Travellers searching for a holiday destination they haven’t yet tried out yet are starting to look at a corner of Europe that promises breathtaking scenery, seclusion and relief for the travel budget: the Balkans.
That the region is still somewhat overlooked might be explained by the fact that in the period of 1991-2001, it was a place of bloody national and ethnic conflict following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Now travel agencies have a great deal to offer in the region, be it Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro or Bulgaria.
And what about the Yugoslav Wars? “That was more than 20 years ago,” says Ricardo Fahrig of the Albanian travel agency Zbulo. While the conflict is still in peoples’ memories, the traces of the fighting are scarcely seen any more, and the region is a good alternative, he says. “Here there is no mass tourism. You can feel more like a bit of a pioneer.”
Fahrig also says the image of the Balkans countries has been undergoing a change. “Now they are no longer regarded as dangerous-unknown, but instead, as sexy-unknown,” he says. “There is still a touch of adventure.”
You can experience it, for example, in the Peaks of the Balkans trekking route in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro or in the 20-stage High Scardus Trail of North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.
Not only can a vacation in the region be easy on your travel budget, but also the Balkans are famous for their hospitality, Fahrig says. “The residents are painfully aware about how their countries are viewed from the outside,” he says, and so they are now intent on changing this.
“The people here are open and warm.” And since family is generally writ large, accommodations and hotels in the countries are also family-friendly, he says. “There are none where children are not welcome.”
And safety concerns? “At no time did we see any difficult security situation for our guests,” says Michael Knapp, whose Germany-based travel agency Gebeco has 26 trips in the Balkans in its programme. “Of course it is always advisable to inform oneself ahead of time,” Knapp says.
“The unfamiliar and the lack of information is what probably unsettles most travellers,” Fahrig says. But it’s also what makes this region attractive. Many worries are groundless.
“No, in Albania you don’t get mugged on the street,” Fahrig says with a laugh, referring to a cliché about the country. Nor must families or women travelling alone avoid the Balkan regions.
The travel expert says it is difficult to generalise about the Balkans. Slovenia, Croatia and the Montenegrin coast already have a well-developed tourism infrastructure. On the other hand, Bosnia, Serbia and North Macedonia have no access to the sea.
“These are less well-known and it is there that you have a whiff of adventure,” Fahrig says.
Things are different in Croatia, and travel agent Nina Meyer recommends the Krka National Park in the country’s south as well as the nearby Adriatic city of Split and the island world of Krk in the Kvarner Bay. “And you should absolutely eat at the typical country restaurants,” she said.
Meyer cautions that Croatia is not necessarily cheaper than Italy, but Bulgaria and Albania are definitely a bargain, especially with the value-for-money ratio in Albania. “The hotels on this riviera are not castles, it is even more familiar and original, for example, than in Turkiye.”
Travel company manager Knapp also suggests Albania, a country with an unsuspected treasure of history. “It is one of the most undeveloped areas in Europe.”
If your wish is for fun swimming, families will find it on the beaches in Durrës, for example.
“Lake Ohrid is also great for families,” Knapp says. This lake, a great part of which also is part of North Macedonia, is regarded as one of the oldest on the planet.
Generally the best seasonal times for an “active vacation” – for example, trekking and bicycling to explore the region – are April-June and September-October, according to Meyer.
The high-season months of June-August are best suited for beach vacations. But Ricardo Fahrig cautions that things can get crowded on the coast in July and August, because that is when the local inhabitants are also taking their family holidays. “The infrastructure is thereby stretched thin and it will be more crowded and expensive on the seaside,” he notes.
Some other practical considerations concern those who may be travelling to the region by car, what with toll roads in Slovenia, Croatia and in some parts of Serbia. “You should plan your route ahead of time and consider whether a trip which goes via Italy can be combined with a ferry crossing, or whether it is better to go the land route via Croatia and Montenegro,” Nina Meyer advises.
Also, motorists should check the Balkan countries’ requirements for the so-called international “green” insurance card to make sure they are covered in case of an accident. Travellers who are into camping are advised that campground infrastructure is wanting the further away one gets from the main roads.
Fahrig says many towns have at maximum a spot for camping caravans to park, but no electricity, much less any shower facilities. “For free-campers and nature-lovers it’s perfect,” he says. “And perhaps a farmer will let you camp overnight on the pasture.” – dpa