Compared to our road trips in France, driving in the Balkans felt like an adventurous experience. With a little bit of preparation, though, anyone can do it.
Road signs match the rest of Europe: speed limits are given in Km/H on a white circle with a red border. Common speeds are 50Km/H in towns and 80 Km/H on highways, but be careful because speed limits change frequently. The few big freeways you’ll encounter are likely to be toll roads, built between large cities and with very few exits except for gas stations and rest stops. The tollbooths almost always have an attendant and they take cash or card. If you don’t have the local currency, we found all the tollbooths take Euros.
The European style city signs are very helpful for navigating. When you enter a city, a rectangular sign with the city’s name will appear and when you leave the city the same sign will appear again with a red line drawn through it.
Then there are a few signs and sights we’ve ever only seen in the Balkans.
Yet still, the Balkans are well signed and the best way to navigate is to go from city to city rather than rely on road names or numbers.
A good physical map is more important for navigating the Balkans than anywhere else in Europe. Two reasons: first, Google Maps is surprisingly inaccurate when it comes to long distance directions and has led us astray a number of times in the Balkans. Second, with a wealth of regional dialects and varying alphabets and spellings, a local map will be easier to compare to local signs. But also, friendliness is an inherent trait in the Balkans so ask for help when needed – bringing your map along – and expept to get a friendly face and good directions.
Getting Pulled Over
Throughout the Balkans the method of getting pulled over is the same – a policeman with a little stop sign will stand on the side of the road and wave you down. Many times these are routine checks for license and registration. Have your passport ready and pull it out immediately – for the most part they don’t want to bother tourists and will thank you and wave you on.
Other times these are traffic stops for speeding and you’ve been caught going too fast.
When I was pulled over for speeding (I still swear I never saw a 60 Km/H sign!) the police were extremely friendly though they spoke little English. They showed me what I was going on their radar gun and drew a speed limit sign that was much less than my registered speed. They explained I needed to pay my ticket in town and handed me a sheet of paper to give to the post office – yes the post office. They held my ID and registration while we drove to the closest post office (they gave me a very detailed hand written map) and at the post office the clerk knew exactly what was going on. I enclosed my 40 euros with the ticket, got a receipt and drove back down the road to retrieve my license. It was one of those things that was strange and nerve-wracking at first but were it to happen again it’d be quite easy to handle.
Always keep your headlights on, day or night, it’s mandatory in almost every country here. The one time I forgot to turn on my headlights I got pulled over within five miles. Luckily, when I acknowledged my mistake and the police officer heard that I only speak English, he smiled and waved me on.
It’s extremely common to find yourself on a road where there are tractors towing bales of hay, trailers full of pigs and German sports cars whizzing by at twice the speed limit. This was nerve-wracking at first but soon became fun. Let people pass you, keep things slow and though it may seem hectic at first, in the Balkans you soon find yourself in the middle of nowhere with plenty of room to pass that donkey pulling a cart.
The Balkans have multiple languages that are fluid across borders so always take a peak at your local guidebook for a handle on what kind of language you might see. In Bulgaria, Serbia, Republika Srpska and Macedonia expect to see Cyrillic signs everywhere. Almost every time we saw Cyrillic on an official roadsign there was an English or Romanized version below it. Be ready for this as your approach the signs and and when 6 names are listed in two different alphabets remember that it’s just three cities and they’re providing directions in both alphabets. Don’t let this intimidate you. Practice a little cyrillic before hand and you’ll feel plenty comfortable. I would even write out the cities we’d be going through in Cyrillic the morning of just so I’d be ready to look for Cyrillic only signs.
And again, people in the Balkans are really helpful and kind so if you ever feel lost, just show your map and destination to a local and you’ll receive excellent help.
The Balkans are extremely mountainous and their physical geography creates roads that are thrilling and extremely beautiful to drive. Many roads, like the one along the Drina River will have hundreds of tunnels to drive through, often with no lights. Take things slowly and use your brights when needed and these tunnels become really fun to drive. Because the roads are used by many different types of transportation there are also plenty of great turnouts for letting people pass you and enjoying the tremendous views. Always allow for extra driving time because a flat highway will suddenly turn into a slow mountain route on many drives. The views and lush valleys are worth the extra time as long as you’re not racing the sunset.
Gas stations are everywhere and gas station attendants fill your tank for you (it would appear that tipping is not customary). Even if they don’t speak English they will recognize the words “full” and “diesel”. After they fill your tank, you pay inside with card or cash (most places take card but best to check before the man pumps the gas!). Be sure to specify gas or diesel as there is plenty of both.
Basic convenience food can be found at all gas stations and many even have nice cafes. For roadside eats the Pekaras (bakeries) or пѐкара in Cyrillic are useful and they have sweets, bureks, bread and often small sandwiches that make for fantastic, cheap road-trip food. Also look for mesaras or ме̏са̄р in cyrillic, which are meat shops that often will make you sandwiches or cut up whole chickens for a picnic.
Driving in Cities
I’ve now driven through 10 or 15 big cities in the Balkans and it’s ranged from simple and easy to being an exciting challenge to so frustrating I had to park the car and stop for a drink. Still, it’s an exciting challenge to navigate some of these cities. I suggest studying the map and sticking to a route. Most cities have cheap parking signs everywhere with attendants who approach your car once you park. Or, look up parking garages ahead of time – outside of Belgrade most of our garage fees were no more than 5 – 10 dollars a day. The best option is to book a hotel or AirBnB place with free parking. The hotels will more often than not assist you with parking and even meet you at a main landmark if you write and ask them to in advance.