After successfully circumnavigating the Iberia peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in our Nissan Micra, we decided to start the journey back to Finland with a trip across southern Europe.
We visited 11 countries on the trip including; Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Greece.
I was a bit concerned about taking a family of 4 across Europe in the middle of summer in a cramped small car without air-conditioning but it worked out well. Soaking T-shirts with water and winding windows down did the job.
We picked up our car in Barcelona where we had left it with our friend, Ingrid. The plan was to fly out of Corfu Greece, 25 days and 3400 km later.
The family had voted for a beach holiday so the most logical choice was to explore the French and Italian Riviera. As we had seen a fair bit of Italy in the past, we planned to check out the Croatian and Albanian coastline. For variation, we took detours up into the mountains of Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania.
We finished off the trip with a leisurely drive around Corfu Greece, ending at the port where we left the car, eagerly awaiting us for our next trip. We flew back to Finland on a direct flight from Corfu with Norwegian airlines.
Below are some of the highlights and interesting things we experienced along the way. Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, France and Greece were our favorite countries. Albania was great value for money and had some very beautiful beaches. Montenegro we loved for the mountains. Croatia had the best coastal drives. France we loved for the food and Corfu Greece was just super relaxed, fun and easy to get around.
Our favorite beach was Gjipe beach in the south of Albania (center right picture). It sits at the end of a canyon and has some very nice caves at the south end of the beach. We took a boat to get there but it is also accessible by foot if you are prepared to hike in.
The most beautiful beach we found was Plazhi Me Shpella in Albania (center left picture) which is the sister beach to Gjipe. It is a white rock beach with the clearest turquoise and dark blue water. It is only accessible by boat. The south end of the beach has a huge cave.
We spent the most time at the Himara beach (top right picture) in Albania which was right next to a beach house that we rented.
Almost equally impressive were the beaches on the island of Corfu, Greece. On the north west coast near the town of Palaiokastritsa is a beach called Limni Beach (bottom center) which looks out to some spectacular mountains (it is actually a small rock outcrop linking the mainland to an island). On the north east coast near the town of Kassiopi is a beach called Kanoni Beach (bottom left). It has no beach umbrellas and not that many people. The kids enjoyed jumping off the rocks.
The last on the list of favorites for Corfu was Mirtiotissas Beach (pictured bottom right). It is a lovely naturalist beach on the west coast, directly across from Corfu town, which is situated on the east coast. It’s not a big beach but definitely worth a visit if you don’t mind losing your kit.
Beaches along the Croatian coast were also very beautiful. (The one pictured top center is near Dugi Rat, south of Split). In Croatia it was easy to find showers and there were never that many people on the beaches. (At first I was not that impressed with Split as it looked like a big and ugly town but some of the nicest nature is just south of the city)
The beaches along the French Riviera were also very nice but usually a lot more crowded. The one pictured to the right with my daughter Sofia was in Cassis France. It was usually quite easy to find parking and showers on all the French beaches and they seemed a lot less commercial than the Italian ones.
Italian beaches on the north west cost were mostly black rock or dark sand. The prettiest beaches in Italy we saw were on the east coast but they were hard to use without being asked to pay €30 for an umbrella and sun bed. An exception to this was Mezzavalle Beach (top left), just south of Ancona where we got the ferry to Croatia. It was a fair hike down to the beach but well worth the effort.
Beaches in the north and middle of Albania were mostly made up of dark sand and the water was less clean. It was similar in Montenegro.
The most impressive nature on the trip was Croatia’s Krka National park (pictured middle left). Walking around hundreds of waterfalls with crystal clear lakes and fish everywhere was something I have never seen before. It was also one of the most expensive parks we visited costing over €85 for a family of 4. (We paid $100 for an annual pass to all the national parks in the USA)
Other stunningly beautiful places included Montenegro’s Durmitor National Park (pictured top right and bottom left) and Albania’s Fjords on Lake Koman (pictured bottom center).
Driving along the Granite mountains of Croatia, south of Split, overlooking the Adriatic sea was the nicest coastal drive (pictured bottom right).
