For starters, the Balkans are countries in the southeastern part of Europe, particularly covering the nations from the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia) and Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and the European part of Turkey.
Because we only have roughly 2 weeks for the trip, this Balkan road trip is therefore only focused on 3 countries, namely, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro. We didn’t plan Serbia in (I have been to Serbia last year as well) but towards the end of the road trip, we had no choice but to go through a piece of Serbia going back to Tuzla in Bosnia because the mountain roads were blocked due to an earlier deluge of snow.
Thus, it can be very helpful indeed when one can easily adjust accordingly, to whatever circumstances one is in during the actual travelling on the road. That, my dear friends, is the rule of thumb when road tripping.
So I will be blogging the cities, towns and villages separately, as well as the places where we stayed, the food we ate, what we did, so on and so forth. These will all come later in the blog, and this particular post will act as an overview of the actual road trip.
[To read the rest of the post and see more pictures, click the READ MORE link below]
By the way, this is a very long post.
ENTRY POINT: TUZLA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
We flew into Tuzla International Airport from Eindhoven, the Netherlands. The Hungarian Eastern European airline prize fighter, WizzAir is the only airline that flies direct from the Netherlands to Bosnia & Herzegovina. The route is Eindhoven (NL) to Tuzla (BiH) flying twice a week.
Tuzla International Airport (TZL) is a very small airport that sadly needs a lot of improvement, however, within the country, it is said to be the second largest airport after Sarajevo International Airport. When we landed, all passengers had to line up outside on the tarmac because the immigration area is so small, it can only accommodate a few people each time, so we were left queuing up like ants sticking out in the sand. Luckily, it was not raining, and the temperature was even a bit warmer than in Eindhoven.
My friend Bubbles who was my travel buddy for this road trip whispered to me, ‘We are like refugees!’
Because we had to wait for some time, we were beginning to feel a bit restless, and when this happens our minds starts to go astray, searching for things that can occupy our idle time. We quickly noticed all the eyesore imperfections around us, which was a lot, to be honest. Such as the peeling paint on the wall, the poor and makeshift quality of the aluminium roof and the signage to the toilet which was printed on A4 paper and enclosed in a plastic sheet (the one that goes into the binder) and attached with a scotch tape on top of the glass window.
Bosnia & Herzegovina, particularly Tuzla International Airport desperately needs investors.
When we flew out of Tuzla, we came across their Duty-Free shop which looked like a mini food/snack store. It was tiny and located in a very crammed waiting area that you have to wonder why it was there in the first place. Bubbles cannot help comment, ‘Why did they even bothered?’
Hmm, maybe someone will really buy?
THE RENTAL CAR SITUATION
At Tuzla International Airport, we picked up our rental car at Hertz. We booked this advance via rentalcars dot com. We made sure to book a car that can accommodate 2 big pieces of luggage in the boot. They gave us however an old Peugeot, which was a bit of a disappointment. We also ordered a GPS navigation onsite and luckily they had 1 available. It was an old Prestigio (GeoVision) and the software was, unfortunately, not updated, thus the stupid GPS gave us strange routes that cost us a lot of time and trouble. More on this later though.
Now the man from Hertz told us that the GPS needs to be charged first, and once it is fully charged, it will automatically turn on and then we can use it. I was not really expecting this minor bump because I was depending on the GPS to get to our hotel in Tuzla city proper. The airport distance is approximately 15-20 minutes south of Tuzla city. As we were charging the GPS and waiting for it to automatically turn on, we decided to just go and drive to Tuzla. We had little choice so we will just ask around when we reach the city.
Do you believe in angels? Because Bubbles do!
In Tuzla, we asked for directions at the local petrol station on how to get to our hotel, and out of the blue, this lovely young woman who happened to be a customer there voluntarily helped us. She speaks little English but speaks fluent Spanish, thus we were doing the Habla English e Espanol thing. She knew our hotel and told us to follow her with the car.
Bubbles really believed she was our angel, sent from heaven =)
In the meantime, the GPS was still charging but dead. We were wondering when it will automatically turn on?
