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RTW 6 1/2 – The Balkans Edition

A Summer of Surprises in the Balkans

Posted by on Jul 29, 2011 | Comments Off on A Summer of Surprises in the Balkans

A Summer of Surprises in the Balkans

This month has been quite an eye-opening experience for me. I learned that I’m not cut out for high altitude marathons, that maybe I do enjoy cruising and most importantly that the six countries that once made up the former Yugoslavia have more to offer tourists than I ever imagined.

Over the course of 5 weeks, I visited 19 different countries – 12 of them new to me – bringing my final country count up to 103 by the time I set foot back on U.S. soil yesterday. It was an amazing month(+), here are some of the highlights…

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Ever Awesome Amsterdam

Posted by on Jul 28, 2011 | 3 comments

Ever Awesome Amsterdam

Sometimes I have good ideas and sometimes I have bad ideas. And then sometimes, though admittedly less often, I have great ideas.

Ending my 5-week trip through Europe and the Balkans with one final night in Amsterdam was one of those rare great ideas.

When I booked my ticket for the trip, the flight home from Bucharest had two layover options, one hour in Amsterdam or twenty hours in Amsterdam for the same price. For me, that’s not even a question, I went for the overnight.

Amsterdam is a great place for a layover even if you only have a few hours. The train to the Central Station takes just 20 minutes and costs less than 4 euro. After landing at noon, I was at my hotel shortly after 1:00pm with the rest of the day to wander.

It has been 8 years since my last visit to Amsterdam, but it was just as beautiful as I remembered.  Dutch architecture, a rainbow of tulips, winding canals, a flurry of bicycles and – as a bonus – absolutely perfect weather.  In fact, it had rained for two weeks straight prior to my arrival, but yesterday the sun emerged and it seemed all of Amsterdam came out to play.

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Brasov, Romania: The Best City in the World…Probably

Posted by on Jul 27, 2011 | 4 comments

Brasov, Romania: The Best City in the World…Probably

After leaving Corfu, I was originally supposed to have an overnight layover in the Athens airport but I wussed out and changed my ticket.  You see, there are no decent, reasonably-priced hotel options near the Athens airport. I have no idea why this is but it’s the reason I’ve twice spent the night in that airport on previous trips.

There are two hotels near the airport, the Sofitel for about $300/night or the Holiday Inn Attica for around $200/night. Both lovely hotels, I’m sure, but not worth the money for just a 6-hour layover.

So, while I was in Sofia, I looked into some alternative flights. Spending Sunday night in the Athens airport and arriving in Romania dead tired just didn’t seem like a good plan so I was willing to throw some money at the problem. Not $300, mind you, but something.

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The Thrill of Albania & the Agony of Corfu

Posted by on Jul 25, 2011 | 2 comments

The Thrill of Albania & the Agony of Corfu

I hadn’t originally planned on a stop in Corfu during my 3 week tour of the Balkans.

But I did want to visit Albania while I was in the region and the options for getting there were somewhat grim (no trains, limited flights). So, when I discovered that a popular way to get to Albania was via ferry from Corfu, it seemed like a sign. A sign that it was time to get back to the Greeks.

Corfu seemed the perfect place to base for the weekend and as a bonus, I’d get to spend a full day in Albania. There would be sun and sand and gyros (not together, hopefully), it was the perfect plan. I am travel genius, hear me roar.

So, I flew out of Sofia, connected in Athens and by 10pm Friday night touched down on the island of Corfu for what I fully expected to be the perfect weekend.

As luck would have it, smugness gets you nowhere.

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Sofia: A Bulgarian Beauty

Posted by on Jul 22, 2011 | 1 comment

Sofia: A Bulgarian Beauty

We finally arrive in Sofia Bulgaria at 4:30am after a 6 hour overnight ride from Skopje. I catch a cab at the deserted bus station to the stately Sofia Hotel Balkan (a Luxury Collection/SPG hotel), praying that they will be willing to check me in this early. Starwood status pays off again and I am checked right into a lovely suite.

After two weeks of roughing it in the Balkans, I cannot tell you how happy I am to see this suite. The first thing I notice when I walk in (other than the cool flowing air from the A/C) is the office…complete with printer. I almost cried. I have been in serious need of a printer for a while but it’s tough to find one around here.

Further exploration revealed fluffy towels, a robe & slippers, an expansive array of toiletries, a hairdryer and even an iron. It was heaven.

Now, all of these things are standard in the average US hotel but in the hotels I’ve been staying in across the Balkans, they were non-existent. The A/C is especially welcome as several of my hotels haven’t had it. I briefly consider spending the next 36 hours right here in this room but realize that I should probably at least get out and see a little of Sofia.

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Skopje Macedonia – A Work in Progress

Posted by on Jul 21, 2011 | 0 comments

Skopje Macedonia – A Work in Progress

I arrived in Skopje Macedonia a little lighter than expected thanks to Jat Airways forcing me to check my carry-on bag and then promptly proceeding to leave it behind in Belgrade. With a completed claim form in hand and a promise that it would be delivered to my hotel the following morning (I was certain I would never see it again) I caught a cab into town to check out Skopje.

When Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, it was the only nation to do so without a fight…from Yugoslavia, anyway.

Greece immediately protested – accusing the new country of staking claims to Greek territory and trying to separate ancient Macedonian civilization from Hellenic culture. Athens refused to recognize the Macedonian name or flag and organized an embargo which was later lifted when Macedonia agreed to be referred to internationally as the Former Yugoslav Republic (FYR) of Macedonia.

To this day, both sides are still negotiating a new name and tensions remain.

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