The following is a reposted article from RealClear | Life.
Luxury travel operator Mountain Travel Sobek and its expert guide lead RCL on the 128-mile trek.
We were only half-joking when we called Richard Branson’s recent family adventure—which featured a Matterhorn to Mt. Etna trek—the “family vacation from hell.” RCL is wise to the fact that many of you want to get physical on vacation, so we searched far and wide for the perfect jaunt. We found one that requires a bit more than your average pre-work bicep curl to accomplish, but is nothing short of an experience of a lifetime.
Mountain Travel Sobek, a luxury travel operator headquartered on the West Coast, has partnered with Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina–based Greenvisions to take guests on one of the most unique adventures RCL has found in its search for the “next big thing” in travel.
For just under $8,000, you can join a 22-day, 128-mile trek through the largely untouched Via Dinarica trail, which snakes through the Dinaric Alps and takes you through six countries—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania.
A highlight of Day 2 on the MTS trek, here’s an aerial view of Bled Castle, overlooking the lake of the same name in Triglav National Park, Slovenia. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Now, if you’re asking yourself, “Aren’t some of those countries dangerous?” You’d be right, but 25 years too late. Long after the break up of the former Yugoslavia—and the Bosnian War, which started in 1992 and lasted through 1995—the Western Balkans have become a white-hot travel destination patronized by everyone from Jay-Z to Bill Gates.
And the Via Dinarica is sort of the icing on the cake, per Thierry Joubert, a native of Curaçao, Dutch Antilles, who’s been based in Sarajevo since 1992, is the co-founder of Greenvisions, and heads up Mountain Travel Sobek’s extensive tour.
“I came [to Sarajevo] during the war to work with children in refugee centers, and I did all kinds of development and humanitarian work,” Joubert told RCL via Skype. Then, five years after the Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian conflict, Joubert founded his travel-adventure company, Greenvisions, as a for-profit company, with Bosnia’s future in mind. (They published the first postwar travel brochure for the country.)
Joubert and company have been working with Mountain Travel Sobek for eight years, having originally met MTS co-founder Richard Bangs while he was in Bosnia on a development project for USAID. “The reason I like Mountain Travel Sobek is that we have crazy ideas, and they’re willing to take the chance,” said Joubert with a laugh. One such crazy idea was the 22-day trek, which is by far the most extensive trip the two companies have come up with yet.
On Day 13 of the MTS trek, you’ll find yourself in Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Montenegro (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
What is the Via Dinarica? Joubert described it as a confluence of mountain trails in “the wildest part of Europe” that were once all connected in the former Yugoslavia and maintained by mountaineering clubs but were broken up by borders after the country was split up. At that point, the trail was just legend, at best. But in 2006, there was a call for the disparate trails to once again be united—like the Via Alpina—and three years later, Greenvisions was on the case. Along with a partner in Montenegro, Greenvisions wrote a cross-border plan for the European Union, reconnecting the trails from Sutjeska National Park in Bosnia with Durmitor National Park in Montenegro (see above), each country’s oldest national park. That was the first 100 miles of the over 1,200-mile trail that now stretches from Slovenia to Macedonia. The project snowballed from there; in 2014, Outside magazine sent a journalist to hike the Via Dinarica with Joubert, and it’s been gaining popularity ever since. USAID has also chipped in about $1.2 million to help maintain the massive trail.
For those guests who are looking to drop a long way out of cell service on vacation, the Via Dinarica trek couldn’t be better. As Joubert explains, because the region’s mountain ranges are still so untouched compared to the rest of the EU’s, hikers will be surprised at how few people they run into over the 22-day period. And somewhat like the neighborhoods of New York City, each mountain town travelers come across is wholly distinct from the previous one—culturally, religiously, and culinarily. “All of these sections have a very different flavor,” said Joubert.
You’ll find yourself in the old city of Mostar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bosnia and Herzegovina on Day 7 of the trek (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Now, in terms of physical fitness, this is by no means an easy- or intermediate-level trek. “The mountains are rough here,” Joubert said. Don’t let the word “trail” fool you into thinking this is something locals leash up their dogs and walk for pleasure on the weekends. “It’s not a manicured trail,” said Joubert. “People have walked on this trail, but it’s rocky and uneven. It’s not dangerous, but these are not smooth trails.”
While MTS offers an extensive itinerary—from which we’ve scattered pictures of destinations throughout this story—RCL asked Joubert to tease out his “greatest hits” along the trail. Here’s what he said:
Velebit National Park – Premužić Trail – Croatia – This single chain-link in the greater Via Dinarica was blazed during the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918). “It’s just stunning,” said Joubert. “At [the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire] it was a highway through this incredible karst and rocky mountain, [and] it still is. Everything is wild around you.” Joubert continues: “This guy just cut this road through the mountains that dips in and out, and you get to see the seaside. So you have the blue Adriatic coast, and then you go down again on the other side in the interludes, and there’s nothing there. It’s just wild.”
The Isolated-ness of Bosnia – Geographically speaking, Bosnia is the midway point of the Via Dinarica. And it also happens to be Joubert’s adopted home. “Bosnia is very small; it’s only 50,000 square kilometers [roughly 19,000 square miles], but within it, it takes ages to get from one side to the other, because it’s all mountains,” Joubert told RCL. One of the coolest stops along the way? The so-called “rebel’s door” on Čvrsnica Mountain, about 6,500 feet up the mountain face. He notes that the mountains in the region aren’t Everest; the highest peaks are only about 8,500-feet high.
The ‘Accursed Mountains’ – Albania – You can blame the locals for the doom-and-gloom moniker. The mountains are anything but “accursed.” What makes the area so special is a number of functioning villages. It’s a particularly busy cultural center along the Via Dinarica. “The mountains are very high, beautiful, [and] stark, but with the villages, you have relatively easy access to the places around [you],” said Joubert. The best part, though? The local bed-and-breakfast scene (read: shepherd huts and actual home-stays), where travelers can rest their weary bones and consume “mountaineer”-style meals.
Mountains of Food – You can’t go wrong with great ethnic fare in the region, which is marked by a diverse range of cultures. Traditional Bosnian meals, for example, include börek and pita—not the bread you scrape up hummus with—but an oven-baked phyllo-dough pie cooked in a pan and filled with ingredients like cheese, mountain spinach, or potatoes. It’s traditionally served with locally produced yogurt. One meat you’ll have no problem finding? Lamb and mutton, usually roasted and served on a spit. Stuffed peppers, stuffed cabbage leaves, and polenta also make appearances throughout as well. “Low fat does not exist here,” said Joubert. But the insanely long treks balance out the calories.