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Balkans

I am thinking of doing a customized tour of the Balkans seeing as many of the countries therein lies as much as possible in September 2018. I came up with a 24-day rough itinerary which my husband finds too long. If you have been to most of the Balkans, can you tell me which places I can consider skipping to shorten the trip and why? I would also like to know a reliable, honest and very good tour operator in the Balkans that I can book a customized tour from.
Since I am just in the planning stage, I can refine my itinerary and hope to come up with an amazing trip of a lifetime and come away not feeling that I missed something beautiful in that region. The only place on the list that I have been to and would like to go again is Dubrovnik. I have traveled around the world extensively and find places off-the-beaten path interesting. At the same time, I temper my love of traveling within reason and pay attention to logistics. I love learning the histories and cultures of peoples around the world. The world is my oyster! Thank you for any helpful advice you can give or share with me.

Start the tour in Bucharest and end in Ljublana. Visit the following:
1. Bucharest -- see the city and Transylvania
2. Belgrade
3. Sofia
4. Skopje -- pass by Ohrid on the way to Tirana
5. Prishtina
6. Tirana
7. Kotor -- see Perast
8. Dubrovnik
9. Medugorje -- to visit the apparition site
10. Mostar -- pass by Kravice waterfall
11. Sarajevo
12. Zagreb -- see Plitvice Lakes
13. Ljublana -- see Lake Bled, Postojna Cave & Predjama Castle

Any suggestions please? Thank you very much.

Posted by
17098 posts

Forgive me for being blunt, but with only 24 days you are going to miss very many beautiful places in the Balkans. That's just the way it is. Are you contemplating seeing all the places on your list in 24 days? I think merely getting to them without actually seeing anything might take about that long. It appears to me that you have two 24-day trips there.

I have not been to Skopje, Pristina, Tirana or Medugorje. I believe transportation to at least the first three may be rather complicated and time-consuming.

Bucharest is far from the most interesting city (to me) in Romania, but transportation limitations often do require its inclusion in a Romanian itinerary. Ceausescu knocked down most of the interesting old buildings, so it takes quite a lot of time to see the remaining good stuff. (I admit that I was doing it on foot.) Just from the standpoint of physical attractiveness, I preferred Timisoara, Brasov, Sibiu, Sighisoara and Cluj-Napoca--all with cohesive historic centers that are easy to visit. Sibiu has a large outdoor folklore museum on the outskirts, with buildings brought in from all over the country. That's not really my type of thing, but it seemed well done, and it might appeal to you.

I thought the Maramures area in northwest Romania was extremely attractive (wooden churches, wooden gateways, Merry Cemetery, pretty countryside). I consider Maramures one of the best targets in the Balkans. Public transportation there is difficult if not non-existent, but it would be a piece of cake with a pre-arranged driver. Given your love of off-the-beaten-path destinations, I think Romania is a place you would really enjoy. The northeastern area of Bucovina, where the painted monasteries are located, is also worth visiting, but if I had to choose just one area it would definitely be Maramures.

Likewise, Sofia is not where I would go if I had only a little time in Bulgaria. I preferred Plovdiv and Veliko Trnovo. The coastal towns of Nesebar and Sozopol are also interesting, though very touristy in the way that beach towns often are. Not terribly convenient to get to, though. There's much more to see in Bulgaria, including the Rila Monastery, but my time there was limited.

While in Belgrade, I'd want to make a side-trip to Novi Sad.

I liked Kotor a lot, but it's important to be there on a day when there isn't a monster cruise ship in port. One of our regular posters has commented that Kotor is too similar to (and lesser than) Dubrovnik, which may be a fair comment if you're hitting both on the same trip. I loved Montenegro, though. It has many picturesque, distinctive towns (Herceg-Novi, Ulcinj and Cetinje included), and there's lovely scenery. The town of Budva is atmospheric but reminded me a lot of Kotor. The drive around the Bay of Kotor is not to be missed, of course,

I like Zagreb a lot for its historic center and good museums (2+ days for me). Don't try to see Plitvice (fabulous) on a day-trip from Zagreb. The crowding on the walkways is really severe during typical day-tripping hours. You need to spend the night before your visit in or near the park so you can get there early, ahead of the mob. Someone here said the park wasn't bad in the late afternoon, either, so you might try seeing part of it late in the day and the rest the next morning. It doesn't require a full day, so you'll be able to get started for your next stop reasonably early.

I also really liked Istria: Rovinj, Vrsar, Porec, Groznjan, Motovun.

