How it all began…

Our collection of walking holidays in the Balkans

It all started in 2018 when we were walking together in the Rhodope and Pirin Mountains in Bulgaria with the members of the Bogtrotters Hillwalking Club based out of Dublin, Ireland. Bogtrotters are a group of steady walkers who like scenic and remote routes up the mountains, but also fine wine, hearty food and a good laugh and are curious to explore different areas every year. While their club would normally consist of a regular group of members, there would also be new faces joining them every year.

Walking the Greek Olympus mountains – best views towards the main ridge and the Throne of Zeus

It was a beautiful spring day up there – not too warm, not too cold, with just a little breeze. There would also be quiet, empty trails outside of the peak tourist season. Such visibility and contrast were more commonly mountain panoramas reserved only for the winter weather: a result of the crystal cold air and gusty winds, washing out all the pollution in the air. We were sitting on top of a Bulgarian peak and enjoying the view of the mountain ranges bordering with North Macedonia and Greece. Finally we came up with the idea to organize another trip “on the other side” next year. Bogtotters had already visited only Romania in the area, so the list of the unexplored countries of the Balkans was promising – North Macedonia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia & Hertsegovina, Serbia, Albania…

Walking across the Greek Olympus mountains – panoramas of the main ridge and the Throne of Zeus

It was all said and done – after the Bulgarian Rhodope, Rila and Pirin ranges, next May we were walking in the mountains of North Macedonia. We visited Korab and Sharri Mountains, Vodno Mountains and the Ohrid Lake. As both are border mountain ranges that connect the country with Albania (Korab) and Kosovo (Sharri), that was a good addition to our trip.

A tour along the continental Greek mountain ranges of Northern Pindus – Tymfi and Zagori, Olympus National Park and a visit to Meteora monasteries, followed in 2022.

Than we visited the mountains of Montenegro – Bjelasitsa, Komovi, Prokletije (The Accursed Mountains) and Durmitor National Park in 2023.

Little by little we were exploring and getting to know the breath-taking and diverse mountain ranges of the Balkan Peninsula.

What kind of tours in the Balkans do we organize?

Our way of exploring the mountains of the Balkan Peninsula is a bit different than the thru-hiking style and is developed with the understanding that our guests usually have neither the time to devote to a real long distance hike, neither the motivation to withstand some of the rougher parts of the route. That’s why we prefer to visit each country and mountain range either separately (like relishing a small piece of the Balkans ‘chocolate’ every year), or visiting a few ranges/countries in a row. Especially if you travel overseas to visit Southeastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula, the latter makes much more sense.

We would choose the most attractive routes in each country and mountain range that present the local nature and highlights in the best way. The number of combinations is unlimited and every plan is a unique experience in itself. We are happy to go on these adventures – on foot, on wheels or on skis. Walking and trekking, mountain biking and ski touring are our ways to discover the mountain ranges of the Balkans. Thinking about a name to put on this project and to explain all of these routes and programs, we chose:

The Balkans Crown

Exploring the amazing and diverse mountains of the Balkan Peninsula by walking, mountain biking and ski touring

The Balkans Crown is an endless journey through the wild territories of the Balkan Peninsula with its peaks and mountain tops. But we believe the essence of this journey and our key role in it is the communication. Communication both between humans and nature, and between the local people from the Balkans and our guests from around the world that we guide on this journey with passion and understanding.

The Balkan People

Although it is all about the mountains, we will focus on the people first. The annual visits of the different Balkan countries and their mountain ranges that often stretch between the borders, set a clearer view of the area, called “The Balkans” – a vast, yet largely unexplored playground for curious mountain enthusiasts and keen travelers alike. But the Balkans are also a cultural puzzle – a medley of nationalities, religions and ethnicities, each with its distinct image and history. By the way, history has a lot of versions on the Balkans, depending on the point of view. Realizing and accepting this relativism is part of the understanding of the life in the Balkans.

Old ladies in traditional costumes in Pirin village, located on the south slopes of Pirin Mountains

The deeper one steeps into mountain life and gets to know the Balkan people, the more important the simultaneity of exploration of the local cultures and life gets. Let’s think of the rugged peaks of the Balkans as a metaphor for this. It is still a wild part of Europe, a lost world – could be beautiful and peaceful, but also severe and dangerous, much like the nature of the mountain itself.

Although divided by their nationality and very often their religion, the people from the Balkans have much more similarities than differences. The Balkan Peninsula is an area that has experienced a number of cultural influences, and was an important crossroads between the East and the West in the past. It was conquered by the Ottomans and Byzantians, was ruled by the Communists and a number of local dictators, and last but not least, survived numerous armed conflicts that shaped the borders of the countries till this day.

Each of the counties on the Balkans had its glory periods of powerful rulers and wealth, but also had its dark times when people had to fight for their lives. That made the people from the Balkans more compassionate, more philosophic about the ups and downs of life and developed their sense of humor in a certain way. Sorrow is part of life on the Balkans but the real strength is to be able to laugh even at your own suffering.

