The Balkans have been a popular holiday destination this summer. And people are branching out. Not only Croatia anymore, but Montenegro, too. And Albania. We branched out to Montenegro and Albania, as well. And to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Our journey in 52 stories

We have 2 weeks and a bit. Ambitious, but we can do it.

1. Dubrovnik – Trebinje – Mostar – Sarajevo – Podgorica by hire car.
2. Podgorica – Belgrade on the famously scenic Bar to Belgrade train.
3. Belgrade – Tirana by air.
4. Tirana – Lake Ohrid – Prizren – Kotor – Dubrovnik by hire car.

Hiring a car in one country and returning it in another is quite doable in the Balkans. Just make sure you have all the necessary documentation, i.e. insurance covering the countries you’ll drive to (and through), green card, as well as a cross border authorisation. The hire car agency will take care of it for you, but you might have to remind them.

Also, it is a good idea to get an international driving licence in addition to your valid home driving licence. We were never asked for one, not even when stopped by the police for a tiiiiny offence (guilty!), but still… In Norway, international driving licences are issued by NAF (automobile association), and in the UK, you can get one at the post office. Check what applies in your home country.

Let’s get the show on the road.

Day 1 – 3 Dubrovnik

Living in different countries, we decide to meet in Dubrovnik, mostly because it’s easy to get to. Not that Dubrovnik isn’t a lovely city. It most definitely is. But with a summer plagued by struggling airlines, strikes and unpredictable flights, we aim for a gateway we can all reach with direct flights. That way, we minimise the risk of being stranded in some intermediate airport for an age.

My flight arrives first. The drive from the airport into the old walled city of Dubrovnik is as gorgeous as I remember. After dropping the bags at the hotel and a quick breakfast at Cafe Festival around the corner, it’s time for a little exploration.

It has been years! And last time, I had the kids with me. You see a city rather differently when you don’t have a 3-year-old along, believe me. You even notice the bars!

However, when you only have yourself to think of, you are also in danger of making rash decisions. Or at least I am. Occasionally. So I decide to walk the old city wall. Never mind it’s nearly noon. And scorching! It costs 250 kuna (ca. 33 EUR/USD), and the ticket allows only one climb up.

Now, a 2-km walk in 40°C, even in blistering sun, well, it gets a bit sweaty, but otherwise, no big deal. But my plan to get great shots of Dubrovnik from above is, erm… shot. The light is so blinding, it’s hard enough to see, let alone on a phone screen. Noon, in short, offers just about the worst photo light. I know this, of course. But… rash.

All is not lost: I do manage a few shots from the watch towers that appear here and there along the wall

It is also too bright to read texts, and that won’t do. I rush through the rest and as I’m about to start down the stairs, I spot two familiar figures down at ground level, about to enter Cafe Festival.

Reunited!

Catching up ensues. Chatting, laughing. A bit of planning, too, but not a lot. Time enough for that.

Afterwards, Andrew and I amble about town for a bit, while Tom catches up on sleep. About two years’ worth. Championing viable solutions to Britain’s miserable cladding crisis.

As usual, Andrew has scoped out the sights, and in the compact Old Town, distances are short. We walk round the outskirts, down to the harbour, past stone beaches. We step inside The Assumption Cathedral (nice and cool), and into War Photo Limited, displaying photojournalism from world conflicts and wars, many in the Middle East, and from here where we are. Memories of the horrid war years in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Raw, frightening images. A disturbing exhibition. And educational.

The sun is now low in the sky; great photo light, so time to get high. The wall is familiar territory for me by now. From above, we spot several cafes and restaurants that look cosy for later, and little beaches where people are enjoying the last sun rays.

Dinner is outdoors on a snug little side street, followed by drinks on the stairs.

Views and more views

Next morning, I wake up first, and the bartender at Hotel Hamlet insists on feeding me, despite breakfast being over an hour ago. Back to Cafe Festival to work for a bit. For a writer a holiday is rarely just a holiday.

Then, Lovrijenac Fortress, just outside the western wall. Our tickets from yesterday include the fort; might as well take advantage.

Lovrijenac Fortress through the lookout

Also great views over Dubrovnik are from 412 metres up, on Mount Srd. You can get there in several ways; we choose the quickest: 4 minutes by cable car. Up, up, up, for 360° views, 60 km radius.

