Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo Credit: Florian Büchner/Pixabay

Balkan Odyssey

Under the radar, poorly understood and often maligned, much of the western Balkans -- the former Yugoslavia and Albania -- has remained a blind spot on travelers' radar long after the dust settled from turbulent times in the 1990s. Strategically wedged between Austria and Hungary to the north and Greece to the south, it often feels stuck in time and isolated from the rest of Europe, a place where the occasional horse-drawn cart and old-time ways can still be seen in its agricultural and scenic backwaters.

Yet there is also much that is abuzz, with a bevy of small capital cities whose cultural and nighttime scenes thrive and even flourish. A drive along the glistening Adriatic shore reveals long stretches of unspoiled and (for the moment) undeveloped coastline where a growing number of celebrity-magnet hot spots foretell the future. In 2017 and '18, Croatia and Montenegro will see increased cruise line activity and the arrival of more deluxe hotels and exclusive resorts.

But there is still time to visit this ancient crossroads between Byzantium and Western Europe before everyone else does.

Balkan hospitality is legendary, and travelers can safely explore the area's dramatic interior and abundance of history, one that dates back far before Marshall Tito, to Alexander the Great. It is a wildly complex place that is politically contradictory and ethnically diverse, a place where Catholic, Muslim, Jew and Orthodox Christian have coexisted throughout history while borders disappeared, reappeared or were frequently redrawn.

I traveled with a small group organized by Seattle-based MIR Corp., which has offered this increasingly popular destination since 2002. Deservedly known for its staff's experience and the expertise and passion of its tour leaders, MIR specializes in the former Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe destinations and well beyond. Our veteran guide, Michel Behar, would prove to be an invaluable asset to our aptly named Balkan Odyssey tour: his deep knowledge of the region's layered history was matched by his patience as we earnestly tried to make sense of it all.

Our well-traveled group of 17 assembled in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and one-time capital of a united Yugoslavia. Most of us had already visited Slovenia and Croatia (the latter is increasingly known for its gorgeous island-spangled coastline), but we would now be venturing farther afield, visiting seven Balkan countries in 16 days: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia (a token stop in the can't-miss city of Dubrovnik), Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania. 

For many, these are only names pulled from the headlines during a time of dictatorial regimes, genocidal wars and political upheaval. But little else is known about them. And this, we all agreed, was what brought us there.

Slovenia and Croatia's economies today are doing well, but some of these Balkan countries are the poorest in Europe (Kosovo is the second-poorest after Moldova, with Albania close behind), resulting in the misperception that the region is neither safe nor welcoming. Our experience was decidedly the opposite.

And it was inexpensive to boot: For the occasional meals not included in our itinerary, we easily found delicious three-course, farm-to-table meals at a fraction of Western European prices. With the exception of two Adriatic ports of call, our May adventure was almost always blissfully unencumbered by groups wherever we went, and that is always icing on the cake.


The 'White City' on the Danube

Many residents of the eight countries that emerged from the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s seem to miss the prosperity, harmony and security they remember from the early, untroubled years of former-Yugoslav president Marshal Josip Broz Tito (whose tomb we would visit in Belgrade). We heard variations of this 'Yugo-nostalgia' by those who recalled a peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups, which many believe is preferable to today's ongoing problems, while others viewed Yugoslavia as a 20th century prison.

Belgrade, long one of the largest, most important and vibrant cities in southeast Europe, was our group's introduction to this corner of the Balkans. Word is out about Belgrade's urban cool ("Is Belgrade the next Berlin?" the New York Times asked in its "36 Hours in Belgrade" feature in August 2016), and the dynamic capital has become a favorite for its youthful energy and optimism. 

Although not a pretty city, it enjoys an enviable location at the confluence of the Danube, which continues on its way east to the Black Sea, and the Sava River. Belgrade's ample riverfront is home to docked party boats that are a summertime draw for millennial travelers; gentrifying neighborhoods of galleries, hip bars and outdoor eateries; and the Belgrade Waterfront, an ambitious on-the-boards urban development plan for a luxury district.

The White City has long been fought over by Slavs, Greeks, Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The strategically sited ancient Kalemegdan Fortress with sweeping river views is loved today as a tree-shaded park where souvenir stands sell Putin T-shirts and nesting dolls, symbols of the country's strong ties to Russia.

The city's teeming pedestrian thoroughfare, Knez Mihailova, begins at the park, lined with an interesting mix of socialist eyesores and 19th and 20th century facades.

Our hotel, the art nouveau Hotel Moskva, is an architectural gem and the city's most important historical property. From here an evening stroll down the cobblestone streets of nearby Skadarlija is de rigeur, in a bohemian neighborhood that brims with flower boxes, outdoor bars and restaurants frequented by locals and serenading Roma musicians. A visit to the Church of St. Sava revealed a massive affair not yet completed; said to be the largest church in the Serbian Orthodox Church, it was founded by a local 13th century prince and saint.

