A Balkan road trip

The Balkan Peninsula is great for country hopping – and you can explore these hidden gems without emptying your pockets, says Sara Abbasi.

Old stones: the ruins at Stari Bar. Photograph: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Old stones: the ruins at Stari Bar. Photograph: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Budva, Montenegro

It’s all about sun, sand and James Bond in the Montenegrin resort town of Petrovac, which was used as a filming location for Casino Royale. Situated within the district of Budva, Petrovac is dotted with spas, such as Monte Casa Spa and Wellness which offers a range of pamper packages and even has a Turkish hammam. If you want to try island life, rent a fishing boat from the harbour. And if you want to dance the night away, take a taxi up to Top Hill, the open-air club where Montenegrins go to party.
Monte Casa Spa and Wellness, Obala BB, Petrovac, 85300, (+382 33 426 900; montecasa.com)

Tito’s Cave, Drvar, Bosnia

After the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in the Second World War, the town of Drvar became the headquarters of the partisans’ resistance movement. Controversial dictator Tito set up his headquarters-cum-hideout just outside the town, and from this cave withstood German air raids with the help of Allied forces. At the end of the uphill path to the cave’s entrance, you’re rewarded with a great view across Drvar – and the cave itself is a popular spot for leaving a geocache. Drvar’s local rakiya, a plum brandy popular throughout the Balkans, can be enjoyed once you get back down.
Tito’s Cave, 1km north of Drvar

Church of St Blaise, Vodnjan, Croatia

Where can you see a particle of Jesus’s cross or the undecayed tongue of St Mary of Egypt? St Blaise in the Istrian village of Vodnjan is your best bet. It is home to the desiccated remains of six saints and 380 other relics, all enclosed in glass cabinets. Why the bodies of the saints have remained intact is a mystery – legend has it that they have special powers – but the church’s exquisite baroque façade is arguably just as magical.
Church of St Blaise, Trg Sveti Blaz, Vodnjan (+385 52 511 420). Open daily July-September 9am-7pm. Admission 35 kn

Buzet, Croatia

The architecture in medieval Buzet, in the Istrian peninsula, is a reminder of the days the Venetian empire ruled this town, and there are some super views overlooking the Mirna River, but most folk come for the truffles. Visit in September and you’ll be able to join in Subotina Po Starinski, a traditional fair celebrating the Virgin Mary’s birthday at which the truffle takes centre stage – the locals cook up the world’s biggest truffle omelette and wash it down with biska, mistletoe-flavoured brandy.
Buy and sample truffles at Zigante Tartufi, Trg Fontana, 52420 Buzet (+385 52 663 340). Open daily 9am-8pm

Njegusi Village, Montenegro

Njeguši, a mountain village in southern Montenegro, lays claims to the heart of Montenegrin cuisine. It’s known for its prsut (air-dried ham), lepinja (flat bread) and njeguski sir (cheese) which can be bought sliced in a jar of olive oil, making it the kind of cheese you can keep in your car. For an authentic meal, try the Nevjesta Jadrana restaurant.
Nevjesta Jadrana, Zanjev Do, 81250 Njeguši (+382 67 486 211). Open daily from 9am

Stari Bar, Montenegro

Stari Bar, also known as the Old Town of Bar, is an open-air museum whose ruins date back to the Middle Ages. The remaining masonry stands against the dramatic backdrop of the Rumija mountains, with a reconstructed church and clock tower offering a haunting reminder of a time when this town was the most important in Montenegro. In late November the place returns to life thanks to Maslinijada, a festival dedicated to olives, which the locals celebrate with costume and dances.
Stari Bar is a short cab ride away from the New Town of Bar. 2€ entrance fee

Vrulja Cove, Croatia

Private beach: Vrulja Cove. Photograph: Alamy

Private beach: Vrulja Cove. Photograph: Alamy

Want a beach all to yourself? Head to Brela, on the island of Vrulja. Its white pebble beach, fringed with figs and olives, stretches for six kilometres – and the coastline is full of coves that make it perfect for privacy. Vrulja Cove, the area’s most beautiful spot, is a gem that is quite literally, hidden – it’s actually far easier to get to it by boat than by land. Full disclosure (ahem): Vrulja Cove is also a haven for toplessness, and sometimes bottomlessness. But it’s well worth getting over your inhibitions for the sake of the beautiful turquoise waters.
Brela is 45km from the city of Split; day tours available with Split Adventure, splitadventure.com

Syri Kalter, Albania

Syri Kalter means Blue Eye in Albanian, and when you reach this amazing water spring you’ll see why. A geological phenomenon, the 50m-deep spring is a deep blue at its centre, with a lighter blue ring surrounding it, resembling a pupil and its iris. Throw a stone into its centre, and it will pop back up after a little while. It’s a bit cold for swimming (an average of 10C in the water), but you can always hire a pedalo for a closer look. And the Demi restaurant nearby offers a delicious al fresco seafood lunch overlooking the sea.
Demi Restaurant, Rruga Butrinti, Saranda (+355 85 224 636)

Rozafa Castle, Shkodra, Albania

If you like horror stories, you’ll love Rozafa Castle. Legend has it that the three brothers who built this castle were told to sacrifice one of their wives, and the chosen wife was bricked into an alcove, which still remains. It sits on the edge of Lake Shkoder, the largest lake in the Balkans, and the city of Shkodra is worth a visit for its Malazeze cuisine alone: flavoursome dishes from the mountain regions, consisting of grilled meat and fish.
Rozafa Castle, Rruga Kalasë, Shkodra 4000. 3km south of the city centre. Open 8am-10pm. Admission 200 lek

Topola, Serbia

Right at the heart of Serbia, in Sumadija region, sits the town of Topola. The 19th-century revolutionary Karadjordje, who led an uprising against the Ottoman empire and is credited with founding modern Serbia, had his summer residence here – it’s now a museum that will help you understand a lot of the background to modern Balkan history. Karadjordje’s tomb is found in St George’s Church, along with the magnificent mausoleum of the Serbian royal family (he may have been a revolutionary, but he still founded his own royal line). Sumadija is known for its fine wine, and every October the village of Vinca holds a grape-picking ceremony known as Oplenacka Berba – a good time to come and sample the previous year’s vintage.
St George’s Church, Kraljice Marije 4, Topola 34310 (+381 34 811 280; oplenac.rs)

Original article by Sara Abbasi on The Guardian Travel