2011 EASTERN DISCOVERY

Insight

IIt's a multi-country tour: Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey; 9 countries; of which 3 are new for me. Only days 10-12 are fully new; for the other days it's a repeat from various trips but after we get out of the re-re-re-repeat of Vienna, it is very enjoyable.

Day 1, Saturday, April 30 Depart US
Get up extremely early at 1:45 AM (or don't go to bed?) for a VERY early pickup time (2:50 -3:05 AM) for the StuporShuttle (with recent price increase). For the fifth time, it's a "no show." When I call (3:15) I'm told "technical difficulties" and that a taxi will come and take me to the airport. It arrives at 3:35 and I make it to the airport at 4:15 for a "hurry up and wait" session. The first flight is actually by "Air Canada Jazz" and the e-ticket says check in at the Jazz counter, but there isn't one, so I go to the Air Canada counter but the Air Canada counter isn't open for business until 5AM, and they can't check me in for the 2nd flight - I have to check in again in Toronto.

I'm off on more long flights with a long layover in Toronto but it was the only combination that got me into Vienna in time to catch a shuttle to the hotel there … and it's only one stopover. Other flights arrived in Vienna after 4 pm after the last shuttle. I hope all this early pickup and long layovers are worth it. Plus I used a whole bunch of credit card points for the airfare.

We depart Houston in a light (un-forecast) rain. I even had to stand in some mist/drizzle while waiting for the StupidShuttle. There is a one hour time change going from Houston to Toronto. The second flight is by Austrian Air but their ticket counter doesn't open until almost 3PM so since I arrived at 11AM, I have to stand around in the ticketing area for about 4 hours. I have time to stuff my face for a very late lunch during the 7 hour layover and I do get a (nice) dinner on board. At least the second flight is only about 9 hours so not TOO bad - just more overnight "sardine time" though I did luck into a "bulkhead" seat. The return trip is direct from Frankfurt and 2 hours longer but is a greater distance.

Air Canada AC 8108Houston - Toronto6:50 A - 10:53A3:03(7:17)
Air Canada AC 6166Toronto - Vienna6:10 P - 8:35 A 8:2518:45

Day 2, Sunday, May 1 Vienna, Austria, at Leisure
After we arrive at the Vienna airport (6 more hours time change, total of 7 hours difference with Houston) and get through Immigration and Customs, we are supposed to meet our Tour Director at the "Meeting Point" (look for the signs) shortly before the shuttle leaves for the tour hotel at 9 AM which I'll probably miss, and 11 AM. Most likely I couldn't check into my hotel room with the 9AM shuttle, or maybe even the one at 11AM.

However I'm in for a very nice surprise. I manage to get my bag and through the formalities by 9AM, and the tour director is standing just outside the arrival hall watching for five of us (looking for our large yellow luggage tags) so I don't have to wait around for two more hours for the next shuttle. Another nice surprise: my hotel room is ready and I can sign-in now.

With getting up Saturday morning at 1:45 AM, its 5 hours until takeoff and another 18:45 for the flights making a total of 23:45 hours awake at arrival. Since I didn't get to bed Friday night until late, and didn't get any sleep, add another 20 hours (5:45 AM Friday - 1:45 AM Saturday) for a 44 hour total - and it's still quite a while until "bed time" tonight - another 12 hours. But with the hotel room ready, I can just go up and "crash" after requesting a "wakeup" call at 4PM. Meet our Tour Director and fellow guests at 5 for a Welcome Drink (only beer and wine offered and I don't drink - no "soft drinks" etc.), and no dinner (grumble! Bad start!).

My / our tour director is Louis (pronounced Louie) Oroschin from the Netherlands, and our coach driver is Marijo from Zagreb, Croatia. There are 35 victims in our group - and there is another group of 34 (with a different Tour Director, Heinz) doing exactly the same tour. That makes 69 people who signed up with Insight for this tour on this departure date. I wonder if Insight cancelled departures before and after this one and combined groups. As the tour progresses, I'm more and more happy that I have Louis rather than Heinz for my tour director.

During our short introductory "welcome" meeting, I discover that I'm the only American in my / Louis' group and all of us have been to Vienna before which also shows in that there is virtually NO interest in either of the optional excursions offered for Vienna tomorrow night, and both of the options are cancelled for lack of interest. In fact, less than half the people on the tour from our group come on the Vienna sLightseeing tour tomorrow morning. All of the other (later in the tour) options "make" with sufficient sign-up counts. There's just no (or very little) interest in doing anything in Vienna.

The weather forecast I got before the trip is NOT good: Sunday: 50-59F, thundershowers (but they have mostly cleared); Monday: 48-63F, Showers (but turned out clear and very nice); Tuesday: 50-61F, Showers (overnight before we leave). Hotel: Hilton Vienna Danube. The hotel provides very expensive WiFi and it's a very nice room but definitely NOT the same hotel as in 2005. The only view I have from my window is of a parking garage under construction. The Danube River is nowhere to be seen. (2 nights)


Day 3, Monday, May 2 Vienna Slightseeing Boredom
After a nice (large) breakfast at 6:30, we depart on our tour at 7:45. A slightseeing high- low-light this morning is a (yet another, it's my 5th visit to Vienna) guided visit to the magnificent(ly boring) Schonbrunn Palace and gardens. Fortunately we go through only a few of the 1441 rooms. Slightseeing continues past St Charles' Church (just doing "drive-by-shootings") and tours the 'ring', seeing the Opera House, the Hofburg Imperial Residence and Parliament Building. Our short three-hour tour concludes (with only the one stop) and our very small, reduced group heads back to the hotel.

