Europe’s Final Frontier
The long walk to unity, cultural authenticity and sustainability on the Via Dinarica.
By Olivia Burton
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]renj Mountain was a dramatic landscape of jagged limestone and dolomite peaks brushed with wisps of fog. Tiny purple wildflowers fought their way towards the sun through patches of snow, speckling the emerald grass. In the valley, an empty sheep pen awaited the return of nomadic sheepherders.
Tim Clancy, an ecotourism expert and founding member of the Via Dinarica, invited myself and three other Globalist reporters on a hike to Prenj. He calls the mountain the heart of the Via Dinarica, a new megatrail in the Balkan Peninsula spanning Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Slovenia.
Clancy moved from the United States to Bosnia in 1992 to help with relief efforts in the Bosnian War. He now lives in an ecohome outside of Sarajevo working as a freelance writer. That day in May, we helped him bring climbing gear and food to Hendrik Morkel, a Finnish adventure journalist of the blog “Hiking in Finland,” and Via Dinarica project manager Kenan Muftic, a mountaineer and demining dog trainer from Sarajevo.
It was raining during the drive and still drizzling at the beginning of our hike. After a few minutes of walking, the rain cleared, and a steady, crisp wind began to blow the fog over the mountains. The trees gradually thinned out, opening up to show a panoramic view of the vast green valley below. Still partly shrouded in clouds, Prenj towered over the far end of the valley.
Encouraged by the view, we climbed down into the valley where we joined Morkel and Muftic for a lunch of bread, cheese, apples, and homemade Bosnian pastries. Meanwhile, the sun began to burn off the remaining fog so that we could see the summit of Prenj, capped with snow at almost 7,000 feet.
With the motto of “Connecting Naturally,” the Via Dinarica crosses more than physical borders in the fragmented Balkans. By uniting hikers, environmental agencies, tour operators, bed and breakfast owners, local villagers, and even governments with a common vision, the Via Dinarica preserves traditions, protects natural resources in the Balkans, and helps to heal old wounds. All with the simple act of walking.
In the town of Umoljani on Bjelašnica Mountain outside of Sarajevo, Via Dinarica hikers can stay in a guesthouse, eat traditional Bosnian food, and hear the legend of a dragon that carved a nearby stream with its tail while chasing a horseman. Supposedly, the local imam eventually defeated the dragon while villagers prayed on a nearby hillside.
The small village is also home to a modern legend that took place during the Bosnian War. The Serbian Army destroyed hundreds of mosques across the country during those years. But in 1993, when they took control of much of Bjelašnica and began burning the houses of Umoljani, they spared the village’s 500-year-old mosque. Years before the war, a Serbian officer, desperate to cure his son after doctors in Belgrade and Sarajevo failed to heal him, took his son to the mosque in spite of their Orthodox faith. After the hodža, or priest, cured the mysterious illness, the officer later saved the mosque from destruction during the war.
At Koliba, a restaurant in Umoljani, the bartender showed me a laminated picture of the “dragon” stream that she keeps near the bar to show visitors. The legend of the dragon and the legend of the mosque frequently draw visitors to the village, where they find remnants of Old World Europe in the dramatic vistas, traditional houses, and hospitality.
A short hike from Umoljani is Lukomir, the highest and most remote village in Bosnia. Stećci, large medieval tombstones, suggest that the area has been inhabited for hundreds of years.
Unfortunately, the Bosnian War took its toll on many of Bosnia’s small villages.
“A lot of these places are severely depopulated, and the young people have left because they don’t think they have a lot of opportunity for themselves,” said Clancy.
Lukomir is currently closed five months per year because of snow, and in 2014, the village was completely abandoned in winter for the first time. The Via Dinarica Project signals a step to revitalize these disappearing areas through ecotourism, but Clancy said that project leaders do not want to disrupt the traditional way of life. Some nights, for example, hikers might stay in more modernized hostels, while on other nights they might stay in an extra cot in a traditional home or in a rustic mountain hut.
“We want the tourists to adjust themselves to the customs and ways of life of the local people,” said Clancy. “I honestly believe that this is going to be the new brand for the region and I think it’s going to give people in rural areas a new opportunity to make a living for themselves in a sustainable way.”
Ecotourism in the Balkans
The Balkans’ rich culture and history are the primary reasons tourists travel to the region, according to Lejla Brčkalija of the Tourism Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Visitors interested in the history of the war will find Sarajevo’s buildings and streets still pockmarked from bullets and mortars, and street vendors sell pens and model tanks made out of empty shells. “Many come having the idea that they will see war tourism, and they leave having seen a hospitable country with beautiful scenery,” said Brčkalija. “Although cultural and historical tourism is the main motive, untouched nature really leaves a huge impact on both tourists and travel writers.”
