Well, I know it’s been a long time, but I’m finally back from the Balkans, eager to let you know on how my adventures in the area turned out. Two years away from my beloved Bosnia, from its waters, and from my friends seemed too long, so you can clearly imagine my drive to get back there and live it all over again!
Project Bosnia & Herzegovina:
- Day 1:
- We left Braşov at 9:00, direction Orşova. We only had 2 quick stops (one in Sibiu for coffee and hot chocolate and one in Orăştie for lunch) and then planned to drive all the way to Orşova and enjoy our evening there. Plans changed though, as we crossed the road to Oraviţa to our right and decided on the spot that it’d be a wiser idea to get to Bigăr Waterfall (declared one of the most beautiful in the world).
- Located on the 45th parallel north, Bigăr Waterfall is extremely delicate and unusual, with a water curtain falling down some lush green vegetation, and is set in a very remote, peaceful, and picturesque area of Romania, where the rolling hills create a real fascination for the authenticity of our nation’s past. On our way back to the main road, we made another detour to see the water mills at Eftimie Murgu, some of them still functional, and smell the freshly ground cereal grains.
- We then continued to Orşova, had a quick bite on the patio of Casa Verde (100 lei/double room), listened to the murmurs of the Danube, and remembered why I fell in love so badly with this place!
- Day 2:
- 05:38am was our best shot to see the sunrise. Two more hours in bed, one more hour to enjoy the peacefulness of mornings in Orşova and we were off to Şimian to find a way to get to Şimian Island (to which the historical ruins of Ada Kaleh had been moved), but we were sent from the Police Station to a Bed & Breakfast, and then back to Drobeta, where no one would even think of taking us there. Apparently, there are many snakes on the island, but this can’t be a real reason, can it?
- We crossed the border into Serbia and followed the course of Danube while thrillingly looking at the Romanian bank… Aah, what a beautiful country we’ve got [sigh]. We stopped for a short while at the impressive 14th century Golubac Fortress and then in Belgrade to visit some dear friends and their baby boy and then continued to Banja Luka. [Motorway tolls can be paid in local currency, Euros, or by credit card in Serbia, Croatia, and Macedonia, so don’t worry about this when setting up your travel plans.]
- The Saturday night welcome to Banja Luka was amazing. The city was incredibly lively and young, with hip outfits and cool attitudes. And us mingling in the center was enabled by the great location of our home for the night, City Smile Hostel (11 EUR/person, 4-bed dormitory).
- Day 3:
- Our Banja Luka morning was neither cool nor hot, so we grabbed a quick bite and were off trying to get to an event I’d been dreaming to experience my whole life: 2013 ICF Wildwater Canoeing World Cup Final on Vrbas River! We managed to get a parking pass and climbed the rocks – despite the intoxicating heat – to see the athletes and their teams in action. It was great!
- With a lazy Sunday afternoon in Banja Luka, stores closed, and no shared lunch option to please all the four of us, we decided to have late lunch at Orthodox Motel (the finish point of our rafting adventure on Vrbas, delayed because of the World Cup) and it was a great decision!
- That late afternoon found us paddling down Vrbas (30 EUR/person, Bijeli Buk – Karanovac), improving our technique and having a great time! It was pretty late when we started our drive to Kulen Vakuf, but found the comforts of Villa Buk (15 EUR/person, breakfast included) as rewarding as always for a good night’s sleep.
- Day 4:
- Breakfast near the gorgeous Una is something I’d look forward to every single day and I admit I’m constantly missing it when I’m away. Add the incredibly delicious Bosnian bread with cheese and spinach to that and I’m sold! Unfortunately, the threatening clouds on the horizon ultimately led to one great storm, so we decided to postpone our rafting trip for the following day.
- We headed to Bihać instead, strolled through the center, went shopping and in the end had lunch at the great ‘River Una’ Restoran (Džemala Bijedića 12). As it was our fourth time in the city and we’d never been to Cazin, we decided to drive there. The cold drops of rain didn’t stop us from taking the trail up to Stari Grad (the Old Town) and from taking in the view. We then drove back to Bihać, but stopped for one hour at Ostrožac Castle (16th century), which became my biggest wow in this trip, as I was amazed by the backdrop, vibe, and feel of this place! It was quite a dramatic hour, enhanced by the fact that it was close to dusk, with the rain pouring down, with no one else in sight, and with the curious case of the castle being open (one usually has to ring the bell for a visit) still a mystery. We ended our evening in Bihać, having drinks with some very dear friends we hadn’t seen in three years, and then had dinner at Villa Buk (15 EUR/person), in the crisp yet welcoming night air.