The afternoon is free for me to catch up a bit on some more of the missed sleep. After a couple of the options that I wanted to do were not offered, I decided to splurge on the dinner tonight. However we don't leave at 4:30 due to the Vienna traffic since this option as well as the concert one were cancelled due to that almost total lack of interest. Our Vienna visit was essentially over at 10:45 this morning. I didn't even take my camera along today. (BB, OD)

Previous Vienna visits: 1999 "Austria/Switzerland," 2001 "Central/Eastern Europe," 2002 "Alpine Xmas Markets," 2005 "Greece & Balkans"

Option: VIE14 GALA VIENNESE CONCERT A wonderful concert (done twice - it's actually only the second half) of Viennese Classical music including some of the most famous works of Johann Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by highly acclaimed soloists and dancers. A glass of champagne is also included during this special evening. € 47 - NO and cancelled due to lack of interest.

Option: VIE06 DINNER IN A COUNTRY MANSION We see the infamous Prater Amusement Park, then cross the Danube to arrive at one of the most famous restaurants in Austria. Former patrons include Napoleon, the Emperor Franz Joseph, Luciano Pavarotti, Liz Taylor and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this historic country mansion we will enjoy a delicious dinner in one of the elegant dining rooms. Choose our main dish from various Austrian specialties and enjoy the live music. € 60 - yes but cancelled due to lack of interest (only 4 of 69 signed up for this option)

Day 4, Tuesday, May 3 Vienna - Maribor, Slovenia - Zagreb, Croatia
Hooray! Now that I've finished that re-re-re-repeat of Vienna, it's time to see something more interesting. Our schedule for today is a wake-up call at 6; breakfast at 6:30; bags out before 7; and we depart at 8. We head through Styria's forested mountains, past Graz, (it's a very beautiful and very green, countryside with small towns scattered along the way) and over the Slovenian border to reach the 700-year-old university town of Maribor which is our lunch stop. We only have an hour here (grumble and growl!) to get our lunch and to look around. I wish it could have been at least another hour rather than so much time later in Zagreb. Sadly I had left my camera on the bus and missed some great chances for pictures.

Be sure to bring our passports since we are going to another country. Then we follow the Drava River to Croatia and on to Zagreb. We are extremely lucky and get through the Slovenia/Croatia border quickly and with no problems. I've been here in Zagreb before. On our guided tour, see Roosevelt Square, the facades of Ban Josip Jelacic Square, the Cathedral, and, in the medieval Upper Town, the Presidential Palace, Stone Gate, St Marks Church and Pope's Tower. Hotel: Sheraton Zagreb (The same hotel as 2005, but it has gone downhill a bit since then.) (BB, OD) Lots of "one-night-sleeps" on this trip.

Option: ZAG02 TRADITIONAL DINNER Dinner for those who want to see what high-end yet traditional Zagreb dining is about. The setting, service and presentations of regional cuisine all come together (not so) brilliantly (according to reports). € 46 - NO

Day 5, Wednesday, May 4 Zagreb - Plitvice Region
I did this section from south to north on my 2005 trip - "Crossroads of Cultures and Contrasts" which went from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik then north to Ljubljana and Zagreb.

Breakfast is at 6:30 again - another nice one. I'll take the optional excursion to the home of the late Marshall Tito in Kumrovec (for the village, not his home which is nothing special). Those of us going on this option have to put our bags out by 7:30 before we board our bus at 8:30. This is a new place for me to visit so I'm looking forward to it. As it turns out, I wasn't all that impressed by the home, but the village is really nice and reminds me of Maihaugen in Norway. Sturbridge Village is set about 50-100 years younger but the facilities in the houses in the town make it look much younger. We have the included lunch in a nice little restaurant in Velkjo, and lunch is … a lunch … but the scenery from the restaurant is good. The best part of the day is that we mostly drove on narrow, winding local roads and got to see much more of the countryside, and a whole bunch of the little villages. All in all, a very good day.

Bad news: The last couple of days, my sinuses are "killing me" and it seems to be getting worse.

When we get back to Zagreb about 3, we have only a brief time for a "rest stop" and to pick up the other people before departing for one of Europe's natural wonders, Plitvice National Park. We do have an included (poor) dinner tonight - and had to sign up yesterday for whichever entrιe (from a list of 4) we wanted to have. Hotel: Hotel Jezero. It's that same one as in 2005 - and wasn't all that great then - which is at best an understatement! Or should that be "overstatement?" In 2005, it ranked lowest of all the hotels on my two back-to-back trips. It still has a lot to wish for with small, cramped rooms, and no air conditioning plus the heat is turned off even though (its fairly cold outside. We have no view, but this is the ONLY hotel in the area so there are about 14 busloads of tourists here now. It is very fortunate that we are here for only one night. We just have to "Growl and Bear It." (BB,OL,D)

