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Short trip to the Balkans

DonaldFisher

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  • Added on: May 6th, 2011
Hi folks,

I've got a short trip to the Balkans in September and was looking for a bit of advice with regards to borders, money and transport.

I'm flying in to Split, Croatia and spending a few days there before making my way to Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, with the possibility of spending at least 1 night there before heading to Sarajevo. After that I'll head to Belgrade, Serbia before flying back to London.

I know I can get a coach from Split to Mostar and then when I'm ready to leave, another bus on to Sarajevo but then I'm given the choice of a train or a coach to Belgrade. From what I can gather so far the train is better for the scenery, but takes around 9 hours or more. It's also apparently cheaper. I've read that the bus is faster and more comfortable though. Does anyone have any experience of the Sarajevo-Belgrade route on either and is able to give a emendation?

How are border crossings in this part of the world? I know I don't need any visas with my UK passport, but are crossing times likely to be hours or minutes?

Finally on to money. I know each country has it's own currency here, but am I likely to get further taking Euros, even Dollars to Bosnia and Serbia? Are ATMs rare or plentiful in this part of the world (I have a worldwide card so it'll work anywhere) or should I take 3 lots of currency with me?

Any help or extra advice people can offer me would be great. I'm starting to plan my trip now to hopefully get the most out of my time in this unexplored area of Europe!

Thanks!

Tortuga_traveller

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  • Added on: May 6th, 2011
I have been to Bosnia, and Croatia. I took a train from Europe to arrive in Zagreb, incidentally. It is a long and more or less comfortable trip by train.

I don't know much about the transport possibilities to Belgrade, but I can tell you I found their trains to be rudimentary, but acceptably comfortable, and their buses, like most eurolines buses, small, cramped, yet acceptable comfortable if one isn't 6'5.

Unless you're wanted by Interpol, you should take care of the border crossings in a matter of minutes. They examine your passport, and throw a stamp on it if you're on the list for automatic visas.

I carried cash in Us dollars, but I regularly visited the Atms in the larger cities. Mostar has them, and so does Sarajevo. I had to go a little distance to get cash in Zagreb when one is not in the center.

By the way, both Mostar and Sarajevo are great cities, well worth whatever time you can spend there. Bosnia also has a beach area. I would head to that to complete the tour of Bosnia, rather than run around on a city tour, unless of course you have a flight out of Serbia.

DonaldFisher

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  • Added on: May 6th, 2011
Thanks very much, some great advice there. :D

I have already got my flight back from Serbia, but have not set in stone my days yet, but will be spending my last 2 or 3 days in Belgrade anyway.

Personally I love seeing different cities and tend to arrange my trips around them. I don't go on too many beach holidays, so have arranged to start in Split and then work inland.


Do you have any accommodation tips for Sarajevo or Mostar? I've been looking online and the hostels are very reasonably priced and some of them look very nice indeed.

:)

Tortuga_traveller

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  • Added on: May 7th, 2011
In mostar I stayed in the house/hostel of some doctor that was in the Lonely Planet book- and though the doctor wasn't there., his attendant was a very good and helpful host.

IN Sarajevo stay anywhere BUT Llubjiana hostels. Its hard to avoid since they seem to have a lock on most lodging in the city, but look hard for it anyways. We went there, and were given a living room in someones larger house, complete with two foldout beds. So far so good. Then it gets interesting. We go in the bathroom, and we encounter something I've never seen in all my travels, and I've been to Central America and parts of the East. They had put a squat toilet on the floor, and a shower fixture OVER the squat toilet. Usually the two functions are separated in some fashion, or there is no shower at all. The owner of the place had a version of PTSD, and insisted on closing all the windows and doors, including the window that vented the bathroom/shower. Needless to say, it was a rather smelly experience, even if we opened the vents every time we walked in there.

When we went back to explain we'd like another place, they were more than a little hostile.
"It's the last place we have for your price. Take it or leave it"

They said.

It was then I realzsed why they rushed us to this place in a terrible hurry. Once we'd taken it, that was it.

