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Old girls backpacking in the Balkans.

Hi everyone.... have only just discovered your amazing forum, so would love some advice on our next holiday.
Myself and 3 (possibly 4) friends are planning a 4-5 week back packing holiday in the Balkan countries in September/October. We are from Australia, female, ages ranging form 60 -70, and travel regularly together.
We plan on flying into and out of Belgrade and visiting -

  1. Belgrade

  2. Zagreb

  3. Ljubljana

  4. Piran

  5. Sarajevo

  6. Mostar

  7. Dubrovnic

  8. Kotor

  9. Podgorica/Bar

  10. Belgrade -returning on the Montenegro Express.

Our plan is to use buses and trains to get around, perhaps taxis to get us into more remote locations.
Is this trying to do too much in the time...could we fit more in ? As we haven't booked our flights yet, we are still flexible with duration, we could extend to 6 weeks.
Any tips, advice or suggestions of other places we should include in our itinerary and how long should we spend in places....would be really appreciated. We're all pretty fit and adventurous but we've never back-packed.... well not at this age :) We're just over lugging suitcases.... and we don't like organized tours !
OR are we crazy to even contemplate this ?
Thank you. Ros

Posted by
582 posts

I think it will be time consuming getting around the Balkans via train and buses. Croatia, for example, doesn’t have the train system that Western Europe has. There are no trains south of Split. I know you can take a train from Split to Zagreb, and from Zagreb to Ljubljana. There are other trains but I don’t know from where to where and what the frequency is. I know people take buses from Dubrovnik to Split. Or you can ferry from Dubrovnik to islands and to Split. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do this trip via public transportation, but I think it will take you longer to get from place to place. I recommend renting a car but you will need a good size car for 4 or 5 people plus backpacks.

I used to backpack when I was younger but not any more. I am 70. Does anyone in your group have issues with arthritis, etc.? I have arthritis in my neck and lower back and would never be able to carry a backpack. I prefer rolling suitcases. I don ‘’t like organized tours either.

Regarding allocation of nights: This is what we did for 2 weeks: Dubrovnik (3 nights to include a day trip around the Bay of Kotor), Split (4 nights to include day trip to Hvar via ferry, and 3/4 day trip to Trogir), Plitvice Lakes National Park (1 night), Zagreb (2 nights), and Ljubljana (3 nights including day trip to Lake Bled).

What else to include: I would include Split and Plitvice Lakes NP. Also include Istrian Peninsula if you have the time. We didn’t go there but many people like it.

Posted by
582 posts

If you haven’t already done so, I recommend purchasing a few good guidebooks, such as Rough Guides, Michelin Green Guides, Lonely Planet, etc.

I am sure some travelers who have used public transportation will chime in and give you more insight and useful information about using public transportation.

I know there are buses from Split to Plitvice and from Plitvice to Zagreb.

Posted by
18887 posts

Your time available looks reasonable for your proposed itinerary. Because traveling through the Balkans by train and bus enforces a leisurely pace, I'd recommend padding the schedule in several places so you can recover fairly easily if you lose a day somewhere because of a transportation issue.

I have been to all the places you plan to see except Bar, but some of them were a very, very long time ago. My most recent trip to that area was in 2015 at the age of 63. I used public transportation and a (too-heavy) rolling suitcase. I am female, so at the risk of being ageist and sexist I'm going to urge every one of you to fill a backpack with a realistic amount of weight, add a few pounds to it, and set out on a long walk with some uphill segments and ideally some steps. I think that's the least anyone of our age should do before planning to carry her belongings on her back. I would be utterly miserable trying to do that.

For initial checking of the existence of public transportation between your destinations, you can use Rome2Rio.com. I've found it to be relatively accurate about the existence of trains or buses, and it can be helpful in telling you where you're likely to need to transfer. However, it's critical that you understand how incredibly bad Rome2Rio's information about fares, travel times and frequencies can be. Do not trust that information; it can lead you down the garden path. Instead, keep clicking through the website until you find the name of the bus or train company providing the service you're interested in. Usually Rome2Rio provides a link to that company's website, where you can probably find schedule and fare information.

