Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally
Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Revving Up in Belgrade
The adventure begins in Serbia's energetic capital, where rally participants gather to receive final instructions and make any last minute preparations before setting off into the wild Balkan countryside. Belgrade is an exciting starting point, with its gritty urban vibe and remnants of communist architecture juxtaposed against cozy cafes and emerging creative spaces.
Our band of intrepid travelers descends on Hotel Moskva, a historic landmark and former gathering place for artists and intellectuals. Over strong Serbian coffee, we pore over maps, plotting our route through obscure mountain towns and forgotten villages. There's a palpable sense of anticipation in the air as strangers become co-conspirators in an epic journey ahead.
With rally packets in hand, we head to our vehicles for inspection. My clunky old hatchback seems laughably underpowered compared to the vintage sports cars and modified hot rods around me. No matter - it's not about having the flashiest ride but rather embracing the spirit of adventure. Nearby mechanics give tips for maintaining our ramshackle rides over rugged terrain.
By early afternoon, all cars are gassed up and rally-ready. We caravan to the city center for a ceremonial send-off at Republic Square. Shouts of "Srećan put!" (!) follow us as we rumble over cobblestone streets towards the open road. Leaving behind Belgrade's urban pace, the rally shifts into high gear.
Wind whips through open windows as we surge south on two-lane highways lined with cornfields and cottages. Out here, Ladas pass luxury SUVs without a glance. This rally is about leaving egos behind and connecting with fellow thrill-seekers, no matter the vehicle. Groups split off, detouring down country tracks on a whim. Impromptu stops punctuate the drive - smoking meat at roadside stands, sampling rakija from backwoods distilleries.
What else is in this post?
- Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Revving Up in Belgrade
- Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Winding Through Mountain Roads
- Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Crossing Borders Without Brakes
- Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Filling Up on Ćevapi
- Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Detouring Through Dramatic Landscapes
- Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Experiencing the Gifts of Generous Locals
- Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Connecting with Other Adrenaline Junkies
Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Winding Through Mountain Roads
Leaving the lowlands behind, we begin our ascent into the craggy Dinaric Alps. The roads narrow as we climb, switchback after switchback beckoning us higher. Up here, even the most aggressive drivers must slow down - perilous hairpin turns and roaming livestock demand caution. An experienced rallyer, I shift gears smoothly to handle the incline while keeping momentum.
These ancient mountains have challenged travelers for centuries. Roman legions once traversed these same high passes, enduring bitter cold and bandit raids. Contorted wrecks of abandoned Yugoslav-era vehicles still lurk in the ravines below, ghosts of ill-fated journeys past. While we have modern suspensions and seatbelts, the fundamental thrill of conquering rugged terrain persists.
As the tree line disappears, we enter a rocky moonscape dotted with occasional mountain huts. Rugged peaks tower above, their stony faces scarred by eons of wind and snow. Thick fog swirls without warning, reducing visibility to just a few feet in seconds. Headlights strained to cut through the soupy gloom. Still, we press on cautiously, the gravel crackling beneath our tires.
Fellow drivers become silhouettes in the mist, taillights winking faintly before vanishing altogether. Up here on the roof of the Balkans, it feels like we're the only souls left in the world. But the camaraderie of the rally keeps us going; somewhere ahead in the pea soup fog, friends are navigating the same perilous path.
At last, the clouds begin to dissipate as quickly as they came. The late afternoon sun emerges, bathing the landscape in golden light. We emerge from the mist into a hidden valley dotted with shepherds' huts and grazing flocks. It's a [scene](https://www.mightytravels.com/travel-blog/2019/11/6/7-tips-for-booking-cheap-flights-from-the-us-to-europe) from another century - humans and sheep living in harmony as they have for generations. After hours of intense focus, we can relax and appreciate the stark beauty of these secluded mountain hamlets.
Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Crossing Borders Without Brakes
Leaving the dizzying heights of the Dinaric Alps, we descend into the valley below, where a new challenge awaits - frequent border crossings into the patchwork of Balkan nations. While scenic, this region's ever-shifting borders make travel less straightforward. During Yugoslavia's chaotic dissolution in the 1990s, borders were drawn and redrawn amid bitter ethnic conflicts. Even now, frontiers change as countries join the EU or strike new agreements.
Our rally's route snakes through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia again, then finally Montenegro. While exciting, crossing so many borders adds hassles for ralliers. Changing money, buying insurance, and navigating checkpoints eats into our time. But passing through 5 countries in one day also provides a fascinating glimpse into the many cultures within the Balkans.
