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24 Days in the Balkans

Hey!

Myself and 2 other younger people (recent college grads) are planning a trip to the Balkans in May/June (05-09 to 06-03). We are currently have very little definition to our plans except the following:

  • We would like to spend some time on a beach (Adriatic, Aegean, or Black Sea)
  • Belgrade is a must destination
  • We are planning on taking public transport (bus?) from city to city
  • We would like to visit some cities that have hiking/outdoor activities accessible
  • We want to get off the beaten path (small towns, out of the way cities, etc.)

Can the knowledgeable individuals on this forums help us build a (rough) itinerary)? Any other suggestions or advice would also be lovely. Thanks in advance!

Posted by
5 posts

Forgot that we actually have a very tentative plan: Belgrade > Nis > Skopje > Thessaloniki > Sofia

Posted by
11504 posts

For this sort of trip you will almost certainly find more travelers with suitable experience on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum, though we will try to help you here.

The Rome2Rio.com website may be of some assistance. It suggests modes of transportation between any two points. Do not trust its travel times, frequencies or fares; those can be way, way off base. But it's fairly reliable when it says you will need to change buses in a particular city or that rail service is available. There will usually be a link to the appropriate bus company or rail company website, where you may be able to find a schedule. If not, try Googling Bus Belgrade to Nis. For train service (quite limited) you can start with the Deutsche Bahn website, but I'm not sure its information is always complete for the Balkan countries.

The transportation situation, especially regarding international trips, is uncertain enough that you'll need to check onward schedules as soon as you arrive in each city. Do not depend totally on what you see on the Internet. Be especially careful about planning to change cities on Sundays and holidays, when schedules are sometimes limited or non-existent. Don't wait until the last minute to buy international tickets. Those buses are often quite full.

I think you may have two tough links in your preliminary route: Nis-Skopje and Skopje-Thessaloniki. Check on those right away so you can see whether you'll need to make substantial detours. You may need to take a convoluted route, and you may have more than one option, in which case you'll want to do some research so you can choose the most attractive.

Zagreb may be a more affordable flight destination than other Balkan cities, though it all depends on your origin airport. Ideally you'll fly in and out of different cities ("with multi-city" rather than "round-trip" tickets). There is decent transportation between Zagreb and Belgrade, and Zagreb itself is a very attractive, youthful city--though probably more expensive than the ones you've mentioned.

I enjoyed a day-trip from Belgrade to the historic town of Novi Sad, which has a funky historic district I think you'll find appealing.

The country of Montenegro has some very interesting towns (Kotor, Budva, Ulcinj, Nerceg Novi, Cetinje among them) and some beautiful national parks. However, I'm not sure the parks are accessible without a rental car (or a hired car and driver). I took a day-long bus trip from Nis to Podgorica, the capital. There was some really great scenery along that route.

The city of Podgorica itself is definitely nothing to write home about, but it has decent bus links with the other Montenegrin towns I've listed, and there are budget-airline flights into Podgorica that might conceivably prove helpful if you come up empty on one of your travel legs.

To explore flight possibilities, go to the Wikipedia page of any airport and look for the chart lisiting destinations of direct flights. Alternatively, similar information is available on the website FlightsFrom.com.

As a general rule of thumb in the Balkans, I found that I covered roughly 30 mph whether traveling by bus or by train, not counting any necessary layovers. It is easy to spend all day on a bus and not travel all that far. You will have time for more fun if you focus your trip in a fairly limited area. You'll need a detailed guidebook for each country you plan to visit so you can find out about more than just the biggest, most touristy destinations.

I'd leave the beach plans till near the end, after working out the basic itinerary, because you have beach options in several different directions. I am not a beach person myself, but the little towns of Nesebar and Sozopol, near Varna, Bulgaria, were very interesting though also very touristy. Montenegro also has possibilities.

Posted by
940 posts

Thorn Tree is pretty dead these days.

With only 24 days and using public transport you are smart to skip Croatia and Albania. Bus is best, everywhere.

You are making the mistake I see a lot in the Balkans - going to capitals and big towns. Belgrade is fine, Sofia is OK, but Skopje is IMO a serious waste of time. Look into Ohrid, best town in MK. Nis is also kind of a waste. Obviously you can have a good time anywhere under the right conditions, but ...

Thessaloniki is a fun city if you find the right places, probably makes sense to head there after Ohrid and then head north. Blagoevgrad is a cool little college town that makes a good base for Rila, Pirin etc instead of backtracking from Sofia, depending on what you are doing.

