After almost one week of driving, it was time to enter unknown territory and a new region for us both: The Balkans! I must admit I knew very little about the region and its history so we tried to see and do as much as possible. The first thing I wanted to find out as we entered the Balkans is why are the countries of Southeastern Europe called the Balkans. And the answer is quite simple: It comes from the Balkan mountains that stretch from Serbia to Bulgaria. Doesn’t stop me from asking why are all the other countries around there that don’t have the Balkan mountains part of the Balkans as well, but I didn’t really find the answer to that… If you know the answer, please share it in the comments.
We started our Balkan adventure with beautiful Bled in Slovenia. Bled is a small town in the north of Slovenia and one of the main attractions is Lake Bled. We didn’t book any accommodation but it was no problem as when we arrived we found a hostel very quickly. Once we dropped our bags we walked around the lake and up to the Mala Osojnica viewing point. The timing was perfect as we got to the top around sunset time and had a stunning view over the lake with beautiful light. In the middle of the lake is a small island with a church on it but as it was quite late in the evening already when we got down from the viewing point we didn’t go for a visit.
Lake Bled from the Mala Osojnica viewing point
View on Bled Island on the way down from the viewing point
The next morning we drove to Vintgar Gorge around 5km from Bled and admired this 1.6-kilometre long gorge. Thankfully we got there really early as when we reached the end of the gorge and were walking back to the car it got very crowded. After Vintgar Gorge we continued on to Lake Bohinj, which is only about 45 minutes drive from Bled. Lake Bohinj is in the middle of the Triglav National Park, it’s bigger than Lake Bled and much more tranquil. It’s surrounded by the Julian Alps and great for all kinds of outdoor activities. We walked to one of the beaches and just enjoyed the view and the sun. In the afternoon we drove to Ljubljana which is only 1,5 hour from Lake Bohinj. Slovenia is very small which makes it a great destination for a road trip of a few days.
Driving in Slovenia, we got our first taste of the more aggressive style of driving that seems to be the norm in the Balkans. And even though Ljubljana is only a small city compared to other capital cities it was quite stressful but we made it to the hostel (Most Hostel/H2O Hostel, never ever stay there, one of the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in).
The following day was completely filled with sightseeing. Ljubljana is very compact and we did the great free walking tour, which took us along all the highlights. In the afternoon we climbed up to the castle to enjoy the views over the city. And one thing that you definitely have to try when in Ljubljana is a horseburger from Hot Horse (yes, it’s a burger made of horse meat). We of course tried one and I must say it was very tasty, like a normal hamburger but less greasy. Ljubljana is a great city, very green and very pedestrian friendly. If you are looking for a short city trip then Ljubljana is the place to go!
View from the castle over Ljubljana
The next day we drove to Pula in Croatia but not before we visited the Škocjan caves, which are just south of Ljubljana. The weather was terrible so we couldn’t have picked a better day to visit them. The caves are UNESCO World Heritage and once inside it’s instantly clear why. I’ve never seen anything this impressive! Really I can’t describe it. They are so big and high and the walkway you follow on the tour gives you amazing views. Absolutely no pictures allowed inside so the picture below is not one of my own.
In the pouring rain we entered Croatia, the country that I associate with sunshine, but luckily by the time we got to Pula in the southern tip of the Istrian Peninsula, it was almost dry. Pula is famous for its Roman amphitheatre constructed in 27 BC – 68 AD. The amphitheatre is among the six largest surviving Roman arenas in the world and I felt like travelling back in time when I walked inside. The only thing missing were the gladiators and the spectators.
The amphitheatre in Pula
We only stayed one night in Pula and drove along the Adriatic Coast to Zadar. Unfortunately we had rain during most of the drive so the views weren’t as great as I had hoped for, but it cleared up a little bit later in the day so we got a bit of an impression what it can look like and got treated to a beautiful sunset. Zadar is a city on the Dalmatian coast and has a nice historic city centre but my favourite sight was the ‘Sea Organ’. An experimental music instrument, which plays music by way of sea waves and tubes located underneath a set of a large marble steps made by architect Nikola Bašić. Sitting on the steps of the sea organ looking over the sea was so calming and relaxing, I wonder why they don’t make more sea organs in other coastal towns…
Sunset as a treat after a day of rain
Click here for a video of the Sea Organ, make sure to turn up your volume
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)
After 2 nights in Zadar we drove further south first to the Roman ruins of Salona and then to beautiful Split where we walked around and had lunch and then on to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). BiH is one country but it is divided into two entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina according to the Dayton peace agreement from 1995. To enter BiH we experienced our first real border control and our passports got properly inspected, we got a stamp and had to show all the car papers including a Green Card to proof you have car insurance. A Green Card doesn’t seem to exist in the UK so there we had a problem. But it was easily solved; they sell car insurance at the border for EUR 20.00. In a separate blog post I will go over all the details of entering each of the countries in the Balkans by car and our experience.