Later in the evening in Tuzla, we came back to the car, which was conveniently parked beside our hotel, to check if by this time the GPS navigation will automatically turn on. We placed it in the charger, and still, it did not turn on. It is still good as dead.
Desperate in finding a solution, because let’s put it simply, the GPS is our only lifeline on this road trip, I carefully inspected the gadget inch by inch. There is a thin obscure button on the side, so I thought why not press it? I did, and then voila, IT TURNED ON!
Our eyes beamed and we laughed, almost screaming. The damn GPS is finally working! But then followed by the immense feeling of shame. Why have I, rather we, were so naive to think the GPS will automatically turn on on its own? I want to kick myself. You know, the English skills of the Hertz man was a bit limited so this could have been a lost in translation case. On the other hand, we are all so tech spoiled these days, that half the time, I expect all gadgets to work for me automatically. I am really mortified about this hiccup, whilst Bubbles couldn’t care less. She is rejoicing, the freaking GPS is functioning! Hallelujah =)
And because the software of this GPS was not updated, it gave us strange route suggestions which I will highlight as I go along with this post. Lesson learned, for the next road trip, I will make sure I will book an updated/new GPS or I bring my own. I have an old GPS that I have recently retired so I will need to buy a new portable one or just take an internet bundle every time I travel so I can use Google Maps on my smartphone.
In total, we drove to 4 countries, guzzled down diesel equivalent to 1,302 kilometres, passed 7 border crossings and 14 immigration and security checks.
Not a very long drive I reckon because Dutchman and I already do a similar drive in 1 day going to the Alps for our yearly winter sports vacation. But then the roads are great and well maintained in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France, and you can drive 130 km/ph on the highways (no speed limit on the German highways even), whereas in the Balkans, it is obviously a far different story.
What can I say? I am a travel experience richer!
OUR BALKAN ROAD TRIP ITINERARY
This is how our epic Balkan road trip looks like:
Arrive in Tuzla International Airport, Bosnia & Herzegovina from Eindhoven, the Netherlands
First Stop: TUZLA, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA (1 night)
Second Stop: SARAJEVO, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA (3 nights)
Third Stop: MOSTAR, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA (1 night)
Day Trip: MEDJUGORJE, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA.
We would have wanted to visit Blagaj, Pocitelj, Kravica and Trebinje but we did not have enough time.
Border crossing 1, 2 and 3 passing via Neum, the only Adriatic Sea access of Bosnia & Herzegovina and cutting through Croatia, see Google Maps for details
Fourth Stop: DUBROVNIK, CROATIA (2 nights)
Day Trip: LOKRUM ISLAND, CROATIA (with the public boat service from Dubrovnik Old Town)
Border crossing 4
Fifth Stop: PERAST, MONTENEGRO (2 nights)
Day Trip: KOTOR, MONTENEGRO
Day Trip: BUDVA (& Sveti Stefan), MONTENEGRO.
We also wanted to visit Herceg Novi, Lovcen National Park, Cetinje, Petrovac, Bar and Ulcinj, but helaas, no more time =(
Sixth Stop: ZABLJAK, DURMITOR, MONTENEGRO (1 night)
Border crossing 5
Seventh Stop: VISEGRAD, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA (1 night)
Border crossing 6 and 7 passing through Serbia via Bajina Basta and along the Drina River (no choice as the mountains in Bosnia & Herzegovina were closed)
Eighth Stop: TUZLA, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA (1 night)
Depart Tuzla International Airport, Bosnia & Herzegovina for Eindhoven, the Netherlands
BORDER CROSSING EXPERIENCES: IMMIGRATION & SECURITY CONTROL
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA TO CROATIA
From Mostar, we drove to Dubrovnik, passing by 3 border crossings. Now that’s a lot and this is because Croatia is cut in between by Bosnia & Herzegovina with the holiday beach village called Neum. Neum is the only access of Bosnia to the Adriatic Sea. We had to go out of Bosnia and back into Croatia 2x! Immigration and security were quite straightforward and fast though, it was free flowing and going. They didn’t even check the boot of the car. No hassles, and no long queues at all. Maybe because it was just after the Easter holiday.
