The word Balkan evokes an emotional response for many and, thankfully, emotions are now highly positive ones when it comes to adventure travel. And yet, people who are unfamiliar with this part of the world can still struggle to picture the Balkan region on the map, to understand its cultural makeup or to know what geographical landscapes or climates await. Here are some questions asked and adventures to be had in our Balkan holidays blog. Our one overall tip is to welcome them kindly into the big world of tourism, as many of them are newbies. We are, therefore, honoured to offer holidays that protect and support them on a journey to being leading lights in responsible tourism.
Which are the Balkan countries?
First of all, they are not to be confused with Baltic countries, and yes that does happen. The Baltic countries are in northern Europe, on the Baltic Sea, and the Balkan countries are much further south, on the Balkan Peninsula. With a lot more mountains, Mediterranean and multicultural heritage. The Balkan Peninsula is bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the west, Mediterranean to the south, Aegean Sea to the east, and the Black Sea to the northeast. The countries that make up the Balkan Peninsula are Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia.
Why do some people balk at the word Balkan?
We respect the fact that some people living on the Balkan Peninsula aren’t overly fond of the word Balkan, as it has long been associated with conflict and tragedy. Also, there is a very strong sense of national identity, so they may not want to be put in one Balkan box. As travellers there, this is worth keeping in mind. However, as we see responsible tourism as a force for good in the world, we are excited to see the word Balkan bouncing around happily again in international circuits. And for us, it’s a geographical term that’s easy to understand. Most importantly, there’s a buzz about Balkan countries right now, which is why we want to big them up and keep pushing the positives while endeavouring to protect and respect heritage and cultural sensitivities.
Albania swapped dictatorship for democracy only thirty years ago and has kept its beauties hidden under a bushel ever since. With elevated expanses like the Accursed Mountains, a blessing rather than a curse for those on Albania hiking tours, or UNESCO wonders such as the town of Berat or Butrint National Park, Albania is emerging modestly yet magnificently.
Nearly half of Bosnia-Herzegovina is covered in mountains. Its highest peak is called Maglić mountain, a word which, at first glance to English speakers, conjures a world of magic. Hiking in Bosnia-Herzegovina is certainly bewitching, with the Dinaric Alps providing a natural artery throughout beautiful BiH, as it’s often called for short. Our holidays focus on the Via Dinarica, which not only goes through BiH, but also many of its neighbouring countries. The Ciro Cycling Trail has also put BiH on the magical map, combining alpine with Adriatic as you cycle between Mostar and Dubrovnik in Croatia.
The opportunities for Bulgaria walking holidays are exquisitely endless and yet, for hiking, it’s still one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. You can shout about its marvels through the Canyon of Waterfalls or across Shiroka Laka in the Rhodope Mountains, but only a handful of fellow secret keepers will hear you. During the summer months, mass tourism hones in on the Black Sea, whereas our Bulgaria holidays head up into the hills, not just to its impressive Rhodope Mountains but also to Pirin and Rila National Parks, some of the country’s even greater kept secrets. You may also enjoy our blog on Best time to go to Bulgaria.
Much more established on the tourism map, Croatia is like the oldest sibling who reached out to the world first and reaped the benefits big time. It has eight national parks and over a thousand islands, and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Walking holidays are a perfect way, particularly along the southern Dalmatia coast. Then, when you have found your footing, come back for more, such as these Istrian idylls. Fame and fortune have had their impacts, however, and Croatia has suffered from overtourism and overdevelopment in parts, so its neighbours should look on and learn.
Greece is both epic and ethereal, and it’s also an eminent tourism destination already, and so we don’t need to big it up here. However, it is worth highlighting holidays that encompass both Greece and its Balkan neighbours on one trip. Such as cycling the mountains of North and Greek Macedonia. This tour starts on the shores of North Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid and heads through Galichitza National Park into northern Greece. Here you can explore Pelister National Park, the luscious lakelands of Kastoria and Vegoritas and the elevated wonders of the Pinios Valley. Another cross-border cycling adventure is from Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains into northern Greece, culminating in the prettiest of peninsulas at Halkidiki. Balkan beauty doesn’t stop for a line on a map.
