Advice/tips for young traveller in Eastern Europe
Replies: 13 - Last Post: Sep 26, 2007 8:50 PM Last Post By: etcap
Sep 23, 2007 9:22 PM
Advice/tips for young traveller in Eastern EuropeHi there, I'm after some general advice and some comments on my Itinerary for Eastern Europe. Some general back ground info: I'm a 19 year old male and on my gap year, from Australia and based in London. My interests lie in Modern world and Medieval history, museums and hiking (including any sort of outdoor activities). I am departing in early October and plan on travelling for approx 7 weeks. Please note i will be traveling alone and by train for the most part (cant get an interail pass unfortunately), apart from the first 5 days where i will be with family. Most of my research thus far has come from Lonely planet guides and this website which has been really helpful. Anyway, here is a basic Itinerary of which i have a more detailed version:
Arrive: Oct 2nd
Germany-Cologne (4 days), Berlin (4 days)
Czech Republic- Prague (6 days)
Poland- Krakow (3 days), Zakopane (3 days)
Slovakia- Stary Smokovek (3 days), Zilina (2 days)
Hungary- Budapest (3 days)
Slovenia- Ljubljana (2 days), Bled (3 days)
Croatia-Zagreb (1 day)
Bosnia and Hercegovina- Sarajevo (3 days)
Montenegro- Podgorica (5 days), Belgrade (1 day)
Bulgaria- Sofia (3 days), Plovdiv (2 days)
Depart: Nov 22nd
I am going to be using Australian dollar's to fund this trip. Would i be best off withdrawing a large sum in Germany and then exchanging euro's from there on in? This would avoid the need to withdraw small amounts and accrue lots of withdrawal fees. What do you think of travelling solo in this region? Will the language barrier be very difficult (i have a LP EU phrase book)? Is there any train routes i should be extra careful on? Ive planned accommodation up until Krakow and then from there on in ill do it as i go as i understand its not busy at this time of year, with hostels etc. Speaking of which, will places be closing/closed around this period that i should be aware e.g. hiking trails. I want to do lots of hiking and see the outdoors (high tatra, Julian Alps etc) but no overnight treks as i don't have the equipment or the experience. Any suggestions/changes to what i have planned at the moment would be appreciated. Thanks!
Sep 23, 2007 10:46 PM
1Use an ATM card to withdraw local currency. You'll almost certainly lose more money in conversion transfer than you will in ATM fees. Try not to take out too much more than you'll need in any given country (you'll have to do some guesstimating), and this will prevent you from losing in conversion every time you leave a country.
You shouldn't have trouble just booking as you go. I often recommend using a service like Hostelworld.com to book a day or two in advance while you're on the road. This is simply to minimize hassle once you hit the ground in a new city -- you'll know you have a place, and you'll know where it is.
Don't forget travel time which will eat into your time in each city, probably more than you realize. Travel times can be slow in some of these countries.
If it were me, I'd probably cut back on Prague, which although beautiful, probably doesn't warrant nearly one week of your trip. Three days is probably more than you'll need in Sofia. Ive never been to Podgorica, but I'm not sure you'd need five days there. I'd probably skip Zagreb, and try and get all the way to Sarajevo. I might suggest adding some trekking in the very beautiful mountains of Bulgaria, including the Rila and Rhodope mountains. It's probably getting a bit late for high mountain hiking, but it's beautiful nonetheless.
Sep 24, 2007 8:41 AM
Sep 24, 2007 11:48 AM
As #1 said, there isn't enough to keep you in Podgorica for 5 hours, let alone 5 days! Of course, you might already know that, and in fact want to see the rest of Montenegro. Keep in mind, though, that in November the mountains will be very cold and the coast probably rainy. It's still worth having a look at the bay of Kotor, and maybe pushing across the border to Dubrovnik, a beautiful old town in Croatia.