Option: ZAG01 KUMROVEC & LUNCH (NEW) A short yet scenic drive takes us to Kumrovec , the birthplace of the late Marshall Tito, whose house has been turned into a museum. Situated on the bank of the River Sutla, Kumrovec is an exceptionally valuable and attractive ethnic village with about thirty rural houses and farmsteads, restored and kept as a typical rural entity. Later, we follow a winding road through the Zagorje hills . A lunch of local specialties is served in a renowned restaurant, with magnificent views of the Croatian countryside. € 51 - yes

Day 6, Thursday, May 5 Plitvice Region - Trogir - Split
Awake up call is for 5:30; breakfast at 6:30 with 14 loads of tourists trying to get in at the same time. We have to have our bags out before 6:45; off for the day at 7:45 on foot - the Park is just across the road. Its "cold" this morning; our breath is fogging/frosting as we breathe. I should have brought gloves and a fur hat.

We tour the Plitvice Lakes, a scenic wonderland of 16 lakes flanked by thundering waterfalls and primeval forest. Part of the tour is by bus (oops, the local trolley is not working today - the rubber band broke) and so all the tour is on foot - about 6km (4 miles). This is a much longer and better tour of the Park than I had last time. Visit Korana Canyon's 230 foot high falls. The only "hard" part was the long climb from the bottom of the Canyon back up to the level of the bus - took about a hour. Still, the trip was very worth it since I got to see lots more of the nicer, prettier part of the Park.

After a brief stop for lunch (a large bowl of very good soup), we head down the coast to visit Trogir which was founded by the Greeks in 400 BC but now renowned for its fine cathedral and Renaissance Cipiko Palace - and lots of souvenir shops (probably "made in Hong Kong"). I've been there before but our quick 1-hour stop was good as a reminder of the interesting little town.

Continue to the historic port of Split and the suburban town of Solin (formerly Solana) for the hotel: President Solin which is actually out on the outskirts of Split in Solin. Since no are meals included, I had to buy something to eat for dinner where we did our afternoon stop. From the hotel, there is nothing here to choose from. I would have to take a taxi into town. (BB)

SPT01 KONOBA DINNER: If we want to truly experience the Dalmatian cuisine, a dinner in a traditional 'konoba' - a stone daylight basement - is the best choice. Select from a variety of seafood accompanied by good Dalamatian wines. €47 NO For the menu & price, I'll "pass."

Day 7, Friday, May 6 Split - (Bosnia-Herzegovina) - Dubrovnik
After breakfast at 6:30, we drive to Split and start the day with a guided tour of the old town part of Split. Be sure to bring our passports since we go the stay in Dubrovnik to three nights. That may not be such a "bad deal" since Dubrovnik was probably my favorite place on the Balkans trip back in 2005.

1700 years ago, the Roman Emperor Diocletian built his palace here and our local guide leads us through the labyrinth of streets and historical buildings within that same palace. Travel through charming fishing villages and very briefly through the Bosnia sea access route making a "rest stop" in Neum, before getting back into Croatia, and on to Dubrovnik.

We have a "dine around" dinner this evening which means that dinner is included, and we get a choice of which of three restaurants we want to try. We had to sign up for which restaurant and what entrιe back on Wednesday afternoon. I chose the "Mea Culpa" Restaurant and entrιe Spaghetti Bolognese which isn't like any I've had before; this is just seasoned spaghetti with a few crumbs of meat … its good but not worth that much and I still have to walk a mile back uphill to the hotel after that. Our hotel was changed from the original (Libertas Rixos) and the replacement is just outside the city walls, but maybe not quite as nice. The other group is "still" at the Rixos. Hotel: Libertas Rixos Grand Villa Argentina. My room is up in the "attic" - take the elevator to the top floor then climb another 22 steps and the street level is only a bit over 1 floor down so the room is very noisy. (BB,D) (3 nights)

Day 8, Saturday, May 7 Dubrovnik at Leisure
Breakfast at 6 - so-so. Today and tomorrow are partly boredom. Begin the day at 8AM with an excellent included presentation from a guest speaker and resident of Dubrovnik about life during the siege and war of 1991, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the rebirth of Croatia. Only half the group showed up; the rest missed an extremely good presentation.

Then at 9:15, we make the long trudge back downhill (remembering that we DO have to come back up) for a short guided sightseeing tour in the Old Town in which we explore the stone-paved streets inside the 16th century bastions. See Onofrio's fountain and the Rector's Palace, the city walls, as well as the Franciscan and Dominican monasteries. The city is jammed with passengers off some cruise boats in port - so definitely not a good experience. (See below.) After that, those who are not going on the lunch cruise are free to wind down at our hotel; relax and waste the rest of the day, or opt for a walk around the Lapad peninsula or the much more interesting town walls. I choose to try the walls and get only half way around before being virtually thrown off by the mob/hoard of Japanese cruise passengers; plus it's beginning to get hot, and I still have that LONG trudge back up the hill to the hotel. I'll come back into town later after the cruise boats are gone.

