The Piva Canyon Road between Montenegro and Bosnia

The Drive From Montenegro To Bosnia – What To Expect

It has been said that the drive from Montenegro to Bosnia can be dangerous. This is probably not an unreasonable observation, particularly in inclement weather. However, on a fine day the drive to Bosnia on satisfactory roads didn’t make us feel uncomfortable although we did recognise the need to remain cautious. Here is what to expect if you are thinking of driving from Montenegro to Bosnia across the border at Hum, as well as what there is to see along the way.

The most common reason for driving from Montenegro to Bosnia is probably to simply shift camp from one country to another. That was our reason and because we took our time and drove to road conditions we didn’t feel intimidated. There isn’t any reason if you choose to drive in Bosnia why you shouldn’t share an equally benign experience, but we would recommend that you take the time to become familiar with the route before setting off so you know what to expect.

The drive from Montenegro to Bosnia offers lots to see. The glacial but now highly fertile landscape in the vicinity of Podgorica and Niksic gives way to the lovely carbonate canyons beyond Pluzine which constitute deep reservoirs of Montenegro’s Mratinje Dam. Beyond the border awaits Bosnia, a country with fewer resources. The drive through Bosnia from the border to Sarajevo continues on national roads through lush forests, often with glimpses of the sad reminders of the Balkans war.

Each stage of the drive from Montenegro to Bosnia recommends itself as a tourist attraction, but each stage also has its need for caution. You can explore what to expect as you work through the post.

Main Themes
  • Routes for the drive from Montenego to Bosnia
  • Road conditions
  • What to see along the way

The Route for the Drive from Montenegro to Bosnia

Montenegro is a small country and is not burdened by a complicated road network. You will therefore find that irrespective of where your drive from Montenegro to Bosnia originates, all roads drain into the small city of Niksic in Montenegro.

There are three alternate routes from Kotor to Niksic

which is north of the nation’s capital, Podgorica. It is there that you can pick up the M18/E762 to Sarajevo. Your choices will revolve around where you are starting from in Montenegro and which route you choose to get to Niksic.

Should you start from Kotor then there are three routes available, but not all are as comfortable.

The Drive from Kotor to Niksic via Vilusi

To get to Niksic via Vilusi, drive along the eastern shore line of Kotor Bay to Morinj. The P11 at Morinj ascends inland towards Vilusi where your drive across Montenegro will intersect wth the M6. Continue on the M6 for the short drive to Niksic. Montenegro is experiencing an increase in popularity as a tourist destination and is increasingly aware of the need for modern infrastructure to support enhanced trade. Consequently, money is being spent on modern motorways but it is apparent that some routes are being favoured over others. Regional roads in Montenegro may therefore not be maintained at present to the same standard that western tourists are used to. However, this route to Niksic of approximately 130 kms is well used and will take about 2.0 hrs of careful driving. Along the route you can expect numerous road signs to limit your speed, steep descents and sections of bends. It is also representative of what to expect when driving in Montenegro.

The Drive from Kotor to Niksic Across Central Montenegro

A second option for the drive from Montenegro to Bosnia via Niksic is to start by taking the serpentine P1 from Kotor up the face of Mt Lovcen. Once over the top you will intersect with the P15 which will take you through Cevo and across the Montenegrin highlands to Orlina. The M6 will then take you to Niksic from Orlina. The drive from the intersection of the P1 and P15 to Orlina is similar to the drive via Vilusi but there are more sections of bends and descents but fewer speed signs.

You should think carefully about taking this route. The section of the P1 that ascends from Kotor is along an elevated stretch of road that is narrow, precipitous and has at least 15 kilometres of bends. The serpentine ascent itself up the mountain away from Kotor has 16 switchbacks. Visitors to Europe who have done some alpine driving previously will not find this steep ascent outside their experience and will understand the safety issues involved. However, others have stated that they consider this to be one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Should you be uncertain, take one of the routes. This route to Niksic is approximately 170 kms and could take more than 2.5 hrs of sometimes stressful driving.

The serpentine ascent up the mountain away from Kotor has 16 switchbacks
Switchbacks on the P1 ascending out of Kotor

The Drive from Kotor to Niksic via Podgorica

The most popular and conservative drive from Kotor is to take the M2.3 which leads to Cetinje and then continue on the M18 through Podgorica, the nation’s capital, to Niksic. You will find this is a different style of road which won’t generate white knuckles. This road is broader and well maintained. After all, it connects the nation’s capital with countries to its north while also connecting the nation’s capital with Montenegro’s cultural capital, Cetinje.

