Category Archives: Europe by region

Unorganized Europe – tips on how to enjoy Europe on your own terms

I’ve never been on an organized tour in Europe. And I honestly do not understand people who go on these tours. Well, some people at least. If you’re in your 50’s and enjoy wearing name tags, then its the right thing for you. Or if you’re a Chinese or a Russian and don’t speak a word in another language, then I totally get why booking a bus tour is the way to go. I even understand why Americans who only have 10 days off a year would think that swooshing through 17 countries in a week is a good idea (it’s not – Best of Europe in 21 days? Best of Europe’s highways and tourist traps, perhaps). But there are so many young people out there with lots of time and little money on their hands who nevertheless pay a premium price for something like this:

This mad schedule offered by Contiki will take you to 8 countries in 12 days!

European Discovery
From Amsterdam to Rome to Paris, you won’t want to miss a thing. In fact, sleep will probably be the last thing on your mind!

Sleep will probably be the only thing on your mind as you are dragged to a new town every day, and spend an average of at least 4 hours on the bus daily. More than 100 Euro per day and drinks are not even included! What I understand least is that it’s the same crowd that rents a motorcycle and crosses the back-roads of Laos for weeks, hitchhikes across Africa, stays in an Indian ashram for half a year, but when in the most civilized, tame continent they suddenly feel the need to be taken by the hand and fast-forwarded as if chased by ghosts. I honestly can’t think of a more exhausting and unsatisfying way to spend your vacation. The only explanation I can come up with is that people who book these tours want to get drunk in as many cities as possible. But surely there are cheaper ways to achieve this noble goal?

The rushing is not limited to organized tours though. So many travellers, young and old, wreck themselves with travel schedules from hell. 15 countries in 30 days, 10 countries in 12, 5 cities in 3 days – there’s no limit to the self-inflicted travel misery. Sure, I am a fortunate person. Blessed with a sufficient amount of paid leave and living within easy reach of Europe’s best. But its a lifestyle choice most of all things. I see my vacations as an opportunity to relax. Spending endless hours in transit (and traffic), checking in- and out of hotels every day or two, queueing up to see the endless must-sees is just not my idea of relaxing. When on holiday (and in daily life) I try to choose quality over quantity. And so can you – here’s how to enjoy your (European) vacation

  1. Set up base camp

    No, you don't always have to go to 4000 meters for a free place to sleep in Europe

    Not all base camps must look like this

    Even if your next destination is only a 100 km away, packing, checking out, dragging your belongings, checking in and unpacking still eats a whole day off your vacation. In most of Europe distances are (relatively) small, trains are fast and border controls non-existent. Setting up a strategically located base camp will enable you to explore a whole country, if not several countries, just by doing day-trips. Of course, I’ve done the ultimate move and set my base camp in The Netherlands for the past 12 years already, but that’s an extreme case.

  2. Think of your goals
    It’s so trivial but true nevertheless. If your goal is, indeed, to get plastered in as many destinations as possible – go with it! But don’t try to combine it with cultural aspirations (well, getting plastered is a part of most cultures, but you know what I mean). Think of the things you really want to do and tailor your trip to suit those aspirations. If you’re on a tight budget – go to the Balkans rather than Scandinavia. Yes, you can enjoy Scandinavia on a tight budget, too. But it probably will require a lot of camping and not everyone’s up to it.
  3. Choose the right transport

    During Chrismas vacation bicycles get stuck not only in traffic

    Obviously the wrong choice of transport here

    For you and for your trip. I can’t stand long bus rides so I try to avoid those. But there’s more than personal favourites to it. So, if you are hopping between major destinations, a flight is a good budget option in Europe. If you don’t mind the trip taking a bit longer, and being perhaps a bit more expensive, the train is a good alternative. And if you’re in a party of 3, driving a rented car is probably cheapest. But it’s not all there’s to it. Driving takes an effort, and high-speed trains take you there in a whisker. For example, going from Madrid to Barcelona takes more than 6 hours of driving, but less than 3 hours by train. Can you drive this bit? Yes, you can! But it makes little sense to do so unless you plan to stop along the way.

