When people speak of exploring the endless natural and man-made wonders and attractions that the world has to offer, they often speak of the remote mountains of Alaska or the dense forests of South America; the high-rise skyline of New York to the untouched outback of Australia. However, more often than not, Europe offers its own bite-size alternatives hidden away from the mainstream tourist routes.
The Balkans in its entirety often feels like a series of unexplored natural wonders, museums and architectural anomalies all rolled into one, that sits separate from the rest of Europe, still waiting to be truly discovered. Such living museum can be found in the countries of the Former Yugoslavia. Stretching from the edge of central Europe in Slovenia, down to the North Macedonian, Montenegrin and Kosovo borders with Albania and Greece, this fascinating set of countries has so much to offer from waterfalls and wildlife, to relics and tales of conflict from the 14th Century to the 20th Century.
So, in these challenging times of isolation and social distancing and to help spark the wanderlust, here are five low-budget European wonders to visit when the departure gates reopen.
Note: The following list is not in order of recommendation, preference or anything else to that effect – each has something for everyone!
1. The Island on Lake Bled
Starting at Former Yugoslavia’s most Western point, in both geographical and cultural terms, Slovenia is a tiny mountainous country with a population smaller than most British cities. A short and simple 30 mile trip north from the capital Ljubljana, Bled is a small town, even by this country’s pint-sized standards. Bled, however, boasts one of Europe’s most iconic and picturesque spots. Flanked by ski slopes and chalets, the lake itself is reliably clear and blue with the Church of the Mother of God sitting satisfyingly symmetrical on the island which is only a short boat ride away. The lake in its entirety is visible from both the path around, as well as the stunning Bled Castle that looks down over the town and surrounding mountains. Whether in the warm, clear summers, or the doubtlessly snow-covered, sub-zero winters, Bled never looks less than stunning.
Where is Lake Bled?
2. Europe’s second Rome
There’s no getting past the fact that Rome has probably the greatest example of Roman architecture in the world, for obvious reasons. Part of this includes the UNESCO listed Flavian Amphitheatre, or Colosseum, which is rightly featured in each and every ‘top places you must visit before you die’ guide that has ever been produced. But with great fame comes great challenges. The sheer number of visitors and the tourist trap tricks and prices all come as an impact of its incredible popularity. However, only a couple of countries east, a small city called Pula on the Croatian coast has managed to preserve its own Roman arena, complete with the accessibility and affordability that comes with its comparative unknown status. Okay, architecturally it’s smaller but it’s in context of the smaller city surroundings it dwarfs the other landmarks this beautiful little place has to offer. It’s remarkable that this hasn’t become more of a tourist destination, with it currently not even making the top three in Croatia – in part thanks to Game of Thrones and cruise ships keeping tourists flocking to Dubrovnik on the country’s southern-most tip. Croatia as a whole is incredibly accessible from the UK, and Pula even has its own international airport, so what’s the delay?
Where is Pula?
3. The City of a Thousand Windows
Okay, so this is cheating somewhat. Albania was never part of the Former Yugoslavia, but certainly had significant, and alarmingly recent history overlap with parts of the bloc. None-the-less, as a neighbour of Montenegro, Kosovo and North Macedonia, whilst itself often overlook as a tourist destination despite being a Mediterranean paradise of mountains and beaches, it can have an honorary mention on this list. As part of our visit to the Christmas market in the capital Tirana in 2019, we took a tour out to Berat. With its ethnographic museum within an old Ottoman-style house and its castle on a plateau overlooking both the old and new cities, Berat has a lot to offer to any curious tourist. It’s most famous landmark is across the river from the old city, the ‘City of a Thousand Windows’. As you look across the water which is spanned by Gorica Bridge, the facias of hundreds of white house stare back. It’s an unusual sight and hard to identify whether it’s a deliberate characteristic or simply a coincidence. Unfortunately, the mountain behind the houses doesn’t allow for a comparative photograph from the other side!
Where is Berat?
4. Waterfalls where Europe’s East meets West
Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of the world’s most fascinating countries that seems to have a bit of everything. If you’ve read our tales of adventure to the country in 2018 and 2019 then you will already know that we’ve become absolutely infatuated with the place. Unfortunately, Bosnia is more famously associated with the wars and conflicts that gripped the region as recently as the mid-1990s. Today though, this country is incredibly welcoming and hospitable and has so much to offer. Enter Kravica Waterfalls. Summer temperatures in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia can exceed 40 degrees, and whilst the snakes are a little more common that I would prefer, the draw of waterfalls is always going to be too strong to resist. Kravica is perhaps best seen as the little brother, and an extension of the National Parks in Croatia, Krka and Plitvice. Accessible? Yes. Affordable? Very. Easy to get to from the UK? With a little effort. Dubrovnik on Croatia’s south coast, and Podgorica in Montenegro both have international airports that fly direct to and from the UK, and both are surprisingly close to this haven in Bosnia’s western corner. Oh, and while you’re making the effort, make sure to visit the incredibly unique towns of Blagaj and Mostar just up the road while you’re there!
Where is Kravica?
Looking to visit Kravica Waterfalls or elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina? Our friends at Mostar Travel Agency provide excellent tours and transfers across the region. Clicking here to visit their website and find out more!
5. Four-Legged Friends in the Kosovo Countryside
(Four Paws Bear Sanctuary, Prishtina, Kosovo)
Kosovo is widely associated with conflict and politics. Having technically only become an independent country in 2008, something which is still in dispute with some nations, Europe’s newest country comes as a truly unique experience. It’s most popular tourist attraction is the Bear Sanctuary just outside of the capital Prishtina. Bears, which can be found in the wild across the Balkans, were not deemed illegal to be kept as pets and, by association, exhibits in restaurants and bars until the 2010s. Now a large rural site in the Kosovo countryside houses a number of large brown bears, living out their lives in luxury, whilst exhibits and educational boards highlight the plight and rescue that these beautiful animals underwent. It doesn’t stop there, as despite the legal and political challenges that come with operating in the country still looking to fully establish its independence with some, Four Paws continually look to support and care for animals in neighbouring countries as well as its own. Something for the animal lovers for certain!
Where is Four Paws Bear Sanctuary?
Article and images by Tom McBeth