Many travelers have their first experience of southeast Europe on Croatia's Adriatic coast, and the majority never get beyond this western fringe of the Balkan Peninsula. If you make the effort to venture further east or south to the less publicized destinations of Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, and Macedonia, you will soon discover that Croatia's neighbors have just as much to offer.
It's true that in places these countries may feel a little dilapidated. Tourist information may prove elusive. Fast trains or boutique hotels may be hard to find. But with patience and flexibility you are likely to encounter a mixture of scenery, history, and welcoming people equal to anywhere in Europe.
I suppose it is inevitable that perceptions of the Balkans are colored by memories of the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia.
There are still dangers from mines, for example, in parts of rural Bosnia, but this is really only a problem if you intend to go hiking well off the beaten path. At the time of writing (August 2007) the political future of Kosovo is still uncertain, and I would suggest keeping up to date with the news if you intend going there.
Elsewhere in the region it is highly unlikely any lingering tensions will affect tourists. Travel in the Balkans is as safe as in other parts of Europe (or possibly safer), with no need to take special precautions beyond the exercise of common sense.
I have traveled alone in the Balkans many times and have never felt threatened in any way. I have experienced nothing but friendliness from all ethnic and religious groups in the region.
As in other parts of Europe there are not too many genuine single rooms to be found in either hotels or private accommodation, and there aren't all that many hostels. This is less of a problem outside high season, when the lower rates charged for private rooms mean that costs are less of a burden. In the last few years, for example, I have paid less than 20 (C$29; US$27) for a room in some Croatian coastal towns, and 10 or less in Budva and Ohrid Macedonia.
If you hope to meet up with other travelers along the way, your chances are highest if you stick to the well-worn trail along the Adriatic Coast, and a few other key locations such as Sarajevo and Belgrade. In less frequented parts of Serbia and Macedonia you may well find that you are the only foreigner for miles around.
Despite what you may read in some overexcited press reports, the Croatian coast is not a secret treasure waiting to be discovered. Northern Europeans have been coming here in large numbers for decades, and the photogenic walled town of Dubrovnik is a popular port of call for cruise ships.
The well-developed tourist infrastructure means that travel here is comfortable, information is easy to come by, and there are plenty of organized excursions to make sure you see everything you came to see. Whether you want to sail between deserted islands, admire honey-colored old towns with Venetian-style campaniles, or dive into clear turquoise waters, your perfect piece of the Adriatic is out there somewhere.
When you've had your fill of the coast, there is more to see inland. Plitvice Lakes National Park is a much-loved attraction, featuring a series of tranquil lakes connected by waterfalls; and the sober Central European architecture of Zagreb makes an interesting contrast with the jauntier coastal towns.
If you like the Croatian coast, the obvious next step is to head south into Montenegro. The Montenegrin Adriatic has only recently started to appear on the radar of mainstream tourism, but it is an important summer destination in its own right. Unlike Croatia there are few islands here, but the mountains plunging steeply into the sea are just as spectacular.
The star attraction is the walled town of Kotor, located at the end of a sinuous bay that is often said to resemble a Norwegian fjord magically transported to the Mediterranean.
The scenery doesn't end at the coast. Of inland Montenegro's mountain ranges, the best known (and a personal favorite of mine) is Durmitor. The pinnacles, ravines, and glacial lakes of Durmitor National Park could keep keen hikers interested for months even without the added attraction of rafting trips in the nearby three-thousand-foot-deep Tara Canyon.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is also within easy reach of the Croatian coast.
Although tourist infrastructure is still recovering from the war of the 1990s, visitors receive a warm welcome. Most travelers start by visiting Sarajevo; many find that a planned short visit somehow turns into a longer one. In one of the loveliest settings of any European capital, it's easy to be seduced by the laid-back café culture, but do make time to admire the mixture of Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox architecture.
From Sarajevo it's a short hop along the Neretva Gorge to the rocky slopes of Herzegovina, and the town of Mostar. The soaring span of the reconstructed "Old" Bridge is one of the most visually impressive legacies of the centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. I think it looks best at night, when the floodlit arch forms a circle with its reflection in the river.
