Rhys Davies discovers novel nightlife, magnificent scenery and rich history during a hairy trip of the less-visited countries of Eastern Europe.
We were rolling slowly along a narrow mountain road in Bosnia, stuck in a long line of traffic being held up by an ancient farm truck. I hugged the tight corners with our rental car, trying to stay clear of vehicles hurtling by in the opposite direction.
As we approached a blind corner, the driver in the ancient Mercedes behind us felt it was an appropriate place to pass, and pulled out. At the same moment, a tiny Volkswagen came careening round the bend from the other direction.
I hugged the curb. The Mercedes swerved slightly toward us while the VW very calmly put his right-hand wheels into the dirt beside his lane. For a millisecond all three vehicles were abreast across the narrow road, with my heart rate matching the car's RPM. Then we were through without so much as a scratch.
This, we found, was fairly standard driving in Eastern Europe and we eventually got used to it during our month-long road trip through the region. It's an intriguing area of the world that's becoming more accessible to travellers every year.
With the chaos of the post-Soviet years behind it, Croatia, with its beautiful national parks and coastline, draws in visitors. The stunning waterfalls and lakes of Plitvice and Krka National Parks make Croatia well worth a visit, but I'd urge travellers to go beyond the crowds of tourists and head for the less-visited surrounding countries. Each has a distinct feel and culture. Learning about the intricacies of and differences between each was a highlight for us.
The tiny, proud nation of Montenegro lies to the south of Croatia and its scenery can compete with the best of New Zealand's South Island. In the coastal towns of Budva and Kotor, restaurants and nightclubs are built into Middle Ages ruins.
As the former seat of the Yugoslav rulers, Serbia is one of the more developed of the Eastern European nations. Belgrade has a booming cafe scene and here I enjoyed the best iced coffee I'd ever had. The city has built a reputation for some of Europe's best nightlife, particularly in summertime when all the city clubs move to floating venues on the Sava and Danube rivers.
Several ruined buildings still stand in the city centre, a result of the Nato bombings in 1999. Serbians say they've been left standing as a "reminder" of the wars.
Just a few hours drive from Belgrade will get you to the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia. The Ottoman influence remains so strong here you feel as though a little slice of Turkey has been laid down among the jagged green mountains. Locals sit in the bazaars sipping Turkish tea and the imams' call to prayer echoes out from mosques in every town and village.
Albania and its "Riviera" are becoming popular with Europeans looking for a cheap alternative to the French version. It will be a while before you'd mistake this place for France but, for an adventurous tourist, Albania's full of interesting and quirky experiences that won't break the budget. We stayed a night in a medieval castle overlooking the capital, Tirana, for $20 each.
Sitting on the borders of Greece and Albania, Macedonia is famous in the region for its meat and produce. The capital, Skopje, lives up to this with a lively restaurant scene serving up delicious, simple fare complemented by decent local beers.
Skopje is bisected by the Vadar River and presents a remarkable cultural juxtaposition - the Christian majority on one bank and Ottoman-influenced Muslim population on the other.
Many countries, including neighbouring Serbia, don't recognise Kosovo's independence.
The biggest city, Pristina, is developing fast but outside the city, infrastructure is lacking and many people survive on subsistence farming. Despite their struggles, the people we met here were some of the friendliest and most welcoming we've come across anywhere in the world. Locals couldn't have been more excited to meet us and help out, especially when we were lost in the confusing tangle of mountain roads.
Whether you're looking to party, admire magnificent mountains or take in rich history and heritage, the countries of Eastern Europe have much to offer travellers. It also comes without the incredible expense and blase attitude often found in the western part of the continent.
Hiring a car, hitting the road and making friends with the locals will give you a better understanding of this unique region than any travel writer can. Just keep your nerve on the road.
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