Why road trip the Balkans?
After having completed the rest of this guide, it is very difficult to come up with a single "Why road trip the Balkans?" I suppose it really is two questions: "Why the Balkans?" and "Why road trip?" First, the Balkans... Because of the crystal Adriatic, of bustling Tirana and Durres, of the delicious small fishes in Lakes Skadar and Ohrid, of the paradise Corfu island, the smoky mountains of Metsovo, cliff-hanging monasteries in Meteora, the pearl that is Dubrovnik...because of our balcony in Kotor, that delicious salad and bottle of wine we had in Macedonia, because of architecture old and new, of forests of pine that cover the roots of magnificent mountains, of magical caves filled with strange towers and congregations, because of amphitheaters and libraries, museums and fortresses...!
A visit is worthwhile for any of the above listed, and what better way to enjoy the ride than driving ourselves? Thus, a road trip - an opportunity to follow our spontaneous urge, to indulge in our sudden curiosities and to chase the sun, the rain, or the snow as we please. The information that follows will make it easier for you to do the same.
BEST FOR: family vacation, foodies, ocean-lovers, history nerds, road junkies
Planning: The Route
Of all the things to do, planning your route comes first. Answer this: which countries do you want to hit along the way? And, what excites you about theses countries, is it city-hopping, skiing or checking out museums and old streets? Then, tailor your route and choose your destinations. On this trip, we visited 7 countries and 23 locations (cities/ towns/ national parks). I’ve summarized the value of each below, so you can pick and choose your favorites. Please keep in mind that this trip was completed from 4/7-28 and this guide is written based on my personal experience driving this route on one occasion. It is meant to provide the reader with an account of the experience from our perspective. However, circumstances may differ. Please use the information provided as that of a rough guide.
Let's start from Greece and move north...
My dad got his Schengen in Greece (easier to get than in e.g. Italy), so we planned to spend some quality time in the country away from tourist crowds in Athens and away from the most popular of islands "retreats". Leaving from Albania and planning to enter Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.) after, we kept to the northern parts of Greece, making a loop between the three countries. From crystal clear seas surrounding Corfu island and old stone houses hidden in mountains and clouds in Metsovo, to cliff hanging monasteries in Meteora and regal tombs and relics in the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia in Pella, Greece is blessed not only with magnificent and diverse landscapes, but also with rich history and deep culture...
Enveloped by clearer-than-sapphire waters, the lush island of Corfu was a paradise even in Greek mythology. Its countryside is dotted with wildflowers, ruined cliff-side castles, and granite palaces, and was one of the favorite retreats of the Empress Sissi of Austria-Hungary. The island is also blessed with aromatic local wines and delicious small fishes, fried or grilled then served with a wedge of fresh lemon.
Today, Corfu is a sleepy island ideal for a family vacation, but it was not always so. Once an important naval base of the Republic of Venice, the island became a bastion of Western civilization and Christianity against the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire, evident in the numerous fortifications that still dot the island. Some of these fortresses were built so strong and in such impossible angles that they held steadfast even under the deadly blows of the infamous Ottoman artillery.
On Corfu, we enjoyed: on the east coast, Corfu town's old fortress, a masterpiece of Venetian war technology; the old town district, populated by 19th century British architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site; and Achilleon, a beautiful marble palace filled with vivid statues, and once the Empress Sissi's vacation home. On the west coast, go high or go low: Paleiokastritsa town brings the sapphire Ionian waters within your grasp while Paleiokastritsa Monastery and Angelokastro command stunning views of rolling hills and seaside crags. Enjoy the last rays of sunshine at Kaiser's Throne, named after Kaiser Wilhelm II, who enjoyed 360 panorama views of the island from the top of this rock.
Reaching Corfu: We were in Sarandë, Albania, and our object was to land on Corfu island, Greece. There is a ferry leaving from Sarandë, but we heard that 1) it's infrequent and 2) it cannot transport cars. So, we drove for 2hrs to cross the border and reach Igoumenitsa in Greece, where we took a ferry at the new port (as opposed to the old port) to Corfu/Kerkyra town on Corfu Island. We arrived in Corfu town on the east coast of the island 1.5hrs later…from here, it takes 30 mins to cut across the island and reach the sapphire waters on the west coast near Paleiokastritsa.
Where to Stay: Levant Hotel (west coast) • 1-minute walking from Kaiser's Throne, magnificent view of island, stunning sunsets • €40/room • (firstname.lastname@example.org)
An ancient, dreamy town hidden in mist at dawn and drenched in gold at dusk, Metsovo emerged undoubtedly as one of the most beautiful havens along our route. We were glad to have stumbled upon such a rare place that comforts the body and pacifies the soul.