We accidentally drove inside the Salona ruins as the signage was so bad that we couldn’t find the official entrance and parking
We got to Mostar and found our hostel (Taso Guesthouse, it was great!) but still needed to park. In BiH there are regulations for parking but you don’t stick to the rules and you can park wherever your car can fit with the high chance that someone else will park you in as double parking is perfectly accepted behaviour.
The 106 got parked in, thankfully the owner of the hostel knew the owner of the other car and they moved it to let us get out
That same evening we went for a walk around town, as we wanted to see the famous Old Bridge or Stari Most, another UNESCO World Heritage. This is the 16th-century bridge built by the Ottomans that got destroyed on the 9th of November 1993 by Croat forces in the Croat-Bosniak war. The bridge was rebuilt and opened again in 2004 and looks exactly like the original. Near the bridge we also had the best Cevapi (minced meat kind of sausages and a local specialty) in town and I highly recommend the restaurant if you ever find yourself in Mostar (restaurant Tima-Irma).
The famous Old Bridge or Stari Most
During a walking tour the next day we heard more about Mostar’s history and how it was to live there during the war and also that most things like school, sides of the city, cemeteries, sport clubs, etc, are still ethnically divided between Bosniaks and Croats which our guide really didn’t agree on and he is trying to get youth and children to understand that they are all people and are all the same. Unfortunately he feels like all his efforts are not changing much and he said he is not sure how long he will stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina for… It had rained the entire time of the tour, which added to the sadness of his story.
Apartment building still damaged from the war but the residents have moved back in
Statue of Bruce Lee in Mostar, as symbol of solidarity
Reminders of the conflict are everywhere in town
After the walking tour we drove to Sarajevo only about 2 hours away. Our hostel (The Doctor’s House, BEST hostel so far on our trip) was on one of the hills that surround Sarajevo but because of the bad weather we didn’t get much of a view unfortunately. In the evening we walked down to the Ottoman part of the city centre but as it was very cold (about 2 degrees) we didn’t stay out late. The next morning we did another free walking tour and again in the pouring rain… But it was very interesting and especially the stories our guide, Neno, told about the city when the Serbs held it under siege during the Bosnian war and how he and his family lived and survived in the city. The siege lasted 1425 days, from the 5th of April 1992 until the 29th of February 1996. Everywhere in the city you can see damaged buildings and find the Sarajevo Roses, a scar in the concrete of the street caused by a mortar shell’s explosion that has been filled up with red paint. Sarajevo, other than Mostar, is less ethnically divided as the conflict there was slightly different and it was everyone in the city, regardless ethnicity, fighting against the Serbs and for freedom. The main stories of the walking tour though were about Sarajevo’s long history and the Ottoman’s and the Austrian-Hungarians and of course we saw the spot where Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were assassinated on 28th of June 1914, the trigger for WWI.
Despite the very cold and very rainy weather I really enjoyed Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina in general and I would really like to go back in summer as it has a lot to offer and a good mix of culture, history, cities and nature.
The exact spot where Franz Ferdinand and Sofia were assassinated in 1914
A Sarajevo Rose
Sign outside what was once the national library and is now a theatre/exhibition space as all the books went up in flames
In search for better weather we decided to travel further south towards the end destination of our Balkan adventure, Athens. We wanted to go to Kosovo from Sarajevo and there was a route taking us through Serbia and then into Kosovo but apparently the charge for having to buy insurance at the Serbian border is around EUR125 and the border crossings in the northern part of Kosovo with Serbia can be unsafe so we had to find another route. The relation between Serbia and Kosovo is still tense with Serbia not recognising Kosovo as an independent country. We decided to drive through Montenegro. A good choice!
