For many years after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Balkan Peninsula was a no-go area. Nowadays, while the politics remain fractious, the indiscriminate warmongering has ceased, allowing multi-story luxury liners to crowd the Adriatic coastline disgorging hordes of sightseers into the medieval cities of Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik. Yet the mountainous hinterlands remain remarkably tourist free.
On our 10-day, 3000km ride criss-crossing the Balkan Mountains through Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Herzegovina and Montenegro, the small number of tourists we saw were fellow riders. Mostly from Western Europe, they rode solo, in pairs and small groups, often loaded with camping gear. We elected to ride light, overnighting in hotels within the historic precincts, dining on the local cuisine and diligently tasting the local brews.
The riding was nothing short of magnificent, each day taking us between 300-380km, often over mountain passes and single-lane high-plain thoroughfares with almost no traffic aside from tractors and horse carts.
There were twisties that resembled kindergarten scribbles and one memorable, short, blind 180° turn inside a tunnel on a steep uphill gradient. Most of the two-lane roads were well surfaced. Some of the single-lane mountain roads less so, but nothing to trouble the BMW GS models we were riding.
Short of arriving at 3am, there’s no way of entering a city such as Sarajevo or Belgrade without negotiating traffic. On those occasions we resorted to the motorway to reach our destination by happy hour, but most of our ride was relatively traffic-free. And almost universally drivers would move to the far right (these countries drive on the right) to allow easy passage. Even in the cities, most drivers did their best to promote lane splitting. All the countries we rode through had rudimentary speed advisory signs – but only enough to appreciate what we have here in Australia.
We elected to ride with Bucharest-based Cristian Dragan, who guided us on our Roamaniacs Ride in 2014 and has since expanded his operation to cover the Balkan Peninsula, including Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. Cristian’s knowledge of Eastern Europe is exceptional and his ability to plan the most interesting route has to be ridden to be appreciated. We also took in several World Heritage sites such as the Ottoman-era Mehmed Paša Sokolovi Bridge and the Bay of Kotor, acknowledged as the most impressive landscape along the Adriatic Coastline.
Six countries (some of which we crossed twice) in 10 days may sound rushed, but the border crossings were formalities that did not require helmet removal and resulted in an impressive array of visa stamps in our passports. Whether you’re doing the grand tour of Europe or only have enough time for a short riding holiday, the Balkans is a biker-friendly bonanza.
Things to do
Every major town and city in Europe has a historical centre or ‘old town’. There are some similarities yet each has its own personality and at least one major feature such as a fort, opera house, cathedral, mosque or palace. And while the town square will offer up the same souvenir shops as the last ‘old town’, the bar will likely serve a local brew and chances are the adjacent restaurant will offer up a memorable speciality.
If you’re shipping your bike to Europe for the ‘once in a lifetime’ tour then include the Balkans on your itinerary. Most of us will ride on a FIFO basis so travel light. Always keep your passport handy and make sure your travel insurance covers motorcycle riding. And if you find someone who will cover rental excess, let us all know.
Visa was accepted almost universally but not at that magnificent clifftop café or the hole-in-the-wall bar you’ll find in the old town. In the course of 10 days we needed euro, lei, Balkan dinars, marks and kuna. Cash is best obtained via a debit/cashcard organised before you leave.
Going it alone
We’ve heard good reports about adriaticmototours.com, which has tours up to 21 days. They also rent out motorcycles and can no doubt provide advice on various routes and accommodation. But be aware you’re travelling in a region where the alphabet is Cyrillic and finding the гарһи ХОТЕА БЕОГРАД* may prove tricky.
On this and many other occasions, we’ve formed our own group of six – an ideal number for a guide. There’s no need for maps and no need to look at a GPS with indecipherable names. Keeping your eyes on the road ahead is paramount, and lifesaving in city traffic. Best of all, you can head straight for the bar when you arrive at the hotel. We can’t recommend Cristian Dragan highly enough.
*Nevski Hotel Belgrade
No matter which way you look at it, a trip to Europe means you’ll spend 60 hours or more in the seated position or walking off cramps in airports. And the flights will constitute a major cost of your adventure. Don’t try to pack too much in when you’re there. Allow at least 24-30 hours between arrival in Europe and jumping on a bike. And allow one full day off for every five days in the saddle; 300km in an eight-hour day may be easy here in Oz, but in countries where a long straight is less than 250 metres, you’ll need every coffee stop you can fit in to stay alert.
Story & Photography PETER WHITAKER