Through our numerous tours to the North Cape we at SR Travel know almost every spot in the far north. Last year, trips to the Netherlands, the Baltic States and Cape Verde were also added. For the upcoming season we are expanding our portfolio with a round trip through south-eastern Europe, which will take us through a total of eight countries.
The country experts from SR Travel told us that our destinations in Eastern Europe are still a real insider’s tip. Today I would like to introduce you to a certain aspect of creating new tours: The pre-tour, through which every new product is tested in advance.
My name is Stefanie Gohlke and I work as Operations Manager at SR Travel. Together with my colleague from the back office of Operations, we are in charge of the operational preparation of our round trips. This includes, among other things, creating the basic technical foundation to make a journey representable, allocating services (such as hotels), creating an itinerary and the financial pre- and post-processing. Hereby my main task is to compile the travel documents that we provide for our tour guides.
The new tour will begin in Austria and then carry on through Slovakia to Hungary. From there the journey continues to Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. In Croatia we board a ferry taking us to Italy. After disembarkation the pre-tour continues on land. Before heading north through Italy, we have a short stopover in San Marino. Overall, this round trip will take eight days.
But before officially launching it, we decided to take a 7-day pre-tour by coach and test this trip for you in advance. I created an itinerary before departure, which we then adapted to the onsite conditions during the pre-tour. For example, we had to make some changes to the bus routes, as the roads were too narrow or simply a better alternative was found. A lot of information provided online and in guide books is written for holiday makers traveling by car, which is not much use for large coaches. So it is a lot easier to write about the appropriate parking facilities in the capitals if you’ve been there in person.
At the end of November/ beginning of December last year, the time had finally come: apart from me, three other colleagues from Purchasing, Quality Management and Operations from SR Travel also joined the pre-tour. In addition, we were accompanied by a total of 12 tour guides from our long-term partners on our tour to the southeast of Europe. Through regular contact with the end customer, the tour guides can provide valuable insight into the minds of the holiday-makers, including their questions that may arise during the tour.
Early Wednesday morning, the bus left the company premises for the pre-tour in the direction of Vienna, the most liveable city in the world according to a study. Despite winter temperatures, we were spoiled with sunshine and a stunning panorama in Austria: a bright blue sky and the sun glittering on the snow-covered slopes above and below. After checking in at the hotel we explored what was within walking distance. Later over dinner in the hotel restaurant, we introduced ourselves and got to know each other a little better.
The next morning we drove from Vienna to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. Approximately 60km separate these two towns, making them the closest lying capitals in all of Europe. Approaching the Austrian-Slovakian border we caught a first glimpse of the striking “skyline” of Bratislava: Bratislava Castle, the spire of St. Martin’s Cathedral and the UFO. A UFO in Bratislava? Yes, you read correctly. The UFO is a restaurant about 80 meters up in the sky, which can be found on the piers of the bridge Most SNP (“Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising”). Above the restaurant, at around 95 meters, there is stunning viewing platform overlooking the city of Bratislava.
As we only needed to check if driving through the narrow streets by coach was possible or if we needed to find an alternative route, we didn’t stop in Bratislava.
From Bratislava we continued our pre-tour towards Budapest, our last stop of the day. The next morning a real highlight was waiting for us in Hungary: a carriage ride and a traditional horse show at the Bugac Puszta Kft. in Karikás Csárda.
In icy temperatures, but with sunshine and a bright blue sky, we were taken by carriage to the horse show. Wrapped up warmly in thick winter jackets and blankets, we leisurely rode with horsepower of two through the Hungarian steppe to where the show would take place. Next to the riding grounds you can also visit the stables and other animal enclosures belonging to the Bugac Puszta there.
The horse show began with the marching-in of the fearless Csikós (pronounced Chiko, Hungarian horse herders). They were clad in traditional outfits: a black hat with ornamental grass, a white shirt along with a black vest and a whip wrapped around their arms.
We then got to experience the excellent horsemanship of the Csikós and the trust that prevails between horse and rider up close. For example during the “Puszta-Fiver”: The Csikó balances on the back of two horses while they trot in unison across the square. As if that were not difficult enough, he lets three other horses trot as a team in front of him at the same time.
That same evening we drove from Hungary on to Belgrade in Serbia, where we stayed for one night. The following day we looked forward to another two highlights on our programme: a visit to a donkey farm and the museum village of Trsic.
The nature reserve Zasavica is a refuge for many different plant and animal species. Many of the inhabitants of the reserve are among the threatened species or were already extinct in the local wilderness. For example, the beaver was successfully resettled here in the 2000s.