  4. Limit your destinations
    This can not be stressed enough. An excellent recommendation is a minimum of 3.5 days per destination. But that’s a minimum. If you go to bigger cities, and plan day-trips to other places and/or the country side, I would suggest 5 days at least. As an example, if you intend to spend 5 days in Paris, you can probably fill your schedule completely just with the city. But even if you’re fed up with Paris after a couple of days, you can still take a day to visit Fontainebleau, and a day for another city (Dijon is just 1.5 hours away!). Better still, rent an apartment in Paris for a week, and don’t let that stop you from going to the Loire for two days, spending the night in a Chambres d’hôtes along the way, before going back to the city. The total will be probably cheaper and surely more efficient than separate bookings.
  5. Keep things optional

    The Narrenturm was probably not the happiest place to be in

    Is a former madhouse in Vienna a “must-see”? I sure enjoyed the visit

    I always try to remind myself that there are no must-sees. So what if I haven’t seen whatever that is that’s on “everyone’s” list? Its my vacation and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to… Sorry, I got distracted. I’m not going on vacation to tick off a bucket list, but to enjoy myself. And to me that involves more leisure time and less obligations. I do my research, but view the resulting wish-list as “options” rather than “musts”.

  6. Optimize you trip
    In retail marketing they call it “cherry-pickers”. The term refers to customers who are coming in, buying the items on most attractive sale and leave, not tempted by the overpriced trash presented at the check-out. Be a “cherry-picker”. With open borders and short distances, Europe is an excellent place to optimize. No need to think in terms of “countries” – if an activity or a landscape is better/cheaper elsewhere – go there! Let the example of Cousin Avi be your shining light:
    Doug the Head: [referring to England] We’ve got sandy beaches…
    Avi: So? Who the fuck wants to see ’em?
    See what I mean? There are many reasons to go to England, but why would you stick around for the beaches when Ibiza is only a two-hour flight away?
  7. Try to be flexible
    Booking ahead your entire trip makes sense if you have only one or two weeks. But if you have a month to spend in Europe it’s rather unnecessary. What if you hear of a place you really want to see? Or if you would like to stay longer where you already are? Can’t do, because you’ve already booked elsewhere. By setting your beginning and end points and perhaps booking one or two nights there, you’ll be free to choose your next destination as you go. And no, it’s not difficult or expensive. You’ll just have to be flexible about it.

I’ve written a series of posts about the different regions of Europe, and listed what I think a region is best for, when is the best time to go, how to get around, why you shouldn’t go there and where to go if you only want to spend one week in the area. Perhaps this summary can help you choose and plan your next European destination:

And if you have comments on how you optimize your vacations, I’d love to know.

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Little Europes

Overseas countries and territories (OCT) and Outermost regions (OMR) of the European Union (by Alexrk2, via Wikipedia)

On a wide cobbled space on the sea front they found a guard of red-coated militia drawn up to receive them, and a crowd—attracted by their arrival—which in dress and manner differed little from a crowd in a seaport at home save that it contained fewer women and a great number of negroes.

The words above describe the arrival of a ship full of slaves – white slaves – to Bridgetown, the capital of the British colony Barbados, in late 1600’s. These lines are from one of my favourite books, “Captain Blood: His Odyssey”, a novel by Rafael Sabatini. “Home” refers to England, and today, crowds in most European seaports differ even less from the crowds in Bridgetown, Papeete or Paramaribo, as the ports of mainland Europe are rather diversified by the influx of immigrants from the (former) colonies. The colonial empires that were so dominant in the past 5 centuries are gone, most of the colonies have gained independence years, or even centuries ago. But a few remain attached to the “mother-country”, either too small to be able to stand on their own or too valuable as a honey-moon destination to be let go. Most of these bits and peaces of Europe scattered around the globe are French, as France has had the most difficulties ditching the notion of it being destined to rule the world (most French still cherish the thought that one day, the world will call upon them). But quite a few are British, some are Dutch, and even Norway has “colonies” in the southern seas.

