The Balkans have always intrigued me. I was surfing the Internet to gain more knowledge on this South Eastern part of Europe a few months ago when coincidentally, I received news of a confirmed group tour scheduled during the Hari Raya holidays.
The itinerary consisted of visits to eight Balkan countries: Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. Serbia and Kosovo were not part of the tour as they would require visas to enter (for Malaysians).
As the timing was perfect and did not clash with any urgent work matters, I signed up for the tour. In anticipation, I had hoped that the tour would provide several “wow factors” as I really needed a break from my hectic work schedule.
When it was time to travel, I packed my bags and brought along a single warm jacket as it was the spring season, and the temperatures would not be too low. We landed in Bucharest, Romania at night, and we immediately headed to our hotel to get some much-needed sleep.
Feeling refreshed the next morning, I realised that our tour group was made up of mostly middle-aged folks, and a handful of retirees who were well into their 70s. In comparison, I felt “young” being among them, so I should be able to endure the somewhat hectic itinerary for the duration of the tour, which was two weeks.
Now, being in a tour with a fixed itinerary means sticking to a tight schedule. Usually, we’d have to quicken our pace when we walk, swiftly take photos, endure long bus rides, and, at times, eat unsavoury food. I told myself, “Come what may, I will just sit back and try to enjoy myself.”
Luckily, the bus rides throughout the trip were comfortable and there were no bumpy roads. The scenery was magnificent in every destination. On many days, we travelled along the coast with the colour of azure reflecting off the Adriatic Sea. There were lots of greenery too and the contrast of colours was fascinating.
The rides traversed villages and small towns. Many of these places seemed to be from a fairytale. The houses and buildings were almost similar – rectangular with a triangular roof, surrounded with fruit trees and flowers that were mainly tulips. In the background, there were snow-capped mountains that enhanced the landscape.
The capital city of every country had its own story to share with visitors. Old buildings with medieval architecture stood among modern buildings. However, there were no skyscrapers to overshadow these historical homes.
In every city, we met with an affable and knowledgeable local guide who had interesting stories to share. Being a history buff, I enjoyed listening to these tales.
The capital cities we visited were Bucharest, Sofia (Bulgaria), Skopje (North Macedonia), Tirana (Albania), Podgorica (Montenegro), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Zagreb (Croatia) and Ljubljana (Slovenia).
Old cities inscribed in the Unesco World Heritage Site list which had influences and remnants of the Roman and Ottoman Empires were evident in the Balkans to this day. The Roman Empire lasted for approximately 1,000 years while the Ottoman Empire about 600 years; both left an indelible mark in this region.
Dubrovnik by the Adriatic Sea is one of the best-preserved medieval cities. Fans of the TV series Game Of Thrones would be able to identify some of the spots that were featured in the show. One such example is the “Stairs Of Shame” or, in real life, the Jesuit Stairs, which was constructed in 1738.
Split in Croatia is best known for the ruins of the Palace of Diocletion, while Kotor in Montenegro boasts of winding alleys brimming with shops and restaurants and, of course, the Kotor Cathedral.
In Ohrid, North Macedonia, we visited the Church of St John at Kaneo, situated on a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid. It was breathtaking. The Old Bridge in Mostar, a 16th-century town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is an Islamic architectural masterpiece. Completely destroyed during the Croatia-Bosnia war, the bridge was subsequently rebuilt and opened to the public in 2004.
Interestingly, too, during a walkabout in the city of Sofia in Bulgaria, new portions of the remnants of the Roman Empire were discovered between 2010 and 2012, during the construction of the Serdika metro station. There were signage and detailed explanation for each item found.
Last but not least, the wonders of nature were in full display during a very pleasant trek on solid wooden planks at the Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, with waterfalls and abundant greenery encapsulating the area. Not to be outdone by nature, a man-made “sea organ” at Zadar in Croatia plays music using sea waves and tubes located underneath a set of large marble steps. It was so magical!
Interactive art pieces by renowned artists and architects in the various cities we visited beguiled the senses too.
I was enamoured by the Balkans. There were countless wow factors at the places we went to, and from the looks on the other travellers’ faces, they were also smitten by the place.
The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.
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