I did not get to the Soca Valley in Slovenia, but it sounds like an area definitely worth exploring. I was happy to spend two days in Ljubljana, with extra time allotted for out-of-town trips.

I have no experience with private tours in Europe. The very good 2-day trip I took to Maramures was arranged by the Retro Hostel in Cluj-Napoca, which shows an extensive list of tours on its website.

Posted by
17098 posts

One other thing about your trip: I suggest starting the trip as early in September as possible (recognizing that you might encounter spotty hot weather by doing so). During my 2015 trip, I began encountering fairly frequent rain by late September, when I was in Bulgaria. The severity of the rainstorms gradually increased through the rest of my trip through Montenegro and Croatia. It certainly didn't rain every day, but perhaps every third day. You're going to be doing intensive sightseeing and may be more bothered by rainy weather than I was.

Posted by
6 posts

Thank you Acraven for your advice & insight. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my inquiry.

Touring is most fun when it is not rainy and the temperature is pleasant. End of August to the beginning of September should be fine. This will be our first time in the Balkans so I do not expect to see & explore all the countries in-depth. I think less than 4 hours ride per day travel time is tolerable to get from one place to another. Longer than that, would be tiring & boring. There are nonstop flights I can consider such as Bucharest to Belgrade, Belgrade to Sofia & Sarajevo to Zagreb though.

Wow Maramures is 8.5 hours drive from Bucharest! Love the pictures I saw when I googled this place. That Merry Cemetery looks very interesting. And Timosoara looks worthy of a visit and it is only 2.5 hours from Belgrade. Something to consider. Some of the Balkan countries lie next to the Adriatic Sea so I bet the sceneries will be beautiful but I do not necessarily look for beach scenes when I am touring. I appreciate the cultural & historical aspects of the country more.

Yes 24 days might not seem long to see many beautiful places in the Balkans but this is long for most people. I am thinking of eliminating some of the places on my list to shorten the trip. Finding a good custom tour operator in the Balkans seem to be difficult as some do not work in some countries on my list. They told me lack of infrastructure makes it difficult. Sigh! Since I like roads less traveled, this is what makes it more appealing to me. As long as I have a good guide, excellent driver and a reliable car, we should be good. Thanks again.

Posted by
6543 posts

Your itinerary has so many stops. I have not gone East of Budapest, but I would think travel through Eastern Europe is slower and not as efficient as in Western Europe.
I have the name of a personal tour guide that lives in the Bucharest area. His overnight tours by car of the western sections of Romania are supposedly great. And his services are supposed!y very reasonable. Maybe he works throughout the tegion. PM if you would like his name.

Posted by
4695 posts

I guess you know your own travel speed and stle if you've traveled elsewhere besides the Balkans before, but the pace seems too fast to me too, to try to see so many places in 24 days. Just cutting down the number of days and places doesn't change that. We all have personal limits to how long we want to travel; 21 days is about mine. But I guess I'd make that a separate decision (how long) from what to see in that time.

In say 21 days, I'd limit your trip to Slovenia and Croatia (plus Bosnia) or maybe Croatia plus Bosnia and Montenegro. (And I do tend to cover a lot of ground when I travel - I'm not a "slow traveler.") That way, you won't have to rush through everything quite as much. Doing Romania and Bulgaria together too might work - but I've not been to those countries yet.

A classic trip might be Ljubljana, Zagreb, Plitvice, Split, Mostar, an island (e.g. Korcula or Hvar) Dubrovnik. (Or replace Split with Sarajevo.) Or Zagreb, Plitvice, Split or Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Montenegro.

I love coastal scenery and the sea, so I'd think more in terms of "do I have enough coastal stuff?" vs "which places should I eliminate?" If you have only Dubrovnik and Kotor/Perast, you'd have a very limited visit to the sea on the itinerary you've proposed above. Could be that doesn't matter to you - that's fine. But otherwise, you've got a lot of city, city, town, city...to me, it kind of all starts running together after a while with so many cities (especially with such a fast pace), which is why adding more coastal areas and smaller towns might make the trip feel more varied and relaxing.

Posted by
2004 posts

24 days is enough to see possibly 3-4 countries in my opinion. acraven has a lot of good points. For a beginning Balkans trip, I would stick to Slovenia, Croatia, B-H, and Serbia. Leave off Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

I would start in Ljubljana (3 days), with side trips. I would then go to Zagreb (3 nights). 1 night Plitvice, then to the coast - Split (3 nights), Dubrovnik (3 nights). I would go to Mostar (1 night, maybe just a day trip) and continue to Sarajevo (4 nights). From Sarajevo, you can go to Beograd, Novi Sad, or some other parts of Serbia.

