Widen your focus in 2019 to Hercegovina’s other highlights with a trip along the CIRO cycling trail, a former Austro-Hungarian railway line that threads through the countryside from Mostar to Dubrovnik, tying together some of the region’s top sights. Accommodation in atmospheric old train stations en route offers the chance to lock up the bikes and explore further. Potter around the streets of medieval Počitelj, explore the Vjetrenica karst wind tunnels or hike to the traditional mountain village of Lukomir – experiences that’ll provide a new perspective on this picture-perfect region.
Alex Crevar, writing for Lonely Planet, takes the reader on a tour of a weekend in Novi Sad. From its rich cultural diversity to Novi Sad locals self-identification as ‘laid-back’ and ‘relaxed’, Lonely Planet shines a spotlight on an often overlooked destination.
Bear Watching in Macedonia
7 Day Tour, from £1765 per person
Roll up your sleeves and get hands-on with conservation projects working to preserve Macedonia’s most spectacular unspoiled wilderness. This tour gives you the opportunity to explore national parks like you’ve never done before, roaming with park rangers to spot, record and preserve some of Europe’s last truly wild populations of bear, lynx, deer, wolf and boar. After, spend a few days exploring the pretty lake-side town of Ohrid.
Fly to Skopje
Fly to Skopje and transfer to your hotel. Enjoy a guided walking tour of Skopje and its old town before having dinner at an authentic 15th century oriental han. (D)
Skopje to Mavrovo National Park
Depart for Mavrovo National Park where you will join the park rangers for conservation operations at the deer reproduction centre including maintenance and feeding activities. After a picnic lunch, hop inside a 4x4 jeep for an off-road adventure to the wild goat habitats of the park looking out on the drive for other animals including eagles, falcons, wolves, deer and bears. Hike through dense forest to the feeding stations and learn how to recognise animal tracks, scents and sounds. Continue hiking to one of the peaks where you can watch eagles hunting. Return to the lodge for a traditional dinner. (B,L,D)
Mavrovo National Park to Pelister National Park
Wake up early and enjoy a bear watching hike to densely populated bear areas. Transfer to Pelister National Park and check-in in to your accommodation. Enjoy a traditional Macedonian slow-food lunch. In the evening, embark on a bear watching hike with the opportunity to spend the night in hide. (B,L,D)
Pelister National Park to Bitola
Embark on an early morning observation hike in search of wildlife to reach the eastern slopes of the mountain. Here, help the park rangers to replant some rare and prehistoric pine called Molika. Continue on an easy hike through the Molika forest. In the evening enjoy a guided sightseeing tour of Bitola’s old town. (B,L,D)
Bitola to Ohrid
Continue to explore the city of Bitola where a melting pot of cultures and civilisations can be found. Perhaps visit the well-preserved Roman site of Heraclea, famous for its ancient theatre, mosaics and Roman baths dating back to the ancient Macedonian Empire. In the afternoon transfer to the picturesque lakeside town of Ohrid. (B)
Spend two full days exploring the charming town of Ohrid at leisure. Discover incredible ancient churches, many adorned with vibrant frescoes, and look out for the numerous artisan workshops where a wide range of handmade arts and crafts can be found. Consider booking an optional excursion to the village of Kalishta or in the summer months take a boat trip to St Naum Monastery at the other end of the lake near the border with Albania. In the evenings perhaps relax with a glass of delicious Macedonian wine and freshly caught Ohrid trout, watching the sun set over the lake. (B)
Fly to the UK
Transfer to the airport for your flight back to the UK. (B)
REG project countries made the list of Forbes 27 Best Budget Travel Destinations
11. Herceg Novi, Montenegro
Nestled between the picturesque Adriatic Sea and the impressive backdrop of Mount Orjen, Herceg Novi has one of the most turbulent histories in Europe. For a budget traveler, this means you can see incredibly eclectic architectural styles and enjoy some history, while traveling the more affordable parts of Europe. The area is also famous for hot springs, mud spas and hidden beaches. Many of the beaches are only accessible boat and we’re hoping to make it there in early 2018 ourselves. Maybe you’ll catch us there!