Bubbles and I have cast our vote for the affable Montenegrin immigration officer. He wins the prize as the best and most friendly immigration officer in this Balkan road trip. He was all smiles to us when we drove by his window, and he was quite amused that Bubbles is from Canada. We had a hunch that he himself wants to go to Canada.
Because Croatia and Montenegro are part of the EU’s Schengen Treaty, my Dutch passport didn’t get a stamp. Bosnia & Herzegovina, however, is not, thus my passport has a couple of Bosnia entry and exit stamps.
MONTENEGRO (VIA DURMITOR) TO BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
Bubbles and I have a name for the immigration posts here – Portable-like toilets. It may come across very harsh but there is some truth to it as they are really small, unembellished and forbidding. Seeming to be the only piece of thing standing on the roadside in the mountains, and if this was not enough, it was here that we had to wait for the longest before our passports were released. This goes for both sides of the immigration fence, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina. The immigration and security officers also inspected both our luggage, rummaging through our stuff. I don’t know why, but they seem to always pick Bubbles luggage?
Our drive through Durmitor was not an easy one as well, it was snowing a bit (flurries) and we were worried that snow would gather and pile up on the road. We were driving on narrow and inclined roads with hairpin turns on our summer tires, and we do not even have any snow chains with us! Talk about anxiety build up. Being the driver on this road trip, the weight of responsibility lay heavily on my shoulders. For the first time in my life, I wished not to see snow. Or wished to stop seeing snow on this drive.
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA TO SERBIA AND BACK TO BOSNIA
Border crossing from Bosnia & Herzegovina to Serbia was rather quick. No questions asked. Serbia, not being a member of the EU and Schengen, also stamped my passport.
In Serbia, we managed to do a pit stop and I had to use a pen and paper to communicate with the guy manning the petrol station how much diesel I want. The guy wrote down the equivalent of the Euros I asked in Serbian Dinars, and I am glad they accept Amex as well!
The border crossing from Serbia back to Bosnia & Herzegovina in Karakaj was a close call though. After clearing with immigration, I managed to unintentionally ignore the young customs security officer who was waiting on the roadside to inspect the car. I totally bypassed him (horrors!) and I do not know why!? It was a good thing that I drove very slowly and made eye contact with him as I was passing until it hit me that there is something very wrong about the situation. I immediately stepped on the brake. He walked to my window and scolded me. The Bosnian customs officer was a bit shocked that I didn’t stop for him, LOL.
I was not in panic or something but I kept saying – SORRY! I didn’t mean to ignore you. I did not see you! Sorry! Sorry.
‘Didn’t you see the big STOP sign on the road? It is big.’ he blurted out, very annoyed.
My answer? I played dumb. Because I was really dumb at that point, anyway. He was a bit mad but I guess my charm and sweet innocent smile cooled him off. *wink*
He asked me to step out of the car and open the boot, and similarly to our experience in the Durmitor border crossing, he rummaged through our stuff. He chuckled whilst shaking his head, ‘The usual lady stuff, huh?’ I said yes and gave him my biggest smile. I think he managed to catch a glimpse of Bubbles bra, he might have even touched it, which probably prompted him to stop further checking, haha. He told me to close back the luggage.
‘Where are you going?’
I said we were going back to Tuzla after a road trip around the Balkans via Croatia and Montenegro. He has mellowed down now a bit and went along with the discussion asking me which places were my favourites. I mentioned, of course, with enthusiasm Bosnia & Herzegovina places such as Sarajevo and Mostar.
‘Mostar?’ I can see lines forming on his forehead as he continued to chuckle, sounding not really impressed at all by the places I mentioned. ‘It’s just a bridge.’
‘But it’s a beautiful bridge and the place is really lovely!’ I protested.
He had enough of me I can see, and the queue of cars has thickened up, so he let me go. At the back of his mind, he must have thought – ‘Silly female tourist.’
OK, fine. Hahaha!
Back in the car Bubbles said, ‘Had we been in the United States, that customs officer would have played power trip on us for sure!’
