Inspired by the Amazon of Europe bike trail that takes in parts of the northern Balkans, Rhonda Carrier picks some of the peninsula’s best cycling routes
The opening of a big new biking trail is always great news for cycle lovers, and they don’t come much bigger than the Amazon of Europe, which takes in the banks of the Danube, Mura and Drava rivers in no fewer than five countries.
The trail, launched in April, takes cyclists 775 miles across the wetlands and forests of the Mura Drava Danube Unesco Biosphere Reserve, shared between Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia.
It can be broken down and booked in separate, more manageable, sections, giving cyclists all the flexibility they need to discover these beguiling landscapes at their own pace, tasting regional produce and experiencing local hospitality as they travel – accommodation is mainly in local guesthouses or low-key hotels.
Get up-close and personal with stunning wildlife
The are two main routes: the North Route through Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary, and the South Route through Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia. Both start in Mureck, Austria, and are divided into stages – 11 on the North Route and 16 on the South Route.
This is a fantastic green holiday option that helps support various nature conservation projects working to safeguard the region’s endangered species, and allowing cyclists the chance to get up-close and personal with stunning wildlife including turtles, otters, black storks and white-tailed eagles. At various points you can stop off for a spot of guided birdwatching or kayaking.
The Balkan parts of the journey offer miles of beautiful undiscovered green trails – but when it comes to epic cycling trips, the region has much more to offer beyond the new trail too.
Routes to sell
Balkan biking holidays often come at great value, away from the crowds of some of Europe’s better-known cycling spots (see Sample Product). Of the countries not included on the Amazon of Europe routes, Montenegro stands out for its beautiful road routes for intermediates and experts.
These include the coastal Perast – Kotor Loop from Lepetane, which also involves a ferry crossing. Slovenia, a famously outdoorsy country, also attracts cyclists to its bike trails, including the challenging Triglav National Park loop from Rateče, which rewards very experienced riders with gorgeous mountain views.
An easier option is the Lake Bled Loop from Ukanc, where numerous waterfalls offer plenty of opportunities for cooling off after all that pedalling. Meanwhile, Croatia’s offering for cyclists include the popular 34-mile Game of Thrones trail, which embraces many attractions from the iconic TV series.
Starting at Split Riva, it includes Diocletian’s Cellars, the Antoničin mlin (mill), Žrnovnica quarry and Klis fortress. Alternatively, the challenging 110-mile St George trail with its 3,814-metre ascent goes around all settlements and attractions of Brač, the largest island in the Adriatic, known for its windsurfing, horseshoe-shaped beach Supetar and active limestone quarry.
Cycle the Balkans with Intrepid Travel
This adventure takes in three very different countries from the former Yugoslavia: Bosnia, Montenegro and Croatia, starting in Dubrovnik and ending in Sarajevo. Expect glorious coastal and inland areas, challenging climbs tempered by pretty flatlands, and even a new rail trail, the Ciro, to follow along the former Austro-Hungarian railway line.
The trip is run by a leader, backed up by a support vehicle. Seven nights cost from £1,215 travelling on August 6. The price includes six breakfasts and hotel and guesthouse accommodation. Excludes flights.
Secrets of Slovenia Cycling with Headwater
This is a seven-night odyssey from Lake Bled in the white-peaked Julian Alps along the gleaming Soča River, through Goriška Brda (the ‘Tuscany of Slovenia’) and across the mysterious karst terrain to the medieval town of Piran on the Adriatic coast.
Full GPS routes and a free app ensure cyclists don’t go astray, and luggage transfer between hotels is included in the package. Seven nights’ self-guided cycling costs from £2,229, including continental breakfast, three evening meals and flights, travelling in August.
Ask the expert
Charlotte McCutcheon, senior product manager, Headwater Holidays
“We have seen growing demand for cycling options as a way of seeing more of a country. Slovenia is well suited for a cycling holiday, with a good network of tranquil, traffic-free cycling trails. Exploring by bike allows travellers to really discover its heritage and enjoy the scenery at a more leisurely pace.
Travellers should allow time to discover the dramatic landscapes, from the limestone peaks of the Julian Alps, lush forests, turquoise rivers and rolling meadows, to pretty hamlets hemmed by vineyards and orchards. And suggest guests stop at one of the many vineyards where they can sample some excellent wine!
When advising customers of a lesser-known country, know the USPs so you can highlight why it’s an interesting destination. Tell customers to take a guided tour of the stud farm in Lipica, home of the impressive Lipizzaner white horses, or visit the Unesco-listed Škocjan Caves.
Make sure you know the local rules in the destination. For instance, cycling helmets are compulsory for under-15s in Slovenia, so highlight this to families before departure.”
PICTURES: Shutterstock/Blazej Lyjak, Slawomir Kruz, Klement Grgic, Elizaveta Galitckaia.