But the real attraction is the donkey farm on the grounds of the Zasavica Nature Reserve. Here you can buy one of the most expensive cheeses in the world. The Serbian Pule is made from the low-fat milk of the Balkan donkey and a kilo of this rarity costs around 1,000 euros. The reason for this is the amount of milk needed for production: around 25 litres of milk are needed for one kilo of cheese. A donkey mare can give about a litre of milk per day. But only in the presence of the foal and only for four months a year. During this time, the mares are milked by hand three times a day. For comparison: a dairy cow gives an average of 50 litres of milk per day.
There is also an approximately 18 metre high wooden tower with a viewing platform on the grounds. Our groups will have the opportunity to climb to the top during their visit and will be rewarded with a unique view over the entire reserve, including the donkey farm and visitor centre, as well as the surrounding countryside with its fields and lakes.
The museum village of Trsic is located near the town of Loznica in western Serbia. It is the birthplace of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, the most important reformer of the Serbian language. The entire village is an open-air museum, where you can visit various buildings from the 19th century. These include, among others, a museum of language and writing, a workshop for old crafts, a church, a bell tower and an amphitheatre, where the festivities “Vuk’s Faie” take place in honour of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić every year in September.
After exploring the museum we drove on to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where we stayed overnight.
Did you know that the American actor Robert De Niro liked Belgrade so much that he apparently even named his adoptive daughter after the border river?
The next morning a guide showed us around Sarajevo. Presumably due to the various historical events, the city does not attract as many tourists as other Eastern European capitals. The assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne took place here in 1914, which incidentally led to the First World War. The traces of the past are omnipresent throughout the city, for example in the form of the roses of Sarajevo. These roses are memorials that can be found everywhere on the streets. The impact craters of shells that struck the city during the Bosnian war were filled with red resin by the inhabitants of the city to remind them that a human being was killed there.
But it is exactly in this city today, that the most diverse cultures and religions live together in peace. The fusion of East and West becomes clear in the writing “Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures”, eternalised on the ground in Ferhadija Street. In no other place in town can you notice the diverse cultural influences as much as you do here.
Going east from there you arrive in the old town, where a heavy oriental influence is visible. There are many small local shops, cafes and restaurants, the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque and Baščaršija Square with the Sebilj fountain. Turning to the other side, you enter the western-influenced part of the town, with buildings mainly characterized by the architecture of the Habsburgs.
After exploring the town a little we then continued to Mostar. While it was still cold and foggy in the morning in Sarajevo, Mostar spoiled us with sunshine and spring-like temperatures. On the way to the coach parking lot in town, many people were sitting outside on the terraces in front of the cafes and restaurants despite the cold temperatures. An absolute highlight in Mostar is the bridge Stari Most, the landmark of the town. Since the 16th century it’s been a tradition in Mostar to jump off the 24 m high bridge into the Neretva River. What started out as a test of courage has now become something of a profession: Tourists pay money to see the bridge jumpers of Mostar plunge into the 13 ° C cold Neretva. In addition to the professional jumpers, many other brave souls test their courage by jumping off the bridge.
After the sightseeing tour through Mostar we drove on to Split, the biggest city of the Croatian region Dalmatia. The foundation stone for the city was laid by the Emperor Diocletian in 305 AD, when he decided to build his retirement residence, the Diocletian’s Palace, here. As we didn’t have any further point on our programme in Split, we boarded the ferry in the evening, which brought us to Ancona in Italy overnight.
From Ancona we drove parallel to the Adriatic Sea to San Marino. Unfortunately we were denied the panoramic view of the Città di San Marino (English: City of San Marino) due to morning fog. However the historic centre of San Marino lies on the crest of Monte Titano at about 740 meters altitude and therefore towered over the clouds like a fairy tale castle.
We stayed in San Marino for about an hour, during which we looked at the parking facilities for coaches and then strolled through the small streets of the town. From the historic centre you have a beautiful view of San Marino and the silhouette of the Apennines in the distance. What a majestic sight!
We left the tiny country and made our way towards northern Italy. A wine tasting was waiting for us at a winery in the Lombardy region.
After tasting the delicious house wine and homemade snacks, we drove on to Milan, our last stop of the tour. After a last dinner all together it was time to say goodbye the next morning.
The pre-tour was over- now the post-processing began back home in the office, as we looked at all the notes we and the tour guides took during our trip. We then decided which points we should change or optimise in the documents, for example adapting the directions to a service provider.
My personal conclusion: Through my work in the office and the preparation of the travel documents beforehand, I was already well informed about the destinations. I already knew some of these, like Italy, Croatia, Hungary or Austria from previous trips. That’s why I was especially curious about the new, unknown destinations like Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even though there are many more things to discover in the individual countries, our trip definitely whet my appetite! Even in winter you will be enchanted by the diversity of the landscape: from the snowy Alps to the steppe of the Hungarian Puszta and the coast of the Adriatic Sea, where people were still sitting outside on the terraces enjoying their coffee under the sun. I highly recommend our tour to each- and every one of you. In just a short time you’ll have the chance to get to know real pearls of Eastern Europe.