“The Eastern Discovery” is a 16 day escorted tour, operated by Insight Vacations. It covers 8 countries perfectly chosen in a way that the tour combines the beauty of cities like Vienna, Dubrovnik and Istanbul, with others like Tirana, Ohrid and Sofia that offer more history and insight into some of the former so called “Eastern Block” countries. All of this plus a touch of nature in the UNESCO gem called “Plitvice” national park.
The tour was expertly planned and operated to perfection by Insight Vacations.
The quality of the coach was second to none. The hotel selection was right on target. The knowledge, sophistication and kindness of our tour director; Karin was unmatched. The speed and smoothness of the rides as we covered 2,100 miles was all because of an excellent job of our driver; Zoran who made us feel safe every day, everywhere all the time.
The concert halls of Vienna; that saw men like Strauss, Motzart and Bethoven provided a beautiful backdrop to the start of a fabulous adventure. Listening to their music and exploring the streets that had seen them walk their way to immortality is exactly how I started my “Eastern European Discovery Tour”.
As I walked the streets of Vienna; it was as if I had been transformed into another time and dimension. When I saw the big white buildings lining the big avenues, the busy railway cars, the traditional horse carriages, the bicycles and the people walking everywhere. Vienna is a city of Cathedrals, Palaces and Concert Hall. It is a city of music. Of Art. Of Aristocrats and Artists.
After a two-day stay in Vienna, we hit the highway. We curved our way southeast and crossed the border to Slovenia, where we stopped for lunch and a quick visit to the small university town of Maribor. We reached our final destination, which was to be Zagreb, the capital of Croatia at about 6pm.
First impression was that of a typical ex-Communist city with huge block-long grey buildings stacked one behind and next to the other. But after a 2 hour city tour with a local expert and our own free time to explore, we discovered the highlights and the must-see places and hidden treasures, and at the end of the day I was pleased with the experience. Lili and I have this thing about getting to a new place and taking off on our own to see it the way want to. However, we have this custom of always getting lost. We could have a map with us with the outline of the route and we still get lost. While at the time it may seem very frustrating, when we find ourselves, we always seem to end up in the right place and the experience becomes more meaningful because we saw the local people on side streets or less common neighbourhoods. We find restaurants and other interesting places we would not have seen otherwise.
On our next day we stopped for a visit and overnight at the National Treasure Park of Plitvice and its 16 lakes surrounded by hills and waterfalls with an oasis of wildlife and fauna.
On our way to what was to be the highlight of our tour; Dubrovnik, we made a couple of pleasant surprise visits to Trogir and Split.
Sometimes the unexpected, that which catches you off-guard makes a glorious trip even more special. The little town of Trogir, hidden away on the Dalmatian coast, was the perfect introduction to our overnight visit to Split.
Split was to be a taste of the beauty that awaited us in Dubrovnik. Like “Le Cote d’Azur of France and The Amalfi Coast of Italy. The Dalmatian Coast has its own share of sleepy little villages along the coastline, with the typical red tile roof houses and sidewalk cafes overlooking the ocean. Narrow streets, hidden treasures and postcard picture perfect scenes are at every corner. Places like this always make me want to stay.
A famous person once said, “Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik!”
Dubrovnik is a city like no other. It is unique in history, culture and architecture. It’s a labyrinth of narrow streets with up-hill stairs that surround the old town. These streets are filled with tourists, street vendors, souvenir shops and, of course, sidewalk restaurants and cafes. The walls that shelter the old town are all around it and as you walk on the wall heading west, at the end of this corridor you make a left turn and you will see the most magnificent view you can ever imagine.
The crystal blue and clear waters of the Adriatic sea slapping the rocky shoreline and the walls of the old city. I’ve never seen such deep blue, crystal clear and calm waters in my life.
As we boarded the bus the next morning, I felt very good about all the things that we did and saw on our three-day stay in Dubrovnik: We walked and walked until our feet were hurting. We got lost looking for a pair of cheap shorts (I forgot to take some) and ended up on the other side of the marina. We walked up and around the famous wall and saw the views of the old town from all angles.
We swam on the clear and crispy waters of the Adriatic. We dined in fine restaurants and tasted the best gastronomy that this enchanting place offers. And as the evening approached, we took the cable cart up the hill and waited for the sunset. What a spectacular view.
The colour of the sky changed from its bright blue colour to a dark grey as we started our drive south towards the Croatia-Montenegro Border. As we cruised down the coast, it seemed as if the colour of the waters was also changing to a muddy looking brown colour. The TV people had said that there was a storm that was flooding Scandinavia and it was moving south – southeast at a very rapid pace. The storm caught up to us and the rain followed us for the next several days.
