COVER FEATURE: Travel Edition 2017: Europe
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Theme for a honeymoon
Crew and actors prepare for 2014 filming of a controversial scene in the HBO series Game of Thrones in Dubrovnik. © WENN US/Alamy
The author and her husband didn’t plan it that way, but a honeymoon in Croatia became a tour of scenes from their favorite show. And in the process, they discovered real-life history and culture they’re now grateful to know.
By Vanessa Day
Weaving down a crowded cobblestone street in Dubrovnik, I am scanning this way and that, taking in every detail of this ancient city, which rises from the Adriatic Sea at the southern tip of Croatia. Architecture is everything here—fortress walls that stood against attack for centuries, churches, and palaces. A stone’s throw away on my walk appeared a certain grand staircase, one I had never visited before, but immediately recognized. This exact staircase had been central to a transfixing scene of my favorite show, HBO’s Game of Thrones (GoT). It stopped me in my tracks.
This trip was my honeymoon, which I had not intended to be themed, and I’m not usually one to plan my travels around a particular show. Yet somehow we managed to pick a nation where many scenes were filmed, beginning with the second season.
The staircase is the setting for the finale of season five, in which a major character, a daughter of royalty (Cersei Lannister, pronounced SER-see LAN-iss-ter, and played by Lena Headey) is dressed in a drab smock and standing at the top of the steps, waiting to take a walk of penance. She is forced to disrobe and descend the stairs, a bell and the word “shame” ringing in her ears with each step, as an angry mob taunts and throws food at her. The character isn’t bowed, however; she later becomes queen (season six).
I turned to my husband, frantically pointing and grabbing my camera, the scene replaying in my mind.
The desire of travelers to see in real life the places that appear on screens large and small continues to grow. New Zealand saw a dramatic increase in tourism in response to The Lord of the Rings films. Yet long before GoT premiered, Dubrovnik had been on my travel bucket list. I was fortunate enough to have a husband eager to go along. The fact that the country had become synonymous with the HBO series was the icing on the leftover wedding cake.
Slave city, Roman fortress
Our adventure began in Split, one of the oldest cities in Croatia. A UNESCO World Heritage site within the city holds more than 200 buildings—a city within a city. Split became the backdrop for GoT’s slave city of Meereen. A slave rebellion in season four took place on Papalićeva Street, and flashes of it came back to me as we walked.
On our first evening, we toured the Cathedral of St. Domnius, named for a martyr of the early Christian church. We climbed the steep steps of the soaring bell tower to get a view of the whole city.
HBO filmed an episode of Game of Thrones in these semi-underground chambers, where the popular character Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, feeds an enemy to two of her dragons amid the stone columns. © Getty Images/Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket
On a visit to the best preserved, most complete Roman fortress on the planet, Diocletian’s Palace, we stepped into the main hall and it immediately felt familiar. I could envision Daenerys Targaryen (pronounced Duh-NAIR-iss Tar-GAIR-ee-in, and played by Emilia Clarke), one of GoT’s most popular characters, whom the actress describes as “a mother of dragons and a queen of armies and a killer of slave masters … a very Joan of Arc-style character.” I remember a scene in which she feeds an enemy to two of her dragons amid the stone columns. We completely geeked out as we snapped photos and wandered through the halls, imagining the actors standing in the very spot we were.
If you’re a serious GoT junkie, you can take a 3.5-hour guided tour of all the filming locations in and around Split. The tours include transportation, a knowledgeable guide who can share some inside gossip on the show, and lead you to all the different spots where scenes were filmed. You’re guaranteed to see them all on a tour. We were happy just stumbling upon them as we went.
There are many areas of the city that have remained hidden from the cameras, and those are equally worth a visit. A stroll down the Riva waterfront promenade is the perfect end to a long day. This public space is alive with activity 24/7, whether with musicians playing soft tunes in the evening or merchants peddling their souvenirs. As we munched on a platter of Croatian cheeses, meats and bread, and sipped pints of Karlovačko (a popular beer in Croatia), we silently wished for a few more days in Split.
