4 weeks in the Balkans by train and bus
July 20, 2013 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Planning a four weeks long overland trip around the Balkans in September/October.

So far considered: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and possibly Hungary, Slovenia and/or Turkey.
Things of interest: local culture & traditions, museum & exhibitions, food, architecture, urban/street art and nature.
Moving around is preferable to a beach vacation. All transportation by coach and/or train only.

Please help me make the most of this trip! Thank you!
posted by travelwithcats to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Budapest is great. Veliko Tarnovo and Sofia, Bulgaria are also fascinating and ancient.
posted by mdonley at 7:12 PM on July 20, 2013

And you do know seat61.com, right?
posted by mdonley at 7:15 PM on July 20, 2013

Best answer: I did a similar itinerary a few years back but took 7 weeks. If I only had 4, I would probably leave out Turkey because the transport time is LONG unless you fly, and you probably wouldn't have time to see much outside Istanbul. (Turkey is amazing though - worth 4 weeks on it's own).

Bosnia Herzegovina is can't miss - spend time in Sarajevo and Mostar. I also loved Croatia and wished I'd spent more time there (I think I was there for a week and could easily have doubled it). I thought Dubrovnik would be too touristy but it was actually very charming (I was there in late October, weather was gorgeous and it was not too crowded). If I did it again I would try to hit Montenegro as well.

Hungary is also a pretty good trek (overnight train ride from Zagreb) but Budapest is fantastic. I would probably do a week there next time.
posted by tinymojo at 7:57 PM on July 20, 2013

Whoops, I'm a liar. I don't think the train from Zagreb to Budapest is that long - I forgot that I went from Zagreb to Brasov via Budapest - that was the long ride. I think the Budapest portion was only 5 or 6 hours.

Romania's awesome too, probably was my favorite after Bosznia Herzegovina.
posted by tinymojo at 8:04 PM on July 20, 2013

Best answer: I would also recommend Montenegro and Macedonia. Montenegro has the most amazing mountains (Tara Canyon) and the train ride from Bar to Belgrade is absolutely astonishing, like traveling by train through the Grand Canyon almost.

If you go to Bar, Montenegro (it's close to Dubrovnik for what that's worth), get a taxi driver to take you to Stari Bar (Old Bar) and go see the ruins and then have some traditional Montenegrin cuisine at the restaurant up there -- it is almost totally untouristed and incredibly beautiful.

My family and I stayed on Korcula island (Croatia) at this place and the owner made the most delicious food for us and took us in his boat around the little archipelago, and the island was sleepy and beautiful and it was like heaven. We liked the people and the place so much. You can go into Korcula town too and see people doing traditional dances and that is pretty cool.

Sarajevo is great and obviously worth visiting. When you're there, eat at the House of Spite. I never got to Mostar but everyone says it is great. There are a lot of wilderness activities in BiH, though you need a guide to do much in the way of hiking (because of land mines). But the greenery and the topography can be really amazing. If you go to Sarajevo there is this (in my opinion) interesting "Bosnian Valley of the Pyramids" going on in Visoko, north of Sarajevo. It is a hoax, but a lot of people believe in it depending on their politics, which is pretty interesting as a cultural phenomenon. And it's pretty there too.

Drvengrad, a simulated "Serbian village" built by Emir Kusturica, is totally weird and worth a visit. They show art movies and sell blueberry juice with pictures of Che Guevara on the bottles and you can rent lodging there and eat simulated traditional Serbian food and it looks really cool. It is really bizarre. When I was there with my Bosnian friend he pointed out that they were selling postcards of war criminals, which went right past me (and, I'm assuming, would go right past most tourists). Anyway, a truly strange and fascinating place.

Also, don't forget Macedonia. My Bosnian friend and I really dug it a lot -- we called it "the happy Balkan republic." We had a really jolly time there and met a lot of great people -- at one point we got off at the wrong train stop and had to take a bus into Skopje and wound up meeting a dentist who wound up feeding us and making us his guests. Also Ohrid is a great town, the lake is beautiful, and so are the cave churches around there (Google it, it's rad).

In Belgrade, go to the Tesla museum and visit the barges (they have floating night clubs!). Everyone says Novi Sad is really cool but I don't know it very well -- anyway, if you're going to Belgrade, don't forget Vojvodinja.

Albania is also worth considering, though when I was there it was a lot rougher around the edges than any of the ex-Yugo republics.

It is really nice to have a friend who speaks the language or to have a guide. At least from time to time. In Croatia (and, I assume, Slovenia) English is widely spoken, and some English is spoken in BiH too, but not as much in Montenegro, Serbia, Albania and Macedonia. It's also nice to stay in airbnb/VRBO/couchsurfing.com-type lodgings rather than hotels/hostels when possible.

Oh! And check out the website yomadic. He is a photo blogger who's been extensively traveling through the Balkans, and his information is more current than mine, and if a picture is worth a thousand words he's got like a whole novel about the Balkans in there ... !

It's a great part of the world -- I envy you your month-long trip!
posted by feets at 2:28 AM on July 21, 2013

Best answer: p.s. The movie "European Muslims and Eastern Christians: Broken Mirrors" is interesting and put a big fire under me to go to Tetovo, Macedonia and see the Bektashi Sufi temples there. They are under attack from Wahhabis at this point, or at least they were the last time I checked. You can read about that here.

Also, while we're talking about inter-sect conflict, the preview to the movie "Whose Is This Song" is a pretty decent brief introduction to the way different Balkan cultures are intertwined and still at odds.
posted by feets at 3:14 AM on July 21, 2013

Best answer: i went to years ago: first with the train from Austria to Rijeka (great train ride, first through the alps and then you get to the sea..), nice town for a short stop, especially the view from Trsat castle, then with the bus along the coast to Split and from split to Mostar (very interesting town..) and then with the train from Mostar to Sarajevo (also a great train ride! and as others said Sarajevo is definitely worth visiting), fro Sarajevo there's a train line to Belgrade. In Belgrade I would recommend going to BIGZ building

From Belgrade there's a night train to Ljubljana which has a more Austrian than Balkan flair but has with "Behemot" the best books store in the world ;-)

As for books: I found "They'd Never Hurt a Fly" by Slavenka Drakulic in a small book shop in Rijeka, which become a - somewhat chilling - travelling companion..
posted by ironicon at 3:35 AM on July 21, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks guys, that's really helpful!
I could spend a month on research :-) and probably a month's worth of travel on each country. This time it's a month for the region though. Trying to figure out where to go and how much time to spend there.

As far as I can tell many international train connections have been suspended recently due to "lack of demand" (Belgrade-Sarajevo) and construction work (Bulgaria-Turkey). Reading guy in seat 61 and raildude among others, I'll have to double check with the locals once there. And probably take the bus instead.

"airbnb/VRBO/couchsurfing.com-type lodgings" is the plan. The Balkan region, especially Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro seems to be not well represented in those networks, but I know that there are many private B&B's to be found locally that don't advertise on the internet.

In terms of "old" conflicts, I think the region generally is safe to travel but read that there might be difficulties crossing into Kosovo from Serbia and vice versa. Also there are some tensions in Bosina and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska.

For future reference; other ask.me's with interesting answers:

Thanks again!
More info always welcome!
posted by travelwithcats at 5:43 AM on July 21, 2013

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