Tour Report – Treasures of the Balkans – 2015
Discounting the actual flight days, this was a 16 day land tour of the Balkan area of Europe conducted by Insight Vacations. Our tour group consisted of 40 individuals from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. As has been our experience with previous Insight Europe tours, the largest contingent of our tour group were from Australia.
During this review, I'll attempt to discuss aspects of the tour not covered within the Insight tour information. The intended audience is individuals who are contemplating taking this tour in the future.
Budapest Hungary was our tour starting point. As we have done on recent tours, we elected to arrive one day before the actual tour started. Rather than schedule the Insight transport to our hotel, we took a city cab. If the cab stand at the airport is used, the cab fares to the city center are regulated. I believe our entire cab fare cost about $20 US (paid in Hungarian Forints).
The Budapest hotel (Sofitel) is centrally located about a block from the Chain Bridge. The hotel is a modern, well equipped hotel. Budapest is loaded with tourist attractions.
With the exception of the Chain Bridge, most of the attractions are spread out within the two sections of Budapest (Buda and Pest sides of the Danube River). Unfortunately most of these attractions are not within easy walking distance from the hotel. The city tour conducted by Insight includes stops at Fisherman's Bastion, Gellert Hill, St. Stephens Basilica and the Hero's Square. Beyond these stops, there are a lot of other attractions to be enjoyed in Budapest.
We had pre-purchased Big Bus (hop on hop off) tickets before the tour. The tickets cost about $25 US per person. This package included 2 days of use, river cruises and a night walking tour. The bus stops at approximately 20 minute intervals at all of the major attractions on both the Pest and Buda sides of the city. We used this service to explore a lot of the additional sites in Budapest.
If you elect to dine alone while in Budapest, there are a lot of good restaurants about 4 blocks from the hotel. Contact the Sofitel concierge for details.
The drive through the Serbian countryside is mainly rural. It appears that a large portion of the population live off the land in modest farms. The contour of the land is basically flat.
As we entered Belgrade, we saw evidence of the Bosnian war where a few bombed out buildings were still standing. A lot of the central city buildings still contained bullet and shell scaring also.
While in Belgrade we stayed within the confines of the Insight tour. We did partake in the optional Folk dinner in the evening (see optionals).
Bosnia and Herzegovina
As we crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina the scenery steadily changed from the flat lands of Hungary and Serbia to the more mountainous terrain. The terrain offered many vistas and interesting small towns.
The hotel in Sarajevo is centrally located in the middle of the old town. The dividing line between the two sections of the old town (Muslim section and Austria-Hungarian section) is only a block away from the hotel.
On day 2 of our Sarajevo visit, we had an included Insight walking tour of the old town. After the tour there was an optional Charm of Old Sarajevo that we did not participate in. During the optional time, we meandered through the Muslim section of the old town exploring it's many shops and sites.
Early in the afternoon, there was an included stop at the Tunnel Museum. This stop consisted of a movie detailing the building of the airport tunnel during the Serbian War and the effects the war had on the inhabitants. The stop concluded with a walk in the tunnel.
Upon returning from the tunnel, I elected to do a extensive walkabout in the old town. It was a purely enjoyable time spent exploring the many interesting buildings and back alleys of the old town.
The following day we departed Sarajevo. Driving through the mountainous countryside, we made a stop in Mostar. While in Mostar, we crossed the infamous bridge (a bit of a challenge in itself). We had ample time to purchase lunch in Mostar before resuming our ride to Dubrovnik.
Leaving Mostar, we crossed over into Croatia. The journey to Dubrovnik again offered spectacular scenery and views of the Adriatic and surrounding mountainous terrain.
Our Dubrovnik hotel was situated right on the Adriatic. Each room in the hotel had a view of the water along with a private balcony. The hotel is also equipped with it's own beach area.
The evening of our arrival I took the optional dinner cruise. My wife was under the weather and stayed behind in our hotel room. Details from the dinner cruise are discussed in the Optionals section below.
The following day we had the included tour of the old town Dubrovnik by a local expert. The tour itself was good, but I found the local guide spent a disproportionate amount of time rambling on about The Game of Thrones, naked women running down the streets and modern dress codes.
Following the local tour, we were provided with enough time to explore the old town further on our own. Due to the length of the local expert's dialog, we had barely enough time to do a ½ walk along the City Walls. If you're physically able, I strongly recommend walking at least ½ of the wall while you're in Dubrovnik.
At the conclusion of the allocated independent touring time in Dubrovnik, you are presented with three possible options. One option is to remain in the old city and explore at your leisure for the remainder of the day. Another option would be to return to the hotel and enjoy an afternoon on the sea shore. The third option (this is the one we did) is to take the optional excursion to Cavat, Croatia.
