic.

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Bavarian Alps
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Lookout point

Neuschwanstein was commissioned by King Ludwig II, who ruled Bavaria for 22 years in the 19th century. Rather than deal with the politics in Munich, he preferred to spend most of his time in Schloss Hohenschwangau, his family’s palace that was built by his father. Much of King Ludwig’s adult life was spent constructing Neuschwanstein on a neighboring hill. He spent 17 years building it, but only lived inside for 172 days. Soon after he moved in, he was declared mentally unfit to rule Bavaria and was taken away. Two days later, he was found dead in a lake. Less than six weeks later, Neuschwanstein became open to the public, and now over a million tourists visit per year.

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View of Hohenschwangau

During World War II, Nazis used Neuschwanstein as one of their secret storehouses for stolen art from France. Due to its secluded location, it survived both wars without destruction. After the war, Allied forces spent years sorting through and redistributing the art.

Even without its historical significance, Neuschwanstein is impressive. Out of all the photos we’ve taken of Metal Earth models in front of their respective landmark, Neuschwanstein may have been my favorite to take. It may have necessitated quite a journey to take the photo — we first took a train from Munich and a bus from the station to town, missed our guided tour, power-walked up a short mountain, attended an audio guide tour through the castle, then stood in a long line to cross a bridge — but our efforts were well worth it.

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We made it!
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So perfectly framed

Tips for future travelers:

Skip the castle tour. Unless you’ve never been to a castle before, the interior of Neuschwanstein isn’t that remarkable. The only way to see the interior is to book timed tickets in advance, and timed tickets can be stressful, especially if your train is running late like ours. Trust me, you didn’t come here for the interior; you came to gawk at the exterior, which is completely free and unconstricted by time!

Hike above Neuschwanstein to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), which has the best view of Neuschwanstein. Any photo you’ve seen of the castle was probably taken here. The bridge spans the Pöllat Gorge and is completely free to climb — you know that if this were in America, we’d be charging entrance tickets.

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If you look closely, that bridge behind us is Mary’s Bridge
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This might be challenging for people who are afraid of heights
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Even the view on the non-castle side of the bridge is gorgeous

If you’re coming from Munich, buy a Bayern Ticket, which covers all train and bus rides to and from Munich. Aim to leave Munich in the morning, as a one-way trip takes roughly three hours.

Much of your walking will be uphill, but the hike really isn’t that bad if you’re in decent shape. Anthony and I made it up to Neuschwanstein and Marienbrücke in half the time that our guide book quoted. There are shuttle buses and horse-drawn carriages, but the lines for those are pretty ridiculous, and you’ll still have to walk part of the way even if you ride them.

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Enjoying the hike
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If you hike, you’ll feel more rewarded by this view

Go in the afternoon for the best lighting.

Don’t forget to check the times for your return train back to Munich.

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