Balkan roadtrip #1
This September we went on a roadtrip. We stayed for two nights in most places - that way we had just enough time to explore and rest, yet still managed to cover 4400 kilometers in two weeks.
In our previous trips we’ve found that it’s better to leave the country wanting a bit more, instead of staying too long, so we decided early on that we were fine with missing some “must-see” attractions. Making that conscious choice enabled us to keep up the necessary pace with minimal FOMO.
We of course did not get to experience everything Balkans have to offer, mostly because of time constraints and partly because of travel restrictions. However, it was enough to arouse our curiosity. It’s a vast region with a fascinating nature and complicated history that has so much to offer. The title of this post hints that we intend to come back :)
The region is developing quickly and becoming attractive to tourists. Right now it’s at the goldilocks zone - developed enough to make you feel safe and comfortable, yet not popular enough to be overcrowded. The notable exception is Croatia. I expect it’s neighbours to catch up in the next decade or two.
Let’s take Montenegro as an example. Right now the tourists there seem to come mostly from neighbouring countries and Russia. It is projected to become an EU member in the next 5-10 years, which will undoubtedly contribute to a tourism boom. The country is very small, yet has a lot to offer, so consider going before it becomes the obvious destination to many europeans.
Day I - Vilnius to Krakow. 770 kilometers, 10 hours of driving.
Krakow is a wonderful first stop for roadtrips from Vilnius - nice old town with great restaurants, bars, and affordable hotels. If you have the time, you could also visit Auschwitz and Wieliczka salt mine nearby.
Some of our favorites in Krakow:
- food truck specializing in pulled pork burgers. There are more food trucks right next to it, but we liked this one the best.
- craft beer bar nearby
- best traditional chimney cake in town
- Salta Resto for steaks and burgers.
- FOLGA well executed contemporary european kitchen.
But really, you should not be afraid to explore the city and find your own favorites.
Day II - Krakow to Budapest. 400 kilometers, 6 hours.
You need to pay for roads in Slovakia and Hungary in advance. The vignettes will cost you around ~10 euros for 10 days, each. If you’re coming back through the same countries 10+ days later, it makes sense to get the 30-day vignettes, which cost only 4 euros more. We didn’t think of this and had to pay twice.
We stayed in H2 Hotel, wich is located right in the heart of the city, and - critical for a roadtrip - has a huge underground garage. Public parking in Budapest is both expensive and hard to come by.
Some beer festival was happening right next to us, which was a very welcome discovery. City has a great architecture, plenty of green spaces, and just a general vibe that puts you at ease.
- Retek Bisztro. Lovely place to taste some local cuisine. It’s a small place, only 7 tables, so make a reservation or come early.
- Karavan food trucks. Not so much for the food (which was fine) as for environment. Do explore the whole neighbourhoor.
Day III - Budapest
Spent the whole day exploring Budapest. Points of interest:
- Hungarian Parliament Building
- Fisherman’s Bastion
- Buda Castle
- Gellért Hill
- Gellért Thermal Bath
- Central Market Hall
But really the whole city is full of attractions, so feel free wander.
Day IV - Budapest to Plitvice Lakes National Park. 470 kilometers, 5 hours.
Leaving Budapest for Plitvice lakes. We visited Bory castle and Siofok beach on the way, but it isn’t worth recommending.
Day V - Plitvice Lakes National Park
Visiting Plitvice lakes. Pricing is crazy: even in September the ticket is 33 eur per person, and parking is ~1.5 eur/hour. We ended up paying 79 euros for basically a walk in a well kept forest.
Even with a pricing like that it’s still crowded like a Disneyland. The facilities are good and lakes are beautiful, but I couldn’t shake off the tourist trap feeling.
It is worth mentioning that tickets are three times cheaper and parking is free in the wintertime - would make much more sense to visit then.
Day VI - Plitvice Lakes National Park to Dubrovnik. 430 kilometers, 6 hours.
Driving to Dubrovnik, not much happening on the way. The highways are in great shape, but tolls were the highest on this trip. If you’re spending a lot of time in Croatia and plan to drive around, a prepaid ETC device with a good discount might be a better deal, but if you’re just passing though, pay at the toll booths.
Finding a free parking spot in Dubrovnik could be a challenge, traffic is pretty bad, and streets are tight. I recommend reserving a spot in your hotel or at least finding a nearby parking lot in advance.
Once we arrived to Dubrovnik, we only had time for a dinner and a short walk in the old town.
Day VII - Dubrovnik
We started the day early by walking the city walls, before it got too hot in the day. Consider using eastern entrance to the walls - it’s much less crowded, and if you come early enough, you’ll have the better part of the walls to yourself, since the main entrance is on the opposide side.