Generally speaking, in autumn the weather will be a factor, and you might find yourself spending more time in cities than you were hoping. BUT if you do get a nice spell of sunny weather, there are lots of day hikes along your itinerary. The Czech Rep is full of gorgeous forested hills for example, so if 6 days in Prague seems a bit long for you, you could head to Cesky Raj on your way to Poland, or south to Cesky Krumlov (a real jewel of a town) and hike around there. In Slovakia there are walks pretty much everywhere. And in Bulgaria, the areas mentioned by Dave in #1 are great too.
Keep reading on all these places, and you can always come back here with more specific questions.
Sep 24, 2007 11:59 AM
4A few comments...
Excellent choice to go to Cologne in Germany. It's one of Germany's best and most interesting cities. I've never been to Berlin, so I can't comment on that. You are wise to avoid Frankfurt, which is pretty boring and honestly has little to interest travelers.
Budapest is safe, but I would suggest you avoid strip clubs and seedy bars. If some local girl comes up to you out of nowhere and starts talking to you in bar - run! Budapest does have a scam where girls hit on foreigners and direct them to seedy bars where they will run up tabs of multi hundreds of Euros just by buying drinks and talking. If you travel by train in Hungary, nobody at the train stations will speak English, so write down your destination on a piece of paper and what time you want to leave and give it to the person selling the tickets. Few people in Hungary speak English, but it is easier to find English speakers in Budapest than other parts of the country.
Sep 24, 2007 2:05 PM
5thanks for the help so far. A few things need clearing up....When i say for e.g. 'city'(5 days) it means ill most likely sleep in that city(i may not have researched accomodation in some small places), but doesnt neccessarily mean ill be spending my time there during the day. I just thought it would be easier to use the cities as a base for trips around the region im in. Etcap you mentioned that there is nothing to see in Podgorica, however i have a question. What is the easiest/quickest way to get to Montenegro from Sarajevo? I would prefer not going via Bosnia if possible unless you reccomend it as a destination. Im keen to see durmitor national park however have read it is hard to get to and the weather is very changeable, Kotor also looks to be an attractive option. The weather will no doubt be a factor in what i do but im fairly prepared for it. Hopefully it doesnt affect my experience of this trip to much. Also of note: I wont be doing any drinking/clubbing etc as im not into that scene.
Sep 24, 2007 2:57 PM
6I agree with #1 regarding ATMs, they're a traveler's best friend. Try to only withdraw as much currency as you're likely to use. Euros can be traded anywhere but outside Bulgaria, there's very little demand for Bulgarian currency, for instance. Also be aware that Slovenia went on the Euro as of January of this year, so you'll be using Euros there. #1 is also right about travel time, especially in eastern Europe, where the road networks aren't as well developed. Language barrier is hardly even a problem in Western Europe but will become difficult in Hungary/Bulgaria and such areas.
Sep 24, 2007 6:44 PM
7OP - I think the quickest way from Sarajevo to Montenegro would be through Mostar and Dubrovnik, but someone else confirm that please. If you did that you certainly wouldn't need to go and sleep in Podgorica, as you could find better and cheaper accommodation, in much nicer surroundings, somewhere on the bay of Kotor (say Perast for example). All in all, there is no reason to go to Podgorica other than to change buses or trains. There are also day hikes around the bay if you get good weather.
As for Durmitor, I guess November might be a bit too late to enjoy the hikes. And too early for the skiing to have started I think. You would be limited to some short - and nice - walks around Zabljak, but I'm not sure it's worth the long bus ride to get there.
Sorry I didn't really get what you meant by avoiding Bosnia, do you mean between Slovenia and Montenegro? If so, you can indeed go through Croatia, avoiding Bosnia altogether - except for a few kilometres in the Neun corridor for which you don't need a visa. Just get to the coast from Ljubljana and start heading south along the beautiful Dalmatian coast until you hit Montenegro. No need to go through Zagreb either - but you could take a detour to the Plitvice lakes NP, stunning in all seasons.