AGAIN, GPS NAVIGATION IS KEY
I cannot stress this enough. When visiting a foreign country, having a GPS is a must and the system should support an updated map of the country. Because of our experiences in this Balkan road trip, I am strongly considering buying an internet bundle next time I am travelling, especially outside Europe.
Good news though, as of June 2017, mobile phone roaming will be regulated with a limited fee within the European Union. I guess this is one of the positive things the EU has brought forward. I will be in Greece this June so we shall see, although GPS is not really needed in the islands since they are small and the roads are not complex at all.
On the way to our hotel in Sarajevo, the GPS sent us to a dead end road in one of the suburbs. The street happened to be very narrow and steep that goes down to a ravine of stairs in a residential neighbourhood. For those who do not know, Sarajevo is a hilly city with lots of narrow, not well-maintained and strange-looking streets. Bubbles and I had to ask for help from the locals to back up the car. It was the first time ever in my driving history that I was not confident at all to back up a car on a steep slope, mainly because I could not feel the grip of the car, because, darn it, Hertz gave us an old one! Argh.
In Europe, we all drive the stick shift. Automatic transmission cars here are rare.
Our angel this time came in the form of an older man, who after seeing us from his terrace struggling to back up the car on the slope, came running down to help us. This steep and narrow street is his territory so I was confident enough to trust him the wheel. Bubbles later told me that he saw the perplexed expression on the face of the old man from his terrace, LOL.
I tell you, this GPS made our road trip very eventful and stressful. Not that we were looking forward to these string of (unwanted) stressful events.
On our way to Zabljak, Durmitor in Montenegro, we managed to lose our way. With road trips, you have to always expect the worse case scenario, which I am quite used to, and which is something my travel partner, Bubbles had to come to terms with. It was a hard pill for her to swallow as she is used to a different kind of holiday, the easy, serviced and less adventure-like jaunt. The road trip experience for her was like taking part in an expedition to the unknown.
So the GPS somehow sent us to a road-less-travelled, resembling like the highest peak of the Alps and off limits to unaccompanied vehicles. The asphalt road we drove on turned into dirt tracks and thick snow and ice laced the side streets. We really wondered if we were going to get out alive from this road trip. LOL.
We pressed on and reached a fork. There was a signage in the local language with lots of red X on it. Even though we do not speak and read Montenegrin, we understood the danger. It was also at this fork that we lost GPS signal. Our gut feel told us to get out of the area ASAP, and we did. Too bad I was not able to take a picture of the signage, although I did manage to take a picture of another signage down the road when we turned back.
We had no other choice but to go back to the nearest town, Niksic, to ask for driving directions to Zabljak. We stopped at a couple of gas stations, wherein one gas attendant spoke great English, while the rest none at all, and a taxi driver who spoke German and tried to make a buck from us and sent us the wrong way. WTF?
In Eastern Europe, many locals speak German. Although I do not speak the language, I do understand it. The taxi driver was a sneaky monkey, he wanted to help us for money in return. I then tried to pretend I didn’t understand him because the instructions he gave anyway were quite shady. The bastard actually gave us the wrong direction.
Eventually, we were back on the right track to Zabljak, Durmitor where we will be staying for the night. When we arrived, we were met by a very winter in wonderland Zabljak. Everything was white. It was like we were still deep in the winter season. Just a few days before coming here, Eastern Europe had a snow blizzard and we were just lucky it didn’t happen on the day we were in Durmitor. That would have been a nightmare as we did not have snow tires. Nor were we equipped with snow chains! That was another close call. Really.
And who would have thought travelling in spring to the Balkans, we would be staying in the mountains surrounded by very thick and deep snow? A bit surreal methinks. But it really happened.
Another GPS drama happened on our last day on our way to the airport.
The GPS sent us to this bizarre and a bit scary short cut route. A very narrow, super steep with lots of potholes street passing through the residential terrain. Think along a steep red skiing slope, so steep I had to drive full force (and remain driving) on first gear. The pathway was so confined that it would only fit 1 car, however, the road was not classified as a one-way street! Ridiculous!!! I had to drive down this steep and narrow road backwards TWICE because every time I am on full force throttle on first gear driving up, an incoming car was driving down. WTF?! You can just imagine my blood pressure shooting up every time.