Reaching Metsovo: From Corfu town (Kerkyra), we took the ferry back to Igoumenitsa (1.5 hrs) then got on the highway towards Ioannina. Take the exit for "Metsovo" just past Ioannina (1.5 hrs).
Where to Stay: Hotel Kassaros • cozy house, stunning views and delicious breakfasts • €40/room with breakfast and parking • (email@example.com)
Six monasteries perch atop boulders the size of mountains, beautiful frescoes and reliefs crowd the walls within. Their only permanent occupants—bearded, iron-faced orthodox monks—first found haven in the mountains from the invading Ottoman armies, and now watch over the townsfolk in the lush valley below. The views are stunning, the structures awesome and the frescoes intricate but sometimes disturbing.
"Meteora", meaning suspended in air, refer to the group of monasteries and nunneries that Greek Orthodox Christian monks built in the 14th century. At its peak, 24 impressive structures thrived in the mountains of which only 6 remain. One can visit all 6 in 1-2 days but we prefer to take it slow. There is no race to collect tickets from all 6 monasteries, so pick a few and take your time. I was most impressed with the views from Gran Meteoron, the largest and oldest of them all; the frescoes in Varlaam, which bleed into the walls like tattoos on skin; and the single bridge that connects St. Stephen's to the rest of the world. (See below for map of Meteora and opening and closing timetable.)
Reaching Meteora: From Metsovo, get back on the E92 and exit at Kalabaka, the town that neighbors the monasteries of Meteora (1 hr).
Where to Stay: Doupiani House • stunning views, comfortable balconies and quiet setting • €40/room with breakfast and parking • (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vergina & Pella
The glory and magnificence of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia is materialized here in King Philipp II’s tomb, armor and jewelry which, along with countless other cryptic treasures, elevate Vergina & Pella to “must-gos” for students of history and lovers of classical artifacts.
Vergina, or Aigai was the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia. The Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai house the tombs of King Philipp II and his wife, discovered here in 1977. The ruins of Aigai and the tombs of other Macedonian nobility were closed for renovation during our visit. Pella became the capital after during the reign of Alexander the Great, after Phillip II was assassinated. Pella Archeological Park and the Archeological Museum recount the glory of this city in millennia past.
Reaching Vergina & Pella: From Meteora, follow signs for Thessaloniki, then exit at Vergina (2 hrs). From Vergina, it takes another hour to reach Pella. If using GPS/Google Maps, input "Pella Archeological Park" or "Archeological Museum of Pella" to make sure that you are indeed going to the right "Pella" (there are 2 towns with the same name).
Where to Stay: Hotel Olympia (Vergina) • €30/room with parking, without breakfast • a quiet little hotel in a sleepy small town
From Pella, we headed north and soon reached the border between Greece and Macedonia. "Where are you going?" The Greek officer asked while flipping through our passports and car registration. "Macedonia." We replied with a smile, and thought "Where else?" He gave us a look. "You are in Macedonia." He put down our documents and looked up, a stern face waiting for some kind of reply. Right. Here's where the beef comes in. Greece and Macedonia have been fighting over the ownership of the name of "Macedonia" and so far, Greece is winning. While the ancient capitals of Alexander the Great's Kingdom of Macedonia do lie in Greece, the current Macedonia has been left with a long name: Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia. The beautiful country of F.Y.R.O.M., that's where we're going...
Scores of white swans cruising on a giant mirror - that was the view from our first lunch in Ohrid. We were mesmerized by the calm, clear water and the elegant creatures that gently swam by, inches away, until lunch was served. Ohrid is filled with mouth-watering Macedonian delicacies and fine wines, which you can easily share with passing swans if you nestle by the lake - the salad Macedonian style is rich with flavor and refreshing, the fried small fishes, fresh from the lake, crisp to the bone, all to be washed down with a bottle of chilled local white.
Curving around the gentle lake, the relaxed town of Ohrid hides within it the Church of St. Sophia, who's foundations date back to the Romans and who's interior is covered with frescoes from the Middle Ages, which, despite the heavy toll of nearly a millennium of war and erosion, remains vivid and stunning. We also enjoyed the panoramic view from Tsar Samuel's Fortress, the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the 10th century. And most of all, dinning, drinking, chatting and strolling by the calm waters of Lake Ohrid.
Reaching Ohrid: From Pella, follow signs for F.Y.R.O.M. and head west. After crossing the border, pass Bitola and reach Ohrid (4 hrs).
