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In July, I jumped around the Balkans, seeing:

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  • Kotor, Montenegro
  • Dubrovnik, Croatia
  • Mostar & Sarajevo, Bosnia

The Route

I’ve spent all summer in ex-Yugoslavia other than a quick trip to Spain. The plan has been to learn the Serbo-Croatian language. I wanted to switch bases from Belgrade to Zagreb via an efficient route that would let me see more of ex-Yugoslavia.

Eventually I settled on flying from Belgrade to Tivat, Montenegro and bussing the rest of the way to Zagreb with stops every few hours along the route. Tivat Airport has seasonal service all across Europe with a heavy emphasis on Russia. It serves all the beaches of Montenegro, including Budva and Kotor.

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In Montenegro, I went to Kotor, which has an inferior beach, because the city is prettier and less overrun by Russian tourists than Budva. From there, I took a three hour bus to Dubrovnik, possibly my favorite place in the world. From there, I was a four hour bus from Mostar, which is one of the most terribly divided cities in the world but surrounded by incredible beauty, and four more hours to Sarajevo, which is a capital city unlike any other I’ve seen in Europe.

I had planned to continue by bus to Banja Luka, de facto capital of the Republika Srpska country-within-a-country-that-is-Bosnia and from there to Zagreb, Croatia, but I had to get to Zagreb sooner than expected, so I just flew from Sarajevo.

I could have gone from Dubrovnik to Hvar Island and from there to Split in the middle of the trip. Split also has good bus service to Mostar. I would like to at least get to Split in the future, but after Kotor and Dubrovnik, I was sick of the beach/tourist party scene already, so I skipped Hvar and Split.

Kotor

From Tivat Airport, I paid 8 or 9 euros–the currency in Montenegro even though the country is not in the Euro Zone, kind of like Panama, Ecuador, and El Salvador use the US dollar–to Kotor. That is a rip off for this part of the world, but it took about 15 minutes of cajoling the taxi drivers by hanging around their stand and keeping a positive attitude to get them down from the 15 or 20 euros where they started.

I stayed at Montenegro Hostel 4U, which was under 20 euros for a dorm bed even in high season. It has a good location 5 minutes walking from Old Town and right on the beach.

The two main things I did in two days in Kotor were to hike the back way up to St. John’s Fortress and cruise Kotor Bay.

St. John’s Fortress: Fun Hike, Amazing Views

Following a tip from the Blonde Gypsy, an American travel blogger based in Kosovo who travels the Balkans widely, I took the back way up to Kotor’s number one attraction.

The main hike up to St. John’s Fortress leaves from the Old Town and is a giant staircase, 1,350 steps and 400 meters up.

By contrast, the Austro-Hungarian route the Blonde Gypsy recommends is a winding path past an old church and farms that meets up with the main path by climbing through a stone window.

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The back way has several benefits:

  1. It’s an easier, though longer, walk than the staircase.
  2. If you go up the back way and down the main staircase, you get two sets of views.
  3. In the morning, the back way is more shaded. Neither way is shaded in the afternoon.
  4. The back way is free. The front way requires a payment at the entrance (under 5 euros.)

The back way is mostly an obvious path.

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The trail is also marked by concentric white and red circle symbols.

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After passing a donkey, a homemade cheese-buying opportunity, and the ruins of a stone church, I had to climb through a window to rejoin the main path.

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From the main path, I had spectacular views of Old Town and Kotor Bay.

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I couldn’t recommend this hike more highly. It took me under an hour and a half roundtrip including frequent breaks for pictures. Go up the back way and down the steps. Go in either early morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat.

The back way starts just outside the city walls near the Northern Gate. As you exit the Northern Gate, cross two bridges, turn right at the main road, and follow it to the end where a dirt path continues. That’s your path.

Kotor Bay Cruise: A cheap way to see the Bay, Islands, and Perast

I paid 15 euros for a morning boat cruise of Kotor Bay that stopped briefly at Our Lady of the Rocks Island and the town of Perast.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-20-18-pm The island’s church and the town are cute and worth a look if you’re in the area. The cruise gets you there cheaply.screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-20-25-pm

Touts for the cruise hang out at right by the tourist information booth outside the Old Town’s main gate.

