Off the Beaten Path in Europe: The Balkans
Bosnia-Herzegovina was, for a lengthy period of time, a place name associated with civil war, violence, and land mines. Sarajevo, the country’s capital, hosted the Olympic games in 1984, would soon after be under siege from 1992-1995. However, in the decades since the civil war, the country’s beauty has starting shining through again, and old wounds have healed. One of the most highly rated attractions in Sarajevo is free; Neno’s Walking Tours, given by Neno himself, is a great introduction to the history, culture and beauty of Sarajevo. Neno shares his stories and city, and friendship. When it comes to history and culture, Bosnia is hard to beat. While in Sarajevo, you will undoubtedly see some reminders of the country’s recent past; Sarajevo roses (mortar scars filled in with red resin) dot the sidewalks, and tourist attractions include the famous Sarajevo War Tunnels.
While the Balkans might not conjure up the same ski vacation images as the Rockies or the Alps, the area around Sarajevo is home to several ski resorts, former Olympic hosts Jahorina and Bjelašnica, both of which have been restored and reopened since the war, and both which offer excellent ski conditions for intermediate and beginner skiiers, without the high price tag of typical ski destinations. Sarajevo is also an excellent place to shop, at its famous Baščaršija bazaar. Baščaršija is not only the city’s bazaar, but also the historical and cultural centre of the city. One of the city’s main tourist attractions, it is also one of the highest rated attractions in Bosnia. It’s the best place to go in the city to see and experience the city’s energy, multicultralism, beauty, and resilence. In addition to shopping at the various bazaar kiosks, there’s also a wide variety of restaurants and coffee bars, to suit any taste bud. Soak in the sights of its cobbled streets and mosques, the smell of the local fare, and just enjoy the heart of Sarajevo, a city who personifies resilience and healing.
Another excellent Balkans travel destination is Croatia. Many may be surprised to learn that Croatia has a growing reputation as a beach destination, with 1800 km of coastline. Located along the Mediterranean Sea, Crotia’s coastline has a semi tropical climate along with pebbly, clean beaches, interspersed among the impressive towering rocky coastal cliffs. Croatia’s seafront area is different from many other Mediterranean destinations, lacking the resort towns of towering hotels and brand names. The vibe in Croatia is more relaxed, natural, and quiet, much like the countryside of this nation.If you’re looking to experience a seaside getaway in Crotia, you might want to consider one of the country’s islands, including Zlatni Rat on the island of Brac (accessed daily by ferry), Brac or Hvar.
Croatia’s Roman empire legacy remains to this day, and you can see evidence of the Romans time here through their architecture, at sites such as the Pula Amphitheatre or Diocletian’s Palace, both of which will leave you wondeing if you are in Rome or Croatia. If you’re looking for a larger city to travel to while in Croatia, you won’t want to miss Dubrovnik. Located on the shores of the Mediterranean, it is known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, with good reason. A trade city dating back to the Middle Ages, Dubrovnik is a testament to the past, with historical architecture and museums abound. Parts of the city’s original walls can be visited, along with many churches, fontains, statues, and museums. In additional to its culture and beauty, Dubrovnik is also home to what are possibly Europe’s most beautiful beaches.
Another Balkans destination is the crown jewel city of Turkey, Istanbul. A city with history that very few others can rival, Istabul was once the city of Constantinople, capital city of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires. Today, visirors will delight in the older parts of the city’s historical architecture, and several not be to missed attractions. You’ll want to make sure to spend a day at one of the city’s many hammams, or saunas, many of which offer massages as well. Istanbul also is home to many different cruises; one excellent option is the state-run Bosphorous cruise, which is three hours long and allows you to view the Yoros Kalesi castle at the entrance to the Black Sea. You’ll also want to see, smell, hear, and experience Istanbul’s Old City, Sultanahmet. In this part of the city, you’ll find what was the heart of Constantinople. The Hagia Sophia basilica is located here, as are the Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome, several bazaars… and even a bowling alley!
The Balkans, with their generally pleasant climate, hospitality, and history-steeped culture, are an excellent destination for travellers looking for a unique experience slightly off the beaten path. And the best part is they’re one of the cheapest parts of Europe.