The Beauty of Budapest

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Budapest

Possibly even more beautiful than Paris, although some may argue(!), and not a busy as Prague- Budapest is nearly at the top of my most favourite cities in Europe!

This ancient city is rife with history unlike many others in Europe- and as the countries name may suggest: Atilla the Hun makes his entrance into Central Europe!

Buda and Pest line both sides of the Danube river is spectacular fashion. There is the old palace and St Mattias Cathederal on the Buda side, and the iconic Houses of Parliament on the other. Joining these two cities is the famous Chain Bridge.

Things to do and see in Budapest

The Danube

A river cruise, at least by night, is essential. There are many companies offering cruises, some even with dinner.

St Mattias Church and the Fishermans Bastion offer great views over the city as well as freshly restores artwork on the church walls.

The  Széchenyi Thermal Baths are a hike from the centre of town but worth it to experience what the traditional spas are all about in Budapest.

Photo: www.budapest.com
Photo: www.budapest.com

Food and Drink

The Central Markets sell salamis, fresh fruit and veg, fish and also cooked meals such as Goulash Soup and Langos. You have to try the Langos- they are delicious!

Insight Vacations | The Treasures of the Balkans

A Luxury Guided Bus Tour

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Sean and I are very good organisers when it comes to travel around Europe. We are not scared to use the public transport systems or venture off the beaten track. When it comes to the Balkans there is a whole new kettle of fish to consider- ‘interesting'(!!) border crossings, lack of public transport and Cyrillic writing. So, we branched out to a new and unfamiliar form of holiday: The Guided Bus Tour.

Insight Vacations is not really aimed at our demographic. That being said we certainly didn’t feel on the outer dying out trip. In fact we were not the youngest on the tour by far!

Insight Vacations looked after us from the beginning; we were very happy with their updates and attention to detail. As we arrived in Bucharest we were greeted by the tour leader, who had last easy contact d us by email with a welcome introduction.

Staying in great hotels and eating specially selected and local food really made our experience better. There was no guessing- it made the tour so much more relaxing!

Our tour took us through the majestic mountains of Transylvania, across th plains of southern Romania to the old capital of Bulgaria: Veliko Tărnovo.

The new capital of Sophia was surprisingly cosmopolitan and then we were absolutely floored with the newly built Skopje in Macedonia.

Lake Ohrid was spectacular, with the old Byzantine chapel stretching out to the sparkling water.

Albania was a real experience- not to mention the border crossing!

Montenegro and Croatia never fail to please- and with three days to ourselves we had a well needed rest after some packed travelling days.

Bosnia was a real eye opener- we had an amazing experience with a local family in one of the shelled tower blocks. We were able to discuss the siege of Sarajevo with some actual survivors.

Serbia and Belgrade offered some interesting history and we looked over the conference of the Sava and Danube rivers from the Fort.

Finally we made it to Budapest. This was a real Jewel in the crown of our tour, with a Danube Dinner Cruise and an evening at the Gundel Restaurant.

We had a fantastic and unique experience with Insight Vacations, and would not hesitate to travel with again if an itinerary took our fancy!

Sean and I would like to thank Judit (tour leader) and Dario (driver) for making our trip so unforgettable. And we would also like to thank our fellow travellers for being awesome companions!

Sarajevo

Sarajevo | Ready for Tourists

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Most people think of the Balkans War when they think of Bosnia Herzegovina and Sarajevo. I knew nothing about the city itself apart from the shelling and siege of the city.

Sarajevo has a rich and ancient history running all the way back to the Ilyrian tribes who were conquered by the Romans.

The Ottoman Empire was one of the major influences over the eastern architecture with mosques and baths lining the city streets.

Sarajevo is in the area of Herzegovina- and as a present to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor from the Sultan in Istanbul he gifted Bosnia in the north of the country. But, as a clerical error Herzegovina was added to the paperwork and Sarajevo ‘accidentally’ fell into the hand of the Austro-Hungarians in the 18th century. It was, of course, the location of the assassination that sparked the First World War.

The western part of the city is full of Viennese buildings and Catholic Churches, making Sarajevo one of the most interstates cities we have seen in a religions sense.