Thoughts on Kotor

It has rocky beaches, not sandy beaches. If you’re there when a behemoth cruise line empties out for the day, the Old Town is crazy crowded. It has made the conscious decision to strangle nightlife with 1 AM closings in the Old Town.

Overall, I think it is a good alternative to Dubrovnik. It isn’t quite as nice, but it’s half the price.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

I had been to Dubrovnik twice for 23 hour layovers on previous Europe-hopping itineraries. I knew that the cliffs beneath Buža Bar were one of my favorite places in the world, and I wanted to see more of the town and area.screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-20-46-pm But between a language lesson, two cliff jumping sessions, a nap, and going out every day, I didn’t see everything I wanted to. More for the next trip!

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Dubrovnik’s Old Town is stunningly beautiful, and I treated myself to a weeklong Airbnb stay there for my birthday. (I saved big on the stay with this booking method.)

I did walk the City Walls one day, which costs about $20 and takes an hour or two depending on how many stops you want to make. The views of Old Town, the harbor, the cliffs, the sea, and the islands are marvelous.
screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-21-04-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-21-12-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-21-29-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-21-36-pm My birthday coincided with a fireworks show that was part of the summerlong Dubrovnik Summer Festival.
screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-22-07-pm The bottom line on Dubrovnik is that it looks like this,screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-22-17-pm so everything is insanely expensive, easily double the rest of the of Croatia. You pay first-world tourist prices.
screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-22-24-pmAnd I, one of the biggest cheapskates I know, still think that Dubrovnik is worth a trip. However I recommend going late in September, maybe even the beginning of October. The water temperature is the same as July but accommodation prices drop by half. There are also far fewer tourists. For additional savings, you can self-cater at the Konzum grocery store in old town and save on alcohol there.

I’m following my own advice for savings and going back to Dubrovnik this month for a few days. It’s just $100 roundtrip from Zagreb. Hopefully I can report on Korčula, Lokrum, and Mt. Srđ after this trip.

Mostar, Bosnia

You will not believe a city like this exists in present-day Europe. Mostar is a city ravaged by war from 1992-1994 that has only been partially rebuilt and is still completely segregated between “races” you can’t distinguish.

Mostar is most famous for its Stari Most, meaning “old bridge”, which is a misnomer. It was 427 years old until it was destroyed in the 1990s. It has been rebuilt, and you can jump off of it or watch locals do the same, but I was too chicken to jump 25 meters into the ice cold river below.

I stayed at Hostel Majdas, a small family run hostel with beds for 10 euros. The main draw here is the daylong tour of Mostar and Herzegovina. One of the owners ferries you through the city to see the war ruins, then takes you to Kravice Waterfalls, and the old towns of Pocitelj and Blagaj.

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You see quite a lot of natural beauty, eat like a king, try some homemade syrup juices from a local grandma, and learn some disturbing things about the Bosnian War and current Mostar. Example: Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims are in separate schools learning separate histories, which seems like a recipe for another war to me.

I highly recommend two days in Mostar and taking a tour like the one I took.

Tip: One euro is worth about 1.95 Bosnian Marks, but merchants in Mostar will treat euros as being worth 2 marks, so you actually save 2.5% on everything by using a foreign currency. This was not the case in Sarajevo.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sarajevo is an interesting capital city for history and culture.
screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-23-46-pmThis is the place Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which plunged the world into World War 1.

Twenty years ago, the city was just coming out of a four-year siege. For war history, I enjoyed the Tunnel Museum (the Bosnian Muslims endured the siege because of a tunnel under the airport runway) and the 11/07/1995 Gallery.

For older history, I enjoyed walking to the Yellow Bastion overlooking the old town.

Sarajevo has good food if you like ground beef. I recommend Ćevabdžinica Zeljo for Ćevapi, the ground beef fingers served with bread and cheese that is enjoyed throughout ex-Yugoslavia.

Bosnia will blow your mind. It’s not what you think of when you think of Europe. It’s much cheaper, poorer, and more battle-scarred. I really enjoyed my time here.

I’ll do you a favor and not explain my understanding of the history of the conflicts in Bosnia if you do yourself a favor and read up on the Bosnian War on Wikipedia and then book yourself a trip there.
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