I had planned on visiting Macedonia, but also wanted to get a taste for the rest of the Balkans on our first trip to the region, so engaged Choose Balkans... read more to get the most out of our time there, and frankly it was getting complicated looking at each individual bit myself! (We started in Belgrade and visited Sarajevo, Mostar and Kravica in B&H, Dubrovnik, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Skopje, Ohrid, Prilep, Heraklia in Macedonia and Thessaloniki, Meteora, Delphi, Corinthe in Greece with drop-off in Athens. Sirma did an amazing job of planning the trip. She balanced our requirements, such as pick up and drop off points (multiple drop-offs), needing to be in certain places at certain times to meet up with friends/celebrate Orthodox Easter/catch flights etc, with suggestions about what we could do in between and some of the more classic itineraries. She was very responsive to messages when we were organising the trip, despite the time difference with Australia. It was reassuring to know that she was there in the background making sure everything went smoothly as well during the trip. The hotels ranged from good to excellent and we liked all of them for different reasons, whether it be the location, friendliness of the staff/owners or the breakfasts. The breakfasts catered to all our tastes, me who likes to try local food and the kids who preferred more classic options. And I was able to do the laundry at the Choose Balkans accommodation in Tirana, which was not a highlight of the trip, but still a necessity.
During the trip itself, our guide Eri Veseli took great care of us. Firstly, he speaks a few of the same languages I speak - German, Italian, Greek (and English obviously ), so we got on well from the beginning, swapping in and out of our languages and conversing with other people we met, which really enhanced the experience for me. He shared stories and perspectives on historical and cultural aspects of the Balkans, so we left with a deeper understanding of the region. We felt safe at all times while he was driving, which was something that was important for me, and somehow he managed to negotiate the narrow streets in some of the places we went and always found parking, which was a miracle sometimes! Everything went smoothly, including borders, and currency exchange. A couple of bonus points that had not really occurred to me before deciding to use Choose Balkans were that, thanks to Eri, we ended up with some amazing family photos, that received many compliments from our friends, and also he knew all the good places with amazing views to stop to eat when we were travelling around.
A few comments on the Balkans generally. Firstly, we felt very safe in terms of our personal belongings (we were a lot less cautious than we would have had to be in other parts of Europe!) and when we had free time, felt comfortable out and about by ourselves in the evening. Likewise with the roads - general driving behaviour is actually much better than say Italy or Greece. OK, parking in the towns and cities is as bad as elsewhere.... The people are welcoming and the variety of breathtaking scenery and cultural aspects in such a small geographical area makes it an ideal place to visit. For anyone looking to escape the hoards of tourists elsewhere in Europe, I would definitely recommend it, although some of the places would be busy during high season. For anyone who can't make up their mind whether to organise their tour themselves or use Choose Balkans, my main reason for using Choose Balkans was so that I didn't have to deal with hiccups like transport options having changed from what is published and getting stuck somewhere (with the implications for hotel bookings elsewhere etc),, plus we were on a tight schedule. Thanks to Sirma's great planning and Eri looking after us "on the ground", there weren't any hiccups, but I knew that if there had have been, they would have sorted it out and it would not have been stressful for us.
I will be returning to the Balkans frequently and will definitely use Choose Balkans again. I would highly recommend them, whether it be for a long and complex itinerary like ours, a side-trip for a few days to explore the region further if you are based in one of the capital cities, or even just for a day trip. Thanks again Sirma and Eri.