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33 days to spend in the Balkans

My husband and I are taking a much deserved trip spanning mid September 2015 to late October 2015 and I ALREADY bought the airplane tickets in a fit of excitement and having found a great price, why not? It's true there are reasons why not but I already bought them. We are flying into Munich then plan on going to a bunch of places and doing some stuff with a few days in Paris before we head home to Seattle.
The idea I have involves car, train and air traveling through the Balkans ending up in Istanbul then flying to Paris etc.
We are in our 50's, pretty well into our 50's and we both have a few health issues. We have had some bad luck in that department but it's nothing that should interfere with our trip unless of course it interferes with it. Right? We have traveled a bit and on one particular family trip to France, our daughter got Ecoli from a hotdog at a "football" game! The other 2 people suffered from light trots while she spiked a temp of 102 degrees. (It's a great story we lived to tell about French health care and a real eye opener. We couldn't have been treated with greater kindness and the bill was $16 which we couldn't figure out how to pay and no one seemed to care).
We bought insurance for our flights and if we have to be evacuated and have good health insurance here and will be taking meds with along with prescriptions and have arranged for emergency medication to be overnighted to us, already because that is how excited I am. I love folk art, textiles,, puppets, history real and fictional, books and reading, traditional hand work like lace and embroidery and cooking and gardening. I have a fear of heights and I can't eat any kind of hot chili peppers? I want to try things that are out of the ordinary for me. My husband likes playing and watching sports and games, politics and economics, weird food, beer to drink and brew, wine to drink, fancy homemade cocktails, and cooking. We have enough money for our trip but like to live conservatively, meaning we wouldn't spend more than $50 for both of us for dinner more than a couple times a week. I am a price driven consumer, I keep an eye on cost and we will be making use of Airbnb to meet people and to economize. I love GRAND experiences like going to the Opera in Paris and listening to music at Saint Martin in the fields. I want to see what people are up to.
So, going back to place to go and things to do, who has some ideas?

Posted by
18840 posts

My wife and I have traveled through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria on a number of occasions. In June we drove across Bulgaria to Istanbul. Today we are in Hungary for about the 100th time. The trip in June we hired a driver/guide and the cost including the hotel was about $300 a day. We had met the guide for a short tour on a previous trip and knew she would be a good fit. This particular trip required the car since we were going into the mountains and out of the way places for fishing and because trains are a little iffy once you get beyond the Hungarian and Slovakian borders. I can pass along her name if you are interested. I also know an excellent person in Romania and several in Hungary. We also have a fishing trip somewhat planned for Ukraine in the spring and maybe our research might be helpful if you are interested in that direction.

Posted by
272 posts

Tracy - I REALLY like your approach to your upcoming trip, a combination of "Just Do It" + Europe Through the Back Door. You can help members of the Travel Forum in providing suggestions if you'd take a crack at identifying a rough itinerary of your destination priorities (i.e., Danube (Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, Budapest) to Romania, Bulgaria and Istanbul vs. across the Alps to Adriatic (Slovenia, Croatia, B&H), across Greece to Istanbul. You may have read that car rentals can be tricky when the drop-off city is different from the origination (drop-off charges); recently, we picked up a car in Vienna and drove Krakow, Slovakia, Hungry, Slovenia, and Croatia (Dubrovnik) - with a $200 fee (< $10 per day) which was well worth it for our tastes/needs.

Posted by
5450 posts

I prefer vrbo to aribnb for Europe.

Some places that I would recommend:

Munich for Oktoberfest (grand experience, beer)
Wachau Valley, Austria (wine growing area, Danube Valley, Richard Lionheart history, castles)
Graz, Austria (Zotter Chocolate Factory as a detour, Styrian wine route)
Maribor and Ptuj, Slovenia
Piran, Slovenia (beautiful Adriatic town) as well as Rovinj and Pula, Croatia
Plitvice Lakes for obvious reasons
Trogir and Split, Croatia (Diocletian Palace = amazing)

Posted by
18840 posts

Ron, when you traveled across Romania and Bulgaria did you travel in a train? There is one train in Bulgaria that we enjoyed and would take again just for the experience but the rest .............. well,, naaaaa. Not our style.

Posted by
16894 posts

Train schedules to cross the Balkans are sparse, and relatively slow compared to northern Europe, but they are cheap. Rick’s Train Travel Time & cost Map gives you an overview of faster trains at regular, 2nd-class fares. The night trains from Sofia or Bucharest to Istanbul are interrupted by border stops in the middle of the night. In Croatia, trains come to a dead end at Split; you can take bus or ferry from there to Dubrovnik, but connecting further south and east usually requires a flight with connection.

