Travel Photographer | The Balkans
Attempting to keep up on my travel blogs – I never finished talking about my tour around The Balkans last summer! I did a whole blog post on Croatia – because it was so wonderful it deserved its own post instead of being crammed into one huge one about 6 different countries. But basically, I booked a group tour through Contiki called the Best of the Balkans (Split to Split), where I traveled around the Balkan region of Europe! I started a few days early, solo in Split, Croatia. Then ended another few days after the tour, solo again in Split. But this post is really here to talk about all the countries I visited in between circling back to Croatia again! The Balkans are unlike any other area I had been to in Europe, before. It has the same charm, absolutely, but these countries are so different and unique. In this post I will cover:
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Lake Bled, Slovenia
After hitting Split and then Dubrovnik in Croatia, we moved onto Montenegro. I knew VERY little about this country going into this trip. And it surprised me in such a good way. We started with a little day trip to Kotor, Montenegro, on our bus ride to where we were staying in Budva. We only stayed briefly, but Kotor was wild. Apparently they worship cats here, and we unintentionally stumbled upon an entire cat village while we were walking around, complete with tiny little cat houses and everything. But mostly I was just blown away by how this town looked like it had been pretty much built into the side of a mountain. We spent our time having lunch, wandering, finding delicious gelato, and then it was back on the bus to head to Budva.
The currency accepted in Montenegro is Euros, which is easiest for me to use, because it is so similar to the US dollar.
Now, Budva just absolutely blew my mind. Not only was our hotel incredible, but it looked like I had stepped back into Mykonos, Greece. No joke, it looked just like a small little Greek town inside of our hotel. But the hotel was HUGE. It was called Hotel Slovenska Plaža. If you go, stay there. I swear. You could walk to the city center in 15 minutes, and the hotel goes right up to the beach. The buffet for breakfast and dinner was excellent as far as buffets go, too. And very big! The breakfast was always my favorite.
Our first evening, we spent having drinks together as a group on the little rock beach behind our hotel. It was nice, you could go buy drinks from one of the many carry out stores nearby and go sip them wherever you wanted, so we just hung out by the water and it was beautiful. Most of the group went out to a club, which was also only a 5 minute walk from our hotel, but I was old and sleepy and went to bed early. It was a very safe town and I felt incredibly comfortable walking around at night there.
The second day was my favorite day. We found out that for only 10 euros a person, we could take a little boat out to the island called Hawai. Yes, we went to Hawai in Montenegro. And honestly, it was even better than I imagined. We spent a majority of our day out there, because once we arrived we discovered that it actually had sun beds for you to lay on (I believe it was 10 euros for the day) unlike all the PACKED beaches we walked by on Budva, we would never have found even 4 chairs near each other, it really was swamped in the summer. So Hawai was the way to go. Not only was the beach amazing, but there were restaurants too. You could grab drinks or snacks and take them back to your beach chair, or you could go sit at one of the restaurants for awhile. There was even a DJ at one spot! Highly suggest bringing water shoes for these beaches, as most of the bottom is rock and painful on your feet. In the evening, we walked to dinner in Old Town and it was so cool. Tiny little street bustling with people. We followed signs for a Secret Garden and enjoyed a cold cocktail there. I could’ve had more than just 2 days in Budva, but it was time to head to the next country in the morning.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Next up was a quick day stop in Mostar, Bosnia. A very tiny little town, where basically the entire thing looks like one big castle, with big stone pathways (SLIPPERY WHEN WET, but also slippery even when NOT wet. But if it’s raining and you go, holy cow, watch out), and complete with a spot where people jump off of this beautiful old bridge into the water below. I was far too afraid to jump off the bridge, but it was so fun to stand there and watch for awhile. We mostly did some shopping in the quaint little stores, complained about the heat – we were there midday in August), and stopped for a “kabob” which was basically just a big beautiful pita sandwich that was to DIE for. I’m vegetarian so when I asked for the sandwich without the meat the man shook his head at me and said “……it won’t be very good” LOL. But I promise, it was.
The currency accepted in Bosnia is the Bosnian Mark, but also a majority of places would still accept Euros here, and credit card was not commonly accepted.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Another place that I really didn’t know much about aside from there being a recent war (in my lifetime!) but again, I didn’t really know anything about it. Well, the FIRST thing we did was head into the city and sit down and learn more about the war that happened between them and Serbia in 1992 to 1995. It was crazy, to be standing in a place that this happened to recently, and hear from people who experienced it in real life. We walked through a portion of the actual war tunnels that they had dug to get people out of Bosnia safely. They were so small and cramped, I couldn’t imagine fleeing my country with all my belongings on my back in a tunnel that I couldn’t even stand up straight in. Then when we were walking around the Old Town, you could see bullet holes in many of the buildings, it was crazy. I really enjoyed the city center, though. Endless shops and local goods, local artists, really good food, REALLY GOOD BREAD. Hookah was all over the place and so were cats. We took a cable car up to where the bob sled track from the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics were hosted and we were even able to walk along the tracks and take photos! We ended the day with a local brewery with our group and then a delicious local dinner with everyone. We learned that we were in town for the ending of the Sarajevo Film Festival and it was packed with people and apparently some celebrities that we did not get to see! One of the coolest things we got to do here was have dinner in a local person’s home, someone who was there for the war. Our host was only about 4 years older than me, and she can remember everything that happened. It was so wild to hear about someone’s own person version of the war and how it affected them.
