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From the beautiful Baroque churches of Budapest to the remote lands of Bessarabia, this 22-day journey across the haunted heart of Romania's Transylvania, Moldova - unbeknownst to tourism, the breakaway republic of Transnistria - where Soviet values persist - to the eerie wastelands of Chernobyl, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, provides a fascinating insight into an intriguing region and showcases some of the least visited sights in Europe. Become acquainted with traditional Romanian culture and customs in Maramures, tour the medieval churches of Brasov, dine with a local family on an overnight homestay in Viscri and visit the Black Sea Coast of Ukraine. Get ready for adventure.
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. After the welcome meeting at 6 pm, 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. 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.
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: Debrecen / 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.
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 Patraş 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). 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. In the evening, indulge in a home-cooked dinner prepared by a local family, sampling fresh produce, homemade wines and schnapps. Tonight, stay in rustic houses that the locals rent out to visitors.
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 embark on a guided walking tour around town 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 tonight.
Day 10: Bucharest
Enjoy a free day exploring Bucharest. You can check out the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. 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. Indulge your inner foodie on a Home Cooked Bucharest Urban Adventure tour. Explore the city by night, or perhaps head out for another group dinner.
Day 11: Bucharest / Tulcea
This morning there may be some time to explore Bucharest before heading off to the provincial city of Tulcea by local bus (approximately 5 hours) at around noon. Located in Romania's far east on the banks of the mighty Danube River, Tulcea is a typical Romanian working class town. This has been an important harbour city since ancient times, where the Danube empties out into the Black Sea. Its position has seen it under Byzantine, Genoese, and Ottoman rule before being reabsorbed into Romania at the end of the 19th century. In your free time you could visit the Azizie Mosque, an exotic and culturally rich heritage structure with quaint minarets, or enjoy the view from the Victory Monument east of town.
Day 12: Danube Delta / Tulcea
Today, head out on a full-day excursion through the remote Danube Delta. This is a UNESCO protected area of ecologically significant lagoons, channels and marshes – one of the largest wetland areas in the world, and one that’s a paradise for birds. There are around 30 different ecosystems in this area of 4152 square kilometres, putting it just behind the Galapagos and Great Barrier Reef in terms of biodiversity. This is the place where the Danube empties into the Black Sea after journeying 2860 kilometres through ten countries. The Delta is also home to over 300 species of bird, so keep your eyes peeled for the avifauna that live around the floating reed islands, tree-fringed lakes, pastures, forests, sand dunes, and narrow canals lined with trees. The boat ride also gives you the opportunity to see local life from a unique perspective. The delta is home to an estimated 16,000 people, many of whom live isolated with no road access, surviving on traditional activities like fishing. At lunch time indulge in local specialties or the catch of the day. In the late evening, return to Tulcea.
Day 13: Valeni / Comrat
This morning, travel by private transport to Moldova and on to Valeni, our first stop in Moldova. Here you will be treated to a traditional lunch and some live music by a locally famous grandmother. In the afternoon continue to Comrat, the provincial capital of the Republic of Gagauzia. A small strip of land, Gagauzia once vied for independence from Moldova alongside Transnistria, but gave up its aspirations when it was granted a special legal status in 1994. The official name is now Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. Gagauzia is home to Turkic-speaking people. Theories vary as to why, but many believe that Gagauzians are descendants of Seljuk Turks who migrated here in the 13th century. When you arrive, take some time to wander around the compact town centre. Walk down the main street, still named after Lenin, and see the statue of the revolutionary leader that stands paradoxically near a memorial to the victims of Communist repression. Pass the monument to soldiers who died in the Russian-Afghan War or just absorb the atmosphere of this unique little town.
Day 14: Milestii Mici / Chisinau
After breakfast, you’ll make your way towards Chisinau (pronounced Kishi-Now), Moldova's bustling capital (approximately 2 hours). But before entering the city you have the opportunity to taste Moldova's famous wine on a tour of Milestii Mici winery. With more than 200 kilometres of underground passages – 55 of them lined with around 2 million bottles and given street names – Milestii Mici is home to the biggest wine cellar in the world. Enjoy a tour of some of the tunnels (drivable by car!) and sip on exceptional wines. Continue to Chisinau, a perfect example of a city almost entirely rebuilt in a Stalinist style with pre-manufactured concrete slabs, as it was completely destroyed by three events within two years: Soviet occupation and an earthquake in 1940, and then the takeover of the city by the Nazis in 1941. While Soviet high-rise buildings dominate the city, there is a wide main boulevard (named after the great medieval king Stephan the Great of Moldovia) which bisects two large green parks and along which the main museums and sights lie. This evening, be sure to sample some more Moldovan wine, little known worldwide but famed for its quality.
