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Feature 06 Jun 17

Inside Guide to the Balkans’ Secret Wonders

Scattered across the Balkans are stunning little gems of nature or human history that are well worth making a detour to visit.

BIRN Team
BIRN
Orlovacko Lake on Mt Zelengora, Sutjeska National Park, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Petkovic Boris/Wikimedia

Hidden high in the mountains or deep beneath the earth, all across the Balkans, breath-taking sights are waiting to be seen - and found. Don’t expect to find upscale facilities, or any facilities at all in some cases - but the peace and wonder they offer should compensate for the lack of mod-cons.

Gjipe Beach, Albania

Photo: Miguel Palhinha/Flickr

The waters of the Ionian Sea in Gjipe are deep and crystal clear, but there are slim chances of meeting crowds at this pebbly beach in southern Albania. The reason is simple; there is no road to the beach. You can come by boat, or walk for about half-an-hour off the asphalt road from villages of Dhermi or Jala. The walk itself is a beautiful journey through a canyon. Visitors should bring their own food and beach chairs with them since very few sellers visit the area.

Kelmend valley, Albania

In the far north of Albania near the Montenegro border lies the remote valley of Kelmend. With a population of not more than 6,000, the valleys encompasses eight villages. The road through the valley is stunning for those who like panoramic views, waterfalls and scenic hiking paths. The villagers of Kelmend are known for their hospitality and keep up the old Albanian traditions when it comes to food, clothing and traditional music.

Gramsh Waterfall, Albania

Photo: Margott/Wikimedia

Situated in the very heart of Albania, the surroundings of Gramsh offer surprising gems. One of the most stunning is the waterfall at Sotira, 16 km from the town, down to which the water stream from Mt Tomorri. The Gramsh area also offers other natural beauties such as the canyon at Holta and the Black Lake, created by the ice amid the mountains.

Klinje, Bosnia

Photo: JankoSam/Wikimedia

High in the mountains, the turquoise lake at Klinje is surrounded by stone cliffs and trees. Located close to the town of Gacko, in Republika Srpska, this is one of the oldest artificial lakes in Bosnia. During the Yugoslav era, the lake was a popular bolthole for the country’s elite on their way to the seaside, as it lies close to the road leading to southern Croatian coastline and the city of Dubrovnik. Today, however, facilities such as restaurants or cafés are long gone and most visitors these days are locals.

Sutjeska, Bosnia

Tjentiste War Memorial, Sutjeska National Park. Photo: Michael Kötter/Flickr

Sutjeska national park became famous in Yugoslavia following World War II as the site of a major battle in 1943 between German Nazi forces and the communist-led Partisans under Josip Broz Tito. The 1973 film about the battle even starred Richard Burton as Tito! Several roads run through the park and a drive offers impressive views of high mountains, lakes, river canyons and deep forests. The park contains several large monuments to the famous battle, the beautiful Skakavac waterfall and numerous lakes. The most famous are hidden in the forests and wide plateaus on Mt Zelengora.

Eastern Rhodope Mountain, Bulgaria

Perperikon, Eastern Rhodope Mountain. Photo: Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr

Hikers hungry for ancient history and traditional rituals will find the Eastern Rhodope mountain range a top destination. Far from Rhodope’s touristic hotspots, the eastern part of the mountain range offers an escape into a world of mysticism. Must-visits include the Thracian sanctuary at Tatul, which dates back to 4,000 years BC, and which is listed among the ten wonders of Bulgaria, and Perperikon, a striking archaeological complex containing a megalithic Thracian sanctuary. The region is rich in beautiful cliffs and caves while water sports fans can choose to canoe or raft along the Arda river.

Sinemorets, Bulgaria

Photo: Delysia/Wikimedia

You will no find big, all-inclusive hotels, crazy discos or 24-hour partying in Sinemorets, which is everything that the popular Black Sea coastline resorts are not: a place of peace, well-preserved nature and romance. Located in a natural reserve on the southernmost part of the coast, the small village hosts some of the country’s most scenic beaches. Undoubtedly the most popular is the one where the mouth of the Veleka river flows into the Black Sea, forming a strip of sand surrounded by water.

Museum of Evolution, Croatia

Photo: Tromber/Wikimedia

The Museum of Krapina Neanderthal Man – popularly called the Museum of Evolution – is based on a stunning archaeological find at Husnjakovo, a hill near the northern town of Krapina. In 1899, the archaeologist and palaeontologist Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger found 800 fossils there belonging to Neanderthal men who had lived some 125,000 years ago. It was one of the biggest such finds in the world. After 11 years of construction, a new museum opened in 2010, designed in modern architecture and Incorporated into the hill. This offers a new interactive approach to telling the story of Neanderthal men and evolution in general for both young and old.

