Cross coun­try

A new mega-trail through wild up­lands will even­tu­ally link seven Balkan coun­tries. Krithika Varagur walks a stretch from Bos­nia to Mon­tene­gro

The Guardian - Travel - - Green Hostels -

Close to the top of Mount Maglić, on the Bos­ni­aMon­tene­gro bor­der, a deaf­en­ing clap of thun­der rips across rugged Piva na­tional park. The sum­mit of the 2,386-me­tre lime­stone peak is not far away, but with a glance at the dark­en­ing sky, our guide Lorenc de­cides it’s best to turn back.

We weave our way down to­wards per­fectly heart-shaped Lake Trnovačko, just reach­ing a for­est as the down­pour hits. When the storm passes, the view across the val­ley is our re­ward – glit­ter­ing, lu­mi­nous and streaked with post-squall mist. The slopes are lined with tufted grass and a golden ea­gle floats over­head. The scene si­lences us, and we walk in quiet con­tem­pla­tion un­til Lorenc stops us to point out a sign: “Wel­come to Bos­nia.”

There’s no check­point and no fuss – per­haps sur­pris­ing, given the his­tory of these once war-torn Balkan coun­tries. We’re hik­ing part of a new mega-trail – the Via Di­nar­ica – and up here, the con­flicts across the former Yu­goslavia feel firmly in the past. The main artery is the White trail, from Slove­nia to Al­ba­nia – via Croa­tia, Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina, and Mon­tene­gro – fol­low­ing the Di­naric Alps for 1,260km, tak­ing in the high­est peaks. Opened fully in 2017, it has mapped and united old trails, shep­herd paths, royal hunt­ing grounds and mil­i­tary routes, with ac­com­mo­da­tion in moun­tain huts, river­side cab­ins and lodges along the way.

When two fur­ther trails have been com­pleted (blue, along the coast­line, and green, con­nect­ing small vil­lages – see map), the route will also take in Kosovo and Ser­bia, unit­ing seven coun­tries across nearly 2,000km.

It takes about three months to hike the White trail from end to end, but with just seven days to spare I’ve joined a tour with Green Vi­sions, a Bos­nian op­er­a­tor in­volved in the route’s de­vel­op­ment, fo­cus­ing on a stretch across three spec­tac­u­lar con­tigu­ous na­tional parks: Sut­jeska in east­ern Bos­nia, Piva on the bor­der, and Dur­mi­tor in north­west­ern Mon­tene­gro. We hike for an av­er­age of six hours a day, cov­er­ing 64km in six days, with a day off for raft­ing and some road trans­fers to save time.

Our group of 10 meet in Sara­jevo, Bos­nia’s cap­i­tal, about three hours north­west of the trail, and we head to Ho­tel Mla­dost, a lodge with dorms at the edge of

Sut­jeska, our base for two nights. It’s late sum­mer, and the next morn­ing dawns bright and clear as we set off to ex­plore the park, site of the epony­mous se­cond world war bat­tle. On the way we pass Donje Bare – one of many glacial lakes that dot the moun­tains – and a con­crete mon­u­ment to Yu­goslav soldiers who died in the war.

As we be­gin a two-hour as­cent of the 1,858-me­tre Ugljesin, Lorenc points out soft cir­cu­lar in­dents in the hill­side – craters from aerial raids. To­day they are car­peted with flow­ers: fad­ing nar­cissi, pur­ple cro­cuses, fra­grant thyme, mint and oregano. It’s a land­scape that’s easy to love: a col­lage of rolling hills, craggy peaks, squat ev­er­greens and fields of flow­ers that turn gold in the late-af­ter­noon sun.

“Even though all this is in our back­yard, hik­ing is not yet se­cond-na­ture to peo­ple in the Balkans,” says Lorenc, a former Yu­goslav boy scout. The Via Di­nar­ica, he says, is as much for lo­cals as for tourists and will, he hopes, en­cour­age peo­ple to ex­plore their home­land.

We de­scend at sun­set for a meal of roast meats, ripe toma­toes and gi­ant wedges of fried cheese at the ho­tel. Sleep comes eas­ily, and the next day more hik­ing awaits in Piva na­tional park and the Perućica re­serve – one of the last re­main­ing primeval forests in Europe, thick with 300-year-old Greek maples, firs, spruce and beech. Wher­ever we go we rarely pass an­other soul.

