Here’s a brief introduction: The journey from Budva, Montenegro, to Lisbon is approximately 3,300 kilometers long. Google suggests two other routes, but they go through mountainous terrain, which can be risky in the winter due to snowfall, so we never choose those paths. The trip takes four full days. If you’re heading straight to your destination, you can expect to spend 9-11 hours on the road each day.
From Budva to Italy
The drive through Montenegro takes quite some time because the traffic isn’t fast. Plus, there’s the border with Croatia. Since January 1, 2023, Croatia has joined the Schengen Zone, so on the way to Portugal, this is the only full-fledged border crossing. They also built a bridge to bypass the border with Bosnia on the coast, which I will write about in more detail in the Croatia section. In Montenegro, there’s only one toll section — the Kamenari-Lepetane ferry across the Bay of Kotor. The ferry costs 4.5€ in winter and 5.5€ in summer.
Before the border, we refueled (diesel) — 82.13€ for a full tank.
Usually, we don’t stop in Croatia and drive directly to Italy. This time, we decided to make a quick visit to Dubrovnik to spend some time with friends. We stayed at Hotel Lero, which I can confidently recommend. It’s located not far from the city center, offers free parking, delicious breakfast, and clean rooms. It has a Booking.com rating of 8.9. Getting around Dubrovnik is very convenient with Bolt taxi: just download the app, link your card, and no hassles.
We visited the popular restaurant Pantarul , with a Google rating of 4.8. We really enjoyed the food and the service there.
We visited the craft brewery DBC — Dubrovnik Beer Company . The prices turned out to be higher than we expected, starting from 7 € for 0.5 liters of craft beer. The girls opted for cider, which was available in bottles. Snacks can also be ordered here.
By the way, I noticed something amiss here: the table closer to the door turned out to be a smoking area right inside the establishment.
We took a walk through the old town of Dubrovnik, where the Christmas market was taking place. We were there on December 16th, but the market had already started much earlier. The city was adorned with lights, and it was clear that Dubrovnik was actively attracting tourists. At the market, you could buy various hot sausages served as hot dogs, mulled wine for 3€ (none of which we liked), hot gin (something strange and very sweet), tea, and coffee. There was also a stall with churros for 4€ from Prekala curros, which, by the way, I would like to mention as very delicious.
Here are some Christmas views of Dubrovnik. We noticed two drawbacks:
- Smoking in all the bars. Smoking was so heavy that I had to leave one of them because my eyes started stinging. We tried to find a bar where it was less smoky, but it proved to be too difficult. As a result, all our clothes smelled of tobacco, even down to our underwear.
- Prices. Prices in Dubrovnik have always been high due to its status as a popular tourist destination, especially after the filming of “Game of Thrones” here. But now they seemed even higher to us. A regular beer at a bar cost 8€ for 0.5 liters.
How do I search for hotels?
I usually select hotels on Booking.com, but there are some nuances.
- First, you need to determine the comfortable distance you can drive and it should be close to the road or highway (for example, if the highway is heading south, there’s no point in looking for accommodation to the north). We look for a hotel in that specific area.
- I always look for a hotel with parking. Street parking doesn’t work for us, so I always prefer hotels with paid parking on-site or nearby. In very rare cases, I may find underground paid parking and look for a hotel close to it. Booking.com is not always convenient for finding such options because many hotels list parking as “public parking nearby.” So, it’s always necessary to carefully read the details and check if the parking is private. Usually, this kind of parking comes with an additional fee, which can range from 10 to 25 euros, and some hotels do not guarantee available spots. This is, of course, a drawback, and when traveling during peak seasons, I would recommend booking a spot in advance or confirming its availability or having a backup plan (finding parking nearby as a backup). It’s usually easier to manage this during the winter season. To ensure there are no unexpected parking issues, I check reviews that mention “parking.”
- I check the reception desk’s working hours. During planning, you can rely on the times listed on Google, but you need to consider possible delays, such as traffic, car problems, stops, and more, as anything can happen on the road. So, it’s important to have check-in available with some buffer time relative to the planned arrival. If I anticipate arriving very late, I look for a chain hotel closer to the highway with a 24-hour reception desk (for example, Ibis, Holiday Inn, etc.).
- After selecting a hotel, I search for restaurants or grocery stores nearby on Google Maps and check their opening hours. If there are no restaurants nearby, at least a grocery store should be available.
Roads in Croatia
In the morning, after breakfast, we set off for Italy with plans to spend the night in the city of Vicenza. While driving in Croatia, it’s important to adhere to the posted speed limits as there are patrols on the roads. Patrol officers can also monitor speed on the highways using civilian vehicles. Excessive speeding can result in hefty fines and may even lead to a driving ban in Croatia.