17. Herceg Novi, Montenegro
This European country offers history, culture and vibrant green nature full of rivers and waterfalls. The more you travel through Bosnia, the more you want to get to know it. It is less expensive than other European countries, which makes it a steal, in my book.
With the first snows of the winter having already fallen across Emerging Europe, many people’s thoughts would have already turned to winter holidays, and to skiing. While for many the countries of the region are not the first to spring to mind when planning a ski trip, there are in fact a number of very good ski resorts in this part of the world. From Jasna in Slovakia to Tsakhkadzor in Armenia, many offer some superb, rugged skiing amidst fantastic scenery, usually at prices well below those in Western Europe. Not that the low cost is the only attraction. For a new breed of adventurous skier, jaded perhaps by the increasingly busy motorway pistes of France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, the search for fresh powder, for empty slopes and for new experiences is the real draw. That’s where Emerging Europe comes in, and that’s why our editor-in-chief Craig Turp, who has skied in more countries than most people have visited, decided to put together this short guide to skiing in some of the region’s top – and in some cases surprising – locations.
Yes, you can ski in Armenia. The country’s only real resort of any size, Tsakhkadzor (perhaps best known as a summer retreat) is just over an hour’s drive from Yerevan, set at an altitude of 1900 metres. The resort’s lift network rises to the top of the Teghenis mountain at over 2800 metres, and the terrain up here is steep, offering some seriously challenging skiing: throughout the resort there is little for beginners. While some of the lifts could do with upgrading (queues can be long at busy times) the snow record is good and you can often ski until the end of April. The lift pass is cheap, gives access to 35km of pistes and the views from the top of the mountain are sensational. There’s even a Marriott hotel at the foot of the slopes. The most disappointing aspect are the mountain restaurants, which are few and far between and relatively expensive.
Boasting more than 1000 metres of vertical drop, Azerbaijan’s leading ski destination, Shahdag (above) is a modern resort featuring state-of-the-art lifts, dominated by the monolithic Shahdag hotel at the foot of the slopes. There are 12 lifts in all and around 30km of skiing, all of it set quite spectacularly above the treeline. While it doesn’t snow all that much in these parts, the entire resort is covered with the latest in snowmaking technology, guaranteeing snow for most of the winter. What you get instead is sunshine: fans of spring skiing will love the place. Shahdag is three hours by car from Baku, while slightly further away is Azerbaijan’s equally spectacular, equally modern (although slightly smaller) second resort, Tufandag.
It’s easy to forget that Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, and Bosnia’s best skiing is just 30 minutes drive from the centre of the capital, at Jahorina. There are over 30km of pistes, including the Olympic women’s downhill, slalom and giant slalom routes. The men’s events were held at Bjelasnica on the other side of the city. Both of Sarajevo’s ski areas have seen much investment in recent years, although Jahorina is currently the best of the two, boasting new lifts and shorter queues. Another, smaller resort – Ravna Planina – is even closer to the city centre, but it offers very limited skiing. While all three of Sarajevo’s ski areas boast snowmaking equipment, snow cover can still often be an issue. Those of you with long memories will recall that the men’s downhill back in 1984 was delayed over a week due to a lack of snow.
Probably the best-known skiing destination in Emerging Europe, Bulgaria’s three main resorts: Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo have been staples of the winter holiday brochures for four decades. All three resorts have seen upgrades in recent times, most recently Pamporovo which has extended its ski area and linked up with neighbouring Chepelare. While none of the skiing in Bulgaria is particularly challenging, and there is little off-piste, it’s all easily accessible from either Sofia or Plovdiv airports and prices remain amongst the lowest in Europe. Our pick of the Bulgarian resorts this year is Bansko, not least as there are so many activities off the slopes, making it perfect for mixed groups which may include people who do not ski. The town’s many mehana offer great food – specialising in lamb dishes – and its narrow streets are charming, meriting exploration. One tip: the gondola up to the ski area gets very busy around 10am. Make sure you arrive early. And for anyone on a business trip in Sofia with a few hours to spare, note that there is a half-decent ski area in the city’s suburbs, on Vitosha mountain.
