Hidden Europe ... 3 destinations to discover


| February 18, 2015

Think you have discovered all that Europe has to offer? Think again.

Perast. Photo credit: Thinkstock/ iStock

Europe is awash with long-celebrated holiday destinations: the glittering streets of Paris, the romantic canals of Venice, the stunning architecture of Russia. So numerous are these mainstays that it is easy to think that Europe has no more surprises left to offer. However, the continent still possesses some fascinating lesser-known gems that hold fresh promise of stepping onto little-explored territory.

We find out more about three fabulous European destinations that often fall short of travellers' radars.

Slovenia

Bordering Italy and Croatia, Slovenia is a country that offers a tantalising mix of scenery, history, and fine food and wine. The capital city Ljubljana sits to the side of the Ljubljanica River and was originally settled some 2,000 years ago by the Romans. Today, it stands as a sensationally scenic city with evident Austrian influences that date back to the country's time as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Home to Roman ruins, excellent restaurants and superb scenery, the city is a joy to explore.

One of the country's better-known destinations, Lake Bled is another charming place to visit. Historically, it has been very popular with British tourists, who often visited it in conjunction with Croatia's Dubrovnik. Located within the Julian Alps, it has mountain panoramas and some wonderful attractions – perhaps most notably the small island sitting in the middle of the lake that houses the beautiful Church of Assumption. You'll need to take a traditional Pletna (gondola) ride to visit it, and this in itself presents a slice of history, because here only the sons of gondoliers can join the profession.

A visit to the nearby Goriska Brda region is a must for wine lovers. Dotted with fortified villages, it is home to a wealth of wineries; visiting these for wine tastings is a real pleasure. But wine is not all this region has to offer; it also has plenty of history. Having hosted one of the nation's bloodiest battles in World War I – the battle of Sabotin – it has now turned the area into a kind of museum, with re-dug trenches, tunnels through mountains and re-created lodgings.

Alternatively, if you have a greater interest in natural attractions, you could visit the wonderful Skocjan Caves. This Unesco World Heritage Site is a vast system of karst caves, which were carved by the Reka River.

The country's location just an hour and 45 minutes from London, two hours from Venice and an hour from Zagreb makes it conveniently central and therefore simply to combine with trips to other parts of Europe – particularly with Croatia.

Discover our new Spotlight on Slovenia tour here.

Montenegro

Often described as the most southerly destination with fjord landscapes, Montenegro has much in the way of scenery, beaches and architecture to offer travellers. What's more, its proximity to Dubrovnik in Croatia means it is even possible to visit as a day trip on an itinerary around the wider region.

The name Montenegro translates as 'black mountain', and it's actually possible to visit the peak that earned the nation its name. Situated in Lovcen National Park, the 1,300 metre high Mount Lovcen is more than just a piece of scenery – it is a symbol of the country and the struggles it has overcome.

It is also worth paying a visit to Durmitor National Park, situated north of Kotor. This Unesco World Heritage Site is home to a stunning gorge that rivals the Grand Canyon in scale and grandeur; a must-see.

The focal point for most trips to Montenegro, however, is the stunning Kotor Bay, which is another Unesco World Heritage Site. Dotted with little towns and villages with a clear Venetian influence, it spans approximately 30 km of coastline. As you explore the coast, you will reach the town of Perast, from where you can visit a small island perched in the middle of Boka Bay. This is where you will find the Lady of the Rock Church and museum – one of the country's most picturesque sites. What's more, it houses a fabulous exhibition by celebrated 17th-century Montenegrin artist Kokolja.

Showcasing wonderful architecture, Budvar is another destination not to miss. Its narrow streets are punctuated by charming squares lined with historic buildings, while the shore famously possesses some 17 white sandy beaches – the perfect places to relax when not sightseeing.

Uncover Montenegro holidays >

North Macedonia

Somewhat off the beaten track, North Macedonia is a wonderful place to visit for scenery, history and churches. Thee kind of destination that most people come across and consider visiting after reading and research, it is made up of three major destinations.

The first is the capital city, Skopje. A mix of Ottoman buildings and communist architecture, which all provide a window into different periods of its history, help make this a wonderful city to explore. Its excellent museums, most notably the National Archaeological Museum, enrich visits here. For wonderful views across the city, take a trip to the Kale Fortress, which stands watch over this historic metropolis. And just an hour's drive from the capital lies the fourth oldest megalithic observatory in the world, Kokino.

The second is Bitola, which is tucked into the south of the country. The stunning archaeological ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, a historic Roman town that dates back to the time of Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. This comprehensive site is one of the finest in the region, so it merits a full day's visit.

The third major destination is Ohrid, a town on the lake of the same name. Known as the North Macedonian Jerusalem thanks to its array of churches, it centres on a spectacular fortress, where you will also find the fabulous Icon Museum. Remarkably, this possesses the largest collection of icons in the world.

Just outside of Ohrid you will find the St Naum monastery. Overlooking the lake, this tranquil building is one of contrasts; the characteristic quiet of a religious site is often broken by the screeching of the peacocks it is home to.

Read more about our Discover Kosovo & North Macedonia tour here. 

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