Inspire

This Is Definitely Europe’s Most Underrated Region

An intro guide to the beautiful Balkans.

Brought to you by Contiki

Contiki is about unexpected adventures, inspiring places & lifelong friendships. Most of all, it's living life out loud. Travel with no regrets.

A place of rugged land and impassable cliffs, ancient paths and narrow valleys, the Balkan Peninsula sets the scene for your own medieval fairytale – or at the very least, an episode of a modernised Game of Thrones. “The sharp sounds of clashing swords; the heavy thuds of colliding armour, a really good little bistro selling Aperol spritzers.” Though the southeastern stretch is no stranger to conflict; in the past not-so-long-ago, amongst the sprawling landscape of rustic castles and historical monuments, bloody battles ensued. It was about occupations, defeats and triumphs: a clash between empires and ethnicities.

But the Balkan Peninsula is more than its turbulent history. Today the craggy mountains that rise along the coastline are a place of peace and tranquility – and adventure! Not the easiest place to see, expect train travel to be rough, ready and intermittent. This beautiful part of Europe is the one less-travelled.

We pick the top five cities and tell you how to navigate the hills.


Brasov

If you’ve heard of Dracula, then you’ve probably heard of Brasov. Found in the Transylvanian region, this quiet place is modern with a medieval twist – but you won’t see crowds of tourists on the streets or new faces in the bars. What you will see is a peculiarly familiar, larger-than-life sign sitting atop Mount Tampa. Brasov’s own ‘Hollywood’ sign was installed to rev up the tourism (though we’re not sure it was a wise investment). Surrounded by the southern Carpathian Mountains, down below it’s not uncommon to see big brown bears navigating the cobblestone lanes in search of city bins to rummage and feed from.

What to do: Since we’re talking wacky, a 20-minute drive to Bran will take you to the infamous Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Castle. Although there are actually three Dracula’s castles scattered throughout the country, this is the original. Sadly there’s very little in the way of cheesy vampire tourism.


Ljubljana

Often confused for Slovakia (the country not the kebab – that’s Souv-la-kee), Slovenia has been quietly grooming capital Ljubljana for quite some time now. Pretty clean and with an amazing café scene, the sparky town is the most progressive and – some say – the most exciting of all the Balkan cities. A tour by bike reveals a buzzing energy more akin to hubbub cities like Berlin and Copenhagen. And while it’s not as expensive as the latter, skip this city if you’re pinching pennies. Not crowded or chaotic, the 2016 European Green Capital winner offers an urban sprawl with verdant spaces, as well as a tiny slice of Adriatic Sea coastline.

Don’t miss: Ljubljana is a foodie haven, so expect a lot of fresh fish and seafood, organic fruit and veges, and horse. Yep. They eat that too.


Crete

You’ve probably been warned that nothing happens quickly in the Mediterranean, but gosh darn it, it’s the truth – and the largest of the Greek islands is no exception. You’ll see the usual contenders – old churches, small squares, terracotta homes and plenty of sun – but unlike the busier islands of Mykonos and Santorini, Crete has a calm and timeless feel. Its mountains are barren and imposing, yet no less impressive. Venture into the mountain villages and eat dinner in the little tavernas, embracing the local wine and food. In the hills it’s easier to feel close to nature, but by the coast the coves and inlets provide solace from the heat of the sun. While it’s no secret that Greece is in the grips a financial flux of sorts, there is no better time to embrace the Greek way – and its weak currency.

Good to know: No need to cram your pockets with euros; tourists can now withdraw a daily limit of 600 euros.


Budapest

We’ve given you the what-to-know before you go to Budapest, but what to do once there? This is a town where the beer is very very cheap and the city lively; characterised by picturesque parks, Hollywood movie sets (Budapest’s favourable prices are luring quality for the film world) and art nouveau architecture. And no matter the weather, the thermal spas are always a hit with both locals and visitors. Since Roman times people have taken to the warm waters, whether for relaxation or in hope of curing ailments. We’ve even heard tales of guests fixing more than one hangover during their stay. Of course, a stopover wouldn’t be complete without tasting the local cuisine or doing a little shopping.

Don’t miss: The vintage boutiques here do not disappoint, especially around Deák Ferenc Square, the central square of Downtown Budapest. But don’t be surprised if you run into the capital’s past. Bullet holes and shrapnel scars are a reminder of the grand old dame’s recent status of independence.


Dubrovnik

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A real life TV set, the walled city of Dubrovnik offers more than a place to work on your tan. Its Old Town, otherwise known as King’s Landing, is every Game of Thrones fan’s dream come true. A climb of the city walls will have them reminiscing about the latest episode’s bloody battle. A visit to Lovrijenac Fortress, and they’ll pity the day they ever laid eyes on the wicked King Joffrey. (It’s wise to visit from 6pm, once the ferries of tourists have left the island.) But if you don’t know your Lannisters from your Baratheons, there are plenty of other sights, taste and sounds to woo your senses. Bathe along the shores of the shimmering Adriatic, while enjoying a delicious Dalmatian ham and cheese sandwich.

Don’t miss: Visit nearby islands, Lokrum and Korčula to explore caves, tour by kayak or go snorkeling.

(Lead image: Tit Bonač/Flickr)

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