Colour of life ... a 13th century church on the shore of Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. Photo: Getty Images
Committed soloist Ute Junker discovers the upside of group touring in the Balkans.
Day 12 is the day half the group sleeps through an earthquake. Perhaps that's not so surprising, given that our schedule has been somewhat gruelling. Most days, we follow what's become known as the 6-7-8 routine: wake-up call at 6am, suitcases outside the room at seven, on the bus at eight.
Tourism is still fairly young in this part of the world.
It's a schedule that's allowed us to work our way through half a dozen countries so far, in between dining on seafood on the Dalmatian coast, visiting remote mountain monasteries and doing the odd spot of shopping. We're now well in form. Despite the earthquake, not a single person is late to breakfast the next morning.
The Neretva Valley, Croatia. Photo: Alamy
The earthquake occurs on our second night in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, at about 1am. Those of us who were still awake, or were woken by the shaking, can't believe that the rest of the group slept through it. To be fair, it was actually an earth tremor, rather than an earthquake. The real earthquake, measuring 5.8, hit two days ago, just before we got here. No one was injured then and no one was injured in the heavy tremor we experienced - although several of us found it difficult to get back to sleep after the event. The next day, there's a lot of napping on the bus.
I wasn't expecting to experience the might of Mother Nature when I signed up for the first coach tour I've taken as an adult. My concerns were more mundane. As I usually travel solo, committing myself to the whims of a group seemed a dicey proposition. However, having looked into various options for travelling through the Balkans - an area where the fringes of Europe deteriorate into something that occasionally resembles the Wild West - I decided there might be advantages to letting someone else do all the hard work.
Still, as I show up to meet the group on my first morning - having flown in too late the night before for the official meet-and-greet - I have a number of fears. Top of the list is the thought that I may be setting the alarm early every morning, only to end up sitting on the coach for half an hour, waiting for the one couple that always runs late. From what I remember of childhood coach trips, the never-on-time couple are as fundamental a part of the coach experience as the toilet stops every two hours. And there's nothing that annoys me as much as people who are always late.
A cobblestone street lined with colourful houses in Mostar, Bosnia. Photo: Getty Images
So I'm pleasantly surprised on the first morning when I come downstairs five minutes before the appointed departure time, to find all of my fellow passengers already on the bus. This is a group I can travel with.
Our 17-day trip starts in Budapest, finishes in Bucharest, and takes in a swathe of countries in between. We travel across the recent battlefields of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia, and through the ancient landscapes of Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania, Europe's poorest country. We drive past fertile farmland, sleepy hamlets and cross several mountain ranges, including high passes where, even though summer is just around the corner, the snow still lies thick on the ground. On the way, we visit grand churches and imposing castles, scenic fiords and magnificently painted monasteries, as well as towns full of art nouveau buildings.
Over the centuries, many empires have fought over the Balkans, from the Romans right through to the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottomans. Everywhere we go, the layers of history are visible. In Albania, the winding road we take through the mountains dates to Roman times. In cities from Belgrade to Sarajevo, we see the traces left by later empires - from the elegant buildings of the Austro-Hungarians, to Turkish bazaars and beautiful mosques.
Bulgaria's Sofia is all fashion. Photo: Getty Images
The tourism industry is still fairly young in this part of the world, so it's a pleasant surprise to discover how good some of the hotels are. The Belgrade Art Hotel is a funky boutique property with a location in the heart of the historic area; the Sofia Kempinski is a glittering high rise with a selection of restaurants, including a sushi restaurant and a fish restaurant named, somewhat surprisingly, after Captain Cook. Even in Tirana, the sleepy capital of impoverished Albania, the Sheraton hotel offers classy comfort.
The food situation is more hit-and-miss. While we eat most of our dinners as a group, at lunch we're usually free to make our own arrangements. Some days this works better than others. In the pretty Romanian town of Brasov, I pick at random from among the sleek Italian eateries and end up enjoying a sensational pasta.
In Bulgaria, however, five of us have a Russian roulette type experience. Having ordered a selection of soups, sausages and croquettes, we watch in bemusement as half of them slowly trickle their way out. Despite repeated prompting, the other half never appear. We later find out we're not the only ones to have had this experience.
The Arcul de Triumf in Romania's capital, Bucharest. Photo: Getty Images
We're more successful with our first dinner in Dubrovnik, which is what's called a Dine-Around. We're given a choice of three restaurants, each offering a different menu. That allows us to break into smaller groups and enjoy a relaxed evening. The real highlight, however, is the chance to explore Dubrovnik at night. During the day, the walled city is packed with tourists; at night, however, the streets empty, the buildings glow in the spotlights, and it becomes an utterly romantic place.
Our second night in Dubrovnik is, if anything, more enchanting. Our optional excursion is a sunset cruise, during which it's hard to decide which is more stunning: the super-fresh fish dinner, or the gorgeous views as we round Dubrovnik's ancient city walls.
There's no such thing as a typical day on tour. Some days, we manage to cram in impossible amounts. The day we leave Sarajevo, we drive through the spectacular landscapes of the Neretva Valley, which provoke much clicking of cameras. We stop for lunch in Mostar, a gorgeous little town that became an international symbol of the Balkans War after the destruction of the 800-year-old bridge that linked the Christian half of the town with the Muslim quarter on the opposite side of the river. (The bridge has since been rebuilt.) We finish our day in Croatia, staying in the lovely little fishing town of Cavtat, just outside Dubrovnik.
