‘AN EASTER IN EAST EUROPE’ – NETHERLANDS -> POLAND -> SLOVAKIA -> ROMANIA -> SERBIA -> BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA ->AUSTRIA -> NETHERANDS: TIPS & TRICKS
Finally we’re back after a 7000 km ‘Easter in East Europe’ marathon road run driving across 11 countries & exploring 6 countries namely Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina & Austria. Since for most of the travelers, some of these regions have always remained a mystery, I’ve received numerous requests from my friends for sharing the itinerary & travel tips for the same. Hence I’m writing this for you. When my albums come out on my Facebook page, the annotations will provide you with more information. For now here’s a synopsis of our coverage –
1. Day 1 (Hoofddorp, Netherlands to Dresden, Germany) – Drove 800 kms from Hoofddorp, Netherlands to Dresden, Germany which was just a night stopover en route to our first destination Krakow, Poland.
2. Day 2 (Dresden, Germany to Krakow, Poland) – Drove 625 kms from Dresden, Germany to Krakow, Poland. After checking in to our apartment we headed to the center of Krakow for an evening stroll & dinner later in the night.
3. Day 3 (Zalipie & Krakow, Poland) – Visited Zalipie (approximately 110 km east of Krakow), the painted village of Poland driving through the beautiful Polish countryside. Came back to Krakow in the evening & spent the rest of the evening strolling through the streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter famous for graffities.
4. Day 4 (Zakopane, Poland) – Went for a trek in the Chocholowska (pronounced as Hohowovska) Valley, a part of the Tatra Mountain National Park in the Zakopane area roughly 115kms south of Krakow. 16 km of hike (8 km each way) with my 6 year old son Ricky was a challenge which we took & it all felt worth when we were blessed with a rewarding view of the spring bloom of lush violet Crocus flowers carpeting the landscape at the end of the valley.
5. Day 5 (Krakow, Poland to Kosice, Slovakia) – Drove 250 kms from Krakow, Poland through all kinds of good, bad & ugly roads amidst beautiful Polish countryside landscapes & lush green meadows of rural Slovakia to reach the medieval town of Kosice in Slovakia while covering the unique wooden medieval (built in 1500s) churches of Eastern Slovakia on the way.
6. Day 6 (Kosice, Slovakia to Timisoara, Romania) – Drove 432 kms from Kosice, Slovakia to Timisoara, Romania crossing the entire country of Hungary on the way thereby crossing an international time zone (from Central European Time to Eastern European Time) which was our first time zone change by car.
7. Day 7 (Timisoara, Romania to Belgrade, Serbia) – Drove 220 kms south of Timisoara, Romania to the Rock Sculpture of Decebalus & Mraconia Monastery in the morning. In the afternoon we met a small accident as an Audi lost its grip on the loose gravels on the country road & hit the back of our car. So spent the entire afternoon in a Police Station in a small village (or better explained as middle of nowhere) in Romania (with my family sitting in a boiling car without lunch all afternoon) explaining the Dutch car insurance process to the guy who hit my car & to the police & convincing them (in English) to adhere to it who were hell bent upon following ‘their own’ process (and language of course!). After the ordeal was over, we drove 250 kms further through extremely treacherous roads to reach Belgrade, Serbia by midnight.
8. Day 8 (Belgrade, Serbia to Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina) – Explored the city of Belgrade till late afternoon (which was a tremendously tedious driving experience) & then traveled 450 kms to reach Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
9. Day 9 (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina) – Spent the whole day exploring the city of Mostar on foot.
10. Day 10 (Blagaj Monastery, Medugorje & Kravice Waterfalls, Bosnia & Herzegovina) – Drove to Blagaj Tekija (A Dervish (Darwish) monastery for ascetic Muslim monks) setup in a stunning location, the famous St. James Church of Medugorje rich with legends of sightings of Virgin Mary (was overwhelming to witness so many believers getting emotional while kneeling in front of the sculpture of Virgin Mary & we also caught a glimpse of a Christian wedding inside the small & serene church), followed by the beautiful Kravice Cascade Waterfalls, all within an hour drive from Mostar.
