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The first draft of this, our third Balkan road trip edition in a year, was written in early February 2020, before the world took a pandemic-induced turn for the worse. Two and a half months later, lockdowns and restrictions are slowly being lifted across the world, but travel is and will remain an unattainable and uncertain option for most.

Road trips, however, will most likely be the first – and possibly only – option for most of us in the near future. So I figure some of these road trip planning tips might come in handy for those looking to travel to southeast Europe – provided the borders open at all by the end of this year.

The “road” to Corfu island

The dually complex art of a family/Balkan road trip

I will admit that, both as a group and as individuals, our family is highly unorthodox and tremendously fortunate. If anything, this pandemic has only made that clearer than ever.

We’re all at least bilingual, the husband loves to drive and does it well, the two adult kids speak at least three languages among them and have plenty of travel experience, and the 7-year-old loves long car rides and hiking. Thanks to my travel-happy expat parents, I happen to know southern Europe like the back of my aging hand and we have jobs/schools/careers that we can get away from or manage online for a couple of weeks.

Empress Sisi’s summer palace on Corfu

That being said, under even the most normal circumstances, we still have plenty of obligations at home and a budget. A 12-day road trip for a family of five is never simple or cheap. But, so far, we seem to be pulling it off. And I use that term in its truest sense. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve read about our 2019 trip to Rome (and six other cities).

In the meantime, for those less familiar with southern Europe, here’s how I mapped out a 12-day road trip through four Balkan countries with a week-long stay on the Greek island of Corfu, for a family of five, and on a budget.

In keeping with that budget, first note that we did this road trip in February, the off-off-season. Much of the world is bound to be in a perpetual off-season for a while, so this planning method might apply more than usual.

Also note that we try to keep total time spent driving to under five hours a day. Weirdly, with four adults in the family, we only have the one driver in the family at the moment. Even with an additional driver, we’d still prefer to keep the daily quota spent in the car at under six hours so that we can visit several cities and nearly forgotten historical attractions along the way, which amounts to added hotel stays and expenses of an additional night and half-day in each direction.

The total driving time from our home in Central Serbia to the island of Corfu is just under 13 hours. If you wanted to get to Corfu from Serbia and back faster, you could. We just choose not to.

We began our trip from Central Serbia, about an hour away from Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla International Airport. The first leg of this trip took us to Skopje, the capital of Northern Macedonia, in just under six hours. This is usually a four-and-a-half-hour drive, but we’ve allocated time for pit stops and any potential minor glitches.

We excluded a lunch break on this leg of the trip, as we had dinner with a friend scheduled in Skopje. Instead, we packed sandwiches and snacks and allowing the rarest of exceptions – eating in the car.

Having nearly been RAISED in a car on long European road trips, I continue to apply my mother’s road trip gas station pit stop rules – whenever we stop at a gas station, for whatever reason, use of the bathroom is mandatory for EVERYONE in the travel group.

Fascist as it may sound, these are the rules that get us to our final destination safely and quickly. If and when we’re able to travel post-pandemic, these rules will be canon law.

Lake Ohrid, Northern Macedonia

You found what you were looking for

Macedonians, like most Balkan folk, have an abundance of proverbs. That subheading is one of them. The gist of it is you get what you ask for or careful what you wish for. Or, in the words of Henry Miller, “Every man has his own destiny: the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads him.”

If you’re going to travel, take the time to travel, damn it. Especially on a Balkan road trip, where tourism isn’t quite so developed but there is an incredible amount of (often hidden) historical and cultural attractions. Stop to look, to smell, wonder, ask, learn, and remember. Otherwise, you may as well be sitting at home, watching the Travel Channel, and surfing on Facebook. And I think most of us have had quite enough of sitting at home.

Once we hit Skopje, we could sleep at a motel and be back on the road in the morning, making it to Corfu by dinner time. Instead, we took time to see a dear friend over drinks and dinner.

Ancient theatre of Ohrid, from the Hellenistic Era (cca 200 BC)

When traveling anywhere in the world, look out for brand new, recently opened hotels and/or large hotels that aren’t part of a chain for promotional deals and bargains on decently priced hotel rooms with complimentary use of the hotel’s spa and/or indoor pool. For the new hotels, it’s a promotional thing, while for large independent hotels I can only assume that offering this sort of deal helps cover the massive overhead in off-season months.

After a decent night’s sleep and breakfast, we spent the morning enjoying the complimentary pool and sauna access at our hotel. This would be a good time to mention that our TOTAL budget for accommodations, for 12 nights for our family of five on this trip was under $1200, including VAT and any applicable city tax. That comes out to $20 per person per day, and may occasionally include breakfast, hamam, sauna, and/or pool access. And free parking. Because road trip.

By noon, we were back on the road for a 3-hour drive to Ohrid, a lovely tourist spot in southern Northern Macedonia. Which is not in the northern Greek province of Macedonia. If you’re confused, I can’t help you. Everyone in this region is as confused about borders as we’ve ever been.

Does that sound silly? Driving just three hours and then spending the night in a backwater town near the border with Greece, when we have less than five hours to go to our final destination.

Know what would be sillier? Driving right past Lake Ohrid and the Roman ruins and medieval sites of Old Town Ohrid. We spent the night in a quaint socialist-era hotel on the lake and did some sightseeing before taking off to catch the ferry to Corfu in Igoumenitsa, Macedonia. The Greek Macedonia. For real. There’s a whole legit border in between and everything.

Ferry ride from Igoumenitsa to Kerkyra proper on Corfu island

Ferries, and islands, and castles – oh, my!

Though we were on day three of our 12-day road trip, because of our drive less/see more tempo, we were all still well-rested and ready to explore. The road itself in northern Greece was one of the best we’ve seen in the region, bestrewn with long tunnels and short bridges as we headed downhill toward the coast.

From Ohrid, a four-hour-long drive got us to the port town of Igoumenitsa in northwestern Greece, where we boarded an almost two-hour-long ferry ride to the island of Corfu.

The ferries there run several times a day, year-round, and go to either Corfu Town (Kerkyra) or Lefkimmi, in the south of the small island. The first option would take us to our intended destination of Kerkyra in an hour and 45 minutes, where we have booked a 2-bedroom apartment for a week. The latter ferry option, to Lefkimmi, takes just an hour and 15 minutes, but would leave us with another hour’s drive north to the apartment in Kerkyra.

Empress Sisi’s summer palace garden, Corfu

Yassas and thanks for all the fish!

After eight days on a small island in the Balkans, I expected an undefined and fluid 60% or more of our weird, outspoken, individualistic family to be wailing the Banana Boat Song at the top of their lungs.

Now, I’m not saying that a family vacation is all-night, back-breaking work. But, essentially, we had been stuck in a small, confined space together for a week so, Mr. Tallyman sir, if you’d tally them bananas real quick and get us home, we’d sure be grateful.

Our trip back took us right back through the Igoumenitsa ferry port, and toward Thessaloniki, once the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire, now the second largest in Greece. Lots to see and explore there, but a cold front had hit the Balkans the week before and we weren’t willing to wait for more snowfall on the road.

Another six hours of total travel time, including the ferry ride from Corfu, and we arrived in Thessaloniki in the evening to discover the most insane traffic and parking rules on the planet. After a not so restful night in loud and busy downtown Thessaloniki, we headed back home and arrived just in time to plan and do some bulk grocery shopping ahead of the global pandemic. Here’s to hoping we get to head out for our next Balkan road trip (safely) soon.