“Journey of a lifetime” is perhaps the best phrase to describe my recent road travel through Balkan countries tucked in the south-eastern part of Europe. My Balkan tour was designed by Atlas Travel Agency, one of Croatia’s leading tour operator, which I booked through Beyond Travel.
The itinerary for my 13-day Grand Balkan Tour visited Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo. The journey through these Balkan nations was packed with visits to natural, historical and cultural sites in a short period of time.
We covered 2000 km between Croatia’s capital Zagreb and Dubrovnik. Although we were keen to see Croatia’s famous seaside destination, there were plenty of amazing places along the way.
Another way to see stunning places in Eastern Europe is to go on a European river cruise.
- Balkan Tour
- Why go on a Balkan Tour?
- Balkan Tour Itinerary
- Balkan Tours
Why go on a Balkan Tour?
- Though hectic at times, going on a Balkan tour allows you to see a lot of amazing things in multiple countries in a short period of time.
- The diversity of sites from historical to natural as well as experiences of many kinds are a great feature of a Balkan tour.
- Being always on the road offers a raw and intimate encounter with the land we pass through and provides the opportunity to see and discover things not mentioned in any guide books or the internet.
- All of these in combination make the wanderings during a Balkan tour extra special and there plenty of opportunities to discover hidden treasures.
The journey of a lifetime is quite a befitting title for this trip.
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Balkan Tour Itinerary
Day 1 – Zagreb, Croatia
We started our Balkans tour in Zagreb.
It’s difficult to understand why one of Europe’s oldest city, Zagreb, is often ignored by seasoned travellers as the city has no shortage of historical and religious sites to draw your attention.
Home to nearly one million people, Zagreb has a thousand-year-old Upper Town, a 19th -century built Lower Town and a New Town.
The Lower Town is packed with neo-baroque and art deco architectural marvels influenced by neighbouring cities Vienna and Budapest.
New Town is the contemporary part of the city.
Walking is the best way to discover the city’s top attractions like the Lotrščak Tower, St Catherine’s Church, Stone Gate and the glaze-tile roofed St Mark’s Church in the upper part.
Zagreb Cathedral, Dolac Market, National Theatre and the lively Main Square is dominated by an equestrian statue of Ban Josip Jelacic in the lower side.
An interesting feature of Zagreb is the use of gas lamps for street lighting in the upper part.
This is a tradition that is 150 years old and just like in the olden times, 214 lamps are manually switched on and off by men with a lighting pole in hand.
Watching them doing their routine at dusk and dawn is an attraction of many visitors.
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Day 2 – Slovenia
It’s not as easy to find Croatia’s west side neighbour Slovenia on a map, as it is a small country and can easily be overlooked on a tour of the Balkans.
Slovenia may be small but it’s an incredibly scenic country with amazing nature, rich traditions and wonderful food.
You’ll be surprised to learn that there are 24 culinary regions in this compact country and Slovenian chefs are making their mark by creating contemporary twists to traditional recipes.
The trends towards using fresh llocally sourced seasonal produce is gaining momentum and tasting traditional Slovenian food is one of the highlights of any Balkan tour.
From Zagreb, we travel to Lake Bled one of Slovenia’s natural wonders before heading to the capital.
Day 3 – Ljubljana, Slovenia
Ljubljana is straight out of a fairy tale and was impressively crowned the European Green Capital title in 2016.
Spread across both sides of the curly Ljubljanica River, the city was the creation of architect Jože Plečnik.
Ljubljana combines history and modernity.
Noteworthy here is the fusion of Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles displayed in several of the city’s buildings.
Most photographed are the Town Hall, Cathedral of St Nicholas and the famous Three Bridges across the river lined on both sides with markets, shops and trendy restaurants, cafes and bars.
One important thing to do in Slovenia is to sample the cream cake, which has delicate puff pastry on layers of light cream and custard. Delicious!
Then our Balkans tour itinerary took us back to Croatia and spent the next few days exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park, Split, Trogir and Dubrovnik – all UNESCO World Heritage-listed.
Day 4 – Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Plitvice Lakes National Park is a natural phenomenon of rare beauty and a highlight of our Balkans tour.
It’s also one of the most gorgeous places to go hiking in Croatia.
Think of it as Croatia’s version of Iguassu or Victoria Falls, even though the waterfall is not as vast or tall it’s truly awe-inspiring to see this pristine nature with waterfalls surrounding rainforest and stunning mountains.
The sanctuary has 16 lakes and several gushing waterfalls, making it a feast for eyes.
The colour of the lakes vary from emerald green and turquoise blue to deep blue, depending on the mineral deposits beneath the lake.
Having seen the beauty of these lakes, I’m surprised they are not on the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World list.
Today Croatia is one of Europe’s most visited destination because of its many sites of historical significance, Adriatic beach-front locations and Mediterranean climate.
This was not the same three decades ago when it was part of former Yugoslavia.
Independence came in 1991 but was followed with a brutal war which finished in 1995 but the aftermath was felt for years.
It’s only in the last decade tourism numbers have surged, hence it’s understandable why Plitvice Lakes National Park didn’t feature in the global election of the new natural wonders in 2007.
Day 5 – Split, Croatia
Our next stop on our Balkan tour, Split, is located in the south of the nation and on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.
Split is a popular port for many cruise ships and is Croatia’s second-largest city.
It’s most famous for the third-century palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian, who built a fortified palace-city that has been continuously occupied since it was founded.