- Day 5:
- Early wakeup, so we’d be off to our rafting adventure (30 EUR/person; 4 EUR/National Park Fee; Štrbački buk – Lohovo) in no time. Una was as beautiful as I’d remember it to be, though greener and greater in volume (because of the rain). After a delicious lunch, we said goodbye to this beautiful northwestern region of Bosnia and started driving to Sarajevo, anxious to meet a very dear friend.
- There was only one stop on the way, in Travnik – for sweets. As we arrived pretty late in Sarajevo, we had a bit of trouble in finding our accommodation (‘Free Spirit’ Hostel, 1, Gorusa Street), but it was worth it, as we came across a colourful and cheerfully decorated place (50 EUR/night, 4 persons).
- Day 6:
- Gloomy Sarajevo morning, that’s what it was. However, Mostar was soon to follow with the glorious road leading to it. There was one last stop though to take in the energies of that early afternoon in Sarajevo: a visit to Baščaršija (the old Bazaar) to have coffee, cakes, and boza. I admit I felt very relaxed and it was the first time I’d be in Sarajevo and really enjoy the hustle and bustle of the old centre.
|Blagaj Tekija and River Buna source|
- With the sun catching up on us on our way to the South, we arrived in Mostar fully energised and decided to drive the 18 km to Blagaj after checking in (beautiful and cozy Momo Studio; 40 EUR/night). Blagaj is well-known for the source of River Buna and for the tekija (Dervish Monastery, 1520) overlooking it. Bear in mind that the tekija closes for visitors at 6:00pm in summer; the visit is free of charge, but adequate clothes must be worn (these are also provided at the entrance). A delicious dinner followed (for all you fish lovers, remember that Blagaj’s specialty is the trout!) and then we were back to Mostar.
- We were lucky enough to find some of the bazaar’s boutiques by the Old Bridge open and we strolled for hours admiring the exquisite charm that Stari Most adds to this jewel of a city, be it in daylight or at night!
- Day 7:
- After a final attempt to find Koski Mehmed Paša Mosque open [unfortunately, we were early, as it is open daily, between 9:00am and 10:00pm] and get a last look at the beautiful bridge, we bought some delicious pastry from a Pekara Store downtown, some water, and we were ready to hit the road. We were due to arrive in Foča at 10:00am and start our rafting adventure on Drina and Tara, but were warned that the road would be bad. Well, it wasn’t that bad, but it was winding and slow. The views of the gorgeous Bosnia were a great reward and two hours over schedule, we managed to reach Drina Tara Rafting Center.
- To get to it, one must drive 18 km from Foča and turn right/down when noticing the ‘Rafting Center Bastasi’ sign. There are 800 m to go from here. After breakfast (vegetarian options available, upon request; price: 7 EUR), we were off to our adventure (30 EUR / person). The ride down Tara was an amazing experience (despite dealing with particularly cold water: 7°C), which involved border crossing into Montenegro, so you should definitely have passports and/or IDs on you!
- We badly needed hot showers and the delicious late lunch we had (again, ask for vegetarian options, if applicable; price: 14 EUR/person) was precisely what the doctor ordered, with some of the best baklava I’ve ever tasted in my life! We fully enjoyed our sleep in one of the center’s bungalows (7 EUR/person; 4-bed bungalow).
- Day 8:
- We got up at precisely 05:45, as we knew we had a long day before of us, with a tight schedule to observe, border controls, and three countries to cross, as we’d decided on an impromptu Montenegro detour (my friends thought that it would be a pity to be so close to the Adriatic and not enjoy a short dip). Crossing the border (we’d previously crossed in our rafting equipment one day before) took longer than expected, but we tried to get back into schedule during our drive to Kotor. I am not very fond of Montenegro (which I found a bit dirtier than 4 years before; it’s probably one of the causes of its ‘commercial destination’ status), but Kotor is a beautiful and well-preserved town, which deserves at least a few hours of your precious travelling time. Consequently, after a well-needed breakfast, we hang around the Old Town and got lost in its streets. It felt unexpectedly good. We then headed to Plaža Ploče (make a right turn at 2/3 of the way between Kotor and Budva), left the car on a free parking space and entered by foot, enjoyed a quick and refreshing swim and were then off to Kosovo.
- The road to Montenegro’s border control point with Kosovo (Kula) is very scenic, but also very slow, as it takes you through some very remote villages in the mountains and then through the towns of Rožaje, Andrijevica, and Berane, where the cultures start to form a mix, as you get to see the occasional mosques rising on the surrounding hills. The border crossing was strange, because we got to drive at least 10 km after exiting Montenegro through the mountains, without settlements or humans in sight.
