My wife is typically French in that she has taken many holidays and spent them in many adventurous ways (touring in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, West Africa, South America, and India to name a few). But she has also been influenced by my American ways in that she now enjoys a good road trip. So when we were invited to my Greek friend’s wedding in his hometown of Volos, she suggested a Balkan holiday road trip. Furthermore, my 8-year old daughter was asked to be the child bridesmaid.
We left on our trip (see the map below) from our house in Burgundy, France near the village of Pierreclos. The trip from Pierreclos to Volos was ~2500 km and the return from Volos to Pierreclos was ~1500 km, 1000 km less because we took a boat across the Adriatic from Igoumenitsa in Greece to Ancona in Italy. Major highways in France (and most of Europe where I have traveled) are truly fascist in that they are owned and operated by corporations but controlled by the government. However, while they are expensive, they are generally very good; thus, there were about 250€ in tolls. Eleven frontiers were crossed on the trip: France-Italy, Italy-Slovenia, Slovenia-Croatia, Croatia-Bosnia, Bosnia-Croatia, Croatia-Montenegro, Montenegro-Albania, Albania-Macedonia, Macedonia-Greece, Greece-Italy (by boat), and finally Italy-France.
Note: 1 mile=1.61 km, so 1000 km=621 miles, and 130 km/hr (the highway speed limit)=81 mph.
The route. Note that the return stage between Igoumenitsa in Greece and Ancona in Italy was by boat. (created in Google Maps)
The first landmark we passed was the tunnel under Mont Blanc; on the border between France and Italy, it is the highest mountain in the Alps. That first morning was the worst experience we had the whole trip because there was a two-hour queue getting to the tunnel, that is two hours on an upslope. We could smell our clutch burning and as we inched forward the car (our 2008 Nissan Note) started to vibrate. I did not have a good feeling. But thankfully after we made it to the tunnel and could drive normally the problem disappeared. One reason for the backup is that each vehicle that enters is delayed for safety stemming from an accident and fire that killed 39 people in 1999. On the return trip the line to enter on the French side was at least as long as when we went through, but only about 4 cars and one minute from the Italian side. The tunnel is expensive, 44€ each way (a bit more going from Italy to France than vice-versa).
We passed through Italy primarily on the Austrade A4 through the economic heartland, the Po valley, north of the river. We stopped the first night in Padua, near Venice, and in Parma on the return trip. The Italian towns I know in this region (Asti, Alba, Turin, Parma, Padua, and Verona) are all lovely with great food. Even the short stops we had on this trip are worth savoring.
The Po Valley. We came down from Mont Blanc, past Aosta to meet the Autostrade A4 between Turin and Milan (Torino and Milano on the map, respectively). (from Wikipedia)
From Padua we drove around the cul de sac of the Adriatic on the mountain above Trieste, then through a bit of Slovenia before passing into Croatia. Our Croatian stop was at Zadar, a highly touristic coastal town with a long history. One item of a perfidious nature occurred in 1202 when the Venetian doge cajoled the Fourth Crusade to lay siege to the city to pay Venice for their transport to Egypt. Zadar was devastated and captured, but at least the Pope excommunicated the Venetians and crusaders involved for attacking a Christian city. If only today’s war criminals would receive some justice.
Driving through Croatia on our way to Zadar my wife asked me an interesting question. Who are the famous Croatians, or any of the other Balkan nationalities for that matter? I could think of no one off the top of my head, but then we passed a sign noting Smiljan as the birthplace of Nikola Tesla. Of course being an engineer I know about Tesla, one of the greatest technical geniuses in history. But it turns out he was Serbian, born in what is now Croatia. Perhaps it is not a fair comparison to think of the countries (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia) we passed through from Italy to Greece as these two countries have produced so many great contributors to all aspects of civilization. But it begs the question why certain places at certain times, such as ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, and Mises’ Vienna, are so fruitful and these countries that in many ways are so similar to Italy and Greece, and are yet so barren?