There are shops, a restaurant, a gallery, and most importantly, Fort Imperial from Napoleon’s time, with a museum focussing on the defence of Dubrovnik in the early 90s. The city was occupied and surrounded by enemy forces; only this fort was on Croat hands. When the Serbian-Montenegrin army attacked in December 1991, the fortress was seriously damaged, but the Croats weathered the offensive.

Thought-provoking exhibits at Fort Imperial. See it!

Back down, the beach is just the antidote the doctor ordered. A beach with a bar. This lively place, specifically. Swimming, sunning, drinking…

Cafe Bar Bard Mala Buža

Dinner is fish, at a restaurant on a large, leafy square nearby.

Day 3 Dubrovnik – Trebinje – Mostar – Sarajevo

By now, we’re ready to get on the road. A VW Golf will take us through 3 countries. Or 4, depending on how you count countries.* I do the first shift behind the wheel, and we head for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

About 30 minutes later, we arrive in Trebinje, the first proper town after the border – and a pretty little town it is. But limited time means tough decisions, so our stop here is brief, and mainly to get a Bosnian SIM card. We’re now outside the EU/EEA, and roaming charges apply.

*51% of the country is the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The remaining 49% forms the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska. An Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) runs along the old frontlines, dividing the two. For now, Bosnia and Herzegovina is one country, but there are forces within the Bosnian-Serb community that want Srpska to secede. Is the country’s foundation strong enough? Is a two-entity solution, based on ethnic divide, sustainable? Only time will tell.

IEBL = the dotted line

On the way to Sarajevo, we cross the (mostly invisible) boundary a few times.

Mostar

We won’t be stopping long in Mostar either. Long enough for a glance. And lunch.

Stari Most, the Ottoman bridge, is a beautiful structure in a beautiful little town. Everyone seems to gather on those white slippery stones, including young men in speedos, who will dive 24 terrifying metres down into the cold Neretva River. Reminds me of the cliff divers at La Quebrada. About 100 metres further along the river is a diving tower with boards at different heights, where they (and others) practice.

At Babilon, we have great views of the bridge. Hard to focus on food. Don’t want to miss a dive. But mostly, the boys prance around; flexing muscles, showing off.

Day 3 – 5 Sarajevo

It’s late afternoon before we arrive at our very good, very central hotel, appropriately named Hotel Central. It’s a 1-minute walk from the cathedral, which is surrounded by restaurants. We choose Klopa, and the food is delicious. Just outside the hotel is Sime Milutinovića Sarajlije Street, with lots of lively bars. We’ll be focussing on Tesla later in the week, so this pub seems a logical choice.

Again, I am up early, and pop into a nearby cafe to get some work done. It is so hot; I am offered ice cream on the house.

Time to explore! Sarajevo is compact and most of what we want to see is within easy walking distance: the evocative City Hall, the genocide museum, the Ottoman bazaar, the Eternal Flame, and not least, scene of the Gunshots in Sarajevo, the event that set off World War I. More on all that in this post; I won’t repeat myself, else this post will be a mile long.

Although we meant to try a different restaurant, we end up at Klopa again. The food was that good. Then… well, you know the drill by now. Cheers!

Day 5 Sarajevo – Podgorica

Day 5 already, and we have a long drive ahead. I had not researched the route, and expected an ordinary drive. (What can I say… I am in holiday mode.) But the road from Sarajevo to Podgorica is anything but ordinary. A very welcome surprise.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is mountainous and pretty. Montenegro, even more so. The border itself is an old wooden bridge, and as we cross it, we are in the Tara River Gorge, Europe’s deepest canyon. Gorgeous landscape wherever we turn.

Day 5 – 6 Podgorica

Heard of Podgorica? If you haven’t, you’re not alone. The capital of Montenegro is probably the least known capital in Europe. (Which is right up our alley, here on Sophie’s World.) Back in communist times, the city was named Titograd.

I must admit, Podgorica was not the city I had looked most forward to visiting. A journo colleague even called it a hole. I expected boring. Something to be said for low expectations, though, isn’t it? Things can only get better. And Podgorica (pronounced Podgoritsa) might be obscure, but it is not boring.

We return the hire car, and find our lodgings.

Hotel Podgorica: not the most inventive name for a hotel perhaps, but it gets the job done. And while it is not on level with our fab Sarajevo digs, it is absolutely adequate, with big balconies overlooking the Morača River. Plus, it is one of several fine brutalist buildings in town. Podgorica was mostly reduced to rubble after World War II, and the city is heavily influenced by the architectural style of the post-war years.

The city has several green spaces, particularly along the river.