Long distance walking routes along the Balkan Peninsula

Thru-hiking on the Balkans

Back on the case of hiking in the mountains, here is a list of the most popular long distance walking routes that cross this part of Southeastern Europe – the Balkan Peninsula.

The cross-European E-paths that cover most of the mountain ranges across Europe are also presented on the Balkan Peninsula. These are developed by the European Ramblers Association and are the ultimate thru-hikes across Europe as well as the most popular thru-hikes on the Balkan Peninsula. Here is a list of the routes that cross the Balkans:

E3: 8.880 km Santiago (E) – Vézelay (F) – Echternach (L) – Fulda (D) – Zakopane (PL) – Ártánd (H) – Nesebâr (BG).

The most popular Balkan part of this route is the Kom-Emine Trail in Bulgaria that follows the main ridge of the Balkan Mountains from the border with Serbia (Kom peak) down to the Black Sea coast – more than 700 km of hut-to-hut ridge trekking. It’s also known as the “Balkan High Mountain Trail”. It offers a unique opportunity to experience the wild beauty of the Bulgarian mountains, traverse the Central Balkan national park and explore historic sites along the way.

More about the Bulgarian parts of the E-routes can be found here.

We have also described a short route version that covers the Rila Mountains only. The Rila Traverse – a shorter route that covers the Rila Mountains, partly following the E4 route hut-to-hut style for 7 days.

The High Scardus Trail 

This is the newest long distance hiking project on the Balkans. It is 362-kilometre walking route in the Western Balkans that connects the countries of North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania, following the ridges of Sharri (Scardus) Mountains, as well as crossing the mountain ranges of Korab, Deshat, Jablanica and Galichica mountains. The start point is at Staro Selo (North Macedonia, 40 km from Skopje and 25 km from Tetovo). The end point is Sveti Naum at Ohrid Lake (North Macedonia, 30 km from Ohrid). It involves border crossings that need to be pre-arranged. The route of the High Scardus Trail is divided into 20 sections.

These are just a few examples of the long-distance walking routes available on the Balkan Peninsula. Each route offers unique experiences, allowing you to immerse yourself in the region’s rich history, stunning landscapes, and local cultures.

What does “Balkan” mean?

“Balkan” is a Turkish word that means a mountainous, rugged area. People would often use it as “wild balkan” – an almost inaccessible and unknown place that could be potentially dangerous as well. This vision of the territory of the peninsula was introduced by the Ottoman conquerors and they simply named it “Balkan”. It was the natural border between the Ottoman Empire and the Western countries, both a border line and a gate between the East and the West, between Asia and Europe. Crossing the Wild Balkans was never easy, nor was ruling their territories – both because of the rugged mountainous terrain and the rugged and stubborn character of the locals.

Geography of the mountain ranges in the Balkan Peninsula

From a geographical point of view, there are a few remarkable mountain ranges that are situated on the Balkan Peninsula – the Dinaric Alps with their southern extension – The Pindus range, The Carpathians, The Balkan Mountains and the Rila-Rhodope Massif.

The Dinaric Alps

Called also Dinarides, these mountains are a vast range located in the Southern and Southcentral parts of Europe. It divides the continental parts of the Balkan Peninsula from the Mediterranean – the Adriatic Sea. The chain stretches from Italy in the northwest, through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo, to Albania in the southeast.

The Dinaric Alps extend for approximately 645 kilometres along the Western Balkan Peninsula from the Julian Alps of the Northeast Italy, downwards to the Šar and Korab massif, where their direction changes. The Accursed Mountains (Prokletije) are the highest section of the entire Dinaric Alps; this section stretches from Albania to Kosovo and Eastern Montenegro. Maja Jezercë is the highest peak, located in Albania and standing at 2,694 meters above the Adriatic.

The Carpathian Mountain Range

It’s also known as the Carpathians, and forms а long chain stretching like an arch across the central parts of Europe. Approximately 1,500 kilometres long, it is the third-longest European mountain range after the Russian Urals that span more than 2,500 km, and the Scandinavian Mountains extending roughly at 1,700 km. The Carpathians stretch from the far East of the Czech Republic (3% of the territory) and Austria (1%) towards the northwest through Slovakia (21%), Poland (10%), Ukraine (10%), Romania (50%) to Serbia (5%) down to the south.

The Tatra mountains in Slovakia are considered the highest range within the Carpathians where the highest peaks exceed 2,600 m. The second-highest range is in Romania – the Southern Carpathians – with its highest peaks ranging between 2,500 m and 2,550 m.

Ski Touring in Romania, Fagarash Mountains
Ski Touring in Romania, Fagarash Mountains

The Carphatians are divided to three main separate sections:

  • Western Carpathians: Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia;
  • Eastern Carpathians: Romania, Ukraine, southeastern Poland and eastern Slovakia;
  • Southern Carpathians: Romania and eastern Serbia.

The Eastern and some of the Southern Carpathians are located within the Balkan Peninsula.

Some of the largest European populations of brown bears, wolves, chamois and lynxes find their habitat within these mountains, mostly concentrated in Romania. Over one-third of all European plant species are also found in the Carpathians. Romania hosts the second-largest area of wild forests in Europe after Russia. It is estimated at 250 000 hectares (65%), mainly in the Carpathian mountains, which makes the Southern Carpathians Europe’s largest consolidated virgin forest territory.