For the most part though the so-called Outermost regions and Overseas countries and territories of the EU are either a rock in the ocean, like the famous Saint Helena where Napoleon was banned to, or a tropical paradise, making a living of newly weds and smuggling. The effect of these “little Europes” is rather unique. You fly out of the frozen European winter for 10 or even 20 hours, and suddenly you’re on the French Riviera, but on the other side of the globe. The heat, the white-washed buildings, the magnolias – its as if you’ve driven to Nice or Marseille. Even the number plates on some of these islands have the EU flag. And, as immigrants from Aruba and Martinique are drawn to Europe, there is a steady trickle of white Europeans to the tropics, nowadays for the most part not buccaneers or white slaves, but retirees, searching for a better climate to warm their elderly bones.

So are the differences between Europe and “little Europes” really blurred? Are Reunion, Saba and the Cayman Islands as European as Bristol or Vilnus? Yes and no. Being “Europe” seems less and less about pure geography. Although by now, pretty much every colony that had a serious desire and capacity for independence has become independent, the political and economical ties of the remaining colonies with the “mother country” are too strong to endanger by such a radical move as a declaration of independence. Its not the whole story though. Slower changes are simmering under the surface. Semi-dormant independence movements exist in most French overseas territories. The Dutch Antilles have been dissolved, some becoming states within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while others have become direct parts of the Netherlands. And regional ties are becoming more important than ties to the distant mainland Europe, as evidenced by the recent Samoa time zone change.

One thing is certain – these specks of Europe in tropical seas will remain a prized tourist destination, regardless of the geopolitics. Check out the map – Europe may be closer to you than you thought it is!

Curacao 9 Curacao 8 Curacao 7 Curacao 6 Curacao 5 Curacao 4 Curacao 3 Curacao 2 Curacao 1

All of the photos below were taken at Curaçao, a constituent country within The Kingdom of the Netherlands, which is a member of the European Union. However, Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten have the status of overseas countries and territories (OCTs) and are not part of the EU. Nevertheless, only one type of citizenship exists within the Kingdom (Dutch), and all Dutch citizens, including the Curaçaoans, are EU citizens. Got it? Me neither. But it somehow works.

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If I did it – how would I plan my Eurotrip

Europe is a tough continent to travel. Especially visitors from overseas are often surprised and sometimes overwhelmed by Europe’s diversity in cultures and climates and the distances in Europe are only relatively small. Expecting a compact, more or less uniform continent, they find themselves stressed on time and confused by the little differences that can make life on the road difficult when hopping across borders. Europe can be tough on budgets, too, but I already devoted a few posts to this topic – see here.

So what makes Europe such an attractive continent to travel in? First of all, of course, the history and culture. Europe’s museums, galleries and historical cities are like nothing else in the world. It is also a relatively easy and safe place to travel, with police in almost all countries being a reliable, friendly force and excellent public transport throughout most of the continent. Also, the geographic location of Europe and the quality of indoor attractions make Europe attractive in every season.

My Eurotrip is taking me over 10 years already. After I moved to Europe, I’ve travelled quite extensively around Europe. Not that I need to leave the Netherlands for great travelling, as these pictures clearly show:

My most recent travel - Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn, residence of the Dutch Royals for 3 centuries.

My most recent travel – Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn, residence of the Dutch Royals for 3 centuries.

Autumn in Europe has its charm for sure - this is the Bergse Bos, near Rotterdam.

Autumn in Europe has its charm for sure – this is the Bergse Bos, near Rotterdam.

Castle? No, a student dorm in Delft.

Castle? No, a student dorm in Delft.

This is why I'd go to Europe in May

This is why I’d go to Europe in May.

Ever heard of Zutphen? Neither did I.

Ever heard of Zutphen? Neither have I, until recently.

Basilica of Our Lady, Maastricht - a magnificent Romanesque church.

Basilica of Our Lady, Maastricht – a magnificent Romanesque church.

Het Vrijthof - another great site in Maastricht ;-)

Het Vrijthof – another magnificent site in Maastricht 😉

Of course, living in the Netherlands, with excellent connections to pretty much everywhere, makes it quite easy to travel. But I still haven’t visited even half of Europe’s countries! Not that it is my goal, but I still was surprised when I did the counting. Nevertheless, I consider myself quite a seasoned traveller. Having written about splitting Europe into bite-sized travel regions, I found myself thinking – how would I plan my Eurotrip if I went now, with all the knowledge I gained over the years?

