What struck us most about this group of countries was its very troubled history. The borders of every one of the Balkan countries have changed many times over the centuries, as neighbouring countries have invaded and taken over. I have heard that it is possible for a person to have lived all his life in the same village and yet to have been a citizen of three or four different countries as the borders move around him! Some countries, such as Albania, Moldova and Kosovo have ceased to exist for many years and then come back into existence again. Serbia still refuses to acknowledge Kosovo as a separate country.
Despite all its troubles, this part of Europe enjoys plentiful natural resources. The mountains are full of desirable minerals – gold, chromium, nickel, tungsten and others. Mountains also mean that some countries can be almost self-sufficient in hydro-electric power. Albania and Romania have vast oilfields, natural gas and lignite to fuel their power stations but phasing out the use of these will inevitably be controversial.
Fertile soils and a Mediterranean climate enable this region to produce and export a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and some countries have a booming wine industry. The many lakes and the Mediterranean coastline also enable fresh- and saltwater-fish farming on a large scale.
The local languages and the rich folklore combine influences rom Greek, Arabic, Slavic and Roman cultures. These influences, together with the plentiful agricultural production, make for a multitude of mouth-watering national dishes, as Joe found when he researched Bulgarian cuisine. The region also boasts distinctive musical instruments, styles of singing and dancing and elaborate national costumes.
Understandably, now that relative peace has been established, tourism is increasing, and more people are sampling the mountain and coastal scenery and wildlife, the many historic sites and the local food. Croatia, with its disproportionally long Mediterranean coastline, is benefitting more than most from the income this brings. Many of the Balkan countries have applied to become members of the EU, but so far the only three to have been accepted are Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia. Watch this space!