Traveling through the Balkans
Balkans? Where are the Balkans? The Balkans consists of the southern central countries in Europe which are: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, and European Turkey.
In Turkish “Bal” translates to honey and “Kan” translates to blood so to some the Balkans is the land of Honey and Blood. Although this may not be the real translation it is what our guide in Bosnia told us. Makes sense since this area is rich with sweet things in life; beautiful scenery, amazing culture, yummy food and wonderful people. It also has had its struggles with its fairly recent wars and wars dating back to the Ottoman empire and beyond. Traveling through these countries we were able to witness both the honey and the blood of the Balkans. Croatia’s beautiful cities and coasts to Bosnia’s post siege on Sarajevo with grenade roses and bullet holes throughout the city. We’ve learned a lot through both the good times and the bad times here.
The hardest part for us traveling through the Balkans was getting from country to country. Being on a budget makes us look around for the most affordable route, taking a plane to every country is definitely not the cheapest, so we used buses, vans, car rentals and trains and had a wide variety of experiences with each.
We liked taking trains and had almost a good experience with all of them (I’m looking at you Serbia-Montenegro). They offer more space, direct route and room to get up, bathroom and room to walk around.
Buses are everywhere and go everywhere, so we could always find a bus to a destination (Albania was difficult, but we will go into detail below). Buses were Dani’s least favorite though after she got ringworm on her arm and assumed it was from the dirty conditions of the buses.
Vans we only did once and would have done it more if we could find the option more often. We took a van from Bosnia to Serbia and they picked us up from an address we gave them and dropped us off at our next accommodation.
We rented a car in Croatia and drove up into Slovenia to bled castle. It was worth it and nice to stop when we wanted to. This can be expensive but splitting it with friends made it affordable.
Trying to find the right schedules online can go from easy to very difficult to impossible for some countries. To break this up I will go by country.
We loved Croatia and spent 3 weeks there in Krk, Pula, Zadar and Dubrovnik. Croatia is very limited on trains and has 2 or 3 routes that didn’t match our itinerary so we did buses. The best site we found was busCroatia.com. You can find schedules and buy tickets from the site (they do charge a small fee, but not a lot). You do have to print the ticket so that can be a pain- we would just put it on a flash drive and take it somewhere to print. You can also just buy direct from the station and like the locals did, buy on the bus. Not knowing the price and if all buses did it, we always bought before hand. Croatia had been working on expanding their road system and had beautiful highways, unfortunately the buses take the back roads to hit up all the small towns. Google maps says 4 hours from Zadar to Dubrovnik, it took us 8 hours on the bus!
We only had one day in Slovenia and wish we could’ve been there longer. We rented a car in Pula, Croatia for 40€/day. From Pula it’s only a 1.5 hours to the border and about 3.5 hours to Bled Castle, our destination. We had to pass Ljubljana, the capital, on our way so if your destination is the capital then it will be a much shorter ride, but make sure you make it to Bled at some point in your Slovenia trip! Slovenia uses vignettes so make sure you buy one at the border. Vignettes are their form of tolls which you can buy week ones or month ones or longer. Wish they only had day ones. It was 15€ for the week one.
We took a bus from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo and almost got taken advantage of. The lady at the ticket counter tried to pull a fast one on us and make us pay more. You can read about it here. Getting there by bus was okay, it had beautiful scenery and very winding roads. In Bosnia we took a bus to Mostar and the train back. The train was much cheaper but only had an early one, 7am, to Mostar and we weren’t sure how to get to the station that early from the neighborhood we were in and we were lazy. The bus had a/c and was almost double but left at 9. The train back was okay. It gave us more room and was cheaper. On trains people smoke when they want to, so you have to deal with that your whole ride.
From Bosnia to Serbia we took a van called GEA Tours. We had our host call and set it up. It was 20€ each and was much faster than a bus. The driver drove as fast as he could so we did get a little car sick and had to focus on keeping our food down. Having them drop us off at our next Airbnb saved us more time and money too.
We took the scenic train from Serbia to Montenegro for about 20€ each that you buy at the train station. They have a sleeper one and a day one. I had read and heard that this is the most beautiful route in Europe. The last two hours into Podgorica were the best and to pay attention when going through that spot. Our host in Serbia warned us that it’s normal for the 10 hour train ride to be more like 13-14 hours long. We thought nothing of it and soon found out that normal is an everyday thing. Our train left at 9am and broke down twice. The first time they Jimmy rigged it with some old wire and the second time we had to wait for an engine car to come pull us. We were going to take one of the last buses from Podgorica to Kotor upon arrival but ended up arriving at almost midnight. Our train was 14 hours long just as our host had said. We talked to a few other tourists and found another couple needed to get to Kotor as well. We figured we could split a taxi between us and we ended up finding one for 40€, so for 20€ we got a pretty good deal.