Lastovo, Croatia

Photo: Luisa Josue/Flickr

One of the most southernmost islands in Croatia, Lastovo was mainly a military base during the Yugoslav era, which saved it from exploitation by mainstream tourism. As a result, it has no large hotels, camps, resorts or thousands of tourists. With only limited tourism facilities and only one hotel on the woodland island of 40 square kilometres and about 800 people, the untouched beaches and open horizons are a tonic for those seeking a peaceful getaway. The main village is an enchanted-looking place that looks as if it comes from a fairy tale, with houses dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, many of them topped by traditional unusually constructed fumari (chimneys).

Gadime Cave, Kosovo

Photo: Arben Llapashtica/Wikimedia

Known also as the Marble Cave, in the village of Gidime in Lipjan municipality, Gadime cave was only found in 1966 by a villager called Ahmet Asllani who was out cutting stones. The cave is 1,300 metres long and contains many rare crystals. The cave is believed to be 80,000 years old.

Ulpiana, Kosovo

Photo: Gashi Bujar/Wikimedia

The ancient city of Ulpiana, about seven kilometres southeast of Pristina, was founded in the days of the Roman Empire and it is believed to be of Illyrian origin, based on the artefacts found there by archaeologists. Treasures found in Ulpiana date back to 4th century BC and belong to the Dardania, an Illyrian tribe. Ulpiana was later called Justiniana Secunda, after the Emperor Justinian rebuilt the city, which was hit by an earthquake in the year 518 AD.

Godinje, Montenegro

Photo: Mercy/Wikimedia

A small settlement near Lake Skadar and part of the coastal municipality of Bar, just 15 km from the sea, Godinje has become a hot spot known for its intriguing ancient stone houses. The architecture involves a chain-like system of connected houses, joined one to another, with arched cellars. Tourists can visit old Balsic Dynasty Place, or see the Grmozur fort on the island of the same name, in Godinje bay.

Djurdjevica Tara Bridge, Montenegro

Photo: Arno Hoyer/Flickr

Rising 172 metres above the Tara River, the bridge of the same name is a regular source of inspiration for artists. A popular destination for tourists, it is also much loved by adventurer-seekers looking for some adrenalin while out rafting. Tara Bridge was built between 1937 and 1940 when it was the biggest vehicular concrete arch bridge in Europe.

Perast, Montenegro

Photo: Marjan Lazarevski/Flickr

A gem on the Montenegrin coast, this small Medieval town in the Boka Bay lies just a few kilometres northwest of Kotor. A UNESCO heritage site, the tiny town is rich in architecture dating back to the time that this coastline fell under the control of Venice. Sixteen Baroque palaces, ancient Catholic and Orthodox churches and a series of defensive towers are just some of the delights to explore. Perast was once a stopping spot for the Russian Tsars - and the area remains popular with Russian tourists.

Gura Portitei, Romania

Photo: Ihopulele/Wikimedia

Lovers of wild beaches should make for this strand of sand between the Black Sea and Golovita Lake in the Danube Delta in southeast Romania. Home to a fishermen’s village, it is hard to reach either by boat or by land. The boat to Gura Portitei leaves three times a day from Jurilovca in the Delta, and the trip takes about an hour-and-a-half. The village can be reached by land - but only by the most adventurous tourists who have their own 4x4 vehicles.

Poenari Castle, Romania

Photo: Emmanuel Brunner/Wikimedia

Poenari Castle was the real residence of Vlad III “the Impaler”, whose reputation inspired the British writer Bram Stoker to write his famous novel, Dracula. The castle is located on the plateau of Mt Cetatea and getting there is a hike. Access follows an arduous climb up no fewer than 1,480 concrete stairs.

Lopatari, Romania

Photo: Petr Sporer/Wikimedia

The Living Fires of Lopatari, Buzau, are among the most mysterious and unusual phenomena to be found anywhere in nature. Foreign tourists have compared them to Mordor, the fiery kingdom of the evil Sauron in JRR Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings.” The natural emanations of gas are lit at the surface under the rays of the sun. The fires burn at night as well, when the scenery is at its most spectacular.

Gradac river, Serbia

Photo: Nenad Sakovic/Wikimedia

The Gradac river that runs through the western Serbian town of Valjevo is one of the lesser known places for trekking in the region. A 17km-long river flows through whirlpools and rapids, sometimes hitting hard on the stones and sometimes slowing to create perfect pools for bathing. Close to Gradac are two famous caves - Deguricka cave and Petnica cave, which even hosts a restaurant at the entrance.

Ovcarsko-Kablarska gorge, Serbia

Photo: NeDJo/Wikimedia

In southwest Serbia, the Zapadna Morava River cuts a beautiful gorge between the mountains of Ovcar and Kablar. The scenic gorge occasionally affords impressive views of the meanders in the river and two artificial lakes. The area is also known as Serbia’s Holy Mountain. This is because, hidden in the mountain forests or cut into the stone cliffs, are no less than 11 15th and 16th-century Serbian Orthodox monasteries.

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