Kosovo may be partially recognised as a state, but we are rather partial to it. It’s also very new on the tourism map, and local people are embracing this wholeheartedly. You will meet the warmest people walking in Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park, Rugova Gorge or Lake Leqinat. And you can hit the country’s prettiest of pinnacles by summiting Gjeravica Peak (2,656m), its highest mountain. It is also the second highest in the Accursed Mountains, which you will discover on our Peaks of the Balkans walking holidays, one of Europe’s finest peacetime pathways.
Montenegro is like a ‘tardis’. Although it is one of Europe’s smallest countries, it has five national parks, a plethora of peaks, with over sixty of them hitting heights of over 1,800m, spectacular lakelands and nearly 300km of coast. Which makes it all so easy to navigate. For example, you can go from Lovćen National Park in the morning down to the coast at Kotor in the afternoon. It’s also home to Lake Skadar, although it shares its beauty with Albania and together they protect the biggest and the most magnificent lake in the Balkans.
The name North Macedonia was hard won by this small, independent Republic in 2019. Based on our own North Macedonia adventure holidays, it merits several middle names too. Hidden depths should definitely be in there, natural and cultural ones – given that this country has a cornucopia of caves in Matka Canyon or Mavrovo National Park, as well as two splendid lakes of Prespa and Ohrid. Let’s throw in the name Šar too, in honour of the impressive peaks and ridges of the north-west, or perhaps simply go for Titov Vruh, the highest summit (2,747m) which you can head up to while hiking here.
Romania is almost perfectly round in shape, with a crescent of Carpathians carved through its centre, and the Danube traversing its southern edge. If you were to sculpt it, it would be a work of art. Hike it, and you’ll find a world apart. Our Romania walking holidays open up this world for you, staying in small, locally owned guest houses in the likes of the Piatra Craiului or Făgăraș Mountains, both in the heart of the Southern Carpathians, also known as the Transylvanian Alps. Nothing spooky to see here though, unless quiet, wild places send shivers down your spine. We’re here for the shivers.
Our Serbia tours are all about going with the flow, whether you choose to float through the capital Belgrade on a bike and boat tour of the Danube, or immerse yourself in the dramatic gorge that envelops it. If you dip in or dive into Serbia, you’ll find not only a historic capital on the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, but also Djerdap National Park, where the eponymous gorge stretches for 100km along the Danube. It’s still early days for Serbian tourism, a country where tranquility has emerged from past traumas, and nature is guaranteed to nurture.
The Julian Alps emerge out of Slovenia like a white rabbit out of a magician’s hat. Our Slovenia tours applaud this alchemy, aiming to share its delights with an audience of adventurers. Our walking holidays, for example, take you into the heart of Triglav National Park, where the drama of the Julian Alps rises to a crescendo at Mount Triglav, the highest peak at 2,864m. Walk or cycle around the array of lakes and glacial river valleys scattered across the country, with iconic Lake Bled and Bohinj so beautiful, they feel like part of the illusion.
Via Dinarica Trail
The Via Dinarica was launched in 2010 and is the baby of a group of local and regional leaders who had the vision to not only put their countries on the map but to do so in a sustainable and adventurous way. It has a network of three trails, covering over 2,000km in all, but the most complete one is the White Trail. Read our blog on the Via Dinarica Trail for more details.
Peaks of the Balkans
Last but not least, the Peaks of the Balkans is a long-distance hiking trail traversing the western Balkan countries of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. Depending on the heights that you want to hit, there are options to ascend Mt. Trekufiri, Hajla, Taljanka and Arapi, all promising the most peaceful panoramas. These are moderate-level, self-guided walking where you are on your feet for between five and eight hours every day. With daily ascents of maximum 1,000m, our Peaks of the Balkans Highlights and Peaks of the Balkans Complete holidays are best.