After days filled with architecture and history, the dramatic and unspoiled countryside of the Balkans was both unexpected and soothing to the eye. The drive through Serbia's deep valleys, spruce and cypress forests and untouched wilderness in the shadow of high peaks and along rushing streams was balm for the soul.

On to Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sarajevo, the capital city of neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, was once ruled by the Ottomans who took over much of the peninsula in the 15th century. But it belonged to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated there, triggering the First World War. Since then, it has been the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, thanks to the nearby Dinaric Alps, which encircle the city.

But as we slowly made our way through rush-hour traffic to the city's center, there was a more recent chapter of the city on view: blocks of apartment buildings that remained scarred from the 1992-1995 siege, when Bosnian Serb forces destroyed 60% of the city (much of it since rebuilt) and left more than 10,000 dead. 

Nothing illustrated this period better than a sobering hour spent at the Tunnel Museum, site of a half-mile tunnel that was dug beneath the U.N.-controlled airport, which provided the only link between Sarajevo and the rest of the world. The airport enabled people, food, supplies and arms to enter the city during the years it was surrounded.

On a sunny day in Sarajevo, that dark moment can feel like light years away. Old Sarajevo exudes a beguiling mix of East meets West and can feel very evocative of Istanbul, which is not surprising since it was the second most important city outside of Istanbul during the time of Ottoman rule.

In Bascarsija, the historical car-free bazaar quarter and the most visited destination in the city, Sarajevo's traditional tolerance of religion was on display: a Jewish synagogue, Orthodox cathedral, Roman Catholic cathedral and many historical mosques could be found within steps of each other. For this, mainly Muslim Sarajevo prides itself on its one-time nickname: Jerusalem of the Balkans.

It's an easy two-hour drive through more beautiful, rolling, largely agricultural countryside to Mostar, the country's other undeniable drawing card.

Everyone is here to see the single-span Old Bridge (Stari Most), commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and one of the most significant examples of Ottoman architecture in the Balkans. Sadly it is a reconstruction, albeit a beautiful one, as the original was bombed in 1993 by Bosnian Croat forces together with most of the surrounding Old Town.

All other bridges and all but one of the city's 27 Ottoman-era mosques were destroyed. The bridge has been painstakingly and convincingly rebuilt, and Prince Charles visited in 2004 for the inauguration ceremony. It was widely considered the beginning of reconciliation between local Muslim and Christian sides.

The Pearl of the Adriatic

Croatia is the only Balkan country that has been enticing American visitors as a stand-alone destination, and you simply can't visit Dubrovnik -- the Pearl of the Adriatic -- too often.

Our local guide was proud to mention that the crew of HBO's "Game of Thrones" had returned to film one more season (Season 7, currently airing), one of many reasons behind the constantly growing numbers of tourists. 

Crowds are a problem these days, and measures are being discussed to handle their growth. But we were lucky: The marble-paved streets of the Old City within the 80-foot walls were contained, and the cable car that whisked us high above town gave us a perspective far from the madding crowd, as did the 19th century sailboat, from which we viewed one of the world's greatest walled cities from the vantage of ancient mariners.

Dubrovnik is located at the southern tip of the legendary Dalmatian coast and would be our only stop in Croatia. From there, it was a perfect road trip down the dazzling Adriatic coastline to Montenegro, a Connecticut-sized territory that is two-thirds mountains and boasts an often sandy 183 miles of coastline, much of it poised for inevitable development in the years to come.

For now, Budva preens in its spotlight as the heart of the Montenegrin Riviera, with rampant development overshadowing its small but beautifully preserved Old Town. It was the busiest place we visited outside of Dubrovnik, with a yacht-filled marina, thrumming nightclubs and stylish boutiques catering to Russian customers.

It's a whole other world just 10 minutes away on the small almost-island of Sveti Stefan, connected to the mainland by a slender isthmus. It put Montenegro on the map in 2009 when the prestigious Aman Resorts operation finished a top-to-bottom refurbishment and opened as the most exclusive resort in the region. Yet the town has retained much of its character as a centuries-old fortified village and its earlier reincarnation as an Adriatic playground in the 1960s through '80s, when it was owned by the communist government and stars from Hollywood and Italy's Cinecitta summered there.

With a population of just 650,000, Montenegro gets twice those numbers in annual visitors. Most visitors head by car or by boat to the fjord-like Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska), the deepest in the Mediterranean and high on every list of the world's most beautiful bays. With 75% of the country Orthodox and Roman Catholic, churches seem a dime a dozen in small towns that settled along the waterfront and in the city of Kotor itself, all centuries-old and reminiscent of the years spent under Venetian rule.

Sometimes called a mini-Dubrovnik for its monumental walls, Kotor risks being overrun by crowds, especially when cruise ships pull in. Those with more time and better knees can escape them with an arduous hike to the mountaintop for magnificent views. We were able to enjoy the same million-dollar photo ops from the comfort of our air conditioned bus.

