Comprising 7 countries including Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia, the Western Balkans is one of the oldest settlements in the continent, and ironically home to some of the newest countries in Europe.
This mountainous region is home to dramatic karst landscapes – and some of the deepest canyons and caves in Europe – sluiced by fast rivers and dotted with glacial lakes.
The pristine coastlines are outshined by incredible walled cities and pastel-coloured old towns that hark back to Roman and Ottoman times, while the imposing mountains cradle yet more majestic towns, brilliantly set against teal rivers and lakes. There may be nowhere else in the world where you can see such a seamless blend of natural and cultural beauty.
Kosovo is Europe’s newest country – after the Kosovo War of 1998-1999, it spent almost a decade as a UN protectorate and only gained independence in 2008. While there’s still some conflict in the border areas in the north, it’s one of Europe’s most exciting travel destinations. A landlocked nation, its geography is defined by a central valley bordered by high mountains.
Kosovo is dotted with UNESCO-listed churches, and Serbian and Ottoman medieval architecture; a great place to start is from Pristina, its lively capital city that is known for its thriving cafe culture. Nearby is the village of Gračanica, home to one of the most beautiful examples of a Serbo-Byzan- tine style monastery.
Sharr Mountains of the South Kosovo’s real cultural draw is in the soaring Šar (Sharr) Mountains to the south; situated at the foot of the mountains close to the Rahovec (Orahovac) wine region is the medieval city of Prizren. The castle-topped hill town of Ottoman hammams, mosques and 14th century basilicas is a walkable historic district lined with a labyrinth of terracotta roofs, minarets and cafes. It’s a great base for hiking; explore the wineries of Rahovec along the ‘wine trail’, or head into the Šar Mountains for its well-marked trails.
While many remote villages in the Šar are abandoned, the picturesque town of Brod, with its Ottoman houses and cobblestone streets, is thriving.
Peja (Peć), with its narrow streets, old-style Turkish houses, mosques and spectacularly frescoed churches.
Known as the “City of Tourism”, it’s also a good base to explore the Rugova Gorge with its high canyon walls, and the rugged Accursed Mountains National Park, home to the highest point in Kosovo (Gjeravica, at 2,656m).
Airlines from Europe and Turkey service Prishtina International Airport. There are also rail connections between Pristina and Skopje in Macedonia.
Entry into Serbia from Kosovo is only possible if you entered Kosovo from Serbia and are going back; entering Kosovo from elsewhere and then continuing to Serbia is prohibited.
Also known as FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), Macedonia has a fascinating past that incorporates rich Greek, Roman and Ottoman history. Like Kosovo, it’s a landlocked nation with a rugged central valley – formed by the Vardar river – that is framed along its borders by scenic mountain ranges over 2,000m high. Three large lakes – Ohrid, Prespa and Dojran – lie along the frontiers with Albania and Greece.
The capital, Skopje is an intriguing city where old meets new – a historic hilltop fortress overlooks the never-ending series of modern constructions that sit next to the Old Town’s maze of streets that hide quaint courtyards and cafes.
West from Skopje is Canyon Matka – a lake surrounded by the steep walls of a dramatic gorge. The area boasts 10 caves, including Vrelo Cave, the deepest underwater cave in Europe.
Further west are the Bistra mountains, the largest mountainous part of the country. Bistra also boasts the highest peaks in Macedonia, making it a popular place for skiing. In summer, the slopes reveal a large lake which is popular for boating, swimming, and for the submerged St. Nicholas Church (built in 1850) that was purposely flooded in 1953, but is now partially exposed.
The Bistra mountain range is great for hiking, as it is dotted with countless mountain villages linked via scenic hiking trails. The village of Lazaropole (over 1,350m) is one of the highest settlements in Macedonia, with 400 houses and several 19th century churches. The most famous village in the area is Galichnik (Galičnik), home to over 500 traditional houses.
South of Mavrovo lies the glimmering Lake Ohrid and its historic town dotted with terracotta rooftops. Ohrid is a UNESCO site, set beside the beautiful lake with narrow, winding streets that reveal gems like a Roman amphitheatre, castle fortress, and church with 11th century frescoes. Hike up the hills to the multi-domed Byzantine-era Sveti Kliment i Pantelejmon Church, and the massive turreted walls of the 10th century Car Samoil Castle – both offer fantastic views over the town and lake.
You can fly into Macedonia either Skopje (Alexander the Great Airport) or Ohrid Airport.
Unlike Kosovo or Macedonia, Montenegro is mostly made of mountains, where the high ranges of the Dinaric Alps abruptly end along a narrow coastal plain. Throughout its history it has always sat on the borderline between east and west and its rich cultural tapestry – from Roman villas and flamboyant Orthodox churches to elegant mosques and medieval fortresses – is complemented by its spectacular natural beauty where mountains jut sharply from crystal clear waters.
Ancient walled towns cling to looming rock faces, while scenic coastal towns line the narrow strip of shoreline. It’s these seaside towns – like the ancient walled cities of Budva and Kotor – that seem to attract the most visitors while its capital, Podgorica is touted as the “least visited capital in Europe”.
Kotor and Bay
Even within Kotor – with its narrow cobblestoned streets and picturesque plazas that are fairly untainted by tourism – you can easily escape the crowds by hiking the steep trail to the Castle of St John at the top of the mountain, where there are stunning views of the town below.
The best way to explore the Bay of Kotor, however, is to tackle the Ladder of Kotor – a trail that descends from the 940m-high Krstac pass to Kotor following an old Austrian military route, featuring more than 70 switchbacks and breathtaking views of the entire Bay of Kotor.
Durmitor National Park
In Montenegro’s soaring hinterland lies the Durmitor National Park, home to more than a dozen sparkling glacial lakes, and three breathtaking canyons including the wild Tara Canyon which is Europe’s deepest gorge (1,300m).
Rafters and kayakers can enjoy a unique thrill on the 68km-long white-water run along the Tara River through the canyon’s impossibly steep walls, passing Ljutice falls and the 165m-high Roman bridge.
Žabljak (1,450m), at the eastern edge of the range, is the park’s principal town and home to a major ski resort from December to March. In summer, it’s a good base for hiking the many trails in the park.
Nature in the East
The jaw-dropping Prokletije range to the east of the country is another hiker’s paradise. The grandiose mountain massif is home to Lake Plav and a collection of karst wells; the town of Plav is famous for its 17th century watchtowers, as well as monasteries, churches and mosques.
Montenegro has 2 international airports: Podgorica and Tivat, serviced by airlines from the rest of Europe.