Day 1 - Budapest
Szia! Welcome to Hungary. Since the collapse of communism, Budapest has experienced something of a renaissance. The grand architecture and boulevards evoke a time gone by, while glamorous stores and restaurants make this one of the truly great cities of Europe. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6pm today. Please look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask reception where it will take place. If you can't arrange a flight that will arrive in time, you may wish to arrive a day early so you're able to attend. We'll be happy to book additional accommodation for you (subject to availability). If you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information at this meeting, so please ensure you have all these details to provide to your leader. After the welcome meeting, you might like to head out to explore the city by night. Perhaps visit the Jewish Quarter for dinner and explore the many options for a nightcap.
Day 2 - Budapest
Today enjoy a free day to explore Budapest. Hiring a bike is a great way to move between the sights. Perhaps head to Statue Park to see the communist monuments that were removed from the city after the fall of the Iron Curtain. One unmissable activity is a soak in Budapest's hot thermal baths. There are several around the city, ranging from elegant to simple outdoor types. The pools vary in temperature, and some even feature whirlpools or seats where you can play chess while you turn into a prune. You can wander the pedestrianised streets of the old district of Buda with the castle on the hill and the Matthias Church, then perhaps take a cruise along the Danube, discovering the history that unfolded along the riverbanks. You might like to take part in one of our Urban Adventure day tours, such as the Budapest Custom Tour or Bites and Sites. Check them out at urbanadventures.com. Tonight perhaps discover some of the city’s ‘ruin bars’, cool places to grab a drink that are usually located in abandoned buildings in downtown Pest and are filled with thrift-shop décor and mismatched art.
Note: Many museums throughout Europe are closed on Mondays. If you are interested in a particular museum, you may want to check opening times and plan your arrival into Budapest accordingly.
Day 3 - Eger
Take a two-hour train east to Eger today. This beautifully preserved Baroque town is surrounded by hills and is home to some of the most renowned vineyards in Eastern Europe. Visit the wine cellars of the seductively-named Valley of the Beautiful Women with the group to sample some of the town's famous 'Bull's Blood' red wine, which supposedly gave the Hungarian army supernatural strength during their battle against the Ottoman Empire. Among the Turkish soldiers it was rumoured that the enemy army drank blood diluted with wine, as the firm resistance they encountered couldn't be explained any other way. In your own time, perhaps explore Eger's 13th-century castle, which was the scene of the historic siege that thwarted the Ottoman Empire's advancement into Western Europe. Here you can explore the Gothic Palace, a gallery of fine Hungarian art, and tour underground passageways of archaeological finds. You may also like to check out the town's 19th-century cathedral, the northernmost medieval minaret in Europe for views of the city, or the Minorite church in Dobo Square.
Day 4 - Maramures
Travel by bus to the pleasant town of Debrecen today (approximately 3 hours). While here, you'll have time to explore Deri Square with its fountains, colourful buildings, museums, and golden Great Church. Continue on by train and private vehicle across the central plains into the Maramures region of Romania. This second part of the journey should take around six hours. Time in Romania is an hour ahead of Hungary, so don't forget to set your watch. Maramures is also a place that can feel like stepping back in time. The region may be modernising, but among the traditional wooden houses and churches, the traditional music and forests, you can still find parts of life fairly unchanged since medieval times. Upon arrival, settle into your room at the pension, which is run by a local family, and look forward to some hearty home-cooked fare.
Note: Romanian visas are not available at the border. Should you require one, please organise this before you commence the trip.
Day 5 - Maramures
Today you’ll discover more about the region of Maramures ('mah-ra-moo-resh') and how it seems frozen in time. Rich in tradition and folklore, the music, costumes, festivals and ancient superstitions of one of the last peasant cultures in Europe continue to thrive here. Each village is distinctive in its colourful outfits and style of hat. Maramures is particularly famed for its wooden churches, many of which are World Heritage-listed. Set out on a guided group tour to explore the region. You’ll visit the unique Merry Cemetery in Sapanta, where the life stories of the deceased – the good and the bad of their lives – are displayed on colourful wooden crosses. There are poems and limericks, and little pictures illustrating how the person died, all single-handedly carved over 40 years by Stan Ioan Pătraş until 1977. The work has continued for the last 30 years by his apprentice. You’ll also see the village museum in Sighetu, an assembly of beautiful local wooden architecture, along with stopping by various other traditional villages.
Day 6 - Sighisoara
Today is a long day of travel (approximately 9 hours) through pastoral fields and untouched Saxon towns to Sighisoara in Transylvania. While the name may conjure up images of haunted castles, gothic churches and vampires, this is only a small part of what makes Transylvania such an enchanting and exciting destination. Medieval Sighisoara is likely to seduce visitors more than any other place in Romania. Another World Heritage site, the town was first settled by the Romans but flourished under the Saxons from the 12th century. Take a walk around the old town, which coils up a narrow hill and is surrounded on all sides by fortified walls, and explore the 64 metre-high clock tower that dominates the citadel. The town is famed as the birthplace of Vlad Dracul III, better known as Vlad the Impaler, whose name was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s iconic Count Dracula. Vlad III is revered as a folk hero by Romanians for driving off the invading Ottoman Turks, of which his impaled victims are said to have included as many as 100,000. Maybe have traditional Romanian fare at ‘Casa Dracula’ tonight.
