A road trip through the Balkans, in Southeastern Europe, is a get-out-your-paper-map, pull-over-and-ask-for-directions, no-reservations-required kind of old-school travel. Train passes—popular in Western Europe—tend to lead to sideways looks at train stations in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Montenegro. Travelers here quickly find that renting a car is the best way to see the unspoiled backcountry on the western half of the Balkan Peninsula.
Below is a road trip, which winds through the mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the coast of Montenegro. The idea was to explore each country without the traffic … and the tourists. With a little help from a local adventure tourism agency like Sarajevo’s Green Visions, the route can easily be planned. What cannot be expected—and the reason to book a trip to this region before it becomes overrun—are the embarrassment of highlights seen along the way. Grand limestone mountain ranges, deep canyons blanketed by ethereal forests, and frequent interactions with helpful locals adding texture to to every turn and each travel story.
Day 1: Into the Mountains
The journey begins along the banks of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Neretva River. First, rent a car in the town of Mostar with its Ottoman-era bazaar and famous bridge. With most visitors traveling out of the capital city, Sarajevo, securing a rental car in a smaller city like Mostar (about 2 hours south) typically leads to better prices and easier pick-up and drop-off locations.
Mostar Photo: xiquinhosilva, CC-BY
From Mostar, head southeast towards the Montenegrin border, veering north onto the M20 motorway towards Sutjeska National Park. After the defeat of the Germans by the Yugoslavian National Army in Sutjeska during the Second World War, former Yugoslavian President Josip Tito commissioned futuristic war memorials throughout the Balkans. Located less than 400-meters from the M20 roadside in Sutjeska, stop to admire the unkempt but powerful concrete structures accenting the jagged movement of the Valley of Heroes.
After making your way into Montenegro on snaking roads meant for one-way traffic, spend the night in Durmitor National Park at Autokamp Kod Bo?e in Razvršje, roughly two miles south of the alpine town of Žabljak. The camp sits under one of the country’s highest peaks, Bobotov Kuk, with miles of hiking trails, access to Black Lake, and acres of open space for unspoiled late night stargazing with a clear visibility of the Milky Way. The front desk of Autokamp Bo?e stays open throughout the night and offers apartments, bungalows, and campsites for outdoor-loving travelers (costs at 30, 8, and 2 euros respectively).
Pro Tip: For rental cars in Bosnia, search online for rental businesses and call several for price comparisons. A good deal for a 4-day rental goes for around 200 Konvertible Marks—or KM (about $113 at 1.77 KM to the dollar).
Day 2: Along the Tara River Canyon
Photo: Andrey Chudaev, CC-BY
Your second day leads southeast along the Tara River Canyon towards ?ur?evi?a Tara River Bridge. Constructed in 1940 in the former Yugoslavia, the Roman-inspired concrete arches rise 172 meters over Europe’s deepest canyon. For around 15 euros, snag a zip line and a better view of the turquoise Tara River over the tree line and across the valley.
Taking the canyon route through Montenegro leads into the capital city of Podgorica. Suspend your pride for a moment and act like a local. Stop into a petrol station/café on the E80 motorway going into Podgorica and ask for advice on swimming access to the river Mora?a near Old Zlatica on the north side of the city. The Mora?a River in Podgorica offers hidden riverside bars with weathered metal towers adorned by Adonis figures preparing for heroic dives to the water below. The cool clear river carving into the limestone bedrock provides welcome refreshment from the heat of the surrounding Mediterranean climate.
Spend the night at Ostrog Monastery, a 17th century Orthodox Church built into a cliff several hundred meters above the Zeta Valley in central Montenegro. The flat white façade of the monastery appears to merge seamlessly with the iron-soaked rock surrounding the church and terrace. Thousands of tourists and pilgrims come to visit the monastery every day, making early mornings and late nights the most opportune time to enjoy this historical landmark.
Pro tip: There is a no-reservation hostel located on the lower level of the monastery, but for those willing to rise with the sun, stay on the upper terrace, where sleeping pads and donated blankets are offered free-of-charge.
Day 3: The Bay of Kotor
Hunger sets in soon after the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call at Ostrog Monastery. Take the road to the small roadside town of Morinj. As the Bay of Kotor comes into view over the coastal mountain ridge, the morning sun reflects off the water with a glow akin to an oasis in the desert. Tramontana Beach Bar on the waterside in Morinj offers inexpensive omelet breakfasts and espresso on a relaxed white-pebble beach. The Adriatic seawater here mixes with cold freshwater from the mountains, creating cooler water temperatures than elsewhere on the bay. When air temperatures peak in the upper 90s in the summer, creating your day’s schedule between laying in a complimentary beach chair and taking dips in the water will be the toughest task of the day.
Bay of Kotor Photo: Flickr/Trish Hartmann
Pro tip: Find beaches that are further away from the larger coastal towns in the Bay of Kotor. Driving towards the Adriatic along the Bay of Kotor will lead you to small public docks in Njivice perfect for a day of snorkeling.
The Return Trip
A side trip to Dubrovnik, in Croatia, might prove too difficult to resist, but beware: if you travel through Croatia on your return trip to Mostar, the border crossing along this route can take hours. For a shorter return, travel through the ancient wine country of southern Herzegovina and take the crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina towards Trebinje. The road towards Mostar hugs tight against the Trebišnjica River, which feeds the grape vines and tobacco fields that this region is known for.
Photo at top: Kevin Botto, CC-BY
Katie Aldrich is a freelance writer and graduate student at The Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.