Tag Archives: Croatia

In which there are some tips on travelling in Eastern Europe

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As part os Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans, are still developing when it comes to tourism, I thought I’d pass on some tips for fellow travellers that may be of use if you’re planning a similar trip to our recent one.

Initially we thought about picking up a hire car in Split and then driving it all the way to Belgrade, but the problem was that in going to another country, every company then whacked a relocation fee on top of the hire fee, making it too expensive to justify. Public transport it was then.

Travelling around Bosnia and Serbia is not the easiest, however, as the infrastructure just isn’t there yet, so it’s harder to be spontaneous about how to get to places. Trains are pretty much non-existent, but there are buses, and with some forward planning you should be fine.

It’s always a good idea to have your passport with you when moving between the Balkan countries and Hungary — the Schengen Agreement doesn’t come into effect until you get further west.

Split to Mostar

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To get from Split to Mostar there are lots of coaches leaving from Split’s bus station. It takes about 3 and a half hours, cost about £12 each and the coach was air conditioned, and even had free wi-fi. Don’t be alarmed if you have to get off the bus and transfer to a second one once you’ve gone over the border. And do remember to keep your passport on you and not in the luggage hold as once you cross from Croatia to Bosnia, the driver takes everyone’s passports for border control. Having to get off the bus and explain to a stern-looking driver and border official that I needed to fish them out of the hold was not a fun experience. Again, handing over your passport to a complete stranger and watching it disappear from your sight is a little alarming, but it was all fine.

To get to Kravice from Mostar we hired a car, from the car hire place next to the train station. They spoke good English and while we got their last and most rubbish car, everything was fine. Pre-book if you can to make sure you get one and that it’s not as shit as ours was. It’s not as cheap as you think it’s going to be to do the actual hiring (I can’t remember the exact cost but I think it was around £50) but the petrol is cheap and it’s definitely worth it to experience the waterfalls. Bosnians take a somewhat random approach to driving (although it’s nothing compared with the Italians), so be prepared for people to turn off the road without warning.

Also, do not use the Google map directions as to where the car park is for the waterfalls. We did, and ended up going down this terrifyingly narrow bumpy single track, which ended in what I can only describe as an ‘unofficial’ car park that a few locals seemed to know about. I can only tip my hat to S for his calm head and calm driving, as I would have been having a panic attack at the thought of navigating a car over all the rocks. There’s another more official entrance which is the one to aim for – ask at the car hire place.

Mostar to Sarajevo

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To get from Mostar to Sarajevo, there are two options: bus or train. They take about the same length of time, three hours, but the difference is that the buses are way more frequent – there are only two trains, around 7am and 7pm, whereas there are around 6-7 buses per day. They both follow the same route too, which is one of the most stunning I have ever travelled – think mountain passes and sparkling blue lakes. The train is around £4.50 and the bus about £6, which compared with British prices is an absolute steal.

Sarajevo to Belgrade

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Sarajevo to Belgrade is a lot trickier. There are flights, although they’re quite expensive, and public buses take around 9 hours, so we originally opted for a private minibus transfer with http://www.gea.rs that would take around 5 hours, leave in the afternoon and cost 20 EUR each. I found this company really hard to communicate with, however, and on the day of our actual transfer, they were running three hours late due to a problem at the border, which meant we wouldn’t have arrived in Belgrade until midnight at the earliest. Add this to torrential rain and driving in the dark on mountain roads, and we decided to cancel the trip and hire a car, partly because they didn’t have any seats on the next morning’s minibus and partly because we didn’t feel the company was trustworthy. Ironically, we then ended up having to pay the relocation fee that we hadn’t wanted to pay in the first place, but it was a cheaper and more convenient option than flying and we really had limited options at this stage. The drive took around five hours and was very scenic, particularly the first part going through the mountains. Although after seeing the hairpin bends, I was very grateful we’d stayed another night in Sarajevo and not been on a minibus negotiating them in the dark and the rain.

If you take the hire car route, make sure you have the right paperwork for crossing the border – this should be standard with the bigger hire places but it doesn’t hurt to check. You’ll need to show this and your passports at the border between Bosnia and Serbia, and also be prepared for a bit of a wait here – it took us about 20 minutes to get through, but it can be more.

