Wisdom from my Balkan Roadtrip
I had to dismiss my former plan to spend my 30th birthday in Japan for obvious reasons. However, I was dead set on being on vacation in July and my friend Jacqueline was too. It’s been a while since I wrote a travel blog, so five countries later, I wanna share my experiences.
Croatia: Still not a fan
As a child, I was forced to travel to Croatia for seemingly every summer vacation and therefore, I am kinda sick of that country. However, if we had decided to drive straight to Montenegro we would have spent half a day in the car. So, we settled on a city in Croatia we both haven’t seen before as our first stop: Split.
My preconceptions aside, I have to admit that Split is beautiful. The architecture in the old town is stunning, the ice cream tastes better than anywhere else and we found a beautiful beach with turquoise water nearby. And even though I thought that Croats were tough in interpersonal relations, they proved to be very nice and open. The only rough thing is the language and they probably think the same about us when we’re talking German.
The beautiful city aside, a lot of things seemed to go wrong around my birthday and I was also sad we weren’t able to find a beach party. Sitting on the beach, Jacqueline and I discussed how to move forward. The heat was getting to us, sucking all our motivation. Should we even go further to the south where we expected it to be hotter? We decided on throwing out all plans we had made beforehand (which weren’t that many to start with) and do one more stop to see how it feels. And thank god, we decided to do that.
Budva (Montenegro): Adventurous but touristy
We had a long drive before us but a beautiful one to say the least. On our way to Budva in Montenegro, we passed through Neum in Bosnia, a beautiful small town centered at the few kilometers of Bosnia’s coastline. After that, we passed picturesque fisher towns and smaller cities at the coastline of Montenegro.
When we arrived in our beautiful and illicitly inexpensive apartment in Budva, I felt the relief of being on vacation for the first time. I had just turned 30 and being on vacation I threw out all worries of getting older as well as my usual overthinking. Since we were outside of the EU, our phones didn’t work anymore and I decided not to connect to any wifi anymore and stay off social media. On the first day of our trip, we went into Budva’s old town and later on climbed the town’s protective wall at night to get a better view of the city and the dark ocean next to it.
The problem with the heat still persisted, however, and day 2 we decided to go on a boat tour so we would minimize the amount of walking. When we came to the pier, one of the boat drivers approached us and promised we would like his two-hour tour. We hopped on and after showing us around the coast and the islands next to it, he made a stop at some cliffs adding that you could jump from them – testing out how adventurous we were. Jacqueline and I were in the mode of saying Yes to everything, so the next thing I know is climbing up 13 meters of rocks asking WTF I was doing there.
‘I won’t put you in danger. Well, not in bad danger, a little danger is what makes it fun’, is what our guide said to us. Standing on top of the rocks I almost got cold feet but looking back at the path we had climbed to get up, I thought the easier way down was in front of me. Even though it was probably just one or two seconds I spend in the air I clearly remember that moment and thinking back I still get the shivers from it. Adventure time was on! We didn’t really get to catch our breath as the next stops were blue caves we had to dive in and out of. I thought that this tour guide was crazy but I was in love with it! When the tour ended, our guide asked us what our next stop was. We had no idea, we only knew we had to leave the next day. He told us about a beach near Ulcinj where he was going to be the next day for kitesurfing and a beach party. A beach party? I’m in!
Ulcinj (Montenegro): The beauty is in the invisible
Ulcinj is a small and rather poor town at the Albanian border. The reason people come here is the incredible 15km of tropical sand beach near it, although the old town of the nearby city Bar was definitely worth visiting as well. I had loved the beaches in Split and Budva, but seeing this appropriately named Long Beach set me in awe! Even more so when we found out that the beach party was going to be a techno rave! So, after some hours of swimming and having our skin color change from Indoor White to Montenegro Cappucino, we started pre-drinking in the hotel. Far away in the distance, a thunderstorm was coming down and even though I feared for the party to be cancelled, overlooking a storm on the beach felt infinitely beautiful.
There’s not that much I can say about the party besides it having been the best one I’ve been to in a while. I had missed real techno parties and dancing in the sand next to the sea in a foreign Balkan country made the experience all the better. The party went on until the sun started to rise. Tired AF we looked at each other and the people around us and decided it was time to go home. There were just a few problems: We didn’t know a taxi number, we didn’t know what the apartment complex we were booked into was called and didn’t even have its address written down. This ended up in a pretty interesting car ride where we gave verbal directions to find the place that we called home for these days.
Mostar (Bosnia): Medieval charm
When it was time to move on, we hopped over the border for a short stop in Shkodër, Albania and then went on to Mostar in Bosnia. Mostar is a small but charming city that’s very touristy but also extremely worthwhile visiting. It is also Bosnia’s hottest city which meant Jacqueline and my brain were working on low capacities once again. After having drawn the beautiful bridge of the old town we went down to the river that was parting the city. Resting our feet in the ice-cold water of the river I already felt refreshed. However, we then met some crazy guys from Germany who were going swimming in the river and who convinced us to do the same. Our biggest fear of experiencing a heart attack due to the cold did not come true – after jumping in it actually took a moment until I felt just how cold the water actually was.
Mostar was supposed to be our last stop of the trip. The Germans, however, talked very highly about Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, trying to convince us to make one last stop. While packing our things the next morning, we decided not to end this beautiful journey just yet. We counted the pairs of clean underwear we had left and last-minute booked our final apartment, got in the car, and kept going where life was taking us.
Sarajevo (Bosnia): Multicultural Center
With 400k inhabitants, Bosnia’s capital is a bit smaller than I had expected it. It is a charming town nonetheless that’s divided into three major parts: the Muslim area, the Austrian-Hungarian area and the modern town. Our apartment was in the Muslim area, right next to the famous bazaar. From there you can walk through all parts of the town and coming from the Muslim side to the Austrian-Hungarian side, the streets completely change in architecture and style but also the feeling is very different: The Austrian-Hungarian part is definitely less lively and feels more distant. When we were sitting in a Shisha bar later in the evening, a waiter set his eyes on me finishing my drawing of the bridge of Mostar and completing it. As I have tons of drawings sitting around at home, I decided to gift it to him and the excitement in his eyes just proved for this to be the right decision. In my imagination, this drawing was later hung up in said Shisha bar.
Besides that, we took the cable car up a mountain to the Olympic village. We also did some shopping and – more or less coincidentally – went to the opening of an art exhibition by Marko Frančešević at the Collegium Artisticum. Smoking in the gallery with artsy people in a Bauhaus-style building made me feel as if we were in the 1980s in Vienna. Afterward, we went for dinner enjoyed the low prices of the Balkan region one last time.
Things to know about road trips in the Balkan
- Except for Croatia, the price level is very low
- It is almost impossible to find vegetarian or vegan restaurants
- Traffic is absolutely insane and you will have to get used to a lot of honking on the streets
- If you have a nice car make sure that your apartment/hotel has a private parking spot
- The dialects may sound a little rough but people are actually really warm and open
- Street quality is usually good but some roads are pretty narrow
- Speed limits are low and traffic is dense, so you will need at least 1.5 times what Google Maps tells you
- If you need something, just ask, people are very friendly
- Corona restrictions might change but beginning of July crossing borders was quite simple
- You need a highway vignette for Slovenia
- You need an international insurance card for your car for Montenegro
- Our highest temperatures were 44 degrees Celsius, so bring lots of sunscreen
More travel FOMO?