- As we finally entered Kosovo and purchased a car insurance policy (30 EUR; validity: 14 days), night set in and we drove the remaining kilometres to Prishtina trying to decipher the silhouettes hanging outside our car window. Kosovo’s capital was a surprise! It was Friday night (the busiest night of the week, we’d be told) and literally EVERYONE was in the streets partying. After checking in at Han Hostel (12 EUR/person; 8-bed dormitory), we forgot about our fatigue and got ready to party, in this city that actually boasts the highest number of clubs of all the former Yugoslavian countries. The atmosphere was indeed intoxicating and – after visiting a few clubs (and finding out that the hip-hop club I was planning to go to – ‘Depo’ – had been closed during summer), we settled for ‘The Cuban’ – a salsa club in downtown Prishtina (Rr. Luan Haradinaj). We truly had a BLAST! And we also quenched our hunger at ‘Route 66’, just across the road, a little after 2:30am.
- Day 9:
|My name day in Prishtina|
- My name day after a crazy night. I never expected it to be that crazy and fun when setting up the travel plans. It began with a chill morning in Prishtina’s ‘Dit' e Nat' (Rr. Fazli Grajqevci), a very charming café located in a bookstore and playing jazz in the evenings, where my friends arranged for a small candle to be delivered alongside my cheesecake. A visit to the beautiful ‘Afrodizia’ store – selling African handmade items – (Rr. Hajdar Dushi nr. 20) followed and then we got to see the ‘Newborn’ Monument in the centre, repainted with the flags of the countries that recognised Kosovo.
- We then drove 5 km North to Mitrovica and had a quick stop at Gazimestan Monument, commemorating the Battle of Kosovo (1389). You will undergo passport control when entering; don’t worry, it is only a formality, but make sure you have your papers on you!
- We were then off to Prizren, described in the few articles I had read online as ‘the most historical city in Kosovo’. I must say it lived up to its name… and more! And our time spent there was a real treat, from the beautiful 16th century hammam to the neatly decorated Sinan Pasha Mosque (1615), and to the very well preserved 5th century fortress overlooking the city. Did I mention the delicious lunch we had at ‘Besimi Beska’ Restaurant, next to the mosque? I also got to savour one of the most inspiring desserts of my life here, Trileqe!
- As the rain starting pouring again, we started to drive our 105 km to Skopje, with my great wish of inviting my friends to sample some exquisite Cuban cocktails at ‘La Bodeguita del Medio’ (13 November bul. Jane Sandanski b.b.) close to coming true. It did and I ended up experiencing the taste of the best Mojito of my life, one I hadn’t felt in 4 years!
- The road to Sofia was long and a bit bumpy (there is a 5 EUR Bulgarian vignette toll charged at the border control point!), but we managed to arrive safe and sound at ‘The House’ (62 EUR/night; apartment).
- Day 10:
- After a delicious breakfast, it was time to discover a bit of the Bulgarian capital. Unfortunately, the rain and the low clouds made it impossible for us to explore Mount Vitosha and Boyana Monastery, so these are scheduled for the next time we’re there.
- Despite the cold rain, we thought we’d take advantage of the fact that parking is free of charge on Sundays in Sofia, so we headed by foot to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (completed in 1912), one of the biggest Orthodox churches in the world. Although pretty pompous and erected to honour the struggles of the soldiers in the Balkan Wars of Independence against the Turks (1877-1878), it didn’t feel sacred and not even solemn, but rather had the neutral vibe and silence of a library.
- Approximately one and a half kilometres away (behind ZUM Building), we finally found Sofia Public Mineral Baths, in a somewhat derelict building, which still preserved a certain charm. It was built in the early 20th century near the former Turkish bath (in this capital city that oozes an ‘eclectic’ style and architecture, an interesting mixture of West, East, and Middle East) and was used until 1986.
- We left Sofia, set to enter Romania at Ruse – Giurgiu [bridge toll: 4 Leva/2 Euros]. Word of advice: if you’re taking this route, be sure to get fuel while you’re on the motorway, because the gas stations tend to diminish in number especially around Pleven. We were forced to make a right turn from the main road to Pordim, made it by the skin and the teeth with our last drops of gas and managed to get fuel thanks to the Bulgarian hospitality we were counting on.
Such an intense trip left me wanting more… as I admit I’m in a ‘post-travel blues’ state and I would happily start off on a new adventure tomorrow morning, if possible. Or I might set up those travel plans for Scotland instead… :) In the meantime, stay tuned for more detailed accounts of our Balkan adventures!