11. Day 11 (Pocitelj, Bosnia & Herzegovina) –Drove 35kms south of Mostar to Pocitelj, a historic village with a fortress. After getting there it was some hiking with a child of 6 years through rugged terrain, but at the top of the fortress ruins the views were worth a shot.
12. Day 12 (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina to Zell am See, Austria) – Drove 900 kms crossing half of Bosnia & Herzegovina, the entire countries of Croatia (one of the most comfortable & scenic highways of Europe with mountains on one side & the Adriatic Sea running on the other) & Slovenia (with the Julian Alps looming over the horizon) & half of Austria (with the majestic Austrian Alps running in parallel right next to the road) to reach the town of Zell am See (situated on the Lake Zell) in the Kaprun municipality of Austria amidst all kinds of temperature changes & weather swings – started from scorching sun in Mostar, then drove through severe rain, fog & finally ended up with some serious snow in Kaprun.
13. Day 13 (Kaprun, Austria) –With the whole day raining alongside a thick blanket of clouds enveloping the mountains, we decided to stay back below the mountains & spent the whole day exploring the Kaprun region by car.
14. Day 14 (Kitzsteinhorn, Austria) –Drove to Kaprun Kitzsteinhorn Bergbahn Talstation parking in the morning & changed 4 cable cars to reach Gipfelwelt 3000 (Kaprun National Park Panoramic Viewing Platform also known as Top of Salzburg Viewpoint) on top of the Kitzsteinhorn mountains with a view on the Kitzsteinhorn glaciers (also a ski resort). After that we spent the whole day on the Kitzsteinhorn mountain & had lunch in the restaurant at the top of the mountain.
15. Day 15 (Zell am See, Austria to Hoofddorp, Netherlands) –Drove back 1000 kms from Zell am See, Austria to Hoofddorp, Netherlands crossing half of Austria& Germany.
1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT SEASON FOR VISITING THESE COUNTRIES – Before you set out for traveling to any country the first thing you need to research upon is the right season to travel. E.g. The best time to see the Crocus flowers on the Chocholowska Valley is Spring (Early to late April) when we were there. But during this time the iconic mountains lakes Morskie Oko in Zakopane area, Poland & Strbske Pleso in Slovakia were frozen & hence we had to skip them. And in summer these places could be very touristy. So you have to set your priorities & decide your moment of travel.
2. CHECK FOR FESTIVALS DURING YOUR TRAVEL FOR TRAFFIC & CLOSURE OF SHOPS – Normally Hoofddorp, Netherlands to Krakow, Poland is 1200 km & doable in a 12-14 hour drive in a single day. But for us it took 21 hours despite driving continuously on the fastest lane of the Autobahn (German Express Highway with no speed limits) & the Polish Highways between 160-190 kmph on average breaking all speed limits of the Polish Highways (even crossing my benchmark of 200 kmph at times) as we got 9 hours of traffic jam in total owing to hordes of people (loads of them from Germany) coming to Poland for the Easter vacation which apparently is a big celebration in Poland (now we know!). Also on the day of Easter, while we were traveling from Poland to Slovakia, we faced a serious challenge as ‘all’ restaurants were closed including the ones at petrol pumps on the highway owing to Easter. We finally ended up managing with the stock of bread we had with us.
3. DECIDE YOUR STOPOVERS WISELY – While traveling traveling from Hoofddorp to Krakow had 2 alternative routes (either via Berlin or via Dresden) & we chose the Dresden route because the accommodation there for a night stopover is much cheaper compared to Berlin. So think about the money factor while deciding your stopover city as it can vary greatly among cities. Also try to stay in bigger cities for the night (unless you’re camping out) & travel to remotest corners during the day by car since facilities like restaurants, supermarkets, medicine shops, ATMS, etc are simply ‘absent’ in the smaller towns & villages in Eastern Europe.
4. DISCUSS ABOUT VACCINATIONS WITH YOUR FAMILY PHYSICIAN BEFORE YOU TRAVEL TO EAST EUROPEAN/BALKAN COUNTRIES (SPECIALLY IF YOU PLAN TO GO CAMPING IN THE WOODS OR MOUNTAINS) – We actually skipped this step being overconfident having traveled to 27 countries in Europe s far, but after returning I came to know that the countries/places we visited might have posed a threat of Tick-borne Encephalitis. So before we go for our next 9000 km road run this summer again we will try to be covered in this aspect as well.