Bubbles sitting beside me in the car is starting to panic a bit because she does not want to miss the flight. She wants to get out of the fricking Balkans, ‘Can you handle this?!’ she asked looking at the steep road with the 2nd car coming down in front of us. ‘Are we actually in the right direction to the airport?’ I think she was ready to jump out of the car and just grab a cab, which would be quite difficult anyway to find in that area without having to go back to the city centre.
We were not really sure if this was the right way to the airport, although the not-to-be-trusted GPS says so. We have been burned so many times by this fricking GPS. However, the local residents on the streets, who already gained a bit of interest on us after seeing our predicament, reassured us that we are indeed on the right track to the airport.
On the third try, and hoping that the narrow steep street is free from incoming traffic, I was -- hallelujah -- able to reach the top, and there we saw the main road going to the airport. Reaching that main road was like seeing proper civilisation again, like a ray of bright light leading to heaven. Seriously.
But I swear to, never ever, NEVER EVER AGAIN, use an outdated GPS!!!
DRIVING, TRAFFIC SITUATION & ROAD CONDITIONS
There are no highways in Bosnia & Herzegovina and the roads are a mixture of okay and bad. Driving speed is usually around 60 km/ph and a maximum of 80 km/ph on certain stretches. The roads are winding especially along the rivers and in the mountains, so the average speed one can drive is between 50 and 60 km/ph. Bosnia & Herzegovina is home to 2 beautiful rivers, the Neretva and Drina Rivers.
Directional signage in Bosnia & Herzegovina is somewhat limited so one would really need to depend on the GPS too, or ask the locals around, which can be stressful if you do not speak the language. Not many people speak English in the Balkans. If you speak/understand German, you have an advantage.
The roads in Croatia and Montenegro are much better though, as well as in Serbia. I have driven before in Croatia and the country has a brand new highway connecting the north and the south, which I believe was duly funded by the EU. Last year as well, I was in Serbia, and they too had constructed a new highway connecting Belgrade and Novi Sad, the main cities of the country. Because these highways are relatively new and they are still developing nations, not many vehicles use it.
We rarely experienced traffic during the road trip except for a slight build up in Dubrovnik Old Town due to the tour buses and in Mostar because of the road improvements. In the Balkans, there are not many cars on the roads when driving in the countryside and between towns and cities. This was the same experience when I was driving in Serbia, as well in eastern Hungary, north Croatia, eastern Slovakia and Slovenia.
Locals tend to drive more aggressively but if you are used to sharing the roads with Italian drivers then you can manage the Balkans for sure.
BEST SCENIC DRIVES IN THE BALKANS
I think everywhere you go in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro, the passing panoramas are scenic. The nature is so beautiful here and I cannot contain myself from taking pictures! Well, we slowed down for sure and even stopped when no one is trailing behind us just to take a picture.
Bubbles kept on saying, ‘You are scaring me!’ LOL. Well, I am a responsible driver really.
Tuzla to Sarajevo – A winding ride through mountains and rolling valleys with pine trees and lovely villages.
Sarajevo to Mostar – This drive was a favourite of ours. We were really surprised at the beauty of Bosnia & Herzegovina. A winding journey via the beautiful Neretva River. Stunning landscape and canyons!
Mostar to Dubrovnik – This lovely route goes via the (less) winding Neretva River and the Dalmatian coastline of Croatia and Neum of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Very panoramic!
Dubrovnik to Perast and Kotor – Lovely coastal views from the Croatian side and then into the spectacular and serene Bay of Kotor, which is a different league on its own. The fjord-like mountains hovering above and around the Bay of Kotor will take your breath away. Just gorgeous.
