15for2015: 7 European countries in 2 weeks

(9 countries in 3 weeks in Phil’s case!)

Background:
A bit crazy if I think about it now. It’s been more than a year to this date of writing, but I still remember every detail of this trip with Phil around central/eastern Europe in the summer of 2015. It was the first long trip with him and I thought it could define how good Phil and I would be as travel buddies! :) It was actually his travel plan, and I was a bit unsure at first whether I’d join him on his trip as I have already been away for 3 weeks during April of that year. But I went anyway, because I wanted to–the downside is, I needed to bring my work laptop with me in case I need to do some urgent work. Work-life balance at its best! So I tagged along for the first 2 weeks of the journey, helping a bit in coming up with the plan and arranging accommodations, etc. And so the adventure began!

Objective:
Visit as much of the eastern/central part of Europe whilst the goal for the year remains to be “15for2015” (as a sequel to my “14for2014“). (And also, to somehow prove that Phil and I could be the best travel buddies ever! :D)

Preparations Done:
1. Planned for the most effective route, considering modes of transportation for crossing borders.
2. Determined countries of entry and departure (basically following from the effective planned route).
3. Determined dates of travel, filed for leave from work and then booked for flights.
4. Drafted a rough itinerary to make the most of our trip.
5. Booked for accommodations based on the travel dates and route.
6. For my case, checked if my Schengen visa is recognised in non-EU countries such as Serbia and Romania.
7. Packed lightly and set off! (Lighter than “light” as I had a work laptop with me! Loser much!)

Results:
1. Route
So this was the route that we came up with: point of entry was Prague, Czech Republic and point of return was Bucharest, Romania (Istanbul, Turkey for Phil).

Eastern/Central Europe Route

2. The Itinerary
An overview of our itinerary is attached below (with some sort of sources of information). I have attached both the excel spreadsheet and the pdf doc with some notes to ourselves for some action points :).

2015 Eastern/Central Europe Itinerary
2015 Eastern/Central Europe Itinerary (pdf)

Day 1 – 30 July 2015 – 01Czech Republic / Prague (Old Town)
With our DK’s Top 10 Prague guide book, we opted to explore most of the “old town” of Prague on Day 1. We walked most of the time, visiting the Jewish Cemetery (and some of those Jewish churches as well). Among the other suggestions of the guide book are the following: (1) National Gallery; (2) St. Agnes Convent; (3) Old Town Square; and (4) Wenceslas Square.

Prague's Old Town Square

Day 2 – 31 July 2015 – 01Czech Republic / Kutná Hora, 
It is called the city of silver, the centre of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site since 1995. What stuck to mind is the lovely church they have—the unique late Gothic Cathedral of St. Barbara.
Kutna Hora - Cathedral of St. Barbara

Useful link here.

Day 3 – 1 August 2015 – 01Czech Republic / Bohemian Switzerland
This day was dedicated to hiking in the mountains/forest. The place can be reached through train ride from Prague to Děčín and then bus from Děčín to Hřensko. That is where the starting point for the hike in the National Park. (Useful link here.) For nature lovers like us, this place was a quick day trip to escape the tourist-filled centre of Prague!

Bohemian Switzerland - Czech Republic

Day 4 – 2 August 2015 – 01Czech Republic / Prague (Opposite of Old Town)
We spent our 4th day in Czech Republic exploring the other side of the Danube River, by crossing the famous Charles Bridge. It was crowded as expected; apparently, if you want to get a good photo of the bridge, you’d have to go there very early, when everyone else is asleep. Other sites worth visiting as suggested by our guide book are the following: (1) Prague Castle; (2) St. Vitus’s Cathedral; (3) The Loreto; and (4) Petrin Hill.

Charles Bridge, Prague

At end of 4th day, we traveled to Bratislava, Slovakia via a sleeper train (schedule was 23:50 to 5:36). We booked the train tickets online with a purchase price of €48 for two.

Day 5 – 3 August 2015 – 02Slovakia / Bratislava
We arrived in Slovakia on a very rainy early morning so we decided to stay for a bit at the train station and wait for the rain to at least tame down. It didn’t. So we walked briskly under and through the rain, towards our hostel. It was a little bit early so we can’t still check in but we were allowed to use the toilets and freshen up and to also leave our stuff while we start exploring Bratislava, mainly exploring the old town.

05_Bratislava, Slovakia

Source: DK Eastern & Central Europe Guide Book.

