The Best Walking Holidays In Europe

Hiking & Trekking In The Balkans

Hiking & Trekking In The Balkans
By Rudolf Abraham

Southeast Europe and the Balkans offer some of the finest mountain hikes in Europe.

There are some superb long distance trails yet, for the most part, they are much less-known than routes in the Alps or the Pyrenees.

The following hiking routes range from easy day walks to multi-day (and multi-week) epics across entire mountain ranges, boasting spectacular scenery, fascinating history, rich traditional culture and wonderful hospitality.

The best treks & hikes in the Balkans

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Albania Alps Valbonia Theth2

Valbona in the Albanian Alps

Peaks of the Balkans

The Peaks of the Balkans is an 192km trans-border trek through the Prokletije Mountains, which form the boundary between Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania.

Rugged, wild and remote, the trail covers high mountain passes, secluded lakes and lush valleys. Accommodation and meals are provided by a scattering of village guesthouses, where the genuine warmth and hospitality is just as memorable as the jaw-dropping scenery.

Peaks of the Balkans

Distance: 192km

Duration: 10 days

Start/end points: Plav or Vusanje (Montenegro), Theth or Valbona (Albania), Rekë e Allagës (Kosovo)

Difficulty: Moderate to hard

Suitable for: Fit hikers with a sense of adventure

Overview

From Vusanje, on the edge of Prokletije National Park in Montenegro, the route follows the Ropojana Valley, passing a seasonal lake and crossing into Albania.

A long, steady climb leads to the Pejë Pass, before dropping steeply to the village of Theth, set among lush orchards. From Theth, the route leads over the Valbona Pass, with stunning views on both sides, descending the Valbona Valley to Valbona.

Designed with a section of road-walking beyond Valbona, which most people skip with a short transfer, it’s more rewarding to ascend to the Prosllopit Pass.

The trail crosses back into Montenegro below the summit of Maja Kolata, the highest peak in Montenegro (by a smidgen), before returning to Albania.

Descending to Çeremi village, a long day leads to the summer settlement of Dobërdol, surrounded by high pastures beneath the tripartite border between Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo.

A steep climb from Dobërdol is followed by more border-hopping and broad, airy ridges, before dropping down to Milishevc in Kosovo.

The trail leads over another pass, following a less well marked route, down to Rugova Gorge. From Rekë e Allages, on the northern side of the gorge, the route leads to Drelaj, sometimes with a short transfer back onto the border ridge.

After a long descent to Babino Polje in Montenegro, the trail heads up to Lake Hrid, then down to Plav, the only place on the route remotely approaching the size of a town.

Following a 4WD track back up into the mountains, the trail crosses Vrh Bora, with spectacular views of the peaks above the Ropojana Valley, before looping back down to Vusanje.

Need to know

Obtaining a cross-border permit is mandatory for this route – you can apply for this yourself, but it’s more straightforward to get a local agency to do it for a small fee.

The trekking season is May to October – outside these months you can expect heavy snowfall, Alpine winter conditions and no visible trail.

Nockberge Austria

Nockberge in Austria

Alpe Adria Trail

The Alpe Adria Trail is a rewarding long-distance hiking route. It explores the varied landscapes, rich history and regional cuisine of the Austrian state of Carinthia, Slovenia, and Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.

The route stretches from the foot of the Grossglockner (the highest mountain in the Eastern Alps) to the shore of the Adriatic near Trieste.

It takes in the mountain scenery of the Hohe Tauern, the Nockberge and the Julian Alps, passing through towns and villages, not to mention two outstanding wine regions.

If you haven’t got a month and a half free to walk the whole thing, the AAT can easily be split into two or three more manageable sections. There is also a one-week loop at the centre of the trail which dips into all three countries.

Alpe Adria Trail

Distance: 750km

Duration: 43 days

Start point: Kaiser-Franz-Josef’s-Höhe (Austria)

End points: Muggia (Italy)

Difficulty: Moderate to easy

Suitable for: Any reasonably fit hiker, including families

Overview

From Kaiser-Franz-Josef’s-Höhe, with its view of the Grossglockner and the Pasterze Glacier, the Alpe Adria Trail follows the Mölltal for several days. It travels along the valley floor, climbs across rugged tops on its eastern side and plunges through the Rabischschlucht and Groppensteinschlucht gorges.

