Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia

Good weather at the end of March in Sweden is not something I would bet on. On the other hand, Emili being bored at home during a long weekend, is. And Easter in Sweden, with both Good Friday and Easter Monday being holidays, is quite a long weekend. So we needed to get away. We knew we wanted go somewhere warm and sunny, but you typically do not find cheap tickets during big holidays. To be completely fair, we started looking quite late, but we were flexible and could go anywhere so we thought we would find a good deal. The search was quite broad, from San Francisco, through Miami and the Caribbean, to Europe and onward to Dubai. After a week of searching we decided to go to Singapore, which we wanted to visit for quite some time. This was a perfect opportunity, since our friend Sharon (who lives in Stockholm but grew up in Singapore) would be there. There is no better way to experience a foreign city than with a local guide. Because Singapore is quite far, we decided to prolong the trip from only the Easter weekend also to the coming week. But then my flight nerdiness got in the way – I wanted to fly only Singapore airlines which meant that the tickets would be quite expensive for the three of us. After a few days of thinking, we decided to postpone Singapore for some other occasion. And after a few more days of tinkering and thinking, we had it, the perfect trip! We would fly to Zadar in Croatia, drive down to Dubrovnik, cross the border into Montenegro, have a road trip there, fly to Belgrade in Serbia, spend a day and a half there, and finally fly back home. The tickets were relatively cheap, the trip did not require too much planning (we only had 10 days left before the trip, which did not leave much planning time) since we visited most of these places before, and it would provide us with a fair dose of sun and warmth. I have to give credit to Aneta, this was her great and non-trivial idea, which makes me very proud. Such designs are usually my creations, and it makes me happy that she caught the bug of “let’s not buy a simple return ticket, that is just too easy”. In the remaining days, we sketched the rest of the trip – we decided where we would spend the nights, booked the accommodation and the vehicles (rental cars in Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia and a bus from Croatia to Montenegro). An interesting peculiarity was that all the accommodation for seven nights (and we went for relatively luxurious places) would cost less than our apartment costs for the same period. And we still have to make breakfast and clean the apartment ourselves, which we did not have to do during the trip. Either Stockholm is very expensive or the Balkans are very affordable off season. It also made us realize that it is not just the sun that makes many retired Swedes choose to move to southern Europe.

Without giving an exhaustive report, here are some highlights of the trip. The first thing that hit us was heavy rain. Which was ironic since the point of the trip was to go somewhere with better weather than in Sweden, where by the way, the sky was blue with no cloud in sight when we left. We spent the first night in Split in a small family hotel with six apartments. It was the kind of place where you feel that they would do anything to make you feel welcome. Nothing in the apartment was cheap. Everything was where it was supposed to be. And the breakfast, wow. In addition to the customary breakfast buffet, which would have been enough on its own, they had a complete traditional Croatian Easter breakfast with home made ham, scallion, radish and Russian salad (which we call French sallad in Croatia). And there were bunnies, chickens and Easter eggs everywhere. It felt like being transported to my parents’ house 20 years ago. A great start to a gray day.

I hoped I would meet my friend (and colleague from the PhD days) Josip who lives in Split and who I have not seen in two years, but we unfortunately could not find a time that fit both of us as we needed to get going towards Dubrovnik. On the way there we stopped for a couple of hours in Makarska where I spent several summers when I was a student. It is funny how being reminded about the past gets me to become nostalgic, despite the fact that I have absolutely everything I want in life now, and despite the fact that the present is actually much better than the past. But there is a certain power the past has over the present – I was younger then… It was also interesting to stroll around Makarska with Aneta, as she also spent one summer there, before the two of us met.

One curiosity in Croatia is that its territory is split into two by a short strip of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the town of Neum. If you want to avoid it, you can take a ferry, but this takes much longer time. A controversial bridge is being built now (the Pelješac bridge) in order to connect these two parts of Croatian territory into one. But for now, driving through Neum is the fastest alternative. And I consider it is always cool to visit another country, even for a short time. We planned to have coffee in Neum, but the town felt so ugly and unwelcoming that we just continued onward. I hope that sometime in the future I will get a tour of the city by a local to prove me wrong.

Dubrovnik was our next stop. There are many nice places on the Croatian coast, but I think none of them contain so much charm, history, culture, good cuisine and beautiful nature in the same package as Dubrovnik. We keep returning to it every couple of years. But other than its beauty, it also has a fascinating reverse – it is simply not built for the amount of visitors it gets, its infrastructure cannot handle it. We were reminded of it, because it was crowded even though the high season was still a couple of months away. I tried to imagine the love-hate relationship the locals must have towards the turists that pour copious amounts of money into the city while their numbers at the same time slowly tear the city apart. In that sense, Dubrovnik is very similar to its big rival from the 15th century on the other side of the Adriatic sea, Venice. One effect that the high prices have is that the toursits mostly stay for a day or two in Dubrovnik, while before it used to be a week or longer. This just increases the overhead and strain on the hosts and the infrastructure.