Cetinje nestled in its Karst surroundings

If you interested in this route and feeling brave, you can still take the P1 over the top of Mt Lovcen and then head for Cetinje.

Alternatively, take the E80 out of Kotor onto the E65 for the short drive to the popular coastal city of Budva, where you ascend out of Budva

Budva plan to spend a day in Budva before or after your visit to Kotor

on the M2.3 onto the tableland. Continue on the M2.3 for the longer drive to Cetinje. The ascent onto the tableland at Budva is far gentler than taking on the switchbacks at Kotor.

The drive through Montenegro from Kotor via Budva, Cetinje and Podgorica is the least stressful of the routes and continues on good roads. Even so, it should still be treated cautiously. This route to Niksic is approximately 150 kms and will take about 2.5 hrs of reasonably straight forward driving.

The Drive from Niksic to Sarajevo in Bosnia

The drive from Niksic to Sarajevo is a journey of about 180 kilometres and will take a maximum of 4.5 hours at a cost about 25 euros in fuel. Overall, much of the drive is very straightforward and you don’t have to fear having to negotiate hairpin bends – there aren’t any. You will find that when you reach elevation it will have occurred almost imperceptibly without your having to engage in steep climbs.

Rental vehicles are available in any of Montenegro’s major cities and towns, but inform the vendor that you intend to drive to Bosnia and ensure that all the paperwork for the border crossing and the rental car is provided.

The Hum Border Crossing that separates Bosnia from Montenegro is located in the middle of nowhere next to the bridge over the Tapa River. The process for crossing the border is thorough and the buildings are austere. You might wonder if this is an indication of what you can expect when in Bosnia, but that would be a mistake.

The austere check point between Montenegro and Bosnia at the border at Hum
The Hum Border Crossing between Montenegro and Bosnia

The attendants at the Montenegrin border are particularly scrupulous about papers relating to vehicle registration and insurance in an effort to prevent illegal trade. Make your border crossing as pleasant as possible by having your documents well organised so the attendant has as little to do as possible. And try to avoid arriving at the border at meal times. It is only a small facility and not heavily staffed. You may have to wait until the attendants finish their scheduled break.

What to Expect of the Roads Driving from Montenegro to Bosnia

If you have driven through some of the Balkan countries you will have observed the contrast between their infrastructures. The roads through Croatia, for example, are excellent, particularly the well-surfaced multi-lane dual carriageway toll roads. These standards aren’t maintained once the border is crossed into Montenegro and you can expect that the condition of the roads will deteriorate further once driving in Bosnia.

Driving on the Roads in Montenegro

The conditions of the roads in Montenegro vary considerably according to region but road works are currently underway to improve the network of roads across Montenegro. The roads that connect major centres, such as Cetinje and Podgorica, are first rate single carriageways and some sections provide dual lanes in both directions. These roads are as good a you will experience across the Balkans.

The Road from Niksic to the Montenegrin-Bosnian Border

The road north of Podgorica through Niksic can be driven with confidence. The M18 from Podgorica becomes the non-undulating E762 which remains generally straight through Niksic, continuing as such towards Pluzine. Niksic is also a junction for the M6 from Vilusi which catches the P11 traffic originating from around Kotor Bay for those who wished to start their journey there.

The straight road through Niksic is well surfaced and typifies what to expect between Podgorica and Pluzine
The road surface through Niksic indicates what to expect between Podgorica and Pluzine

Approximately an hour north of Niksic you will enter the Piva Lake System and approach the small hamlet of Pluzine.

The Piva Canyon starts to rise near Pluzine to store water from the Piva Lake system
The Piva Lake and River system comes into view near Pluzine

A bridge takes the M18/E762 across the Piva River just north of Pluzine and after continuing along its banks you will enter a canyon and a series of tunnels that lead to the Mratinje Dam. The road along this stretch is cut into the wall of the canyon and runs adjacent to the Piva. This part of the Montenegro to Bosnia road trip warrants your watchful concentration due to both the potential for the collapse of the carbonate bedrock and the proximity of oncoming traffic. You’ll be driving on the side of the road next to the canyon wall but there aren’t many opportunities to stop safely and take in the view. You can see the tunnel in the image above.

Vehicles entering and exiting a Piva Canyon tunnel onto a narrow dual carriageway
Tunnels along Piva Canyon. Note the width of the road.

The M18/E762 through the Piva canyon is deceptively elevated because it is constructed relative to the height of the dammed Piva River. The illusion is that you are driving along the banks of a river, but the reality is that the canyon here is very deep and you are a long way up from its bottom. Once you arrive at the dam you will get a sense of the height you have driven to.