Bosnia has a tiny finger of 20 km on the Adriatic coast around the town of Neum that is surrounded by Croatian peninsulas. Thus you must leave Croatia to enter Bosnia, and then 20 minutes down the road (depending on traffic and stops) re-enter Croatia. We stopped for lunch at a nondescript restaurant. As we were looking at the menu the waiter arrived with a platter of freshly caught fish that we could choose from. A wonderful lunch of grilled fish and vegetables was perhaps the best meal of the trip.
Just before arriving in Bosnia the modern highway ended and we did not have another until about an hour north of Volos. There is something to be said about driving in the Balkans. In fact, even driving in Italy has its quirks. The Austrades exist and are good roads, usually with 3 lanes in each direction. However, in the north, there are many trucks that travel at 80-90 km/hr. I would drive in the center lane near the speed limit at 120-130 km/hr. But often one truck would pass another, jumping into the center. To avoid and pass these trucks it is necessary to drive in the left lane. But cars there are typically going at or above 160 km/hr (100 mph!). It really takes a lot of concentration not to run into a truck or get blown off the road by a Mercedes. Now consider Albania (but many aspects also hold for Croatia, Montenegro, and Macedonia). Wikipedia actually has an article about Driving in Albania. The first sentence states that “Despite the perceived negative connotation to driving in Albania, most vehicles manage not to get into accidents by simply exercising common sense and following their own way through the chaotic traffic.” Now if I had read that before the trip perhaps we would have taken another route or a plane. The article continues with a description that I can corroborate.
The law of the strongest fully applies on the Albanian roads. In cities, traffic is slow thus more secure than in rural areas. Expect reckless driving such as hair-raising overtaking even on turns, driving on the wrong side of the road, stopping on highways by the roadside, uncontrolled entrance points, horse-drawn carts and pedestrians, and complete ignoring of stop signs and right of way at intersections. Albanian drivers are prone to using visual and acoustic aids regularly such as honking, headlight flashing, or high beams at night.
And the last line of advice can remove the last bit of confidence, “ It’s strongly advised to always keep a spare tire.” I guess the bit about cities is true but for me, the highlight (or lowlight as the case may be) was passing through the capital of Tirana. There is no peripheral road around the city. It was one hour of constant, bumper-to-bumper traffic , that required weaving across lanes because of stopped cars or directional changes. Though cars did generally abide by the traffic signals; so give it up for Tirana. There is another peculiarity about Balkan driving, or rather the vehicles. These are obviously poor countries, and an ancient man driving a little donkey cart was normal. But much more common, perhaps half of all vehicles, were Mercedes. The link is to a 2002 NY Times article that explains it is all legal, but it makes you wonder.
The frontier crossing into Montenegro from Croatia was the most unpleasant. First, there was a long wait for Croatian border officials to leave their country, then another wait for Montenegrin border officials to pass into their country. But the worst was a seemingly random stop by a lone police officer about one minute from the border. I felt sure he would demand money to return our passports as I had been warned about this kind of scam, but he let us pass without charge.
We took a day off from driving and stayed near the beach south of Petrovac in Montenegro. Montenegro is largely Serbian and its beaches are a major tourist destination for the Balkans. In the apartment where we stayed the other four cars in the parking lot were from Albania, Serbia, Romania, and Slovakia. But Montenegro is also well connected to Russia. As one waiter explained, after working for eight years during the summers at the touristic restaurant near the beach, he could speak Russian, as he was playing with a Russian child and stereotypically took a shot of vodka with the parents. There are many Russian tourists and investments in the country. We took a boat ride that left from our rather low-class beach to pass around the islet of Sveti Stefan, a fancy resort, especially for Russian oligarchs. At the beach next to Sveti Stefan it cost 80€ to rent a lounge chair for the day, it was 5€ at our beach.
The boat arrives for our tour at the beach for the hoi polloi.
Sveti Stefan, the enclave of the rich on the Montenegrin coast.
