Unveiling the Beauty of Southeast European Railways

The Balkans have a bloody history, but the region is also filled with stunning natural wonders. Lush valleys, towering mountains and a diverse array of indigenous Balkan species await visitors.

From icy glacial lakes to caves shaped like the devil’s eyes, here are some of the top destinations for adventurous travelers to explore in the Balkans.

Una National Park

The beautiful Una National Park, located in western Bosnia and Herzegovina on the border with Croatia, is a stunning collection of majestic nature. Covering 198 square kilometers, the park has mountains and rivers with a wealth of flora and fauna and is also one of the most biodiverse areas in the country. It also houses arguably the most impressive waterfalls in the country, with Strbacki buk and Martin brod being the main attractions.

The park is surrounded by villages and the largest town is Bihac, which makes it easy to reach for those visiting from across the region. While it is possible to visit the park by public transport, renting a car is highly recommended if you want to see all the main sights.

There are a few entrances to the park, but the best option is Gorjevac (for the most popular spot in the park, Strbacki buk). You can take a bus from Bihac Bedem to this town and then from there hike to Ostrovica castle (8 kilometers), Martin brod (15 kilometers) and Milancev buk (18 kilometers).

Una National Park is also home to a narrow gauge railroad that runs between the park and the town of Lohovo. The train ride is a fun experience, and you can also visit the ethno-village of Cardaklije to learn more about Bosnian village life. The village has an eco-friendly playground and mini-zoo, a great restaurant and the Cardak, where you can sample traditional Bosnian drinks such as schnapps.

While there aren’t many established hiking trails in the park yet, the ruins of some ancient forts make for an interesting hike. In the future, it’s expected that the park will be linked to the Via Dinarica green trail and this will make it even easier for visitors to explore the area.

The beauty of the Una National Park is undeniable, and it’s a perfect place for anyone looking to enjoy the natural wonders of Southeast Europe. With breathtaking waterfalls, a rich flora and fauna, and an interesting history, this park is well worth visiting. Its proximity to Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia also means it’s a great choice for a day trip.

Sutjeska National Park

If you’re looking for the chance to experience true wilderness in Europe, Sutjeska National Park is the place to visit. This awe-inspiring destination is home to majestic mountain peaks, pristine rivers, and vibrant flora that will leave you in awe of its beauty.

The oldest and biggest National Park in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sutjeska encompasses a vast area of 17500 hectares in the southeast part of the country. With forests covering most of the region, it is a haven for nature enthusiasts and adventurers. It is home to a wealth of wildlife species, including brown bears, wolves, and Balkan chamois. It also hosts numerous avian species, from the regal golden eagle to the melodious song of the blackcap.

In addition to its stunning natural landscapes, the park is dotted with historic monuments that tell the tale of the brave Partisan fighters who fought to preserve freedom during World War II. Visitors can pay their respects to the fallen soldiers at the awe-inspiring Tjentiste Memorial Complex.

There are many ways to explore the beauty of Sutjeska, including hiking, cycling, and rafting. The park’s trails are well-maintained and offer easy to moderate difficulty levels, making them perfect for everyone from beginners to experts. You can also hire a guide to lead you through the park’s most breathtaking locations.

The most awe-inspiring aspect of Sutjeska National Park is its pristine natural environment, including enchanting forests, rushing river rapids, and stunning waterfalls. The forests are dominated by spruces, firs, and beeches that create a canopy of greenery and add vibrancy to the scenery. In addition to the forests, the park is also dotted with glistening rivers and crystalline mountain lakes that are perfect for swimming or simply relaxing.

The park is a paradise for hikers with its endless miles of hiking trails. The most popular hiking trail is the Sutjeska Canyon Loop, which is a 9.5-mile (15.4-kilometer) trek that takes you through a gorge filled with pristine waters and dramatic mountain views. Another popular hiking trail is the rocky summit of Maglic, which features a number of stunning viewpoints.

Durmitor National Park

The biggest national park in Montenegro, Durmitor boasts a staggeringly diverse landscape of majestic peaks and glacial lakes. Located in the heart of the Dinaric Mountains, the area is home to wild forests, enchanting meadows, and plenty of luxury outdoor experiences. Hiking is a favourite here with numerous trails to suit all levels of expertise.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a paradise for wildlife lovers too, with brown bears, grey wolves, and European wildcats all roaming the area. There are also around 1,325 species of flora, making it one of the most biodiverse wildernesses in the region.

If you’d rather stay on the ground, a popular activity is taking a day trip to explore the famous Durmitor Ring (Durmitorski Prsten). The 85km scenic road encircles the park and offers stunning mountain views. The Tara Canyon is also a popular draw with rafting, canoeing, and kayaking being common activities for visitors to enjoy.

During the summer hiking is a popular activity, with countless trails leading you past spectacular scenery and glacier lakes. However, due to the high altitude, it’s essential to prepare accordingly – bring a good pair of walking shoes, warm clothes, and check the weather forecast before heading out on a hike.

In the winter, Durmitor is a snowy wonderland with skiers and snowboarders flocking here to enjoy the powder-softened trails. It’s important to book your accommodation well in advance as places fill up fast during the winter months.

Durmitor National Park is a year-round adventure destination, with hiking and rafting popular activities during the summer months while skiing draws many in the winter. If you don’t want to trek or raft, many tour operators offer jeep safari tours of the area which include transportation, equipment hire, and a guide to ensure your safety.

Most visitors to Durmitor choose to base themselves in the sprawling town of Zabljak, the gateway to the national park. The town offers a variety of accommodation options, from vast socialist-era hotels to private rooms, and has a handful of reasonably priced restaurants and supermarkets that sell outdoor gear. It’s also home to some of the highest-located mountain huts in Europe.

Dubrovnik-Neretva Railway

A short drive from Dubrovnik and Croatia’s most famous UNESCO-protected bridge, the Neretva River valley is full of gorgeous beaches. From sweeping strips of pebbles to serene bay hideaways, the water temperature here hovers around 68 degrees throughout summer and makes it one of the best places in the Balkans for swimming. It’s also a stellar spot for windsurfing and kiteboarding thanks to the strong and steady winds.

Once upon a time, these two beachy hubs were connected by an old narrow gauge railway known as the Ciro. While the line is still shut down, the railway track itself has been repurposed into a cycling trail that connects several of the region’s most popular tourist destinations.

The line begins in the forested hills of central Bosnia, using switchback curves and multiple tunnels to climb towards the Neretva River valley. Soon the landscape starts to change, rounded green hills giving way to the rocky limestone crags of Herzegovina (this is my favourite part of the journey). Then the valley narrows to a gorge as the track is squeezed between the eponymous canyon of Glogosnica and the historical village of Jablanica on the right side, and the pristine secluded vale of Drezanka with its eponymous cave embedded in the Prenj mountains on the left.

This part of the trip takes us through a series of tiny villages and hidden gems that are so authentically Balkan that you’ll be surprised to find yourself in the 21st century. There are a few halts along the way to take in the scenery and stretch your legs, including a very picturesque one at idlovo Blato, a nature reserve with a natural lake and a cliff jutting out of it that looks like something straight out of a fairytale.

Most of Bulgaria’s railway lines run in an east-west direction, but the line from Bansko to Septemvri breaks that convention and runs north-south through a gap between the Rila and Western Rhodope ranges. It’s a scenic route that’s best appreciated when you’re relaxed and not trying to rush to the next stop.

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