We flew from Istanbul to Budapest at the beginning of July. It was going to be difficult to top the adventure and excitement of our time in Turkey, but we’re always game for a challenge. The weeks that followed took us to three different Hungarian cities, Croatia’s capital city and most popular national park, and the small but stunning country of Slovenia.
It wasn’t until we stepped off the metro in Budapest that we realized just how foreign Turkey had felt. The streets and sidewalks of Hungary’s capital were active yet calm. Cars weren’t honking their horns, and they even stopped to let pedestrians through crosswalks. Locals were wearing shorts and drinking beer at sidewalk cafes. Compared to Istanbul, it almost felt like home.
We used our first day in Budapest to explore tourist-heavy Buda, on the west side of the Danube, enjoying a long walk around the city’s castle and main square. We spent most of our visit, though, in Pest — the more modern, active eastern side of the city.
Budapest’s 20th century history alone was captivating: from Austro-Hungarian power to World War II Nazi occupation to decades of so-called “Goulash Communism.” We visited the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, with its moving memorials to the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The House of Terror Museum shed light on the plight of the people through Fascist and Communist rule.
Upon leaving the museum, we were approached by two police officers. They told us we needed to leave Andrássy út, the major boulevard where the museum is located. It was Budapest Pride, and due to prior threats and security concerns, spectators were not allowed within a block of the march’s route. Curious to see the event, we found seats at a sidewalk restaurant (the only place where police were allowing onlookers) and watched the march. It was a far cry from the estimated 400,000 people who peacefully attended this year’s Seattle Pride, but also a substantial upgrade from the march-busting police in riot gear we witnessed in Turkey.
From Budapest, we took a train to the small town of Eger, in northern Hungary. The region is known for its red wines, and it was fun to sample the legendary “Bull’s Blood” (Egri Bikavér) in person as we hopped from tasting room to tasting room.
After one more night in Budapest, we headed south to Pécs, near the Croatian border. Hungary’s fifth largest city, Pécs felt absent of tourists and provided a nice respite from our busy days in larger cities.
We took a train west from Pécs into Croatia and ended up spending an entire week in the charming capital city of Zagreb. What the city lacks in traditional tourist venues it more than makes up for with colorful street art, 24-hour pedestrian activity, and seemingly endless outdoor dining.
We also used Zagreb as a base for a long bus trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park, a beautiful series of lakes and waterfalls across sixteen travertine terraces.
Perhaps the greatest pleasant surprise of our trip was Slovenia. By land area, the entire country is smaller than the state of New Jersey — but Slovenia impressed us with its endearing capital city of Ljubljana, unreal natural beauty in the Julian Alps, and fascinating but oft-forgotten World War I history.
We spent five nights in Ljubljana before exploring the rest of Slovenia by rental car, spending two nights in the mountain towns of Bled and Kobarid.
Our drive took us up and down the 51 switchbacks of Vršič Pass, where the highway is known as the “Russian Road,” commemorating the ten thousand Russian POWs who built it. Amidst all this natural beauty, it was hard to imagine hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying there just a hundred years prior in one of the bloodiest fronts of World War I. Over sixty thousand soldiers were killed in avalanches alone, and years of warfare resulted in only a few kilometers’ movement of the battle lines.
We ended our Slovenian journey in Piran, a town on the country’s tiny 47-kilometer (29-mile) Adriatic coast. From the highest point in town, you can see both Italy and Croatia. Governed by Venice for much of the past millennium, Piran felt far more Italian than Slovenian and was a perfect preview of our next destinations down the Croatian coastline.