5. KEEP THE GREEN CARD OF THE CAR WITH YOU IN ORIGINAL (SPECIALLY FOR NON-EU COUNTRIES) – Actually for this vacation I was driving a replacement car since my company lease car was broken & the dealer provided me with only copies of the green card (equivalent of registration & insurance papers) saying that this will suffice for all countries in Europe. However, we were stopped at the border control checkpoint of Bosnia & Herzegovina (since apparently in non-EU countries copies don’t work) & after a great deal of negotiations, harassment & delay we ended up buying a 7 day Bosnian insurance for the car (for the detailed story please follow daily account of the trip on my profile).
6. DO NOT FORGET TO BUY STICKERS/VIGNETTES FOR YOUR CAR – Before you travel by road on any country in Europe, you need to research for the stickers/vignettes (equivalent to road tolls or emission certifications) you need to paste on the windscreen of your car before entering that country. If you are caught without stickers, fines can range between 50 & 200 Euros. Also know the translation of the registration country of your car in the local language while you go to buy the vignettes. When I went to a Romanian petrol pump to buy a vignette (a sticker equivalent to a road toll) he didn’t even know what NL or Netherlands meant (I guess they’ve hardly ever seen anyone drive from so far to their countries). Finally when I selected the drop down on his computer he understood that the NL in my car’s registration means Olanda (Holland in Romanian).
7. FUELING ACROSS COUNTRIES – Just before you travel check the gasoline/diesel cost across countries to decide in which country it’s cost effective for you to refuel. If you are driving a company lease car & have a fuel card paid by your company (like I have an all Europe Shell Card), research upfront on the Shell Station Locator & plan those fueling stops in your itinerary at regular intervals lest you run out of fuel since Shell does not have many stations across these countries (in fact Shell is not even there in the parts of Romania we drove through, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia & Slovenia). Also check upfront on the Shell Station locator if it sells the kind of fuel your car uses (e.g. in Slovenia I found only ‘Shell Truck Diesel’ pumps while my car used petrol/benzene/Euro 95), if it’s open 24 hours, if it’s a manned or unmanned pump, etc.
8. CHECK THE TERRAIN BEFORE YOU TRAVEL & ACCORDINGLY DECIDE YOUR DRIVING TIMING – We entered Serbia from the Rock Sculpture of Decebalus in Romania driving through the National Park Djerdap after sunset (since I lost a lot of time in the police station after the accident) which consisted of a 2 way pitch dark serpentine mountain road (with mountain on one side & a cliff drop leading to Danube on the other), long lightless tunnels with trucks speeding in from opposite direction with their high beams dazzling my eyes & dense pitch dark uninhabited forests with foxes running in parallel to our car. So use ‘Google Earth’ before your travel to check the terrain & elevation & decide your travel time.
9. USE HIGH BEAMS AT NIGHT – Most inter country highways in Europe do not have street lights. Hence switch on your hi-beam if you plan to drive overnight especially for mountainous terrain & momentarily switch them off when you see cars coming in from other direction lest you bedazzle their eyes.
10. CARRY THE SUPERMARKET WITH YOU – In many of these remote locations in Eastern Europe it’s extremely challenging to find supermarkets. Only in bigger cities you might find a decent sized supermarket after some search. To get a large sized supermarket ask your accommodation (try to stay in bigger cities unless you are camping out) to provide you a list of supermarkets nearby with their addresses & telephone numbers. Also inquire about the closure timings for the supermarkets. Once you are at the supermarket convert the booty of your car into a mini mobile supermarket.
11. CARRY CASH – In almost all of Eastern Europe, European credit cards are accepted in fuel stations & bigger restaurants but apart from that for all other local buying & casual fooding ‘Cash is King’. So withdraw cash in the local currencies according to the respective currencies ‘as soon as you see’ an ATM (which are not abundantly available) & don’t worry about leftover local currency. Before you leave that country exhaust the residual cash in buying sandwiches/chips/water from a fuel station & stock them in your car (you’ll use them anyhow). Buying local mementos to exhaust the local currency is also a good idea.
