The Balkan Trilogy... cities, landscapes & cuisine
Lightly scratch the surface of the Balkans and you uncover a mosaic of cultures – everything from Roman and Venetian to Ottoman and Austrian. Throw in some ancient Greek and Illyrian, blend it with Slavic and you have a compelling mix that seeps into the region’s landscapes, languages, cuisine and architecture.
Scythe-shaped Croatia curves around Bosnia & Herzegovina while compact Slovenia manages to squeeze itself into the Alps, snatching just a morsel of coastline. Croatia has the lion’s share of the dazzling Adriatic coast, with more than 1,200 islands, reefs and islets tucked in among its peninsulas. Rugged mountains fill Bosnia’s vast hinterland, where pristine lakes have been carved out of gorges and minarets rise from old Ottoman villages. Slovenia – more central European than eastern – has the sort of fairy-tale landscapes you would expect to see in the Black Forest, but its accent is firmly Slavic.
Cities of Culture
Not all roads lead to Dubrovnik, but its glittering marble streets and medieval walls will draw you in. Its Unesco-listed Old Town is, quite simply, exquisite – a walled marvel containing baroque palaces, monasteries and narrow alleyways topped and tailed by the imposing Pile and Ploče gates.
Walk along the winding medieval city walls for glimpses down into everyday Dubrovnik life. Tiny gardens, terracotta
rooftops and playgrounds vie for attention with the vivid blue Adriatic Sea and stark surrounding mountains. Time your walk for late afternoon to catch the changing light. The spine of the Old Town is Stradun, quite possibly the most beautiful high street in the world. Green-shuttered stone houses line the polished marble thoroughfare, with the occasional cafe terrace offering superb people-watching opportunities.
If Dubrovnik gets too hectic then board the cable car to the top of Mount Srđ, which hovers over the city and affords
sublime views of the coast. Or hop on a boat to the tranquil little island of Lokrum – only 15 minutes away but seemingly in another universe.
Carry on up the Dalmatian coast to Split and step into fourth-century Rome. The atmospheric ruins of the sprawling palace that the Roman emperor Diocletian built for his retirement were colonised by the locals centuries ago, who turned them into homes, shops and cafes. When you eventually reach the waterfront, stroll along the wide, pedestrianised Riva, one of the most appealing seafront promenades in Croatia.
Many visitors use Split as a launching point for boat trips to the nearby islands of Hvar, Brač, Vis and Korčula. Among all
the bewitching islands along the Adriatic coast, it's easy to overlook the enchanting town of Trogir, a melting pot of cultures set on its own island but handily connected to the mainland by a bridge. Its 4,000 years of history include splendid Venetian gothic mansions, medieval walls, Romanesque buildings and Renaissance palaces.
Ancient and modern mingle in great style in Zadar, set along the northern Dalmatian coast. Crowning a narrow
peninsula is the old town, where you can see Roman remains amid the immense Byzantine St Donat's Church.
Then wander towards the waterfront to enjoy two of Croatia's most celebrated art installations: the melancholic pipes of the underwater Sea Organ and the flashing, glowing lights of Greeting to the Sun, which has more than a hint of the
Saturday Night Fever dancefloor about it.
Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Straddling the Neretva river, Stari Most (Old Bridge) has been the enduring symbol of Mostar since the 16th century. This graceful, arched, stone bridge had to be carefully reconstructed in 2004 after it was blown up by Croatian forces in 1993. When you're not watching Mostar's young men dive off the bridge in time-honoured tradition, lose yourself in the maze of Ottoman-era cobbled lanes.
The Old Bridge, Mostar
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
As the muezzin's call to prayer mingles with the sound of church bells, you can stand on a crossroads in Sarajevo where east literally meets west. At a compass point on Ferhadija Street in the Bosnian capital, look east towards the 16th.century Ottoman quarter before doing a 180-degree turn west to face Austria's 19th-century architectural contribution to this captivating city. The old Turkish marketplace of Baščaršija hums with activity from the market stalls and workshops where coppersmiths craft tiny pots for ferociously strong Turkish coffee. At Latin Bridge, jump forward to 1914 as you read the memorial to the assassinated Archduke Ferdinand.
Slovenia's elegant capital is a study in stately baroque architecture mixed with a lively yet laid-back vibe. Stroll through Ljubljana's classy streets to see where art nouveau seamlessly moves on from baroque – mainly the work of local genius
Jože Plečnik. His innovative marble Triple Bridge is one of the symbols of the city. Follow the winding route of the Ljubljanica river past waterside cafes and the excellent Central Market before riding the funicular up to the 16th-century hilltop Ljubljana castle.
Church and river Ljubljanica, Ljubljana
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Sixteen startlingly turquoise lakes and dozens of waterfalls tumble into the dense forests of Plitvice Lakes National Park, creating one of Croatia's most arresting sights. Stroll along the raised wooden walkways that connect the lower lakes in the shadow of towering limestone cliffs. The park's complex ecosystem is so delicate that only electric vehicles and boats are allowed. In the more remote corners of the park you can spot wolves, lynx and brown bears.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Lake Bled, Slovenia
The magic of Lake Bled is inescapable – with the snow-capped Julian Alps in the distance, a lakeside castle and tiny Bled island in the emerald centre, it's hard to find a more romantic spot in Slovenia. Rack up the romance factor even higher by taking a little boat called a pletna to the island and visiting the 17th-century Church of the Assumption. Wherever you walk along Lake Bled's paved paths, you won't be lacking in views.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Postojna Cave, Slovenia
Among the ubiquitous karst landscapes of the Balkans, few are as dramatic as Postojna cave in Slovenia. The karst cave system of caverns, passages and halls runs for more than 20km and is one of the largest in the world. Take the electric train that runs through the chambers, something akin to the underground lair of a James Bond villain.
Postojna Cave, Slovenia
Balkan cuisine is as diverse as its landscapes. Seafood rules the Adriatic coast, where you'll find succulent octopus salads, simply grilled fish, mussels and exceptionally sweet-tasting Ston oysters. Italian influences have crept in with
pasta and risotto dishes, and you'll see a hearty Austrian and Hungarian influence in northern parts of Croatia and all over Slovenia. Bosnia's Ottoman legacy includes a delicious filo pastry called burek filled with meat or cheese. And wherever you go in the Balkans, you're likely to see (and smell) spit-roasted lamb and suckling pig.
The region's wonderful wine rarely gets exported, mainly because winemakers can't keep up with local demand. In
Dalmatia, look out for full-bodied reds Dingač and Plavac Mali, and crisp dry whites including Pošip and Grk. Further north and into Slovenia, savour white Malvazija and robust Teran reds.
Traditional roast of octopus with potatoes and onions garlic, Croatia
The Adriatic coast harbours countless beaches, mostly pebbly, although there are some sandy stretches if you know where to look. The island of Korčula, for example, has a few sandy beaches at its eastern end, as do the islands of Mljet and Lopud towards Dubrovnik. Split has an attractive city beach at Bačvice, and you can avoid the crowds at Dubrovnik's central Banje beach by going further south to the sheltered Sveti Jakov beach.
Recommended C&K tour: Grand Tour of the Balkans
10 Days & 9 Nights from £2,285
This group tour explores three of the main countries of former Yugoslavia – Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Slovenia – each with contrasting scenery and distinctive cultures. Visit the highlights of the region including Dubrovnik, Mostar, Sarajevo, Ljubljana and Lake Bled, where the influence of European, Ottoman and Slavic culture is evident in the ornate palaces, cathedrals and mosques. Speak to one of our Europe experts to find out more.