The city of Sarajevo is littered with what the locals call ‘Roses’. Createds in the streets filled with red paint as a reminder of where the grenades and shells fell during the siege of Sarajevo between 1992-5. Building still have bullet wounds and shell marks, but slowly slowly the city is being repaired and rebuilt from the disaster of war.

The tunnel of life is situated on the side of the airport. It was a 800m tunnel under the UN controlled international airport that was dug and used to provide the struggling citizens of Sarajevo with food, water and fuel supplies. Today you can visit 25m of the tunnel at the Tunnel of Live museum.

Mostar | Bosnia Herzegovina 

Mostar | Bosnia Herzegovina

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Mostar is in the region of Herzegovina. It is a beautiful old Ottoman town with a bazaar, harram and many mosques. Today it is a tourist hot spot and when I say hot- in the summer time it is roasting!

The most famous icon of Mostar is the beautiful bridge. It is a tradition of the young men to jump from the middle of the bridge as a right of passage into adulthood, they were then able to attract the most beautiful girls in the city to marry. Now days they just do it for the cash! I think they wised up?! It is quite dangerous. The water is freezing from the mountains and not very deep.

Mostar was heavily influenced by the passing trade of the Ottoman Empire exporting their goods to the Venitians in the 15th century. The name Mostar comes from the Turkish ‘bridge keepers’. Later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire rules the city, building larger more western buildings like you can see the facade of above. Most of these buildings were destroyed during the Balkans was between 1992-5. The bridge was hit by both sides but was finally destroyed by the Croatian offensive. It was rebuilt in the same style of white limestone with a very polished surface.

Travel Tips for Mostar

You can day-trip from Dubrovnik. There are many companies that do this- you need your passport and any relevant visas. The boarder crossing is very busy in the summer so be prepared to wait a little.

It gets very hot in the summer and there is not a lot of shade. Sometimes over 40°C. Wear sensible clothes, drink water and footwear should be very considered as the streets are very rounded lumpy stones and the bridge is super slippy!

Try the Cevapi. These are fingers of beef in pitta with onion and paprika sauce. They are cheap and really lovely. I can recommend the restaurant below, it is similar to all the average restaurants in Mostar and very cheap! The local beer Mostarski isn’t bad either.

 

3 Countries in 1 Day

Breakfast in Albania | Lunch in Montenegro | Dinner in Croatia

Its not often that you can dine your way through three countries in one day! But somehow, after an epic day of travelling we managed it!

Tirana | Albania

We stayed in Central Tirana and experienced the delights of this city! Our travelling included some of the randomest events so far on or Balkans adventure. People stand on roads in the middle of nowhere; we had a flash flood that resulted in us seeing a car swept away and flipped over; the main road/highway was covered in animals; the centre of Tirana is a maze of Mercedes (‘obtained’ we were told from most major cities in Europe). We breakfasted in our hotel, which was a lovely continental breakfast.

Kotor | Montenegro

It was a windy country ‘highway’ that took us to the busy port of Kotor. There were 2 cruise ships in on this day making the old walled city very busy. The city has amazing fortifications running all the way up the mountainside to the chapel at the top. The city has suffered from many seizmic events over the centuries, but the old cathedral still stands despite major repairs. We snaked on sandwiches containing the local dry smoked ham.

Dubrovnik| Croatia

Dubrovnik really is the pearl of the Adriatic Sea. I know it’s a cliche- but is has such character and striking features as it lies out on the point with the walls and battlement. Dubrovnik is so busy these days. There were cruise ships docked in the harbour as we set sail for our dinner cruise. We dined on anchovies and Snapper, sipping Croatian wine as we marvelled at the sunset and tried hard hot to throw our phones overboard. Yes- I did have a moment. I sacrificed my wine for my phone. It was a hard decision. But then I poured some more. All is not lost.

Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid | Macedonia


Lake Ohrid is a very special lake- it is a tectonic lake, one of only around 6 in the world! (Baikal, Titicaca to name a few)

Lake Ohrid is half in Macedonia and half in Albania. It is surrounded by monstrous mountains of over 2500m. It is one of the cleanest lakes we have seen, with underwater springs feeding from the surrounding mountains and even from the Gulf of Mexico…… No! I have not got my geography wrong! Look it up! It is crystal clear for up to 21m deep. There are unique fish swimming and have been known to use the underground springs to travel.