'We are all family'

There is next to no tourism in Kosovo at the moment, but we found the people welcoming and warm. Once a province of Serbia, today it stands as Europe's newest country after being recognized by the U.N., U.S. and other countries in 2008. When a full-fledged war for independence broke out between the Orthodox Serbs and the ethnic Albanians, who are Muslim, U.S.-led NATO forces moved to intervene in 1998 on behalf of the Albanians. In gratitude, a statue of Bill Clinton today stands on a large boulevard that shares his name.

Kosovo's capital, Pristina, is the energetic hub of Europe's youngest national population (the average age is 28) with a large bar and cafe scene.  To witness life today in this small country where 88% of the population is ethnic Albanian Muslim and 7% is Serbian Orthodox, we first traveled to a neat and quiet neighborhood for a meeting with an Albanian family arranged by MIR. 

Through an interpreter, our amiable hosts encouraged us to ask questions. We learned how NATO mistakenly bombed a bus carrying Albanians who were fleeing (wrongly taking them for Serbs); eight members of our host's immediate family were killed. Like the people in every place we visited in the Balkans, the family was open, kind and gracious.

"We are now family," the father told us as he helped us slip back into our shoes on our way out.

We finished the day with a visit to a small Serbian enclave in the village of Gracanica, outside Pristina, to visit an impressive, fresco-illuminated 14th century Orthodox monastery, one of four medieval monasteries that led to Kosovo being dubbed "Serbia's Jerusalem."

A capital transformed

Macedonia qualified as another entry on our list of Europe's best-kept secrets. It is not to be confused with the region of Macedonia in northern Greece with which it shares a border, which has forced Macedonia to accept the cumbersome name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.

In this tiny, landlocked nation of less than 2 million, an unbridled spending spree called Skopje 2014 has transformed the capital in faux-classical facades, pedestrian bridges, monumental fountains and statues such as the gargantuan Alexander the Great that lords over the city's central square (Alexander's birthplace is another point of contention with neighboring Greece). Skopje also takes great pride in Mother Teresa, who was born here of Albanian parents in 1910. A modern church/museum marks the place of her baptism.

Construction in the city center continues today, and not everyone is happy about it. Meant to sweep away its post-communist pall, the city's controversial face-lift thankfully left untouched its historic highlights: the old quarter's atmospheric Turkish Bazaar, an important center of trade since the 12th century; three caravansaries; ancient baths; fresco-covered Orthodox churches (which serve 70% of the population) and historical mosques (which serve another 25%); and its venerable 15th century stone bridge.

We drove past some of the mountainous country's 50 lakes on our way to its most legendary, the 21-mile-long Lake Ohrid, on the border with Albania. It is one of Europe's deepest and, arguably, its cleanest.

The city of Ohrid's Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman roots are visible everywhere, and its religious and scholarly legacy is on display in the various churches and monasteries. We visited more than I can remember and stood in awe before dimly lit collections of frescoes, icons and mosaics.

Albania, located directly across the Adriatic from the "heel" of Italy, was the only Balkan country we visited that was not once part of the united Yugoslavia.  Its 20th century history sets it apart from the Balkan region in more ways than one.

Author Patricia Schultz sailing past the walls of Dubrovnik.
Author Patricia Schultz sailing past the walls of Dubrovnik.

Having suffocated in the iron grip of the dictator Enver Hoxha from 1944 to 1985, it has made a quantum leap since 1992 when elections ended 47 years of paralyzing communist rule. From being a hermit nation totally cut off from the outside world, it is today openly welcoming tourists who come to enjoy friendly people, gorgeous scenery and low prices in one of Europe's fastest-changing countries. 

Albania's lively capital, Tirana, is surprising for its bright and cheery colors and lively designs that camouflage its formerly dismal architecture. Round-the-clock rush hour is the result of the nation's slavish love of cars, a likely backlash to when public-vehicle ownership was banned under Hoxha.

Although unemployment is high and wages are low, we found cafes and restaurants to be full at all hours. Hoxha, paranoid that invasion and nuclear attack were imminent, ordered 750,000 mushroom-domed bunkers be built in the city and littered across the countryside.

Today's government has opened some of them to the public. Although some are small enough for just one or two people, we visited the eerie Bunk'Art Museum, a 3,281-square-foot bunker built to shelter Hoxha and his elite police.

Outside Tirana, a new archaeological museum showcases the importance of Durres and the ancient Via Egnatia, which connected Rome through the Adriatic port of Durres with Constantinople. We were introduced to Skanderbeg, the country's revered national hero, in Kruje, the city where he was born.

An old hilltop castle houses a museum dedicated to the 15th century nobleman and military commander who kept the invading Ottomans at bay. Upon his death, the Ottomans did move in, and they stayed for some 500 years, settling in the important cities such as Berat, Albania's oldest town. It is known as the City of 1,001 Windows for the white-tiered Ottoman houses that rise up against its cliff face and is magical at night.

Albania and each of its Balkan neighbors that we visited were a revelation and a joy. And if travel is an education, then this Balkan odyssey was like a year back at school.

Contributing editor Patricia Schultz is the author of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die."