Keep in mind that day of the week is extremely important when researching schedules--probably even more so for buses than for trains. And it can be considerably harder to get accurate bus schedules online as opposed to train schedules in that part of the world. My philosophy is that the bus doesn't exist until I verify its existence at the bus station from which it departs. Local tourist offices sometimes have schedule information, but I'm more comfortable getting that critical information from the horse's mouth. I noticed when I asked for bus information at tourist offices in the Balkans, they didn't turn to their computers; they picked up the telephone and called the bus station. I took that as a clue about how up to date the online information might not be.

Bus within countries are a lot more frequent than buses crossing borders. It's prudent to buy tickets for international routes in advance; those buses often head out full or nearly full.

Most trains in the Balkans are slow. They may not be faster than buses, or the bus schedule might be better, so check both options. Example: I believe there are more buses than trains running between Ljubljana and Zagreb, though the bus station in Zagreb is a somewhat longer walk from the historic center of the city.

Depending on what your final itinerary looks like, you may find that a flight or two would help. I use skyscanner.com for researching intra-European flights. I have used EasyJet a few times and wouldn't hesitate to do so again. I have no experience with the other budget carriers. Always check luggage fees. The budget carriers use cafeteria-plan pricing; you will pay extra for everything.

A few comments about your planned destinations:

The historic town of Novi Sad is worth at least a day-trip while you're in Belgrade.

Try to allow time in Ljubljana to see a bit of rural Slovenia. Distances are short and bus service is good.

There are lots of attractive places in Croatian Istria: Rovinj, Porec, Pula, Groznjan, Motovun.

Between Dubrovnik and Kotor is the much less touristy town of Herceg Novi. Several forum folks have liked Perast a lot; it wasn't my favorite. I also liked Budva, Ulcinj (Turkish vibe) and Cetinje. Podgorica is the dullest place I saw in Montenegro.

Posted by
18887 posts

Ran out of space before addressing the weather situation.

At some point--probably in October--autumn will arrive in the Balkans. I was there when it happened in 2015. Over the course of about 2 weeks--or perhaps less--it changed from warm/hot and dry to somewhat showery and gradually wetter. By the end of my trip (October 11), I'd had several quite rainy days. The final full day in Zagreb was miserable, with pouring rain and chilly temperatures. You can take a look at actual, day-by-day, historical weather statistics for your destinations on the website timeanddate.com. The data usually goes back at least ten years; I'd check 3 to 5. Probably the inland destinations will be cooler than the coastal ones, so maybe focus on Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana. I've linked to Zagreb's weather for October 2019. [Edited to add the previously-missing link.]

If you're reasonably heat-tolerant, I would try not to push the trip too far into October (but keep in mind that I am very cold-natured). When you're using public transportation, you aren't as insulated from the weather as people tooling around in rental cars.

Posted by
1290 posts

I back-packed two years ago to Italy with a small backpack and would never do it again. I was in my late 60s and in good shape. Everything I could fit into my RS rolling carry-on fit in the backpack, as I travel lightly. I found it much more difficult lugging the backpack around than a small roller bag. I agree that you need to wear a pack and walk a few miles with it on before you decide to ditch the suitcase.

Have a great trip! I love traveling with my lady friends!

Posted by
3 posts

Thank you all so much for your most helpful responses. All my questions have been answered...and far more !
I am a bit hesitant now about the back packing but will be giving it a trial run next month when my daughter and I go to Cambodia for 10 days. I know backing in Cambodia for 10 days will be vastly different to the Balkans for 6 weeks...but I'll make a decision after that. I might be like you Diane and hate it :)
I did say that we're all pretty fit, no arthritis or back issues, but one of our group does have trouble with her feet, so a lot of tough walking would be out of the question.
We did think of renting a car but decided against it as we drive on the left in Australia...so at our age I don't think it's a good idea.
Thank you acraven and kmkwoo for mentioning other interesting places....that's what I wanted and can't wait to research them all.
Thanks also for advice on relying too much on Rome2Rio's bus schedules etc. Love them for info on getting from A to B though.
Re weather...yes, we'll be there all of September and didn't want to go too much into October....maybe we can take a bit of August instead...we just wanted to avoid peak season. Hadn't thought about the inland destinations being cooler than coastal either....
The original plan was to fly in to Istanbul spending a week there before heading north and then flying out from Belgrade.
Does anyone have any thoughts on that ? We just felt that the north western countries would more interesting and scenic.... although it's not all about "scenic".... we love to lap up the local culture too.
Thank you again...you have all been so helpful.