Pearl of the Adriatic
After two days in Split, we spent another two days in and around Dubrovnik. With my first glimpse of the old city from the top of Mt. Srdj, the mountain just behind Dubrovnik, I immediately understood why it’s called the Pearl of the Adriatic. The red rooftops of the ancient buildings shone brightly in the setting sun, with the shimmering seas behind it.
Inside St. Domnius Cathedral (formerly Diocletian’s Tomb), filled with Romanesque paintings, golden chalices, and carved altars, in Split, Croatia. © Alamy/Peter Barritt
On day two, after seeing the staircase, we explored Lokrum Island, located a few hundred meters from the mainland. A quick ferry ride took us to the rocky docks, where many locals spend weekends basking in the sun. We wandered up the path to the Benedictine Monastery. Dating back to 1023, the complex features remnants of a 12th or 13th-century Romanesque-Gothic basilica, and a Gothic-Renaissance monastery.
The gardens outside the ancient structure doubled as the city of Qarth, the “Queen of Cities,” which was the setting for much of Daenerys’ story in the second season of GoT. At the top of the island is Fort Royal Castle, built by the French after they occupied Dubrovnik in the early 1800s. Yet another filming location, the castle was a must on our itinerary. We made our way up the Path of Paradise, which on a hot day can be a little brutal, and arrived at the top. The ruins sat quietly in the thick forest, serene and mysterious. No one was around, making it seem secretive and forbidden.
A location that doesn’t make an appearance in the show, but definitely shouldn’t be missed, is the “Dead Sea.” This tranquil pool of salt water formed over thousands of years, and is now a beautiful sanctuary surrounded by rock. Many families come here to swim or to picnic in the gardens nearby. After a quick cool off, we headed back to Dubrovnik.
That evening, we did what every visitor must do in Dubrovnik: we scaled the ancient City Walls. The medieval walls run through a system of bastions and towers and forts, encircling the city. We walked the walls at sunset, which I highly recommend. One of the last stops along the wall is Minčeta Tower, which stands at the highest point of Dubrovnik. This spot acted as the walls of the House of the Undying, where Daenerys frantically searches for the entrance. You can climb to the top of this tower for even more breathtaking views of Dubrovnik.
Our reward for a long day of exploring was a peaceful evening at Buza, or “hole-in-the-wall,” Bar. The reason for its name, you ask? You literally have to walk through a hole in the wall to reach it. The bar hangs on the cliffs above the water, with a gorgeous view of the Adriatic—the perfect place to linger over a cold drink.
The last day in Dubrovnik was spent discovering more of the city’s stunning buildings. Our first stop was Fort Lovrijenac, or St. Lawrence Fortress, a monumental structure rising high above the sea. Along the way to the fort, we passed Pile, a calm cove that was once a significant transport hub for seafarers. Now it’s best known for its key role in many GoT scenes, and we stopped to envision the whimsical storylines that took place there.
After climbing the 175 stone steps to the fort, we were welcomed by a single guard at the entrance, who invited us to explore at our leisure. We wandered through the empty fort, reminiscing about the “name day” tournament scene in honor of GoT’s King Joffrey (played by Jack Gleason), which all unfolded atop the fort, overlooking Dubrovnik.
As we strolled the city streets one last time, I couldn’t help but think about the impact GoT has had on the city. There’s an obvious economic boom, with hundreds of people attributing their visit to the show. Still, it’s important to remember that Croatia is not Westeros, the country of GoT, and Dubrovnik is not its capital, King’s Landing. Croatia’s innate beauty and antique architecture lend to the fantasy world, but these destinations have their own history and culture, and those should not be overlooked. Our adventures in Split and Dubrovnik brought to life a world we’d only seen on screen; but they also introduced us to a history and lifestyle I am grateful to know.
