99 Days in Eastern Europe: The Awards
All of the ‘bests’ from our full-time travelling adventure through Eastern Europe
Welcome home, us! Having just returned from 99 days of full-time travel in Eastern Europe, I have loads and loads to share. Good bits, not-so-good bits, unique things to do, amazing food, thoughts, learnings and loads more. I wanted to kick things off with a bit of a whirlwind tour of our whirlwind tour, so here you have the first in my new series 99 Days in Eastern Europe: The Awards!
Now obviously Eastern Europe is a big place, and I’m not going to pretend that we visited all of it. Neither am I going to bother trying to define it – that seems like an easy way to upset people on the internet, which I don’t really spend time doing. Not intentionally anyway! So for the sake of this series that I’m sure you’ll love reading, the countries that we visited, and that I’m including in the series are Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Poland. And of course, we didn’t go everywhere in these countries – I haven’t been everywhere anywhere, but this is just for fun anyway, so I’m not letting that upset me. You shouldn’t either.
It’s also dead hard to come up with one answer for each topic when we had such an amazing time over 99 days, so I’m going to trust my instincts and just go with the first thing that comes into my head. And then probably give way more than one answer for each topic anyway. Enough nonsense. Here we go.
Start as you mean to go on – there is absolutely no way I can pick one moment. We had so many moments that we absolutely adored – from watching musical fountains in Budapest, swimming in the Adriatic Sea on almost every stop, sitting in quaint coffee shops in Ljubljana, hiking in Northern Montenegro.
I guess a lot of the moments that really stand out involve being immersed in nature, and one in particular that really stands out is kayaking on Lake Bohinj, Slovenia. The lake is just beyond stunning – so still and peaceful; it draws you in, and the mountains that act as a backdrop to the whole scene are just so extra. You have to see it to believe it. So we spent as much time as possible either by, in, or on the lake. Swimming there was brilliant actually. We got really hot, sunny weather, so it was lovely to sit by the lake all day, reading and eating snacks, and just jumping in for a quick swim when it got too hot. Take me back!
But kayaking there was a whole other thing. Being able to take the kayak right out into the middle of the lake was really special. Nobody else really bothered going that far out (we sort of forgot we had to paddle back too and got carried away), so you feel like you’re in your own wee world. All around you, the lake is super still and the reflection of the mountains all around you just makes it a bit other-worldly. Taking a break from paddling to dip your feet or have a quick swim puts the cherry on an already indulgent cake. Until you remember you’ve come out without sunscreen or a hat, you’re slowly baking and you have to paddle 45 minutes back to shore. Still – moments.
Honourable mention to the thermal baths in Budapest. We stopped in Budapest twice (in August and in late November). We visited the famous Széchenyi Baths in August and they were wonderful – but we opted for the more off the beaten path Lukács Baths in November. There is no doubt that Széchenyi was the more impressive, but I enjoyed the experience in Lukács more. It was way less crowded – I think locals use it more than tourists – and although it was smaller, there wasn’t anything that I found myself missing from Széchenyi. It was also a tiny bit magical to enjoy the outdoor thermal pool while the air around us was really cold. It would be super cool in the snow, but the cool air added a little element of specialness that we didn’t get in Széchenyi in August. I would say try them all and see what you like. I’d like to.
I mean, now I’m worried that all of my answers to these categories are just going to be Slovenia. It’s sometimes difficult to look past Slovenia for 2 reasons: It’s absolutely stunning, and we spent our honeymoon there in 2017, so it’s a bit extra special to me.
There are too many to pick from though – the Slovenian lakes actually are a particular highlight; as well as the capital, Ljubljana. I loved Belgrade too. Sarajevo surprised me a bit. All of Montenegro.
Montenegro might actually be the answer. We used Kotor as a base for exploring a lot of Northern Montenegro, before going on to spend some time in Budva and Bar. It was off-season, so things were a lot quieter than they would be in the Summer months, and this really suited us. We did a couple of tours and the natural scenery is just stunning. I feel like Montenegro flies slightly under the radar as a destination, and maybe this is a part of its charm. Sometimes it felt like you were stepping into another world. We explored some gorgeous lakes and coastal roads, but everywhere you look in Montenegro, there are just mountains for days and days. It feels like it’s kind of showing off, but I was totally okay with that. I would go back in a heartbeat.
I could pretend that the answer to this isn’t in Slovenia, but I would only be lying to myself as well as to you. We stayed in some really cool apartments that we found on Airbnb and booking.com, and treated ourselves to a couple of really nice hotels along the way. But the correct answer, hands down, is Garden Village Bled.
Garden Village is like a destination in its own right. This was our second visit to Bled, and we had spent a couple of days staying beside the lake before visiting Garden Village this time around. So when we got there, we actually just spent the entire two days in the resort itself. Anybody who has been to Lake Bled will know that keeping yourself away from the lake is no mean feat, so that is testament enough to how much I loved this place.