The outward appearance of the economy is not good. In particular, there are many buildings left unfinished. The most spectacular was a large hotel (over 10 stories) on an isolated beach we saw from the boat. I do not know how much this phenomenon can be attributed to the classic Austrian Business Cycle or some other tax, regulatory, or cultural issues. We saw similar buildings, but to a lesser extent, in the other Balkan countries and I have seen the same behavior in other less developed countries like Turkey and Mexico. Another interesting economic item is that the Central Bank of Montenegro is not part of the euro system but the country is “euroized“, using the euro unilaterally as its currency.
The view from the balcony of the room we rented in Montenegro. Note the three building in view are unfinished.
Our last stop before Greece was in Macedonia, at Ohrid, a small picturesque city with a Medieval old town on a big lake with the same name. A pleasant place with good food at good prices. The circumstance of competing currencies can be observed there as the Euro was accepted everywhere in place of the local denar, but the change was only in denars.
The lakeside promenade at Ohrid. Photo from this film institute site that also gives the interesting cost of living data. By my scale, a pint of draft beer is less than $1.50, it is pretty cheap.
My friend is from Volos, a relatively unknown gem on the Pagasetic Gulf in central eastern Greece. Unknown in the sense it is not overrun with foreign tourists; I would guess because there are no famous ruins from antiquity in the area. The gulf is closed to the east by the peninsula that consists of Pelion mountain, with Medieval villages, pleasant temperatures and fantastic beaches on the Aegean Sea. We stayed in the village of Portaria on the mountain, an enchanting old village with characteristic stone architecture, enormous ancient trees providing a canopy for terrace restaurants with spectacular views of Volos and the gulf. Even more quaint was the nearby village of Makrinitsa. The orthodox marriage ceremony was performed at a landmark church on the waterfront in Volos and the reception was in Portaria. Great people, great food, a great time had by all.
A view of Volos from the mountain. The quality of the image is more a function of my photographic skills than of the air. In fact, the actual views of the city were clear.
For the last night in Greece, we stopped near Meteora, the site of impressive geological formations of immense monolithic pillars of stone, and the even more impressive monasteries that were constructed on top of them beginning in the 14th century.
For the return trip, we took a different route, going from Volos on the east coast to Igoumenitsa on the west coast to catch a ferry boat across the Adriatic to Ancona in Italy. We made one stop in the center of Greece at Meteora, famous for the monasteries built on the naturally formed stone pillars.
I did not see much evidence of the migration crisis in all of the Balkans other than a few people hanging around the port in Igoumenitsa. On the boat, an Italian teacher on vacation told me about his crossing to Greece that was delayed because a migrant being deported back to Greece jumped ship off the coast of Italy, so the boat had to stop until he was picked up by the authorities. As for the other crisis, the economic one, Greece seemed more prosperous to us than the other Balkan countries. The cafes had plenty of customers, the roads and shops were in good order. My friends’ friends and family were also coping well.
The scheduled departure of the ferry was 8 PM, but on the reservation, the ferry line insisted on arrival at least two hours in advance. When we arrived just before six to pick up our tickets we were informed the departure would be 90 minutes late so we should come back at 7:30. However, it actually arrived two more hours late and loading the ferry with all of the cars, buses, and trucks is an operation in itself such that the departure was after midnight. We had reserved a cabin so the overnight crossing was very comfortable for us. We arrived in Ancona in the early afternoon, stopping at lovely Parma for the night. Our last leg to return through the tunnel back in France was uneventful except that we were greeted by, for us during our trip, unaccustomed rain.
The late arriving ferry to cross the Adriatic.
Of course, people have been recounting stories and writing about their travels for all of the human existence. Traveling in the Balkans brings to light so much history, economics, and culture, as well as glorious scenery and food. I hope this trip will remain memorable for my daughter. For me, it has stirred musings as much about the future as the past, as I now imagine some day when I might participate in her own wedding.
The author with his daughter before the wedding. She was proud to be the only child bridesmaid to participate in the ceremony. He was proud to be her father.