With an area about the size of Spain (193,000 square miles), a rich mountainous landscape, and a diverse and fascinating collection of cultures, it comes as no surprise to learn that the Balkans is one of the best parts of Europe to book a cycle tour.
The Balkans, however, are often pushed to the side when it comes to cycle touring, with many aspiring adventurers choosing to embark on more familiar trips into the French Alps, Spanish Pyrenees or Italian Dolomites. These are all fantastic places to visit on two wheels, but are they better than the Balkans?
No, and here are six reasons why your next cycle tour should be a Balkan cycle tour…
Diverse cycling terrain
Not all cyclists are made equal; some of us like a leisurely ride along flat coastal roads and others a leg-breaking voyage over cloud-topping cols. The Balkans offer both ends of the cycling spectrum and every little niche in between, all with incredible abundance and variety.
Mountain-top glaciers have carved out a climber’s paradise in the Balkans; the Dinaric Alps, Pindus mountain range and Carpathian Mountains all contain some of the greatest, but utterly clandestine climbs this side of Europe. These mountain ranges are pockmarked with thunderous river gorges and giant cave systems, as well as vast forests where native Eastern European wildlife, like brown bears and wolves, roam free.
At the other end of the region, where the Mediterranean Sea has etched a truly idyllic stretch of coastline, the riding is equally as magical. Instead of giant, snow-topped cols and thick pine forests to gaze upon, the Balkan coastline has hundreds of tiny islands to look out for, each with their own mini paradises. It’s also littered with some of the most popular and iconic European beaches, providing the perfect pit-stops for mid-ride siestas and beach-side coffee breaks.
With such varied terrain, the climate across the Balkans varies dramatically – ideal for those of you who may favour a temperate tour to a sun-baked one. From the subtropical beaches bordering the Black Sea to the frosty peaks of the Pindus mountains, there’s a cycling climate for everyone.
Italy is welcome to its Stelvio Pass, France to its Alpe D’Huez and Spain to its Alto de l’Angliru, but the Balkans have their own mythical climbs to boast about. Some of the best lie in Romania on long stretches of exquisitely tarmacked roads that the world seems to have forgotten about – perfect for two-wheeled adventurers.
The most epic climb in the Balkans is without a doubt the Transfagarasan Highway – a 29.4 km ascent that tackles countless hairpins on the way to its summit. It is Romania’s answer to Italy’s Stelvio Pass which has a similarly sinuous ascent and regularly features as the toughest climb on the Giro d’Italia.
Not too far from the Transfagarasan Highway lies the Transalpina, or as it’s locally known, ‘The King’s Road’. It’s the highest pass in Romania, reaching a height of 2145m and in parts ramps up to a leg-breaking 23% gradient. It’s a truly monstrous climb and a tough challenge for even the most seasoned of riders – trust us, we’ve ridden it!
The Ucka climb blends the Balkan’s coastlines and mountains together with one winding stretch of tarmac that starts from the beach in Opatja, Croatia, before making its way to the summit of the Ucka mountain. It’s a stunning climb that heads right through the centre of a popular national park, famed for its idyllic canyons and waterfalls, and rich historic sites. The views at the top of the 14.3 km climb, with the Istria peninsula snaking its way across the horizon, are breath-taking.
A cultural melting pot
Balkan holidays aren’t just about exploring and adventuring by bike, they’re also the perfect opportunity to explore new cultures, try new foods and meet new people.
Lying on the crossroads between two continents, Europe and Asia, the Balkans region has been a melting pot of many different cultures for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Such a diverse range of cultures means that you’ll be treated to an entirely new set of customs, traditions and palates every time you ride from one city to the next.
From hearty deep-fried pork in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, to delicate beach-side Baklava in Albania, there’s no end to the amount of different foods on offer in the Balkans.
There’s also no end to the festivities either – markets, parades and parties pop up daily in each major Balkan town and city. Whether you fancy a rave at the Goulash Disko Festival or a relaxing stroll around Bucharest’s quirky flea markets, the Balkans can offer it all.
Balkan travel is incredibly affordable; the flights there and back, as well as the transport when you’re there, pale in comparison to those lofty prices seen across Western Europe.
Albania, North Macedonia and Bulgaria are some of the cheapest places in the Balkans, where you can expect to pay just £20 for a private room and delicious sit-down meal at a hotel. Public transport is also remarkably cheap with inter-city train fares costing an average of just £4 – ideal should you need to ferry your bikes from one city to the next.
Croatia, Slovenia and Greece, while a little more expensive, are still relatively cheap – flights to these countries are available for as little as £40 during quieter times of the year.
In all, a cycle tour in the Balkans shouldn’t break the bank and for us cycle tourists who appreciate a good bargain, it’s hard to argue against such a trip.
Travelling through time
Humans have inhabited the Balkans for thousands of years and have seen many empires come and go, creating one incredibly rich history of both culture and architecture.
Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria, is one of the most fascinating cities to visit. The area surrounding the city has been inhabited by humans for more than 8,000 years, making it as old as England’s Stonehenge. At the heart of the city lies a giant Roman amphitheater built in 90 AD, which to us seems ancient, but compared to some of the area’s older surviving infrastructure, must seem as futuristic as a flying car.
Other cities in the Balkans display a similar architectural timeline, with Ohrid in North Macedonia another fantastic city to visit. This city is even older than Plovdiv, potentially even the oldest inhabited city in Europe. The city itself is flanked by the majestic Lake Ohrid which serves as an idyllic and peaceful contrast to the hustle and bustle of the adjacent city, making it a perfect pit-stop on your Balkan cycle tour.
Roads less traveled
For many of us, cycling is all about exploring the unknown, going where no other two-wheeled adventurer has gone before. That’s a hard ask in Western Europe where the roads are quite literally littered with cyclists, all jostling for space on the same familiar climbs and mountain passes.
In the Balkans, however, it’s a completely different story. The roads that stretch far into the Pindus, Carpathian and Dinaric mountain ranges aren’t often frequented by four-wheels, let alone two, making them perfect for those of you looking to ride directly into the unknown.
There’s a peaceful feeling of solitude in the Balkans, unrivaled by anywhere else in Western Europe. Sure, you can feel alone and at the mercy of Mother Nature at the top of the Stelvio Pass, but it’s probably only going to be ten minutes before another troop of holidaymakers make their way to the summit to spoil your serenity. At the top of the Transalpina however, you can sit for hours, gazing down the mountain as the clouds move around you and the howls of wolves echo through the valleys, all without another human being in sight.
That’s what sets the Balkans apart from the rest of Europe, the ability to embark on a truly unique adventure that no one else has ever been on before. It’s about time we headed east and cycled the roads less traveled, don’t you think?