Exploring the Balkans

Our van had seen better days but my partner tackled each bend as if auditioning for a car commercial. My stomach was firmly clenched as we edged a little too close to the cliff-edge during every dramatic twist in the road.

Just as I was wondering why we hadn't bought a sat-nav, the road levelled out onto a flat and fertile lowland on which in some prehistoric time the ocean had rolled. As the sun was at its highest, we faced landscapes that had taken trillions of years to form. With mountains on all sides, Europe's natural beauty was staggering.

Beyond the campsites, festivals and alcohol-fuelled parties found on beaten paths in central Europe, the roads from the Baltic to the Balkans provide a treasure trove of history and wild surprises.

Eastern Promise

With the euro hampering backpackers' budgets, more travellers are keeping their foot on the accelerator and driving beyond Europe's core, straight into the old communist states of the east where prices are cheaper and the locals welcome tourists with open arms.

No region in the world has undergone as much change in less than a generation as Eastern Europe. The region broke free of the Iron Curtain in the early'90s, with communist regimes collapsing like dominos and countries such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union breaking up into democratic states. Anew world was born and Eastern Europe is now a prominent notch in the belt of any traveller.

But with public transport still largely unreliable or non-existent, the best way to explore some of the region's vast forests, picturesque mountains and tranquil lakes is on wheels. Motorcyclists have long opined that the journey from Italy through the Balkans to Greece is one of the best driving experiences to be had in the world. Head inland and you're guaranteed spectacular mountain scenery, stick to the coat and you're treated to picturesque Mediterranean coastlines. Thanks to improved economies, roads have been improved and those motorcyclists are now sharing their tarmacked secret with a new wave of tourists who arrive on four-wheels and with a penchant for adventure.

On the road

So, which way forward? Leave Italy or Austria and head into Slovenia, the wealthiest nation of the former Yugoslavia, for your dramatic entry into the Balkans. Known as the Land of the Forests, visitors can choose from fairy-tale Bled Castle, the breathtaking Lake Bohinj and the thriving riverside city of Ljubijana to stop by.

Slovenia's top tourist spot is Postojna, thanks to its expansive caves, which are 100m deep in parts, and contain an eerie labyrinth of tunnels festooned with stalactites and stalagmites.

Heading into Croatia you'll pass houses that were bombed during the battles of the early 90s, while scores of others are left just as they were: deserted. Hillsides are scattered with small graveyards for a family of four or five, providing a sobering reminder of what people in the region have suffered.

It's not easy to remain downbeat, however, with a day spent walking at Plitvice Lakes, a 300km water park of lakes, waterfalls and streams accessible on wooden walkways.

Every step on the boardwalk is a 360-degree wonder with the tranquil sound of trickling streams or gushing waterfalls - and the odd quacking duck. 

Split personality

Half a day's drive away is the oft-overlooked town of Split, which provides an honest insight into Croatian life. Visitors will find a historical, cobbled interior; a thriving cafe scene and a student beach vibe. Girls are pretty, Italian trends thrive and everyone seems to be eating ice-cream.

But this is just the start of little Dalmatia charm. Hugging the coast down to Dubrovnik, you'll drive along the Med, which is blessed with a laid-back beauty. With salmon-coloured listed buildings, overpriced coffee and the odd celebrity, economical and political struggles seem to skip this glamorous part of world. 

You'll end in Dubrovnik, the so-called 'pearl of the Adriatic', where heads of tourists congregate.

Pushing on, the road will lead you inland. Back when the Venetians were craving up the Balkans, they named this region Monte Negro - black mountain. It's easy to see why.

Huge, dark peaks intimidate those approaching them, yet, close up, the dramatic mountains reveal stunning valleys, gorges, rolling hills and spooky swamps.

With four national parks and untapped opportunities for hiking, skiing, rafting or sunbathing, Montenegro is a tourist trap waiting to happen. But for now - with the exception of the Durmitor National Park - there's barely a hotel to be found throughout the country.

In north Montenegro you'll meet the stunning turquoise blue Tara Canyon where audible gasps from your group will confirm that words fail to describe the magnitude of the Canyon's beauty. How has this been kept secret for so long?

Meat feast

Cross over the border into Bosnia where you can join one of the parties of outdoor-loving Serbians who travel down for rafting on glacial rivers during the summer months.

Meals are huge and dominated by meat while the drink of choice is home-made rakia, which comprises 70 per cent peach schnapps.

If dancing the night away to bad euro-pop and rafting the wild river each day is your thing, you're in the right place.

From Bosnia, you can continue the party with a few nights in Serbia's capital Belgrade or, for something more laid-back, head into Macedonia to the Unesco-designated town of Ohrid. 

This quiet, cobbled town overlooks the three to five-million-year-old Lake Ohrid, one of the world's oldest lakes.

Macedonia has still not recovered economically as quickly as other states in the region. Most homes in the cities are ex-socialist tower blocks and the roads are ruled by pre-1970 skodas, Ladas or Yugos.

As we passed into Greece, the contrast was dramatic as we were met by myriad colours. Houses are painted in bright pastel blocks of colour: think rose-red houses, lime-green doorways, sky-blue walls. Though elderly widows walk head-to-toe in black.

Once in Greece, your itinerary becomes a choice of bleached rocky islands, towns with historical legacies such as Delphi or Olympia, spiritual wonders such as the floating monasteries at Metéora or the vibrant cafe culture and club scene in Athens.

With the hard work far behind, Greece asks nothing of you except to slide on some dark shades, kick back in the open-air cafes, air kiss the young and the beautiful, and reflect on a memorable journey.

All you need to do next is take a ferry back up the Adriatic Sea to Italy from Igoumenista or Petra, where the chaos and manic familiarly of central Europe awaits. For now though, don't let that worry you.