As it happened, there were two large cruise ships in port plus a smaller one. The town was absolutely jammed with mobs of groups pushing and shoving their way through other groups trying to keep track of where their individual guide was taking them. It was/is enough for me to almost certainly decide NOT to do the Islands cruise as part of my Greece trip next year. (BB, OL)

Option: DBV02 LUNCH CRUISE Sit back and enjoy a relaxing cruise around the fabled bay of Dubrovnik.The mighty city walls rise straight from the cliffs that once upon a time were part of yet another island of the Adriatic. A lunch of seaside specialties will be washed down with local drinks. We will moor in the old town harbor and have another look at Dubrovnik from the sea. € 51 - NO

Day 9, Sunday, May 8 Dubrovnik at Leisure - Mostar Excursion
The optional Bosnia sightseeing listed was an included visit in my 2005 trip since then it was on the way from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik. Notes from then say it was very nice and interesting so I'll do it again, this time as the optional excursion. It also gives me something different to do today.

We have to leave early since it is a long drive - which also means that we get back "late." Be sure to bring our passports since we are going to another country. Breakfast starts at 6AM and we leave at 8AM. Oops, make that 8:20. When everyone was on the bus, Louis reminded us that we have to have our passports. We get about 100 yards down the road and someone only then checks - no passport. Since it is a one-lane, one-way street, we can't back up so we have to go the long way around to get back to the hotel for the passport.

The scenery on the way is very nice as I remembered it. Our first rest stop is a truck-stop in Neum (Bosnia-Herzegovina) right on the coast. Our second stop is much more interesting - a little town, Podcetlj, where we can buy some souvenirs, and also fresh fruit - tangerines, strawberries, etc. I tried the strawberries - great!! The real attraction there is the hilltop castle/fortress - with a large portion of the walls and towers still standing.

We continue on to Mostar, and after a short tour (so-so guide), we are on our own for lunch. Even though they have their own currency (and it's now illegal to accept any other currency), we can also use either Kuna or Euros. We take the same route back to Dubrovnik with only one stop, but it's been a long day - we arrive at the hotel just before 6PM. There is still time, and daylight) to make a "quick" (HA!) trudge into town to get something to eat. (BB)

Option: DBV03 CILIPI FOLKLORE SHOW Hear the church bells calling for mass and see the locals dressed in their Sunday best slowly heading to church. A joyful celebration takes place in the church square following the mass where the locals in colorful costumes perform songs and dances from the village and the region. We will have a chance to browse the market for some authentic local souvenirs and enjoy the rhythm of Dalmatian music. € 29 - YES - BUT NOT OFFERED Time conflict with the other option.

Option: DBV06 BOSNIA HERZEGOVINA, NERETVA VALLEY AND MOSTAR Despite the horrors perpetrated in the Balkan War, Bosnia and Herzegovina boasts stunning landscapes and a rich cultural past. We travel inland following the picturesque valley of the Neretva River. We stop at Pocitelj, a fortress town perched on a hill, tastefully restored to its former beauty before the war and renowned for its colony of artists. Then it's on to Mostar, a labyrinth of medieval cobblestone lanes and world famous for its graceful 400 year old single span bridge, now painstakingly restored and designated as a UNESCO cultural heritage site. Enjoy free time for exploring and lunch before returning to Dubrovnik. € 42 - YES

Day 10, Monday, May 9 Dubrovnik - Kotor (Montenegro) - Tirana (Albania)
NEW from here to Sofia! Again, Be sure to bring our passports since we are going to another country. We should change any leftover Kuna into Euros just before we leave Croatia. We can get by with just Euros from here on to the end of the trip.

Since there is always a hassle at the border, we have to start early or get caught in a long (physical as well as time) line at the border. The wakeup call is at 5AM, bags and breakfast at 6, and on the bus and traveling NO LATER than 7AM. It's again cold and windy this morning. Cross the border fairly quickly into Montenegro (Euros currency) and visit the Old Town of Kotor, perched beside the only European fjord outside of Norway. It's something like a small Dubrovnik (but with almost totally broken down walls) but there are some nice sights there. There is a cruise ship in port and the crowds are a real problem. That Greek Islands cruise is looking less and less likely.

We have lunch at a small restaurant in Montenegro. With 70+ people there and only one waiter, even though he moves very fast, it takes a while. He did really well, though. Our driving route has taken us through some fabulous unspoiled, naturally green, very rough mountainous areas. The scenery has been fantastic. This continues almost all the way to Sofia as Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and the first part of Bulgaria are all about the same topography. Big gripe: no decent pictures from the bus due to reflections in the tinted glass in the windows. I tried a few but gave up - its hopeless.

It has been misting most of the morning, and now starts to rain heavier off and on. We continue into Albania after a long 1-hour session at the border where we are even sent a short distance down the road to a small liquor store/bar while waiting for our passports to be stamped. We make a brief stop in Shkodra before arriving in Tirana - despite the donkey-paths masquerading as roads. Albania appearances are lots of trash, contaminated streams, junk yards, etc.; It has an almost third-world look to it. True, the center of town around the hotels area is much better looking, but the fringes of town really present a miserable picture. There, on arrival, we have a local guide take us around on a 15-minute bus tour of the town. We did a bus tour since a) the town central square (basic sightseeing area) is closed for a complete renovation, b) there's not really that much to see, and c) it still looks like more rain. Dinner is included tonight (another pre-selected entrιe) and my grilled chicken was probably grilled about 3 days ago and then left out to "age." It's almost impossible to cut, even with a knife. I get about two bites out of it and the rest is a "loss." Louis suggests that we NOT plan to go out and walk around town this evening or tonight. Hint, hint! Hotel: Sheraton Tirana Hotel. Heinz' group is in a different hotel.