12. TRY TO COOK – If you are going for a long vacation in Eastern Europe, getting food of your choice could be challenging since the cuisines everywhere are authentic (apart from bigger cities where you will find Italian, Chinese or Indian cuisines). Especially for vegetarians there aren’t a lot of options to choose from. So try stocking the food of your choice from the supermarkets in the refrigerator of your accommodation & then cook yourself (at least one meal a day e.g. the dinner in the night upon return). So always take an accommodation with kitchen.
13. SPEND MORE TIME IN BUDAPEST THAN IN ANY HUNGARIAN COUNTRYSIDE – In my opinion, Budapest (which certainly is what Rick Steves calls as the ‘Best of Hungary’) is a more exciting place to be in than any other countryside villages when in Hungary. We did Budapest before so did not make a stopover in Hungary this time around.
14. ‘DON’T’ DRIVE IN BELGRADE – Belgrade is the first city in Europe so far where I consider driving really really difficult. For people who find driving in Brussels or Paris challenging (which I find is a walk in the park), please don’t even dream about driving in Belgrade. You will wake up with bloody eyes. It’s horrible & can really put many Indian big cities to shame! Apart from lack of traffic rules, lack of street signals (most of them don’t work & simply blink yellow & instead there are traffic police showing signals by hand which is the first time I saw in Europe) there is tremendous traffic. A drive of 3 kms through the city in any direction at any time of the day takes roughly 45 minutes. And there is absloutely NO street parking to be found & NO parking garages in close vicinity of major tourist attractions.
15. IF YOU ARE PLANNING TO SKI KAPRUN IS WHERE YOU NEED TO BE – Apart from a stunning visual setting Kaprun is a great location for skiing (a 1000 km drive from the Netherlands doable in a day within 12-14 hours). But check the timing of the last cable car from the top of the Kitzsteinhorn mountain. While we were there the last cable car from the top level left at 15:30. However the cable cars at lower levels continue to run till evening & there are skiing facilities at each of these levels.
16. PLACES IN OUR ITINERARY THAT WE MISSED – Apart from skipping the mountain lakes Morskie Oko in Zakopane area, Poland & Strbske Pleso in Slovakia, intentionally as they were frozen, we also missed a couple of locations in our itinerary owing to delays due to Easter traffic & unforeseen circumstances like accidents, etc. They are Wieliczka Salt Mine just 15 kms south of Krakow, Poland (oldest salt mine in the world housing the world’s biggest underground church which is made completely from salt but has numerous steps to climb through dark claustrophobic tunnels) & Bigar Waterfalls (known to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Europe) in Romania. You can choose to make them a part of your itinerary if you wish to.
17. IF YOU WANT TO VISIT BIGGER CITIES – Apart from these you want to visit bigger cities then Bucharest, the capital city in Romania or Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia are worth considering. I hate bigger cities as they are often touristy & offer less photography opportunities. Hence they were not in my itinerary. Another specific reason why we did not cover Bratislava (capital of Slovakia) in this trip is since it’s close to the Austrian border. We intended to enter Austria after covering Romania, Serbia & Bosnia & Herzegovina & not directly from Slovakia. Hence we plan to cover Bratislava in a later trip. You can also check out Innsbruck, Hallstatt & Salzburg in Austria, Dubrovnik & Split in Croatia, Budva, Perast & Kotor in Montenegro, Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia & Lake Bled which we did before (and hence weren’t a part if this trip) which are also amazing places to visit (I’ve separate albums on my FB profile with detailed annotations about the places which can help you plan your trip). I mentioned them here so that you can make your own choice.
With that I would like to conclude my write up here. For detailed day by day account of the trip please follow my previous posts on my profile.Until the albums come out on my Facebook page enjoy the sample images attached here.
And more photos visit https://www.facebook.com/shirshendusenguptaphotography/. To subscribe to updates on your news feed, hit the ‘Like’ button and to book an exclusive artistic portraiture or a live event photo shoot session, buy stock images or join the photography tutorial classes, click on ‘Send Message’ button on the right side of the page. A big hug to all of you and have a great weekend everyone 🙂