Travel Guide: Western Balkans, Europe

Road-tripping through the former Yugoslavia (aka the Balkans, aka the coast of the Adriatic, aka eastern Europe) was an incredible experience.  There are so many sights to see, and cultures to explore, and of course you can’t see it all.  This is what we did, how we did it and what we saw.

Overview

We found cheap tickets from Toronto to Venice that were nonstop.  So we used Park4u to drop us off at the airport, park our car, and then pick us up when we got back.  It’s a good system for us to save a lot of money, and time in the airport.  This is our second time using that company, and both times have been great experiences (and not expensive!).  We used Venice as our starting point to explore four countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro.  We did this in 10 days, so we obviously only scratched the surface!  But, we had an amazing time.

We did a loop from Venice and back, and all told, driving was about 30 hours.  We listened to audio books to pass the time and enjoyed the amazing scenery.

Practicalities

These countries are not all in the European Union, which means we had 3 different currencies (Euros, kunas, convertible marks) and 5 different languages to juggle (Italian, Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin).

Driving in between these countries also means border checks.  We lost count of how many visa stamps we got in our passport, but almost every border required a checkpoint and a stamp.

Car rental

The biggest snafu we encountered was when we picked our car up in Italy, we were told we couldn’t drive it to Bosnia.  We had no idea that this was a rule.  We ended up having to rent a second car in Croatia to go to Bosnia.  Luckily our itinerary already had us going in a loop.  It wasn’t too much out of our way to pick up a second car in Split.  If we were to do this again, we probably would have taken a train from Italy to Croatia and got our car there.  It ended up working out for us, but just in case you want to do it, make sure you keep this in mind!

Slovenia

Lake Bled

We stayed in Ljubljana for two nights at an Airbnb and used this is a base to explore Lake Bled.  What a treasure that place is!  We drove up to the lake, parked and walked down to see it from the shore.

We decided to rental a canoe (about 10 euro) for an hour.  Jared did all of the work, and I enjoyed the view of the church in the middle of the lake with a view of the Julian Alps right behind us.

We drove to the Vintgar Gorge and hiked up the path to see the gorge.  It was very busy, but impressive.  We ended up parking a little further away and walked through a small town with a view of the mountains, and horses.

Ljubljana

Ljubljana is a cute town, and we enjoyed walking along the banks of the river and eating in the cafes.

We also had to go to Hofer, which was the “Slovenian Aldi.”  This “Aldi” had a fresh bakery, which ours doesn’t at home, and this one sold whiskey!  It was fun to see the differences, but also the similarities.  And yes, we got a tote bag to commemorate this special moment.

Bosnia

Mostar

Our next stop was Bosnia.  We stayed at an incredible Airbnb in Mostar with a view of the old bridge, and a private car garage. From our balcony, we could sit and hear the Muslim call to prayer from the mosque.

The old town is fairly touristy and selling a lot of trinkets, but we ate at a restaurant which gave us a great view to see one of their oldest traditions: men jumping off the bridge into the river.  The river is apparently quite cold, but it’s pretty cool to see!

The next day we did the Mostar War Tour which was just us and our guide.  This tour was so impactful for us that I am planning on writing a separate post just on this.  I don’t think I can do it justice here with only a two-sentence summary. So stay tuned for a post on the Bosnian War and what we learned on this tour.

Blagaj

On our way out of town from Mostar to Montenegro, we stopped in a village town called Blagaj.  It had a monastery right in a cave, which was very cool to see.

The food was actually really good here, too. Very good grilled chicken (traditional fare for Bosnia.)

Montenegro

Muo

Oh man.  Montenegro now has a special place in my heart.  It’s almost like I don’t need to say anything, but just show you the pictures we took.  The pictures don’t do it justice, but it gives you a snap of the incredible beauty that is Montenegro.

We stayed at the Villa PM, in Muo (which is very close to Kotor), which was magical, to say the least.  Great hospitality, private beach with chairs that allow you to literally jump off into the lukewarm, calm, Adriatic Sea.  We were immediately saddened to think we can’t just come back here whenever we want.  It was that incredible.

Croatia

On our way to Dubrovnik, we saw a sign for Sokol Grad castle.  We thought we would take a short detour to check it out.  It was very beautiful, and had interesting historical signs.  This is a very old castle that was used to protect people for centuries.

There was a winery nearby and we decided to stop for a tasting.  It was called Agrotourism & Winery Brajkovic. We were greeted by a young man who said his family had owned that vineyard for over 300 years.  They were forced out during the war, but made their way back to rebuild and replant.  This area specializes in dry white wines.  They were delicious!  We also tasted the olive oil they made.

Dubrovnik

We got to Dubrovnik and the old town was so overrun by cruising tourists we almost left and didn’t come back.  I have never seen that many tourists in my life!  I think cruises are ruining some of these port towns, but that’s just my completely neutral, unbiased opinion. Wink.

Even though it was super overcrowded, we still got a drink at one of the “hole in the wall” bars that you step out and you’re basically on a clifftop.  It was very picturesque.

We did enjoy exploring the old town at night when there were less crowds.  We wandered around the old cobblestone streets.  There is something special about this place.

Elaphiti (Elaphite) Islands

We booked an excursion the next day to the Elaphiti Islands.  I can’t believe what a deal this was!  For about $35 a person, they pick you up from your hotel, transport you by boat to three different islands, provide you with a freshly grilled meal where you sit at tables and they serve you unlimited local white wine.  They also give you snorkeling gear.  It was such a wonderful time to visit the beaches and see a different side of Europe.  It reminded me of the Caribbean except their towns are ancient, and instead of rum, it’s wine!

The next day, we drove up to the area where they have the cable cars very early in the morning.  We got to see the entire view of Dubronik from above.  It was gorgeous, and no crowds!

Split

After dropping our second rental car off, we went spent the afternoon in Split.  Split was also overrun by tourists, but we had a fantastic lunch inside the old part of town and visited the Cathedral.  In the Cathedral we heard an obnoxious man shout “GOD BLESS AMERICA”… in Croatia.  I imagine he was a cruiser.  Just a reminder to not be that person when you’re in a foreign country.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

One of the most amazing national parks in Europe is Plitvice.  There are loads of waterfalls, beautiful green waters, fish and ducks.  It was so gorgeous.  We spent the day here, it took us about 5 hours to hike through the park (plus one bus ride and one boat ride).

We took our host’s advice and got the earliest entrance ticket we could ahead of time.  His advice saved us hours of waiting in lines.  He said we should take a bus first thing to the very top (stop 3), and then hike down to stop 2.  Then take a boat back to stop 1, and hike down the rest of the way.  Everyone else does it the opposite way, apparently, because we had no lines or waits, but when we arrived there were super long lines going the opposite way.  So I would highly recommend doing it the way we did it.  We still encountered crowds, but not as bad as we would have doing it the other way.

Venice

This was the end of our trip, and a perfect way to end for us.  We went to Venice on our honeymoon and it was extremely nostalgic to visit 10 years later.  I remembered the water boat stop names, and San Marco was so fun to see again.  We went to San Marco every night, but it was in December.  This time, we actually got to hear all the music.

We had the best Negronis we’ve ever had as we watched the sun go down on the water.  It’s such a picturesque place and a perfect way to end our road trip.

Have you ever been to this part of the world?  Did you love it?

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