Honey, scenic roads and wrong turns: A brief guide to driving in the Balkans

The road is a perfect combination of smooth tarmac, beautifully designed hairpin bends and quick straights that seem to say “Come on, get loose on that accelerator”. A bit of traffic is coming the other way – trucks, mostly, and the odd tractor – separated from us by a severe double white line. You reach out for the car stereo, looking for that America song to make it even more perfect and…
It happens in a blink of an eye, like one of those hunting scenes you see in documentaries, those that filmmakers love to show in slow motion. The car, which your brain processes only as a featureless, grey shape, appears out of nowhere on your right, precisely at the time when the road gets imperceptibly larger to allow motorists to turn at a junction, and slips in front of you with the ease that comes with practice and with the agility of a mercury ball, if only it wasn’t a two-ton lump of metal thundering away at 150 km/h, leaving in its wake only a brief impression of LED lights, the flash of a BiH numberplate and an accelerated heartbeat.
It’s just another day on the A roads of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Don’t get me wrong: as I sit typing, after a 2000-km long trip around parts of Hungary, Bosnia and Croatia, my whole body is itching to get on the road again and it’s something I can only recommend. What to expect? Read on and you’ll know.
It’s not as bad as you think.
Before setting off for this trip, I had imagined that the road would’ve been so bad that, at the end of it, my vertebrae would end up moulded in one single bony stump, from head to pelvis. In fact, nothing like this happened: Bosnia’s main roads were new, immaculately kept and smooth as silk; Croatian motorways are a joy for the eyes and, with only a few and far inbetween exceptions, such as a particular stretch of road before the Croatian border, deep in rural Hungary. But that ain’t really the Balkans, isn’t it?
Look out – it’s amazing.
Driving through Croatia and Bosnia is a joy for the eyes. The road between Sarajevo and Zadar unfolds through dramatic scenes of mountains covered in thick woods, smooth rocky walls and peaks that have nothing to envy to the Dolomites. Elsewhere, lush countryside rolls by, punctuated by hay bales gathered with new mechanical tools or, in Bosnia, by haystacks built with pitchforks and sweat. Even man-made structures can be mesmerising: rolling past Zenica’s steel mill under a torrential downpour, at dusk, is as close as doing a flyby on Hadley’s Hope as I’ll ever be able to do.
Know your neighbours.
To my mind, the three main peoples sprouting out of the ashes of the old Yugoslav republic, despite their past of war, have many things in common: cuisine, a love for distilled spirits and, obviously, motorists.
One of the most fearsome tribes roaming the Balkan roads are the German saloon rascals. I have no reason to doubt that, originally, the serious engineers from Stuttgart and Munich designed their S-series and 7-series with equally serious, highway code-abiding executives in their minds, wishing to use their autos to go from the boardroom to the airport lounge in comfort and safety. In the Balkans, though, these cars are the ride of choice for an interesting breed of people whose main occupation seems be driving well past the limits dictated by laws or common sense, all whilst practicing extreme multi-tasking: lighting a cigarette, yapping on the phone, taking a sip of Red Bull and overtaking.
Drivers at the wheel of Czech brand Škoda are also to be feared, for they are the real Jekyll & Hyde of the peninsula: roughly half of them are wannabe German saloon rascals, evidently crossed at not being able to own a BMW and, henceforth, more inclined to ignore the effects of the centripetal force or their own instinct of self-preservation. The other half, instead, is made by fellows who adhere fastidiously to every single speed limit out there, making a point of slowing down to a snail’s pace before tackling a steep hill or apparently falling asleep in front of a set of traffic lights. Approaching a Škoda, then, is not something to be taken lightly: who will be at the helm? Retired accountant, listening the Bosniak version of the Archers whilst driving to the Posušje cheese and honey festival, or a blood-eyed lunatic high on class A drugs and firmly convinced of being the next Sébastien Loeb?
Finally, the last tribe you’re likely to meet on the road is that motley bunch of people driving farm implements, horse carts, sidecars, bikes with trailers (seriously) and even men pushing wheelbarrows. They are to be expected, for it’s a rural area, and they do add some serious charm to the place, but if they didn’t make a point of popping out of thin air from behind a bend it’d be great.
You’re going to get lost
We had iPads, GPS tracking, maps and at least one person with a hell of a sense of direction (not me). Yet, we got utterly lost more than once.
There are a few reasons for that: firstly, the GPS can be a bit patchy. Secondly, it’s the street signs that, for some perverse reason, sometimes seem to be planted with the precise intent of losing those following them. How many times did we take a turn, diligently following an arrow painted on a street signpost, only to discover that the arrow was referring to a junction after the one we had taken, located at varying (and unspecified) intervals ranging from a few meters to half a valley away?
Reliance on Google maps can also be tricky, as we found out when on our way to Zadar from Sarajevo. If you choose the quickest itinerary it’ll prompt you to follow a route through Blidinje national park. Problem is, after the hamlet of Doljani the road started pointing north, around the Čvrsnica mount, and not south, and it became remarkably… quiet. We passed a few cows, then a number of sheep, then some mountains that wouldn’t go amiss in a Sergio Leone movie, then an US-sponsored sign advising of the latest known location of some minefield, then a man in wellies and army fatigues brandishing an SKS Russian carbine. All we were missing was an albino kid playing the banjo.
Where you goin' city boy?
Then the road disappeared into a dirt track littered with rocks the size of watermelons.
Mind that honey stall, would you?
A-roads, in most parts of Europe, are a means of transport and, at the same time, a no-go area for pedestrians: you use them and you get the hell out of it when you don’t need them anymore. The memo, seemingly, hasn’t been received by folks in the Balkans, for their speedways were festooned with cars parked at odd angles and in random places, were crossed at improbable locations by unconcerned men, women, dogs and other pets (that might explain the impressive amount of roadkills we saw) and were dotted with makeshift stalls selling everything the land produced, from tomatoes to enormous melons to jars and jars of beautiful, tasty and cheap honey.
As tasty as it looks
Go there while it lasts
Progress is making its inexorable advance, and at a fast pace. Croatia is now the proud proprietor of an impressive network of highways, and Bosnia is following suit, with a Turkish consortium busy building a motorway out of Sarajevo. This spells trouble for the long drives through the twisty roads of Bosnia, past smiling men and kids lining up their honey jars and their haystacks made like it’s been the norm for thousands of years. Soon it’ll be all over and we’ll be whooshing past them at 130 km/h (or more, if you have a Beemer). So, go there now before they catch up.
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7 Responses to Honey, scenic roads and wrong turns: A brief guide to driving in the Balkans

  1. anna says:

    Great post! How long was the drive from sarajevo to zadar? Is it relatively easy? Will be visiting family in zadar next year and thinking of going into bih. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Anna, thanks for reading! We left Sarajevo at 9-ish in the morning and we arrived in Zadar at around 5, so it was a six hour journey. Mind you that we’ve wasted an hour in that famous detour that I’ve written about and we pretty much adhered to the speed limits when going uphill (we had a 1.2 l car, hence no big speeding) so I suppose it can be done quicker. If you’re planning to do it, take the route going through Mostar, don’t trust Google when it offers you a shorter one.

      Like

  2. LaVagabonde says:

    I went through these posts backwards, trying to catch up. I have been disconnected from the world on my own wild trip for 2 weeks. Anyway, BiH is one of the few European countries I haven’t yet visited. You’re so right to go there now before it modernizes.

    Liked by 1 person

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