Serbia's landscape is generally less dramatic than the mountains further west, but its rolling hills and forests have an appeal of their own. Manyof the most isolated valleys shelter Orthodox monasteries, often featuring wonderful mediaeval frescos.
In stark contrast to the timeless tranquillity of the monasteries, Belgrade is one of the liveliest cities in the Balkans. It is not a classically beautiful city, but its imposing site overlooking the Danube and its irrepressible inhabitants give it a special flavor. The pancake-flat northern province of Vojvodina offers even more contrasts, its complex ethnic patchwork giving it a distinctly Central European atmosphere.
If you really want to get to the heart of the Balkans, go to Macedonia. Tourism is rather undeveloped here, but travelers find a welcoming and laid-back country. Tucked away in its southwestern corner is Lake Ohrid, one of the best-loved destinations in the Balkan region. It's easy to while away a week enjoying the architecture and history of Ohrid town, exploring nearby villages and hiking trails, or simply lazing by the water's edge and enjoying Macedonia's relaxed southern hospitality.
Macedonia has many beautifully located monasteries, as well as fine Muslim architecture such as Tetovo's delightfully frivolous Colored Mosque. The Ottoman influence on Macedonia's history can still be felt in the Eastern atmosphere of Skopje's old bazaar.
Almost everyone who writes about the Balkans feels the need to start by explaining what they mean by the term, and I'm no exception. The Balkan Peninsula is the part of southeast Europe that sticks out into the Mediterranean between the Adriatic and Black Seas. Depending on how it is defined, the region contains anything up to ten countries. In this article I have concentrated on five countries in the western part of the peninsula.
I prefer May, June, and September. Then, even the most touristy spots are not too crowded. There is rarely any need to make advance reservations, most attractions are open, and the chances are good for having weather fair enough for swimming in the Adriatic. April and October can also be very pleasant, especially on the coast. July and August are the high season months along the entire length of the Adriatic, and on Lake Ohrid. Buses and trains are busy, and accommodation is at its most expensive.
Rail links are limited. The most important railway links Zagreb, Belgrade, and Skopje to each other and to Greece and Slovenia. There are only a few other lines of any interest to tourists, including the scenic line from Belgrade to Bar on the Montenegrin coast. Don't be surprised to encounter ageing carriages, slightly dilapidated stations, and mysterious delays. Despite these drawbacks, it can still be a fun way to travel and to meet people.
Rail passes are unlikely to be of any use unless your trip takes in several other countries, but train travel within the region is relatively inexpensive. For example, the 8-hour Belgrade-Bar trip costs less than 20; US$27 one way. Travel (like many other things) is a little more expensive in Croatia, with a one-way ticket for the 5.5 hour Zagreb-Split journey costing 22; US$30.
Buses go almost everywhere. Vehicles range from modern air-conditioned coaches in Croatia to ancient bone-shakers in rural Macedonia. A coach from Sarajevo to Zagreb (8-9 hours) costs about 25; US$34; from Skopje to Belgrade (7-8 hours) costs 20; US$27 one way.
Bus schedules can be hard to come by. A few major terminals have online schedules, but usually it's easier to find out about timetables on the spot than to attempt to fine-tune a precise itinerary in advance.
Larger cities have plenty of newer, sleeker hotels, generally aimed more at business travelers than tourists and charging accordingly. Private rooms and apartments are typically cheaper and frequently just as comfortable, although naturally they won't include luxuries like room service. This type of accommodation is widely available in tourist areas, and can be arranged locally by calling into any travel agent advertising "sobe" (rooms).
Hostels are not as prevalent in this region as other parts of Europe. Most of those that do exist, along with a number of small hotels and private rooms, can be found on the HostelWorld website. www.hostelworld.com.
For independent travel in Bulgaria, Macedonia, or Serbia I recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet. I know that many people find this intimidating, but it really doesn't take very long and will allow you to recognize the names of towns and streets. Cyrillic is also very useful, although not quite as essential, in Serbia and Montenegro.
My website has detailed information about the region and links to many other sites covering public transport, lodging, and visa regulations. www.balkanology.com