Independent travel from the hotel to the old city is a fairly simple process. The hotel is located quite a ways from the old town (not walking distance). The good news is that there is a bus stop right in front of the hotel (bus #4). This bus will take you to the Pile Gate entrance to the old city. I believe bus tickets can be purchased at the hotel.
Our second night in Dubrovnik included the Insight Dine Around. The food, service and ambiance of our choose restaurant was very good.
The following day we drove through the very scenic countryside of Croatia and Montenegro. We had a planned stop in Kotor, Montenegro. Kotor is another walled old city that's not quite as large as Dubrovnik. The stop was a self-paced tour of the old city. Sufficient time is allowed to do a decent job of exploring the city as well as lunch (not provided by Insight). Montenegro is the only country on tour where Euros are dispensed from ATMs.
Departing Kotor, we crossed the border into Albania. The Albania countryside is also quite beautiful with the many mountain ranges in the background. Subsistence farming seems to be the norm for the mainly rural population of Albania.
Upon arriving in Tirana, we immediately proceeded to the town square for a small photo op of downtown Tirana. Our tour director advised us not to wander about too much on our own during the evening.
The following day we departed Tirana. Before leaving Albania, we made a roadside stop. At this stop we were able to see some of the many shelters that were constructed while the country was ruled by Enver Hoxha. Following it's independence, the country is just now starting to emerge into modern day Europe.
Again, the scenery traversing Macedonia didn't disappoint. We arrived in Ohrid, Macedonia and proceeded directly to the old town for an included tour by a local expert. Ohrid is a remarkably appealing town that sits on the shore of Lake Ohrid. The old town comes complete with a large assortment of unique shops, restaurants and open squares. One thing of particular note in the old town is the fact that vehicular traffic is allowed through the narrow hilled streets – pedestrians (and tourist) be warned.
After our independent dinner, I headed down to the lake promenade after sunset. The view offered some great photos with the lake set against the mountains in the background.
The next day we departed Ohrid and headed for Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. What was most impressive about Skopje was the massive, modern civic buildings adorning it's center. There is a walkway over the river that is lined on both sides with bronze statues of Macedonian notables of past. This whole section of the city was constructed after the earthquake of 1963 severely damaged the city.
We continued our journey from Skopje to the capital of Bulgaria (Sophia). Arriving late in the day we took a short walk about the hotel followed by an included dinner. Our Sophia hotel was the Grand Hotel of Sophia.
The next morning we had a walking tour of the city center conducted by a local expert. Following the Sophia city tour, we departed for the optional Rila Monastery tour. Again the scenery on the way to the monastery didn't disappoint. After an included lunch we arrived at the monastery. The monastery complex was very large. A most impressive feature of the monastery were the many mosaics that were adorning the exterior as well as the interior of the church. The Rila Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Sophia we motored onto Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria. The town contains an old fortification built into the surrounding hillside. In the actual lower town we took a walking tour of the town. The town offered some great views of the hillside fortifications lit up after dusk.
We stopped at the Castle Peles on our way to Brasov. This castle was very impressive with it's many hand carved paneling and fixtures. From the castle, we proceeded to Brasov.
The next morning we had an included walking tour of Brasov. Our Brasov hotel was centrally located so it permitted easy walking around the old town. After the included tour, we were free to roam about on our own. Besides the old town proper, I ventured into the heart of the city. I came across some interesting parks, churches and memorials in the city proper.
The following day we departed for Bucharest. Upon arrival we had a brief city tour that included a visit to the recently completed Palace of the Parliament. As it turns out, this is the second largest building in the world behind the U.S. Pentagon. Before we started our tour, we were told that no picture taking would be allowed unless a special permit was purchased (about $30EU). I decline this purchase and left my camera in the bus. As we toured the massive building the interior is constructed almost entirely of marble. Additionally, the huge rooms (most empty) were adorned with crystal chandeliers, paintings and statues. I would describe the interior as opulence on steroids. About 1/3 of the way through the tour, our guide asked the group what floor we were now standing on. I was the only one in our group to answer correctly. The prize was to be allowed to photograph the rooms etc. during the rest of the tour. I enjoyed pointing and clicking with my fingers during the remainder of the tour (camera left behind on the bus).
The former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauescu basically bankrupted the country with his expansive spending on this and other buildings in Bucharest. Bucharest would be a great destination city to visit and tour independently for 2-3 days. It offers a lot of dramatic architecture along with a most impressive central boulevard (Soseaua Kiseleff).
