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Travel Tips & Advice

Introduction

If you are looking to travel around and explore the abstract memorial sculptures and monuments of the former Yugoslavia (or 'spomeniks') on your own, there are a few travel tips and pieces of advice that might be good to take into consideration before setting out on your journey. Firstly, there are several different methods of transport you can utilize in reaching these destinations, whether it be trains, buses, minibuses, cars, or other means. Each of these separate methods have their benefits and their drawbacks, but, more than likely, you will use a combination of all of them to get around, so it is important to know about all of them. In addition, it is crucial to be up-to-date about certain travel restrictions and complications you may run across while venturing within and across the former Yugoslav states. Finally, you should be aware of how to conduct yourself not only around these spomeniks, but also while traveling around certain parts of this region and at certain border crossings. These issues, among many others, will all be addressed one-by-one in the following sections on this page.

Photo 1: An image from the Jajinci memorial site, with the photo taken by Marcin Gabrowski & Agnieszka Bohosiewicz-Gabrowska of the Saab Voyage project.

Transportation

Train

There are several regions of the former Yugoslavia where train travel is very beautiful and efficient. For instance, the train trip between Zagreb and Ljubljana is absolutely stunning, while the long train journey between Belgrade and Podgarica is among the most beautiful in Europe. However, over much of this region, train travel is not the most efficient or reliable way to travel. Much of the train systems in many parts Serbia, BiH, N. Macedonia and Croatia are somewhat dated, with car train cars often being remnants of the old days of Yugoslavia, while the reliability and scope of the networks often has much to be desired. However, I am not saying that you should NOT take the trains -- I very much advocate that you do experience it (as it can be fun, affordable cultural experience). Yet, do know that taking the train will not necessarily always get you to the majority of the places where you wish to go to if you plan on visiting the spomenik sites, especially many of the more remote regions of places like BiH and N. Macedonia. Where the trains DO come in handy is traveling between major cities. Those were the primary occasions when I found them to be extremely helpful and efficient. Just remember, these train rides are not the ultra-sleek and hyper modern experiences you will find in Germany or Austria or France, for example... there won't be high-speed trains every 10 minutes taking you to every little city and village you need to go to, so keep that in mind during your planning.

Buses and Minibuses

If you are wanting to travel to or between medium sized cities (or even large ones) the most optimal and convenient way to do so is often just taking the bus. Inter-city buses in the former Yugoslav region are very popular and often the most common form of travel for locals who don't own cars. Bus fare is usually extremely affordable and allows you to carry lots of luggage if you so desire. However, be aware that most buses are not of the most luxurious variety and can be slow at border crossings. Many are bare bones and working-class, so bring food and snacks with you. Also, many buses won't have on board bathrooms, but they will make occasional stops.

Minibuses, on the other hand, are another sensible, inexpensive travel option, especially between Sarajevo and Belgrade (which can be a challenging route for any public transport). Minibuses are usually freelance locals with a minivan who will pick up travelers from hostels or hotels who want to travel quickly and efficiently between destinations. They are quick and will get you over borders fast. Inquire with your accommodation host about minibus routes, times and costs. Be aware that, generally, they only take cash.