Day 7 - Viscri
While your next stop is less than an hour away, you'll feel like you've entered a different world. The small Transylvanian village of Viscri was originally inhabited by Saxons from the Luxembourg area, and the whole scene is picture-postcard rural. This idyllic village of red tiled roofs is a World Heritage site, virtually unchanged for 900 years. You’ll visit the town's fortified church (thought to be the oldest in Transylvania) and the museum of Saxon culture. You’ll also learn about the Sock Project, which supports the local Roma community. Time permitting, you may even like to go for a horse cart ride through the area, over pastures and through wondrous woods of oak and hornbeam. Tonight, experience a special village homestay in Viscri. The rooms are in different houses and you'll be sharing facilities with your host family. Eat dinner with them, sampling fresh produce, homemade wines and schnapps. This is a unique opportunity for local interaction and indulgence, and to try to pick up a few tidbits of the Romanian language.
Day 8 - Brasov
Today continue to the 13th-century Saxon city of Brasov (approximately 2 hours). Also known by its German name of Kronstadt, the town is flanked by mountains and city walls was once a major medieval trading centre. Enjoy free time to explore, checking out the ornate churches, townhouses and squares surrounded by gingerbread-roofed merchants' houses. It's worth visiting the town's main attraction, the gothic (Biserica Neagra) Black Church, which took its name from its blackened appearance after a fire in 1689. Stroll along pedestrianized Strada Republicii, take a cable car up to Mt Tampa, or maybe explore the nearby Rasnov Fortress. The fortification is perched on a rocky hilltop above the town of Rasnov, and was constructed by Teutonic Knights in the 13th century as a place of refuge for the common people from Tartar invaders. Otherwise, you could head to Bran Castle, said to be the inspiration for the home of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Though not exactly super spooky, it is undeniably impressive, perched on a high cliff top and surrounded by pine trees. For those looking for a little nightlife action, Brasov has plenty of funky bars and restaurants to enjoy once darkness falls.
Day 9 - Bucharest
Head south to Bucharest today (approximately 3 hours). The city is increasingly known for its cosmopolitan vibe and energy, and while not the most beautiful or stylish city, there are some wonderful art nouveau buildings, ancient churches and monasteries, lush parkland, lakes and elegant boulevards. Romania's interesting capital also likes big things. It’s home to one of Europe's biggest squares, and its Palace of Parliament is the second largest building in the world – former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu ordered the construction of the 12-storied Palace of Parliament, a building of staggering scale and opulence that includes 1,100 rooms and 4,500 chandeliers. You’ll take a guided walking tour around the city to help you get your bearings, then in free time you can choose to further explore some of the sights pointed out. Maybe seek out some traditional home-cooked Romanian food with your fellow travellers.
Day 10 - Bucharest
Today is a free day to explore Bucharest. As this is a combination trip, your group leader and the composition of your group may change at this location. There will be a group meeting to discuss the next stage of your itinerary and you're welcome to attend, as this is a great chance to meet your new fellow travellers. Your leader will provide you with the details closer to the time. In your spare time, perhaps visit the grand concert hall of the Romanian Athenaeum, or take a walk around the city's National Museum of Art or the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Alternatively, why not indulge your inner foodie on a Home Cooked Bucharest Urban Adventure tour. Another great way to see the city is by bicycle, perhaps exploring some of the city’s neighbourhoods for a glimpse into the daily lives of Bucharest’s residents.
Day 11 - Sofia
This morning you will have some free time to further explore Bucharest and all it has to offer. While not the most beautiful or stylish city, there are some wonderful art nouveau buildings, ancient churches and monasteries, lush parkland, lakes and elegant boulevards. Around lunchtime take a bus to Sofia (approximately 6 hours), crossing the border from Romania into Bulgaria. Bulgaria's capital is a cosmopolitan city with wide tree-lined boulevards and pleasant parks. The city claims to be Europe’s second oldest at 7,000 years, though it was only first mentioned by name in documents 2,700 years ago. Alongside Communist-style architecture and beautiful Orthodox churches, construction works frequently uncover Roman remains, so it is perfectly normal to walk past Roman brickwork that has been incorporated into a pedestrian underpass. Mingle with locals who hit the parks and beer gardens to absorb the sun, seek out some regional cuisine and a glass of rakia.
