Tag Archives: Hungary

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 Budapest and Vienna

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I can’t believe that someone hadn’t made me go to Budapest before — it really is the most amazing city and I urge you to visit at the earliest opportunity if you haven’t already!

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Split into two parts by the Danube, Buda and Pest, it’s full of amazing architecture and green spaces. Budapest is also renowned for its hot springs and there are loads of places where you can take to the water.

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I also got to fulfil a long held dream and eat soup out of a bread bowl!

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On the second of our two full days there we bought a 24 hour city card which gave us unlimited travel plus free access to the St Lukacs baths (and some free and discounted museum entries, but the weather was so glorious that we didn’t go to any of these). We started off with our visit to the baths, which comprise some outdoor thermal swimming pools plus a complex of indoor pools and a steam room. The indoor pools vary in temperature from 30 to 36 degrees, and I spent most of my time in the hottest pool, just lounging around and enjoying a spot of people watching. The motto here is that ‘silence is the best medicine’, so the idea is that you just relax and let the warm water work its magic. It was full of locals so I think it’s an engrained part of daily life in Budapest — I could get used to that!

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There is a distinct sulphurous smell, which does take some getting used too, and which makes the option to drink the water something that can be a little hard to stomach. I did try a sip but Evian it ain’t.

We didn’t try the outdoor pools, partly because you’re supposed to wear a swimming cap, which I didn’t have, and also because after the relaxation of the warm water I wasn’t up for going into a cooler pool!

Ferries form part of Budapest’s public transport system, and these are a fab way to see the city from a different perspective. They go north and south down the Danube to various points in Buda and Pest, as well as to St Margaret Island, a lovely green corridor that lies in the river between the two sides of the city. We caught a ferry at random and ended up on the island, which had some unexpected treats — it had fountains that shot up water in time to music and stands selling the most delicious boiled sweetcorn.

We rounded off our day with a trip to a ruin bar, another of Budapest’s specialities. These are bars that pop up in abandoned buildings, some of which are temporary and some of which end up becoming permanent fixtures. We went to Sziget, which is one of the oldest and well-known. It’s a warren of interconnected rooms and spaces, all with funky decor, and a huge selection of drinks — they even had cherry beer on tap. After a pint there we ended up going for a second drink in a random burger and beer bar around the corner where a pub quiz happened to be taking place — just our type of drinking establishment! Even though it was in Hungarian I was pretty pleased to answer one music question correctly.

Vienna is only two and a half hours away from Budapest by train, so it was a really nice easy journey to make. We also fulfilled a wish of S’ on this train by having a coffee in the buffet car, which was very pleasant and felt vaguely Agatha Christie-esque.

We got around Vienna using the city hire bike scheme, which I can highly recommend. It’s really cheap — 1 EUR registration fee, then the first hour is free, and it’s around 1 EUR for every two hours after that. Vienna is definitely a cycling city as it’s super flat and has dedicated cycle lanes everywhere, so I felt safe even without a helmet and with very limited gears. There are stations for the city bikes everywhere, so there’s never a shortage of bikes to rent and places to drop them off at, and it’s a great way to see a city that’s quite spread out.

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While I liked Vienna, I felt there were so many grand and beautiful buildings that sometimes it was hard to orientate yourself. My favourite bits of the city were the path along the river, where we enjoyed a bottle of Prosecco one evening, and the huge open air food market at Naschmarkt — we bought the fixings for an amazing picnic there, which also included a delicious cherry and cream cheese pie/cake hybrid thing. In the food and drink category, I was also pleased to find Almdudler, the Austrian herbal lemonade that I’d tried a few years before in Bavaria and which has a pleasingly retro can design.

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As in all the cities we visited, we rented an apartment through Air BnB and the Viennese one was definitely the best — the kitchen was really well stocked and it even had a Nespresso machine. After two weeks of not-so-good Balkan stove top coffee, this was a very welcome sight.

We also found via Google maps that our apartment was a few minutes’ walk from a renowned cocktail bar (winner of Austria’s best bar 2014!) so we went there for a drink one evening. I’ve never seen a more comprehensive menu — over 20 pages of original cocktails plus all the classics you’d expect. It wasn’t cheap — around £8 each — but the artistry put into our drinks was second to none.

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We were away for a fortnight but it felt much longer than that, which to me is always the sign of a good holiday! It was a lot of fun to seeing so many different places in one trip, and while I appreciate it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to be on the move so much, I loved experiencing five countries in one go, seeing where they shared common cultures and enjoying the differences, too.

The Balkans themselves weren’t always the easiest place to actually travel around so I’ll also be sharing a post with some tips I picked up that might be useful for people making a similar trip. I know that I gleaned some useful info from people’s blogs when we were planning so I wanted to give something back!