Albania was by far the most difficult country to travel to and from. We planned on going to Shkodër in Albania because it was next to a lake, had a few points of interest and was close to our next destination. If you look at the map you could get there from Podgorica in like an hour. Unfortunately we could not find any information online on public transportation for this route. Everyone says you need to go from Ulcinj, Montenegro to Shkodër or anywhere else in Albania. Online I could only find an early bus and one at 1:30pm. The bus from Kotor arrives at Ulcinj at 2:30pm. We could take an early bus to Podgorica then another bus to Ulcinj to finally catch the 1:30 bus but it seemed too big of a hassle so we booked one night there and cut our Kotor visit short. Upon arriving in Ulcinj we found out about a 4:30 bus but already had a place booked.
The bus to Shkodër wasn’t too long. We took an early morning one and were dropped off in down town Shkodër. We found out they don’t really have a bus station. Not having a bus station meant it was difficult to find a bus out and had to get information from locals on how to get to Macedonia. Everyone just said to check with travel agencies. We ended up taking a 1.5 hour bus to Tirana, which also doesn’t have a bus station, to get a bus from there to Macedonia. In Tirana we spent most of our day going from travel agencies to travel agencies trying to find a bus that gets to Macedonia at a decent hour. They all leave at the same time, 4:00pm, and said it would take 5-6 hours. 9 hours later we arrived on Skopje, Macedonia.
We found out in Skopje that arriving 3 hours late from Tirana was a normal thing. Our host was super nice and was there waiting for us. He’d showed up at the right time and asked around. They said it was late and to call the bus number. He showed up again around midnight and after talking to all the taxi drivers he found out that it always arrives between 12-1am. If that is a common thing, why not change it to 8-9 hours? We were surprised to see other frustrated locals on the bus with us, sometimes it feels like we are the only ones.
I know, I know… Kosovo is still a heated debate for some. A lot of countries recognize Kosovo as a country and we do too! From Macedonia it’s really easy to get to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. They have buses going every hour from 7am to 6pm and the same coming back up to 7pm. Make sure you check your times at both bus stations just in case. You have to buy the tickets at the station anyways and when you arrive in Pristina check what time the last bus is at. It seems like these change all the time and may be much less during the winter months. This bus ride is only 2.5 hours including the stop at the border. We were able to see a lot of the sites in Pristina in an afternoon. We spent about 5 hours here before heading back.
As a side note with Kosovo and Serbia. Serbia does not recognize it as an independent country and we’ve heard of issues crossing from Kosovo into Serbia. There’s no border control so if you try to leave Serbia after coming from Kosovo you won’t have a stamp in your passport and could be in trouble. If your route has these two in order we’ve heard you can go from Serbia to Kosovo and back into Serbia, maybe leaving Kosovo since they don’t care as much or just do what we did; go to Serbia, then another country, then into Kosovo and back.
Our bus from Skopje to Sofia was pretty nice. The a/c worked well, there was a little more leg room and the over head baggage was large enough to stow our bags! We don’t like putting our bags in the under bus storage. We have valuables we would like to keep an eye on so we usually put the bags between our legs which makes it a little cramped. The bus was about 6 hours long and you cross over into a new timezone losing an hour.
From Sofia we took the train to Bucharest which is about 8 hours. Ours was 9 because they had to change out the engine car so we had to wait about 45 min. We were in cabin rooms that fit 8 people. We were lucky to have ours to ourselves for half the ride then shared it with two others for the rest of the ride.
Whew, Almost Done!
Bulgaria was the last of our Balkan countries this time around. We still have Greece and Turkey on our list to check off all the Balkans. We already have Greece on our schedule, In September we will be flying with my family to Athens for a few days. We plan on going back to Greece some time in the spring to hit up one of their islands and from there go to Istanbul to finish off the Balkans.
It’s been quite an experience going through the Balkans and is definitely off the beaten path. Croatia is probably the most popular tourist destination we made it to. Greece and Turkey seem popular but since we haven’t been there yet we can’t compare.
Sites used to get information:
- Balkanviator (still under construction but it has most of the schedules, use as reference only until they are done)
- GEA Tours (For Serbia travel)
- busCroatia.com (Used for all our Croatia travels)
- Google Maps (get a good idea of routes and distances)
- Man in seat 61 (This has a lot of good info on European Train routes)