This hotel is supposedly the best Sheraton on the trip, and maybe it once was, but: a) the desk chair had a broken leg - replaced; b) the air conditioning controls are broken; even a 14C setting got no cool air - solution: turn it off and open the windows; c) only a small roll of toilet paper, and no reserve roll; d) the toilet seat is broken - but since there is limited toilet paper …; e) the sink drain is out of order - a constant slow drain; f) and then there was that "aged" chicken we had for "dinner." Although the hotel is beautifully landscaped and the room was nice (otherwise), it's still, IMO, the poorest hotel on the trip, particularly for a Sheraton. (BB,D)

Side comment: when I went to bed, the lights of the city were numerous and quite bright. Though not as extensive as in most large cities, it was a very bright area. The next morning, almost every light was off and only a dozen (dim) street lights were visible. None of the buildings, previously well lit, showed any signs of lights.

Day 11, Tuesday, May 10 Tirana - Ohrid (Macedonia)
NEW! Be sure to bring our passports since we are going to yet another country.

At least the breakfast is decent, though they definitely over-cooked the chicken nuggets (chicken rocks?). Since we've already had our tour of Tirana, we head out at 8:30 for the Albanian border. While still in Albania, we have lunch on the top of a mountain pass where it is very windy and cool. There is only one waiter who barely understands English. Louis has to take our orders and then try to make the waiter understand. We can also get a close up view of several of the "bunkers" built by a previous megalomaniac dictator, Hodga. There are many thousands of them; each designed to hold 3 people in case of an invasion. Why three??

It's only a short distance before we cross over into Macedonia. Each of the border checks takes about 45 minutes. It's only a short drive today to the pretty lakeside resort of Ohrid. The narrow streets of the Old Town, lined with restaurants and cafes, are perfect for a summer evening stroll - but not good in a cold, very windy, drizzle, but at least we have an excellent local guide. The hotel is only a short distance out of town. Hotel: Belvedere which is much like the one at Plitvice, but in better condition, better even like that miserable Sheraton. We also have the best dinner of the trip. (BB,D)

Day 12, Wednesday, May 11 Ohrid - Skopje - Sofia (Bulgaria)
NEW! Be sure to bring our passports since we are going to another country. It's a long driving day due to distance, roads, and time change (now 8 hours difference to Houston) so we have our breakfast at 7 and have to be off by 8 (already 9AM in Sofia.) We have an intermittent light rain all day.

Our first stop (our only sightseeing stop) is in the Macedonian capital city of Skopje to see the main square, the mosques and old Turkish buildings - well that is what it says in the propaganda but really there's virtually nothing to see. It's not a long stop/local tour, basically just a quick lunch stop (I get "adventurous" and go for a cheeseburger, fries, and a coke), so we get on our way again fairly quickly. We are also instructed to stay away from the bus until just before it is time to leave since otherwise we will be over-run by many Gypsy souvenir sellers - as if we hadn't already been attacked while in the town.

We cross the north of the country to reach the Bulgarian border - and another long border hassle where many hands are out. It takes over an hour to get through both sides - extended a bit due to the unusual fact that one of the tour members has the same name as someone who is wanted (criminal activities?) in the European Union. There has to be lots of paperwork and checking and cross-checking on the 'net before it is decided that he is not a criminal and we can continue. We are still wondering why, when they returned the rest of the passports, they not only didn't return his, but just kept it and didn't say anything to anybody about the "problem." One other couple, from New Zealand, often have troubles with some non-English-speaking border personnel due to some statements on their passports which the border people mis-interpret as the passports being "not valid"

We lose that hour as we cross the border into another time zone, and travel on to Sofia, arriving about 7, for another nice (but not as good as yesterday) dinner at our hotel. After dinner we have to settle up/pay for all our optional excursions. It is a very nice hotel but they want way too much for internet access. Heinz' group is again at another hotel. That helps on the crowding since there are various other activities going on in the hotel tonight. Hotel: Hilton Sofia. (BB,D) (2 nights)

Day 13, Thursday, May 12 Sofia Sightseeing
Repeat. I went through Sofia on the second part of the Balkans trip in 2005: "Greece and the Balkans" on the way from Athens, through Thessaloniki, Greece, to Bucharest, Romania. No border crossings today! Hooray!

Sofia is a very attractive city - the best of the large ones we visit. Since I'm "tired" of Vienna, I would rank the main cities as 1) Sofia, 2) Istanbul, 3) Vienna, and 4) Zagreb.

Up early for a very nice breakfast at 6:30, then we are on the bus and going by 8AM. It rained quite a bit overnight and still looks like more rain. I'll have to wear a raincoat and probably a wool cap today instead of a jacket. We have a 2-hour city walking tour with a local guide. Sightseeing takes in the St Sofia Church across the square from the golden domed St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the archeological complex, dominated by St George's Church. The tour is over at 10 and we go back to the hotel briefly before heading out at 10:30 for an optional excursion to the Rila Monastery which I visited (a short one-hour visit) back in 2005.

