Finding a flawless and affordable Mediterranean vacation destination seems harder than it once was. Reduced competition between airlines, the devaluation of the US dollar, and the explosion of tourism along Spain, France, Italy, and even Croatia's Mediterranean Riviera has made planning a spectacular seaside road trip more expensive than it once was. Alas, there is still hope for budget travelers seeking a picturesque, beachfront Mediterranean adventure this year. We bring you, the Bargain Balkan Breather: the ultimate tour of coastal Albania and Montenegro's most magnificent sights.
You may know Albania as the former home of Europe's most bizarre dictator -- a real-life (yet deceased) James Bond villain -- and Montenegro as where that James Bond movie took place (Casino Royale, in case you forgot). But these small nations, which hug both the Adriatic and Mediterranean Sea, break the norm for Eastern European travel and have a lot more going for them than being settings for James Bond's international shenanigans.
The 1990's was a trying time for travel to Eastern Europe and specifically to the Balkans. Years of conflict divided the dozens of ethnic groups that composed the Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which resulted in the fracturing of the Republic into various nation-states, and during this time, Montenegro's formerly well-known tourism industry collapsed in the face of shocking violence. Albania was also dealing with internal strife; although Albania had escaped authoritarianism with the overthrow of Enver Hoxha in 1990, an economic crisis led to a full-fledged civil war which destroyed the nation's infrastructure, and set it on course to joining NATO and eventually, the European Union.
Both Montenegro and Albania suffer from a lack of popularity among foreign tourists, but things are changing. Misconceptions about two of Europe's poorest and most obscure countries run deep, and never come from someone who has actually visited either of these countries. The truth is both Albania and Montenegro are very much like its more popular tourist destination neighbors, Croatia and Italy. There are pristine olive orchards, rugged, picturesque coastline with turquoise water below, and excellent food and wine. There are however, many more black outs, stolen cars, and potent anise-infused liquors. Albania and Montenegro are Europe, but with Balkans-style Europe, with friendly people, spectacularly fresh food, and a "we don't care" sense of flexibility. A private beach house will cost you 5 times less than a dingy hotel room on the French Riviera, with fewer attitudes and a nicer beach.
Easily the most convenient and affordable way to see these heinously overlooked vacation destinations is with a one-way car rental. In Albania, it was illegal to purchase a private motor vehicle until 1990, and once one could legally acquire a vehicle, driving culture in Albania took off and as of 2014; Albania has more Mercedes Benz per capita than any other nation on earth. After cruising along Albania's scenic mountain roads, you'll reach Montenegro, where the roads open up and green pastures and clay-top churches dominate the landscape.
Eastern European travel doesn't normally elicit thoughts of soaking in the sun on sandy beaches, historic cliff-side castles and medieval towns, or Cold-war era submarine bases cut into a mountainside (well, maybe this one). But traveling to the Balkans, specifically Albania and Montenegro, offers you these breathtaking opportunities and is without a doubt the best way to spend time on spectacular beaches, explore scenic historic sights, soak in local culture, all while being safe, inexpensive, and overwhelmed by the utter lack of Hawaiian shirt-sporting tourists.