Garden Village calls itself a ‘tourist green resort’ – it features loads of accommodation options – from treehouses to luxury glamping tents on the river. They also have outdoor hot tubs and a restaurant that serves fresh, seasonal, local produce. Did I mention that it’s seriously eco-friendly too? I promise I don’t work for them – I just had such a brilliant, brilliant time here and can’t wait to get back. If you are looking for somewhere to switch your phone off, cut out all the noise and reconnect with nature and all of the good things in life, this is the place for you.
Honourable mention to Amarin resort in Rovinj, Croatia. We visited for a couple of hours one day and decided to just book ourselves in and stay for a night. Absolutely perfect relaxation spot, with a fantastic infinity pool if you fancy making a wee change from swimming in the sea.
Also must mention Kuće Lekovića in Bar, Montenegro. This is a quality apartment-hotel sitting right on the sea. We spent 6 days here, and there wasn’t much going on in Bar, but we absolutely loved our time at Kuće Lekovića. Having breakfast on the balcony every morning was a real highlight, and we also got treated to a few stunning sunsets there too.
Do walking tours count as activities? I’m going to say they do, and we definitely got our enjoyment’s worth out of a lot of walking tours. They’re normally my number one thing to do when I visit a city. It helps me get my bearings and a feel for the place, as well as identifying other places that I’d like to come back to while I’m visiting. I normally find that the free walking tours in a city are really good – maybe the guides are working a bit harder for tips, or maybe they’re just genuinely really passionate about their city. I always try to be as generous as I can afford to be when tipping a guide on a free walking tour, but the quality varies a lot, so I see no harm in tipping according to quality. To be honest, I’ve been really, really pleased with most walking tours that I’ve been on.
Walking tours based on the recent wars in former Yugoslavia were particularly fascinating for me. Sometimes I would go on a free walking tour and end up signing up for a paid tour by the same company – absolutely happy to do this if the quality is there. I did war tours in Zagreb, Sarajevo and Belgrade, and it was fascinating to get the different perspectives of the same sort of time period.
Honourable mention to any sort of water-based activity that we did. I’ve mentioned it, but kayaking Lake Bohinj was such a big highlight. Our sailing tour on Lake Skadar on the Montenegro/Albania border was stunning too. And I should also mention the North Montenegro tour that we did with Monte360. That was a long day, but so so worth it to see such a beautiful country in detail.
This is hard. We ate really well in Eastern Europe. I love a good burger and I had a couple of properly good burgers on this trip – two restaurants in particular spring to mind. Foksner in Ribčev Laz beside Lake Bohinj, where they grill the meat out on the terrace right in front of you and leave the perfect amount of pink in it. Pop’s Place in Ljubljana was really good too – great flavour on the burger and good beer to wash it down. I’m going to stop apologising for this being Slovenia-heavy and just accept it now. Just to offer a bit of variety, I also had good burgers in W35, Budapest and in Rzeźnia, Krakow.
I can’t talk about food without mentioning ćevapi, which is probably the number one dish people will tell you about in the Balkans. Every country (and actually every restaurant) do it slightly differently, but they are basically little sausage-shaped fried fingers made from minced meat and magic. I love ćevapi. Sometimes you’d get it served with fries, but the really good stuff is served with kaymak cream cheese, onions and sometimes a wild but delicious red-pepper-based garnish. All of this inside a freshly baked sort-of-pitta, sort-of-naan bread, or just a nice warm roll. Again, everywhere did their bread slightly differently, but it was always fresh and delicious. Did I mention that I love ćevapi?
I also have to mention karađorđeva šnicla, or karadjordje steak. When we visited Belgrade, this was recommended to us as a traditional dish that you would only get in Serbia and nowhere else in the Balkans. I’d already had it twice in Montenegro. The Serbian one was probably best, though, even if it didn’t look as impressive as some of the ones in Montenegro.
I remember when I first saw one of these – my eyes nearly fell off my face and I knew I had to have one. It’s basically pork fillet rolled and stuffed with kaymak cheese and bacon, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried. My mouth is watering writing this, and honestly – it tastes even better than it sounds.
I think if I had to pick a winner here though, it would be a really quite simple dish we had early on in the trip. I know it’s not really traditional Croatian cuisine, but we had the best currywurst ever in Zagreb! It was from a little small place called Wurst Bar, just five minutes walk from the main square. We walked past it one day and I made a mental note to go back because, well – everyone loves currywurst. We did and we weren’t disappointed. Sitting out on the terrace enjoying these along with a couple of cold beers on a warm August evening was such a highlight!
Sorry, but Slovenia wins again – the answer is Laško. The first time I had Laško was at the end of a 12-hour hiking/rafting/adventure day that we went on with 3glav Adventures while on honeymoon. We had no idea our guide was driving around all day with some beers in a cooler, so when he cracked them out just as we were heading back home for the evening, it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Laško has held a special place in my heart ever since. It is genuinely good beer too. We spent some time in the Union brewery in Ljubljana and the unfiltered Laško was really good. I also like calling it the GOAT beer, so that’s another point scored in its favour.