But even in the forests, weapons of war serve as reminders of the region’s turbulent past.
Along the logging roads leading to the trail to Prenj, red signs with white skull and crossbones warn travellers to stay on the roads because of mines, remnants of the Bosnian War. Prenj was on the front lines.
Even though the trail does not go through mined areas, the Via Dinarica project continues to work to make sure that the trail is safe.
“We’re working with the defense department, the American military attaches and the mine action center to prioritize certain areas that need to be checked or surveyed,” said Clancy. “If we don’t know, we don’t go,” Clancy explained.
Although mines do not pose a serious threat to Via Dinarica hikers, their warnings serve as physical reminders of a war whose scars have yet to fully heal. But perhaps even more powerful than these physical reminders are the mental scars inflicted on communities by war that have created rifts along ethnic, religious, and political lines. By physically crossing the borders of seven countries and building a network of people and organizations to support the trail, the Via Dinarica helps unify a divided Balkans.
Brčkalija sees the ecotourism model of the Via Dinarica as a way to build a shared regional brand for the Balkans, enhancing visibility for the region as a whole rather than for any one country in particular.
“For the long-term market, Bosnia and Herzegovina is too small,” she said. “When you make a regional project of the western Balkans, it’s more visible and people will want to visit a group of countries rather than just one.”
The creation of a regional brand enhances collaboration among travel agencies and tour operators in the region and promotes a sense of unity among fragmented peoples. Furthermore, by elevating regional awareness of environmental issues, the Via Dinarica and similar ecotourism projects can inspire and catalyze much-needed environmental reforms, as even Bosnia’s few protected areas are not managed sustainably and efficiently, said to Natasa Crnkovic, president of the Bosnian Center for the Environment.
On our trip to Prenj, we drove past a group of illegal loggers who had been stripping the lush forests from the side of the mountain for use as firewood and building material. Although Clancy copied down their license plate number in order to report it to authorities, he had little confidence that the government would change its policy of apathy and ignorance.
“Systematic change needs to happen because the current system is not really bringing any hope,” said Crnkovic of the Bosnian government’s apparent lack of action or concern regarding environmental issues.
Crnkovic believes that ecotourism projects such as the Via Dinarica have the potential to bring about positive changes for environmental protection in Bosnia by linking environmental agencies, locals, tour guides and government agencies.
“Grassroots efforts and government change are both very important and should be somehow harmonized,” she said.
Small Steps, Big Impact
The idea that the basic act of walking can build economies, bridge communities, and preserve history sounds ambitious, but in its few years of existence the Via Dinarica and its mission have already begun to materialize. With their stunning landscapes, connection to Old World Europe and ability to inspire a sense of community among strangers, Prenj Mountain and Umoljani both offered a glimpse of the promise behind the simple idea of the Via Dinarica. And in 2014, Outside magazine named the Via Dinarica the Best New Trail of the year.
The project, supported by the United Nations Development Programme and USAID, is currently in Phase II of its development plan. It includes three trails: white, green, and blue. The white trail, intended primarily for hiking, contains the highest peak of each country it passes through. It is scheduled to be finished at the end of 2015. Meanwhile, project members will assess the green trail, intended for mountain biking and caving. Evaluation of the blue trail that will wind along the coast of the Balkan Peninsula will take place during the development of the green trail.
The Via Dinarica team works to connect the dots between different trails and mountain huts, many of them once part of a Yugoslavian network of trails known as the Transversale. They also work with locals to build and promote the trail’s infrastructure without forcing villages to significantly change their traditional ways of life.
“The Via Dinarica has sprouted up sort of organically in several places, and I think that’s why it’s working and why it has such broad-based consensus,” said Clancy.
A broad-based consensus regarding anything is rare in the Balkans. Strong support for the trail both regionally and abroad testify to the beautiful logic of natural connection. With continued support and development, one day it may rank among the Appalachian Trail, the Via Alpina, and the Inca Trail as one of the world’s top megatrails.
But above all, the Via Dinarica is wild, Europe’s final frontier.
“It is true wilderness, and you can’t find that in many places,” said Clancy.
For more information about the Via Dinarica, visit viadinarica.com.
Olivia Burton ‘18 is an English major in Morse College. Contact her at email@example.com.