Based on years of experience, I would firstly say that while Europe has a lot to offer in the winter, I’d definitely go in the summer, as May to September have the best weather and travel is just so much more fun when the sun is out. Personally, I’d go in May and June – July and August are rather sweaty and many places can and will get crowded. The water in the seas and lakes is much warmer later in the summer, so if you’re a swimming fan, take it into consideration. September may easily be the best month to travel in Europe, but autumn might take an early turn to the worse – the odds are just so much better in May-June. Also, for a full Eurotrip I’d take at least two full months to explore Europe’s best. To me it makes no sense going all the way from Asia or America for just two or three weeks of quick, unsatisfying dashes across borders and between cities.

So where would I go? If I would be coming from North America, I would surely make a stopover in Iceland first – or, if I plan to be leaving Europe to North America after my Eurotrip, I’d reserve a few days for this beautiful island at the end. Then I’d go to London. The British Empire where the sun never used to set is long gone but its spirit is alive and well in the greatest Imperial Capital in the world. From London its a smooth ride on the Eurostar train to the continent, where I’d take the connecting train from Brussels to Maastricht, to spend some time in the rolling hills of Limburg. If I had the time and money for an extra week, I’d spend it all in Amsterdam (yes, a whole week and its not too long by any standard). Within 2 hours ride from Maastricht are about a dozen airports – one of them will surely have a cheap flight to Barcelona, for a week of R&R in the sun (probably much needed after 3 weeks in North-Western Europe in May). From here, I’d fly out to Switzerland (or, if budget is limited, to Italy or Austria), spend a week in the mountain valley of my choice, and take a train across the Alps to Vienna, from where I’d wind down the Donau, city-hopping the Central European capitals sitting on this great river. I’d end up in Belgrade, and take the spectacular train ride to the coast of Montenegro, to celebrate the summer with the crowds. If I could find a good connection, I would fly out to Georgia and eat my way through the Caucasus, or go back to Belgrade and take the long train journey to Kiev. Of course, if I’d be in Georgia, I’d take the opportunity to board the ferry to Odessa (its only 60 hours). Yes, Ukraine is in an unrest, but hell – this is where European history is being made as you sit on your behind reading this! Finally, tired as I would be from all this travelling, I’d settle in a small Baltic country for a week, allow myself to catch some breath and sort out the amazing pictures I would surely have gathered in these weeks.

The best part is – I have already done most of these things. And so can you. Perhaps not in one summer, but then again why rush? I feel very privileged to have been able to travel that much, and have absolutely no intention to stop. Hope my suggestions can inspire you as well.

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Baltic – the only European region I haven’t been to

This is the last of the posts in my series about the division of Europe into travel-ready regions. I’ve originally started this series because so many people go to “Europe” not being aware of the size and diversity of the continent, and try to cover too much in too little time. I hope these posts have been useful to some readers.

The Baltic is the only European region I haven’t visited so far. My review is therefore based entirely on hearsay (and the photo’s used here are from Wikipedia). But then again nobody’s been to Mars, yet it doesn’t prevent people from writing about it, and the Baltic is a whole lot closer. Usually, the Baltic states include Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but since I’ve already excluded Finland from Scandinavia and since Finland  shares a history of Russian domination with the other 3 states, I’ve decided to include it as a “Baltic state” as well.