On the third day, we swap land for wa­ter, pad­dling down the elec­tric-blue Tara river through the deep­est canyon in Europe. We raft for three hours be­tween lime­stone walls streaked with mauve man­ganese, dis­em­bark­ing on the steps of the river­side Camp High­lander, where we sleep in tiny log cab­ins. Meals here are a feast, with spi­ral filo pas­tries filled with meat, cheese or spinach (bu­rek or pita), pil­lowy breads with ka­j­mak (clot­ted cream) and aj­var (a red pep­per paste), cured meat and cheese, fresh figs, toma­toes and grapes, and whole-roasted lamb.

Leav­ing Bos­nia be­hind, our route takes us deeper into Mon­tene­gro, where we trek from the Mrat­inje dam across a grassy plateau for seven hours to the edge of Dur­mi­tor na­tional park, pass­ing mys­te­ri­ous, cross-shaped me­dieval tomb­stones. Filmy with sweat, we ar­rive on the doorstep of Dra­gan, a Mon­tene­gran shep­herd who runs Sokolina Guest­house, a small white dwelling on the edge of the canyon, over­look­ing the 96,000-acre park. He re­fur­bished the un­used fam­ily home 10 years ago af­ter learn­ing that it was on the route of a new cross-bor­der trail.

“My friends and fam­ily thought I was crazy – they said no one would come to such a re­mote place,” he tells us. But now he gets vis­i­tors from as far afield as the Philip­pines and Australia.

As the sun­set turns the sky vi­o­let, we drink home­made pear rak­ija (brandy), passed around in a sin­gle glass. The next morn­ing, Dra­gan fries up savoury dough­nuts served with sour cream, washed down with wild oregano tea and strong Bos­nian cof­fee brewed over an open flame. We con­tinue into the park, our back­packs car­ry­ing sleep­ing bags and food sup­plies for the fi­nal days when we’ll stay in rus­tic moun­tain huts.

Over two long days we cover 30km, hik­ing through hu­mid de­cid­u­ous for­est, the im­pos­ing Dur­mi­tor mas­sif our back­drop. We swim in freez­ing, blue­green Škrka lake, sur­rounded by pris­tine spruce for­est and karst cliffs. A herd of long-lashed brown cows join us at our lake­side hut that evening, and a chamois, the re­gion’s el­e­gant en­demic goatan­te­lope, trots down to the wa­ter. There’s no elec­tric­ity so we light can­dles, cook pasta over a fire and share a bot­tle of wine be­fore rolling out our sleep­ing bags.

Six days on the trail pass too quickly, and be­fore I’m ready to leave we’re back in Sara­jevo. I can’t re­sist squeez­ing in one last hike on a seg­ment of the trail near the city be­fore I go: a seven-hour, cir­cu­lar trek to Lukomir, the high­est and most re­mote in­hab­ited vil­lage in Bos­nia. At that windy, tin-roofed set­tle­ment, above a karst canyon, I stop for one last spinach pie.

I re­call some­thing Lorenc said one night on the trail: “Hik­ing in the Balkans still sounds ex­otic to many peo­ple. It’s beau­ti­ful here, of course, but I hope one day it will be an un­sur­pris­ing thing to do.”

Look­ing at this re­mark­able land­scape, I think he will be proved right. But, in the mean­time, I rel­ish the quiet.

• The trip was pro­vided by Green Vi­sions

(green­vi­, whose one-week Via Di­nar­ica tour through Bos­nia and Mon­tene­gro costs €835, in­clud­ing guides, most meals, trans­fers and lodg­ing. It also runs day hikes. Aus­trian Air­lines flies from Heathrow to Sara­jevo from £300 re­turn. See viad­i­nar­ for trail maps, moun­tain huts and other ac­com­mo­da­tion. The main hik­ing sea­son runs from May to Septem­ber. Snow­shoe­ing and other ac­tiv­i­ties are pos­si­ble in win­ter

Re­flected glory The trail passes Donje Bare glacial lake, in Bos­nia

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