People that went to their real youth hostel, not rented rooms, had similar horror stories. so in the least I'd avoid their group hostel lodgings. There are plenty of rooms in peoples houses I would go to first. I imagine if you reserve ahead of time, you might find some nice places.

Anyways,. other people have had better luck, but be careful of that agency, which, as I said, has a lot of the lodging sewed up. Literally. We were curious about staying there, and asked someone in a realty office that befriended us about a long term rental place. She was rather offhand about helping us. "Look in the classifieds" she said, as if we read Bosnian-Croatian. We later found out that the Croatian Mafia enforces high rents to foreigners, and takes their cut. Naturally, no one can afford to help us or they would be on the wrong side of the Croatian Mafia, not a comfortable place to be in.

So, check out the lodgings before you sign on the dotted line. Once we had the lodging, we had little trouble, aside from showering over a cesspool. We got over that eventually, or took less showers. Sarajevo is fairly safe feeling at daytime, and the Turkish section is very interesting. Also make sure to make the time to walk ALL the way up the large hill via a road to the outlook, where you can see just about everything.

I found their turkish coffee to be very high quality in Sarajevo, and of a good price, unlike turkey, where restaurant Turkish Coffee is priced at 2-3 dollars a small cup. Sitting on a balcony watching the town go by is very pleasant.

Also interesting is the way people in the town live AROUND the bomb damage, since a lot of the infrastructure was destroyed, and hasn't yet been replaced. It has a strange squalorous feel about it even now. Note: The Serbians made it a point to render their national library to rubble, just because they could. Serbians and Croats really dislike the Bosnians for different reasons, and both agreed to carve up the territory in their various wars. The Croats still have gotten a huge portion of previously Bosnian territory. Don't believe anyone that says that ethnic cleansing is not effective.

PS: Because the Bosnians have never been conquerors, they have a much friendlier feel about them.

BTW- I usually forget all names of places, so when I remember a name, its either associated with a massively bad experience or massively good experience....

Renee

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  • Added on: May 8th, 2011
Croatia has lots of hostels so you won't have trouble finding one but I recommend Fresh Sheets Hostel in Dubrovnik Old Town and Fulir Hostel in Zagreb.... Awesome!!! I also recommend Hostel & Guest House SA in Sarajevo and Hostel Magdalena-Lena in Mostar... I recommend the bus to Belgrade but I flew round-trip between Belgrade and Sarajevo and Belgrade was a last minute thing because I had "friends" there.... The train seemed like an interesting choice just because of the history of the train service between Sarajevo and Belgrade but I don't think I would recommend it from all that I have heard and read.... Have a great time in the Balkans!

Renee

DonaldFisher

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  • Added on: May 9th, 2011
Thank You folks, getting a lot of ideas here.

Renee, that's a big co-incidence as the Magdalena hostel was the one I was planning on staying in if I do decide to spend a night in Mostar!

I won't be venturing as far North as Zagreb on this trip, although I have another one in the pipeline which will take me there and Ljubljana, so thank you for that too.

I saw a short film about the train on Youtube, it certainly seems like a socially important link for the region, but there also seems to be a lot of red tape about it, such as the criss-crossing of borders and the changing of the locomotive at each change and the customs/immigration authorities that come with that. :shock:

Renee

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  • Added on: May 10th, 2011
The hostel in Mostar is right across the street from the bus station. About 2 blocks from the famous bridge, and the owner is a kind lady. You probably won't want to spend more than a day in Mostar as there's not a whole lot to do but it's definitely worth visiting. I book hostels on hostels.com and usually go with places that have some positive reviews and most places I stayed at in a 9 month RTW ended up being ok and some were great. Slovenia is a lovely country. If you go to Sarajevo you have to visit the tunnels. This is the only must see other than the Turkish area. Maybe it was just my experience but I found Serbia to be kind of depressing. Serbia is known for war crimes but just like I am an American and it's not fair to blame me for America's problems, a lot of the Serbs have just been through hell and had nothing to do with their government--and they are very sensitive about this. Still, while BiH and other places in the Balkans have overcome their problems and past, Serbia has a lot more healing to do. Just my humble opinion. :-)

