For most Western Europeans and North Americans, the Balkans is not likely to be on their shortlist for a family holiday.
What an amazing world they are missing!
One of the amazing things about travel is just how little you notice if you visit a place once.
“The human brain receives 14m bits of information per second, but can process consciously only 16 bits per second” – John Gray, Straw Dogs
So when I arrived in the Balkans just under a decade ago first – I had lots of impressions but very little understanding about the people and the places I was discovering.
As time went by and as I invested in friendships, books and experiences the veils started to lift little by little.
Last August eight hardy lads and lassies set off on a trip around the Balkans.
We could not wait!
Five years ago we visited Montenegro and fell in love with its beautiful coast and majestic highlands.
I hope some of the ideas, the places, the food and the people I write about will make you consider the Balkans as a destination.
If you have questions – bang them down in the comments section and I will do my best to answer them.
Right – let’s get started.
We had two cars, four adults and four kids on this trip – Vuk and Ana Mirkovic, Betty H and myself, Niall H (10), Daragh H (8), Mia M (6), Uros M (2) – this has to work for the kids – if they are happy – we will be happy.
So the trip works like this…
Cork, Ireland to Heathrow, Greater London – 555 km 1 hour 28 minutes.
Heathrow to Nikola Tesla Airport, Belgrade 1,701 km – 2hrs 48 minutes.
We were met by the Mirkovic clan and drove in from the airport to the city a short 12 km motorway journey to a fabulous restaurant set just where the Sava River meets the Danube – the Confluence or in Serbian – ušće.
We drove straight after lunch from Belgrade to Latkovac – a tiny hamlet near Aleksandrovac right in the heart of Wine Country – Župa.
From the warm welcome of the Knezevic family, to the home cooking of local meats, organic fruit and vegetables and of course locally produced wine and rakija – this is a blissful place to be.
Founded by Serbia’s Female Entrepreneur of the year Sanja Knezevic - Ana Mirkovic’s sister.
Its a lovely story, this was a tiny derelict hamlet that for over 200 years had been home to the Knezevic family.
Sanja has restored almost all the buildings to their original glory and has created an idyll in what is considered the heart of Serbia.
It’s peace, organic traditional food and gentle hospitality attracts visitors from around the world.
Its Artists Colony is one of the most valued in South East Europe.
We stayed here for four days – revisiting old friends like Kosta Botunjac and discovering new stuff like an Olympic sized swimming pool in Aleksandrovac outdoor and 10p entry fee – kids heaven.
The way of life here allows you to sense what life was like back in medieval times – its all kind of fake – designed as a film set for Serbian film director Emir Kusturica – but it now boasts a film festival with content and visitors to rival even Cannes.
We also got a narrow gauge railway journey in – much to the delight of the kids…..parents found it slow and a bit dull – great views though…
That captured the imagination of Ivo Andric, the region’s only Nobel Laureate for literature.
It was soon time to head off on our first long journey of the trip – to Montenegro, Herceg Novi.
It was 163 miles and probably the toughest 5 hours driving I have ever done. Put simply, parts of the road are straight out of Top Gear horror journeys, some of the drivers are stone mad and doing this in one go was also stone mad.
That said, the Drina and Tara valleys were stunning – when we arrived at the coast – my first line was ” thank god I never have to drive those roads again in my life” – Vuk then broke the news that we would be taking exactly those roads back to Sarajevo.
Ironically, with plenty of breaks, the journey back was not half the horror story and we got to stop in some glorious places - Trebinje stands out for me.
Arriving at our swanky villa on Njivice Beach we just felt our shoulders relax completely – there was a monsterous veranda looking out over Kotor Bay – as the light dimmed the tiny fishing boats made their way home across the vast swathe of water – wine in hand we just drank in the smells and the views.
Next day was Balkan style – we wandered into the even swankier hotel just beside the villa and Vuk seemed genuinely affronted when the young guy minding the pool explained that we could not use it as we were not residents…..a quiet and confident conversation later, all was clear for us to use the magnificent pool at the hotel
Amazing food and drink, plopping down by the pool, telling stories and sharing dreams as twilight hit the Boka Kotorski – we spent seven days doing dramatically less than we had planned to do in terms of trips….but enjoyed the stay immensely. Ana and Vuk and researched the journey meticulously and they got us the best Villa in the best location on the bay.