In the past, crossing Croatia meant passing through two border checkpoints due to the presence of Bosnia. However, a bridge has been built in the area near Ston. Google Maps now accurately displays this route, but it’s essential to stay alert, as other navigation systems may not be up to date, potentially leading to time loss.
After this stretch of road, you’ll encounter a toll highway. Strong winds can be a concern, as indicated by road signs. These winds are no joke or exaggeration; they can indeed push your car to the side during gusts. This can be unsettling and add stress for the driver. Additionally, part of the road goes through a mountain pass, where temperatures can drop to freezing.
The total cost of our journey through Croatia was 31.7 + 1 = 32.7 euros.
Before heading to Italy, we refueled in Croatia, assuming that prices in Italy would be higher. However, before entering Italy, we still had Slovenia on our route, where we could also refuel. The cost of fuel in Slovenia was nearly the same as in Croatia.
What should you know about Slovenia?
In Slovenia, there are toll roads, and to use them, you need to purchase a vignette for a specified number of days. Fortunately, when driving from Croatia to Italy, you don’t need to exit onto the highway, but be vigilant not to make a wrong turn, as fines for not having a vignette can be substantial.
By 8:00 PM, we had already arrived in Vicenza.
In Italy, the traffic is fast-paced, and for the most part, you can simply flow with the traffic and follow the lead of the Italians. If they suddenly slow down, it may indicate the presence of speed cameras ahead.
Finally, the endless roadwork on the highway from Trieste to Venice has been completed.
We stayed at the CityHotel Cristina Vicenza. It’s a small hotel with an indoor closed parking area. It’s just a 5-minute walk from the city center. This was the most expensive night of our journey — 85.9€, plus an additional parking fee of 5€. They offered an omelet with bacon for breakfast, which is a rarity for small hotels in Italy.
Overall, when I was looking for hotels along the way, I found that Italy is the most expensive country, even more so than France.
For dinner, we went to an interesting local place called Polpetteria Rumori, which happened to be across the street from our hotel and had a high rating. They also offered a wide selection of craft beers. Polpette are potato balls with various fillings (mozzarella, fish, meat), resembling Portuguese croquettes.
After dinner, we took a stroll through the city center, which was beautifully decorated but completely deserted. I thought about visiting a bar, but apart from open ice cream cafes, we didn’t find anything interesting. Only one kiosk was open at the Christmas market.
Italy to France
In the morning, we continued our journey and headed to Montpellier, France.
Navigating the toll roads in Italy is relatively straightforward. Upon entering the highway, you take a toll ticket, and when you exit, you pay using contactless payment methods.
However, we once encountered an unpleasant situation when our card payment didn’t go through, and a man from customer support was shouting “i soldi” in Italian, which means “money.” We tried to sort it out for a while, and fortunately, we had cash, which seems to be rare these days.
In Northern Italy, fog is often encountered, but as long as you adhere to the speed limits, it usually isn’t a significant problem. Roads in Southern Italy are frequently under construction, so you may encounter traffic jams.
We stopped at a gas station and bought a single sandwich to share for 7.9€ and a 450ml Coke Zero for 3.5€. In our regular life, we usually skip lunch and have breakfast later, but during the trip, we have to eat breakfast early, so we decided to have a snack.
So, the expenses for toll roads in Italy amounted to 58.1€. In Northern Italy, I noticed the price of diesel fuel was 1.77€ per liter. However, on the French Riviera, closer to France, we refueled at a price of 1.83€ per liter of diesel.
We filled up the tank to avoid having to refuel again in France. I’ll tell you about the issues with French gas stations a bit later.
France — Montpellier
We chose an excellent aparthotel with underground parking — Aparthotel Adagio access Montpellier Centre. The night in the hotel cost us 78.54€ plus an additional 10€ for parking. Breakfast included several types of cheese, 2 types of sausage, and only boiled eggs. Of course, we didn’t miss the opportunity to have French croissants.
We went for a walk and accidentally ended up under a bridge, where we discovered a place where homeless people were living. It was quite unsettling and uncomfortable.
We also noticed that private homes in France are much less adorned with lights for Christmas and New Year. However, the city center with its main commercial street was beautifully decorated.
Montpellier turned out to be a fairly large city, the seventh-largest in France. The city center was charming, with many cafes on the streets with terraces and heaters, as well as a wide selection of street food. However, the city was very dirty, with corners stained with urine and some odd characters on the streets.
Overall, we didn’t particularly like this city, and we decided not to dine in a restaurant to save money. We went to a store and bought several products, here’s the list:
- Two bottles of red wine (7.5€ each)
- Pate (2 pieces)
- Roquefort cheese
- A pack of sausage and small chorizos
- Bottle of water
- Liter bottle of sugar-free cola
- Shopping bag (1€)
The total cost of the products was 32.44€.