At one rural crossing, a lone Serbian border guard emerges from a battered hut to laboriously record our passport details by hand, a process that takes hours. Contrast this with the gleaming immigration plaza on Slovenia's hyper-efficient highway to Zagreb. Officials there review documents and wave us through within minutes.
Bosnia's mountain roads are well-paved but deserted, still showing scars of the bitter war here in the '90s. Signposts point towards towns like Srebrenica, infamous for horrific atrocities just a generation ago. It's a somber reminder of mankind's capacity for violence. Happily, the region is now largely at peace, with borders open.
Big differences lurk even between adjacent Balkan states. Leaving Croatia, suddenly Cyrillic signs replace Latin ones entering Serbia. Cuisine and architecture transform too - red-tiled roofs in Zagreb give way to Byzantine domes around Belgrade. We change currencies as often as countries, trying to keep track of Dinars, Forints, and Marks.
While border-crossings can frustrate, for history buffs like me, they provide living history lessons. During the Cold War, these frontiers were heavily militarized and impenetrable. Now they are merely lines on a map again. Open borders allow free movement and cultural exchange.
Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Filling Up on Ćevapi
No road trip through the Balkans would be complete without filling up on ćevapi, the ubiquitous skinless grilled sausage that serves as the region's quintessential fast food. These succulent little fingers of spiced beef and lamb are a staple from Slovenia to Turkey, though every country has its own spin. Experienced ralliers know that ćevapi stands are ideal pit stops to refuel during long days behind the wheel.
During my first Balkan road trip back in college, I dismissed ćevapi as glorified hot dogs, preferring to spend my limited budget on museums and castles. How wrong I was! Now I go out of my way to sample ćevapi at roadside kiosks – the smokier and more ramshackle, the better. It took getting off the tourist trail to discover the joy of this blue-collar staple.
While ćevapi is available across the Balkans, the spiritual home is Bosnia, where it's a point of intense regional pride. The capital Sarajevo has entire streets lined with indistinguishable ćevabdžinica shops, each claiming to serve the city's best. Arguments over the ideal ratio of beef to lamb can quickly turn heated. During one pit stop, I made the grievous error of asking for ketchup, provoking the fury of an impassioned purist – lessons were learned.
The ritual of ordering and eating ćevapi embodies Balkan hospitality. Despite our language barriers, vendors greet us with smiles, asking if we want onions and pita bread to accompany our meat. A flurry of activity commences, sausages sizzling as pitas blot up drippings from the grill. Within minutes, we're sitting down to heaping platters, perfect for sharing with new friends. Beer or fruity homemade juices wash it all down.
Between the garlicky smoke perfume, friendly banter, and simple satisfaction of full stomachs, every ćevapi stop energizes our rally, readying us for more miles down the road. These brief moments of connection with strangers feel profoundly human, cutting through cultures, borders, and languages. It's a practice in openness that these fractured lands sorely need.
Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Detouring Through Dramatic Landscapes
While the Great Balkan Rally's route is carefully planned, the magic happens in impromptu detours to drink in the region's breathtaking scenery. Unlike rigid organized tours, we rallyers have the freedom to chase spontaneity, veering off onto tiny rural tracks on a whim. Locals are perplexed when our strange caravan suddenly appears over the horizon and descends on their sleepy villages. We are exploring for the sake of adventure itself.
One such unplanned excursion leads us high up into the Accursed Mountains along Albania's border with Montenegro. As we leave the coast behind and begin snaking up precarious gravel switchbacks, the scenery grows increasingly dramatic. Dizzying ridges tower above deep forested valleys sliced by ice-blue rivers. Sheer cliffs plunge thousands of feet, sending rocks skittering into the void. Signs warn of roaming bears and wolves. No guardrails impede our view of the stomach-churning precipices. There are simply no safety nets out here.
Cresting a pass, we enter the abandoned mining region of Rrajca. The crumbling ruins of communist-era facilities slumber amid the soaring peaks. We putter through ghost towns where nature is actively reclaiming the concrete carcasses of factories and apartments. Scrambling through corridors and up stairwells, we emerge onto rooftops with panoramic vistas of corrugated mountains extending in every direction. The fresh alpine air fills our lungs.
