Eastern Europe with a private guide

By Tony Leisner
This item appears on page 31 of the January 2020 issue.

Ukraine independence day scene in Chernihiv, Ukraine. Photo by Tony Leisner.

Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus had been on our list for a while. Exhaustive internet searches took my wife, Patti, and me all over the map, from bargain bus tours ($7,000 for two people for 16 days) to very expensive motorcoach tours ($15,000 for two people for 14 days). All were limited to the major cities, spending four to five days in Kiev, Minsk, Odessa and Brest. 

But Eastern Europe is so much more than the big cities. The countryside and small enclaves with castles, forts, monasteries and family restaurants offer other experiences. 

We finally concluded that we wanted a private car and driver in order to avoid the “bus” hotels, where mobs arrive late at night and then all feed at the breakfast trough for an early departure. We also wanted meals and comfort breaks on our own personal clock.

We had taken a 3-week trip to the Balkans with the guide Dimitar Tanevski (Skopje, North Macedonia; phone/Whatsapp/Viber +389 78 277 697, email tanevski.dimitar
@gmail.com or Skype dimitar.tanevski)
in May 2017 and were very pleased with his knowledge and skills. We had stayed in touch, sharing stories and pictures, so, for these other Eastern European countries, we hoped he could recommend a driver/guide with a late-model car. 

Dimitar immediately said he’d like to lead us again, himself, so in February we began planning a 23-day tour, Aug. 16-Sept. 7, 2018, that would include Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. He had never been to Belarus, so that would be a learning experience for all of us.

Dimitar has a college degree and holds the mandatory Carte Verde for vehicle insurance covering 48 countries in the region. He also speaks several languages. He would be with us throughout our stay. We also would have a few local guides.

Patti and Tony Leisner horsing around with a statue in Minsk, Belarus. Photo by  Dimitar Tanevski

He sent an initial itinerary of the highlights of each country and suggested we start and end in Bucharest, Romania. There were lots of adjustments, such as skipping Chernobyl and adding a side trip to Warsaw. 

We also decided that we would handle all of the reservations for accommodations, ourselves, and that Dimitar would stay at the same properties we stayed at. (We wanted to have the car in the evenings as well as during the day, plus Dimitar’s Russian-language skills helped at the small hotels.)

Dimitar insisted we stay at places with secure parking, since thieves target out-of-country cars. For the most part, we chose well, although Booking.com had some properties that bore more scrutiny. 

Combining Booking.com, Trip
Advisor.com
and other websites, we located smaller boutique properties with balconies (at my request) and secure parking. Most averaged $50 per room per night and were on the fringes of cities; we could drive to restaurants, if necessary.

Our visit to Belarus provided certain challenges.

To make reservations for five hotel nights plus guides in Gomel, Minsk and Brest, we worked through BelarusTourService (Minsk, Belarus; www.visa.by). Booking five nights with them earned our official invitation letter, which we needed for our visas. The total price for two rooms for five nights and guides was $1,423.

Our local guides in Gomel, Minsk and Brest each charged about $80 for three to four hours. (We had our own car, but if a guide has to rent a car, his fee increases. Not all guides in Belarus have cars.)

Massive “Courage” memorial at Fort Brest, Belarus. Photo by Tony Leisner

Visa forms were provided by BelarusTourService, and when every single blank was filled, we sent them — along with our passports and an official bank money order for $73 each — to the Belarus Embassy in Washington, DC. Our passports were returned a week later with the visas. 

For our visas, Belarus required proof of health insurance with coverage of at least $10,000 per person. The insurance had to be with an international insurer, with Belarus named as a destination. We chose Travel Insured International (Glastonbury, CT; 800/243-3174, www.travelinsured.com), and the embassy accepted the policy. We found that company by using the online travel-insurance broker Squaremouth (www.squaremouth.com).

Our entry into Belarus occurred between Chernihiv, Ukraine, and Gomel, Belarus — pretty much in the middle of nowhere. While Belarus allows visitors from a number of countries arriving at the Minsk National Airport to stay visa-free for 30 days [see Sept. ’18, pg. 4 — Editor], our entry by car involved procedures reminiscent of the 1960s in the Soviet Union.

Even with newer US passports and fresh visas complete with holograms, the passport control officer spent 15 minutes examining every single stitch, stamp and entry in each passport. It was then passed to a supervisor, who returned it to the first guy, and then it was back and forth one more time. 

All this was done with a jeweler’s loop and an intense flashlight. Plan on at least three hours at the vehicle border crossing for Belarus.

In Chernihiv, locals were celebrating Ukraine’s independence day, and we were treated almost like celebrities, since American visitors are so rare. They took pictures of us for the city’s Facebook page.

With our own driver/guide for the 23 days, we got to leave and arrive at comfortable hours each day, and whenever we had walked too long in a city, Dimitar went back and brought the car to us. We ate at small restaurants with no crowds. We stopped when and where we wanted, including at a Lidl, an ALDI and other supermarkets for wine and food to take to our hotels. Our luggage was carried to and from our rooms.

By working directly with Dimitar, having booked our own accommodations and avoiding overpriced dining, we stayed right around our daily budget for accommodations, food, car and associated expenses for three people. It broke down as follows:

For our trip to five countries, our total cost was $11,950, which, over 23 days, worked out to about $520 per day. (Had we not paid for Dimitar’s rooms and food, our charge for the car and Dimitar’s services would have been about $9,700.)

Tony, Patti and Dimitar at Warsaw's <i>Radio Café</i>.

 Of the $11,950, we paid around $8,005 for the car, driver, fuel, tolls, insurance and parking plus an additional $3,945 for accommodations and meals for the three of us. (For our round-trip flight from Tampa, Florida, to Bucharest, we used miles and some cash.)

We paid Dimitar by bank wire transfers. One transfer was for the deposit, and the other was for the balance just prior to our arrival in Bucharest. 

TONY LEISNER
Tarpon Springs, FL