Renee

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  • Added on: May 10th, 2011
And whether by train or bus, be prepared sometimes when traveling through the Balkans to quickly collect a lot of passport stamps--sometimes just ten minutes apart as the roads cross borders many times... It's kind of surreal... You can get 4, 5, or more stamps in a day... :-)

DonaldFisher

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  • Added on: May 10th, 2011
Renee wrote:And whether by train or bus, be prepared sometimes when traveling through the Balkans to quickly collect a lot of passport stamps--sometimes just ten minutes apart as the roads cross borders many times... It's kind of surreal... You can get 4, 5, or more stamps in a day... :-)


I guess that's one of the quirks of travelling in Europe, lots of international borders where once there were none, or, in the case of the EU no more borders where once there were impassable frontiers. :)

DonaldFisher

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  • Added on: May 13th, 2011
Been thinking about spending at least two full days in Dubrovnik between going to Split and Mostar and have seen a few day trips into Montenegro on offer from various tour companies. They all seem to be a pretty standard itinerary and all cost around €50-€60. I would probably be happy to pay that for a full day excursion as I would like to see at least a small bit of Montenegro and relying on public transport to/from Herceg Novi seems to be a bit hit or miss with regards to bus times.

Can anyone speak from experience and tell me if Dubrovnik is similar to other popular holiday resorts in that once I get there I will see numerous tours on offer into Montenegro which aren't on the internet or is it a case of booking online in advance for the best package/price and a certified seat?

The package I have seen is offered through the viator website, which I have used in the past and have had very good experiences with on day trips, so although I much prefer doing things on my own, I do trust them to give me a good day.

Thanks again, the info here has been helping me a lot. :)

Bideshi

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  • Added on: May 13th, 2011
Couple of things - First, yes, I've done the bus route from Belgrade to Sarajevo, and I'd say that would be the best. I never met anybody who took the train, which isn't to say it doesn't happen, but the bus is certainly more common. However, the train ride between Mostar and Sarajevo is great! The bus station in Sarajevo for buses going to Serbia is across town from the one that every other destination comes in from. Ask at the tourist info offices. It was about 200 meters away from the end of one of the bus lines... 200? 12? I don't remember what line it was, but I'm pretty sure it had a 2. Or a 5. Anyway, ask the tourist info.

In Sarajevo, I agree about avoiding the main hostel, but there were quite a few more options last time I was there than in years past. Look for the signs saying "Rooms/Sobe/Zimmer" and you should be able to find a nice guesthouse near the center of town.

As far as the Montenegro thing, is it possible to just add that onto the trip for a couple days? The bus ride between Sarajevo and Podgorica was probably the most amazing journey I've been on in the whole world! Stunning! And from Podgorica it would be easy to get to Kotor and spend the night or a few nights. Budva is more of a tourist trap with a beach and a collection of Russian millionaires. The small old walled city would be a fine day trip. Kotor was amazing, though, and I would highly recommend it. Otherwise, to answer your question, from Dubrovnik it's just a few miles to Montenegro. Just take public transport and save yourself a LOT of money! It would probably be really easy and there should be plenty of services per day. If you REALLY want the tour, though, yes, Dubrovnik is very much a tourist destination with loads of tourist agencies and you should have no trouble arranging a tour there.

Also, a quick regional note - don't worry too much about finding accommodation before you get to places, especially in Croatia and Montenegro, unless you really have specific preferences in mind. There are loads of people who rent out rooms in their houses who come down and meet most major buses, trains, and boats with signs advertising their rooms. Most will even have a brochure or set of photos to show you right there.

Have a great trip! I'm jealous - the Balkans are my favorite countries in the world!!

Renee

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  • Added on: May 13th, 2011
Dubrovnik is awesome!!! Stay at fresh sheets hostel if you can although it's hard to find... Awesome hostel and location... It's very easy to find and book a trip to Montenegro but they are rushed tour packages - usually a day... It's much better to find your own way but for this you need lots more time...

Cheers,
Renee



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