Millenium Bridge: a notable Podgorica landmark

We also have a look at the nearly 7-metre-tall monument to St. Petar of Cetinje, spiritual and military ruler of Montenegro in the early 1800s –

The Petrović Njegoš (St Petar) statue

– and at the Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. The gloriously golden interior is not to be missed.

Our fave discovery in Podgorica, however, is a quirky little sidewalk cafe/bar. El Comandante is Che-themed (which I adore), and staff is awesome, especially Ivana here.

Hasta la victoria siempre!

She recommends Pod Volat. Naturally, we take her advice, and have a cosy dinner on the large roof terrace with the wind howling in the trees.

Pod Volat restaurant

Like all cities in Ex-Yu, Podgorica has a fun bar area downtown, where we hang out, sat between two dogs. Kiki, a large and slightly anxious female, is being pestered by a vexing (but cute) chihuahua named Alfie.

Day 6 Podgorica – Belgrade by train

On Day 6, we jump on the Belgrade train. Or jump… the train is about an hour late, so it is more about waiting in the early morning heat.

But finally the train arrives from Bar. There is nothing for sale on the train, so we have to fend for ourselves. We knew this, and stocked up on sandwiches, fruit, wine and water.

The Bar to Belgrade line is one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe. 11 hours through gorgeous landscape: the canyons of Montenegro, then the rolling green hills of Serbia. A small part – 9 km – pass through Bosnia and Herzegovina.

These cheerful ladies are on their way to a swimming break, and leave us about halfway.

Tom and Andrew help them unload their bags, and as a thank you, they give us a hard-boiled egg each.

🥚🥚🥚

Belgrade, here we come!

We arrive about 10pm, probably not in the best of moods. 11 hours on a train is a long time. And it doesn’t help that it is difficult to find a taxi. But we finally arrive at Mama Shelter Belgrade.

Day 6 – 9 Belgrade

I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with the Serbian capital. See the old familiar places, discover new ones.

Old acquaintance – and new acquaintance 

We are in town for 3 nights, the longest stop on our journey. In Belgrade, we play at the Tesla Museum, we’re awed in the huge Saint Sava Temple, and we experience a bit of Yugonostalgia at Hotel Jugoslavija. I also have a look at the lively Kalenić Green Market and the cool Smizla Design & Vintage Store. More about all of that in this post. And here is a further 11 17 things you’ll love in Belgrade.

My fave eateries from last time did not disappoint:

Manufaktura with the cheerful umbrellas –

– and Ambar in the Beton hala (Concrete halls) district.

Celebrating two birthdays at sunset by the River Sava.

Day 9 – 11 Tirana

Order of the day: Belgrade – Tirana on Air Serbia.

A mechanical flight information board! Haven’t seen that in a long time:

Remember staring at these, waiting for your flight to move up?

Serbia reveres its brilliant inventor at the airport:

Nikola Tesla

Albania

Something forbidding about the name, isn’t it? At least it is for me. When I was in school, Albania was closed to the world. Today, Tirana appears as a lively, quirky, modern capital city.

We wander around in the heat, exploring the thought-provoking bunker museum Bunk’Art 2, House of Leaves, and a fragment of the Berlin Wall.

We visit churches and mosques. But most of all, we ‘research’ Tirana’s cool and colourful cafes and bars.

One more, cause y’know: have to try everything…

Gëzuar!

A more detailed look at our experience in Tirana is here.

Day 11 Tirana – Lake Ohrid


On the road again

North Macedonia

When I was last in North Macedonia, people thought I was a spy. ‘Writer? Pah! Everyone says they are writers.’ they said. The country’s official name was Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia then. FYROM, for short. Though locals called it Macedonia; and had a naming dispute going with the Greek province Macedonia. In 2019, the quarrelling parties finally settled on the name North Macedonia for the independent country.

Day 11 – 12 Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid has been on my wish list ever since. Gorgeous place, they say, all who have been. And they are absolutely right!

I scribbled these notes in Ohrid:

  • Beautiful town, blue lake, pink flowers
  • Lovely winery/hotel with fab balcony views. And wine tasting.
  • Saint Sophia
  • Saint John
  • Kiwi photographer, from KeriKeri
  • Boat
  • Bride on a rock

I guess I had better elaborate, eh?

We are staying at Villa & Winery Mal Sveti Kliment –

– a beautiful hotel –

– on a steep hill with stone steps.

And this delightful room!

Our hotel is also a winery – and the room price includes a wine tasting.