At risk of annoying the Slovenes, the Slovaks, the Bulgarians and just about everybody else on this list, I hereby declare that Emerging Europe’s best skiing is in Georgia, at Gudauri (which features, above, in the main photo). Boasting a top elevation well over 3000 metres the resort offers both long, cruising blues for the smart set as well as tough blacks – and Europe’s cheapest heli-skiing – for adrenaline junkies. The lift pass too is incredible value (just over 50 euros for a week), and all less than two hours from Tbilisi. Our only complaint is that for a purpose-built resort the layout can be awkward (a lot of the accommodation is a long walk from the lifts), but most hotels and apartment complexes offer shuttle buses to and from the slopes. Once on the piste however, you are in a white paradise that is hard to beat. And with the exception of Georgian public holidays you are likely to have the place for yourself. For how much longer remains to be seen: Gudauri, like Georgia as a whole, looks set for a tourism boom as more flights link Tbilisi with Western Europe. We suggest booking a trip for this winter. And remember: you read about Gudauri here first.
There are plans to spend almost half a billion euros on developing Brezovica as an international ski resort: ecological concerns as well as Serbian objections (there are issues over land ownership) may delay those plans, however. Until then, it will remain a very old-fashioned ski resort worth visiting if only to say that you’ve skied in Kosovo. The chair-lifts are old, the slopes are poorly groomed and the access road becomes blocked at weekends: there is virtually nowhere to park near the slopes and so you could end up walking a long way in your ski boots if you don’t arrive early. Once you do make it to the top of the mountain however, it is easy to see the potential of the place: snow is guaranteed, and there is vast scope to create a rather special ski area here. It’s less than two hours from either Prishtina or Skopje.
Poles are crazy about ski jumping, and Zakopane is the country’s ski jumping capital. Competitions are held all winter, the highest calibre being the World Cup event which takes place at the end of January. Alas, when it comes to more conventional skiing, you will almost certainly leave Poland with the impression that it could be fantastic, if only they could get their act together. Zakopane in the Tatras is a good base for exploring a number of different ski areas, of which the closest (and biggest) are Kasprowy Wierch and Gubałówka, on either side of the town centre. The two areas are not connected however, and despite the recent installation of new chair-lifts, the crowds and lift queues remain the stuff of legend.
Poiana Brasov (which in the 1950s went by the name Poiana Stalin) has been welcoming skiers for more than 70 years, Sinaia longer than that. Both resorts (neither of which is more than two and a half hours from Bucharest) offer a small yet decent amount of skiing: 25km at Poiana and 40km at Sinaia. Both resorts have seen much investment, and have upgraded their lift systems. The only real downside is cost (lift passes are relatively expensive for this part of the world) and unreliable snow cover (Romania, contrary to popular belief, has very dry winters). Both resorts are also susceptible to long queues, and on holiday weekends the main road linking the Romanian capital to the mountains can resemble a giant car park. To get the best out of skiing in Romania take a day or two during the week just after a heavy snowfall: you will have the slopes to yourself. Better still, combine a day’s skiing with a visit to the wonderful Transylvanian city of Brasov, not 20 minutes from Poiana Brasov.
Kapaonik, on the border of Serbia and Kosovo, offers 55km of tree-lined pistes. Runs are quite short but good fun, and there are few crowds: the resort is very well designed and the lift system, which has seen investment in recent years, including a new six-seat chair-lift, keeps queues to a minimum. The highest slope barely tops 2000 metres, but snow cover is usually guaranteed until the end of March. Accommodation is good value, and there is plenty to choose from. Access, however, is a problem: it’s almost five hours from Belgrade, longer from Podgorica. Prishtina is in theory far closer, but as you are not allowed to cross the border directly from Kosovo to Serbia, you need to go via Montenegro.