To do the whole Balkans + Romania (I think Romania is not part of the Balkans), you need at least 2 months). I've been to all the cities I mention. I haven't been to the S Balkans, and that is probably our next trip. So I suggest what I know.

When we did Serbia/Romania/Sarajevo, it was late October-early November. It was cool, but not cold, although in Sarajevo (in the mountains, site of the 1984 Winter Olympics) it can get very cold in the winter indeed. We were in Dubrovnik about Nov 10, and it was very pleasant - cool, but not below freezing. We did have one problem - a bus that we were counting on taking from Mostar to Dubrovnik was not running, so we had to hire a private driver.

Posted by
17098 posts

Perhaps you can put together a series of two or three 7- to 10-day tours to take advantage of the expertise of the individual companies you find. I believe you can manage perfectly well by yourself in Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro, perhaps picking up a guide locally for a day or two if you need one. Lots of people do day-trips to Mostar from Dubrovnik, so you will find options there as well. Having some assistance will ease your way around Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and the area around Sarajevo, if only because the public-transportation options are sometimes limited and slow.

However you choose to attack your trip, I'm sure you'll have a grand adventure, just check carefully and allow extra time on days when you have to find your own way across a border. It can be especially difficult to get reliable information about bus schedules on the internet. I always check at the local tourist office (if it's convenient) and definitely at the local bus station as soon as I can. One little wrinkle is that though English is pretty widely spoken among the young people of Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria (perhaps a bit less so in the other countries), that will not necessarily hold true at bus or trains stations except in intensely touristy places like Dubrovnik and Ljubljana. You'll be fine if you allow time for charades. For some buses in Romania there's a really screwy requirement that you telephone to make a reservation. One would assume that could be done at the bus station, but no, it cannot. I found two locals who were kind enough to make those phone calls for me.

I took a bus from Zagreb to Belgrade and spent a couple of nights there. I really could have used a third night, because I gave the city pretty short shrift, though I did squeeze in a trip to Novi Sad. I then went on by bus to Timisoara. All the Balkan buses I took were very comfortable. There was normally a rest stop every 2 to 2-1/2 hours. You can pretty much count on that since the driver, as well as some of the passengers, is likely to be a smoker.

From Timisoara to Cluj-Napoca (where I'd expect to pick up a tour to Maramures), you have a choice of flying, taking the train (via Arad and Oradea) or taking a bus (via Alba Julia). There's probably not a huge time difference door-to-door. All the cities I've mentioned had positive comments in at least one source I consulted before my trip. I only got to Oradea, and that only briefly. The town has some really striking Art Nouveau architecture. I don't know whether there's a place to check luggage if you decided to travel that leg by train and stop off for a few hours to see the highlights in Oradea.

I took a train from Bucharest to Veliko Trnovo, Bulgaria. That was one very long train trip. In retrospect, it would have been better to fly from Bucharest into Sofia, except that I enjoyed visiting with a small Canadian tour group I met on the train.

Posted by
6 posts

Thank you Alan, Andrew & David.

I am getting a clearer picture from all that I’ve read on this forum. Very good information everybody. Much appreciated. Good thing I am still in the planning stage. I have to refine and shorten my preliminary itinerary. There’s a lot to consider.

Posted by
192 posts

I took the RS tour of Bulgaria which was fabulous. The guide, Stefan Bozadzhiev, was terrific - really made the trip as good as it was. Outside of working for Rick, he guides for Lyuba Tours, and can set up private tours throughout the Balkan area. If you want a guide for part of your trip, you might want to contact him. Here is the website: https://www.lyuba.tours/#home

A day trip you might like to do from Sofia is the Rila Monastery. We actually spent the night in the monastery, which was quite the experience, but it can be a day trip as well.

Have a wonderful time.

Posted by
6 posts

Hello Renee,

When were you in the Balkans with them.

Thanks for the lead

Thank you.

Posted by
6 posts

Renee,
You memtioned that Stefan works for Rick Steves? Is this correct? If so, that says a lot.

Thanks again.

Posted by
192 posts

Yes, Stefan leads the RS tours in Bulgaria. If you look at the reviews under that tour, you’ll see many comments about him. He will be at the RS reunion in January.

I went on the Bulgaria tour in May of this year. I have not traveled elsewhere in the Balkans since I was in college, too many years ago! Stefan leads tours in other Balkan countries, not just Bulgaria.