Travel Tips for Lake Ohrid

The summer season at Lake Ohrid consists of local Macedonian weekenders and  charter flights mainly from Russia, Holland and occasionally England. The airport is not far out of Ohrid itself. There are hotels that I would rate from 1 to 3 stars, but are quite basic. There are lots of Air B&B’s and they are very well situated if you chose one on the water front. The only challenge would be luggage as the old streets are very small and some areas by the water have only foot access. I have seen Wizz Air flying from London to Ohrid, but it is very seasonal. Coach transfers are available from Skopje, but there are some ‘interesting’ locals I saw on the bus. We travelled as an organised tour of the Balkans.

 

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery | Bulgaria

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The Rila Mountains are the highest point of the Balkan Range, south of the capital city of Sofia. Originally built in the 4th century, it was home to St Ivan, a hermit from the 9th Century. The monastery that is seen today was built in the 19th century, rebuilt after earthquakes and fires in the region.

The main chruch is painted in hundreds of icons, as tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy. It is surrounded by a beautiful wall, with rooms you can stay in. It is very basic accommodations, similar to when it was built, with no running water or flushing toilet. There are 8 monks in residence. There is plenty of local trout to eat, as well as honey collected from the acacias lining the mountain side. The water in the river is fresh flowing and beautifully safe to drink. There are many hotels and camping sites close to the monastery.

 

 

Veliko Tarnovo

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Somewhere in the middle of Bulgaria is a city that resembles something out of Star Wars. I am sure that on the green leafy planet there are hanging houses on the side of the cliff with a meandering river below. Well, I can show you that there is such a place in Europe and it is here- in Veliko Tarnovo.

Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the second Bulgarian Empire; wedged in-between the Byzantine and Ottoman occupations of 1100-1350’s. The fortresses surround the beautifully reconstructed fort, church and still house the evidence of an even earlier occupation of the Roman Empire. They even used the old Roman tomb stones to build the walls of the fortress.

The new city- built in the 18th century, is situated on the cliff sides of the Yantra River. The winding streets and authentic houses offer this town such a quaint and picturesque setting conducive to long periods of drinking the local beer and eating gelato! Every now and then there is a gap in the building offering a spectacular view of the Monument Asenevti.

I can recommend the Yantra Hotel– it affords spectacular views of the fort. If you are lucky and it is a holiday in the region there is a light show at night, portraying the history of Veliko Tarnovo and the Bulgarian Kingdoms.

Castles of Transylvania 

 

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Bears, wolves and mountain lions couldn’t keep us from the beautiful Carpathian mountain in Transylvania. In the foothills of the mountains stand two of the most stunning castles of the region-  Bran Castle (home o Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula) and the former summer residence of the King of Romania Peles Castle.

Bran Castle

Built by the Tutonic Knights, a Saxon order from the conquests of Palestine, started the foundations of the castle in 1211. It was used to defend the region from invading Ottomans from the east. Later the castle was home to the Princes of Transylvania including Vlad of the order Draganus and his son Vlad the Impaler. The Castle was rebuilt in the unification of Romania in the mid 1800’s.

 

Peles Castle

Set in the picturesque town of Sinaia, a ski resort in the Carpathian Mountains, is Peles Castle. This castle was built by the first king of Romania in the 1880’s. It is an intricate display of the best of European turn of the 19th century style. It features rooms from the German, French, Italian, Moorish and Turkish styles.

 

Brasov

Brasov | Romania

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Brasov is the capital of Transylvania, in the foothills of the Southern Carpathians. It is home to a beautiful Saxon Market town and of course Bran Castle inspiring the story of Dracular (more on that next time).

History

Brasov was situated between two empires- the AustroHungarian and the Ottoman. The latter was always invading into the neighbouring Hungarian countryside so German Saxons were resutuated to create a buffer zone against the volatile Ottomans. The Saxons quickly built this charming town into a busy city- it was the mid point of the Constantinople/Vienna road. Taxes and duty made Brasov quickly rich.

Today

Brasov is home to mainly Romanian people. Only since 1850’s were Romanians even allowed in the town! And after most of the Germans were sold by the communists back to Germany doing the regime, the town has grown into the sixth largest Romanian City. It is full of bars and restaurants, old buildings and a variety of different denominational churches to visit. It is worth while taking a walking tour to get an idea of the history of the place since it starts somewhere in the region of 1250!

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