Within Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and some other Balkan neighbors, local buses may be faster or more frequent than trains. A guidebook like Lonely Planet will summarize these options, when recommended.

To compare flights, try

If you get some price quotes for car rental, be sure to tell the agency every country where you plan to drive the car, not just the drop-off city. Extra fees may apply, or the company may not allow their car into certain countries.

Posted by
36 posts

This is fun, thanks guys!
First of all thanks for the tip on the other room rental site. Thanks also for the tip on a guide but I'm afraid $300 a day for a guide is more than I am willing to spend, even though I am sure she is worth it and am glad you enjoyed it.
The itinerary problem:
Here's the thing. This trip and flying into Munich was born out of a desire to spend some time with a 1 in a billion friendship we have with another couple that WAS planning on going to Octoberfest. They don't have the luxury of 5 weeks vacation so the thinking was we would fly into Munich hang out with them for a week then "work our way" to Istanbul. I have been charged with designing an itinerary for my hubby to review and negotiate from. Honestly Octoberfest holds little appeal for me because it looks like a state fair on a sunny Saturday afternoon on steroids but he says that he wants to go. Who knows I may love it and IT IS a grand experience, after all.
I am going cross eyed looking at the train maps and am ready to bite my ipad because I have too many fantastic choices. I am right away conflicted because I absolutely positively have to go to Sedlec Ossuary outside of Prague, which is, as my husband politely pointed out in the wrong direction. Which isn't all bad but it would "eat" 1 day of travel and travel funds. True I have 33 but still. I have read that Prague is a delight but has become overly crowded and expensive as it has become popular. There seems to be a growing consensus that Budapest is a more desirable place to go.
From doing a bit of research I found that driving or taking the train from Munich to Prague takes the same amount of time and as pointed out can be costly one way and cross border. Air fare looks expensive and for some reason to get a fare under $150 it takes 16 to 24 hours by way of Helsinki or Istanbul. Weird! The non-stop flight of 90 minute costs $750 right now!!???!!!
So a lovely train ride it would be.
From Prague I found an $86 one way fare to Dubrovnik that mid day that takes 90 minutes leaping over my northern detour and plunking us down on the side of the mountains that seems difficult to access without a 10 hour train then bus ride.
I then thought we could drive north in a rental car to Ljubljana, because it sounds like a beautiful drive and would solve my problem of sort of dead ending at Dubrovnik I think we would spend a few days in Dubrovnik then go to the famous Plitvice park and meander and tootle and this is where my itinerary breaks down because I do want to go to Budapest and Zagreb and Bucharest and Belgrade and....Help!

Posted by
1717 posts

Hello tracy.seattle. I think flying from Prague to Dubrovnik is a good idea. And I suggest flying from an airport in Croatia to the airport of Ljubljana. I suggest : travel from Ljubljana to Belgrade. Beyond Belgrade, I recommend airline flights : to Budapest, and Bucharest, and Istanbul.

Posted by
4003 posts

Tracy, I can give you my opinion on two items on your list. My husband and I visited Prague and Budapest for the second time this past summer. We are in our late 50's. We definitely like Prague better, as did the other couple with us. It was easy to get around, we mostly walked. the tram was easy to use also. the food was delicious and inexpensive.

There is plenty to see and enjoy. WE also went to the Sedlec Ossuary and took a tour of the silver mine in Kutna Hora. It was a stop on our way to Cesky Krumlov. You will love Dubrovnik, but I am prejudice since my husband has family there. We go visit every other summer to Croatia and it is difficult getting around. Each trip we use different modes of transport ranging from bus, train, plane, and private driver on occasion. But don't let it discourage you, it is a beautiful city. Have a great time, wherever you end up visiting, it's all fabulous!