Another nice drive was along the Mediterranean sea, west of Cannes France. The red rock caught the colors of the sunset as we drove through the winding valleys (top left). We also enjoyed the drive north east from the coast of Montenegro past lake Slansko (middle right). We swam in it’s sister lake further to the north east.
A favorite swim was with my son William in the old volcanic pools of Manarola, a hidden away coastal town, part of the Italian Cinque Terre (top middle).
Hands down the best Seafood award went to Croatia – It wasn’t cheap but tasted mouthwatering. They especially put a lot of effort into marinating the octopus so it was tender. A meal like the one pictured below (left) cost around €80 including a couple of Risotto starters.
The all round best food was in France as you would expect – those guys just don’t mess it up. Ice cream (top right), pastries, main courses – everything just tasted delicious. Even in the city of Nice in the middle of summer, prices were on par with, or cheaper than what we would pay at home. For example the Octopus salad pictured right was only €12.
It’s all comparative though – we fed the whole family with a very nice meal and drinks for €12 in Serbia which was one of our cheapest meals.
Albanian food was decent but much more pricey than we expected. They cater to tourist as the prices were out of reach of most of the locals. A meal at a seafood restaurant usually ended up costing well north of €50 for our family of 4. A pasta and pizza restaurants in comparison would cost about €25. Kebab shops were the cheapest costing €1.80 per Pita kebab. Throwing in some drinks you could walk away for under €15. Albanian Ice cream was some of the best ice cream we had. 2 scoops on a cone cost roughly €1.
In Albania it was very easy to buy fresh fish directly from the fishing trawlers. Sea Bream was €9/kg. Sea Bass was slightly cheaper. Squid was €4.50/kg. Small prawns were cheap at around €5/kg but the big ones were €15/kg. The picture above (middle right) shows us grilling fish on the roof of our apartment in Himare.
Greek food prices were a bit cheaper than Croatia but not by much. As Greece services a lot of different tourists with different budgets, there was a lot of variety and choices. Most meals ended up costing us around €50. (above bottom right picture from a Spit roast restaurant in the north east of Corfu – that meal cost €45) We found a very good Seafood restaurant in Corfu town on our last night in Greece. It was quite good and surprisingly cheap at €55.
A Taste of Culture
Visiting the Dalí museum (left picture) in Spain, north of Barcelona, was pretty cool. Dalí was quite an eccentric and charismatic man. I’m pretty sure his level of creativity required some heavy drugs. Most interesting were his giant sculptures incorporating modern and classical art.
Other highlights included visiting the leaning tower of Pisa (top left picture) in Italy, the Mostar bridge (top right picture) in Bosnia (where they have an insane diving competition), the Cannes film festival center (bottom right picture) in France and the Dubrovnik castle (bottom left picture) in Croatia (a filming location for Game of Thrones).
Accommodation along the Way
Our favorite hotel was in Corfu Greece just north of Paramonas on the central west side of Corfu (pictured below left). The place was really beautiful and had a lovely pool and landscaped garden. There were only a few families staying there and the kids all played nicely together. It was also a bargain at €55. We would have stayed longer but they were booked out.
The longest we spent in a single place was 3 nights in Himare Albania. It was cheap at €35 a night and very beautiful. We had a view overlooking the bay, nice air-conditioning and a short walk to shops and restaurants. The host Peter was lovely and spoke very good English. He had built the place himself. The place had a few quirks like a bathroom that required someone to stand there with a mop and push the water down the drain, but we didn’t mind it.
The dodgiest place we stayed was deep in the less affluent suburbs of Marceille France (middle right picture). The apartment was actually really nice but the front door had 3 dead locks on it. Fortunately we didn’t get robbed and the car was still there in the morning.
The most chilled place was in Ksamil Albania, just south of the port city of Sarande. The owner had planted a lovely garden, which considering the hot and dry climate, was very impressive. The son of the owner showed us where to buy fresh fish and he grilled it for us on an open fire. The place was only a few minutes walk from a nice beach. We paid €35 which was good value.
