The countries of southeastern Europe, once called the Balkans, hold a variety of peoples, religions, and languages. Tensions led to war in the 1990s, resulting in the formation of smaller countries. This region of ancient towns and old traditions has picturesque landscapes of forested mountains, deep valleys, fertile plains, and lakes. Its long, indented coastline leads to the peninsula and many islands of Greece.
Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Slovenia were once part of the communist country of Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia split up in 1991, the differences between its ethnic peoples exploded into civil war. Thousands were killed or lost their homes, and the economies of these countries were badly affected.
From 1944 to 1991, Albania was under a communist dictatorship that isolated it from the rest of Europe. Free speech and religion were forbidden by law, and private cars were banned. The country is now a democracy and is slowly emerging from isolation, but it remains poverty-stricken.
In the foothills of the Balkan Mountains near Kazanluk, in Bulgaria, lies the Valley of the Roses. Here, vast fields of roses are grown to produce an essential oil called attar, which is important in the making of perfume. Fragrant rose petals are harvested by hand and dried in the sun. Bulgaria produces most of the world’s attar, which is worth its weight in gold.
Hungary is famous for its hot thermal springs. These warm mineral waters rise naturally from the ground and are said to have medicinal properties. Baths and spas have been built over the hot springs since Roman times, and today there are over 150 public baths, many of them open-air.
In order to protect the ancient buildings of Athens from damaging lead fumes, cars are sometimes banned from the streets of the Greek capital. Traffic produces toxic fumes that create a thick smog of air pollution. This obscures the view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, Athens’ most famous ancient ruins, and destroys the carving on their marble statues.
Bulgaria and Romania are divided by the Danube River, which forms a border between them. The fertile plain on each side of the river is used as farmland for grazing sheep, goats, and cattle, and for growing crops like sunflowers, wheat, corn, potatoes, and fruit.
Hundreds of small Greek islands dot the Aegean and Ionian Seas. Every year, over nine million tourists visit Greece for its warm blue waters, beautiful landscape, ancient ruins, and sunny climate. The great demand for hotels, restaurants, and crafts makes tourism more profitable than the more traditional farming and fishing.
Capital city: Tirana
Area: 11,100 sq miles (28,748 sq km)
Population: 3.2 million
Official language: Albanian
Capital city: Sarajevo
Area: 19,741 sq miles (51,129 sq km)
Population: 4.1 million
Official language: Serbo-Croat
Capital city: Sofia
Area: 42,822 sq miles (110,910 sq km)
Population: 7.8 million
Official language: Bulgarian
Capital city: Zagreb
Area: 21,831 sq miles (56,542 sq km)
Population: 4.7 million
Official language: Croatian
Capital city: Athens
Area: 50,942 sq miles (131,940 sq km)
Population: 10.6 million
Official language: Greek
Capital city: Budapest
Area: 35,919 sq miles (93,030 sq km)
Population: 9.9 million
Official language: Hungarian
Capital city: Skopje
Area: 9,781 sq miles (25,333 sq km)
Population: 2.1 million
Official languages: Macedonian and Albanian
Capital city: Bucharest
Area: 91,699 sq miles (237,500 sq km)
Population: 22.3 million
Official language: Romanian
Capital city: Belgrade
Area: 39,517 sq miles (102,350 sq km)
Population: 10.5 million
Official language: Serbo-Croat