  • Why go there?
    Tucked away in a quiet corner of Europe, this compact region pretty much leads its own life, seemingly unconcerned by the rest of Europe. Although in relative numbers these countries get more tourists that Italy or France, none of them is a major tourist destination. So if you want to experience life in a small European country in its most authentic form, I’d say the Baltic is the right region for you.
  • What’s it best for?
    The Baltic states don’t share a common language or religion like many other regions do. They do share a calm, reserved character which has probably a lot to do with the local nature – long tracks of sandy beaches on cold shores and dark forests with quiet bogs and lakes, the perfect place for reflection.
  • When is the best time to go?
    Autumn is the calmest season in Europe. Summer tourist peak is already gone and the X-mas business is some time away, and since I think the Baltic is best for relaxing, why not experience it at its calmest – in September-October, when the simple melancholy of a small European capital or a bog at the end of the world are entirely yours?
  • How to get around?
    The distances are quite small here, so a local bus can easily be your best bet even on cross-border routes.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    If you’re impatient and look for the fast-paced thrills, you may be better off in more Southern parts of Europe, like the Pyrenees or the Balkan.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    The compactness of the Baltic actually means you can spend a week hopping between the capitals, comparing the subtle differences between neighbouring small European countries, spending one or two nights in each. Or treat yourself to a week-long retreat in a remote rural corner the area is so blessed with and spend some time living the country life in the slowest pace in Europe.

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At the center of Europe

A while ago, I’ve written a post in my Europe by Region series about the areas of the former Austria-Hungarian Empire. And to be honest – I was never entirely happy with that post. Not with the definition of the region, nor with the content. So I’ve decided to revise the post, and re-brand these parts as Central Europe.

Where is Central Europe actually? In another post, I’ve defined Central Europe in a broad sense, as “members of the EU that have been behind the Iron Curtain“. This definition of Central Europe would make it too big of a “travel region”, spreading from the Baltic to the Adriatic and including a dozen of countries. Making a more limited definition of Central Europe would be easier by just saying what Central Europe is not. Since I’ve already defined the regions of the Russian Empire, the Balkans, the Alps and will write on the Baltic States, Central Europe is all that’s left in between – Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungaria and perhaps the non-Alpine parts of Austria and Germany, for good measure.

  • Why go there?
    This is the picture card Europe you’ve dreamed of visiting. Castles, cobbled streets, villages hidden in dark forests and beer- lots of beer. And Central Europe is, well, central, which means you can easily make your escape to another region or visit it en route elsewhere.
  • What’s it best for?
    Central Europe is popular for city trips (think Prague, Kraków and Berlin), but I think it is also the best budget option in Europe.
  • When is the best time to go?
    With a pleasant spring, a warm summer and a colourful autumn, any season is good to go. Wintertime is probably the best though – winters in Central Europe are snowy but not as cold as in the East and even hotspots like Prague and Vienna are virtually tourist-free. December with its Christmas markets is extra special.
  • How to get around?
    In a region where rail infrastructure is the densest in the world getting around by train is obviously easiest. The connections are excellent, distances are mild and the views are spectacular.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    As I said, this is the mild, classic Europe. If you’re looking for more exotic parts, I’d suggest the Caucasus.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Give Slovakia a try. It got a bit of a bad rep thanks to a horror film set in Slovakia, but don’t let a silly Hollywood movie discourage you! Bratislava, the capital, is a charm, the Tatra Mountains are great for easy hiking and skiing and the Slovakian countryside is as cheap as can be.

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Caucasus – a spicy bite of adventure

I have to admit – the last time I’ve been to the Caucasus was more than 30 years ago. I was 3 years old and I’ve spent a summer with my family on a bee farm in Dagestan, or so they tell me. I have very limited recollection of the events myself. Nevertheless, the countries that now compose the Caucasus – Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (and the multitude of semi-countries like South-Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh) were part of the Soviet Union, so technically, I once lived in a “Caucasus country”. The region has been at the top of my wish list for a while, so I’ve gathered sufficient knowledge to write about it (*).