Where to Stay: Royal View Hotel • €35/room with breakfast and parking • right by the lake with a balcony over it, very clean and comfortable • (email@example.com)
We started from Albania and now, having looped south around Greece and Macedonia, excuse me, F.Y.R.O.M., we were back. We drove past Tirana and Durres on the highway and continued to head north, straight for Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans and a jumping board for us into Montenegro. But let's start from the beginning, from Tirana by the mountains and Durres by the sea...
Tirana (and around): my visit to the capital of Albania has been all too brief and has only served to deepen my appetite. Like any interesting city, Tirana seemed full of secrets - pulsating like a magnet with an unpredictable sort of attraction. I have yet to reconcile the enormous statue of the national hero in Skanderbeg Square, ruins of concrete bunkers tucked away in strange corners, relaxing malls and parks that remind me of island resorts and shaded streets bustling with hip cafes, restaurants and bars. The view of Tirana from Mt. Dajti (reached via cable car), of a city sprawling into the horizon is undoubtedly stunning and yet, boring. This city needs to be seen one block at a time, and my curiosity can only be satiated one conversation at a time. In Mt. Dajti, one can also find an abundance of bunkers, ruined like the robot soldiers in Miyazaki's "Laputa: Castle in the Sky". Between 1960s-80s, Enver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania commanded the construction of over 170,000 bunkers throughout the country, planning to use them against a potential attack by Yugoslavia, NATO and/or the Warsaw Pact.
Half an hour west, Durrës stands by the sea with an altogether different vibe - more relaxed and more stylish without losing the history or the culture. In a single city, one can sip coffee or a cocktail in the numerous seaside and rooftop establishments, and indulge in the luxury of alone-time with Romans through the 2nd century AD Durrës Amphitheater.
Reaching Tirana/Tiranë: From Ohrid, head northeast to circle around the lake; cross the border after passing "Struga", then follow signs for "Elbasan", then for "Tiranë" when it appears (3 hrs). To reach Durrës, head west from Tirana towards the coast, follow signs for "Durrës" (0.5 hrs).
Trees sprout from turquoise water like emerald veins; distant mountains painted, as if by pastel, from summit to roots, in purple and azure; clouds drift diagonally, dispersing into the sky like smoke from the chimneys of giants; a tiny street rings with music, chatter and the hustling of waiters - dusk in Shiroka by the Lake Skadar.
The small town of Shiroka is an ideal spot to take-in the beauty of Lake Skadar and the Accursed Mountains that rise into the clouds. The largest lake in Southern Europe, Skadar is also connected to the Adriatic and Lake Ohrid. No wonder their waters are so clear and blue...Rozafa Castle, built by the Venetians on a small mountain not far away, commands stunning views of the city of Shkodër, the lake and the rivers that spring from it. The ruins holds a tragedy about three brothers, a mother and her infant son, go find out more yourself...
Reaching Shkodër: Coming directly from Ohrid, head northeast to circle around Lake Ohrid; cross the border after passing "Struga", then follow signs for "Elbasan", then for "Tiranë" when it appears. We had already visited Tirana, so we simply passed it and continued north towards "Lezhë" then "Shkodër" (5 hrs from Ohrid, 2 hrs from Tirana). Instead of staying in the larger city of Shkodër, we diverted to a more quiet village by the shores of the lake - Shiroka. The village is small and occupied mostly by restaurants, some of which offer rooms. At the fork, bear left to Shiroka, bear right to Shkodër (see map below).
Where to Stay: Tani Hotel (Shiroka) • €27/room with breakfast and parking • very basic rooms but right by the lake • (firstname.lastname@example.org)
"A rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town" even by UNESCO standards, Gjirokastër was once at the heart of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. When Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent eyed the Habsburg lands and Vienna, its crown jewel with desire, he personally led an army into Europe, but he had to cross the Balkans first. Greece, Albania, Hungary...one fell after the other and Gjirokastër, once on the frontier, was soon swallowed whole by the Ottoman Empire.
People change, Gods change, but Gjirokastër Castle, with walls nearly a thousand years old, still stands watch over houses covered with stone roofs. Standing on its terrace, high above the noise of the old bazaar, away from day-to-day life, it seemed that the only permanent inhabitants of this land were the Castle and the mountains that it faced, rising into the sky like an enormous wave; and the only conversation to be had was between them.
Reaching Gjirokastër: From Tirana, head west towards "Durrës". At Durrës, head south towards "Fier" or "Vlorë", then follow signs for "Gjirokastër" (3.5hrs). We did not stay the night here. After spending a few hours in town, we continued south to Sarandë.