Oh, we encountered a very strange man in his 30s here as well, in nearby Perast as we parked the car on the side of the road to take selfies of the lovely surroundings. He stopped his car behind us and was talking to someone on his mobile phone, then he came up to me talking in the local language. I said I do not understand him but he kept on talking to me, albeit aggressively. It looked like he wanted to show me Perast from the roadside cliff. He was very persistent and even walked to the end of the cliff, which was 10 metres away from where we stood and told me, rather, demanded that I come over to him and stand beside him. He did this a few times. Huh? Hello? Are you getting lucky?
My mind was running wild, I was thinking – this man will surely push me down the cliff! Bubbles, on the other hand, was imagining a worse scenario, that when I stand beside him, he will trick and overpower me, and then rape me. Oh dear. Scary!
The strange man was rather upset that we did not follow his wishes, we could see it plainly from the mean look in his eyes. Quickly, Bubbles and I jumped back inside the car and locked it. We were not that really worried because we were on the main road. In fact, we were annoyed that he interrupted our selfie moment.
We nicknamed him – Could have been a serial killer man, LOL.
Durmitor to Visegrad – Another nice and winding drive on the Drina River. Compared to the Neretva River with stunning canyons, here you will be entertained with green scenery and beautiful valleys with villages.
Visegrad to Zvornik via Serbia – The drive follows further north of the winding Drina River with beautiful river and valley towns. This is very scenic and Zvornik is one lovely town. Too bad we did not have enough time to stop.
We made sure the hotels and apartments we stayed at on this road trip have private parking, it eases up the burden of safety and looking for a parking space.
Dubrovnik was the exemption though, which was also quite pricey. Since we were staying in the Old Town, we had to park outside. The cheapest and nearest to the old city parking garage is the Dubrovnik Public Parking Garage at Zagrebacka Ulica bb. It is open 24 hours and the rates vary depending on the season. When we were there, the daily rate was 240 Kuna which is approximately 32 Euros.
In order to get the daily rate (because the original ticket calculates the hourly price which is more expensive), one has to immediately go to the parking office located at the entrance for the revalidation of the ticket from hourly to daily. The parking office also asks for upfront payment. For more information, go here: Dubrovnik parking
There are of course parking areas nearer to Dubrovnik Old Town, such as the Hilton parking garage which costs almost double. We paid here 95 Kuna (almost 13 Euros) for less than 3 hours because we didn’t want to walk that far with our luggage to our hotel apartment. I do not think I can handle paying 50 to 60 Euros a day parking in Dubrovnik. I mean, we are not in Amsterdam? Which is the reason why we moved the car to the cheaper parking option.
The location of the parking garage is a bit confusing though. Firstly, the signs were not straightforward and secondly, there are 2 parking entrances. The public parking garage is located in the basement but many people get confused with the parking area beside it which is private. People should pick the entrance that goes to the basement parking.
As we were waiting for the rain to stop, Bubbles and I saw a couple drive up to the parking, stopped in front of the garage, and perhaps were confused which parking entrance to take, they instead decided to leave. As they were leaving and backing up the car, they managed to smash up the hood into one of the poles. The incident jolted us as it gave a big bang of a noise, but interestingly, the couple did not stop and come out of the car to check the damage, they just drove away.
We were perplexed. How can someone ram into something and just drive away??? *scratching my head*
SOME HELPFUL TIPS:
- Taxi in Sarajevo is darn cheap. We managed to give the car some rest and took instead the cab everywhere in the city.
- When leaving the car in any parking garage, make sure nothing is inside. Not a shawl, a water bottle or even a piece of paper. Be safe. Better yet, always park your car in private or official garage parking places.
- For a long drive, it is best to have the wheels checked from time to time and pumped up with air. We almost had a scare on the last day when I noticed the back tire getting soft. Luckily, there was nothing wrong with it and it just needed some air and TLC.
- Do not over speed! The roads in the Balkans are not fit for this. As well as there are police cars hiding from every corner.
- If the weather is not good and if you are going to the mountains, ask the locals for advice. Bosnia & Herzegovina, for example, not being a developed country and when the weather is not good, the roads to the mountains are blocked. This saved us technically hours by going through a different suggested route, which was longer, but safer and accessible.
Travel Period: April 2017
Destination: Balkans: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia
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Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)
All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.