Slovakia over the past few years has made giant strides towards becoming a serious destination for skiers. Resorts are dotted across the High and Low Tatra mountains, my pick of which is Tatranska Lomnica north of Poprad, and Jasnato the south. Jasna is the largest resort in the country and offers some very good skiing, but the lift pass is pricey and it can get very crowded at weekends. While the skiing at Tatranska Lomnica is not as extensive, it’s a more relaxed resort and a great weekend destination. It’s also home to probably the most difficult ski terrain in the country. The surrounding villages are packed with cabins and bed and breakfasts, all offering great homemade food amidst some of the most superb forests Emerging Europe has to offer. Slovakia also remains hugely keen on cross-country skiing: just about every village has a groomed track.
As locals will be the first to point out, you don’t merely come skiing in Slovenia, you come for a whole winter experience. After all, if there is a more picture postcard perfect place on earth than Lake Bled when covered in ice and snow, then I have yet to see it. Kranjska Gora is the country’s best-known, and largest resort, famous for the slalom World Cup races held here each year and superb cross-country tracks. In my opinion however, there is far better (and less crowded) skiing to be had at the other ski centres in the country, particularly at Vogel near Bohinjska Bistrica and Slovenia’s highest resort, Kanin, which now has direct access from the town of Bovec on the other side of the Triglav National Park. This being Slovenia, no resort (with the exception of Bovec) is much more than an hour’s drive from Ljubljana
One of the best-kept secrets on the Emerging Europe ski-circuit is the immaculate resort of Bukovel. There are more than 60km of pistes, and while the resort’s elevation is not the highest (the top lift reaches a modest 1372 metres) the resort’s latitude makes it one of the most snow-sure in the whole region. What’s more, all the slopes – most of which are tree-lined and sheltered from the elements – are equipped with snow cannons for when nature fails to supply enough of the white stuff. There is a good range of accommodation, and prices are very cheap. Now the bad news. One of the reasons Bukovel has remained something of a secret is its inaccessibility. It is more than four and a half hours drive from the nearest international airport, Lviv, and the roads in this part of world are not the best. Should the airport at Ivano-Frankivsk (less than two hours from Bukovel) open up to international flights (it currently only serves domestic flights from Kyiv) expect skiing in Ukraine to take off.
How to hike across four European countries in two weeks
Pack those boots and get ready to explore the region on foot
Days 1—4: Croatia
Day 1: Begin with a tour of Zagreb’s historic buildings and edgy art. Day 2: Trek the limestone gorges of Paklenica National Park inside a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and dip in the Adriatic Sea. Day 3: Hike up the stunning coastal Mosor Mountain. Day 4: Go on a heritage tour of Split, notably the UNESCO-listed Diocletian’s Palace that now houses shops and restaurants. Head to Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina for dinner overlooking the 16th-century Stari Most bridge, whose bombing and subsequent reconstruction became a symbol of the 1990s wars. In 2014, the 1,930km-long Via Dinarica opened as an adventure and cultural corridor to help connect the region.
Days 5—10: Bosnia & Herzegovina
Day 5: Glimpse one of the world’s largest karst landscapes on the way up Cvrsnica Mountain, via a former royal hunting trail, beech forest and springs. Day 6: Brave avalanche corridors for the vista from Plocno, atop Cvrsnica Mountain. Day 7: Admire watermills and Studeni Potok’s cascades en route to Lukomir, Bosnia’s highest village, known for medieval tombstones. Day 8: Hike through Sutjeska National Park and its Donje and Gornje Bare Lakes. Day 9: Climb Bosnia’s highest peak, Maglic Mountain, and reward yourself with lunch overlooking Trnovacko Lake in Montenegro. Day 10: Drive to Tara River to raft in Europe’s deepest canyon.