If you are following our itinerary, here's where you can stay in Sarandë:
Demi Hotel • €50/room with breakfast and parking • comfy rooms with balconies; by the sea • (email@example.com)
For the past 20 years, I have only heard of "Montenegro" spoken together with "Yugoslavia". Another country that split from the remains of the former Yugoslavia, Montenegro surprised me with stunning natural beauty and paradise towns, an incredibly tall population that made me (6'4'') feel at home and near-insane drivers. So let's make a deal: eat well, drive safe and take it all in a little at a time...
Love at first sight would not be an exaggeration. The view of Sveti Stefan (St. Stefan's) from above is nothing less than stunning. Today, the island's 600-year-old houses have been refitted as villas and suites under Aman Sveti Stefan, a luxury hotel that can easily swallow €1,000 euros/night. One can only enter the island with a reservation at either the hotel or the ultra-expensive restaurant. There are rumors of walking tours offered by Aman, but so far, they remain rumors. Seeking a more quiet, economic and just as beautiful house to spend the night, we kept driving towards Kotor, an hour west.
Reaching Budva: From Shkodër, head west then north towards the border with Montenegro. Follow signs for "Budva" and "Kotor" after crossing the border. Drive slowly as roads are narrow and Montenegrins drive fast & furious (2 hrs)!
If you must indulge in Budva but Aman is too expensive, try the hotel below. It's also a great place to stop for a coffee on your way to Kotor. Look for it by the highway before entering Budva.
Where to Stay: Hotel Adrovic • €60/room with breakfast and parking • incredible view of the Adriatic and Sveti Stefan • (firstname.lastname@example.org)
One of our favorite spots along the route, Kotor grants the luxury of coffee on a balcony over the bay and quiet, after-dinner strolls along the clear waters without the usual hassles of tourism (in off-season anyways). The castle halfway up the “Monte Negro”, built at an impossible angle, grants stunning views of the grad (old town) and the gem-shaped bay.
In Kotor, we enjoyed: the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its graceful Venetian architecture; the Castle of San Giovanni, which, built at an impossible angle, stands like a goat on a cliff. The hike up to the castle can be slightly strenuous and cost €3/person, although one can avoid this fee by taking the mule-trail just west of old town (see map below). Most of all, walking along the turquoise waters of the Bay of Kotor at dawn and dusk, and feasting on the excellent black (squid ink) paella at Dobrotski Dvori restaurant every night during our entire stay. The restaurant is one block up hill from the banks of the bay. Next time around, we would take a trip out to Our Lady of the Rocks, the tiny island and church in the middle of the bay (€3-4/person by boat + €1 for the tour).
Reaching Kotor: From Budva, head north and follow signs for "Kotor" (0.5 hrs).
Where to Stay: Petar's Apartments • €20-30/room with parking, without breakfast • a quiet little house right by Kotor Bay with the most well-placed and relaxing balconies in the world • (email@example.com)
Durmitor National Park (Zabljak)
Home to jagged snow-capped peaks, pristine glacial lakes and endless forests of pines, Durmitor offers a look into the rugged side of Montenegro. The park is covered with well-marked trails of varying length and difficulty, most of which can only be accessed in the summer. Even in April, temperatures are chillingly low and most trails are closed by snow up to a meter thick.
There is an entrance fee for park grounds, with options for 1 day (€3), 3 days (€6), 1 week, and 2 week tickets.
In Durmitor, we hiked to Crno Jezero and another smaller lake along the only trail that was not covered with thick snow. We also drove to Tara Bridge, a magnificent architectural feat that spans the lush Tara Canyon, 170 meters above the turquoise Tara River.
Reaching Zabljak: From Kotor, we first travelled to Dubrovnik, Croatia before heading towards Durmitor National Park. From Dubrovnik, head northeast towards Trebinje, Bosnia and Hercegovina. After Trebinje, cross the border again into Montenegro, towards Niksic, then head north to Zabljak and other towns surrounding the national park (4 hrs). Drive carefully! Mountain roads are narrow, curvy and can get icy in winter, check roads conditions. After 13 switchbacks, you will be close to your destination but also quite ready to puke (prep carrots...). If leaving directly from Kotor, head north then east towards Niksic, then north to Zabljak (estimated 3.5 hrs). Note that the single motor road that runs through park grounds east to west is also likely to be closed from fall to spring. The road is very narrow and can become very dangerous very fast with snow, cliffs and tumbling rocks. Rangers may neglect to put up a “road closed” sign and speaking from experience, backing out is a 2-man job and a true pain in the ass. Check with park rangers/ tourist info center to see if this road is open before diving in! To reach Tara Bridge, drive east from Zabljak and look for signs for "Đurđevića Tara Bridge" (45 mins - 1 hr).