Day 15: Orhei / Chisinau
Head out of town to the little village of Orheiul Vechi (approximately 1 hour), where you'll visit the famous14th-century monastery. This is the country’s most important historical site, a World Heritage contender that’s also a place of remote, stark beauty. Here through the ages the Raut River has carved its way through the landscape, creating a valley with high rocky ridges that served as an easily defendable site to settle. Archaeological excavations have uncovered remains of ruins and fortifications estimated to date back as far as the 6th century BC. The most impressive and memorable sights here relate to its use as a religious site. Atop one of the hills is the church of the Ascension of St Mary, which has some interesting murals inside, but the real treat is the cave monastery. Below a squat bell tower is a black door, behind which steep steps lead down to caves that are still used by monks 700 years after the site was dug into the cliff. Admire the views across the valley and another local feast at a family home in a nearby village. Back in Chisinau visit the buzzing local market. You can wander through the central park to the Victory Memorial of the Soviet army, and on to the Eternal Flame, dedicated to the unknown soldiers from the city who died in WWII. The park also houses the Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity, an important gathering point for celebrations or protests. Nearby is the local market, a feast for the senses. Why not shop here for lunch before continuing your exploration of the city. The Museum of Ethnography and Nature has an almost Islamic inspired exterior, while the grand National Archaeology & History Museum has displays from settlements dating back to 10,000 BC up to the Soviet era.
Day 16: Tiraspol
An early morning drive (approximately 3 hours) takes you across the border to Tiraspol, the capital of the breakaway republic of Transnistria. This thin strip of land east of the Dniester River, officially known as the Prednistrovie Moldovan Republic (PMR), declared independence after the Soviet Union broke into pieces, and unlike Gagauzia, is continuing the fight to this day. Transnistria is only recognised as an independent entity by other unrecognised former Soviet breakaway republics. It is, however, 'de-facto independent' from Moldova – with its own parliament, police force, currency and coat of arms among other things – and still upholds Soviet values. In 2014 the head of the Transnistrian parliament asked to join the Russian Federation. Upon arrival, head out on an orientation walk around town along October 25th Street, greeting the Lenin statue standing high on its pedestal outside the Supreme Soviet (Parliament) Building. You’ll see old Russian cars on the street, Orthodox churches, hammers and sickles, memorials, and brand new constructions sitting next to crumbling soviet apartment buildings and homes. This is a place where around one corner it’s the present day, around another it feels like 20 or 30 years in the past.
Day 17: Bender / Tiraspol
This morning take a trolley bus (a mix between a bus and a tram) a short distance outside the city to the regional town of Bender, in the buffer zone between Transnistria and Moldova. Drop by the 16th-century Ottoman Tighina Fortress, an impressively stout construction on the right bank of the Dniester River. The three miles of walls are dotted with defensive towers and gates, all topped with bright red conical roofs. Once back in Tiraspol the rest of the day is free for you to experience this unusual city. Explore the memorials and the military-themed Museum of Headquarters, check out the impressive House of Soviets (Parliament) building complete with Lenin's bust out the front, or visit the golden domed Nativity Church. Perhaps head to the bridge at riverside De Wollant Park for panoramic photos of the river and downtown Tiraspol, or embark on a boat tour along the Dniester River itself. Near the university, Pobedi Park, with an old amusement park in the middle, is a great place for people-watching. You may want to check out the Kvint distillery to learn about the famed local rocket fuel, which is available at any bar throughout the territory. At the headquarters of this 1897 company, you can taste award-winning brandies made from grapes from the nearby ancient Bessarabian wine region.
Day 18: Odessa
A train or bus ride today will take you across the border to Odessa, Ukraine, an underrated gem located on the Black Sea (approximately 2.5 hours). The city was founded at the end of the 18th century by Russian ruler Catherine the Great, who sought to create an architectural getaway on the sea shore. Russian aristocrats flocked to this city of Baroque and Renaissance buildings and shady tree-lined streets to cool off in the summer, and today many sun lovers still make their way to this cosmopolitan city for the sandy beaches. The great buildings were neglected during the Soviet years, but now much of the fine plaster and marble work has been restored to its former glory. After an orientation walk with the group, wander down Primorskiy Boulevard, where babushkas shuffle alongside fashionable mums. Make sure you check out the famous Potemkin Steps, which lead from the street down to the waterfront. The sweeping stairway is famous for its part in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic 1925 film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’, the scene where Russian soldiers massacre Odessans during a 1905 anti-tsarist uprising. A pram rolling down the steps after the mother has been shot is one of cinema’s most iconic images. Alternatively, spend some time hanging out in the city's parks or the charming Old Town. There are several beaches within the city should you wish to cool down a bit.
Day 19: Odessa / Overnight Train
Today is a free day to explore the pretty town of Odessa and it's surroundings. Take your time to stroll around the streets and admire the Neoclassical and Baroque buildings – the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre is grand enough to rival any in Central Europe, with rococo style columns, arches, sculptures and intricate mouldings. Wander down the pedestrian Deribasovskaya Street and feel the history, then stop at the nearby Sculpture Garden at the Literary Museum, where a new statue is unveiled every year. To see a completely different side to the city, head to the unique underground Museum of Partisan Glory 12 kilometres outside the city. Odessa is built on limestone, and much of it was carved out during the construction of the city in the 1800s. This left some 2500 kilometres of labyrinthine catacombs running beneath it (that’s more than the distance from Odessa to London), which attracted those who wanted to work in the shadows and hide from those in control. After the Nazis forced the Soviets out of the city during WWII, dozens of rebel groups remained in the catacombs, trying to live a normal life and waiting to strike. The catacombs later housed smuggling and criminal groups, and today it’s groups of explorers. A small section of the tunnels are officially open to the public in Nerubayske, offering a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers who lived and fought here. You'll be free until the late evening, when you’ll board an overnight train bound for Kiev (approximately 10 hours). Ukrainian trains are very comfortable, with four passengers per cabin and ample space for luggage.