Day 6 – 4 August 2015 – 03Austria / Vienna
We did a day trip to Vienna on our second day in Slovakia and tickets were booked at the main station in Bratislava. Basically, we just roamed around the centre of the city, mainly the Hofburg Complex, and used our DK Eastern & Central Europe Guide Book. We were just in awe of the impressive architecture in the city–it’s that feeling when everywhere you look is just “wow!”.

Vienna, Austria 2015

At the end of this day, we took an overnight train from Bratislava to Poprad-Tatry via Kocise. Travel time was from 23:49pm to 06:50am (Bratislava to Kosice) then 07:18am to 9:08am (Kosice to Poprad-Tatry)! Each ticket costs €20.81. Click here.

Day 7 – 5 August 2015 – 02Slovakia / High Tatras
This day, we went out to hike in High Tatras, the natural border between Slovakia and Poland, and is the highest mountain of Poland.  It was declared to be the first Slovak national park (TANAP) and in 1993 it was, together with the Polish part of the Tatras mountains, declared by the UNESCO to be the “Biospheric reservation of the Tatras”. This place has one of the most scenic views that we had during this trip. Well I find most mountains scenic as I love mountains so much!

07_High Tatras Mountains, Slovakia

Day 8 – 6 August 2015 – 02Slovakia / High Tatras
Another day at the other side of the mountain—another route that’s closer than what we did the day before. I was trying to find details from my notes as to the trails, but I might have lost it. What we did was, we just asked around the tourist info centre for a trail map and worked our way to see which the most convenient routes are.

08_High Tatras, Slovakia

At the end of this day, we travelled to Budapest via Kosice. Travel time: 16:32 – 17:46 (Poprad Tatry to Kosice) and then 18:02 – 21:30 (Kosice to Budapest).  We had to buy the tickets from the station. Useful link here.

Day 9 – 7 August 2015 – 04Hungary / Budapest
We had the entire day to explore Budapest—this day being devoted to the “Pest” side of the city. Pest is the urban centre of the city, on the east side of the river. Amongst the must-see sites are: Parliament, the basilica, the synagogue (the largest or second largest in the world), the Opera, Music Academy, Central Market Hall, Palace of the Arts, and National Theatre.  Near the Danube river, you’ll have a great view of Buda and between the two cities at the northern end, in the middle of the river, lies Margaret Island, with parks and spas.  Further up the river, a boat ride away, lies the artists’ colony of Szentendre.

Budapest, Hungary 2015

Day 10 – 8 August 2015 – 04Hungary / Budapest
Second day in Budapest is all for “Buda”—on the West side of the river is hilly and semi-suburban, and has winding, narrow streets wending their way up into the hills. We explored some of the sites such as Matyas Church and Fountain, Holy Trinity Square, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest History Museum, among others. From outside of the National Gallery, we had a panoramic view of Pest on the other side of the Danube River. We ended our day with a relaxing dip in Gellert Spa and Bath.

Budapest, Hungary 2015

Day 11 – 9 August 2015 – 05Croatia / Zagreb
Very early this day, we took the train from Budapest to Zagreb (6:05am to 12:47nn, tickets were purchased online but have to picked up at the Budapest station—we paid a total of €64 for two tickets). The whole afternoon was just devoted to exploring the centre of Zagreb. As this has been my second time, the only new interesting place for me this time was the Museum of Broken Relationships. :)

11_St. Mark's Church, Zagreb

Day 12 – 10 August 2015 – 05Plitvice / Croatia
Day 2 in Zagreb is a full day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site—one of the oldest national parks in Southeast Europe and the largest national park in Croatia. My second time in this place, but this time, we managed to explore its entirety! I was still in awe of this place and still felt the first time. We took an early trip from Zagreb bus station (8am to 10:07am; each bus ticket costs 98 HRK), luckily the bus station is just walking distance from our apartment. The return trip we booked was 18:30pm to 20:40pm; each bus ticket costs 65 HRK).

12_Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Day 13- 11 August 2015 – 05Zagreb / Croatia
This day was a lazy day around Zagreb; we were basically killing time before we head to our next destination, which is Serbia! Our bus is scheduled at 4:45pm from Zagreb to Belgrade; tickets were purchased online (click here) and picked up at Zagreb bus station. We arrived in Belgrade at around half past 10 in the evening, and on a very depressing sight. There were loads of people at the park near the bus stop—we initially didn’t have an idea why, and then later on realised that they must be immigrants from the war-stricken Syria.

13_Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb

Day 14 – 12 August 2015 – 05Belgrade / Serbia
A day to explore Belgrade. We weren’t expecting a lot from Belgrade, but upon a day of exploring, it did surprise us! Among the sites that are worth visiting are: (1) St. Sava’s Church (a Serbian Orthodox Church, and one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world)—the interior was so impressive, albeit the construction is not yet complete; and (2) Kalemegdan Park—with the Kalemegdan Fortress and yet again, our 4th time encounter of the Danube River.