Where to Stay: Hotel SOA • quiet, cozy and well equipped, this hotel had a friendly Samoyd and is located near the park entrance • (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Apartment Grbovic • €27/apartment with parking, without breakfast • a spacious apartment but without heating and with spotty wifi • (check booking.com)
From Croatia, we enter the land of grandeur - seaside towns give way to port cities, ancient marble Greek pillars give way to enormous Roman Amphitheaters, all without sacrificing the natural beauty - lush mountains, lakes hidden like gems and of course, the gentle and welcoming Adriatic. We visited two cities in Croatia, the "Pearl of the Adriatic" and a city built by Emperor Augustus of Rome...
A city whose walls inspire awe, whose basilicas speak of grandeur and whose streets whisper beauty, Dubrovnik’s history is as splendid as its parking fees are outrageous. Once the Republic of Ragusa and the famed "Pearl of the Adriatic", Dubrovnik was a direct competitor of the Republic of Venice in the Middle Ages. While Venice had adopted a path of aggressive expansion, often bullying smaller but strategic city-states to submission, Dubrovnik valued freedom above all else. Although the freedom of Dubrovnik often came at the cost of other peoples, the city's "pragmatic" leadership did abolish slavery in 1418, 450 years before President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The merchant fleet of Dubrovnik was famed to sail the oceans flying a white flag inscribed with a single latin word “Libertas” — Freedom.
Centuries of incessant war with powerful neighbors as well as flourishing trade and an age of naval exploration created the Dubrovnik we see today - Dubrovnik Grad (the old town) - a magnificent pearl, protected by monstrous city walls and corner fortresses - a shell hardened by fire. Entrance to the Grad is free, but getting on top of the walls cost 120 kuna (€16) a pop. Note the ticket covers a single lap around the wall. If the same ticketer catches you twice, he'll give you the boot. Best times to visit are morning (opens @ 8), and dusk, when the walls are less crowded and the sun no longer fatal.
Not only is the city rich with history and Game of Thrones moments (this is where they shot scenes in King's Landing), it is also swelling with delicious seafood, wines and local produce. Hit the morning market in Gundulic Square for fresh produce, sweets and handmade goods, and Kamenice restaurant (literally right next to the market) for the food and the wine.
If you’re not a serious history or model ships nerd, avoid the Maritime Museum, which, for a hefty fee of 100 kuna (€13), provides you with a nutritionally deficient and poorly organized exhibition staffed by grumpy grandmas who only speak one word of English - “No.”
Reaching Dubrovnik: From Kotor, drive north then west around the bay towards Herceg Novi. Pass Herceg Novi and continue northwest towards the border, then stay on the highway until Dubrovnik (2 hrs). *If you find yourself to be in a ferry mode, head south then northeast from Kotor to reach Lepetane. Take the ferry here to Kamenari (€4.50/car, pedestrians free; 5 mins) then follow the highway to Dubrovnik (saves 10 mins total), see map below.
Where to Stay: Vera's Apartment • €55/duplex apartment without parking or breakfast, although Vera does tell you where you may find free public parking • very spacious and quiet, balcony with a view of Dubrovnik Grad (5-mins walking), well equipped even with a washing machine • (email@example.com)
Parking is a serious issue. Look for a hotel or apartment (apartmani) with free parking. Alternatively, cruise around for free public parking, which is difficult but possible to find. Word is, parking on main streets can cost up to €120 euros/day for foreigners! €120 is not a typo...
The city's enormous Roman amphitheater (styled much like the coliseum) is as magnificent in the sun as the city is gloomy in the rain. Sipping coffee by the hulking arches of the 1st century arena works wonders but the port city is not meant for extended stay.
Pula holds a sad past. The city, beautiful as it was, had been destroyed numerous times by its enemies. It was first leveled by Augustus, after he and the triumvirate quelled the rebellion of Brutus and Cassius, who had assassinated Julius Caesar. Pula had sided with Cassius and only time proved that it had chosen the wrong side. It was then rebuilt in the 1st century A.D. by Augustus at the request of his beloved daughter - Iulia. Nearly 500 years later, Pula was attacked by the Ostrogoths and was destroyed again by Odoacer, an ex-Roman soldier in rebellion. It was destroyed repeatedly by the Genoese in the 13th - 14th centuries, who wrecked havoc only because Pula was a military port for the Venetian Navy. Most recently, it was bombed during WWII by Allied forces as a military port for German U-boats. Today, only a shadow of its former glory remains. Standing by the sea, the Roman ruins remind visitors of the tragedy of a city.