Having said that, Bosnia is said to be a beautiful country with a unique culture. I haven't been there myself but it's high on my list. Sarajevo and Mostar get especially good reviews on this board. You could check the place out on www.balkanology.com, together with a lot of info on the countries that make up the second half of your trip.
Sep 24, 2007 8:26 PM
8You've already received plenty of good advice, all I can do is re-emphasise some points already made.
- Given the time of year, you'll have to be prepared for the possibility of some fairly poor weather, especially later in your trip. You'll need to be ready to be flexible with your plans, especially as you are hoping to do some hiking.
- Also, daylight hours in mid November are quite short, which reduces the time for sightseeing - something to bear in mind when planning, if you arrive in a city at 2pm you'll only have a couple of hours that day to see it in daylight.
- Durmitor is not hard to reach from Podgorica by bus - there aren't many per day, but they do run. However as etcap said, November is kind of "between seasons". Weather in Durmitor is unpredictable at the best of times, so you would have to be realistic - you might set off from Podgorica in sunshine only to find Durmitor buried in fog. And believe me, if you can't see the scenery, there is absolutely nothing to do. But if your luck is in, it's a wonderful place.
- Like #7 I was confused by your reference to avoiding Bosnia, obviously if you are going from Sarajevo Montenegro you are already in Bosnia! But yes, Bosnia is definitely a recommended destination.
- The quickest way from Sarajevo to Podgorica is probably a direct bus rather than via Dubrovnik - but see the next point.
- I think only 1 day in Serbia is selling it a bit short. One suggestion would be to at least take in Manasija Monastery on your way to Bulgaria.
- You might keep the Croatian coast in mind. Apart from being interesting in itself, it might have decent weather for a bit longer than inland - but there's no guarantee.
- As for when hiking huts etc. are open, you'll need to check that area by area. Further south in the Balkans (compared to Slovakia or Slovenia) things tend to be organised quite informally. That means on the one hand that there is not formal closing of trails (as I think happens in the Tatras), so no-one will stop you doing them, but on the other hand it may not be easy to find out whether facilities are open. You'll always be able to find somewhere to stay in towns like Zabljak or Bankso, but not necessarily further into the mountains.
- Once you get past Budapest, don't expect all that much from museums (as you mentioned that interest specifically). Of course there are some interesting museums, but they are mostly quite small, and sometimes not very intelligible if you don't know the language.
- Lots of people travel in this region without speaking the local languages - of course it's good to know a few polite phrases, but realistically given the number of different languages, it's hard to go beyond that. The level of English knowledge varies a lot, just about everyone seems to speak it in Slovenia, and it's widely spoken in all capital cities, but I wouldn't count on finding an English speaker in rural Bulgaria But with a little patience it's rarely a problem.
- You mentioned having a more detailed version of your itinerary. I think what you have posted is already detailed enough, arguably even too detailed. There's no harm in having a day-by-day itinerary so long as you remember its just a guide that can be scrapped at any moment. As you said, accommodation won't be a problem at this time of year, so really you can decide as you go along.
- You may already know this, but learning to read Cyrillic will help you a lot in Bulgaria, and to some extent in Serbia, and a little bit in Montenegro.
- As others have said, Podgorica for 5 days doesn't sound ideal, even as a base for daytrips. Most places of interest are on or near the coast, so you might be better to base yourself in Budva or Kotor, where accommodation will certainly be cheaper. Buses run frequently along the coast road.
Sep 24, 2007 8:28 PM
9Etcap, from doing abit of reading it looks like you are correct. I was thinking of heading to Mostar anyway so that works out well. One concern i have with going that route is not being able to book accommodation online (there is only one listing on hostelworld in Kotor) and i have the impression there aren't many hostels in the region. Do you know of any cheap accommodation you could recommend me in Kotor or somewhere close by i could use as a base?