After around 11 days, getting you suitably warmed up, the route leads across the Nockberge, a rugged group of mountains, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and highlight of the route.

The AAT spends several days among the Nockberge, dropping down to villages and guesthouses for overnight stops. It then meanders through the Carinthian lake region, passing Ossiacher See, Wörthersee and Faaker See.

After three weeks, the trail takes a breathtaking ridge walk crossing into Slovenia to arrive in Kranjska Gora, a bustling ski resort which is one of the gateways to Triglav National Park.

After crossing the dramatic Vršič Pass, the AAT descends into the Soča Valley which it follows for several days. This section along the River Soča, with its stunning gorge and the little town of Bovec, is another highlight.

Beyond Tolmin, the trail leaves the Soča and crosses the border into Italy, arriving at the historical, UNESCO-listed, Cividale del Friuli.

After winding through the Collio wine region (Italy) and the Brda wine region (Slovenia), the AAT leads along the Italian coast. Skittering across the edge of the Karst region, it dips back into Slovenia one last time to visit the Lipica horse stud.

The route finishes at Muggia, on the shore of the Adriatic.

Need to know

Accommodation (and baggage transfers, if required) can be booked through the Alpe Adria Trail Booking Centre.

The trail app includes detailed maps, which are best downloaded before you travel, so you can use them offline.

The hiking season is April to October (expect snow on the mountains until June), although the lower parts on the coast can be explored all year.

Slovenia Lake Bled

Lake Bled in Slovenia

Juliana Trail

The Juliana Trail in Slovenia is a circular route through the Julian Alps, a memorable loop of the country’s highest and most famous mountain, Triglav.

The route was designed to encourage visitors to explore a wider area and reduce visitor numbers on Triglav itself. Although it doesn’t climb Triglav, it includes some less well-known areas and iconic spots like Bled.

There’s also an optional loop through Goriška Brda, one of Slovenia’s premier wine regions.

Juliana Trail

Distance: 270km extendable to 320km

Duration: 16–20 days

Start/end point: Kranjska Gora (Slovenia)

Difficulty: Moderate to easy

Suitable for: Any reasonably fit hiker, including families

Overview

From Kranjska Gora, the Juliana heads east along the Sava Dolinka, with views of the Martuljek group, to Mojstrana and (less conventionally) the lesser-visited industrial town of Jesenice.

Near Begunje it passes the hilltop church of Sv Peter, then swings through the beautiful town of Radovljica.

Turning west the trail continues to Bled, with its much-photographed lake and island monastery, over the rugged Pokljuka plateau to Stara Fužina. On the shores of Lake Bohinj, Stara Fužina is one of the most beautiful spots in the Julian Alps and the usual trailhead for Triglav climbs.

From Lake Bohinj it heads east again to Bohinjska Bistrica, then south over the Vrh Bače Pass to follow the narrow Bača Valley, again well off the radar of most itineraries. There's a fantastic viewpoint at Senica, above the confluence of the Idrijca and Soča rivers, before the trail descends to Most na Soči.

Following the emerald green River Soča north to Tolmin and Kobarid, the stage between Kobarid and Bovec is particularly beautiful.

From Bovec, the trail heads north along the valley of the River Koritnica, less travelled than the route east along the Soča, to Log pod Mangartom, with stunning views of Mangart and Jalovec towering above the head of the valley.

Climbing to the Predel Pass, the trail drops into Italy, with an overnight stop in Tarvisio.

Finally it turns east, following an old narrow gauge railway line, now a cycling and walking trail, back to Kranjska Gora in Slovenia.

Need to know

Almost all stages are accessible by public transport – one of the main principles behind the trail – so it’s easy to pick off sections as day walks.

The hiking season is May to October (expect snow on the mountains until June).

Sutjeska national park Bosnia and herzegovina

Sutjeska National Park

Via Dinarica

The Via Dinarica follows the entire length of the Dinaric Alps from near Postojna in Slovenia. It passes through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, before finishing in the Prokletije mountains of northern Albania.