What a strange thing to head right to Serbia directly after being in a country that most of their tourism involved telling us how horrible the recent war was, so it made me almost not even want to go to Serbia! But we only had a one night stop over before we headed to Budapest. So honestly, we didn’t even do much. I definitely felt a little more uncomfortable in this country than I had previously, but again, I think it was mostly just because of all the history I learned the day before. We got in in the evening, on a gloomy day. We walked around some cool old castle things (the usual) and then headed into the city center for dinner. This was literally all we did in Serbia, but I genuinely had one of the best meals there and sat around for HOURS with my new friends, getting bottle after bottle of local wine, and just laughing and enjoying ourselves. It was weirdly one of my favorite dinners. Annnnnnd we had no idea what we had in store for us the next day. Just wait.
The currency in Serbia is the Serbian Dinar, but since we were only here one night, we did not get any cash out, and we just paid all together on one credit card (for the ease of the restaurant) for our dinner and wine.
Now. We were traveling by private coach. On a bus with 40 people. Our drive to Budapest wasn’t supposed to be anything too crazy, maybe about 5 hours normally. However, we were warned by our tour manager that because of the amount of tourism in the summer, the last group that they had driving over the border from Serbia to Hungary ended up getting stuck on the bus at the border for 8 hours. Just waiting in line for that long. We were terrified, but thankfully we knew about it ahead of time and they made designated stops for us along the way for bathroom breaks and to purchase allllll the snacks before we got to the border. Turns out, we couldn’t even have been totally prepared for what happened. We beat a record that day. Our bus was stuck in line at the border for ELEVEN HOURS. No exaggeration. We timed it. After the first 4 hours or so, we decided to all hop off the bus – it was standstill traffic – and bring a bluetooth speaker out there and we taught each other every possible line dance or choreographed dance we could all think of. The Australians taught us some fun ones, we taught them some traditional ones that Americans do, we played lots of music, sang lots of songs, ate lots of snacks, we watched Shrek on the bus. Then we watched Shrek 2 on the bus. We played games. We ate more snacks. We filled up our bus toilet that was only to be used for emergencies. And then we couldn’t use the toilet at all anymore. It was A DAY. But honestly? One of the funniest memories. It’s one of the days that I will absolutely never forget. I don’t even know what advice I can give you to avoid this from happening to you other than maybe don’t go in August? LOL
So we lost a full day in Budapest. We were supposed to do a night time boat ride and drink champagne while we rode past the Parliament Building. Thankfully, I had already been to Budapest before, and I’ve already gotten to do that exact thing. So I felt pretty lucky that the one town we missed some precious time in was one that wasn’t brand new to me. But wow, I love Budapest. We wandered the Central Market Hall which is one of the largest indoor markets in Hungary. You HAVE to try the local Hungarian fried bread (there were definitely stalls in the market that had it) called Lángos. It’s topped typically with sour cream and cheese but you can pick from a variety of toppings. It’s incredible. This time I got to check out the famous thermal baths, we went to Széchenyi Thermal Baths, and it was AMAZING. It was packed, but I didn’t care. There are multiple baths to choose from, it even started raining on us when we got there and we could still go inside and use some baths in there while we waited for the rain to pass. We ended up being able to do the river cruise that we had intended to do the first night, and we were all very grateful for that! We had a group dinner that night at a place called Trabant Pressźo and they were some of my favorite cocktails on our entire trip, and I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the food, too.
The currency accepted in Hungary is the Hungarian Forint. It will absolutely feel like play money and they come in huge increments – for example, 10 USD translates to 3390.44 HUF. So you feel like everything is wildly expensive, but honestly, for a big city, Budapest is incredibly affordable.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Our first stopover on our way to Slovenia was a cute town called Lake Bled. I had seen photos of Lake Bled, and while they were already stunning, they don’t even do this place justice. It didn’t really feel real? Like it was so picturesque I had to keep reminding myself that it was real. We walked around the lake for quite awhile, stopping for photos along the way. We only stopped for an hour or two to see the lake, and of course try the Bled Cream Cake we heard so much about. And yes, it was delicious.
Slovenia also accepts Euros as their main form of currency!
Another town and country that absolutely shocked me, in such a good way. Another country I really had no idea what to expect because I didn’t really know anything about it. But I was excited to explore for that reason. This town was visually stunning, but also more modern than I expected it to be! A city full of pretty, big, tall buildings, lots of canals and bridges. Amsterdam-esque in that way but also totally different. I had the best day shopping around all the local European chain stores that we don’t get in the State, as well as cute little local spots. The first place I had iced coffee on the trip. Always a plus. It had dogs EVERYWHERE. Another plus. It had cable cars you could take up to the top of the town, there was a winery up there where they let us sit in a private cellar, there were dragons everywhere (I don’t know… it was their thing), great food, great drinks, very safe place. One of my favorite moments I had was out to dinner one night, we chose a small Italian place because we’d had a LOT of the traditional Balkan meals at this point and we were ready for a change up. The sweetest thing was that our waiter could not stop talking about how much he loved Slovenia and how happy he was that we were here. Their love of their own home is amazing. Slovenia is a place that I would ABSOLUTELY return to. Just all around good vibes, good views, and a surprisingly CLEAN city, too. Probably because it isn’t as popular as some of the major European tourist destinations. If you are EVER in this region in a neighboring country, please take the time to come to Slovenia. Also, if it helps, you pronounce it “loo-bee-ahh-nuh”