Day 11: Montenegro
Navigate the 14 jagged ‘teeth’ that give the Zupci massif its name and cross the Zeleni Vir glacial lake to edge up Montenegro’s highest peak, Bobotov Kuk in the UNESCO- listed Durmitor National Park.
Days 12—14: Albania
Day 12: Ease into Albania with a boat ride on Skadar Lake, which also borders Montenegro, andis the largest freshwater lake in the Balkans. Drive to the isolated hamlet of Theth, whose tower was once a refuge during blood feuds. Days 13 & 14: Hike past an ancient stone chapel and waterfalls in Theth National Park. Exit through Tirana.
Need to know: Book this 14-day itinerary with Bosnia-based Green Visions (€1,950 or Rs1,46,080 per person inclusive of ground transport, guide, accommodation, meals and activities). Best for experienced hikers, the itinerary includes a mix of treks and drives between trails, and the best time to do it is between July and August.
Getting there: Fly to Zagreb from most Indian cities with Emirates via Dubai, or Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Indian passport-holders can apply for a multiple-entry Schengen visa with VFS Global. Visas cost around Rs4,480 and take at least 15 days to be processed.
The following is reposted version of an article from Paste Magazine by Bridget Nurre Jennions.
Okay, we admit it: we have a real thing for Montenegro. We’ve told you why you need to go there now and we’ve written at length about it’s coastal gems: Budva and the Bay of Kotor. But with the number of visitors to this small Adriatic country steadily increasing and daily low-cost flights connecting its capital Podgorica to many of Western Europe’s major cities, we figured it was time to let you in on a few secret spots still known mostly to locals: Lake Skadar, the Eastern Highlands, and Bojana Island.
Cap off a day of trekking with a night in a traditional mountain hut, practice yoga from the corn-grinding circle of a ruined 14th century village overlooking the Balkans’ largest lake, or chat with local fishermen as you dine on some rare Adriatic delights. With all three destinations within two and half hours of Podgorica, you don’t even have to choose: any of these would make for an unforgettable weekend or you could combine them for a diverse weeklong Montenegrin adventure.
An emerald oasis nestled between Montenegro’s coastal peaks and its capital city, Lake Skadar will immediately take your breath away—if not for its tranquil lily pad-covered lagoons, then definitely for the medieval monasteries that can be found perched on tiny islands in the center. So strong was the pull of this ancient lake that former British publishing and public relations executives Ben and Emma Heywood left their lives in London to establish their tour company, Undiscovered Montenegro, on its banks.
From their beautifully refurbished inn near Virpazar, Villa Miela, you can experience the bounty of the lake in a variety of ways: hiking the saw-toothed peaks, biking through the nearby villages, or kayaking across its serene waters to catch a glimpse of the giant Dalmatian pelican or Grmozur, the 19th century Montenegrin Alcatraz. The company also offers weeklong yoga holidays that include a morning of hiking to the 14th century village of Godinje and its crop-grinding-circle-turned-yoga platform that offers some spectacular lake views. Though the village still largely sits in ruins following a devastating 1979 earthquake, it is home to Konoba Godinjeand Winery, where owner Miodrag Lekovic offers up fresh local cheese and pours some of the best of Montenegro’s full-bodied Vranac red wine varietal.
In fact, in addition to being one of Montenegro’s most important ecosystems, Lake Skadar is also the site of its biggest wine region. Just seven kilometers from Virpazar, the wine village of Limljani bears a striking resemblance to the mountain-backed vineyards of South Africa. Be sure to taste the Sveti Toma wine at Klicic Winery, a barrique-aged Vranac named for the 7th century chapel that survived a tumble down the hill into the valley nearby.
Eastern Highlands: Bjelasica, Komovi, and Prokletije
“To come here is like traveling back in time,” Ivana Milicevic Kalic, marketing manager for RAMS Travel Agency, explains one rainy Sunday morning over a mug of mountain tea. “In many ways, this region hasn’t changed its way of life for over 200 years.” Based in the northern town of Bijelo Polje, known for its many arts festivals, the agency’s owners Sabina and Musa Ramovic are focused on offering visitors a glimpse into traditional mountain life.