The optional excursion turns out to be a bad deal. We are gone on it for 6.5 hours, but 4.25 of that is driving back and forth. That leaves 2.25 hours, and 1.5 of that is a stop for a so-so lunch (not bad, just nothing special) in the small town of Rila which is only a few minutes from the Monastery. It takes a while since both groups are here at the same time. When we come out of the restaurant, Marijo (our driver) can't get the back door of the bus to close so he has to disconnect it and then tie it shut with a couple of bungee cords. That leaves only 45 minutes for a rain restricted tour. Marijo has the bus repaired by the time we finish our abbreviated tour, and we start the long drive back to town. There it seems that some of our room keys have been coded for only one night instead of two and several of us have to go back downstairs to have them recoded.

Dinner isn't included (I'll skip the optional dinner/show) but there is an "American Embassy" almost right across the street. (BB)

Option: SOF01 RILA MONASTERY WITH LUNCH Optional excursion to the magnificent Rila Monastery, the largest and most important symbol of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The monastery was built at the site where the holy man went into exile, and, in one form or another it lasted through the ages to delight the visitor till today with its imposing beauty. € 50 yes

From the internet: Rila Monastery, the oldest in the Slav world and still the largest active religious centre in Bulgaria, is first and foremost an exceptionally fine artistic complex, in which architecture and painting merge harmoniously. It has been for centuries the seat of the development, preservation, and diffusion of Slav religious culture in all its various manifestations, including literary and artistic, and became the symbol of Bulgarian cultural identity that was continually threatened by Turkish domination.

The monastery is in the heart of the Rila Massif, at the north-western extremity of the Rodopi Mountains, a mountainous system with peaks that rise to almost 3,000 m. In this area, which was still covered by forest in AD 876-946, lived the hermit Ivan Rilski (Saint John of Mila), the evangelizer of the Slavic peoples. He was responsible for the construction of the original nucleus of the coenobitic community, a short distance from the cave in which he lived as an anchorite; this was completely destroyed in the 13th century by fire.A new building was built a few kilometers from the site of the first foundation, and was completed in the 15th century thanks to the donations of Stefan Hrelyu, a powerful local prince who ordered in 1355 the building of the tower that bears his name and a church dedicated to John of Rila, who had been canonized.

Option: SOF02 BULGARIAN FOLKLORE SHOW WITH DINNER Dinner with folklore program in a traditional folklore style restaurant with delicious Bulgarian cuisine and wine. € 46 - NO

Day 14, Friday, May 13 Sofia - Istanbul (Turkey)
It is a different route than before: head east, joining the road to Turkey taken by the Romans, the Crusaders and others over the centuries. Be sure to bring our passports since we are going to yet another country - finally, my last border crossing for the trip; just three airports to get through and one of them is that Frankfurt mess.

This is "Friday the 13th" so I wonder how many "Ft13" events we will have.

It's another long driving day so our wake-up call is at 5:30; bags out and breakfast at 6:30; leave for the long drive at 7:30. There are no special sightseeing stops today - just all driving. Again we are in a "rush" to get to the border as early as possible to avoid the long lines and delays. Once we get away from Sofia, the landscape changes from mountains to almost totally flat, almost boring scenes. Next we have Ft13-#1: we are held up by highway robbers (Bulgarian Police) who want money or we may be there until next week. Louis and Marijo pay it and we continue. Marijo says that he hates driving through Bulgaria since it is almost certain that he will be stopped (the police target vehicles with foreign license plates since they are usually on a tight schedule) AT LEAST ONCE.

When we get to the border, we get out of Bulgaria fairly easily, then since Louis anticipates problems at the Turkey side, we stop in "No Man's Land" between the two checkpoints. There is a very nice set of shops and a food court there with many options. Most of us settle for "BurgerPeasant." burger or chicken nuggest, fries, and a coke. We then have to purchase a Visa for Turkey for US$20 or €15. It varies by country of origin. There is only one booth selling the Visas, and the person who is supposed to be there is on lunch break so all 70 of us have to wait. I have more Euros so I use that. The nice thing is that I WON'T have to get another Visa when I arrive at the airport for the Black Sea Cruise since this one is good for multi-entry and 180 days. Unfortunately before we can get away, we have Ft13-#2. The coach 2nd in line ahead of us has aroused some suspicions and they have to unload all the luggage which is then x-rayed and searched. Finally, when it is our turn, we are waved on through with no problems.

Once over the border, continue to Istanbul, a city uniquely located on two continents. We are arriving during the rush hour (after 5PM) and the traffic is a nightmare. It is even worse than that ongoing mobile disaster in Beijing. Then for Ft13-#3, Marijo's highway toll card won't work. Luckily the second coach is behind us and he flags them down and uses their card. The traffic gets even worse, but we eventually arrive at the hotel (older but very nice) a bit after 6. It's been a long day.

No lunch or dinner included today, not even options - cheapskates! (BB,OD)

Option: IST11 TURKISH NIGHT SHOW: Enjoy a spectacular night show complete with belly dancers, folklore dances from different regions of Turkey and singing. Dinner is included in this spectacular evening. €65- YESBUT NOT OFFERED. Louis later tells me that it is not great, horribly overprices, and so not a good deal. He won't offer it to his groups.