Posted by
18887 posts

Oh, I think a week in Istanbul would be wonderful. Just don't let yourself get squeezed so you're having to jog through the Balkans via bus and train. That will so not go well! Be prepared to cut something if you add something.

Romania and Bulgaria are both very interesting countries. If you miss something this year, maybe you can include it on a future trip that covers Romania and Bulgaria.

Heat could be more of an issue in August than chilly, wet weather is in October. For a 4- to 5-week trip I'd be comfortable starting in September. My personal preference would be earlyish in September, but I'm sure some others--being more heat averse than I am--would say to head out in late September. Alas, none of us has a crystal ball.

Posted by
11 posts

My solution to backpack vrs. luggage is both. I am 70 and gave up that deadly backpack at 50. I have the Rick Steves rolling bag that so far fits all the low cost European airlines carryon rules (they don’t even bother me to fit it into the sizer) and weighs under 6 pounds. I am in Croatia at the moment and traveling for 62 days easily, even in January! I have drug that poor bag through 3 continents and it has some scars, but keeps on going. I pick a well located Airbnb to keep the suitcase and venture out with a small backpack for hikes, overnights, etc. I was in Ljubljana a couple weeks ago and stayed at a super place $25 a night with kitchen and 2 blocks from the train/bus station. Hop on the train/bus and visit the UNESCO caves outside of Divaca, or there is an extensive trail system in Sevnica along with a castle, also by train. I hopped a train from Divaca into Rijeka (Croatia), which is between Istria and Zagreb. Ljubljana has a ticket window for international trains that is very helpful. Rome2rio may be able to give you information about modes of transportation, but does not have up to date or seasonally accurate time/date information. It’s tricky. I find the most reliable bus site is FlixBus, primarily because you can see your choices easily, buy them online, and use an eticket with your cell phone. Omio is also good. I have twice bought tickets that require printing on other sites....do not do that! It is a deadly waste of time searching all over Bangkok and/or Florence for someone to print your ticket vouchers. And please get VERY good at google nav as the bus stations can be at the end of a long scavenger hunt. Once you find them, though, you will never forget where they are!

I am in Zagreb now and there is a silver frost. Cold! Flight to Sarajevo is over $140, and the trains are inconvenient and the buses 12 hours.

Always something to think about.

But that’s good! What else would we be doing? Watching the batchlorette? Haahaaa. I have traveled alone this year to Iceland and so many European countries, Vietnam (best long distance buses in the world!!), Cambodia, and a personal favorite Thailand twice. Months at a time. The only unsolvable problem I had was missing the ballet at Palais Garnier on Christmas Day...... the ballerinas were on strike!! But I toured the magnificent opera house.

We travel for so many reasons. Stay safe. And remember that you don’t have to see everything. You just have to enjoy what you see. Take your time, slow down. The more you look, the more you see. Enjoy.

Posted by
1647 posts

Well, I'm 74, female, and still using the old Eagle Creek backpack suitcase. I can easily walk a mile with it, which usually covers the distance from a train station to our lodging. Don't give up the idea until you pack your bag and go for some walks to try it. My bag weighs 3 lbs., and I usually leave home with it weighing 17 lbs. even though I shoot for 15!

Posted by
1 posts

hi,
i just spend 3 weeks in Montenegro and as its a beautiful place I wouldn't recommend to spend too much time in Podgorica - though there are some cool things to see around - https://the-travelling-twins.com/things-to-do-in-podgorica-montenegro/ see the post, Bar is good for one day - though its a lovely place https://the-travelling-twins.com/stari-bar-montenegro/ .
Kotor is great for a day, but do visit as well nearby Perast which is beautiful.
Rent a car and most of all enjoy

Posted by
707 posts

My partner and I are in your age range and we love traveling with our backpacks. We pack light, under 20 pounds for everything. We can easily walk a mile or two with the packs. I usually have the backpack at about 15 pounds and a separate bookbag that goes over my shoulder with guidebook, purse, jacket, umbrella. Depending on the weather and the distance we are walking and our activities, I may move some of the book bag contents to my backpack.

Posted by
99 posts

If you have the time, and I think you do, you could add Macedonia on the list and visit Skopje and Ohrid. Split in Croatia is another port you may want to think about.