Day 20: Kiev
Upon your early morning arrival into Kiev, drop your luggage at the hotel and embark on a city tour with a local guide around this magnificent city. Many travellers say that Kiev is a diamond in the raw, just waiting to be discovered. The city boasts a vibrant energy through it politics, art and culture - it’s a place where Soviet grandeur is mixed in with medieval architecture and religious monuments. In your free time make sure you visit the 11th-century Lavra Monastery overlooking the Dnieper River. The exterior of the ‘Monastery of the Caves’ is visually stunning, with tiered frescos of Saints and towers topped by bright gold domes that glisten in the sun. It’s also a wonder underneath, with kilometres of catacombs below where reclusive monks worshipped, studied, lived and died, their bodies preserved by the caves' cool temperature and dry atmosphere. To get an insight into the country’s history, a stop at The Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War is recommended. No visit to Kiev is complete without a stroll along Khreschatyk Boulevard, spending time at Maidan square, where evidence of the recent historic events (like the 2014 revolution) are still visible, and then an amble down church-lined Andriivsky Descent. This street lined with vintage stalls, arts and crafts shops, small restaurants and hidden bars is sometimes called Kiev’s Montmartre, and is one of the oldest and most beautiful parts of the city. Kiev has great places to try Ukrainian food, and is a city that knows how to party, so get out and experience it tonight.
Day 21: Chernobyl / Kiev
Head out of town on a full-day trip to Chernobyl. At Dytyatky, which sits on the edge of the 30-kilometre exclusion zone (the circle drawn around the town after the 1986 accident) you'll pass the first checkpoint. After a short introductory and safety briefing, embark on a tour of Chernobyl town, passing the robots and vehicles used to clean the radioactive fallout. Then, after another checkpoint, hear the slight click-click of the Geiger counter while you stand in front of Reactor Number 4, now covered by the huge new sarcophagus, the largest moveable land-based object in the world. The undisputed highlight of today is the visit to the ghost town of Pripyat, where Chernobyl workers were rapidly evacuated 36 hours after the disaster. There’ll be time to explore Lenin Street, the main square, the Palace of Culture, Polissya Hotel, a supermarket, the famous ferris wheel, a school and a swimming pool. Wander the eerie, abandoned streets and get a real sense for what happened here. After lunch at the Chernobyl canteen – all ingredients are brought from outside the zone and are ecologically clean – visit the village of Paryshiv to meet the self-settlers (people who chose to come back to their homes after the evacuation), and see the once top-secret Duga 3 (the so-called 'Russian Woodpecker', a military radar). Return to Kiev for your final night of a memorable adventure, perhaps delving in the city’s nightlife with the group.
Day 22: Kiev
Today your trip comes to an end. As no activities are planned, you are free to depart your accommodation at any time. There is so much to see and do in and around Kiev, so you may want to consider extending your stay here. We are happy to book additional accommodation for you, subject to availability. Please enquire at the time of booking.
- Eger - Wine Tasting
- Maramures - Day Tour with Local Guide
- Maramures - Sapanta Merry Cemetery
- Maramures - Barsana Monastery
- Viscri - Fortified Church
- Viscri - Sock Project
- Viscri - Local Home Cooked Dinner
- Bucharest - Walking Tour with Local Guide
- Danube Delta - Full Day Boat Trip
- Danube Delta - Local Village Lunch
- Valeni - Traditional Lunch & Music
- Milestii Mici - Winery Visit & Wine Tasting
- Orhei - Day Trip with Local Guide
- Orhei - Orheiul Vechi Monastery
- Orhei - Local Lunch at Family House
- Bender - Tighina Fortress with Local Guide
- Bender - Half Day Trip by Trolley Bus
- Kiev - City Walking Tour with Local Guide
- Chernobyl - Full Day Trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
20 Breakfast(s) Included
4 Lunch(es) Included
3 Dinner(s) Included
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Question: Is Airfare Included in the Price?
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The trip was both both educational and exciting. I very much enjoyed the sights and culture.
The itinerary was just as I expected! The guide was very good as were the accomodations
Intrepid did such a great job. I never had to worry about where I was supposed to be and it felt so good not to worry about a thing but just to enjoy myself. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about culture and history.
Taiwan people very friendly. Accommodation were centrally located and easily accessible. Did extra activities then in brochure which was greatly.
Larus our tour guide did an excellent job and was very attentive to our needs. He is very knowledgeable and has a great sense of humor.
Our guide Tarang chandola was exceptional. Courteous, knowledgeable, organized, polite, professional and went above and beyond taking care of our needs and requests offen anticipating what that might be. He made sure we all had the best possible time and offered suggestions to meet the needs of everyone on the tour. This made the trip even more enjoyable.
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