Posted by
77 posts

Hi Tracy - My husband and I (who are in the Seattle area as well) did a Balkan trip that started and ended in Germany this summer. We have family friends there so we decided to fly in and out of Germany. As you've discovered, public transportation is challenging in the Balkans, so we drove the entire time. Below is what our itinerary was like, with some comments on what we liked/didn't like. Feel free to follow-up with me if you have any other questions. I love talking about our trip!
Night 1 - Munich. I enjoyed seeing Munich, but was glad we didn't spend too much time there.
Night 2 - Salzburg. Even though we only stayed one night there, it felt like longer because we left Munich first thing (and even stopped at Berchtesgaden) and stayed in Salzburg the next day until noon. Depending on your preferences, you probably only need one to three nights in Salzburg.
Nights 3 -5 - Ljubljana. Ljubljana was the highlight of our trip. We both fell in love with it, for different reasons. I loved the interesting architecture, the college town vibe, the Parisian riverside cafe culture feel. My husband loved the fort and all the activities that were there. (We happened to be there in the summer during Ljubljana Festival.) We did a day trip to Lake Bled, which has something for everyone. And another day trip to Postojna Caves and Predjama Castle, which I would skip and instead spend the full day in Ljubljana. My husband and I will DEFINITELY be going back to Ljubljana. On our way from Salzburg to Ljubljana, we stopped at Halstatt, Austria. It is very picturesque, but it's quite out of the way and just added to the long driving time.
Night 6 - Bihac, Bosnia. We chose to stay here because it was relatively close to Plitvice Lakes, which we went to on the way from Ljubljana to Bosnia, and I really wanted to go to Sarajevo so this was a good stopping point between Ljubljana and Bosnia. Bosnia is VERY challenging to drive in. A highway can mean a paved road or what is essentially a goat trail. There were some parts we had to go less than 10 mph for over an hour because there were so many huge divets in the road. We were scared to death we'd get a flat tire and literally be stranded in the middle of nowhere. Thank God that our severely damaged tire did not flatten until we were in Croatia and that the rental car company didn't see all the damage done to the undercarriage of the car! Another scary thing about traveling by car in Bosnia is that very few people speak English outside of the main tourist destinations. If you get lost - which you most certainly will (we did, despite having 2 GPSes and 1 hard map) - it will be difficult to find a local to help you.
Night 7 - Sarajevo, Bosnia. We were glad we went. It has so much history. Seeing the still very real aftermath of the war was stunning, to say the last. But we won't be going back.
Night 8 - Mostar, Bosnia. I have no clue why Rick Steves loves this town so much. It's very different than most European cities travelers go to, because it is predominately Muslim. But it feels very touristy and doesn't have many activities/sights.
Nights 9-11 - Dubrovnik. We both loved Dubrovnik. We planned to do a day trip to Macedonia, but because we were so exhausted from driving in Bosnia, we nixed the day road trip and opted for a boat trip to some of the Elaphite Islands.
Nights 12-13 - Croatian Istria. This was too boring for my husband, which made it hard for me to enjoy. You will like Istria if you enjoy having very little activities to do other than wandering streets, wine tasting, and olive oil tasting.
Nights 13-14 - Varenna, Italy. Same as Istria for us. It was very sedated. Great for couples who want a beautiful, romantic place to relax and not do much other than wander cute alleys.
Nights 15-18 - Lake Konstanz. I loved this area. Again, a good balance of relaxing opportunities by the lake and fun activities such as enjoying the great bike paths.

Posted by
77 posts

I couldn't squeeze it into the character limit on the last post, but we spent a few more nights at the end of our trip with a family friend in Germany near Stuttgart. It was tough to drive straight through Switzerland from Italy to Germany and bypass all that Switzerland has to offer. But in planning our trip I knew it would be too much to try to see the sights of Switzerland in addition to everything else we were trying to accomplish.

If I were re-doing our trip, I would put more time in Slovenia. (Rick Steves says in his book that he hasn't met anyone who went to Slovenia and hadn't wished they had spent more time there, and that was definitely true for us.) I also would have cut out Istria and Lake Como and made a night for Zagreb, which we weren't able to see, and a couple nights in Switzerland on the way from Croatia back up to Germany. Even though I wouldn't go to Bosnia again and wouldn't recommend it to most folks - especially if you're older and have health problems - I'm glad we experienced it once.

Happy planning!

Posted by
36 posts

Thank you Ron for encouraging me to use a few flights and Thank you Fabris for the encouragement about spending some time in Prague.
I work in a art gallery and a customer came in a few weeks ago saying that Slovenia was he and his wife's favorite place as well.
Jordan what a champ you are for taking so much time to help me with this and I'm going to reread your letter with a few more specific questions.
I would love to hear what places, restaurants and activities you folks enjoyed the most. I will probably make another post just asking people for their specific reccomendations. I'm also eager to connect with artists and crafts people, I love to see what people can make with their own hands as opposed to industrial manufacturing. I know embroidery has traditionally been a very important folk art for example. I'm on a scouting mission to find some of these people. It would probably make sense for me to pose some of these questions for each country as suggested by another person who replied. Sorry I can't scroll back without losing all I've written but I do appreciate the tip.
I'm very encouraged about going to Ljubljana. I nearly dismissed it as being " in the wrong direction" and glad I didn't. So far people have various opinions about the countries I'm considering but EVERYONE agrees about Slovenia being a wonderful place to visit. I have also discovered quite a few other ossuarries and am developing a keen interest in them. Go figure. It's probably the same part of me that unaccountably loved the "Twilight" books. I know.