Via Dinarica

Distance: 1,330km

Duration: 45 days

Start point: Nanos plateau (Slovenia)

End point: Valbona (Albania)

Difficulty: Moderate to hard

Suitable for: Fit, experienced hikers with a sense of adventure

Overview

The Via Dinarica is actually three separate trails, with the main, so-called White Trail, following the spine of the Dinaric Alps as closely as possible. The Blue and Green trails follow lower routes and are less complete.

The White Trail, described here, through Bosnia and Hezegovina is the most developed so far, stretching a more modest 333km and taking around two weeks to complete.

Starting from Prisika on the Croatian border, the trail leads past Lake Buško with a fair amount of road walking. It passes through an area riddled with limestone caves, many that can be visited as detours.

After crossing Mt Vran, the trail leads through the beautiful landscape of Blidinje Nature Park and over Mt Čvrsnica, with its distinctive rock-eye known as Hajdučka vrata.

Next up, the trail crosses Prenj, a fabulous mountain area bristling with limestone peaks that requires at least two days.

Passing beside Lake Boračko, it follows the edge of the Rakitnica Canyon to reach the Ljuta Valley, then skirts the southern slopes of Mt Treskavica.

The final part of the White Trail in Bosnia is a two-stage hike across the beautiful landscape of Sutjeska National Park. Including Maglić, the highest mountain in Bosnia that can be climbed as a detour, the park features primeval forests, lush pastures and rocky peaks.

After some awe-inspiring views from the border ridge, the route drops down to Lake Trnovačko, set amongst the epic sprawl of mountains that is Montenegro.

Need to know

The hiking season for the White Trail through Bosnia and Herzegovina is June to October.

Bosnia and some parts of Croatia near the Bosnian border have areas with landmines. The trails on the Via Dinarica are perfectly safe, but it’s something you need to be aware of. Under no circumstances should you wander into areas where there are warning signs.

Mavrovo National Park Macedonia

Mavrovo National Park

High Scardus Trail

The High Scardus Trail (HST) is a new hiking route following the mountainous border between North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.

It’s incredibly wild and remote, taking in most of the Šar mountain range and Mt Korab, the fourth highest peak in the Balkans, as well as several national parks. Accommodation comes in the form of small village guesthouses, also offering meals, and mountain huts.

High Scardus Trail

Distance: 376km

Duration: 16 days

Start point: Staro Selo (North Macedonia)

End point: Gorna Gorica (North Macedonia)

Difficulty: Moderate to hard

Suitable for: Fit, experienced hikers with a good level of self-sufficiency and navigation skills, and a sense of adventure

Overview

The High Scardus Trail is broken into three sections. The main section, described here, is an 11 day route stretching just under 300km across the Šar mountains and Mt Korab.

Further south there are two shorter sections requiring three days and two days respectively. The latter makes a crossing of Galičica National Park between Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa.

The HST starts northwest of Skopje and climbs up to the Ljuboten mountain hut, just below the main border ridge.

It follows the ridge southwest before dropping slightly on the Albanian side to Brezovica. The trail continues along the ridge, before dropping back into Albania, with a more significant loss in elevation, to reach Prevala.

Crossing back to the North Macedonian side, it skirts below Vrtop and descends slightly to Veshala. It then heads up the valley to gain the main ridge again and descends to Brod on the Albanian side.

The trail leads south from Brod, keeping to the Albanian side, before crossing the border ridge into North Macedonia again and entering Mavrovo National Park.

Back on the border ridge, the route makes a slight detour to climb Mt Korab, before there’s yet another switch to the Albanian side to reach Radomirë in Korab Koritnik Nature Park.

After following the border ridge again, the HST drops to the trailhead at Grazhdan in Albania.

A 4WD road descends from here to Maqellarë, where a taxi can take you back over the nearby border crossing to Debar in North Macedonia.

Need to know

The hiking season is from June to early October.

The HST requires two transfers to get between the three separate sections of the trail.

A cross-border permit is mandatory for this route, local agencies can arrange these for a small fee.

The trail is covered by a series of six excellent maps at 1:50,000, which are free to download.

There’s a big annual hike on Korab organised by a local mountaineering club in September.

Hiking & Trekking In The Balkans

Rudolf Abraham

Rudolf Abraham is an award-winning travel writer, photographer and guidebook author covering Central and Eastern Europe for National Geographic, the BBC, Cicerone, DK Eyewitness, Bradt, among many others.

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