Balkan Road Trip: Our Travels through Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia

“Take a road trip through the Balkans” we were told many times by fellow travelers. In our need to escape the Schengen region of Europe for a few days, we decided that driving through the Balkans was a great idea! 3 countries, 2 weeks, many nights sleeping in the car, a handful of bad days…it was quite a memorable trip!

We started by heading south west in Hungary towards Lake Balaton. Again, we were told it was an amazing place where many Hungarians go to vacation. We started our trip on a ferry to Thihany. It was a quaint little village complete with thatched roof homes, many paprika and lavender shops and a beautiful church. It was a really nice walk, minus the mooning we received from a crazy jay walker…sometimes people really just don’t like us! After that we traveled to the town of Szigliget to see their fortress. We enjoyed that you could climb much of the ruins of the fortress, and the sights were unbelievable. At the end of our day, we headed to the Croatian border.

Our first stop in Croatia was Plitvice Lakes National Park. The pictures we had seen were absolutely stunning, but we had heard that the overcrowding of tourists ruined the experience for many. We figured it was worth taking a gamble. On our way there, we passed a couple of hitch hikers, who looked friendly enough, so we picked them up! Racking up some good travelers karma! They were a nice couple from Poland who had spent the last week hitchhiking from Poland to Croatia! Once we arrived, we parked, dropped off our guests and started a hike through the entire park. There were many tourists there, but once we got passed the first boat stop, it was empty! We spent the next 6 hours walking along the most beautiful green-blue lakes, surrounded by stunning forest and waterfalls. The walk was so calming and fun, we barely noticed the time go by! We got back to our car in the early evening and headed to our next stop – Zadar, Croatia.

There isn’t much to be said about Zadar. It’s a coastal town with a few Roman ruins in the center, but we were mostly unimpressed. What we did love about Zadar was our day splunking at Modric Cave! This cave was inaccessible to the public until 1 man recently got permission from the government to give tours. This gave the cave an untouched feel to it, almost like it was still a secret waiting to be discovered. We explored the many chambers with only natural flame lighting, which made the sparkling sheen of the stalagmites look remarkable. We passed a group of about 3 inch long stalagmites which our guide called the nursery. They were considered baby stalagmites, which had only been growing for about 1,000 – 2,000 years! At the end of the tunnel, we all turned off our lights and sat in total silence to really experience the blackness that pioneers would have felt in the caves. It was a fabulous day of caving, one that we will surely remember!

After Zadar, we headed to Split, Croatia. Split was definitely a favorite town on our road trip. It was similar to Zadar in that it was another coastal town. But the city center looked like we had walked back into Ancient Roman times! The architecture left from the Roman empire was still remarkably intact (or beautifully restored)  and amazing! We loved our day roaming through the city, and walking the promenade along the ocean. We grabbed wine, cheese and meat for a sunset picnic dinner on the water. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day in Split!

Next stop, the infamous Dubrovnik! We had been planning to come here for a few years now and were really excited to see the city and, let’s be honest, all the Game of Thrones scenery! Dubrovnik is quite a touristy town, which you can easily tell once you go to the center and see all the souvenir and GOT shops. But the structure of the town, with it’s high city walls and winding roads, made it feel like we were in King’s Landing. We found a Game of Thrones tour which showed you where many of the filming sites were in Dubrovnik. While we didn’t contribute financially for this tour, we did follow slightly behind to hear where Cersai took her walk of Atonement, where Jeoffry gets killed at his wedding, and where Ned and Cersai get into the argument that ends Ned’s life! When we got too hot, we made our way to the beach. The beach was a bit crowded and dirty, but the water was great! We swam, read our books, and had a relaxing afternoon. Because we were sleeping in our car, we needed to find a place to shower off after 2 days in 95 degree weather! The beach had showers, but not the privacy for a full shower like we needed. We secretly sudsed up and rinsed off in the freezing cold water before we got booted. We headed back to the Old town of Dubrovnik for dinner, wifi and a night full of people watching.