Cars & Rental Cars

When it comes to getting to spomeniks in the most remote and inaccessible places, renting (hiring) a car is really the best way to go, that is, unless you don't have your own car already. Having a car will give you the freedom to get around how you want, where you want and when you want. If you are renting, the cost greatly depends on where in the former-Yugoslavia you are and how long you plan on being out in that particular rental car. But on average, I would say you can find one from somewhere between 10-30 euro a day. If you are flexible, you really don't have to make long ahead-of-time reservations... often, you can just call the rental agency one or two days before and reserve a car in most places (as long as you are flexible). Do keep in mind though that if you cannot drive a manual transmission vehicle, getting a car short-term will be considerably more difficult -- so, if this is an issue you will have, I recommend making ahead-of-time reservations. Also, always make sure before finalizing your car rental agreement, clarify that you completely understand what level of insurance you will be covered under and what exactly is being covered by your policy. In addition, be aware that speed-cameras do exist in many places across the former-Yugoslavia, even in remote areas. Finally, if you rent a car in this region (or from anywhere else in Europe) and you intend to travel into Slovenia, be sure to first purchase a DARS motorway sticker for your car windshield at the Slovenian border (or at an authorized vendor as you approach the border). A seven day pass for a personal vehicle is approximately 15 euro, which will allow you passage on all Slovenian motorways. If you are caught on Slovenian motorways without this sticker, the fine can be in excess of 200 euros. However, if you do not intend to utilize Slovenian motorways, you do NOT need a DARS sticker.

Another note I will add about renting a car in the former-Yugoslavia is that I would suggest you also obtain from the rental agency a GPS/SatNav navigational device, especially if driving around in this part of Europe is new for you. Not only can they be helpful in navigating big cities (especially the maze of Sarajevo) and remote areas, they are also extremely helpful in navigating to spomenik locations, as you can simply type in the exact coordinates of where the parking for the site is located (as they are often in remote and secluded areas). If you obtain local data service for your phone, using your phone's GPS/SatNav function can also be a cheaper option. But be careful.... always check the route the GPS sets for you before embarking, as they can take you on strange routes and onto rough unimproved roads, which may lead you stuck and stranded. If a road that the GPS attempts to lead you onto looks questionable or sketchy, do not take it. Rough road or dirt road short-cuts can quickly get you into a serious situation, as conditions can change rapidly and dramatically, especially on rural routes and country roads... do NOT risk it. There is always an easier way.

A Slovenian DARS sticker

Driving Safety

If you choose to take your car or hire a car to drive across the landscape of the former-Yugoslavia to explore the spomeniks, there are a few things that are important to know about driving conditions you might encounter in these countries, which are especially important to know if you are not from the region. Firstly, when driving on rural/secondary roads and more remote stretches of pavement (which one often has to do when accessing the spomeniks), you will find that these roads are not designed for two car widths, but more along the lines of narrower 1.5 car widths (or smaller). As a result, if you encounter oncoming traffic on such roads, you generally will have to slow down and/or pull to the side of the road (or sometimes even back up). However, while I would suggest your driving be more restrained in such circumstances, locals may drive just as fast as if they were on the motorway, so always be vigilant. Secondly, when driving in rural un-fenced roads, be aware that livestock of all sorts could be present within the roadway at any given time.

Furthermore, you may also encounter rural farmers using draft animals to pull carts or wagons along the road, which is another thing to be aware of. Along this same line, during spring and harvest time, you will encounter hundreds of tractors flooding roads across these countries as agricultural seasons ramp up and ramp down. These machines will use the same narrow roads as cars, often causing infuriating traffic back-ups which cause people to drive angrily and dangerously. Be aware of such situations and always act accordingly.

Travel Conduct

Border Crossings

Most of the time, crossing borders in the former-Yugoslav region are worry free and will go smoothly. However, there are a few things you should know. Firstly, at many border crossings, the wait times can be tremendous, especially at motorway border crossings. Always be prepared and anticipate that large border crossings might take a long time. Also, be aware that you may need to acquire special travel insurance (Green Card) if you plan on taking a rental car across a border into Bosnia. Inform the rental agency what countries you plan on traveling to and they can let you know what insurance, if any, you will need to purchase from them. Finally, it is important to know that one border crossing that can be problematic is going from Kosovo into Serbia. Due to the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo over nationhood, attempting to enter Serbia through Kosovo may not be possible (much less wise). It is not advisable generally for tourists to cross at this border. As a result, it is recommended that you enter Kosovo from N. Macedonia, Albania or Montenegro, and then when leaving Kosovo, do so via one of those countries. In addition, always read Kosovo travel warnings before entering the region. See more information and advice in the Kosovo Section below.

