Prepare a trip in the Balkans, practical guide to an exciting journey

After me and Principessa began publishing articles about our trip in the Balkans several friends made a number of logistic and curious questions like: “There are mines?”, “There are the roads?”, “Is it dangerous? ” and other nonsense questions of this kind. I tell you now that the trip was quiet, smoothly, without risky situations and in this article I try to answer the most frequently asked questions.

Balkans in the car, what should I do? Documents? Insurance?

If you are the owner of the car or the owner of the car is in the car with you, no special documents are needed, if not you need authorization to drive this car, signed by a notary. All Italian (and European) insurances provide a green card that is valid as insurance in all Balkan countries except Kosovo and Albania if crossed. No fear, for KOSOVO just after the border you will find the office in charge to sell you a temporary insurance, we paid 20 € for 7 days coming from Serbia, if you are entering from other nations the applicable tariff is €15 but take attention about restrictions of movement and customs issues (see next question). All rates on the official website. For Albania, we have used a secondary border at night, and we didn’t take the insurance at our own risk, even if our green card has the “AL” crossed out. It seems that it is possible to buy insurance at the border at a cost of 27 € per 15 days.

Attention, in most Balkan countries the tolerance of alcohol while driving is 0. If you have to drive do not drink!

Customs and controls, waiting time and limitations

The first time I went in the Balkans, about 10 years ago, I remember a long queue at customs between Serbia and Bulgaria, if I remember correctly I spent there four hours. Now the situation is better, despite the period of migration and holidays (September) the customs we spent more time were to and from Turkey, where we waited about 20 minutes. In all borders police will ask you documents of people and of the car, in some cases even a green card (insurance). It can happen that some kilometers before the customs you will find a long line of trucks, in this case you have to go against traffic and overcome them all, because they have a special custom for goods, and sometimes (especially from Turkey), they wait even days; if you are not sure, wait when a local car will pass and follow it. WARNING particular to Kosovo: Serbia does not recognize the independence of Kosovo, which according to the Serbian authorities continues to be a region of Serbia. If you want to travel from Kosovo to Serbia, you do have to go to Kosovo from Serbia. If, for example, you came into Kosovo from Macedonia and try to go out to Serbia, border police will block you, saying that you have entered illegally in Serbia (not recognizing the stamp that the border police of Kosovo will put on your passport). If you are all Italians (or citizen of any country that can enter Serbia with just ID) you can bypass this rule, show to the police of Kosovo your passport, and then enter Serbia showing ID only.

Documents required for Italian citizens (and probably for EU citizens)

The Italian citizens can visit all the Balkan countries with ID cards only, excluding Kosovo, for which you need a passport valid for at least 6 months. This information is updated on January 2016. If you want the latest information and the official visit of the Italian Foreign Ministry website: www.viaggiaresicuri.it.

Special cases: if you plan to travel to Serbia after visiting Kosovo, use the only ID card to enter Serbia. Since Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent nation, may deny you access to the country if they see the stamp of Kosovo, we have traveled from Serbia to Kosovo and then again in Serbia, and Principessa who need a passport for both nations, had no problems, but before to let us in Serbian police verified that the date of the Serbian stamp was before than the one of the stamp of Kosovo. For Turkey you just need an identity card if you access by air / ship or land borders with Bulgaria and Greece. If you access other borders by land passport is required. The website of the Italian Foreign Ministry said that the Serbian police makes access problems if he sees the stamp in the passport of Kosovo, and to ask the Border Police of Kosovo to make the stamp on a separate sheet. We entered two times in Serbia (by land and air) with the stamp of Kosovo in the passport and we did not have this problem, in fact a few days ago the Serbian border police has stamped on my passport on the same page where I have stamp of Kosovo without raising any problem. If traveling with an identity card, it must be valid for travel abroad. Some citizens have had problems (and rejections) for ID cards renovated by stamp (this is about Italian ID only).

Documents required for Russian citizens.

Principessa has traveled with me to all the nations of the Balkans with valid Russian passport and visa for Schengen area. No visa required for individual countries.

Quality of the roads and tolls.

The quality of the roads is good, if you are traveling between the capitals and the coastal areas you will drive mostly along highways with two lanes in each direction. In Bosnia there are no highways but the roads are great, it is a mountain country, but there are many galleries and double lane in the uphill sections to facilitate overtaking  of slow vehicles. We traveled without navigation, using maps and used both main roads, secondary and local roads that did not appear at all on the maps. The worst conditions you can find are some gravel roads, usually well maintained, in Bosnia, but again only on itineraries off the beaten tracks, and definitely in Albania: there are too many holes on the main roads and highways, beware of bridges, are often not on level and sometimes there is no the metal joints between the bridge and the road, so drive slowly and enjoy the journey; also in Albania, on secondary roads, for example to reach Koman, beautiful place that we described in this post, you’ll have to travel at 20/ 30km/h because of many holes, animals, etc., keep that in mind when planning your trip. . Also in the north of Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bulgaria may happen to find roads with many holes, but only local roads (you need to use this kind of roads to reach places like: Drvengrad or Plovdiv) . In the south of the Balkans and in Turkey you will find enough well-maintained highways (I speak here only about European Turkey as we have not gone after Istanbul). As for tolls most countries have the main toll roads, you can pay directly at the toll exit, with cash (usually accept local currency and Euro) or credit cards of the main circuits. Only Bulgaria and Slovenia require to purchase  a Vignette (road tax), for Slovenia the sticker for car for one week costs 15 €, all the information on the official website while for Bulgaria costs just over € 7, on this site the latest information. In Bulgaria, the Vignette is required for all major roads, not only for highways, pay attention that at the customs nobody force you to buy it, but police checks are frequent, as well as the cameras. We bought it only after 24 hours we entered the country in a service station (we forgot), we have not received sanctions yet, but we were lucky that no one stopped us. Also in Bulgaria in all border you have to pay € 6 for the disinfection of the car, you can pay in local currency or Euro (the figure could vary). As for Slovenia you can get the stamp in Italy near the border at gas stations or directly into the country. If you have to go to Rijeka (or down in Dalmatia and so on) in Croatia from Italy, you can cross Slovenia (less than 50KM) without Vignette because the road between Trieste and Rijeka is not an highway, but pay attention to speed limits!