Working with the regional tourism body, Sabina and Musa have helped develop the Bjelasica, Komovi, and Prokletije cultural route that covers Montenegro’s mountainous eastern region, and pairs mountain adventures with cultural immersion. With swanky coastal resorts like the iconic Aman Sveti Stefan charging top dollar for the cheese, meat, and rakija (schnapps) that come from this region, the couple have established a Slow Food convivium to preserve these traditional foods and bring Montenegro’s visitors direct to the source.
In practice, this means that along the four-mile hike from your homestay in the mountain village of Bistrica to the 17th century Podvrh Monastery, you will be beckoned by the Balsic brothers to come taste their twice-distilled pear rakia direct from the still. After an autumn morning spent wading through the waters of nearby Dalovica gorge to explore Montenegro’s deepest cave, you might join a local family producing their year’s supply of ajvar: a roasted pepper spread that is a staple of the region’s cuisine. Or finally, after a day of hiking on Bjelasica Mountain, you can spend a night under the stars in a traditional mountain hut, or katun, which have been used for centuries each summer by shepherds tending their flocks.
Bojana Island (Ada Bojana)
With 45 miles of beach stretching along the sparkling Adriatic Sea, it’s hard not to mention Montenegro’s stunning coastline. Our pick for sun and surf is a small island formed by a river delta near the Albanian coast: Bojana Island, or Ada Bojana. While some know Ada Bojana for its faded nudist resort, it is also home to Montenegro’s best seafood restaurants, which line the Bojana River that separates the island from the mainland.
The oldest, and widely regarded as the best of these restaurants, is Misko, where you can choose your meal from the live tank before taking your seat to watch the fishing trawlers outside the window. The restaurant’s offerings range from the traditional, like fresh oysters, to the unique. If you are lucky, they may have slipper lobster, a rare Mediterranean version of the crustacean known for its exceptionally sweet meat, which is cooked fresh and served on a bed of saffron pasta. Ask for “Baba” (Montenegrin for grandma, a reference to the lobster’s shriveled appearance).
Just next to Ada Bojana is Montenegro’s longest beach: the eight-mile Velika Plaza (long beach). Its idyllic wind conditions have made the beach a popular place for visitors throughout Europe to try their hand at kite surfing. If kite surfing isn’t your thing, then the soft white sand and numerous beach bars will help take the edge off.
The following is an article posted by National Geographic on April 5th, 2017 and written by Lois Parshley.
Journey Across 7 Countries on the World's Newest Long-Distance Trail
Hiking this 1,200-mile-long trail along the Dinaric Alps is worth the trek.
By Lois Parshley
PUBLISHED APRIL 5, 2017
The mountains have vanished in swirling mist. Deep in the highlands of Bosnia and Herzegovina, peaks roll under a wet blanket of fog. Each step is a good faith effort to believe the summit is in blind reach. My hiking companion has a dying cell phone in one hand, eyes glued to a faltering map app. In the other is a Garmin with an inadequately detailed GPX track. In front of us the hillside drops off into pearly space.
THE WORLD’S NEWEST LONG-DISTANCE TRAIL
The Via Dinarica, one of the world’s newest long-distance hiking trails, spans seven countries, 1,200 miles, and thousands of years of history. This area of the Balkans—mostly in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia—has long been the border between the east and west. Its complex history fueled a war in the 1990s as Yugoslavia disintegrated and these mountains became places of strategic advantage.
This new trail aims to move beyond that. Mountaineer Kenan Muftić has spent the last four years scouting out routes in the region’s mountains. He and the Via Dinarica team have been hard at work developing the White Trail, which follows the highest peaks of the Dinaric Alps. Muftić’s goal is to create three distance trails spanning former Yugoslavia. The White Trail—comprised of old shepherd routes, existing trails through national parks, logging tracks, new paths, and paved roads—officially opened in June 2016, the same week we started walking. (Based on reports from hikers, the team announced in August that “although plenty of information for those daring the trail are available,” the route would only be considered officially open only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where work has been done to cut new paths.)
