The New East is home to some of the most stunning mountain ranges and glistening lakes in all of Europe. Luckily for adventurous tourists, these natural beauties are often off the beaten track in comparison to more renowned western spots. If you fancy combining rugged landscapes with serene vistas, then check out our guide to the best getaways this summer.
The crystal clear waters of Lake Ohrid, Europe’s oldest lake, span the border between Albania and Macedonia. The Macedonian town of Ohrid, with its Ottoman architecture and myriad of Byzantine churches, is the perfect place to discover the area. When you’ve finished exploring the town’s rambling maze of cobbled streets, the lake is the perfect place to unwind and relax, either at one of the Ohrid’s many lakeside cafés or one of the beaches a little further out of town. The St Naum monastery on the Albanian border and the remains of the town’s local castle both make great trips: especially when followed by a trip to Ljubaništa beach to watch the sun set over the waves.
Slovenia’s Triglav National Park runs alongside the country’s Austrian and Italian borders, encompassing the stunning Julian Alps. Different tracks and trails weave endlessly through the hills and mountains, creating a web of paths that will can take hikers days to explore fully. The most popular (and one of the easiest routes) is the Soča Traill. The path follows the emerald green Soča river as it winds it way through the reserve, traversing steep gorges and thundering waterfalls. Other popular routes include the Triglavska Bistrica Trail, the Pokljuka Trail, the Radovna Cycle Route, and, most importantly, part of the Turistična Sirarna Pot: the Tourist Cheese Route. Along with the usual helping of breathtaking gorges, waterfalls, museums and churches, the cheese trail provides specially-marked stop off points where you can buy — and sample — locally-produced dairy. When it’s finally time to sit back and relax (or perhaps take time to sit and digest the finest Slovenian cheese), head to Lake Bohinj. Quieter and more peaceful than nearby Lake Bled, Bohinj offers a mix of water sports and relaxing spas in stunning alpine surroundings.
Scattered across the mountainside, the Seven Rila Lakes are one of Bulgaria’s best loved hiking spots. With a cable car that runs throughout the summer to take walkers to the mountains’ higher slopes, you can either choose to enjoy the calm serenity of the lower lakes or head straight to the peak, passing each of the seven lakes as you go. It’s also the perfect place to visit the nearby Rila Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site tucked away among the mountains themselves. There has been a religious presence on this site since the 10th century, with colourful frescos dating as far back as the 14th. If you’re not afraid of heights, then grab your chance to climb to the top of Hrelyo’s Tower: both for the ornate interior and for a stunning view across the whole complex.
Situated in picturesque Gegharkunik Province, Lake Sevan is known as the “Pearl of Armenia”. Sitting at 1,900 metres above sea level, the lake’s cool waters provide the perfect respite from the fierce Armenian summer. Make your way up the mountainside until you reach the ancient Sevanavank monastery, built in 874. The climb is intense, but the stunning views from the top will make the hike worthwhile, as well as inspiring some serious envy in your Instagram followers. When evening comes, a dinner of locally-caught fish grilled over an open fire and served with herbs and Armenian flatbread is the perfect way to end the day.
Tucked away inland (or at least a few hours drive from the tourist-friendly Bay of Kotor) Montenegro’s Durmitor National Park is often overlooked by would-be visitors. But the UNESCO World Heritage site is well worth a visit. While the towering central massif (reaching more than 2,500 metres high at its peak) might dominate the landscape, the real attraction is the plunging Tara River Canyon. Forged by the Tara river, the canyon is the second largest in the world, beaten only by the Grand Canyon itself. The river itself changes from clear blue to thrashing white rapids that attract rafters from across Europe. If you want to have a go paddling through the water for yourself, then the town of Zabljak is the centre for different tourist activities throughout the park. If you’d rather walk, you can take a meandering route through the different lakes scattered through the hills, or track down traces of the battle which raged here during the Second World War.
Spreading across northwest Russia and past the Finnish border, the region of Karelia is lauded as the “land of a thousand lakes”. Nature here mirrors the wilds of neighbouring Scandinavia, with dense pine forests and thundering waterfalls. If you want to explore, then the town of Petrozavodsk, located on the banks of Europe’s second largest lake — Lake Onega — is a good place to start. Take a boat to the heart of the lake, where you’ll find the windswept island of Kizhi. Tourists flock for miles to see the island’s ornate wooden church, originally built without using a single nail. Other nearby beauty spots include Valaam Monastery — reportedly a favourite of President Putin — and Ruskeala, a complex of deep marble canyons and caves submerged under crystal clear water. Hire a rowing boat and explore the caves for yourself, or take the opportunity to soar across the waves with a newly-installed zipline.
Located to the east of Tashkent, the Chimgan and Ugam-Chatkal National Park doesn’t boast the same soaring peaks as its close neighbours in Bishkek. But while they may lack in height, the slopes of Chimgan are among the most easily accessible in the region. While you will need a guide for long, multi-day hikes — not least in order to bypass the usual dose of tedious Uzbek bureaucracy — you can easily head here as part of a comfortable day trip from the capital. Yes, the chairlift may look a little worse for wear, but after the endless bustle of Tashkent, Chimgan provides the perfect dose of tranquility and cool air. On your way home, don’t forget to catch a glimpse of the majestic Charvak Reservoir. There are plenty of restaurants close the waterside, and there’s no better way to end the day than sitting on one of the open terraces, enjoying the best of Uzbek cuisine.
Text: Katie Davies
Images from top: Bernd Thaller, Franx’, George Chelebiev, Dmitry Karyshev, John Menard, Rob Hodgkins, imke.sta, Dan Lundberg under CC licences