Greece has thousands of islands and each of them has its own identity, even those that belong to the same archipelago. In this highly competitive crowd, however, Corfu – or Kerkyra – stands out.
For millennia, Albania was a country impenetrable to outsiders. Guarded by steep and menacing mountains, it allowed Romans and Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans, Fascist Italians and Nazi Germans to colonise and properly rule only its thin strip of coast and a handful of cities. The rest of the country, hidden behind rising peaks crisscrossed by narrow and dangerous roads, remained isolated, independent, ruled by its own tribes and codes. Communist dictator Enver Hoxha brought his country's isolation to a whole new level.
Burdened with the robotic directions of Satnav devices, we have lost the ability to feel like explorers. Yet, there are places that, though identifiable on Satnav, still convey the feeling that they are at the edge of the known world.
Ani on the Turkish-Armenian frontier is one such place.
Scattered on the steep bank of the border-defining Arpa Chai river, Ani is what remains of the once populous capital of Armenia. Domed churches of dark grey and red stones sprout from heaps of debris among a barren landscape: otherworldly, surreal, dreamlike.
While you speed westwards on the Egnatia Odos highway in Greece towards the port of Igoumenitsa with its ferries, you are passing by places that deserve more than just reading their names on the roadsigns and then forgetting them.
North of the highway you will find several towns deserving of a detour because of their situation and interesting history.
Bees are buzzing around the dragon flowers sprouting from the stone walls of a three-storey tower. Old and weathered, the tower rises amid quiet lanes scorched by the sun. A couple of elderly men are eyeing us from the shadows of the nearby tavern.
"Orea," say the men.
"Einai para poli orea," we answer. Indeed, the tower is beautiful. There are several more around, remains from the days when exploring the Mani, the middle leg of the Peloponnese Peninsula, was not that easy.
With its mixture of Byzantine, Ottoman and fin-de-siècle heritage, Istanbul is never short of sights to visit, explore and marvel at. Among its lesser known treasures, one stands out. It is both a curiosity and a place with an intriguing history, strongly connected to Bulgaria.
The Church of St Stefan on the banks of the Golden Horn is made entirely of iron. It belongs to the city's Bulgarian community and played a crucial part in 19th century Bulgarian history.
More than 10,000 Bulgarians live in Vienna today, a community with its own life, cultural centres and even a newspaper. Most arrived after 1989, although the Bulgarian presence in the Austrian capital is much older. It stretches back to Ottoman times, when Bulgarians lived, studied and traded in the capital of the then Habsburg Empire. This trend intensified after the Bulgarian state was restored, in 1878. Vienna was then the cosmopolitan heart of Central Europe: a place of wealth, culture, political thought, science and innovations that poured into Bulgarian lands via the Danube.
Dracula, Bram Stoker's notorious creation, is one of Romania's most recognisable symbols and, since the 2000s, the country has been liberally cashing in on this. Most of the visitors obviously flock to the atmospheric Bran Castle, in Transylvania, the supposed lair of the vampire.
Albania and its capital are shrouded in the atmosphere of a little-known, little-visited, isolated and poor country haunted by the memories of Europe's last dictatorship.
Between 1944 and 1991 Tirana was the capital of Communist Albania. Most of those years were spent under the Stalinist Enver Hoxha, who imposed total isolation on the nation. Albania was a North Korea in southern Europe. Add this to Albania's late start as a nation state, in 1912, and its troubled transition to democracy in the 1990s, and you end up with a destination that simultaneously fascinates and frightens.
They define the Transylvanian landscape as much as the thick forests of the Carpathians, and are so ubiquitous that one stops paying particular attention to them after visiting the most popular ones, including the supposed Dracula haunt at Bran Castle and atmospheric Sighişoara.
I had a moral dilemma whether I should be visiting Cuba at all. All my friends, who'd been there in recent years, had been urging me: "Go! Go! Go before it changes forever! Go now, because in a couple of years' time Starbucks and McDonald's will be all over the place!"
At the Guča Trumpet Festival, exaggeration is the norm. Every August this sleepy town in southern Serbia attracts thousands of people from all over the Balkans – and increasingly beyond – for several days of traditional brass music unleashed by dozens of bands, large and small, of dancing and singing, of overeating and overdrinking, of behaving as if there is no tomorrow, when life is to be lived to the full.
It is a place of ancient monuments and of drab, unremarkable post-1940s streets with white houses and greying apartment buildings, with bustling street traffic and elderly people slowly strolling along. There are tourist traps and tavernas that seem unchanged since the 1960s, intelligent graffiti and classical monuments which laid the foundation of Western art, among the pestering pigeons and of the pageantry of the Evzones national guard.
Iaşi is one of Romania's greatest, and most pleasant, surprises. Far from popular tourist destinations like Bucharest and the Carpathian mountains, the city is known to Romanians as the heart of their national culture and educational system, but it remains mostly unknown to foreign visitors. The fact that it is close to the border with Moldova, an even lesser known European country, does not help Iaşi's popularity.
The people who founded what is now Monemvasia did both. They left their homes and found a new one on a rocky islet just off the eastern shores of the Peloponnese. Then they fortified it.
Their song was strange, three different voices weaved into a single melody that sounded as if from another time – and its effect was hardly due to the strong homemade Chacha, or brandy, guests are treated to here.
Only 190-kilometre drive separate Sofia from Kulata, the most popular border crossing with Greece. The country is blessed with Mediterranean climate. The summer is hot, sunny and dry, and it is more than guaranteed that the weather will not suddenly turn bad for several days in a row during your vacation – the average number of sunny days in the country is 250. As a result of concurrence of geographical and historical circumstances, Greece has a coastline of 13,676 km – incomparably more than Bulgaria's 354-kilometre Black Sea coast.
Shoppers walk by, perusing the oranges, potatoes and home-made Rakiya, oblivious to the looming memorial to the victims of the 5 February 1994 shelling, which took the lives of 68 people just like them, people who were trying to do some shopping in besieged Sarajevo.
How the people of Sarajevo cope with the wounds of the Bosnian War of 1992-1995, the bloodiest of the conflicts that put an end to Yugoslavia in the 1990s, is a question any visitor to the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina struggles to answer.
Home to at least 18 million people, Istanbul spreads over two continents, and has a past so rich that it would take you a lifetime to get to know it properly. And yet, it is so vibrant and full of sensations and experiences that it feels more like sheer pleasure than a history lesson, particularly in winter.