The short story is that we spent too long in Serbia. Too much rakija, too much fun, too many car troubles. We had budgeted a bit more than a month to travel through the Balkan states, with the hopes of making it to Istanbul by the beginning of September. At the end of the day maybe this was a foolish ambition, with so many countries and so many cool places to check out. We took it too slowly at the beginning and two weeks in Serbia was maybe a bit much, but we had a good time in the end.
The result is that we had a very abbreviated tour of the Adriatic Sea-bordering countries. This was a bit, but not hugely, unfortunate, because it turns out that the Adriatic seaside at the end of August is ABSOLUTE SHIT. Our rundown is as follows:
We drove from Mostar, BiH to Dubrovnik, Croatia. If you are stupid and follow the “To Dubrovnik” motorway signs like we did, you’ll be taken on the most ridiculous route from Mostar into Croatia, then out of Croatia back into Bosnia, then back into Croatia again. WTF. Only when we neared the Metkovic border did the signs start to tell us we could also go to Split, way in the north. Inefficient signage, a trend that continued on through this leg of our trip.
The first border crossing at Metkovic took about 40 minutes, as rows of cars sweltered in the sun waiting for Croatia’s anal border guards to scrutinise each and every page of each and every non-EU passport. But once we were through, we released we were lucky as the queue of cars waiting to cross from Croatia back into Bosnia snaked around into Metkovic for about half a kilometre or more. Summer holidays, gotta love it. We got some nice views of the seaside before having to bake in the heat again at two more crossings back in and out of Bosnia. From the entire ordeal I got only one EU entry stamp in my passport.
Croatia was packed to the brim. Our Booking.com apps grimly declared that accommodation in and around Dubrovnik was at 94% capacity for the night, and the only available lodging would set us back at least 70€. We thought about wild camping, but the danger of wildfire meant we couldn’t start a fire. Ended up paying to camp at a site about 5km south of the city. Bonus was that, in the morning, we got to watch a little girl projectile-vomit into her mum’s hand and get it all over her face. Joy!!
Verdict: Would visit again, when the depths of winter get as cold as my heart
The stupidest country we went through. Sorry dudes.
First, the border crossing from Croatia to Montenegro took 1.5 hours because they only had one lane open. This is still better compared to the crossing going the opposite way, where they had a massive three lanes open for a queue of vehicles that stretched over one kilometre and was growing fast.
Montenegro has the slowest, most anal speed limits we’ve ever seen. Imagine driving behind a HGV with a speed limit of 40km/hour for ten minutes. Finally, here is your chance!! Limit jumps to 60km! But the road is super curvy and there’s no chance to pass. And then, before you know it, after a stretch of maybe 200 metres, it’s back to 40km. This describes driving down the entire coastline. It took ages.
And if you want to drive down the coast, you have to go around Kotor Bay.
Thanks to the traffic and awesome speed limits it took us over an hour to drive around the thing, and we didn’t even travel the entirety of its stupid 28km shoreline. The only positive was that the views look like this:
Montenegro also has the stupidest drivers we’ve encountered so far. Foreign tourists and locals alike, everyone’s brain must be in holiday mode because they were the most spatially unaware people I’ve ever seen. Actually, include the pedestrians in that one too. Drivers who stop one or two metres into an intersection and just sit there, or who pull our in front of you and then just idle slowly. Pedestrians just wandering around in the street instead of using the sidewalk/pavement, etc. No wonder the speed limit is so slow, it’s a country full of idiots.
Also, it’s one of those places where foreigners are walking cash machines. And they produce almost zero domestic booze compared to their Balkan neighbours.
Verdict: Maybe the inland parts are different? Still, wouldn’t want to risk it. Would not visit again.
We arrived in Albania hoping that the drivers were better than in Montenegro. What we found is that they are indeed infinitely better. So good, in fact, that they don’t need street lights, lines on the road, signage, nothing. And they happily share the road with kids on motorbikes (with no lights), bicycles (with no lights), tractors (with no lights), horses pulling 3 metre high stacks of hay (with no lights), as well as dogs and cats and pedestrians (all with no lights). Please, somebody invest in Albania and give them some lights.
We only stayed one night in Shkodër, a cute little city that apparently has a huge lake and a castle and cool stuff like that. We found that the people are very open and curious about foreigners, and the people we directly interacted with were all incredibly friendly.
It’s a huge mystery to me, but this is one of the few places I’ve ever been where people are SO HAPPY that you are American. “Where are you from? USA? That’s great!!!” Seriously, there are star-spangled banners hanging up everywhere, always together with the Albanian flag and often next to EU or German flags. No idea why, but it’s cool.
We visited Puke, Albania, because we thought it was funny. It ended up costing us four hours of the most zig-zaggy mountain driving we’ve ever done.
Verdict: Your people are so friendly! But how long until you try and take my money?! Would definitely give it another visit.
Sick of mountain driving and a bit behind schedule, we decided to take a shortcut through Kosovo. Thanks to the fact that most car insurance isn’t valid here, the privilege of driving through the country cost us a whopping 30€ (this extortion is known as “border insurance” and is valid for seven days).
Once inside we observed that, despite the fact that Kosovo and Albania have extremely close relations and many people consider themselves “Kosovo Albanians”, Kosovo’s really come out on top here as far as international aid and support are concerned. The roads in many places were the best we had driven on since Hungary, and there is shitloads of construction going on. This is, of course, necessary after the brutal war in the late 90s destroyed so much property and infrastructure. And that’s also what we noticed on our short drive through the country: Almost everything was new, and the few things that weren’t were irreparably scarred by armed fighting.
Border crossings here were quick and painless (except for the 30€).
Verdict: Would visit again, maybe just to try the rakija
We spent two days in Skopje, which to me sounds like some small town in Wisconsin. This is actually a pretty cool little city–for now. It’s far more down to earth than glamour-seeking Sarajevo, and we found neighbourhoods full of cool graffiti, chill bars and cafes, and a touristic “old town” that was full of Macedonians with a few odd foreigners knocking around. There’s a neat currently defunct fortress to climb around, and MASSIVE sculptures of respectable historical figures like Alexander the Great. There was loads more to see but we didn’t have the time.
I say it’s cool for now, because judging by the amount of construction happening in the city centre, Skopje is just waiting, planning, preparing to be The Next Big Thing in the Balkans. I guess it’s going to hit the tourist radar at once point, so anyone looking to get in at ground level and build something big, here is your city.
In all of Macedonia, prices were cheap, people were friendly, wine was quality, roads were ok, landscape was beautiful.
Verdict: Would visit again, but I fear the next time you won’t be the same, lovely Skopje….
Now we are in wonderful Bulgaria, where we plan to spend a little more time before hitting Istanbul. Adventure TBC!