Reaching the Balkans by plane.

Our only experience was with Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade. We reached Belgrade from Milan with Air Serbia and from Moscow with Aeroflot. Both are companies with good standards, Air Serbia is part of the group Etihad as Alitalia and Aeroflot is part of the SkyTeam alliance.

How to reach the center of Belgrade from Nikola Tesla Airport?

You can reach the center by taxi or Bus. We took the taxi, ignore all the guys will ask if you need a taxi, they are unofficial taxis and they will try to cheat you, this is true about almost all airports. At the arrivals, just before the door that takes you outside the airport there is a taxi desk, you give the destination address and the operator will give you a voucher, which you do not pay, indicating the fare (1800rsd or 1400rsd for center, depending on the exact destination, in Euro 11.50 / € 15.00) that you will need to pay to the driver. On the way back the driver will use the taximeter and will cost a little less, from the center we paid 1300rsd. There are no taxis station and taxis do not stop if you call them with the arm from the road, if you ask in a bar, gas station or other places to call you a taxi they do it willingly. The checked by us good service is provided by Pink Taxi.

Languages ​​and currencies.

English is quite widespread in all countries of the Balkans, especially if you are in big cities or tourist sites, and if you talk to young people. In some places you can find people who speak Italian, especially in Slovenia and Croatia. In Albania, many people know Italian better than English. In Serbia some people know Russian, this helped us to ask for directions in one small city. Be aware that some countries such as Serbia and Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and in Greece, the Greek alphabet, have with you a table with these alphabets can help you distinguish the signs, learn them is not so difficult, I enjoyed a lot to try to read the street signs. Here is the Cyrillic alphabet, and here the Greek one.

As for currencies, the euro is the official currency in Slovenia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Greece. All other countries, each have their own money, usually with a fixed exchange rate with Euro, before traveling you can check and if there is convenient you can print out the tables with exchange rates. It is not necessary to start with a lot of cash or trying to get currency in advance with disadvantageous rates. In all these countries it is easy to find ATMs where you can withdraw. Widespread circuits are Maestro, Mastercard, and Visa. American Express a bit less. The majority of shops and restaurants allow payment by credit card, you will need cash for example if you decide to rent rooms in private homes or for small purchases.

Where to stay and eat?

Here you have a wide choice, in all tourist areas and big cities you will find hotels, campgrounds, houses. We started without booking anything and we had no problems. Obviously if you decide to go to busy places such as the islands of the northern Croatia in August, and in large groups, in high season, it is better to book, but if like us, you will travel in couple in September you’ll be fine. In places rarely visited such as smaller towns of Bulgaria or Serbia do not expect great quality standards, but you’ll easily find small hotels or guest house modest but clean. If sleep can sometimes be difficult, eat will always be a pleasure, even in the most remote places there are great restaurants with typical dishes, salads etc., We always ate very well and often drank local wines.

Budget.

Depends on the place you visit, northern Croatia, as well as tourist destinations such as Dubrovnik or Monstar are required and therefore expensive, like visiting a place on seaside in Italy. If your budget is tight anyway no problem, you can rent a small apartment by the sea on islands in the South / Central Dalmatia with about 50 € per night for 2 people. We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the island of Korcula, Lumbarda precisely where at the local tourist office we found a very nice apartment for under 50 € per night.

In the capitals the prices are in line with those Europeans, while off the beaten tracks, and in countries like Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia etc. you can eat well with less than 10 € per person and sleep with less than 20 € in good accommodation (private houses, small hotels). We loved the eco village Zelenkovac In Bosnia, where we had dinner with Cevapcici, beer and wine, slept and took a cup of tea for breakfast for 40 € for two people in total.

If you like SPA and ski you do have to go to Jahorina, we found a luxury hotel called Termag Hotel: http://termaghotel.com/en/.  It was a wonderful experience, unforgettable four days in a suite with Jacuzzi, with romantic package, eating and drinking wine, doing massages, we spent in four days the same amount you can spend on a day in the Dolomites for a similar (or worse) hotel.

So there’s a bit for all tastes.

Islands, ferries and small boats.

We never took a ferry from Italy to the Balkans, but we took ferries between the islands. All without booking but simply bringing us into the harbor in the morning and buying a ticket. Prices are more than affordable.

On the islands it is often possible to rent small boats with outboard engine to reach bays or small islands. The beautiful island of Badija where the sea looks like a pool and there are deers! Easily accessible from Lumbarda on the island of Korcula.

Here ends the guide, I hope I have cleared up a bit ‘of doubts. If you have any questions please leave a comment.

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