Before leaving Sarajevo though, we visitednTunel Spasa (Tunnel of Hope), which was constructed in 1993 during the siege to connect Sarajevo with the Bosnian-held territory. The tunnel was 800 meters long and went underneath the runway of Sarajevo airport, which was controlled by the UN. The tunnel not only made it possible to bring food and humanitarian aid into the city but also war supplies and weapons. Very impressive to see and I’m happy we visited this before leaving BiH.
Entrance to the Tunnel of Hope
The road from BiH to the border with Montenegro that we had chosen goes quite high up in the mountains and so we had snow (!!!) and when we got into lower parts again, the last 20km to the border was on a very narrow dirt road with a cliff and river in the valley on the side. Our Peugeot 106 was not really built for this but thankfully without getting stuck in mud, breaking down or driving off the cliff, we made it into Montenegro. Almost instantly the weather cleared up and we had some breathtaking views. That night we stayed in a small ski village as the drive would have been too long to do in one day from BiH to Kosovo.
Didn’t think we would see snow in Europe this time of the year
The memorable road from BiH to the Montenegrin border
Breathtaking views and weather in Montenegro
Beside the surprise of beautiful nature in Montenegro, there is also traffic police everywhere. They are parked up along the side of the road in the middle of nowhere doing speed checks (I guess) but luckily all the other people on the road warn you with flashing their lights. So the police presence doesn’t actually make a difference in the way the Montenegrins drive as it is still very aggressive like everywhere else in the Balkans, they only behave when they drive past the police check point.
The next morning we woke up with foggy weather that didn’t really clear and drove towards the border with Kosovo. We were a bit worried as this border crossing had a big cross on my map, which made it look like it wasn’t open but I couldn’t find anything about it online so we just went for it. And it was open. Once we crossed into Kosovo, the youngest country in Europe (declared independence in 2008), we knew instantly that we were in a different country. The road quality is not very good in Kosovo and there seems to be absolutely no rules in traffic. Also it’s a very flat country and very different to all the other countries where we had mountain views most of the time.
Typical Kosovan traffic
From the border it was about 1,5 hour drive to the capital Pristina. Traffic was crazy even though it was a Sunday. And streets in Pristina have names like ‘Bill Clinton Boulevard’ and ‘Bush Street’ to honour the American presidents that have supported the territory’s split from Serbia. We went for a walk to the centre and saw a big screen set up on one of the squares. Turned out that Kosovo’s national team was playing in the World Cup qualifier against Ukraine and they were showing it. Of course we watched it but unfortunately Kosovo lost 0-3. After the Kosovo match, they showed the Albania match (more than 80% of the population in Kosovo is Albanian) but we didn’t stay for that as it was so cold and a bit rainy.
Welcome to Bill Clinton Boulevard
The next morning we explored Pristina for a bit, but as it was a Monday, most museums were closed. We went to the New Born monument, Kosovo’s independence monument and had some lunch. It was great to spend a few days in Kosovo as you can just feel the potential and the pride in this very new country and I find it hard to believe that it’s still not recognised as an independent country by a lot of countries besides Serbia (only 23 out of 28 EU member states recognise Kosovo as an independent country, Spain and Greece (!!) are among he countries who don’t recognise Kosovo. More on the topic here).
Kosovo’s Independence monument
In the afternoon we drove to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, only about 1,5 hour drive from Pristina. For the first time we weren’t asked for any car/insurance papers at the border, just our passports. So we probably drove around without insurance, but didn’t have any accidents so all good. We only stayed one night in Skopje as the weather was really bad and it didn’t look good for the next days either. We had a walk in the evening and there are a lot of very big statues in Skopje and all monuments, bridges, squares and government buildings are extremely brightly lit up. Not sure why that is, as it made it all look a bit plastic and cheap. But I think in daylight it would look nicer, but the next morning we originally were going to do a walking tour but it was still raining and cold so decided to drive to Thessaloniki in Greece. In Greece we had about 10 days to see the county but it would also be the final destination for the car so we had to find a way to get rid of the car there in a way that was going to be legal. Read about it in my next update!
One of the many brightly lid up squares in statues in Skopje