A 'Local Traffic Only' sign at a border crossing in Slovenia

An additional factor to take into consideration when planning your route through the former-Yugoslav region is that there are a number of border crossings throughout the area that are ONLY for use by local traffic. This means that any person who is not holding a local passport from the immediate area may very well be denied the ability to cross that border. Such border crossings are mostly restricted to smaller and secondary roads crossing international boundaries (not major highways or motorways). In fact, in many cases here, of the full total of a country's border crossings, most will be restricted to local traffic only, with foreigners limited to only the largest international crossing points. As a result, it is important to take such types of border crossings into consideration when planning your route, as a small road border crossing you may be depending on for access might be impassible for you. Furthermore, when you make routes with GPS, SatNav and other turn-by-turn directional devices, I have discovered that these tools will NOT alert you if a border crossing is 'local traffic only' or not. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate any comprehensive resources which list all of these 'local traffic only' crossings and Google Maps does not mark them. If you have any questions about a particular crossing, do your research and make sure you have back-up plans if a particular crossing is not passable.

Local Communities

Many areas of the former-Yugoslavian states still have very complicated relationships, not just with their own history within the context of the People's Liberation Struggle (WWII) and their time as part of Yugoslavia, but also the events after the fall of Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Wars. Furthermore, those complicated relationship towards national history, in many cases, also extend to these spomenik complexes and memorials which commemorate that history. While the vast majority of locals you will see around spomeniks will be happy and thrilled you are there to visit their communities and learn about their histories, in some parts of the Balkans, locals might be less than thrilled finding you exploring them, photographing them and poking around in them. When exploring them, always be alert, respectful and polite to any locals in the community curious about your interest in them (especially around spomeniks which are abandoned, neglected or destroyed). Finally, be aware that some spomeniks are in ethnically divided cities with unsettled pasts (Mostar, Vukovar, Mitrovica, etc), so, always do your homework before visiting a spomenik and never be apprehensive to not visit or leave a spomenik complex if you don't feel comfortable there. However, don't be afraid to visit a spomenik just because it is in an ethnically divided city. If a certain situation concerns you, the host at your hotel or hostel will be more than able to arrange for a local guide to help you find and explore the spomenik site.

Good Behavior

One of the most important points I want to stress here is, when it comes to visiting these memorial and monuments sites, please respect them. You will find many of these sites ravaged by vandalism, degradation, neglect and even war. The ones that have survived have survived a great deal -- and remember, many hold beneath them the interred remains of soldiers, civilians or executed victims. As such, I implore you not to increase or add to the degradation of these historic and significant cultural artifacts when visiting them. While you, me or others might agree or disagree with the political system within which these monuments were constructed, as a visitor to this region, the courteous and dignified course of action is for you to show respect, especially as many of these locations are sites of mass killings, executions and horrible atrocities. The following is a list of things I would suggest you NOT do while visiting these monuments:

  • Do NOT graffiti them

  • Do NOT take pieces as souvenirs

  • Do NOT be disrespectful to them

  • Do NOT instigate or exacerbate their degradation

Be aware that doing such things could not only be incredibly insulting and hurtful to the people of the communities where the spomeniks exist, but you could also be breaking the law. Hopefully, with your care and concern, these monument sites can remain for years to come so future generations can learn from them, just as you do as you visit them. So, please treat them properly, just as you would treat any monument site in your own country.