I’m a man of simple tastes when it comes to beer. I tend to like a simple lager or pilsner just done really well – rather than the whole craft beer and pale ale thing. I’ve got nothing against craft beers or IPAs and have enjoyed plenty in my beer drinking career, but I just think that sometimes keeping it simple and high quality is the way to go with beer.
Another beer worth a quick mention is Nikšićko, produced in Montenegro. We paid a quick visit to Nikšić where it’s produced, and I learned to really love it while in Montenegro. Our tour guide kept telling us about how it won best beer in the world twice. I really liked it, but I’m not sure about best beer in the world. Who even decides that? What a job that would be!
Honestly, the coffee everywhere we went was of such high quality, it just made me really despair about the lack of quality coffee at home in Ireland and the UK. I wrote a bit about it in what we’ve learned from 8 weeks on the road.
But the fact that it was so good makes it difficult to choose a winner. I enjoyed the Bosnian (Turkish style) coffee that we had in Sarajevo. It was a nice experience to try it, and it was tasty coffee too, but once the novelty wore off, I just preferred espresso coffee, to be honest.
Had a couple of really good coffees in Budapest, actually – particularly in Espresso Embassy and Fekete. It was so cheap too, so it was always dead easy to just stop for a coffee break during whatever we were doing that day.
Also had a really good coffee experience with our friend Pip over at Stow in Ljubljana. It’s a bit confusing to find since it’s actually inside the Ljubljana City Museum. But once you’re inside, it’s a great experience – the baristas really know their stuff and make a point of serving you a coffee based on what you’re into. The only awkward moment was the half-time quiz the barista offered me after serving me my second (different type of coffee bean) and asking me about the subtle differences. My knowledge of coffee is pretty limited to “yeah, it’s alright,” and “that’s really good coffee,” so I’m sorry to say that I missed the hint of smoked cherry on the second one. Still, it was really good coffee.
Generally, travelling by train was a lot more enjoyable than travelling by bus – I think that’s a general rule in life. But train travel in the Balkans isn’t a big thing, so mostly we had to go by bus. Off the top of my head, Budapest to Zagreb and Zagreb to Ljubljana were both really easy, hassle-free, cheap and enjoyable journeys. Those three cities with those train journeys honestly make for one hell of a multi-city break.
The big train journey that we did was the 12-hour journey from Bar, Montenegro to Belgrade, Serbia. This is honestly an incredible journey. There’s a short ride up the Adriatic coast at the beginning, but when it goes inland, the drama of the landscape goes through the roof! It’s all sheer cliffs, massive canyons, lakes, rivers, trees – oh, and tunnels. Loads and loads of tunnels. I honestly had the best time on this train for around 8 hours. Then the sun set, and the last 4 hours felt so, so much longer than the first 8. I’m so glad we did it, but I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to do it again. Or if I did, I’d do it a bit earlier in the year to make the most of more daylight hours.
We shared a compartment with a lovely Serbian lady who didn’t speak a word of English. We didn’t have much Serbian aside from hello and thank you, but we still managed to communicate in little bits and pieces – which just goes to show that you can if you want to. She gave me an orange at around hour 11 that really kept my spirits up just when I needed it most.
Another journey that I’ve never heard getting much love is from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik. Everybody (rightfully) raves about the drive along the Adriatic coast – and you get that here – but the canyons and rivers in Bosnia that you drive through and along before getting to the coast are just stunning, and a bit other-worldly. I’m honestly surprised more people don’t talk about it – I loved it!
I mentioned ćevapi earlier, and because I ate so much of it – and so many variations of it – I thought it deserved its own category! I must have had ćevapi upwards of 25 times in these 99 days. Probably way more actually, but I didn’t count, unfortunately. I even bought some in the supermarket and cooked it in whatever apartment we were staying in. But although most ćevapi are made up of similar ingredients, they were never the same in any two different places.
Sarajevo, in particular, serves a mean ćevapi. I had a few different ones in Sarajevo and they were all excellent – straightforward but really good quality. Ćevabdžinica Željo in the old town really stands out as a great place for ćevapi – it’s cooked freshly right in front of you and the bread is absolutely amazing. Make sure to ask for a dollop of kaymak cheese – it makes all the difference.
The one that really stands out as the winner, though, is Kantina Paulina in Split, Croatia. This was recommended to us by our Airbnb host, and I’m so grateful that it was! It’s a tiny little place and so straightforward. The freshly baked bread is to die for, and they keep the rest so straightforward. They’ll ask if you want small or large, and ask if you want cheese and ‘red sauce’ – the answer is always yes. Honestly, this ćevapi was heavenly. It’s always my point of reference when I’m deciding how good ćevapi is, and nothing has beaten it so far!
So there you have it – the awards of our 99 days in Eastern Europe. There are so many more highlights and so much more that I’ll be writing about, but I wanted to start off on a really fun note that tried to cover the whole journey – hopefully I’ve done that to some extent.
Let me know if anything stood out to you here, and what some of the best bits of your most recent trips have been!