Because we had purchased Big Bus passes, we did not participate in the Budapest dinner cruise. The people who went on this optional seemed to enjoy it.
Additionally we did not participate in the Charm of Old Sarajevo nor the Home hosted dinner in Sarajevo.
I took the dinner cruise in Dubrovnik (my wife was a bit under the weather and skipped the optional). The meal was a good fish dinner. An ample supply of either (or both) wine and beer was included. The cruise lasted for several hours concluding after dark in the old town of Dubrovnik. I would recommend this optional.
While touring Dubrovnik, we took the Cavat optional. This side trip offered some dramatic seaside vistas. The town of Cavat is a nice seaside town complete with restaurants etc. The walk up to the church cemetery was definitely worth the effort. Taking this optional was a somewhat difficult decision because we could have spent the time in the old town of Dubrovnik or lounging on the seashore outside of our hotel instead. We had no regrets in deciding to go to Cavat.
Of all of the optionals offered, the one must do for me would be the Rila Monastery. Visiting the monastery with it's vast collection of intricate mosaics was really special.
The two optionals with folk music and dinner were both very nice. There was enough distinction between the two so you didn't feel like you were attending a duplicate of the other. The fire dance in the Serbian event was an added attraction. The meals served for both events were good and the wine and beer flowed freely. I'd recommend attending both of these optionals.
We toured starting in early September. We were somewhat surprised by the warm weather we encountered during the trip. While in Hungary and Serbia the daily high temperatures were in the vicinity of 95F (35C). Temperatures moderated a bit by the time we got to Dubrovnik. From Montenegro through the rest of the trip, the daily high temperature was around 80-85F (26-29C). The only rain we encountered was when we toured the Bram Castle. We had packed for somewhat cooler (average) temperatures.
Currency, Money and Shopping and Border Crossings
With the exception of the drive thru visit to Montenegro, you are dealing with separate currencies for each country. Going into the trip, we had secured enough Hungarian Forints to cover our out of pocket expenses for Hungary. We had enough Forints left over to convert the Forints to Serbian Dinar for Serbian cash needs.
A lot of our fellow travelers had an adequate supply of Euros. In each country you could convert from the previous country's currency via an Exchange Service. You could also convert Euros at the many Exchange Offices. The other alternative (which we used) was to access a local ATM for the walk around local currency.
As stated above, Euro's from an ATM were only available in Montenegro. Obviously, using an Exchange service will probably yield the poorest forex conversion factor. The debit card that we used for the ATM's included a 1% foreign service fee at near forex rates.
Credit cards were readily acceptable. The U.S. is finally converting to smart cards in October, 2015. We secured smart cards for our credit cards before the trip so we did not encounter any problems. You will find the prices of just about everything in region to be significantly more reasonable than in say, Western Europe. When we had dinner on our own, we could generally have a 3 course dinner complete with drinks for equivalent $25-$40 US.
We found that there wasn't a lot of shopping to do on the trip. My wife did manage to pick up some silk scarves in Sarajevo and I purchased a few country logo'd caps while on tour. That was about the extent of our shopping while on tour.
I would rate the wines and beers produced in region to be particularly good. The beer is substantial but not overly heavy. The local wines were surprisingly good. At one of our roadside stops (I believe it was in Albania) I purchased a pint of the locally produced brandy. This was one of the best brandies I had ever tasted.
We encountered no border and passport control as we entered Budapest from Belgium. Each of the subsequent countries visited are currently not particpants in the EU Schengen Border Control Agreement. As such we did hard border crossings at each country. This usually meant actual passport verification at the border. Usually this went fairly well as both our Tour Director and Driver were skilled at “negotiating” the passport verification process.
Although a bit fast paced, we both thoroughly enjoyed this tour. The trip was further enhanced by our excellent Tour Director (Karin Kollarovo). Karin was born in the region and brought a wealth of knowledge and background to the various cultures we encountered. She was able to supplement her dialog with personal experiences. Additionally she proved to be one of the most capable and accommodating tour directors we had ever encountered with Insight. If you encounter Karin in your future travels, make sure to ask her about the “Cycle Paths”.
Our tour group was a great group of people. We collectively had a lot of fun together and weathered a few quirky experiences along the way.
While on this tour we saw a lot of dramatic scenery. The cities and towns visited ranged from the opulent (Bucharest) to the simple rural communities. We developed an appreciation for some of the difficulties people of the region experienced in recent history. Additionally we were exposed to the strong family ties that are prevalent in the area. For us, the cultural experience alone fulfilled our objectives for the tour. The beauty and diversification of the land, towns and cities seen on tour were an added bonus. If you haven't been to the region and are interested in a unique cultural experience, I would highly recommend this tour.