This has now become our annual family ritual – our annual family vacation ritual. The logistics are never simple, with my parents flying in from Kolkata, me and my husband from Bangalore and my sister from Dubai, but its the thrill of seeing everyone together on a holiday, thats just too lucrative to let go. Last year we made it to Russia and the Baltics (read more here) and this year we decided it would be Eastern and South Eastern Europe, touching the Balkans. Itinerary preps started as early as in December with countries making to the list and then getting struck off. Just as there are perks of traveling in a group, some such as these are the draw backs too. And I, as usual, play the overall trip manager – deciding on the itinerary, taking consent from the rest and often negotiating hard to keep a country from falling of the list. But finally by early 2018, we had an itinerary ready. And it so happened that we inadvertently almost followed the Danube all the way from Vienna to the Black Sea (we didn’t cover Germany the birthplace of the Danube). For detailed itineraries of the trip see individual trip itineraries.
Budapest – Bratislava – Vienna – Bucharest – Brasov – Sibiu – Bucharest – Sofia – Belgrade
Hungary, Slovakia and Austria are part of the Schengen area but Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia are not although they allow tourists with valid multiple entry Schengen to enter and exit their country. More on visa procedures here.
Day 1: Bangalore to Budapest via Amsterdam
Four of us flew from Bangalore to Budapest on the KLM-Jet operated route with a stopover in Amsterdam. We used the 5hr 40 min layover in Amsterdam to our full advantage (we had multiple entry Schengen visas) to take a stroll across the beautiful canals of the city. Our connecting flight was at 2.30pm from Amsterdam and we reached Budapest by 4.30pm. Upon reaching Budapest, we checked in to our Airbnb and stocked our fridge for the next 4 days. My sister flew in from Dubai via Turkish Airlines and joined us in Budapest the following morning.
Day 2 – 4: Explore Budapest
By 9am on Day 2 we were all together, ready to roll. We started a little late, by about 11 am and headed straight to Buda (our apartment was in Pest) to visit the Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias Church and the Buda Castle passing the Chain bridge on our way to and back. We also had a guided tour of the Hungarian Parliament building, the 3rd largest parliament in the world. Day 3 was a private tour of the Danube bend with a cruise back from Szentendre and Day 4 was spent exploring Pest and then a climb up to the Gellert hill to the Liberty statue. Budapest details coming soon in a separate blog.
Day 5: Budapest to Vienna via Bratislava
We took the 7:41am train from Budapest Nyugati train station to Bratislava. Reached Bratislava in a little over 2hrs and wandered around Old Town for a few hours. We took the 3.30pm train from Bratislava station to Vienna and reached Vienna at around 4.30pm. Once checked into our Airbnb, we caught a performance of ‘Gasparone‘ at the nearby Volksopper opera (we had pre-booked the tickets online). Details on what to see in Bratislava here.
Day 6: Exploring Vienna
Today was completely devoted to walking around Vienna, soaking in the atmosphere. We obviously didn’t have enough time to go inside any of the museums or the Hofburg palace so we decided to leisurely walk around the city and orient ourselves to the imperial grandeur of Eastern Europe. How to spend a day in Vienna here.
Day 7 – 11: Vienna to Bucharest and Tour Romania
We had an early morning flight from Vienna to Bucharest on the Austrian Airways. Romania is an hour behind Austria so we lost an hour and landed in Bucharest at 9.30am. It took us about an hour and a half to pick up our Avis car rental from the Bucharest airport (pre-booked online before the start of the trip) and once done we drove down to Brasov. On the way we stopped to marvel at one of the most romantic castles of Europe, the Peles castle and also an extremely late lunch. We finally reached Brasov in the afternoon and after checking into our apartment and freshening up strolled down to the town centre which was just round the corner.
Day 8 was spent driving up the Rasnov fortress and the Bran castle. Back in Brasov, we gave the Brasov hill a miss and strolled around town and saw the Black church, had coffee and just relaxed.
On Day 9, we went onward to Sibiu but with a stop at Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad Tepes. After spending a couple of hours in Sighisoara and catching a quick lunch, we started for Sibiu. A quick checkin into our apartment in Sibiu and a refreshing coffee later, we walked into town and, would you believe our luck, we walked right into the grand opening of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival (FITS).
Day 10 was spent marveling at the Corvin castle, which is about 1.5hrs by road. And then more of Sibiu beckoned in the afternoon till late in the night. Know more about the magical experience we had in Sibiu here.
Day 11 was mostly spent on the road as we head back to Bucharest for a final night’s stay in Romania. With unprecedented events enroute Bucharest, it took us much longer to reach, but we did manage to stand awestruck in front of the largest Parliament building in the world and also lament at the bygone grandeur of Old Town Bucharest.
Day 12 – 14: Bucharest to Sofia with a Private Car transfer
We started at 7am from Bucharest on Day 12, with a private car transfer to Sofia. The border check was quick and we were in Bulgaria in by 9am. En route we had planned to see the Rock Hewn churches of Ivanovo and the medieval city of Veliko Tarnovo. But our driver messed it up a little and we ended up missing our first stop but did get to Veliko Tarnovo. After spending about an hour in the town, climbing up to see the fortress we continued our journey into Sofia and reached by 3.30pm. It was a long day on the road, so after we stocked our apartment for the next 3 days, we rested for the rest of the evening.
We had a private trip (pre-booked) to see the Rila Monastery and the Boyana church on Day 13 and in the afternoon we walked around Sofia covering most of the touristy circuit.
On Day 14 we took the bus to Plovdiv, the Roman city of Bulgaria, just about 2 hrs from Sofia. We spent half a day in Plovdiv amongst its magnificently preserved Roman ruins from the 1st century. If you are in Bulgaria, you just cannot miss Plovdiv. Once back in Sofia, we took the metro from the station to the main square to catch a final glimpse of the city before we walked back to our apartment.
Day 15 – 16: Sofia to Belgrade via Nis with a Private Car transfer
We started at 10am from Sofia for Belgrade on the last leg of our journey. Our driver picked us up from our apartment and we were soon at the border checkpost. A quick wait and then a quicker reconciliation of our faces with our passport photos to the ample satisfaction of the border control officers, we were now in our final country – Serbia. On the way to Belgrade we stopped briefly at Nis to see the ruins of the palace where Constantine the Great was born and then the gory Skull Tower and the Nis fortress from the Ottoman era. Finally we reached Belgrade at around 4pm to a pouring sky. But sure as hell, the rain couldn’t dampen our spirits, so after settling in a little we walked to the Nikola Tesla museum, undoubtedly Serbia’s greatest figure, for a refresher into the laws of electro magnetism.
Day 15 was obviously spent touring Belgrade with a well appointed private half day tour of the city where we covered Old Belgrade, New Belgrade and Zemun, the more Austro-Hungarian part of Belgrade.
My parents and my sister flew back to Dubai the same night while we stayed back another night. For details on our Serbia trip click here.
Day 16 was spent at airports returning once again via Amsterdam through an Air Serbia-KLM-Jet partnered flight to Bangalore.