Gas Stations in France:
We try to avoid refueling in France due to the high fuel prices and the complicated payment system.
To refuel, you first need to insert your card into the machine, then enter the PIN code. A sum of around 160€ is temporarily blocked on your card, and only then can you start refueling. The remainder of the blocked sum is eventually returned to your balance. This system can be convenient for credit cards but not always suitable for debit cards. Additionally, some cards may not be accepted by the machine.
We had two unpleasant experiences:
- In the first case, when we were not familiar with this system, we inserted the card twice, and as a result, 320€ was blocked. We tried to communicate with the attendant, but it was challenging to converse in English in France. Later, we figured out how the system works, and the money was refunded after about two days. However, if those were our last funds, the situation would have been unpleasant.
- In the second case, none of our cards was accepted, and the fuel was running low. We only had 50€ in cash. It turned out that you can approach the attendant and ask them to specify the desired amount for refueling at the pump.
To avoid potential problems, we try not to create them and avoid refueling in France.
Next stop — San Sebastian.
By the way, for using toll roads in Spain, we paid: 2.91€ + 14.35€ = 17.26€.
And here, in the evening, we are in San Sebastian. We’ve stopped here for the third time because we really like this city, and it has amazing bars where you can try pintxos (small snacks).
The city has grown and prospered as a resort where the queen and other celebrities used to vacation. It has beautiful architecture, it’s very clean, there’s an old town, and there are beaches. In the summer, there are likely many tourists, and accommodation prices skyrocket. In the winter, prices are much more reasonable, and you can find a good room for 50-60€ (on weekdays; on weekends, prices are twice as high). However, not all hotels have parking, but many offer discounts and have agreements with public parking lots. For example, we paid only 18€ instead of the usual 25€ for parking, but it’s still not cheap.
The city is just amazing — clean, cozy, and beautiful. It has beautiful architecture that in many ways reminds me of France (Biarritz is only a few dozen kilometers away). It’s very clean, and the locals welcome tourists with smiles.
By the way, in San Sebastian, there are many restaurants recommended in the Michelin Guide, and there are Michelin-starred restaurants as well.
Now, about the bars and pintxos. Pintxos are snacks that are sold individually. In the bar we really liked — Casa Alcalde, there are 60 different types of these snacks to choose from. Here you can order omelets, shrimp, ham, mussels, and much more. There are different price categories ranging from 2.5€ to 5.5€. Our bill was 77€ including tips. We had 4 beers, 4 glasses of local wine — Chacoli. This is a special wine that is poured by holding the bottle high to create a long stream. It’s slightly acidic and slightly sparkling, and it goes down very easily, but it should not be underestimated. We also ordered 13 sandwiches.
We noticed an interesting detail — when someone gives a tip, they ring a bell. Perhaps this is some form of support for the staff.
Oyster Bar Kamal Ostrería Donostiarra
Later, we stumbled upon a place that offered oysters. I have a complex relationship with them. I tried oysters for the first time when I was 30, and the first oyster I tried was bitter and repulsive. The next year, I decided to give them a second chance, but the taste was still very sharp and metallic. In the summer in Portugal, I decided to try oysters again, and this time I really liked them. So, I decided to give them another chance, and they turned out to be delightful.
One of the patrons mentioned that they came here specifically because these are exclusive oysters brought in from the southern part of France. We visited Kamal Ostrería Donostiarra with a rating of 4.4.
Paying for toll roads in Portugal can indeed be a challenge.
There are regular toll booths with tickets or electronic payment methods, which means you don’t have to stop to pay. However, payment is still required, and here’s how you can do it:
There are four payment methods, but they all come down to the same thing: you need to register your vehicle in the system and link a card or top up an account. In my previous two attempts, I tried to do this online but never saw any charges and couldn’t tell if it was working at all. This time, we decided to figure it out and try again.
Interestingly, we passed the first reader, and there were no identification signs. But then, we started seeing large blue signs with different languages saying “foreigners,” a radar symbol, and “visa/mastercard.”
Finally, we saw three frames. We stopped at the stop line, and the camera recorded the license plate. Then, you need to insert your credit card into the machine. The number gets registered in the system, and your card is linked to it. Now, charges should happen automatically. However, so far, nothing has been charged, so it might take some time.
It’s important to note that if you rented a car, it’s crucial to keep the receipt because it contains the information needed to unlink your card from the website. It’s better to take a photo of it right away to avoid losing it.
Update: A month has passed, and no charges have been made. The toll roads in Portugal cost us €15.75 (what we paid via the toll booths).
Toll Roads on the Way from Budva (Montenegro) to Lisbon (Portugal)