Sorry about the confusion, I meant 'Belgrade' not 'Bosnia':) Perhaps i could travel Mostar-Kotor, Podgorica-Belgrade, Belgrade-Sofia? The balkanology site is great! Very useful and informative :)
Sep 24, 2007 8:42 PM
10In Montenegro (and some of the other countries) the accommodation bookable online is only a tiny fraction of that actually available. Loads of people on the coast, and Zabljak too, rent rooms to visitors, and off-season they should be good value. Ask at travel agencies locally, anwhere advertising "sobe".
Sarajevo-Mostar-Dubrovnik-Kotor-Podgorica-Belgrade-Sofia is a logical route. As I mentioned already, consider allocating more time to Serbia in general and Belgrade in particular, given that you'll be passing through anyway. Belgrade is not beautiful but it's a very interesting city, and an important one to get a feel for the area's history. Also as a bit city it offers more bad-weather possibilities than many of your other destinations - sorry to mention the weather again, it reflects my own experiences in the Balkans in the last year! To give you an idea how unpredictable it can be: earlier this month I was in Sarajevo. The day before I arrived they had temperatures of 35 degrees centigrade. Two days after I arrived the max temperature was 11 degrees, and snow was visible on the mountains.
Sep 24, 2007 9:34 PM
11OP - I agree with what Alan says about accommodation - you'll best find somewhere to stay by looking around once there. That also gives you more flexibility if you should decide to change your plans for one reason or another. You never know, you might like a place so much that you want to stay there longer - or find that you've seen as much as you'll want to see of a place after a couple of hours. You might also team up with someone and end up sharing a room in a private house, which is indeed the best AND cheapest option in almost every country you're visiting. If you're on your own though, hostels can turn out to be cheaper, as well as more convivial.
On the bay of Kotor, you can really decide to stay in whatever place you like most. We stayed in Perast earlier this year. It is well located, pretty and very quiet too, probably too much so in winter. We stayed in an apartment but you can rent a room there too. There are no budget options, so expect to pay in the region of 20/30 EUR for a room, whether you're alone or not. Just ask around when you get there, or look for a SOBE sign.
I think your Balkans itinerary looks good now with Belgrade and a bit of Serbia thrown in. You could take the overnight train from Podgorica (or even Bar on the coast) to Belgrade and save a night's accommodation.
Out of curiosity, why did you pick the mountains around Zilina of all the possibilities in Slovakia? There are nice hikes there for sure, but it isn't really on the way between the Tatras and Budapest. Are you interested in one particular mountain range or town?
Sep 26, 2007 8:19 PM
12Thanks Alan and etcap for your invaluable input. Montenegro was one of the countries i was most apprehensive about travelling to but now i am more confident about going there. Ill shuffle around my itinerary so i have at least a couple of days each in Sarajevo and Belgrade. Reading your comment etcap made me do some more reading and come to the conclusion that staying in Zilina doesnt really make sense. Ill probably stay in the Poprad/Stary Smokovec area and use that as a base to see Slovak Paradise NP, castles and anything else close by. BTW do you know if there are there trains to Budapest from Poprad?
I'm also considering going on an express train from Krakow to Warsaw and staying there a couple of nights. I have a friend in Poland who i am considering meeting up with there. Would you recommend it or is it not worth the effort/expense? Any idea how much it would cost for the train ride?
Sep 26, 2007 8:50 PM
13No direct train Poprad-Budapest by the looks of it (check it all out on the DB website), but it can be done in 5 hours or so with a change in Kosice.
I think Slovak Paradise is an excellent choice for hiking. You could try to stay in the park itself rather than in Poprad, as there should be accommodation available in various places, even in October. It's not only more a more beautiful place to spend the night, it also saves bus rides to get to the trails. Same thing with the Tatras by the way.
I have never been to Warsaw. If you don't get an answer to your questions on this thread, you could try starting a new one.
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