Via Dinarica – Europe’s Most Unspoiled Hiking Trail
How can a biking and hiking trail you’ve never heard of possibly be one of the best in Europe? Well, that’s the secret ingredient to the Via Dinarica; it’s one of the most unspoiled trails in Europe. If you love the great outdoors and losing yourself in nature as much as I do, then you’ll know one of the biggest factors that makes a hiking trail truly unforgettable is not having to share it with hordes of other tourists! It really is something truly special when you arrive in a new destination and manage to escape the crowds and find a place just for you. The Via Dinarica trail is one of these special places.
The trail was set up to naturally connect towns, villages, communities and countries that lie along the Dinaric Alps, which run for over 2,000km all the way from Slovenia down to Albania. The project aims to promote sustainable tourism and help develop tourism in the smaller villages and communities in the mountains along the route.
There are so many positive things I could write about my experiences walking and biking along the Via Dinarica Blue trail in Bosnia and Herzegovina that I found it difficult to put into words. Was it the breathtaking nature, the craggy mountains and fast-flowing turquoise rivers that weave their way across the trail? Or the way the trail connects bordering countries so seamlessly it’s often hard to tell where you are as you sit on top an old Austro-Hungarian bunker in Herzegovina looking down on a winding road to Montenegro in one direction and rolling hills that end in Croatia and the shimmering Adriatic Sea in the other direction. Was it the people, and their smiles, and their stories of myths and legends about the mountains and their people, stories that come alive as they tell them and transport you to time gone by? What about the sharp learning curve I found myself on, learning about wild herbs full of medicinal properties, how to predict the weather in the mountains or the mini history lessons I would take in each day. What starts as a physical journey on the Via Dinarica ends up being so much more.
The communities we encountered and the characters within them in places like Neum and Trebinje, producing some of the world’s best quality olive oil or wine or young cheese, all added to the charm. It didn’t matter that they did not speak English, or that they were unprepared for visitors so had to rush home from church to prepare a tasting for us. We had tour guides go out of their way to help us, to entertain us, to teach us and be a friend to us.
A source of adventure
The main reason most people would choose to do the Via Dinarica trail is to feed their appetite for adventure. As one of the most unspoiled trails in Europe, this is one route teeming with opportunities for outdoor adventure. Whether you decide to set off on a 2,000km soul-searching journey on foot through the Western Balkans, or choose to traverse smaller portions of the trail by bike (which is what I did!), you’re guaranteed plenty of action in this pristine wilderness. If you go off the trail, and there’s nothing wrong with that, there are adventure activities abound if you simply ask around. Be it kayaking down the River Trebišnjica, paragliding off a nearby mountain or taking a boat trip in Neum, there’s plenty to do for the adrenaline junkie in you.
A sense of community
Not only does the Via Dinarica successfully encourage people, villages, towns and small communities to band together for the greater good (job creation, promoting tourism, sustainable development) but it is also uniting former Yugoslavian countries that were ravaged by war and cross-border conflict in the past few decades. On a more personal level, regardless of how far you plan to adventure along the trail, you are guaranteed to make new friends along the way. Be it the woman who throws you some ripe tangerines from the tree in her garden as she see’s you walking by, to the man who will cheer you on as you struggle to ascend that wickedly steep hill outside of Hrasno village, there is a real sense of community along the Blue trail that’s impossible not to love. Hiking the Via Dinarica will introduce you to the infinite kindness and warmth of the locals in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and experience money simply cannot buy.
A diverse landscape
While all of the Via Dinarica trail is breath-taking, and our travels through Slovenia, Croatia and Albania helped us fall in love with the Balkans in every way, I found that the nature to be found in Bosnia and Herzegovina was truly striking. From the towering Čvrsnica mountain to the turquoise waters of Blidinje Nature Park, vast plains, ancient monasteries, winding roads that interlace the expansive fields, and tiny churches to be found in the most obscure locations, there is always something beautiful lying around the next corner.
While biking one day we even came across a historical settlement that included a fort that was over 3,000 years old – how few places are there in the world where you can come across an ancient settlement like this by chance?!
Combining history with nature
Another element that makes the Via Dinarica trail unlike any other hiking trail in Europe, or even the world, is that the route combines ancient trading routes, paths used by shepherds and former military routes making it one of the most diverse hiking paths in the world. If you are visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina before the end of the summer months, when the shepherds head back down from their remote mountain settlements, you can even have the chance to take in traditional life as a shepherd and see how this people have lived for hundreds of years. You might even get to befriend a few cuddly Tornjaks, the traditional sheep dog kept by farmers.
Tales from the mountains
Tall tales, myths legends…whatever you wish to call them, you can’t deny you love them. Storytelling is an ancient and much referred tradition in many parts of the world, and I was delighted to see it alive and well in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Not a day went by when I wasn’t told some sort of fun myth or legend, usually involving the mountains and the people who live there. One such legend we were told about was “The legend of Frog Mountain”. The basis behind these myths and legends is that Frog Mountain is a dangerous place. There are no paths and many people who go up never come back down. The first story is one that is told to kids in the area as a way of stopping them from exploring by themselves. The story goes that there’s a snake on the mountain that turns into a dragon every seven years to chase people away. The second story, a real one apparently, is that of two brothers who climbed the mountain regularly as kids. They then moved to the United States for many years and upon returning to Bosnia and Herzegovina when they were old men they again decided to climb Frog Mountain but they could not find their way down and sadly passed away on the mountain. Yet another warning not to go wandering!
Discovering the charms of the Via Dinarica trail was most definitely one of the highlights of my two month trip through the Western Balkans. The warm people I met, the beautiful places I travelled through and the natural beauty I encountered will ensure that Bosnia and Herzegovina will forever be in my mind and in my heart.
In the words of Arnie, “I’ll be back”.