Day 15, Saturday, May 14 Istanbul Sightseeing
Been here, done that on the Turkey part of the Turkey & Egypt tour with General Tours. Back to more repeats - and repeat again on the Black Sea cruise later this year but at least it's not like doing the by now somewhat boring 5th trip to Vienna.

How about this for a "different" breakfast: pizza with chocolate sauce and whipped cream? We could top that with fresh strawberries or a cherry. Finish that, and yourself, off with a very strong Turkish coffee. At least they have real orange juice instead of the "Tang" that most places served on my previous trip to Turkey.

We had to turn in our earphone headset receivers back in Sofia; that group wasn't supposed to be taken out of the E.U. But we get more for today since we have such a long local walking tour. We really "luck out" and have one of the very best local guides I can remember, Asli, who is with us all day. She is really fantastic! Starting at 8:15, we tour the highlights of Istanbul including St Sophia and a visit to the famous Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, formerly the seat of the Ottoman Emperors, to see the treasures of the Sultans.

We then have about 45 minutes for lunch and/or braving the Grand Bazaar where we would be "attacked" by the merchants at the 4,000 shops, tea houses and cafes. The Bazaar is almost strictly for the gullible tourists; the locals seldom go there except to peddle their various questionable Rolexes, etc. I've done all this before on the Turkey/Egypt trip. There are of course many very reputable dealers, just be sure to "haggle" over the price or you will pay way too much. I settle for lunch at a local fast-food-cafeteria where the meal is excellent and not at all expensive. Then if we brave the Bazaar, assuming we survive the assault from the hoards of souvenir sellers, and can find our way out of the maze, we finish the local tour at about 3:15PM.BR>
Again, after a couple of the optional excursions I wanted were not offered, I decided to go ahead and take the Bosporus Cruise on this trip, not later on the Black Sea cruise. This starts about 3:30 and we get back to the hotel about 6. It is good, but not all that special and the weather is too hazy for really good pictures. While on the cruise, I saw the ship that I would have been planning to take on the Greek Islands cruise. It's huge so now definitely NO cruise extension to the land tour.

Then tonight at 6:15, we celebrate surviving our journey with a Highlight Dinner (make that another lowlight one with meal options fish, fish, fish, very dead chicken, or UFO), and complete with "traditional entertainment?" which means a lot of loud "music" and caterwauling. As far as I can remember, many more times than not the Highlight / Farewell dinner is NOT one of the best. Even Louis agrees that it is NOT a good dinner. As expected, we don't get back to the hotel until very late. I probably won't get things done that I need to do until after midnight so I'm not planning on even getting to bed tonight (or tomorrow morning.) It has been a long, tiring day, but a very good one thanks to Asli. Marijo leaves right after the dinner to begin the long drive back to Zagreb. He wants to miss the worst of the Istanbul traffic and, hopefully, the Bulgarian Highway Holdup Artists. (BB,D)

Option: IST10 BOSPHORUS CRUISE: After a brief visit to the 17th century Egyptian Spice Market embark on an unforgettable cruise along the Bosphorus, the beautiful strait that divides Europe from Asia. Winding between wooded hills, it is lined with mosques, castles 19th century mansions, picturesque villages and the extravagant baroque palaces of the late Ottoman sultans. €30 - yes

Day 16, Sunday, May 15 Istanbul - Depart
As usual, no breakfast since I have a 6AM flight departure. This is becoming an almost standardized occurrence: pay the tour company for an included breakfast but then miss it (with no substitute) due to an early flight. I have another of those VERY early transfers to the airport. As expected, I don't get to bed - it is 1AM before I could have, and it is not worth it for just over an hour. Then at ~1:45AM the power flickers off, then back on, 3 times. Oops! I did request a wake-up call just in case I fall asleep. With one other person from the tour, I have to get up at 2:15AM to be ready for a 3:15AM pickup to get to the airport for the LONG homeward flights. Unfortunately I have to go through Frankfurt (gaining one hour on arrival there) but I was able to find a pair of flights with a long 6-hour but "safe" connection time despite AlwaysLateHansa's likely flight delays. I'm still glad I scheduled the 6 hours in Frankfurt. (BB)

Surprise: we had a very nice breakfast on the flight which *almost* made up for missing the included/pair for breakfast that I didn't get. Second surprise: we get in only 20 minutes late. I might even have made it to the LH440 flight despite the horrendous lines getting through the Frankfurt hassles. Having to go through a full Immigration/Customs procedure (for arrival into the EU) despite it being just a transfer point not going on into the EU, just seems ridiculous. My usual AlwaysLateHansa flight LH440 leaves at 10:40 AM (boarding about 9:30) and would be nice with a shorter (2:45) layover, but since there was no guarantee that I would get to Frankfurt and through their extensive (and very slow) arrival/departure hassles in time, the Continental flight schedule is much safer particularly since getting through Frankfurt is always VERY questionable as to how long it will take no matter which airline you are flying.

I have a few Euros left so I can get some food for lunch. We have one of the frequent Frankfurt Airport special: our plane is parked in outer Siberia so after lots of stairs down to the level of the bus, we have the extended Frankfurt Airport bus tourlane - and more steps to climb to get into the plane. Continental even provides a very good lunch onboard, and a nice "snack" dinner.