Muftić’s fieldwork is supported by the diplomatic efforts of American Tim Clancy, a Via Dinarica team member who came to Bosnia and Herzegovina with an aid group during the war in the 1990s and never left. By physically connecting people across this divided region, Clancy hopes to help conserve some of the last wild places in Europe. “We have a chance to preserve what much of Europe lost long ago,” Clancy says.
THE ODYSSEY BEGINS
The first stage of the Via Dinarica begins in Postonja, Slovenia, where a gleaming white castle looms over a moss-streaked cave. The trail leads from the castle under train tracks, over a highway, and up a hill, where pavement gives way to gravel and thick pine forests close in. As the day heats up, what it means to hike across the world’s largest karst field finally sinks in: This spectacular limestone formation drains like a sieve—there is almost no surface water.
The first marked water source, a small hut with a plastic rainwater cistern, is off the trail on a small mountain. Throughout the Dinaric Alps entire towns live on collected rain. It tastes stiff with plastic and a smoky barbecued flavor.
We’re wondering where to pitch our first camp when a passing Jeep directs us to Jože Meze, who is puttering in his garden about a mile down the road. Meze worked here as a cook at a partisan camp during World War II, where he later built his summer house. Dimpled with a stub nose and pink cheeks, Meze says we can have water—but first, rakija. The homemade brandy is ubiquitous in the region. He bobs back with a liquor bottle, brimming shot glasses, and beer. The next day, the same Jeep driver again leaves us half a bottle of rakija for liquid encouragement at the top of the next hill.
A daily pattern emerges: our constant preoccupation with water, frequent confusion, and the incredible kindness of strangers. While many long-distance trails have become a kind of trophy, an experience to be collected rather than savored, the Via Dinarica isn’t about speed records. The trail stretches across rugged and isolated landscapes that give any other backcountry a run for its money, but it also crosses farmers’ fields and threads through villages. While logistics and terrain can be challenging, the deviations and obstacles often bring gifts like the golden comfort of honey brandy or a warm fire in a tiny cabin. The beauty of this project is in the in-between places.
HUNKER DOWN AND WAIT
In the southern reaches of the Velebit mountains of Croatia, the wind begins to blow. The tops of the beech trees rustle, then groan. Scorching heat made the day’s hiking a thirsty affair, but now sweat is quickly turning cold. Nestled into the bowl of a little valley perched over the Adriatic coast, we stumble on an emergency shelter that hums with the energy of the coming storm. Though not yet full-fledged, the wind is strong enough that it’s necessary to grasp at rocks to stand upright, and using the bathroom becomes difficult when going in any direction means pissing into the wind.
This breeze has a name: the bura (or bora). Its name may stem from the Greek mythological figure Boreas, the north wind. It’s a katabatic wind that can start suddenly, whipping the Adriatic with devastating effect. Although bura occurs along many areas of the Mediterranean coast, the gales can reach speeds of up to 156 miles per hour around Velebit, where mountains sharply divide pressure systems. It’s one of the reasons emergency shelters are scattered throughout the mountains—once bura begins there’s not much to do but hunker down and wait.
The next day dawns calm and ruthlessly hot. A full day’s ration of water weighs nearly nine pounds—hopefully enough to get to the next rainwater cistern. Built in the 1930s, the 35-mile Premužić Trail in northern Velebit is a meandering masterpiece of trail work, winding past jutting limestone teeth and skirting thick pine and beech forest. But past the Premužić Trail and down the littoral slope of Velebit, the next section of the Via Dinarica runs through Paklenica National Park, a popular stop for rock climbers. In the mountains the political complications of the region take physical form. Though the violence is long over, the consequences remain.
