A colourful tapestry of old traditions and landscapes, a trip through the Balkan countries offers a wonderful insight into a lesser-known Europe.
Our newest trip in Eastern Europe, Highlights of Croatia and the Balkans, takes in the best of Croatia and a few top treats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as long-forgotten Montenegro. It strings together the medieval treasures of Zagreb, Croatia's capital, with a memorable swag of small, picturesque hamlets, including Bihac, ancient Mostar and more...
Dubrovnikis far and away the jewel of Dalmatia and justly listed as a World Heritage site – for its epic history, architecture and beauty. The old Montenegro city of Kotor rounds out the urban delights of the trip. Each town has a unique vibe of its own, all the more distinct for being at the nexus of East and West. However, it is perhaps the countryside in between each that makes this trip that little bit more special.
Plitvice National Park
Croatia’s most impressive national park is a land of turquoise lakes, cascades, braided brooks, lush forest and dramatic limestone outcrops. Trails and boarded walkways wend between rocks, atop falls and beside streams, making for pleasant strolling through stunning views and a plethora of photo opportunities.
Halfway between the capital, Zagreb, and the coastal hub, Zadar, the park’s 16 lakes are linked by multi-fingered streams that run through the forest over regular gully beds and in interlaced rivulets through the deciduous forest. The latter have no apparent well-worn course, making the country seem porous, as if the land floats on an underground reservoir of pure water.
The lakes have formed though the deposit of calcium carbonate dropping out of solution to accrete and dam up the valley cleft. As a consequence of this “karst hydrology”, each lake differs in level and is fed with water overflowing the travertine barriers between them. The landscape is thus ever-changing, with barriers forming, falling away and shifting in shape ever since the last ice age, when the process began. No two visits to Plitvice are the same.
The forest is deciduous and the region follows distinct climate seasons; whichever season you visit you’ll be struck by the natural splendour of Plitvice, but perhaps no more than in Spring and Summer – the trees are a lambent green, the ground dappled with light filtering through a full canopy.
The forest in the park is home to bears, wolves and many rare bird species, the latter most likely to draw your eye. The former two species are still relatively rare in Europe after successful programs to reintroduce the species and protect the severely dwindled surviving pockets.
You’ll also find Croatia's largest waterfall, Veliki Slap, within the park. It’s not part of the lake system, but has an origin all its own. The 70 metre fall is impressive and worth a visit, if you’ve the time. The park also encompasses one of the most beautiful virgin beech forests in the world, replete with over 1250 different species of plants, 321 species of butterfly, 161 species of bird, 55 different species of orchid, and 21 species of bat.
Bihac and the Una River
10km from Plitvice National Park, lays the charming hamlet of Bihac in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Beneath the town’s medieval tower of Saint Anthony threads the stunning Una River. The town can lay claim to being one of the most beautiful medieval cites in Eastern Europe – partially due to the fact that the river running through it is absolutely stunning.
The Una River begins its life in the Croatian mountains and wells from the deep seam of a spring known as Vrelo Une. The spring seeps from beneath a steep dead-end valley consisting of 100 metre high cliffs. The spring itself is over 200 metres deep. Its stream babbles out and engorges with tributary waters, before rolling over rapids and gentling in lovely meanders through the town. Its whole 200km length terminates when it meets the larger Suva River.
The river is well stocked with grayling and salmon, making it a top destination for European anglers as much as those looking to enjoy the beautiful views. The forested banks are renowned for their supply of medicinal herbs, but perhaps the scenery it wends through is tonic enough to see you smiling from one end of the Balkans to the other!
The Adriatic and Dubrovnik
All right, this is more about the beauty of Dubrovnik than the natural splendour of the Adriatic itself, but the old port city would unlikely be so renowned without its dazzling sea front.
The walled-city is undoubtedly the jewel of the Dalmatian coast and perhaps one of Europe’s grandest cities – a melting-pot of medieval ambience and Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque architecture set against the brilliant Adriatic arm of the Med.
Boats bob beside moorings beneath the ancient walls, the terracotta tiles across the roofs in stark contrast to the blue sea. It’s an enchanting town for its cobbles and characters, both having long survived the ravages of history and war. Today, the town has established itself as one of the hottest destinations in Europe – a place to soak up sparkling sunshine, dip in refreshing seas and dine on locally caught seafood – unlike elsewhere in Europe, Dubrovnik is still within reach of a healthy fishery that has been serving up scampi, squid and delicious fish for centuries.
Kotor and Boka Kotorska Bay, Montenegro
Kotor is nestled at the end of a beautiful fjord on the Adriatic Coast. The region and town have a rich history – in the Middle Ages, the natural harbour was an important artistic and commercial centre for masonry and iconography. There are four grand Romanesque churches within one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, nowfilled with great bars, restaurants and cafes. Because of its history, architecture, culture and natural phenomena, Kotar is a UNESCO World Heritage site.