The Mratinje Dam and the Piva River after release of overflow water
The overflow of the Piva River at the Mratinje Dam descends the canyons

The descent down from the dam, although not a serpentine road, will need your ongoing attention. The road has again been cut into the canyon wall but along this section you will drive on the side of the road closest to the cliff edge.

The Road from the Montenegrin-Bosnian Border to Sarajevo

The drive towards the Montenegrin-Bosnian border

Heading towards the Montenegrin-Bosnian border

becomes quite straight forward, but once again, note the width of the road.

Once through the Hum border the bridge crosses the nearby Tapa River. On the Bosnian side of the border the river is known as the Drina River and you remain on the M18. But this M18 is different in quality. It starts from the border unsealed, full of potholes, has muddy verges and is the sort of road where one prays that nothing is going to come the other way.

A careful drive for another 20 to 30 minutes finally finds some tarmac and then the condition of the road generally improves.

A brief video indicating road conditions after crossing the border into Bosnia at Hum

The reality bites that Bosnia is not flush with money and the government cannot give road improvement the budget it would like to. This may be one of the reasons why Bosnia is purported to have the worst accident record in the Balkans. So, although this post is specific to a particular route, you could take it as andication of what road conditions to sometimes expect should you decide to drive in Bosnia. Alternatively, there are dual carriageways across Bosnia that are comparable to other Balkan countries.

The M18 leads to the Bosnian town of Brod and after crossing the Drina River becomes the M20 which leads to Sarajevo. The M20 is just a standard, dual carriageway which in other countries would not satisfy the requirements to be considered the main thoroughfare into a large city. But it is still more than satisfactory to provide for safe driving.

What to See During the Drive from Montenegro to Bosnia

What to See in Montenegro Driving up from Kotor on the P1

The drive out of Kotor and the ascent up Mt Lovcen is for the experienced driver.

Prominent switchbacks along the descent of the P1 into Kotor
Drone view of the serpentine road descending into Kotor

It isn’t pleasant to be on narrow section with a bus approaching from the opposite direction. (Milica Buha, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

But the view is spectacular and so the drive might be worth considering. (Following image by: Muamer Ramovic from Pexels).

Panoramic view of the Kotor valley and Bay with the serpentine P1 in the foreground
A glimpse of the view from the serpentine P1 road ascending from Kotor

What to See in Montenegro Driving from Podgorica to Niksic

Podgorica is situated within the karst zone (see our post about Lovcen National Park) but the usually high proportion of carbonate rocks (eg limestone, dolomite) has been augmented by sediments and alluvium that originated from glaciation, rivers, large floods and even sea level changes. This is particularly evident in the scenery and landscape as you drive from Podgorica to Niksic, the latter having experienced an almost identical natural history to Podgorica.

Glaciation added sediment to the karst surfaces around Niksic resulting in fertile landscapes
Fertile landscape around Niksic as a result of glaciation

The M18/E762 runs parallel to the Zeta River which is nestled in what appears to be a broad fertile valley. This valley is actually a karstic depression, the alluvium being predominantly moraine (aggregates of soil, rocks and other materials transported and deposited by the glacier).

One thought is that this type of landform could have originated at considerable ocean depths where dissolution of the carbonate rocks would have been accelerated. Subsequent rises in the land exposed the depression which was further shaped by turbulent runoff. Another noteworthy depression resulted in the formation of Skadar Lake. The formation of this depression is described at Skadar Lake: Things to Do, Ecology and Landscape

A karst depression near Niksic and Podgorica acted as a catchment for imported alluvium to enrich soil profiles
The depression between Niksic and Podgorica

Just 14 kilometres south of Niksic, if you haven’t been ‘monasteried out’, take the turn off to the Ostrog Monastery. It is worth visiting if not just to observe the embedding of the monastery into the solid limestone cliff face.

What to See in Montenegro Driving from Piva Lake to the Mratinje Dam

The Piva Lake and Piva River

The Piva Lake System comes into view on approach to Pluzine. Piva Lake itself, constructed in 1975 to supply the dam, is 12.5 km² in area, nearly 200 metres deep, and lies at an altitude of 675 metres. Once through Pluzine (don’t blink) it is only another two kilometres to the bridge that crosses the Piva Lake. Look for an immediate turnoff on the right up to the Piva Lookout for stunning views across the lake and river. This part of the road trip can be very pretty, particularly in windless conditions. The terrain can be reflected in the undisturbed and tranquil surface of the Piva River.