Award-winning selection 

I suppose that should have been wine and olives – but I’m a bit childish like that.

In Ohrid, we have a look at my namesake, sort of –

Church of Saint Sophia, filled with precious art works

– and even more impressively:

Church of Saint John with amazing views

Captured by a Kiwi from KeriKeri that wandered past

To get there, we walk along the boardwalk –

– past love locks –

Leaning towards vandalism, myself – although, to be fair, this isn’t exactly Hohenzollern Bridge

– and past this lovely family.

Return by water taxi – with spectacular views of the church from lake level –

– and a photo shoot on a rock.

This figurehead –

– did not take this great shot of Ohrid:

Dinner at the lakeside House Cun, next table to a loudly ranting woman who apparently felt she wasn’t loved unconditionally enough. (Good food, though.)

Then much needed drinks at Liquid Cafe.

I forget what the blue concoction is – probably just as well…

Day 12 Lake Ohrid – Prizren

Long drive again, we are crossing the border between North Macedonia and Kosovo, and we almost get a ticket. Well, I almost get a ticket. And possibly deserved, as I tried to cross a solid line to overtake an exceedingly slow lorry, but pulled back quickly when I spotted police checks up ahead. Not quickly enough. They saw me. But tried is the operative word here. I crossed the line with only one front wheel, so I figure I am in the clear.

It took 20 minutes of insisting I did nothing wrong, before the police gave up. Language trouble. Onwards!

BTW, FYI: 300 Euros is the going rate for crossing a ‘full line’, reduced to 150 if you are a foreigner. You’re welcome!

Kosovo

Entering Kosovo at Jazintse, my first question is: Why?

I deliberately do not take photos of rubbish; too depressing. But let’s forget that for now. The landscape is simply stunning. (Said that a few times, haven’t I? Balkans in a nutshell right there. Stunning!)

Day 12 – 13 Prizren

We arrive in Prizren midday. Our hotel (Hotel Centrum) has the steepest parking garage I have ever seen. And I need a nap!

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew explore Prizren Fortress.

Prizren views!

Woke up at last. To this!

Prizren’s most famous landmark: the Ottoman Bridge.

Also pretty at night

Having a look at Our Lady of Ljeviš, because I’m a bit of a World Heritage geek.

To be fair, the whole church is not behind barbed wire. But it is sadly not allowed to enter, so I think the photo fits.

Dinner is at La Boheme, one of many restaurants lining Prizren River. And as always, we find the bar quarter for a fun night out.

Prizrenis on the town

Colourful bar area in Prizren – and Kosovans are flexible folks.

Day 13 Prizren – Bar – Kotor

Another day, another drive, including a long stretch back in Albania, before we cross the border to Montenegro.

Montenegro

Stopping in Bar for a beach lunch

On the way to Kotor, we pass the enigmatic Sveti Stefan island.

Day 13 – 15 Kotor

Getting into Kotor in late afternoon, we find our lodgings for the next two nights.

Lovely apartment in Villa Duomo, smack in the middle of the old town

That safe, though!

Time to check out Kotor’s gorgeous walled Old Town. Day time and night time.

Yeah… you’ll have to go into my Insta Stories to understand that last one.

Next up, an early morning ramble up to Kotor Fortress. The views over the Bay: stunning! (there I go again).

Day 15 Kotor – Dubrovnik

Our last drive is fairly short. Ca. 2 hours, most of it along the dazzling Adriatic coastline.

Our hotel for the night is in Plat, conveniently located near Dubrovnik airport for our flights tomorrow. It also has a beach, so the remainder of the afternoon is spent on the rocks.

One final evening back in Dubrovnik’s Old Town, and we have come full circle.

Day 16 Dubrovnik – home

Considering the sketchy flying summer of 2022, I am lucky. No delayed flights or bags coming or going. A bit less luck in Manchester, as bags are two hours late. On the other hand, I manage to break a wine bottle against the floor tiles at home as I take it out of the box. Things tend to even out like that.

Photos by Andrew Morland, Tom Brothwell and myself.

 

unesco logo

  1. Old City of Dubrovnik, 2. Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar, 3. Durmitor National Park (Tara River Gorge), 4. Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region, 5. Medieval Monuments in Kosovo (Our Lady of Ljevis), and 6. Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor are all UNESCO World Heritage sites. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.

 

Disclosure: Our Belgrade digs was hosted by VisitSerbia. As always, I keep the right to write whatever I want, my bit of cyberspace, my rules. Otherwise, this would all be meaningless.