The next day we entered Montenegro by bus. Bus travels in the Balkans are often eventful and this one was no different. The driver was the epitome of a Balkan bus driver. He was impolite, could not speak a word of English, he overcharged us for the luggage and just put the money into his pocket, he swore when some foreigners entered the bus (being blissfully unaware that the same people are the reason he is employed in the first place). He also asked me for my ticket stub which he then sold to another guy and kept the money for himself, of course. The guy was also happy, because he paid less for the ticket than he would have if he bought it the proper way. Ah, the Balkan way of “snađi se”. So romantic on the one side, but so devastating for the society on the other. People don’t understand that such small “tricks” cumulatively create a considerable amount of damage. Similarly to how they are against corrupt politicians, while at the same time they are ready to give a bribe to get their construction permit approved, dismissing it with a simple “That’s how things work here”. And the worst thing is that they are right. But the vicious cycle has to be broken somewhere. Anyway, I digress. The Balkan mentality in all its beauty and all its ugliness is a too complex phenomenon to be analyzed with a few sentences in a blog post.

When we entered Montenegro, the first thing we did there was to rent a car. There I got an unexpected comment from the friendly employee that he reads my blog. It felt both weird and nice to hear that. So, if you read this, I send you my regards from Sweden :-). I hope you like this post.

Montenegro, what a beautiful place. I visited it only for one day back in 2012, but I don’t remember much, probably because I was dazed by the 38 degrees Celsius scorching that day. This time we stayed for three days and made a proper road trip of some 500 kilometers. We spent most of our time around the stunning Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska). It felt great to be at the coast in nice sunny weather and 20 degrees Celsius, while the peaks of Mount Lovćen were still covered in snow. A similar picture was seen at lake Skadar, which could easily trick me that it was located in the Austrian Alps. The city of Kotor has the looks and atmosphere of Dubrovnik, minus the billion stairs. Budva has also a nice old town, but it is shadowed by the wild, unplanned and probably mostly illegal urbanization. This problem could be seen in many places in Montenegro. Another negative aspect is that Montenegro is surprisingly pricey. I guess that Dubrovnik is close enough that its extreme prices are spilling over the border.

Sveti Stefan is another fascinating place in Montenegro. Such a romantic island stuck in time should be available to everybody, right? Wrong. It is a luxurious resort closed to the general public. I am not sure I support this. On the other hand, if the alternative was to let it fall to ruins, leasing it to a hotel chain might not be so bad. Btw. it is actually possible to visit the island without paying 800 euros for one night, since the resort gives guided tours which are not advertised anywhere. Just don’t tell them I told you about this :-).

Montenegrins have the reputation of being lazy and are often the subject of politically incorrect jokes in Croatia. Either there is some truth to the jokes or they just have a great sense of humor, but there were two occasions where they went along with the prejudice. We were checking into a hotel in Kotor and the wonderfully polite and knowledgeable receptionist told us that the breakfast was served from 7 am to 1 pm. When she saw the surprise on my face, she just responded with “Welcome to Montenegro”. And when checking out, I thanked her for a great stay and wished her a successful tourist season. Her response was: “Well we would also like a lucrative season, but it would be great if we did not have to work much”.

We left Montenegro from the lovely coastal town of Tivat, from where we flew to Belgrade in Serbia. Unfortunately, we also left the nice weather behind us in Montenegro. But regardless of the weather, there is something about Belgrade… When entering the city from the west, usually just after reaching the beautifully ugly Genex tower (see the photo below) my heart trembles with excitement. There is so much to see and do in Belgrade, there is culture, nature, food, Viennese architecture, Yugoslav communist architecture, poorness, richness… The city is rough and ugly, but also so sincere and beautiful. It is like a big Zagreb (where I grew up) so to me it is at the same time familiar and new. As the people of Belgrade say themselves, Belgrade is simply Belgrade (“Beograd je Beograd”).

Back in Sweden we were greeted by the same great weather as when we left, like it was trying to tell us that there was no reason for us to make the trip in the first place. Well, maybe weather-wise there was no reason, but I am still glad that we did, it was a great trip. Knowing the customs and the language(s) makes travelling there so easy. Living outside of the Balkans (where both Aneta and me grew up), we have the privilege of appreciating and missing the positive sides of this fascinating corner of the Earth. On the other hand, it also makes us painfully aware of the negative ones, but I assure you, as a tourist you will not see these, you will be positively surprised by what the Balkans have to offer. So do as more and more of my friends and colleagues do, take the plunge and visit Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro or Macedonia. Or why not all of them…

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