Belgrade to Budapest

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Belgrade to Budapest has a good train service, and as it takes around eight hours we opted for an overnight one to make the most of our time there (and save on a night’s accommodation). The woman at the international ticket desk at Belgrade ticket office was hilariously unhelpful and with the deadest of deadpan expressions, but hey, I don’t speak Serbian so I guess I should be grateful we could order our tickets in English. Ask for the 15 EUR ticket, which gets you a bed in a four-berth cabin. There is also the ‘Russian carriage’ option, which is much fancier and I think is named because it then continues onto Russia after Hungary, but this was a lot more expensive — around £50 per person. Be aware that you will be woken up twice in the night by the border guards – first by Serbian guards and then by Hungarians, both of whom want to see your passport.  The beds are the typical fold down ones found on trains (similar to those in Thailand and India), and you get a blanket, sheet and pillow. Also be aware that everyone smokes in Serbia, and your carriage will probably be full of smoke wafting in from people lighting up in the corridors. At over 6’2”, S also struggled to physically fit in this bed, so tall people take note! The train arrives into Budapest’s Keleti station, which is in the south of Buda and has excellent metro, tram and bus connections, as well as left luggage lockers.

Budapest to Vienna

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Once you’re in Budapest, everything travel-wise becomes a lot simpler and a lot more modern (and also more expensive, obviously, but that’s the pay off). There’s a frequent train service from Budapest’s Keleti station to Vienna’s Hauptbanhof, which takes 2 hours. We pre-booked our seats and got one in second class for 19 EUR and one in first class for 29 EUR, which was much cheaper than buying on the day at the station. Check both the Hungarian railways website and the Austrian one as they have individual ticket allocations. I very kindly gave S the first class ticket, but ironically, I had a much nicer seat in an open carriage with a huge amount of leg room, whereas he was in an old-fashioned carriage with the individual compartments, sharing with three very grumpy people! Hungary and Austria are part of the Schengen Agreement so you won’t have to show your passport to go between the countries.

Split to Dubrovnik

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I also thought I’d include an answer to a query about driving from Split to Dubrovnik that I struggled to find a definitive answer to on the internet when we went on our Croatian trip two years ago. On this route you cross into Bosnia for around 20km, going through what’s called the Neum Corridor (given to Bosnia when the countries were formed in the 90s so it had access to the sea). This is not considered by car hire places to be leaving the country, so you don’t need to worry about having the extra insurance and paperwork that you would if you’re going to Montenegro or Serbia. Do mention it, however, when you hire the car and make sure you have the car’s registration documents. There is a border at Neum and you’ll need to stop and show your passports, so have them with you.

I hope this helps if you’re planning a similar trip, and do let me know if you have any further questions as I’d be happy to give more info.

Postcard from the Balkans

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When my great friend B moved to Sarajevo last year, we knew that it wouldn’t be long before we visited her and her family. An investigation into flights quickly revealed that there are no direct flights to Bosnia from the UK, however, so some creative travelling was going to be in order to make a visit happen.

We went to Split two years ago and absolutely loved it, so flying there from Bristol would enable us to hang out there again (and go back for dinner at the amazing restaurant we found.) Then plans started to fall into place – if we were going all that way, why not fly home from a different airport and visit multiple cities? S and I have recently come to the conclusion that we’re just not one-place holiday makers – we get bored if we have to stay in the same place, and that in fact our ideal holiday is made up of multiple city breaks so we can wander, drink coffee and explore to our hearts’ content. So we worked out that we could fly back from Austria, and that we could visit Belgrade, Budapest and Vienna after Sarajevo. Then I read a great review of Mostar, and we added that in as a convenient break in between Split and Sarajevo.

We only had a day in Split but we ticked off everything we wanted to do — found the amazing restaurant again where we had seafood, a delicious potato and kale dish and enough white wine to sink a ship, ate ice cream in Diocletian’s Palace while listening to the live music and had a drink in a bar in the old city. We also climbed to the top of the park (no mean feat in 32 degree heat), where they had the most beautiful views of the harbour.

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Adding in Mostar was an excellent choice, as not only did we get to visit this charming city with its historic bridge (and its random statue of Bruce Lee), but also go on a day trip to the Kravice waterfalls. Located about 90 minutes south from Mostar, these are very similar to the waterfalls at Plitvice that we visited last time we went to Croatia, except you can actually swim in these ones during the summer when the water level is low. And on a 35 degree day, the ice-cold water was a welcome treat.

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We ended up seeing these waterfalls touted all over Bosnia and Serbia, so they’re clearly a huge tourist attraction in Bosnia, but even in the height of summer it wasn’t unpleasantly busy. There are a few bars and coffee shops right on the shore so you can buy food and drink, and it was very pleasant to sip espresso while watching people bob past in the water. In fact, swimming in Kravice was one of the nicest things I have ever done on holiday and is my definite must-do if you visit this part of the world.