As you drive in Montenegro adjacent to the Piva River you will notice the carbonate rock which is particularly evident as the steep, rocky walls of deep Piva canyon. Deep canyons and gorges are usually formed when uplifted water courses systematically cut into their river bed, perhaps even leading to the collapse of the bed. We see this every day given that we live on a fault wall below which a river that cuts through the still rising valley floor.

The Tunnels of the Piva Canyon Road

The Piva Canyon is over 30 kilometers in length and you drive adjacent to the Piva River between the Volujak, Maglic, Bioc, and Pivska planina mountains the elevation maxes out at 1200 metres. Your journey along the Piva Canyon Road is made easier by the manual construction of more than 50 tunnels. These tunnels are quite distinctive in that they are not lined with concrete or other substrates to ensure smooth walls and ceiling. The tunnels have been hewn manually and then left with raw, unfinished surfaces. The stability of the tunnels relies on the integrity of the carbonate bedrock through which they are hewn and the classical arch geometry which allows larger spaces to be spanned by directing the load to the arch ends at ground level.

Vehicles entering and exiting a Piva Canyon tunnel onto a narrow dual carriageway
Tunnels along Piva Canyon. Note the width of the road.

The Mratinje Dam

Once across the dam, the waters of the Piva that have been released can be seen trickling down to lower elevations where it gathers to provide rafting experiences downstream.

What to See as You Drive from the Montenegro-Bosnia Border to Sarajevo

After the dam, the Piva continues straight to the north, meets the Tara River at the Hum Border Crossing with Bosnia and Herzegovina and becomes the Drina River. The Tara River carries away Montenegro’s surface runoff in the north and the Drina River transports it to the Danube,

One of the advantages of crossing the border at Hum is that it is surrounded by facilities that offer white water rafting and paragliding on the Drina and Tara rivers. You may wish to consider staying for a day or two to enjoy the sights associated with Europe’s deepest canyon, the Tara River Canyon (1330m). You can hike the canyon and ride its 120kph zipline. You can also go mountain biking and rock climbing. Or perhaps just stop long enough to see the canyon and enjoy the views.

The Tara River Canyon is accessible near the border crossing at Hum on the drive from Kotor to Bosnia
The Drive to Kotor from Bosnia passes near the Tara River Canyon

A Change in Rock Types in Bosnia Produces a Change in Landscape

Here at the border the carbonate rocks have given way to a broader sedimentary mix resulting in a change of vegetation. Sequences of shales interbedded with sandstone that result from the progression of deep water deposits to shallow water layers within a depression can be many thousands of metres thick. As you drive away from the border you should be able to observe in the road cuttings sandstones, conglomerates, siltstones, shale and limestone, the latter often mixed with sandstone. A change in vegetation and landform follows on. You will also start to see ruins that resulted from the Balkans conflict.

Everywhere in Bosnia there are ruins from the Balkans conflict
War reminders along the road to Brod

Driving into Brod Over the Drina River

The Drina River flows through the small township of Brod which provides an excellent opportunity to fill up the car with fuel and yourselves as well.

And on through Bosnia to Sarajevo

The scenery along the M20 to Sarajevo is very much dominated by forest and foliage. Again, notice the width of the road lanes which are narrow for a major thoroughfare.

Final Thoughts on the Drive from Montenegro to Bosnia

In answer to the question, “is it safe to drive in Bosnia?”, we can only comment that we drove from Montenegro to Bosnia without incident and without feeling uncomfortable. However, there certainly are reminders along the side of the road of prior fatalities. The road surfaces are good but on certain sections of the road, such as the Piva Canyon Road and the M20 into Sarajevo where the road can be narrow relative to the volume of traffic it carries, it is wise to be cautious about oncoming traffic and visibility.

One of the reasons why safe driving in Bosnia has a poor reputation is the use of alcohol but it was explained to us that this predominantly causes accidents in the late evening. You will need to be aware of police patrols in both Montenegro and Bosnia who mount a number of active speed traps.

Nevertheless, driving in Bosnia should always be treated with caution due to the underdevelopment and condition of some of the roads. Drive slowly and cautiously and be aware of oncoming traffic. Be aware that in some instances visibility around bends in sometimes reduced due to vegetation that encroaches from the verges. If you do this you will enjoy your Montenegro to Bosnia drive, and your driving in Bosnia generally.

And so to end on a positive note, the drive to Bosnia inevitably leads to Sarajevo. The city still bears the scars of the Balkans war and members of its population appear to be emerging from the memories at their own pace. We found the people warm and the city authentic. Don’t hesitate to visit. And while there, take in the ancient Bosnian village of Lukomir and the spectacular hike that leads away from it.

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