The most disappointing stay was our hotel in the north east of Corfu. They were new to AirBnB so didn’t have any reviews. The photos of the place were amazing but in reality it was a run down dump. Their blue pool in the pictures was a green mess in reality. Beds and sheets were worn out. Their high speed WIFI didn’t exist. It wasn’t a total loss as 2 of the 4 light bulbs in our hotel room worked and the air-conditioning worked.
The other interesting accommodation was in Kosovo that we found on Booking.com. It was a private double room in a hostel with a balcony and had a score of 9.2. You can see one of the other guests having his breakfast (bottom right picture) in our private room which also doubled up as a shared living room and kitchen.
The Budget and what we Spent
We use the iPhone App WanderWallet to track our expenses so we always have quite precise info on our spending.The original target was to try and stick to €3500 for the trip, giving us a daily budget of €140. We ended up going €770 (22%) over that budget which was still acceptable for us.
We could have maybe moved though the more expensive countries (France, Italy and Croatia) faster and spend more time in the cheaper ones (Albania, Montenegro or Serbia), but we were still happy with how we did it.
As you can see from the numbers, food consumed almost 50% of the budget which we found surprising. Usually the split between accommodation, food and transport is an even third each.
We cooked 4 dinners ourselves and mostly ate cereal for breakfast. We could have cooked more ourselves or eaten at less expensive restaurants but getting someone else to do the cooking and eating nice food is something that we really enjoy on holidays.
Given the number of nights we were on the road we were pleasantly surprised that the accommodation bill was only just over €1000. That is an average of €47 a night and we stayed at some pretty nice places. We used Booking.com and AirBnb as the apps to source accommodation. Booking.com was usually cheaper and easier to book at the last minute.
Having our own car saved some money and it was a lot less stressful worrying about getting it scratched up or damaged as you do with a hire car. If you deduct the €355 we spent on 4 ferry crossings, it works out at just under €20 a day for fuel, parking and tolls. Admittedly we only averaged 136 km a day which is about half what we usually do.
Our spend on entertainment was very low at less than €14 a day – the kids were mostly content with swimming and collecting shells/rocks. We took out the occasional paddle boat, rode an ATV and visited a few national parks, churches and museums.
Challenges and Difficulties
The most difficult part of the trip was staying hydrated. We were going through 4-6 liters of water a day. I had to push the kids a bit in the beginning to drink more. We used bottled water the whole time as a safety precaution to keep everyone healthy.
We used a fair bit of sun cream in the beginning until our skin got more used to the sun. The kids were tanned by the end of the trip and no one had complained about sunburn. We wore hats and avoided swimming between 12:00 and 15:00 when the sun was at its hottest.
The family were pretty good about not losing stuff on the trip. We lost the sun cream and had to replace it. We also lost a debit card which we immediately cancelled – we believe it just fell out of a bag. If there was more stuff lost we haven’t missed it yet. As a preventative measure we thoroughly checked the rooms before checkout and everyone kept their things together in one place.
On the previous trip we noticed the rear wheel bearings making noise so I ordered some and had them replaced in Italy for €80. When we got further south near Greece we noticed a similar noise coming from the front so I will order some front wheel bearings and replace them on the next trip.
We should have taken more Euro cash as getting money on the road outside the EU was very expensive. Exchange rates for the local currencies on the street were very reasonable for Euros.
For example: the official online exchange rate in Albania was 121 LEK to €1. We were seeing rates on the street of 120.2 LEK to €1 without commission which is less than 1%. My Finnish bank offered 118 LEK and a commision of €2 + 3% which equated to and exchange rate closer to 100 LEK to €1 when you also added in the €6.50 ATM fee by the local bank.
We felt very safe on the trip. Everyone was polite and friendly. Most of the countries we visited rely heavily on the tourism trade so they take good care of their tourists. Police on bicycles and foot were also visible, especially in some of the more busy tourist locations. The border crossings were also very easy provided followed the rules and had your paperwork in order.
We will try to find a time before Christmas 2019 to bring the Nissan Micra back to Finland. We need to do it before first snowfall as the car only has summer tires on. The proposal is to drive back via Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and up through the Baltic states.
We most likely won’t have the kids with us. For the next family trip next summer we are thinking about a trip up through Sweden and down through Norway or then something in Russia.