Famous wine, overlooked region
Just outside Epernay sits the tiny hamlet of Hautvillers, its narrow streets lined with mom-and-pop champagne houses, many of which can be visited (the town tourist office will gladly call around for available English speaking producers). © Alamy/Photononstop
By Larry Olmsted
With enough time in Paris for a daytrip out of the city, I’ll skip Euro Disney and even the splendor of Versailles and go for champagne instead—the Champagne region, that is. This French bubbly is the world’s most famous wine, but arguably the most overlooked famous wine region. That’s a shame, because it is much closer to Paris than the more visited Burgundy or Bordeaux regions. Just one stop on the high-speed train from Charles de Gaulle airport, it took me less time to get there—under 40 minutes—than it has ever taken me to get into Paris itself.
Unlike other wine regions, “champagne houses” are not in the countryside, but rather in small towns and cities. For day-trippers, the big decision is between the two main cities, Reims and Epernay.
Reims is larger, with more non-wine sights, including a pedestrianized downtown full of restaurants and shops, centered around its famous cathedral, where all Kings of France were coronated until the Revolution. An estimated one billion bottles age in more than 120 miles of ancient caves beneath the city streets.
Epernay’s claim to fame is the grand Avenue de Champagne, lined with opulent champagne houses, like a row of embassies, marble and granite palaces behind iron gates. Here are famous names, including Moet Chandon, which offers various tours. I took the basic group tour of its cellars, where the flagship Dom Perignon ages.
Just outside Epernay sits the tiny hamlet of Hautvillers, one of 300-plus small “Champagne villages” where the bulk of the bubblies are made. It’s home to the abbey where Perignon lived (and is buried) while making many contributions to champagne production, including the introduction of the cork.
Waitress serves slices of cake at Café Gerbeaud. Swiss chef Emile Gerbeaud bought the patisserie in 1884. © Alamy/Ingolf Pompe
By Janna Graber
For centuries, artists and poets have gathered in Budapest coffeehouses to converse, create and drink coffee, often accompanied by scrumptious pastries. War and time have worn some beloved coffeehouses away, but many have been restored to their former glory.
The baroque Ruszwurm, located near the Castle District, has been in operation since 1827. Small and cozy, the confectionery is known for pastries so good that Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who was also the Queen of Hungary, sent for them. I like their poppy seed strudel and Linzer biscuits (shortcake with apricot jam in the middle).
Located in the heart of Budapest, Café Gerbeaud is among the oldest and most famous cafés of Europe, and home of the famous Hungarian bonbon konyak meggy—sour-cherry soaked in cognac and covered with dark chocolate.
Among the grandest coffee houses in Budapest, Centrál Café was a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. Many ideas and literary works were inspired here. During Communist times, the café was shut down, but it reopened in 1989. The restored café still alludes the grand coffeehouse feeling of the 19th century. It’s known for its coffee specialties, such as Café Pepperino, which is espresso with chocolate and pepper.
The Spain of yore
Visitors relax in view of Alhambra, the 14th-century fortress. They’re seated in El Albaicin (the old Moorish quarter), Granada. © Alamy/Ken Welsh
By Daliah Singer
After four days in Madrid, I grew tired of museums, cathedrals and tapas, but my mom had already planned day trips to Seville and Granada—in Andalucía, a region encompassing the country’s southern coast—so I mustered enthusiasm for what I thought would be more of the same.
The two cities bear evidence of religious conflict, still visible in the blend of Gothic and Moorish forms, and modern architecture.
Seville is the region’s sun-dappled capital, and our main destination there was the Catedral de Sevilla, a voluminous church—the third largest in the world—that houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Its La Giralda bell tower is one of the only surviving relics of the mosque that formerly occupied the site; we reached it, and panoramic views of the city, via a series of ramps that were originally built so the guards could ascend on horseback. Outside, Gypsy women held out sprigs of rosemary and tried to convince us to let them read our fortunes; we declined.