On this very special day we experience what I call a Tri-Country Culinary Feast. We had breakfast in Croatia; we had lunch in Montenegro and we had dinner in Albania.
Not every place that we visited was as beautiful as Vienna, Split, or Dubrovnik. Deep in the heart of Eastern Europe, in countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia you can still see oppression in the eyes of its people, scars of war in the memory of their elders and hope for a better life in the thoughts of their young.
To me, appreciating the contrast lies the beauty of the experience.
Albania was isolated for over 45 years from the rest of Europe. No tourist could enter. However, today we entered Albania on the northern border to the city of Shkondra and then to its capital, Tirana.
On most of the roads that we travelled through these Balkan Countries; we passed by many towns and villages. The scene was very much the same throughout. We saw the women walking to the local market (usually alone), the men usually at a local pub drinking coffee or wine and smoking cigarettes. The younger ones might be on the side of the road selling their fruits or vegetables grown on their own farm.
Our next stop was a little village close to the Albanian-Macedonia Border called Ohrid. It’s a little village surrounded by a lake. Not sure what people do here for a living, but life seemed very slow and simple. We stayed at the Millenium Hotel built in the times of the old Yugoslavia, and just as the town itself, it offered only basic facilities.
What a difference from The Hilton in Vienna, the Sheraton in Split or the Libertas Rixos of Dubrovnik.On a cool and rainy Wednesday, we left the little town of Ohrid and continued our way northeast over and across the mountains towards the Bulgarian border. Border crossing through these Eastern European countries was an experience in itself. While the first couple of stops were exciting and somewhat a novelty, after the 6th and 7th time it got hideous, annoying and time-consuming.
The dense fog we encounter at the top of the mountains added a certain level of excitement as we continued our way east. As we drove over the foggy mountain tops, down the slippery and winding roads through the green lush valleys, we reached and crossed the flatlands of Macedonia towards our focal point for the day; Skopje (Skopia), the capital city of Macedonia.
While our stay in Skopje was brief and rainy, with this light but consistent rain that had followed us since we left Dubrovnik. At the end of our stay, Skopje was perhaps the place that left the biggest impact on me. This little known place in the former Yugoslavia gave birth to the most giving and beloved lady of our generation. La Madre Teresa.
Sofia is a translation from a Greek word that means wisdom. So the rain gave way to a dry and muggy morning and even though the sun didn’t shine, it allowed us to get a walking tour of the city of Sofia.
The capital of Bulgaria; Sofia doesn’t quite fit the name of the famous beautiful lady that bears it’s name, but it’s interesting with lots of history. It was part of a communist regime for many years and people here while friendly, they still don’t smile very much.
There was this little street creature that I inevitably named Sofia who followed us throughout our city tour, as if she was the Tour guide herself who was proudly showing us the best parts of her city.
The Road To Istanbul – We departed Sofia at 7:30 AM. It was a gray and rainy morning and we were headed to the final destination of our Eastern Discovery tour.
The last border crossing was perhaps the worst; coming from Bulgaria to Turkey was horrendous, but going from Turkey to Bulgaria was even worse. So lucky were we.
As we approached the outskirts of the city of Istanbul, you can appreciate the contrast of this mega booming metropolis with that of a city like Sofia.
Istanbul is a city that seats in two continents; half of it seats in Europe and the other half seats in Asia. You can cross the stretch that separates the city by ferry or you can cross it on a bridge, but at some point or another you will stand between two continents and right at that moment just like me, you will get this distinctive feeling that this is something special.
Istanbul is an oasis of traditions and customs. A fusion of cultures, religions and people. And Turkish delights. A place where people practice every day the ancient art of haggling and they do it with heart. What an amazing place.
The Grand Bazaar, The St Sofia, the famous Blue Mosque and The Topkapi Palace are just a few of the many highlights that this city offers.
Eating a Chicken Shawarma on a little fast-food cafe outside of the Grand Bazaar is a definite must.
So at the end of our Eastern Discovery journey, we visited 9 countries, 15 villages, towns and cities, ranging from a few thousand to 14 million inhabitants. We crossed mountains, valleys and rivers. We heard 7 languages and tasted their local dishes. We stood between two continents and covered 3,400 kilometres = 2,100 miles in 16 days.
The Experience seems almost unbelievable, the memories will last a lifetime.
Thank you Insight Vacations for allowing me the opportunity to experience
“The Art of Touring In Style”