Phileas French

Travel Writer

Phileas French

Phileas French

Travel Writer | Exploring every country in the world, one adventure at a time

Balkan Border Crossings

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I’ve made the journey overland between Kosovo and Macedonia and Macedonia and Greece in the last couple of weeks. On both occasions I was with my children aged eight and three, first time with my husband, the second time just me on my own with the kids. It struck me that I didn’t really know what to expect on either occasion and that it might be helpful to paint a bit of a picture for fellow travellers.

Both routes are unapologetically scenic. The Macedonia/Kosovo border at Blace is in a verdant, mountainous region. In my experience the crossing, both out of Macedonia and into Kosovo, was laid back, civil and brisk. We noticed a pretty grim tailback in the opposite direction but coming from our side it took about fifteen minutes all in. We noticed a few people coming through on foot, which probably would have been a faster option than Jam Transfer. They were a dreadful private taxi firm I’d booked from Skopje Airport. The affable, evasive and utterly shambolic driver had no idea where he was going, had turned up in the wrong vehicle, had no car seats and no air conditioning, despite fervent assurances to the contrary on all those issues at point of booking and part payment. After a protracted and unpleasant stand-up row in the airport car park, with overheated children and gnomic interjections from a heavily-tattooed, curious Serbian passerby, I negotiated a large rate reduction to €65 for an awful vehicle from Skopje to Prishtina.

Although the border crossing was great, the road is a two lane nightmare for the majority of the journey from the border to the capital. Overtaking is white knuckle stuff, but not really optional if you wish to make it anywhere in the country within 24 hours. Kosovo has undertaken a major road improvement programme and has far better excuses than any other European territory for road quality issues. Sure, vanilla lack of funding like everyone else but also residual war damage and startling potholes…still, I’ve got to be honest and say that getting around by car is a headache for everyone. Overloaded agricultural vehicles, stray cows and huge wedding car processions provide some light relief en route.

The traffic in Prishtina is easily the most awful thing about a surprisingly pleasant place, and it wasn’t helped by our driver’s inability to use or even switch on his GPS and the wrong turns and conflicting advice he took (extracted from irritable pedestrians he bawled at) which added an hour onto our journey.  I’d never use Jam Transfers again or try to drive in Prishtina but I’ve got no anxiety now about making the Macedonia/Kosovo crossing.

Bear in mind that there’s nothing really there at the border so bring your own water and snacks. There are a few cafes, gas stations and small hotels dotted along the route immediately around the border but it’s got no major towns around and it looked like procuring provisions could be pretty tedious.

Exactly the same goes for the border between Macedonia and Greece at Gevgelija. From Skopje to Thessaloniki took surprisingly ages, three hours with no traffic issues and, again, an easy, civil and fast-paced 15 minute border crossing. There’s nothing right at the border really in terms of refreshments, and again, the region around is pretty mountainous and remote. There are some facilities in the nearby town of Gevgelija but it’s mainly private hotels and casinos, quite an adult-seeming environment. With children you’re better off packing provisions and trying to blast through without stopping.

It’s exciting to be in what feels like a vestige of European wilderness to London eyes – there are still bears, wolves and wildcats dotted in the Kosovo and Macedonia mountains - but it means that you can’t drop into Starbucks and M&S Simply Food every ten metres.

The car from Skopje could not have been more of a contrast. I used macedoniarentacar, After our terrible entry into Prishtina I was detail-orientated to the point of demented about what I was getting in my dealings with the lovely and patient Krstev in the office. The driver was kind, calm, efficient without deranged bursts of speed, and respectful of my nerves about a three hour journey through an unknown environment with small children. The car was a lovely VW Passat with age appropriate child seats. The 190 minute journey cost a very reasonable €140 plus a large gratuity which he treated as genuinely unexpected and welcome. I’d highly recommend the firm for either the private chauffeur service we used or for car rental within Macedonia.

I guess I should issue the final disclaimer that I know the border traffic between Macedonia and  Kosovo can really clog up and that maybe some of the borders in the region aren’t such a bowl of cherries. On an evidence-based 2013 assessment though, I thought that it was important to demystify a couple of entry points which I wouldn’t hesitate to do again either on my own or with my kids.
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Comments 1

Guest - AlfredaYRotenberry on Wednesday, 29 July 2015 14:45

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Hello! Would you mind if I share your blog with my zynga group? There's a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thanks
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Saturday, 17 November 2018