Day 12 - Sofia
Enjoy a free day in Sofia. Maybe begin with a browse around the cured meats and cheese of the Central Market Hall, then take a walk through the city and see the gold-domed Alexander Nevski Church. It was built as a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgarian independence during the Russo-Turkish War – it’s imposingly cavernous, cool, and hushed inside. Other impressive religious buildings to check out include St Nikolai Russian Church, Sveta Nedelya Cathedral and Banya Bashi Mosque, a reminder of years of Turkish rule. There are numerous museums throughout the city, so you might like to get educational at the National History Museum, discover artefacts from the many empires of old that have occupied the city at the National Archaeologiucal Museum, or get cultural at the National Art Gallery. Our Urban Adventure day trips offer some great insight into the local cuisine; try the 'Breakfast with Sofia' or 'Sofia Food, Heritage and Culture' tours.
Day 13 - Gorno Draglishte
Today take a short bus ride to journey into the Rila Mountains, where you'll visit the impressive Rila Monastery. Tucked away in a valley, this World Heritage-listed site is the largest and holiest of Bulgaria's orthodox monasteries. It was founded in 927 to keep Bulgarian spiritual and social life alive during Turkish rule. The entire monastery complex is a work of art in itself – check out stunning murals, the 14th-century Hrelyo Tower, the five-domed Birth of the Blessed Virgin Church and the original 19th-century monastery kitchen. From Rila, transfer to the small mountain village of Gorno Draglishte (approximately 1.5 hours) and spend the night at our local friend's guesthouse. While the accommodation is simple and not all rooms have an en suite, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming and you'll be treated to a delicious home-cooked dinner. You'll even have the chance to learn about the traditional weaving practices of the area.
Day 14 - Bansko
Journey on to the small town of Bansko (approximately 30 minutes). Set at the base of the majestic Pirin Mountains, Bansko is home to more than 150 cultural monuments. Down its cobbled streets, many of its stone houses have been transformed into charming ‘mehanes’ (taverns). Wander through pl. Vazrazhdane and check out the frescoes of the Church of Sveta Troitsa, or the paintings in the Rilski Convent. If you have the time, perhaps stretch your legs with a hike into the eastern slopes of the Pirin mountains, or visit the Belitsa Bear Sanctuary, home to rescued dancing bears. The sanctuary is the largest of its type in Europe, covering over 120,000 square metres. Here the bears can languish in lush green woods, with a river and pool in each enclosure. Seeing them sleeping in the sun, playing in the water and being free from captivity can be very moving. In the evening, you'll have the opportunity to indulge in some local cuisine. Try filet elena (spicy cured meat) or kapama (simmered meat, rice and sauerkraut), washing it down with some delicious melnik (dark red wine).
Day 15 - Plovdiv
Travel by public bus from Bankso to Plovdiv (approximately 5.5 hours). Situated on the Maritsa River, Plovdiv was once the meeting point of two ancient transportation routes. Join a local guide for a tour of the main sights and some insight into the town's history. The most remarkable sight is the ancient Roman theatre, accidentally ‘discovered’ after a landslide exposed the site in the early 1970s. Built in the 2nd century BC during the reign of Trajanus, the theatre seats about 6,000 people and is now back in use. From here, wander up to the site of the former hilltop fortress of Nebet Tepe, where you can enjoy excellent views of the city. Head back down to visit the 15th-century Dzhumaya Mosque, still in use today. After the tour, why not check out the underground crypt at Bachkovo Monastery or have a wander down Stumna Street to see traditional coppersmiths, farriers and potters at work. Perhaps discover the Bachkovo Monastery, or visit one of the many hot springs in the Plovdiv region. One of the most well-known spa towns is Hissarya, famous for its 22 mineral springs.
Day 16 - Istanbul
Today catch a seven-hour bus from Plovdiv, cross the border into Turkey and head on to Istanbul. A bustling mega-city with a population of over 12 million people, a rich history and food scene waiting to be explored, the only city in the world to straddle two continents – no amount of time here is ever enough to come to terms with this mesmerising ancient capital. Your journey ends on the morning of your second day here, so it's well worth staying on for a few extra days if time allows. There are plenty of optional things to see and do here. You might like to take a boat cruise down the Bosphorus River, lose yourself in the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar, check out the amazing Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, or climb the ancient Galata Tower for great views over the city. In the evening, what better place to enjoy a final meal with your fellow travellers than the foodie paradise of Istanbul. Try some cheesy gozleme or tangy manti (Turkish ravioli with yogurt).
Note: All travellers to Turkey need to obtain an e-visa before arrival, as visas are not available at the border. Information about the e-visa can be found at the following site: evisa.gov.tr.
Day 17 - Istanbul
Today your adventure comes to end. There are no activities planned and you are free to depart the accommodation at any time. If you would like to stay longer in Istanbul there are plenty more things to see. Perhaps visit the Archaeology Museum, which contains artefacts from the infamous city of Troy, join the hoards of shoppers and revellers along Istiklal Caddesi, or wander down into the quieter, hilly backstreets of Beyoglu where antique shops are aplenty. If all of this makes you a little tired, a visit to a hamam (Turkish bath) will leave you rejuvenated at the end of your journey. Additional accommodation can be booked, subject to availability. Please ask your travel consultant.
Accommodation, Food (as stated), Transport, Selected Activities
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