After that and a quick lunch, we went for a kayaking tour. The sea was calm the whole time, so it’s not much different than kayaking in a lake. Overall it’s a good way to spend 3 hours, hang out with a bunch of strangers, and get to see the place from the less usual perspective. If you decide to go for it, I don’t think it really matters which tour agency you choose - all available tours look similar, cost about the same, and are even leaving from the same spots.
After getting back on the ground we went for a beer and then decided we still had energy left to do some exploring. We had just enough time to hike up to a hill to watch the sunset. You could take a cable car instead, or drive up with a car, but the hike is not difficult at all. Once on the top, go left and look for paths leading towards the “unofficial” viewpoints. You should start seeing some people not far off. Consider bringing wine or snacks and spending some time watching the sunset - it’s really a great spot.
Day VIII - Dubrovnik to Kotor. 90 kilometers, 2 hours.
Might seem like a laughable distance, but there is a border crossing and many opportunities to stop on the way, so it still took us most of the day.
Kotor is similar to Durbovnik in that old town is the main attraction and only pedestrian traffic is allowed. If you’re staying in th old town, I suggest leaving the car in this parking lot - it’s the biggest one, is close enough, and you can pay a daily rate instead of hourly (10 eur. per day vs 0.8eur per hour). To get the daily rate be sure to pay immediately after parking and not when leaving. I’m not sure if they accept cards, so have cash on hand.
Day IX - Kotor.
We began the day by taking the long way round to the city walls. You start on the path just outside the north entrance to the old town, and then it’s pretty hard to miss. You’ll likely meet other people. At some point you’ll also encounter lots of mountain goats :)
There’s a local bar about an hour into the trail. I suggest trying local rakia and cheese, but they also have beers and soft drinks. The host seemed buzzed (not in a bad way) even though it was ~11am. Judging from other reviews it’s kind of his thing :).
After that you get to climb to the city walls through a ladder, which is fun. There’s a sign that says it’s forbidden, but then why is there a ladder 🤷🏼♂️. I presume they’d just remove it, or close off the window if it was truly important, so we just went in and didn’t think much of it.
Once inside, go up to the San Giovanni castle for some nice views of the bay. You can buy water from some guys at the top.
Once we came down, we got something to eat and continued exploring the old town. Finally, we went for a swim Kotor beach just before sunset.
- Resto Bar Taraca. Don’t remember much about it, just a nice restaurant with a decent menu, good prices and location.
- Jazz Club Evergreen is a cozy place for a drink or two to end the day. They project silent movies on the wall and sometimes there’s live jazz performances.
- Delicious Burger. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try the burgers, but if you do let me know if it was any good :)
Day X - Kotor to Durmitor. 200 kilometers, 4 hours.
This was my favorite day to drive. Montenegro doesn’t really have highways, but the roads are fun and in decent condition. I wish I was on a motorcycle that day. The twisty road from Kotor to Mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegos is worth driving even if you have no interest in the destination. However, it will suck if you get stuck behing a lorry, or if you’re not totally confident in your car and driving skills.
We did not have enough time to visit Lipa cave, but I hear it’s fun, especially if you’re travelling with kids. We stopped at Pavlova Strana Viewpoint to get that iconic shot and then stopped at the first roadside restaurant Konoba Steke for a lunch. We didn’t expect much, but were pleasantly surprised with the menu and service.
Our final stop was Ostrog Monastery, before rushing to Durmitor in time for sunset - driving in the mountains after dark is neither fun nor safe.
Day XI - Durmitor.
We only had a single day to spend in the national park, so we had to make the best of it. With the help of our host we decided to do a half-day rafting trip in the river Tara, then take a ski lift to Savin Kuk, and finally explore Crno Jezero. That’s probably the optimal itinerary if you only have one day - you get a taste of valleys, rivers, mountains, lakes, forrests - pretty much everything Durmitor has to offer. Our original plan was to hike Bobotov Kuk, but I’m glad we decided to leave it for another time.
Day XII - Durmitor to Szeged. 580 kilometers, 8 hours.
The initial plan was to stop in Belgrade, but serbian travel restrictions spooked us away. Basically, Serbia was the only country that wouldn’t recognize EU vaccination certificates - at least not explicitly. You can however cross the country by transit without any restrictions, provided you do that in 12 hours - so that’s what we did.
Szeged is a third largest city in Hungary, located near the border with Serbia. We did not expect much, but were suprised by a rich history and vibrant old town. Definitely a great place to spend a night or two. In our short time there we managed to try their burgers and coffee - both were great :)
Day XIII - Szeged to Krakow. 570 kilometers, 7 hours.
Driving to Krakow. Crossing Slovakia without proper highways is a bit slow, but at least there’s scenery and some curvy roads to enjoy. Refer to the I day for recommendations.
Day XIV - Krakow to Vilnius. 821 kilometers, 9 hours.
The only rainy day in the whole trip, but at this point we didn’t mind :)