Posted by
18840 posts

The Bulgaria trips have been amazing but they are through a country with just one toe in the 20th century and not much of anything in the 21st century so we feel a little more comfortable with a guide. By the way we are about your ages. At least I am, my wife refuses to divulge. If you figured 4 days across Bulgaria at $250 a day (the hotel is in the $300) then that is equivalent to two $500 plane tickets to Istanbul; which is how we looked at it. But yes, still expensive when you consider you can fly RT Budapest to Istanbul for about $350. Note, that for some reason RT fares are cheaper than one way fares.

If you go to Budapest (our favorite place), then check out Gyor, Pannanhalma, Eger and Pecs as parts of your trip cross country. The Prague vs Budapest argument is pretty old and its a matter of what interests you more. They are totally different and both are fascinating. If you remain a little flexible you can adjust as you go along.

EDIT: I pulled out the receipts. The actual cost excluding the hotels and some extras involved in our fishing was closer to about $150 to $175 a day. I knew it didn't sound right when I was typing it.

Posted by
11613 posts

Sounds like a great trip, beginning with the planning. One piece of advice about overnighting something to Europe: are you sure it will arrive the next day? I have used overnight services for emergency situations and it took at least three business days.

Posted by
77 posts

My pleasure! I'm glad you're considering spending more time in Slovenia. Feel free to message me with more questions. I agree with other posters that when you have questions about more specific questions, to post those in the country forums. I rarely check the General Europe forums, but check Sovenia, Croatia, etc. The only reason I saw your post was because it came up on the travel forums home page as a recent topic. So posting in individual countries might be good.

Posted by
36 posts

Once again thanks to all for your ideas and frank advice. The notion of actually HAVING to overnight meds gives me the heebie heebie but, I'm not sure what other arrangement could be made and will look into it further, so thanks for the heads up.
Jordan I will be in touch.

Posted by
18840 posts

There really aren't many medications that you cant get in Europe. I have a chronic heart condition so i am always aware of a need for health care and possible evacuation services; but it doesn't hinder the trip. I've been to see doctors in Romania, Italy and Hungary for both new conditions and to get replacements for lost or forgotten meds. Never had a problem getting what I needed. Well........... Romania was a little "interesting" but we worked through it. Europe in general has socialized medicine which means the doctors are underpaid and love CASH paying tourists. Doctor charges are cheap by US standards and medications are extremely cheap by US standards. As all the meds are regulated by the EU the quality of the meds can be counted on. I have a story about my wife getting emergency care in the Hungary forum.

Posted by
36 posts

I looked into vrbo for rentals and I guesse they were purchased by another company who's site is difficult to navigate but worse there were A LOT of consumer complaints and fraud investigations. Bummer. It's such a shame when a good business goes bad.

Posted by
5450 posts

T - VRBO has been a subsidiary of Homeaway since 2006. I find their website much easier to navigate than airbnb, for example. Again, I have used VRBO with much success, but use common sense and only consider reviewed properties with independent websites. As for fraud complaints, I expect you will find this has happened with all rental websites.

Posted by
971 posts

A few notes on the issue of car vs. train: It seems to me that for many americans, the car is the default mode of transport and they assume that renting a car is the best way to travel Europe. Generally speaking trains are the best choice for intercity travel, whereas a car would be the best choice for more rural travel. The idea of driving from Munich to Prague seems silly to me, considering having to find your way, navigate heavy trafic in the city and having to find a parking space, when the train can take you from city centre to city centre without the fuss.
The car is the best option if you want to see the country side or go to smaller towns or villages that are not well connected by public transport.
My adwice would be to do the bulk of your travels by train and then pick an area where you could rent a car and explore the country side for a few days.

The Balkans are a bit tricky to naivgate both by car and by public transport. The roads are not the best and neither are the drivers, but the transport connections also leave something to be desired, especially when crossing the borders between Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, where they don't particularly like each other. Croatia however has a good bus network and there are some amazing rail journeys in the region; especially the train between Mostar and Sarajevo and the one between Zagreb and Ljubjana is pretty as well. Just be sure to bring snacks, food and water for the trip, as the trains are not always on time.
Croatia is a great country to travel, with a booming tourist industry and infrastructure, no fuss there. Dubrovnik and Split are fantastic places, Plitvice is beautifull and Zagreb rather pleasant.

Bosnia can be more challenging, but equally rewarding. The effects of the war are still clearly visible and many places have a poignant sadness to them. A tour of Sarajevo with guides who where kids during the siege is an eye opening experience.
Another often overlooked country is Montenegro, which is very beautifull. A good place to rent a car for a few days and explore the mountains and the Tara Canyon.