  • Why go there?
    In recent years, the Caucasus got a lot of bad publicity. Wars, poverty and crime have scarred the region. Most of the Russian Caucasus is a no-go area, where the security situation is best described by “what security?” However, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have by now mostly recovered from the dramatic events of the past decades and are enjoying a vastly improved security situation, even though the international relations in the region remain very tense. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the area is suddenly in the spotlight as a viable tourist destination. And if you’re ready to look past the dramatic headlines, you’ll find a region rich in sights, culture and most of all, exceptionally rich in excellent food and drinks.
  • What’s it best for?
    This is the place for the adventurous traveller. Of all European regions, the Caucasus has the highest content of what I call “the National Geographic sensation” – when you feel like a true explorer. Most of the region is still virtually untraveled by outsiders, so you’ll be as much of a revelation to the locals as they will be to you.
  • When is the best time to go?
    ASAP. Now. Before mass-tourism arrives and the prices go up, before you can read the menu’s, before the roads are paved. Go now, and be the first of your friends and colleagues to drink from a ram’s horn at a Georgian wedding, the first to pick pomegranates in an Armenian mountain village, the first to dip in the mud volcano’s of Azerbaijan. Amazing travel stories guaranteed.
  • How to get around?
    The transportation system in the region is improving, but is still badly hurt by years of conflict and economic hardship. Many rail and road connections are severed by conflict lines. The road will be a large part of your adventure in the Caucasus and especially in remote areas, hitchhiking might be the best way to get from A to B.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    If you’re uncomfortable being close to active and dormant armed conflicts – stay away. In any of the region’s countries, having the “wrong” stamp in your passport or photographing a seemingly innocent building may lead to anything from a lengthy interrogation to expulsion, a heavy fine or even imprisonment in the extreme case.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Georgia has it all – beaches, mountain resorts and wine cellars. Unlike many of its neighbours, Georgia is a democratic country, which earns it some bonus points. And Georgia is unique in being the home land of the Chief of all American Tribes, Father of all Nations, the Sun of the People, Jozef Stalin. The museum dedicated to Uncle Joe in his birthplace Gori is a must. Last but not least Georgia is well connected – it has rail connections to Azerbaijan and Armenia, you can get in by road from Turkey and there are even ferry connections to Istanbul and Odessa. Perhaps doesn’t mean much to you, but in the Caucasus this connectivity is pretty unique.

(*) – All images used in this post are from Wikipedia. I’ve done my best to credit the photographers, to all of whom I with to experience my gratitude for providing such beautiful images.

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Balkanize yourself

The Balkan peninsula is the boiling underbelly of Europe. During most of the 20th century, the people of the Balkan have been at war with each other, and among themselves. As with many European regions, the boundaries of the Balkans are fluid, but most commonly included are former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece. A broader interpretation includes Turkey, Romania, Moldavia and even Italy, since all these countries have territories in the geographical Balkan peninsula, but the exact definition is rather irrelevant. What matters is that the Balkans are a damn interesting destination.

  • Why go there?
    The Balkans are the epicentre of The Clash of Civilizations – this is the place where East meets West, Catholicism meets Islam and Orthodoxy, where people, languages and religions clash and merge, like oil and vinegar, only to be separated again. About the only thing common to the people of the Balkans is their love for Rakia in all its varieties. Even if you forget for a second that almost every Balkan country has wonderful sea shores, high mountains, glorious ancient cities and unique monuments, that most of the Balkans is as budget as Europe gets, its worth visiting to see what all of Europe was like just a few decades ago, before the mass-pacification of the West, followed grudgingly by the Rest.
  • What’s it best for?
    If your goal is to collect as many border stamps as possible – this is the place to be. The Balkans has the highest density of (small) countries in Europe, almost all of them outside the Schengen Area, so you can improve your collection of stamps considerably.
  • When is the best time to go?
    The Balkan summer is hot, dusty and crowded, but its also the season to take life Balkan style – easy going. Its the season for early morning swim in the warm sea, for an afternoon nap, for evening coffee on the porch and for late-night rakia. The summer is also the season to enjoy the amazing fresh fruit and to lunch with Shopska salad, the only salad in the world that almost started a war. But then again, on the Balkans wars have started for less.
  • How to get around?
    While the capitals are well connected by rail, bus is still the vehicle of choice for most of the region. Driving here is for the dare-devils.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    Outside the major tourist centres of Croatia and Greece, travelling here may be a hassle and facilities not on a level Westerners are accustomed to.
  • Where to go if you just have one week
    Montenegro. The tiny country has collected all the Balkans can offer in a very convenient space. Eat real Italian pizzas and gelato on the Kotor sea side boulevard (400 years of Venetian heritage!) one day, dine on lake fish on Skadarso Jezero the next and trek in the Prokletje (“Cursed”) Mountains the following. Plus, Montenegro uses the Euro so no currency exchange troubles here.

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