Traveling Alerts

Landmine Fields

During the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, millions of landlines were laid across much of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. After the end of the wars, millions of ordnance still laid unexploded -- since then, these ordnance have killed hundreds of people. The wider areas around some spomeniks are in high-risk areas for mine presence, such as Novi Travnik, Mostar, Sarajevo, Sutjeska, Bihac, etc. If you go travelling or walking off-road/off-trails into open fields or into forests in these or similar types of areas, it would be wise to consult with locals first to ensure the areas are not affected by mines. Most importantly, always be on the lookout for the red landmine signs, which look like THIS -- these should always be observed, respected and taken extremely seriously. While most well tread areas across the former-Yugoslavia will be free and safe from mines, it pays to always be vigilant in any rural, rugged or forested areas. A map of major landmine field concentrations in Bosnia can be seen in this section. As of the late 2000s, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia have been determined to be overwhelmingly cleared of most historic landmine fields. For more information on landmines in the Balkans, the following resources are available:

Map of landmine field distribution in the Bosnia (click map to see full-size)

Travelling In Kosovo

Kosovo is a de facto independent country with limited recognition located in the center of the former-Yugoslav region. As of February 2019, the independence of Kosovo is only recognized by 102 of the 193 UN states, while being actively disputed by numerous others, most notably Serbia, who Kosovo broke away from during a violent war during the late 1990s. Kosovo is made up of an ethnic-Albanian majority and small minority of ethnic-Serbs, mostly concentrated in the north of Kosovo.  Even though the war of the 1990s is long over, social conflict and tensions between the two ethnic groups still can arise from time to time, especially during political protests or demonstrations in Priština, Gjakova, Mitrovica or any places where the two ethnicities live in close proximity. While the +10,000 NATO peacekeeping force keeps the atmosphere calm for the most part in high tension areas, it is prudent to avoid any political rallies, protests or demonstrations anywhere in Kosovo.

As said in the above "Border Crossing" section, Serbia does not recognize any border crossings into Kosovo anywhere other than from Serbia, as Serbia still considers Kosovo to be part of its territory, therefore, if you enter Serbia from Kosovo without already having a Serbian entry stamp, you may risk the chance of running afoul with Serbian border officials. In addition, it is also important to mention that if you enter Kosovo via their passport stamp from a non-Serbian border crossing and then pass over into Serbia, you may have further problems if you attempt to exit Serbia, as their border guards may consider your entry into Serbia via a Kosovo entry stamp as invalid. From information I have read, the most optimal 'approved' method to travel from Kosovo into Serbia without a Serbian entry stamp already is to be carrying your National ID card from either Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, N. Macedonia, Switzerland or the EU. If you do not posess one of these, I would not recommend making this crossing. In addition, the border crossing at Jarinje and Brnjak (known as Gates 1 and Gates 31 respectively), should be avoided if possible, as conflicts and tensions at these crossings can still run high at times -- for instance, the crossing complex at Jarinje was burned down by masked rioters in 2011. In fact, many groups recommend that any travel in the northern municipalities of Leposavic, Zubin Potok or Zvečan should be restricted to only what is absolutely necessary. Furthermore, as of 2018, I have heard some reports from international tourists that they have been denied entry into Serbia from the Kosovo border all together.

My best advice for the casual international traveler moving throughout this region with a non-EU passport is to stick to entering Kosovo from non-Serbian entry points and exiting Kosovo through those same non-Serbian entry points. I feel this is the best way to keep travel to this region simple and hassle free. Also, keep in mind if you fly directly into Kosovo via the airport in Prishtinë/Priština and plan to leave Kosovo afterwards, it is best to do this via a non-Serbian border and avoid the Kosovo-Serbia border crossing all together. If you goal is to head towards Serbia after flying into Kosovo, the best way to do this is enter Serbia through N. Macedonia.

 

Also, because of these and other issues, it is important to know that some embassies refuse to send personnel into certain areas in the northern Kosovo region (such as the US Embassy); as such, if you run into trouble in these areas, some embassies may not be able to assist you effectively. This warning also extends to North Mitrovica, which is the location of the Mitrovica spomenik -- so, if you decide to travel to this site, it might be advisable to hire a guide if you feel any reservations whatsoever. For more information and alerts about travelling through Kosovo, please use the following resources: