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So there is this trail, called the Via Dinarica, which is over 1000km long, winding all the way from Albania to Slovenia. It is aptly named for the Dinaric Alps, stretching in a long collection of limestone peaks across the eastern part of the continent. The Via Dinarica trail exists naturally, but the goal is to make it accessible in a way, that you don’t have to be a pro-mountaineer to attempt the trip. The megatrail is being implemented by ATA – the Adventure Tourism Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina with funds from the UNDP and USAID. I’ve seen my fair share of great projects, but I was simply blown away by the scale of this one, as well as the enthusiasm and dedication being poured into it from all the amazing people involved in the process. Via Dinarica doesn’t only connect the communities and countries via this gigantic multinational hiking trail, it is also a big step towards developing sustainable tourism in the region.
And sustainable tourism at its finest it is. While remote mountain villages will be able to generate income through small businesses, offering accommodation, delicious traditional food, outdoor activities, the occasional souvenirs and a whole new level of cultural experience, hikers travelling on this path will experience one of the last true wilderness frontiers in Europe. Via Dinarica promotes this little-known region of the Balkans, protects as well as shows off its natural resources and helps conserving the highland cultures of the region.
It is a rainy, misty morning, when Tim Clancy, an American who visited the region as an aid worker some 20 years ago and liked it so much that he simply never left, and Kenan Muftic, well known mountaineer and serious badass, pick me up in downtown Sarajevo to show me and a few other journalists some of the highlights of the Bosnia and Herzegovina section of the trail. Even the drive to our planned destination, Sutjeska National Park close to the Montenegro Border, is a highlight of the trip. It was in just this mountainous terrain, that Tito’s army, in a brilliant display of guerrilla warfare, escaped the encroaching Germans during the Second World War. Houses and villages pass by, reminders of a sad and troubled history – a former rape centre, the hometown of a well-known general, locations of massacres, skirmishes or right out battles. The following few hours, while driving through some of the most impressive, albeit drizzly, landscapes I have ever seen, are a well of history lessons and information about the Via Dinarica Trail.
Apparently Kenan, together with photographer Elma Okic, have just come back from leading a three month expedition walking, documenting and photographing the whole trail. The goal was to see what kind of infrastructure and improvements are needed, where the challenges are, collecting marketing material for the months to come and consulting with locals. These locals are called “champions”, since they know every nook and cranny of their region and can help immensely in developing this trail and turning it into the best possible experience for everyone involved.
Upon arriving in Tjentiste, a little village marking the entrance to the national park area, we recuperate from the long and twisty drive through the mountain roads at the Tentorium Restaurant with a “Bosnian Breakfast”, which is straight up Rakia, the preferred alcoholic drink of the region, accompanied by lots of laughter. Afterwards, we bundle up again and drive up the slopes of Mt. Maglić to try and catch a glimpse of the Perućica Forest Reserve, one of the last two remaining primeval forests in Europe, which is thought to be about 20’000 years old. At this point, I do wish the weather was better, since the mist covers what usually would be an incredibly impressive landscape. Luckily, I have Elma’s wonderful photos, to show you the true potential of the trail and the views that can be enjoyed along the way.
After our short stint in the forest, we pile back into the jeeps and drive up even higher and soon the rain turns into a true snow storm. It’s my first snow-experience of the year and everyone in the car gets pretty excited at the prospect of chucking a few snowballs at each other. We decide to park the jeeps on a little raise and climb a small tower to get a better overview of the landscape. As we stand atop the tower, wind howling around us and snowflakes catching in our hair, Tim and Kenan explain their vision of having three trails: the White Trail, following the highest peaks of the Dinaric Alps, the Blue Trail, which winds it’s way along the coastline of the Adriatic Sea and the Green Trail, an easier trail passing through the rich conifer forests on the green eastern slopes of the mountains. The trails are obviously fittingly named, as I stand on the White Trail, looking out over a landscape turned white by snow.
The snow storm soon chills us to our bones and we decide to head back to the jeeps and drive down into the valley again to warm up with a hearty meal and another round of Rakia back at Tentorium. Our second venture out into the Sutjeska National Park leads us to the Zelengora Mountain, the less rugged side of the park, where Tito’s former bungalow is located on the shores of the peaceful Donje Bare Lake. Back then, it was apparently a lot less peaceful, as Tito used to shoot at the wildlife, that used the lake as a watering hole, from his front porch. But for our visit, it is a winter wonderland. It still hasn’t stopped snowing and by now there is a good few centimeters covering the ground and everything around us. We don’t stay long, as it is getting dark and we have a long drive to Sarajevo ahead of us. But it was a beautiful and fitting conclusion to what was a highly informative and interesting trip into the Dinaric Alps.
Here are some of Elma’s wonderful photos, collected on their three month trek across the length of the trail: