Last year I toured the Balkans with Ethan, and it opened my eyes to a seemingly ignored region of Europe; one rich with culture, history and diversity.
Each country has its own charms, from the Ottoman influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Roman influence in Croatia, Serbian in Montenegro, and to the Austrian in Slovenia. To illustrate this, one day, we were in the mountainous city of Sarajevo, where it was snowing, and then later that evening, we were in the idyllic 20°c seaside jewel of Dubrovnik.
The diversity makes the region is unpredictable, which is why it’s such an exciting place to visit.
Here’s a map of the places we went:
I pin everything on a map to remember where I went, but that’s a story for another time. I’m going to tell you the good places and the bad places, tips and whatever have yous if you’re thinking of making an unforgettable Balkan trip.
On from Slovenia, we bussed it to the picturesque region of Istria, a region heavy with Italian and Roman influences and natural beauty.
Highlight: Rovinj is a gem of a town with varied sights and things to enjoy; the old town is charming and the top of by the tower gives you a great view of the whole area. The harbour is cute and a great place to eat, and the promenade towards the peaceful Šuma Zlatni Rat forest park seems to go on forever, but the view never gets tiresome.
Lowlight: Sitting on our apartment’s rooftop, and the wind taking away one of my homemade top trump cards.
Verdict: Go, go and explore Istria more than we could. (Buses only take you so far). Visit Poreç, Pula and the wine region. The sea is astonishingly blue, the fields green; it is a region of great variety, history and culture.
Tips: This pizza restaurant in Rovinj was affordable with some dynamite pizza. Wine is unbelievably cheap too, and you can get it at supermarkets in containers a size more befitting anti-freeze.
Try to visit out of season, as we did. It is a place with a great capacity for tourists, as you’ll see from the holiday homes and rental shops along the promenade.
Highlight: Taking the opportunity of visiting a practically nowhere town to make Lost in Bale.
Lowlight: Being lost in Bale. It was completely dead, and we walked from one side to the other in the space of twenty minutes.
Verdict: Somehow Bale has glowing Tripadvisor reviews, heralding its ‘historic centre’ and ‘quaint’ nature. Take it with a grain of salt. There are plenty of wonderful towns to visit here, I’m sure.
Tips: If you feel so inclined to visit, for some reason, the local bus service is very cheap. €4 return from Rovinj, which at least had some views of fields. I guess that’s cool.
Highlight: Visiting Rijeka is like stopping off in the Soviet Union. The buses and buildings are dilapidated, of a brutalist aestethic and the loud, chaotic traffic casts an enveloping black smog over the city. It’s rather horrible and not at all a travel destination, but a totally unique experience.
I didn’t get any photos of Rijeka, unfortunately. But this is kind of how I remember it being.
Lowlight: The air. London is the most polluted city in Western Europe, but Rijeka is on another level. Especially after visiting Ljubljana, a city run on 100% renewable energy, you can feel the smog in your lungs.
Verdict: A time capsule of a destination, in an odd way. I’m sure there are better places to experience what it would be like to live in a Soviet city, however this was a first for us and so I won’t be forgetting it.
She got the same memo as us, but had a different opinion. Just goes to show, take it all with a grain of salt.
Tips: Rijeka is the central terminal in the region for buses, so you’ll inevitably come here if bussing is your plan. Take a walk around and enjoy it, apparently the harbour is actually nice. If you’re going somewhere, the bus down to Split from Rijeka is about eight or so hours, and around two and a bit to Zagreb.
Anything else for Croatia Part I?
Rovinj is a gem, however we did not find time to visit Pula and Poreç, which looked like nice places as we went by. Istria is a region where having a car would greatly benefit you, as there are many unreachable medieval towns in the area. Motovun was recommended to us.
And try the world famous truffles!