Aside from the impressive Pula Amphitheater, the Augustan Forum was also constructed in the 1st century A.D. by command of Augustus. It contains the awesome Temple of Augustus, which, with its simple but classic form radiates power and glory. Fortress Kastel, a Venetian construction, now houses a military museum, displaying weapons and a history of Pula during WWII and when it was a part of the nation of Yugoslavia. However, Fortress Verudela (The Aquarium) seems to provide a better view of the entire city.
From Dubrovnik, we first took a detour back into Montenegro, hitting Durmitor National Park before heading west into Bosnia & Hercegovina. From Sarajevo, we reentered Croatia from Jezerce, hoping to spend a few days in Plitvice Lakes National Park (Plitvička Jezera). Hit with heavy rain, we decided to head towards the coast and the sun, to Pula on the Istrian peninsula.
Reaching Pula: From Jezerce (Plitvička Jezera), head northwest then west towards "Rijeka", then southwest to reach "Pula" (6.5 hrs). From Dubrovnik or Split, head northwest on E65 pass "Zadar" then towards "Rijeka". Head southwest after Rijeka to reach Pula (~7.5hrs from Dubrovnik; ~5.5hrs from Split).
Where to Stay: Borghese Apartments • €40/room with parking, without breakfast • comfortable and quiet, with balconies looking over a small bay
*Compared to the places we've visited thus far, Pula is a big city that does not have a concentrated "tourism zone". It was hard to find good hotel options around the Amphitheater. Book beforehand to avoid the hassle...
Bosnia & Hercegovina
A beautiful mountainous land, rich with history; a deeply troubled nation, split by ethnicity - Bosnia & Hercegovina has always been complicated...With hatred running deep between the three main ethnic groups that populate the land - Bosnians, Serbs and Croats, the country seems to be in a stalemate, which, if broken, could again end in cruelty and bloodshed like it did during the collapse of Yugoslavia. Ethnicity and politics is very sensitive here. People cannot move on when history is stamped so clear in their mind. Respect the locals and do not presume anything...
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Gavrilo Princip, the Black Hand, the First World War...everything I have learned in history class. But I never imagined Sarajevo to be this beautiful. For a city known for death, it is full of the details of life: red tiled roofs glimmer in the sun, yellow streetcars fill with university students, fountains draw rainbows in old mosques, bazaars bustle with customers, a city built by a river...
Stari Grad, the oldest section of the city, houses numerous Ottoman-style buildings and mosques. Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque houses a beautiful courtyard with ample shades and a fountain; the Latin Bridge is famous for the plaque near its northern end, marking the exact location where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand and Sophie and sparked the First World War; for a sober reminder of ethnic tension and violence in the Balkans, visit the Tunnel of Hope (tunel spasa), once the lifeline for Bosnians trapped in a 4-year siege of Sarajevo by Serbs and Croats who were also their fellow countrymen.
Reaching Sarajevo: From Zabljak, we drove north and attempted to take the shortcut across Durmitor National Park (see map below). We soon realized that the only motor road through the park has been rendered impassable by snow even though there were no warning signs along the way! If you are visiting outside of summer, check with your hotel/ tourist info center before attempting the cross-park route! We backed out very cautiously, then proceeded south, making a bigger "U" loop that eventually led us north. After crossing into Bosnia & Hercegovina, follow the M18 to Sarajevo (7 hrs, roads are narrow and slightly more difficult to drive, taking more time than estimated by Google Maps). *Autogas/GPL is very cheap in Bosnia, do fill up before you leave.
Where to Stay: Hotel Grand • €25/room with breakfast and parking • clean, comfortable, quiet and economic; 30 mins from Stari Grad (the old town) • (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Further from the sea, Slovenia is of a different vibe than many of the countries we've visited. Blessed with awesome mountains, intricate cave systems and pristine lakes, Slovenia is a heaven for outdoor adventurers. However, an expected turn of events soon kept us indoors, mostly...
A small town next to an enormous cave system, Postojna offers the opportunity to take a train through chandelier halls within the mountain and to marvel at thousands of stalagmites and stalactites in strange shapes and forms - some resemble bat wings, others congregations, yet others towers from ancient Babylonia or from the deserts of Tatooine. The Postojna Caves (Postojna Jama) are also home to the Proteus Anguinus, or the Olm - a blind aquatic salamander that can live for over 100 years in total darkness and can survive up to 10 years without food!