The Balkan Mountains

The Balkan mountain range, also known as Stara Planina, is a a mountain located mostly in Bulgaria, with some parts in Serbia (including the highest peak of the country of Serbia – Midzur peak). The range is a natural border between Bulgaria and Serbia and also divides the country of Bulgaria into two parts – northern and southern. It is known as the backbone of the country as it stretches all the way from the western down to the eastern border by the Black Sea coast.

There is a notion that the name of the Balkan Peninsula originates from the name of this mountain range. Whatever the story is, Stara Planina lives up to the meaning of the word “balkan” as a wild, unexplored and difficult to access mountain. Although not the highest in the area, Balkan is known as a difficult mountain due to its rising slopes and changeable weather.

It has an almost mythological image for the Bulgarians as it was a natural border and line of defense against the Turks (and probably other conquerors in the past). It was a place for the guerillas to hide and for the army to protect the mountain passes. Nowadays Balkan is famous as probably the most famous long distance walking route in the mountains of Bulgaria – the Kom-Emine Trail, part of the European E3 Route.

The Rila-Rhodope Massif

Or the Macedonia-Trace Massif is part of the oldest landmass on the Balkan Peninsula. The name Rila-Rhodope originates from two of the oldest mountains on the Balkans – Rhodope Mountains (located in Southern Bulgaria and Nothern Greece) and the Rila mountain range, the highest mountain of the Balkans. The Massif stretches all over southern Bulgaria, with some bits in Greece, Kosovo, Serbia and North Macedonia. It borders the Balkan and Carpathian mountains to the north, the Sharr-Pindus Range and the Dinarides to the west and Maritsa River to the east.

The main mountain ranges within the Rila-Rhodope Massif are the Rila Mountains, Pirin Mountains and the Rhodopes, but it also includes a number of lower mountains within Bulgaria, Serbia, North Macedonia and Greece, some of them forming natural borders between the countries.

Due to its geological importance and the altitude of its rugged peaks we could call this mountain area The Crown of the Balkans – the top of the Balkan Peninsula. Still we believe the real and invaluable “crown” consists of the peaks and the mountains of all over the Balkans. Each of them adds to the unique image of the mountain scope of the region. If you ask us if there is an area that deserves to be seen more so than the rest, we would definitely say no, because they are all part of a puzzle and each piece of it has its importance and contributes to the beauty of the Balkans.

Why Georgia as well, isn’t it complicated enough with all these Balkan countries and mountains?

Along the Balkans mountains, the Caucasus Mountains are our most loved, on the other side of the Black Sea, on the border of Asia and Europe. This attachement to the mountain was inspired by traveling and walking mainly across the country of Georgia. Although the scale and the heights of the mountain ranges are not comparable, it feels very close to heart for us. Following the Transcaucasian Trail – another great thru-hike project under development – is a great way to discover the Georgian (and not only the Georgian parts of) Caucasus. Still, we would organize separate sections of it and choose the best hikes if we had a limited time frame.

Hiking in the Mountains of the Balkans in Spring

Bogtrotters used to organize their holidays during the week before the Bank Holiday at the end of May – beginning of June, which was a bit of a challenging task it terms of route planning. Why?

The Balkan Peninsula is a particularly mountainous area with continental and subcontinental climate, with mountain peaks rising from 1000 up to 2925 meters above sea level. During the spring period, snow conditions could be expected at higher altitudes, as well as a beautiful palette of green in the forests and meadows full of flowers at lower altitudes. The melting snow also fills the rivers and springs in various locations, resulting in more challenging terrain conditions. In terms of weather conditions, you could expect anything really – from snowfall higher up, to mild and sunny weather with some afternoon showers here and there. Still, spring is the time of the nature awakening after the severe winter and the moment to see the mountains of the Balkans in their absolute beauty and diversity of flora and fauna.

This said, some routes are not accessible and/or safe to walk during this time of the year, so careful planning as well as flexibility are required in order to get the maximum advantage of each tour around the Balkans mountain ranges and to enjoy walking in the mountains of the Balkan Peninsula during Spring. A major benefit of the early season visits is the absence of crowds of hikers even on the most popular routes and the extra attention and hospitality of the locals which we always feel outside of the busy tourist season.

Read more about Spring walking in the mountains of Bulgaria.

Autumn in Balkan Mountains
Autumn in Balkan Mountains

Hiking the mountains of the Balkans in Autumn

Autumn is a beautiful time to visit the mountain ranges of the Balkans – while September is still considered a “summer” month, in October we could experience sudden changes of the weather at different altitudes, such as temperatures below freezing and the occasional snowfall. Proper equipment is essential, as well as keeping a close eye on the forecast. November is already winter time above 2000m, but still the Summer periods may reward the visitors with some amazing experiences. Both Spring and Autumn periods could be the best choice to visit some of the lower ranges of the Balkans as well as the mountains exposed to the warmth of the Mediterranean. More about hiking in the Bulgarian mountains in Autumn.

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