Almost impossible to drag ourselves from the coast – but we did – starting what turned out to be a glorious journey up into the heart of Bosnia – to the old city of Sarajevo.
Nothing prepared me for the impact Sarajevo would have.
Initial impressions were what I had expected – buildings on the road in to the city was pock marked with mortar rounds and bullet holes – the recent history was front and centre.
The centre was by contrast confident and self aware – a European city with a strong living Islamic culture.
Cevapcici were as tasty as we were led to believe, the Turkish quarter was everything you might expect with shady squares and cool mosques surrounded by the clutter and draw of commerce and by the chatter over coffees and Sisha pipes
We went to visit the Tunnel of Hope - at the start there is an 18 minute video which graphically exposes what the siege was all about – at 1,000 days it was a lot longer than Stalingrad. Statistics like “25% of kids under 16 had direct experience of being targeted by a sniper” are heart-stopping.
This is not a tourist friendly gig – its hard to get to, we would suggest getting a Taxi although we got there by tram. Its all very raw, the staff lived through the siege.
No reading list could come close to this experience.
A later visit to the river brought us to an earlier cataclysmic piece of history, the spot where Grand Duke Ferdinand was killed becoming the catalyst for WW1.
We stayed at Hotel Boutique 36 which was very central and well run. Good breakfast and perfect sized family rooms. If I was splashing out I would also consider Hotel Europe, very central and looks like a great outfit.
The morning came and we left Sarajevo all vowing to get back as soon and as often as we could.
The journey to Belgrade was more relaxed than earlier odysseys – we had in short got used to Bosnian roads.
We climbed into breathtaking valleys swooping down to rivers with homes and flocks spread sparingly across the big landscapes.
Our first stop was Srebrenica. You could feel when you had moved out of Serb areas and into the Bosniak enclave. The percentage of destroyed homes told you all you needed to know.
On the right side of the road as we stopped we saw the white markers of thousands of boys and men killed in the worst crime against humanity in Europe since WW2. In a simple memorial each victim’s name and date of birth is recorded in marble. “Look, this boy was my age when he was murdered”. Niall’s comment captured the detail of the horror not just its scale.
Across the road was the building that held the victims. It was all too much to take in, but I have thought about it often since. At a time when many in the region including the local municipality deny that Srebrenica ever happened, the memorial is concrete proof that incredibly it did happen. What a waste of lives and what a stain on modern Europe.
The trip to the border was quiet and contemplative.
We wandered up the Drina valley and quietly and without fuss crossed back into Serbia.
The first thing we did was get stopped for speeding by the police. Strongly recommended is that you don’t have this happen to you. Vuk managed to sort stuff out but we had a heavy fine all the same.
We stopped at a restaurant that I have forgotten because the service was so bad and then we belted on to Belgrade
Belgrade is like a second home to me, but it was lovely to see it afresh through Betty and the boys’ eyes - Doing Ada, Doing the Fortress, Heading to gorgeous Zemun eating and hanging out with friends over coffees.
Here is a list of some of the places we were
Cafe Insomnia - ” Ah, this is where all the credit card receipts come from” says my wife….
Three hats - Tri Sesira
Frida - For Betty’s birthday – watching the sun set on the Danube
Places we ran out of time – will get to next time….
Sokace - brilliant traditional restaurant
We drank some beer - Jelen, Nikšićko being the two we chose.
We ate lots of organic fruit and veg throughout our trip – the taste of unforced Tomatoes is a specific joy.
We stayed in a great apartment - just beside Razor’s old offices and only 15 minutes from the centre. Apartments are a real option as Belgrade still has far too few good hotels and demand is lifting the nightly rates all the time.
That said, you can stay in a decent hotel for €100 per night some lovely new hotels have opened including:
and a couple of great older ones are still in place
That’s it for now – I will add to this as memories drift into my head.