How To Road Trip Through The Balkans
After completing this past academic year, my girlfriend and I decided to take a trip around the Balkans. I heard a lot of good things from people that had been there, but it seemed like my online research rendered some cautionary tales. After having been there and actually exploring it for myself, I want to share my experience and give some insights on how to get the most out of Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia & Herzegovina when traveling by car.
Let’s start with the main event. Croatia is a long country on the opposite side of the Adriatic Sea from Italy. It has a lot of coastline which makes it an attractive spot for summer holidays. Adjacent to the coast on the seaside are a multitude of islands while on the opposing terrestrial side there is an extraordinary chain of mountains.
Renting a car is by far the easiest way to get around, and it will certainly save you time and give you more options of things to see. I rented an automatic car (can’t drive stick yet) for eight full days and got full protection insurance through the third party website I used to find the car. At the end of the day the total costs to rent the car were about 350€ plus the couple times I filled up the gas tank (about 35€ each time). The rental costs are lower for a manual. Either way, if you are traveling with another person or two, these expenditures are quite manageable.
The most popular destinations in Croatia are Split and Dubrovnik. Of course, there is more to see, but these are good locations from which to depart for day trips. Both cities are coastal; Split is located about two-thirds of the way down the country while Dubrovnik is in the very south. Since Split was cheaper to fly in and out of, we rented the car from the Split Airport (I booked it online a couple of months before the trip) and drove straight down to Dubrovnik first, and then stayed in Split for the second part of the trip.
There are two ways to get to Dubrovnik - the E65 and the D8. The E65 is a toll road. You push a button and get a ticket on the ramp that enters the highway. When you exit, you pay based on the miles that you traveled on the highway. This route will cost you roughly 10€ each way and take around three hours one way.
The other option is free, but it takes a bit longer. The D8 is a scenic route that goes along the coast through a bunch of little coastal towns. It takes about four hours, but is well worth the views.
The E65 ends up merging with the D8 just before a little stretch of land owned by Bosnia that separates Dubrovnik from the rest of Croatia. This stretch of land is sometimes referred to as the Neum Straight. Whether you are traveling by bus or car, you need to pass through this little stretch of Bosnia to reach Dubrovnik (and vice versa). It is quite simple, however, so don’t fret too much over it. Besides waiting in a line, all you need to do is flash your passport (and sometimes the vehicle rental information in the glove box). They wave you on through without evening stamping your passport. It takes about 15 minutes to traverse, you go through another easy passport control, and before you know it you are back in Croatia.
When we returned to Split, we took the D8 again to avoid the tolls. Split is a bigger city than Dubrovnik, but the city centers are roughly the same. Split has a great little park along the coast that offers some nice views. There are also a few great day trips such as Krka National Park, Plitvice Lakes, and Trogir.
From Dubrovnik it is quite easy to get to Montenegro. The time it takes to get there will depend on where you are going in Montenegro and how long it takes to get through border control. At this border they will stamp you out on the Croatia side and then stamp you in on the Montenegrin side. We went to the city of Kotor. It took almost three hours to get there from Dubrovnik, but at least half of that was waiting at the border.
Kotor is a small city tucked away on a bay that stretches pretty far inland. The whole area is absolutely beautiful. There are huge mountains surrounding a bay that connects with the Adriatic Sea. The city has a lively historic city center and a great hiking opportunity that offers some fantastic views of the landscape. Parking is limited, but there are some really cheap parking lots off the main road. Once you find a spot, the whole city is very easily navigated by foot. Another convenience is that, unlike Croatia and Bosnia, they use euros in Montenegro so no need for currency conversion (if you are already in Europe that is).
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Mostar is the most popular destination for those that do go to Bosnia & Herzegovina. It is famous for its multicultural history and its old arch bridge. You can reach Mostar from either Split or Dubrovnik; it is about the same time from each location - around 2 hours or so. This was one of my favorite cities that we saw in the Balkans because it had a really different feel and attracted a wider range of tourists from different cultural backgrounds. The food was also cheap and tasty!
We luckily had time to visit the beautiful waterfalls of Kravica, which is located near the Croatian-Bosnian border. It was a really beautiful area that consisted of several waterfalls that form part of the Trebizat River. They drop down into a larger body of water which you can swim in and enjoy the view.
These countries are only part of the area the makes up the Balkans, but were the ones that I had visited. There are still some scars from the Yugoslav Wars, but the area, for the most part, coastal regions in particular, have fully embraced tourism and have made it relatively safe and easy to move around the region.