The sprawling complex includes several palatial buildings, a cathedral, churches and fortifications that reflects Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
Walking through the remains of this site is a great way to get a glimpse of its remarkable past that dates back to 3rd century AD.
Trogir Island, Croatia
Not far from Split, a lesser-known place on our Balkan tour itinerary is Trogir island.
The tiny settlement has a unique orthogonal street plan dating back to the Hellenistic period.
This was later built upon by successive rulers who added Romanesque churches along with Renaissance and Baroque buildings.
The Cathedral of St Lawrence, which took 400 years to be built, is the island’s major attraction.
Day 6 and 7 – Dubrovnik, Croatia
Another highlight of our Balkans tour, Dubrovnik, is the crown jewel of Croatia where we were happy to lose ourselves in the charming red-roofed Old Town.
The heyday of Dubrovnik’s Old Town was in the 13th century.
Surrounded by walls almost 2000 m in length, its landscape has virtually remained unchanged and is well-preserved to the present day despite an earthquake in 1667 and war with Serbia and Monte Negro in the nineties.
A walk on the fortified walls is the thing to do in Dubrovnik for visitors, alongside a visit to the Rector’s Palace, Cathedral and Franciscan Monastery with Europe’s oldest pharmacy.
A major attraction of Dubrovnik is to visit the sites that were part of the popular television drama ‘Game of Thrones’, in which Dubrovnik is Kings Landing the capital of the fictitious empire of Seven Kingdoms.
Not much needed to be changed for the series, as Dubrovnik’s Old Town fitted the part of the stronghold of the Lannister family perfectly.
Filming was done on the outer walls, the castles, fortifications and gates. The paved squares and narrow alleyways portrayed the Red Keep, the City of Qarth and the gardens of King’s Landing.
The Jesuit Steps is the location of one of the most popular scenes – the Walk of Shame where Cersei was paraded naked through the crowds.
It’s almost routine for GOT fans to walk up and down the stairs (surely with clothes on!), take selfies and bring alive the scene in their minds.
According to the owner of the cafe at the bottom of the steps, this part of the town was closed to everyone when they filmed the scene and only crew members were allowed on set.
The good news is there are plenty of hotels in Dubrovnik to suit any budget but to fully experience the charm of this UNESCO World Heritage site, choose one in the Old Town.
Day 8- Bosnia and Herzegovina
While travelling to Dubrovnik by road, the route of our Balkans tour passed through Bosnia and Herzegovina.
We get a chance to be in that little country and see Mostar, a historic settlement famous for its Ottoman heritage.
A famous landmark of this medieval city, which is the hub of Herzegovina region, is a 15th-century bridge across the river.
During the Bosnian War, it was totally destroyed but rebuilt in 2005 exactly to the same design to keep alive the talent of the Ottoman builders.
The rebuilding of the bridge to perfection impressed UNESCO enough to grant it World Heritage status.
A fun part of our Balkan tour was going through the less trodden path like Mostar, Tirana in Albania and Ohrid and Skopje in North Macedonia – these places, after years of isolation, are now welcoming outsiders with open arms.
Day 9 – Tirana, Albania
Our Balkan tour took us to Albania’s busy capital Tirana, where the National Museum of History is very interesting, a policeman asks me to take a photo with him.
I felt it was unusual but it seems Tirana locals, including the police, are trying hard to be friendly in a bid to encourage more tourists to visit.
Day 10- Skopje, Macedonia
Similarly, neighbouring Macedonia has also begun to receive more tourists.
Taxi drivers, waiters, shopkeepers and guides also try hard to be attentive and friendly.
Did you know that Mother Teresa was a Macedonian born as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje? Mother Teresa lived in Kolkata in India most of her life.
A memorial to her stands in the main square as a site of pilgrimage for devotees of her work.
Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, is in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula and located at the crossroad of important communications with over two-millennium old traditions.
There’s a giant statue of Alexander the Great in the main square.
Another place we visited was the city of Ohrid, which is an awe-inspiring lakeside settlement.
While travelling from Skopje to Kolasin we pass through Kosovo, an impoverished nation struggling to find its spot in the tourism map.
Days 11 and 12- Montenegro
Besides Croatia, the other country where we spent considerable time in is Montenegro, which is the rising star of the Balkan tour circuit.
A nation with a long history, the meeting point of different cultural and religious influences on the border of Orthodox East and Catholic West, Montenegro is described as a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic environment functioning in perfect harmony.
We visited :
- Budva – for sandy beaches and its historic old town built during the Venetian era.
- Kolasin – forested ski resort centre
- Centije – where a visit to the museum of King Nicola I Petrovic is impressive Kotor – a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its very well preserved old quarter, packed with a Romanesque cathedral and several churches, fortifications, entry gates, noble houses and monuments flanking maze of cobblestones streets and squares.
The road journey in Montenegro was a scenic part of our Balkan tour, particularly when driving along the Moraca River Canyon and the stretch from Cetinje to Kotor.
When winding down the slopes of Mt Lovćen, the narrow and snaky mountainous road has 25 hairpin bends and breathtaking vistas at every turn between rugged mountain landscape and that of Kotor Bay down below.
Beyond Travel offers fully escorted Balkan tours with English-speaking guides, air-conditioned coaches and accommodation in four and five-star hotels with breakfast and dinner is included.
If you’re on a tighter budget, there are a range of tours to choose from here.
Currency –Euro (EUR) in Slovenia, Kosovo and Montenegro, Kuna (HRK) in Croatia, Lek (ALL) in Albania, Denar (MKD) in Macedonia, Mark (BAM) in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
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