Sarajevo was an interesting city — a real mix of east and west, a place that’s still scarred by the war 20 years ago but one that’s definitely looking to the future. It’s hard not to go there and think about the war — I was ten when it broke out, and I remember reading Zlata’s Diary as a teenager, but until our trip I didn’t really have any comprehension of how bad it was and that the city was under siege for three years. We did a private tour of Sarajevo with a guide and one of the places she took us to was the Tunnel of Hope, the tunnel that was dug under the airport in order to get supplies into the beleaguered city. Visiting there was very poignant and it was there that it really hit home about how terrible those years were. And as you can see from the photo below, graveyards are sadly a prominent feature of the city.

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The war isn’t the only thing of course, and it’s important not to focus solely on that. We also visited the bob sleigh track from the ’84 Winter Olympics (soon to be renovated) , saw where Gavrilo Princep had set the wheels in motion for World War 1 and stuffed ourselves on the Balkan speciality, cevpici — sausages in bread, with onions. Not healthy in the slightest, but pretty tasty!

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Of course our main purpose in Sarajevo was to hang out with B and her family, which we did in bucket loads, with lots of coffee sipping, pizza eating, board game playing and beer drinking.

Belgrade was my least favourite place of the trip, but it still had its charm. I loved the Bohemian Quarter – it’s just one street, but packed full of restaurants and bars where you can do some quality people watching while sipping on cheap beer (the most popular brand of which was practically named after me!).

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Due to a problem with our bus from Sarajevo to Belgrade we ended up only having one full day there, so we made the most of it with a free walking tour with Belgrade Walking Tours. I can highly recommend this — it was a great way to get an overview of the city and our tour guide was really knowledgeable. She also touched briefly on the hardships of the 1990s, and we learned about the hyper-inflation that happened in Serbia during that time, and were given a copy of the 5 million dinar note that ended up being legal currency!

Part two of the trip to follow…

Postcard from Croatia

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Whenever we told people we were going to Croatia for a holiday, we got one of two responses: “oh you’re going to love it, it’s so beautiful there”, or “I’ve heard it’s really beautiful there”.

Luckily they weren’t wrong.

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After three solid weeks (and I’m not exaggerating: 21 straight days/evenings) of painting, during which the arthritis in my wrist flared up to the extent that I couldn’t bend it anymore, we were so ready for a break. Even more so when our timetable for the three days before we flew out was a day of early morning sanding followed by a wedding, an entire day of sanding followed by a 30th birthday barbecue and then yet another entire day of sanding.

So when this greeted us on arrival, I was very happy.

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Diocletian’s Palace, Split

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We flew to Split, had an evening there, then drove up to the Plitvice Lakes, a stunning area in the north east of Croatia. It was a long drive but worth it: crystal blue water, stunning scenery, night skies so free of light that you could see the Milky Way and one of the best Air BnB places we’ve ever stayed in.

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After three days of walking in the national park, eating homegrown vegetables, hanging out with our hosts and their super-cute pets and visiting the local beekeeper to sample honey cakes and honey schnapps, we sadly said our goodbyes and headed down to the Dalmation Coast.

Staying in another Air BnB place about 40 minutes from Dubrovnik, we were extremely pleased to find that our little apartment had a private beach.

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The sea wasn’t the warmest, but we made the most of it.

Visiting Dubrovnik was on the plans, but I think the weather gods didn’t want us to. We had about three hours there before heavy rain started, and the worst storm I have ever seen was ushered in. It lasted for about 12 hours in total, with dramatic forked lightning, torrential rain and ridiculously loud thunder. After attempting to wait for it to pass, we realized this was futile, so had to drive back to our apartment. I genuinely thought we wouldn’t make it: all I can say is thank goodness S was driving and thank double goodness that Croatian drivers are nothing like Italian ones.

Two days later we attempted another visit to Cavtat and then Dubrovnik, only for the same thing to happen: insanely torrential rain. We got soaked to the skin, took refuge in a restaurant, and then ended up helping the waitresses and other customers keep the rain off the awning with broom handles and umbrella poles. But we managed to see the funny side of it, and the carafes of white wine the waitresses handed round in thanks certainly helped.

We also, en route, saw plenty of Game of Thrones locations, including the gardens at Trsteno where the Kings Landing garden scenes are filmed. Trsteno’s harbour was beautiful, and after our visit we realised we had been to the very spot featured on the cover of our guidebook. I also loved climbing the fourteenth century walls at Ston, and rewarding myself with a piece of Ston cake afterwards – a delicious combination of nuts, honey and pasta.

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Channelling my inner Margaery Tyrell

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Trsteno harbour

 

 

 

 

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So despite the inclement weather, the rest of Croatia certainly made up for it, and after ten days of beer, sun, sea and peanut puffs (my favourite Eastern European snack), I was ready for the final push on the house.