Western Balkans: Europe’s new adventure playground

Lonely Planet Writer
Outdoors aficionados and adrenaline junkies, take note: there are still uncharted grounds to conquer only a few hours’ flight away from London, Paris or Berlin. The ‘other Europe’, Europe’s ‘wild west’ (or rather, southeast) – the Western Balkans may have featured in news headlines of past decades for entirely different reasons, but these days their magic is being rediscovered by travellers lured off the beaten track in search of new thrills.

Stunning landscapes ensure plenty of ‘wow’ moments for road-testing a range of outdoors adventures on a scene that has huge potential but is still largely managed by enthusiasts, while some age-old traditions provide enjoyable experiences to those eager for cultural immersion and more hedonistic pursuits. People here take their hospitality seriously, and one leaves with a gratifying sense of giving back to communities that are making efforts to develop a sustainable tourism future for their region.


Hiking and mountain biking in Kosovo: Kosovo is a land with fascinating heritage, and the most memorable experiences here incorporate the exploration of local culture into outdoors activities well off the beaten track.

A recommended operator, Rugova Experience is championing the responsible tourism concept by employing local guides on its hiking tours and organising accommodation and meals in mountain villages. Based in Peja (Peć), it runs hikes primarily in the scenic Rugova Valley in western Kosovo – this section of the wild Accursed Mountains, the southern foothills of the Dinaric Alps, is rich in caves, lakes and waterfalls, and boasts Kosovo’s highest peak Gjeravica (Ðeravica; 2656m). Rugova Experience also offers longer cross-border treks into Albania and Montenegro on the increasingly popular Peaks of the Balkans trail, which follows old shepherd paths through 192km of impressive, wild alpine scenery at altitudes of up to 2300m.

This entire region is also well suited for mountain-biking adventures. Another successful local operator, Catun runs cultural biking tours through western Kosovo’s Dukagjin region; they are a good way to experience the local heritage and traditions. Options include religious tours between major Orthodox and Islamic sites in the area, kulla tours to 19th-century fortified tower houses, and off-road tours through the mountainous landscape of Erenik river valley.

Also worth mentioning is the Swedish NGO Cultural Heritage without Borders, which has contributed to the promotion of Kosovo’s natural and cultural heritage and the development of sustainable tourism by organising the annual Tour de Culture cycling event in a different part of Kosovo each September since 2008


The craft of filigree in Kosovo: There are several good reasons to come to Prizren, but how about mastering the beautiful craft of filigree? The tradition has been going strong in Kosovo since the 15th century, passed down through families of artisans for generations. The local Filigrani workshop, whose small group of 10 artisans create bespoke pieces for clients, is where you can get a first-hand experience of this intricate old craft; not only can you take a tour to observe the professionals at work, but if you’re keen, you can also arrange a short course – from a couple of weeks to a few months – to master the trade yourself. Best of all, with some help, you can create a lovely silver pendant in just a few minutes!  Another nearby place with a rich tradition of local crafts is Gjakova (Đakovica), where you can take a tour of the surviving artisan shops in the Ottoman-era Çarshia e Madhe (Grand Bazaar), the oldest of its kind in Kosovo. Among the craftsmen are quilt-makers, saddlers, silversmiths and embroiderers.


Kosovo’s tower homestays: A truly authentic experience, kulla (literally ‘tower’) is a fortified Albanian stone house built between the late 18th and early 20th century. It usually consists of three floors, with the ground floor housing animals, middle floor used by men, and the top floor reserved for guests (in the old days, women and children lived in an attached annex). Kullas were originally designed with a defensive purpose – in turbulent historic times, they served to protect the families from enemies. Some kullas are nowadays being restored and offered as a unique rural accommodation option for tourists, for example Konaku i Rame Zyberit in Junik and Isuf Mazrekaj in Drenoc, both in western Kosovo. Sleeping in the oda (shared guest room, originally used by the men for strategic meetings) is on the floor, with comfortable bedding. You can also count on tasty traditional meals based on organic local produce.