One intrepid rally duo decides to camp overnight amid the ruins of Rrajca, keeping vigil over the sublime valley below. Others press on to visit the ancient stone kulla fortresses of the northern Albanian highlands, with their tales of blood feuds and banditry. Every stop unearths new layers of history, legend, and raw wilderness.
While deserted today, these mountains once pulsed with industry and life when the region was part of socialist Yugoslavia. Now only jagged husks remain from that grand industrial vision, softened by lush mosses and wildflowers. Nature is merciless yet gorgeous in reclaiming its realm. I'm reminded that no human endeavor, no matter how ambitious, is eternal. Time and the land do what they please.
Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Experiencing the Gifts of Generous Locals
The open roads of the Balkans attract all types, from hardcore rally racers to free-spirited wanderers simply seeking adventure. Yet for all our differences, the Great Balkan Rally fosters an incredible spirit of community. While we hail from varied nations and backgrounds, our shared passion for the freedom of the road bonds us. And the kindness of local people encountered along the route often touches the soul.
Unaccustomed to foreign sightseers, villagers welcome us with incredulity and generosity. An elderly Albanian goat herder insists we join him for gleaming fresh honeycomb and tart homemade currant juice. There in his stone hut with sweeping views, he recounts youthful misadventures crisscrossing these mountains by foot before the roads came. His weathered hands, strong as timber, tremble with emotion recollecting friends now gone. We part ways profoundly moved by this fleeting yet tender human connection.
Later, while snapping photos of a pristine waterfall near Plav, Montenegro, we're startled when a family materializes on the cliffs above bearing gifts. Wide grins spread below their woolen kalpak hats as they present us with a platter of savory roasted lamb, spiced yogurt, and local cornbread. Though we share no common tongue, simple gestures of gratitude bring bashful smiles. Breaking bread together, we wordlessly communicate the universality of hospitality.
When a summer storm in Bosnia floods out a Croatian couple's ignition, a passing farmer selflessly hauls their stranded vehicle to his barn for emergency repairs. His wife presses hot Bosnian coffee into their numb hands as they wait. Though the war divided their ethnic groups not long ago, a fellow driver in trouble inspires only aid. Later, all embrace like old friends before parting ways.
Such sincerity arises organically when people are unguarded. The open road strips away pretensions, revealing our shared humanity. When locals welcome strangers into their homes, share family recipes, or lend tools to repair a sputtering engine, we glimpse the boundless positive potential of human nature.
Full Throttle Through the Balkans: The Wild Ride of the Great Balkan Rally - Connecting with Other Adrenaline Junkies
The shared thrill of adventure welds strangers into lifelong friends during the Great Balkan Rally. While our reasons for joining may differ, once together on the open road, a powerful camaraderie takes hold. Trading stories, tips, and laughs, we become more than fellow travelers - we are comrades embarked on an epic quest.
I meet intrepid Germans who shipped their prized vintage BMW motorcycle to Serbia just for the rally. Though they speak little English, their zeal translates easily. We make a pit stop at a roadside grill for ćevapi and rakija shots, toasting our rally ahead in fraternal spirit. I know we'll meet again down the road.
A band of university friends from Croatia inspires me with their carefree exuberance. Piling out of their graffiti-covered van in coordinated overalls, they seem more ready for a music festival than mountain passes. Yet their youthful vigor and team spirit pushes us old-timers to live boldly in the moment too. They remind me that growing older needn't mean growing boring.
Some come alone, seeking companionship and shared adventure. A soft-spoken trucker from Macedonia joins the rally after years hauling freight across Europe in solitary isolation. His shy warmth as we swap stories by the campfire reminds me how even introverts crave community. Now his cargo is new friendships.
Not all of us are amateurs - several seasoned teams compete annually, bonding over the Rally's grueling challenges. Watching them strategize at dawn, poring over maps and calculating fuel mileage, their commitment commands respect. While I prefer a more relaxed pace, their competitive drive pushes us all to leave our comfort zones.
Navigating washed-out mountain switchbacks together forges trust. We act as each other's spotters on hazardous terrain, guiding strangers' vehicles across loose gravel or past cliffside drops. Such cooperation embodies the rally's communal ethos - we succeed or fail together out here.
Evenings bring impromptu gatherings around crackling bonfires at our makeshift campsites. While our rally days are adrenaline-filled, we unwind through sharing folk songs, trading tales, laughing at language mishaps over whiskey passed hand-to-hand. Under starry Balkan skies, without city lights obscuring the heavens, we speak of dreams, hardships, loves, doubts.