A Hungarian bathhouse in Budapest. Photo: Getty Images
With plenty of legroom on the coach, even our longest travelling days pass in comfort. I'm quite taken with the ingenious two-row rule that's in place. On the first day, we're free to sit anywhere we like in the coach. After that, we move two rows every day: the left hand side of the bus moves forward, while the right hand side of the bus moves backward.
Some of the benefits are obvious: every person gets a chance to sit up the front, just as every person has a turn sitting down the back. Some benefits, however, only become evident a few days in. By constantly changing seats, we're also constantly sitting near different people, which lets us get to know everyone in the group without even trying.
As we travel our way through countries and clock up the border crossings, it becomes clear just how much hard work has been done for us. I'm vastly relieved that I don't have to worry about communicating with the often surly border guards. I'm also relieved that I'm not the one driving on roads that, at times, can best be described as challenging.
I love the fact that the currencies are explained to us each time we arrive in a new country, including latest conversion rates. What I love most, however, is the ease of simply leaving my suitcase outside my room each morning before we check out, safe in the knowledge that it will be miraculously transported to the coach, and then to the next hotel room.
I also love our tour director, Louis, the man who makes it all happen. He is a huge source of knowledge about all our destinations: the culture, the history and - importantly - the hygiene. He tells us in which countries we should avoid drinking the water and, on driving days, when we cover a lot of miles, always knows where to stop to find reasonably clean toilets. He also reminds us when we need to change money - moving between Hungarian forints, Serbian dinars, Bosnian marks and Bulgarian lev, among others, can be confusing.
Louis is not the one who leads us on city tours, however. For that, we pick up local guides in each city. Sometimes we do walking tours; other days, we do what they call "panoramic touring", which is sightseeing done from the bus. Since my last coach tour experience several decades ago, the introduction of the Vox system has improved walking tours no end. Each guest has a personal headset tuned in to the guide's microphone. No longer is there any need to bunch together to try to hear what the guide is saying: you can wander over to check out something that interests you, and still hear the commentary.
Each of our guides gives us a unique perspective. In Belgrade, our local guide Milan has a fine line in sardonic humour. After pointing out the different architectural styles in the city, from Austro-Hungarian to Turkish to Russian, he points to two derelict buildings on the city's main street, ruins that have remained unrepaired since being bombed by NATO in the 1990s. "That's NATO style architecture," he says wryly.
Milan also possesses other talents. One afternoon, we head for the pretty spa town of Topola, where the Serbian royal family are buried in a magnificent mausoleum beneath St George's Church, which is filled with dazzling mosaics. Milan talks us through the history of the royal family, the techniques for making mosaics, and even the acoustics of the Serbian churches, which allow church singers to create magnificent choral soundscapes. Then Milan starts singing, to give us a demonstration - and his haunting voice echoing from the ornately decorated walls is a highlight of the trip.
Our itinerary includes a mix of well-known destinations, such as Dubrovnik and Budapest, as well as more unusual stops. In Macedonia, we visit the resort town of Ohrid, located on the banks of the beautiful Lake Ohrid. According to legend, the World Heritage-listed city, a former archbishopric, was once home to 365 churches. It still has a fair smattering scattered along the lakeshore - some still bearing ancient frescoes - as well as the odd mosque.
Perhaps our oddest destination, however, is the Romanian capital, Bucharest. In this rundown city, you can still see the vainglorious dreams of its former rulers: from the 19th-century aesthetes who created imposing avenues, elegant parks and beautiful Belle Epoque buildings; to the crazed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who built himself an extraordinary palace that, repurposed into the home of today's Romanian parliament, is the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon.
Ceausescu levelled entire city districts to make room for his palace and its imposing surrounds - including 19 Orthodox Christian churches, six synagogues and more than 30,000 homes. The palace - much of which, including the nuclear bunker, is below ground - has 1100 rooms, many of them vast in scale.
No one's quite sure how much money was spent on the building. However, given that it contains a reputed one million cubic metres of Transylvanian marble, 3500 metric tonnes of crystal for 480 chandeliers, 900,000 cubic metres of wood and 200,000 square metres of woven carpets, estimates of between $3 billion and $5 billion aren't so surprising. Ceausescu financed the project with massive foreign loans, which he repaid by exporting everything the country produced, starving his people in the process.
The writer was a guest of Insight Vacations.
How to survive a coach trip
Planning a coach holiday? Look for one that offers the following:
1 A good coach Coach trips include some long days: comfortable seats with extra legroom are a must.
2 A good driver Especially if you're travelling through difficult terrain, such as the mountainous Balkan roads, you need someone you can trust at the wheel.
3 Free time No one wants to move with the herd 24 hours a day. Look for an itinerary that has optional excursions and free time built into it.
4 A sense of humour Particularly when travelling in developing areas such as the Balkans, things will not always go according to plan.
Lufthansa flies daily in conjunction with its airline partners from Melbourne and Sydney to Budapest via Frankfurt. 1300 655 727, lufthansa.com.
Insight Vacations' 17-day Treasures of the Balkans, visiting Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Mostar, Dubrovnik, Kotor, Tirana, Ohrid, Skopje, Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, Brasov and Bucharest, runs annually from May to September, priced from $3850 a person, twin share (land only). Price includes premium accommodation, many meals, coaches with business class legroom and expert tour directors and local guides.