A single site similarly dominated our Granada trip. Alhambra is a 14th-century fortress-meets-palace at the foot of the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas. It is surprisingly intact, and the elaborate designs—molded stucco walls, geometric carved-wood ceilings, ornate fountains, and lush gardens—left me in awe.
In these southern cities, I discovered the Spain of yore. Immersing myself in the country’s history, even just for two days, reminded me of why I travel: to help understand the world a little better and to discover the beauty of other cultures and people. Sometimes you need to see a dozen cathedrals for the lesson to hit home.
The view is delicious
Butchers throughout Old Prague roast and carve their way through thousands of hams for international visitors. © Alamy/praguepix
By Janna Graber
Sometimes the best way to get to know a culture is through its food. The Czech capital is known for beer and meat, but there’s a newer focus on fresh, locally sourced classic dishes with a modern twist.
On a recent visit to Sisters, a small shop that specializes in chlebíčky (open-faced sandwiches), I had a sandwich topped with grated celery root and garlic—a refreshing combination.
I found another simple yet rewarding meal at Naše Maso, which translates “our meat.” Head butcher Frantisek Kasana offered Prague Ham and Přeštice sausage, which he served with thick bread and tangy mustard.
One of my favorite restaurants, Restaurant Zvonice, is a quiet eatery located near the top of an historic bell tower. The signature dish is Bohemian soup with sauerkraut, with a rich flavor similar to oxtail soup. Our group asked for seconds.
No visit to Prague would be complete without a stop at the Café Louvre, established in 1920. Intellectuals like Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein often spent time here. The beloved Czech dish svíčková was my favorite. Made of Czech dumplings, braised beef and cranberry compote mixed in a thick vegetable and sour cream sauce, it was warm and filling on a cool Prague day. The restaurant’s classic Czech apple strudel was the perfect way to end the meal. Different from the Austrian variety, it had thicker layers of dough filled with sweet slices of apple and topped with sweet custard.
Such memorable culinary experiences gave me a different view of Prague and whet my appetite for more of the Czech capital.
The latest on passports
Before you attempt to travel internationally, and get past airport security, you’ll need to make certain that your passport is in order. That will require advance planning—at least three months ahead of departure, and perhaps even earlier. Here are a few tips:
Application The standard passport processing time is 4–5 weeks from application, and costs at least $110, with an additional $25 fee for first-time applicants.
Expedited If you are traveling in less than two weeks and need to get a new or renewed passport, you must apply in person at a Passport Agency Center by scheduling an appointment. There’s only one agency office in Colorado—in Aurora—and you must pay an additional $60 expediting fee.
Renewals U.S. passports must be renewed every 10 years for anyone over the age of 16, and every five years for children under 16 years old. It’s best if your passport is not expiring within six months from your return date of travel, as many countries will not allow you in if your passport is expiring sooner than that.
Blank visa pages Some countries and airlines require that your passport include at least 2 – 4 blank visa pages.
Entry visas Some countries require them. If so, travelers will need to send in a valid passport with their visa application to the foreign embassy. It is best to apply for a foreign visa at least three months before departure.
Eyeglasses Travelers must remove their eyeglasses when posing for passport photos. In 2015, more than 200,000 photos were rejected due to the glare from eyeglass lenses. AAA members and non-members alike can obtain official passport photos from any AAA Colorado retail store location.
Passport card Travelers visiting Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda via land border crossings and sea ports-of-entry may use a passport card as official documentation. This wallet-sized international travel document will grant U.S. travelers access back into the United States and costs only $30 as a renewal to a passport, or $55 for first-time applicants. The passport card is not valid for international air travel.
Visit any AAA Colorado retail location (see p. 11) for assistance with passport applications and photos. Explorer’s Hub is your source for the latest AAA Colorado news on travel, discounts, auto, member benefits and more. Visit AAA.com for more articles.