In the nearby highlands of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), for example, the trail runs through Lukomir, the highest village in the country and one of the only Muslim villages in the area to survive Serbian attacks during the 1990s. Just a few kilometers away, the Serbian village of Blace was burned to the ground by Bosnian soldiers. Muftić is quick to point out there were crimes on all sides of the conflict—a reason why resentments linger.
Today, meadows have begun to reclaim Blace’s crumbling ruins, and flowers sprout over the tumbled concrete. On a Sunday morning, a one-room church bell tolls over the empty ruins, and a slow trickle of vehicles bounce over the open grassland as people arrive to attend service. The simple grace of the ritual is at odds with the visible remains of destruction.
Over the pass, Lukomir is not only still occupied but a tourist destination. The danger Lukomir now faces is one threatening rural populations all over the world: young people are leaving in search of work, leaving an aging population.
CONSERVATION AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Dušan Simović bursts into the room draped in the skin of a bear that he’s shot. Its splayed paws are the size of dinner plates, with claws the length of fingers. A tall, wiry man, Simović lives in the Treskavica mountains in southern BiH, and when we materialize off the trail above his barn, he invites us inside his smoky kitchen and dishes up deer steak, foraged mushrooms, and fresh milk from his cows. He laughs at our “lucky” hand-carved bear necklaces—a gift from an old woman in Slovenia. “For a real bear charm you need a real bear,” Simović says, cutting off one of the claws as a gift.
Despite longstanding fears over the decline of Europe’s large carnivores, a recent study in Science found that the brown bear population has actually stabilized. There are now around 17,000 in Europe, and reintroduction programs are working to reestablish bears in areas where they’d previously been wiped out. We encountered one such project, the PirosLIFE Catalunya Programme in southern Slovenia.
For years the Pyrenees have been dominated by Pyros, an alpha male bear who was live-trapped near Mašun, Slovenia, in 1997 and brought to the Spanish-French border. Today, about 75 percent of bears in the area are his offspring, and his reproductive prowess has earned modest fame. Scientists now fear that inbreeding will increase the risk of disease, so in 2016 a team returned to Mašun for Goiat, a second male bear that will hopefully introduce more genetic diversity.
Although the success of the Pyrenees program may be in no small part thanks to Pyros, large mammals also depend on the health of their ecosystems to survive. Because of historically isolationist policies, the Dinaric Alps are not as well studied as their neighbors, but they contain some of the last undisrupted forests in Europe.
We spend several days sloshing through these forests toward Sutjeska, the oldest and largest national park in BiH. At a summit near Prijevor we met Miroslav Svoboda, a professor of forestry and wood sciences at the Czech University of Life Sciences, who invites us into a small mountain hut for rakija. He is part of an international group that is investigating the health of some of the last old-growth stands in Europe.
Socks steam dry above the wood stove as Svoboda explains that we don’t know much about how humans affect the forest dynamics. As part of a team doing long-term monitoring of ecosystems in Velebit, Croatia, one of the few places in the Mediterranean where Norway spruce survives, Svoboda’s trying to fill in that gap. He hopes that by learning more about the health of these ecosystems scientists will learn how they are being altered by climate change.
THE END OF THE ROAD
The final descent of the Via Dinarica spills into Valbona Pass, where trees and greenery seem to lose their enthusiasm partway up bare stone pinnacles. Crags hide small patches of last winter’s snow. While there’ve been few hikers on the Via Dinarica, the handful of people on this more popular summit speak half a dozen different languages—a sign that the universal language of hiking is returning to the region.
The Via Dinarica is a remarkable feat considering its political and geographical challenges, though, like any new trail, information about resources and routes are still being compiled. As some of the first through-hikers, we had the privilege of being alone in a stunning landscape—and all the hurdles that entailed.
Looking out over Valbona Pass, I finally begin to understand why, as Muftić says, those along the route have something in common. “We may have huge challenges from the past, but we must be together.”
Lois Parshley is a journalist, photographer, and National Geographic Young Explorer. For more from Via Dinarica and other adventures, follow her on @loisparshley on Twitter and Instagram.