There's a ton of stuff in Bulgaria, Plovdiv, Rila etc. For smaller towns accessible by bus, Melnik or Koprivshititsa are on your path. I wouldn't miss Plovdiv, I think its better than Sofia for sightseeing, although the reverse obviously in terms of nightlife. Its also the European capital of culture this year so there will be plenty going on. Nessebar on the seaside is ok, as is Sozopol. But that is a bit "off season" for seaside Bulgaria, not sure how it will be. I would avoid Sunny Beach, Golden Sands etc ... package resorts although I guess popular among trashy British, German and Dutch partiers so could be fun I guess depending on what you are looking for.

The hiking in Bulgaria is stellar, you could literally walk across the country with their trails and hut system. The urban trail system from Sofia is pretty solid, although the best trails are elsewhere, too far off your course to recommend. Some trails on your route would be things like 7 rila lakes and if you went to Bansko there are some hikes from Vihren hut that are pretty cool.

I can provide more info on Bulgaria but it seems like you need to do some research. Also what is this "off the beaten path" ... pretty much no one ever goes to Bulgaria or Serbia or N Greece, what does that even mean in this context, the entire region is off the beaten path (comparably).

Posted by
160 posts

Hey,

You got some excellent advice from the users above and I can mostly agree with them, except with this advice: "Bus is the best everywhere".

The truth in this is that railways are simply not very developed on the Balkans. There are lots of interesting places where bus is the only option. Even where trains exist they tend to be slow, less frequent than buses and in most cases not in a good shape, dirty,etc. For this reason most locals prefer to travel by bus and they'll tell you that you're crazy if you want to travel by train. On the other hand I think travelling by train is still more comfortable than going by bus and on many routes the views are amazing(much better than from a bus), some trains are worth to take for the journey alone. I'd say take trains where you have a choice!

Take a look at these sites to get an idea on train travel, as you'll see it has its ups and downs, but IMHO it's not to be missed. What is a disaster for one type of traveller is an adventure for the other type. :-)

https://www.seat61.com/belgrade-to-bar-railway.htm

https://jonworth.eu/a-guide-to-the-trains-of-bulgaria/

It can be very rewarding to rent a car from time to time for a couple of days to see places hard to reach by bus/train. Split among 3 the cost should be affordable.

The sea temparature may be still a bit chilly in May for most people.

I agree that Belgrade is a must and so is Thessaloniki, but the single most important city to visit on the Balkans is Istanbul. You should start(or at least end) your journey there and spare a day for Edirne as well.

I'm not going to try to plan an itinerary for you, but Belgrade - Nis - Skopje - Thessaloniki is not a good idea. This would see you skipping all of the Western Balkans(Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, most of Serbia) if you turn to the east(Bulgaria, Istanbul) after Northern Greece or going the other way round you'll skip the east - and I said Istanbul is THE city to see on a Balkans trip.

To get started with some great ideas study this great website: www.balkanology.com

Once you decided on the countries you're going to focus on(as you shouldn't try to see everything in less than a month) read the Bradt guides for those countries. Most big name guidebook series have little or nothing on the Balkans, but Bradt guides are the best in this region.

https://www.bradtguides.com/

Posted by
5 posts

Thank you everyone for the help! I definitely need to rethink our approach using the resources and suggestion y'all provided. If it matters, our group languages are Russian, English, and some French.

Posted by
160 posts

English is widely spoken, at least by the younger generation, but Russian will prove useful for reading cyrillic and with some effort the Russian speaker will be able to understand something of the local Slavic langauges.

Posted by
10412 posts

Hi,

This sounds like a very interesting itinerary.

Be sure to take the bus from Belgrade (good choice !) to Novi Sad, that most historical site, the "Gibraltar of the Danube."

You have good language preparation too...bravo!

Posted by
940 posts

Glad to see Edirne mentioned, great town (IMO).

I also agree maybe you are going too far west even with Thessaloniki and Ohrid/Skopje. That was kind of my point with Croatia / Bosnia / Albania. You have to look at the road network in this region. The A1/ E75/E80 corridor is the main N/S road between Europe and Asia. Runs from Vienna to Iran. Anything on that route - Belgrade, Nis, Sofia, Plovdiv, Edirne, Istanbul etc is easy and relatively fast, there's lots of buses etc. And then there are some other roads that branch off, mostly in a N/S direction to Greece. But once you start deviating too far West things slow down very substantially, and it starts taking a really long time and multiple transportation methods to go anywhere. For example from Dubrovnik to Bulgaria or Sarejevo to Bulgaria ... just look at the roads ... small road to small road through mountains, no good highways.

Posted by
11504 posts

Any time you need multiple buses run by different bus companies for a cross-border trip, you are living somewhat dangerously, schedule-wise. It's something I would be very careful about, especially during the last 1/4 of your trip. You don't want to get stuck somewhere because a bus you were counting on turns out not to run every day of the week. If you are flying back to the US/Canada/Australia/NZ at the end of this trip, it would be very costly to miss the return flight.