A short drive away, the near impregnable Predjama Castle leans against a rocky cliff. Some 600 years ago, the knight Erazem ate fresh cherries and grilled ox from the balconies of the castle while Habsburg attackers chewed miserably on maggoty bread. The tiny renaissance castle held out for over a year, because it was of the mountain and it shared the mountain's secrets. *Buy combo tickets for Postojna Caves and Predjama Castle at either location for a discount.
Reaching Postojna: From Pula, head north (bear west) towards "Koper" or "Trieste", then northeast to reach "Postojna" (2 hrs). To reach Predjama Castle, head northwest from Postojna and follow signs for "Predjamski Grad" (15 mins).
Where to Stay: Rooms & Apartments Proteus • €50/room with parking, without breakfast • spacious and quiet, with balconies overlooking a quiet corner of town; 500m from Postojna Caves entrance • (check Booking.com)
Lush mountains, a castle on a cliff, a small town curved around a pristine lake - this is Bled, very photogenic in the sun, a winter paradise in the snow. And it did snow in May...
Hiking up to Blejski Grad (Bled Castle) in thick snow is no easy task, especially when in tennis shoes. But the view from the castle and the dimly lit murals in the chapel within makes it worthwhile. If we had predicted the blizzard, we might have stayed at Bled's ski resort (email@example.com) instead, and if we had more time, we would have rented a rowboat to Bled Island or continued north into Mt. Triglav National Park. But for the time being, we stayed put, resting in a warm and cozy suite, occasionally venturing onto our balcony in pajamas...
Reaching Bled: From Postojna, head north on E61, pass "Ljubljana" then "Kranj" to reach "Bled (2 hrs).
Where to Stay: Hotel Jelovica Bled • €110/2-bedroom apartment suite with breakfast and parking • very cozy and spacious suite overlooking the lake, mountains and St. Martin's Parish Church • (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A quiet but colorful city, the capital of Slovenia delights with stylish architecture and a relaxing atmosphere. This is the last stop on our trip through the balkans. Instead of hurrying towards Ljubljana's top destinations as listed by our travel guides, we took long strolls through the streets of the medieval old town, stopping by souvenir and wine shops and exploring the city one detail at a time.
At first glance, the Cooperative Business Bank building catches the eye, but the National and University Library of Slovenia holds hidden gems - a pair of pegasus heads shaped from fine bronze adorn its entrance. Inside the gate, a hall built entirely of black marble leads to the main reading room through a set of wooden doors. The black stone dims the light, signifying "the twilight of ignorance", while light pours from large windows into the reading rooms, signifying "the light of knowledge and enlightenment." Furthermore, the Ljubljanica River brings the city to life, allowing for such elegant constructions such as the Triple Bridge, which connects Preseren Square and the old town with modern Ljubljana. The old town is beautiful in a Western European sort of way - where statues outnumber humans and where details are never overlooked.
Reaching Ljubljana: From Bled, follow the E61 southeast towards "Ljubljana" (1 hr). If you decide to go with our hotel option below, see the map below to find your nearest commercial parking lot.
Where to Stay: Galeria River • €53/room without breakfast or parking, nearest paid parking costs €12/day • comfortable and quiet, at the center of the historic district • (check Booking.com)
Planning: The Itinerary
The beauty of a road trip lies in its flexibility - don't fix everything and don't be bummed if it starts raining, you can always drive towards the sun! Having said that, roughly aligning your itinerary with the seasons is critical for a fun trip. Since the primary axis of travel is north-south, when you start will determine where you start and which way you drive.
September - October
North to South
If you plan to start from the north, e.g. finishing West/East/North Europe before starting the Balkans, it's best to start at end of summer (September) and move south towards warmer climates as autumn comes. Ljubljana is a good place to start, with fast and easy connections to other regions of Europe. It costs more to return the car in a different city. Avoiding night driving, Tirana (Albania) - Ljubljana (Slovenia) straight takes ~12hrs and can be done in 2 days, spending one night near Dubrovnik (Croatia).
mid April - May
South to North*
If you plan to connect this road trip with trekking in the Alps, it’s best to start early summer (mid/late April), moving north as temperatures rise enough to melt snows and open mountain paths. Tirana (Albania), or Thessaloniki and Athens (Greece) are good places to start. It costs more to return the car in a different city. Avoiding night driving, Ljubljana (Slovenia) - Tirana (Albania) straight takes ~12hrs and can be done in 2 days, spending one night near Dubrovnik (Croatia).