On the road again, this time to Montenegro! We stayed in the city of Kotor, which had very similar architecture to Dubrovnik. Our first day, we went to visit a nearby village called Perast. It was small, but really nice to walk through. We wanted to go out to the Lady of the Rocks church, which was on a small island off the coast of Perast. Matt thought it would be a great idea to rent a canoe and row there. For once, he was right. While it took us a while to get our groove, it was so much more fun and rewarding than paying for a motor boat over. We walked around the island church, and learned about it’s history. The island next to Lady of the Rocks is called the Cursed Island. The water near Cursed Island gets shallow and rocky, making merchants coming to port capsize or sink their ships. The Lady of the Rocks church was build adjacent to Cursed Island so sailors could go there and pray for safe passage around the Cursed Island. We enjoyed just watching the waves go by while crowds of tourists took pictures behind us. At night, we went back and walked the city walls of Kotor. These “walls” were located around the city, and also up the cascading mountain behind it! It was a good hike up the mountain side, uneven steps most of the way, and we were whooped by the time we made it to the top. But the views of the setting sun behind the city and surrounding mountains were worth the walk.

The next day, we started our drive to Belgrade, Serbia. On our way, we stopped at Ostrag Monastery – a church built into the side of a mountain famous for holy pilgrimages. We started with an hour drive on hairpin roads all the way to the top of the mountain. Then there was a 30 minute walk to the upper monastery. The church was very cool to see, it’s walls seamless flowing into the rock face. The interior looked like a cave, adorned with religious paintings and mosaics. But we quickly felt a bit out of place here, as it clearly was very special for Christians. Honestly, we aren’t religious people, and saw Ostrag from more of a tourist perspective, which it was challenging when we saw everyone else making a cross at each doorway, kissing pictures of saints and throwing hundreds, even thousands of dollars into the donation box. In order to be respectful of those worshiping, we took a speedy tour through the church and spent our time enjoying the surrounding scenery.

Serbia was our last stop, and it was certainly eye opening. Driving through Serbia was an adventure all in itself. Similar to the Monastery drive, the roads were all narrow, windy and sometimes not even paved! We were shocked when the main highway in Serbia was a dirt road that took us through farms and residential communities. When the music from Borat came on the radio as we were passing tractors, again on the main highway, we couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. We were not in “Europe” anymore… We had dinner at a small family restaurant with a menu only in Serbian, communicating through our translator app to order. Finally we reached Belgrade around 1:00 am! Our hostel, which seemed to be running for the stinkiest and dirtiest award, was not what we expected or needed after our long drive. We went to sleep hoping tomorrow would be better.

…we were wrong. After a horrible night of sleep, getting a parking ticket in our hostel’s “free parking” area, and not being able to find ANYONE who worked at the hostel, we set out to make the most of our day in Belgrade. We started off by trying to find some buildings that were left over from the recent war in Serbia. We followed our tourist map, which lead us to a building with an open archway. We watched as 3 men in normal clothes walked out, and thought we had found the place we were looking for. When we ended up getting escorted out of the Ministry of Defense by Serbian soldiers, we realized we found the absolute wrong place. Little did we know we got off easy from our mistake, as taking pictures of this building, let alone walking in without permission, can land you in jail! The rest of the day was spent in almost comical misfortune – trying to not get scammed or robbed by the unfriendly faces on the street, walking 2 hours to a winery that wasn’t open, getting told “you’ll be fine to get on the bus without a ticket!”. By the time we got back to our awful hostel, we were happy never coming back to Serbia again. We got up at 6:00 am, paid our parking ticket, and sped back to the Hungary as fast as we could! I guess you could say that Serbia just wasn’t our cup of tea.

Overall, our road trip was a roller coaster of ups and downs, stunning beauty followed by bouts of misery. I can say that we learned a lot on this trip, and I felt that my perspective on many things, both about our travels and in my personal life, were affected by this adventure. At the end of the day, isn’t that why we travel anyway?!

Matthew & Stephanie

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