14_St. Sava's Church, Belgrade

Day 15 – 13 August 2015 – 06Belgrade / Serbia
We had until before 3pm to continue our exploration, but we opted to visit the Nikola Tesla Museum in the morning because Physics! And then a quick trip to see St. Mark’s Church on our way back to the apartment to pick up our luggage before heading to the train station. The train trip was a last minute booking as the originally planned trip via van was a failure! TIP: don’t book with GEA Tours, it wasn’t just reliable!!

15_St. Mark's Church, Belgrade

Day 16 – 14 August 2015 – 06Sibiu / Romania
Getting in to Sibiu was the most challenging part of the trip. Because of our cancelled/unconfirmed booking with GEA Tours, we had to modify our plan. Apparently, the train trips between Belgrade and Sibiu are not the best—there are several delays! Originally, we planned to arrive in Sibiu at around 7am but actually arrived at almost lunch time! We spent lots of waiting time at the train station between Belgrade and Sibiu. So we had half of the day exploring the city of Sibiu.

16_Sibi, Romania

Day 17 – 15 August 2015 – 06Sibiu / Romania
Day 2 in Sibiu was dedicated to the mountains again—we opted to hike up the             Paltinis Mountain as suggested by our hostel’s host. It was fairly easily accessible from where we were staying. It was a chilled hiking but the view whilst we were on the bus going to Paltinis was really impressive!

Paltinis, Sibiu, Romania 2015

Day 18 – 16 August 2015 – 06Bucharest / Romania
This was the day that my trip ended.  We took an early train to Bucharest (originally scheduled at 8:03am to 13:25pm; but there were many delays!). I was anxious and a bit stressed that I might miss my flight scheduled at 17:10pm; but thankfully I was able to make it—with a bit of running from the Bucharest train station to hail a taxi to the airport. The two train tickets cost 115.30 RON, which we purchased online from CFR.

18_On the road to Bucharest, Romania

3. The Accommodations
We mostly booked our accommodations through booking.com; we weren’t yet a big fan of airbnb during 2015. Tip: We would normally book a place that is close to the main train station or close to the city centre so everything’s just walking distance. And because we were traveling during summer, one more consideration was, the room should have an AC. :)

a. Prague (3 nights) – Residence Vysta (U Výstaviště 764/13, Prague, 17000, Czech Republic).
b. Bratislava (1 night) – Film Hotel (Vysoká 27, Stare Mesto, 81106 Bratislava, Slovakia). I specially like the ambiance on this hotel!
c. Poprad-Tatry – Penzión Slávia (Jiřího Wolkera 2, 05801 Poprad, Slovakia). This place is so near the station, about 2-minute walk!
d. BpArt Hostel (3 nights) – BpArt Hostel (1091 Budapest, Üllői út 11­13., Hungary). I won’t recommend this place, as it is so noisy around here; and it’s also above a night club or something.
e. Zagreb (2 nights) – Youth Hostel Zagreb (Petrinjska 77,  Donji Grad,  10000 Zagreb, Croatia).
f. Belgrade (2 nights) – Apartment Mornar 2 (Svetorgorska 17/1,  Stari grad,  11000 Belgrade,  Serbia). We had the apartment all to ourselves; the only issue is that the bathroom overflows.
g. Sibiu (2 nights) – Pensiunea Buon Gusto (Str. Constantin Noica 53,  550169 Sibiu,  Romania). Very accommodating host; though we had a bit of a challenge because she doesn’t speak English. :)

4.  Other Useful Findings and Tips:
a.  On the Schengen visa being accepted to non-EU countries: Yes, I have checked that indeed I am allowed to travel into Belgrade and Romania with my Schengen visa! Sources here: (i) Serbia and (ii) Romania.

b. Booking with GEA Tours – This is specifically with regards to booking for a van to travel from Belgrade to Romania. As briefly mentioned above, we had a bad experience with this tour company due to (i) poor process of booking reservation, (ii) poor communication to confirm booking; (iii) overall poor customer service.

Conclusion:
Based on above results, we therefore conclude that we were able to make the most of holiday around the central/eastern Europe. With 7 countries within 2 weeks, and several amazing sights, the exhaustion was all worth it!  Further, Phil and I ended up still being alive after the trip, therefore, we are fit to be travel buddies! Cheers to more of this kind of travel! ♡

Addendum:
Click here for Phil’s side of the story on his blog. ;)

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