April - June
A full roundtrip requires more time and a fatter wallet. A potential route starts from Tirana or Thessaloniki in mid/late April, reaching Ljubljana (Slovenia) in mid May, then turning east and south through Transylvania and the cool Carpathians, back to the starting point - Tirana or Thessaloniki in early/mid June. Skiers can reverse this itinerary but would also need winter equipment for cars. Note that this is only a potential route as we did not do a full round trip!
Planning: The Rest
- Get your Schengen: for those who need a Schengen to enter the EU, the visa also grants you access to all of the countries listed above besides Albania, whose visa requirements are listed on websites of Albanian embassies
- Book a car:
Quality > Price: always choose a good agency over a cheap one. The difference shows when something goes wrong. If you're renting from Albania, Enterprise in Tirana is a reliable choice, with capable English-speaking staff and great service!
Autogas it: find a car that can run on autogas (GPL/LPG/autoplin) as well as petrol, it will save you a few hundred euros! Stations with autogas are more rare in Western Europe (Germany, Austria, Slovenia) than in most of the Balkans and Greece
Go simple: you don't need a BMW to road trip anywhere. In fact, if you plan to pass through Bosnia, bringing a luxury car may be a bad idea...
Get your "green card": for this cross-country road trip, you'll need to take a car across many borders. For that, you'll need to buy an international insurance "green card" for your vehicle. Rental agencies usually buy it for you. Depending on your time of travel outside the country of rental, you may need a 1-week, 2-week (€60), 1-month or longer policy
- Prep your phone: download 3 key APPs- 1) google maps, 2) compass, 3) google translate
Google Maps: data is expensive, but GPS is free. Once you’ve planned your route, download the maps of the regions along your route in the "Offline Maps" section of the APP, turn on your GPS signal, and navigate the schnitzel out of this place. On most smartphones, GPS is incredibly accurate in the countryside, but can be slightly more challenging in big cities with tall buildings and narrow streets (e.g. navigating Venice is a GPS nightmare)
Google Translate: google translate also boasts of offline text translations, which comes in handy when confused about parking rules and rural road signs. Download the languages to be translated when you have wifi to save data elsewhere
- Prep the essentials: a wheel lock, a spare tire, and tools in the trunk are always good to have, especially since you will be passing through some areas known for the expertise of car thieves. You can also hit one of many Vodafone stores in any of the listed countries to get a local sim card that works in the entire region. See Equipment section below for the comprehensive list
- Book accommodation: book ahead only for big cities! Offseason offers big discounts for accommodation. You won’t get that discount by pre-booking online. So drive along, find a place with a view, and go knocking. Discounts are usually 10-20% off pre-booked prices! Furthermore, apartments are wonderful and cheap ways to overnight in the Balkans. You’ll see blue signs of “Zimmer” or “Apartmani” in front of houses meaning “rooms”. But do bring a set of towels and toiletries as many of them have great facilities, but horribly scratchy towels; see the Cheat Sheet towards the end of this guide for recommendations at each location
- Get to Tirana/Ljubljana: the capital of Albania, Tirana is the starting point for a south to north trip, the city is accessibly by air (Turkish Airlines with transfer in Istanbul), rail and bus if you're already in Europe. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is closer to western and northern Europe, and is the starting point for a north to south trip. It is also accessible by air, rail and bus.
- Prep cash: the cash situation is easy - many countries have their own currency, but euros work everywhere. Not every gas station, hotel, and restaurant takes card, but always cash, always euros. ATMs can be found in almost every city but can be a hassle to look for in small towns, so keep a few hundred safety cash on you to save time & trouble
Must-brings are marked with * ; please note some equipment requirements are seasonal
- In-car phone charger*
- Extra tire and essential tools
- Auxiliary cord (for music)
These are actual costs incurred on our trip, measuring April 2016 prices, converted using same month exchange rates. The costs will vary for your trip
The Cheat Sheet
First thing's first, drive safe and with your headlights on (low beam) even during the day, tis the law of the EU. It’s also a good habit to do this in all the countries mentioned, since tunnels are often dark and people drive crazy. Plus, most of the Balkan roads south of Croatia are single lane and often very curvy. On the way, I met a motorcyclist traveling from Germany to Kazakhstan. Taped next to his speed meter was "Far, not fast". Do it, believe it.
The Cheat Sheet is meant to provide you with quick on-the-road information. You can print it out and keep it in your car. Click the button below to download the pdf document. It contains the following information, with two screenshots below as examples:
- Point-to-point: distance in km; driving time in hrs; road conditions
- Hotel recommendations and contact info at each location
- Tips, if any, specific for each location
Finally, a huge thanks to my dad - Liping, who made all of this possible and who is a true champion of the road!