LateHansa LH 1305Istanbul - Frankfurt5:50 A - 8:10 A3:20(5:40)
Continental CO 47Frankfurt - Houston1:50 P - 6:10 P11:2020:20


Just before the trip, the Continental schedule was revised for a 5:55 PM arrival back in Houston. The weather didn't cooperate: we had a very strong head-wind which added time to the flight, and also it was often an extremely bumpy ride. Luckily, we weren't having a meal at the time when the plane was really bouncing around. After gaining 7 more hours, I'm finally get home (8PM?) after another long session of playing "Sardine," going through the Immigration & Customs hassles here in Houston (at least I'm "home"), then waiting for the StuporShuttle. I make it home about 8:15. My luggage even makes it here also. It's been 25 hours awake before the first flight, 20 hours of flight, and then 2 more hours before I get to bed. That makes it a 47 hour day.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge

KumrovecFiretruckPlitvicePlitvice
SplitSplitDubrovnikDubrovnik
PodcetljPodcetljMostarOhrid
OhridSofiaSofiaRila
TopkapiSt SofiaBlue MosqueFrom cruise




PLUSSES AND MINUSES:

Plusses:
1. Dubrovnik, Mostar, and the Dalmatian coast - the main reasons I came.
2. Superb tour director, Louis Oroshin. He is very experienced and knowledgeable, and also easy to talk to either about problems or just about the trip.
3. Travel winding, twisting, narrow back roads through great scenery and lots of small towns - MUCH more interesting than the main thoroughfares.
4. Unspoiled natural mountain scenery in Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia.
5. The longer Plitvice Lakes walk - much more interesting than the one I did on the tour in 2005. Fantastic.
6. Our Insight bus carries fewer passengers meaning more leg-room. This is Definitely preferable. The seat belts also helped on those twisting back roads.
7. Dinner in Ohrid - the best of the trip.
8. The headphone receivers we use while on a local walking tour. It really helps in trying to hear what the local guide is saying.
9. A great tour director, Louis Oroshin, and a fantastic local guide, Asli, in Istanbul.Also, our bus driver, Marijo, did a really great job maneuvering through the insane Istanbul traffic madhouse.

Plus / Minus
1. Two options that I had pre-selected were not offered (minus) but with very good reasons from Louis (plus)

Minuses:
1. No pictures from the bus due to tinted glass causing major reflection problems, and also the swaying of the bus. Grumble, Growl, and Gritch!!!!
2. That "Sheraton" in Albania.
3. Finding "facilities" in the towns while doing a tour, or during lunch breaks.
4. A very disappointing Rila Monastery excursion.
5. Some of the breakfasts were somewhat minimal.

Overall, definitely on the plus side; a very good trip.


OPTIONS:
ViennaVIE14 GALA VIENNESE CONCERT€ 46 CANCELLED
VIE06 DINNER IN A COUNTRY MANSION € 60 CANCELLED
ZagrebZAG02 TRADITIONAL DINNER€ 46 NO
ZAG01 KUMROVEC & LUNCH€ 51 Yes
SplitSPT01 KONOBA DINNER€ 46 NO
DubrovnikDBV02 LUNCH CRUISE€ 53 NO
DBV03 CILIPI FOLKLORE SHOW€ 29 yes NOT OFFERED
DBV06 BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINIA€ 42 yes
SofiaSOF01 RILA MONASTERY WITH LUNCH€ 50 yes
SOF02 FOLKLORE SHOW WITH DINNER€ 46 NO
IstanbulIST10 BOSPHORUS CRUISE€ 30 Yes
IST11 TURKISH NIGHT SHOW€ 65 yes NOT OFFERED


AIRLINE SCHEDULE:
Air Canada AC 8108
Jazz
Houston - Toronto6:50 A - 10:53A3:03(7:17)
Air Canada AC 6166
Austrian Air
Toronto - Vienna6:10 P - 8:35 A 8:2518:45
LateHansa LH 1305Istanbul - Frankfurt5:55 A - 7:55 A3:00(5:55)
Continental CO 47Frankfurt - Houston1:50 P - 5:30 P10:4019:35


HOTELS / MEALS (no lunches except optional ones, and they also want us to take lots of optional dinners):
Day 2-3Hilton Vienna DanubeAustria very good
Day 4Sheraton ZagrebCroatia not as good
Day 5Hotel Jezero, Plitvicepoor, cold, but free internet
Day 6Hotel President Solin, Split/Solinvery good
Day 7-9Grand Villa Argentina, DubrovnikGood, free internet
Day 10Sheraton TiranaAlbaniafairly good but broken a/c, etc.
Day 11Belvedere, OhridMacedoniabasic but good, free internet
Day 12-13Hilton SofiaBulgariavery nice, expensive
Day 14-15Barcelo Topkapi Eresin, IstanbulTurkeyolder but quite nice


CURRENCIES: Austria, Slovenia, and Montenegro are officially on the Euro. Croatia requires that we use their Kuna but since we are there several days, it is no problem. The other five countries will accept Euros at most shops and restaurants. Thus I only have to use two different currencies.