Hiking the Balkans: Via Dinarica, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Pt. 2

Via Dinarica is a new long distance hiking trail in the Balkans, spanning from Southern Slovenia to Northern Albania with plans to extend to Kosovo and Macedonia. Currently it runs for 1,200 kilometres through 5 countries, connecting mountain ranges, forests and lakes along its wild beauty. For now, the trail is little more than a compilation of separate hiking paths, some of which are barely maintained or badly marked. Via Dinarica is for the adventurous.

Last summer, I solo hiked almost half of this massive trail. As I started out on the biggest hiking trip of my life, accompanied by nothing but lust for adventure and a backpack half as big as me, I expected to explore life in these countries in a way that a regular tourist might not: communicating with locals through a complex game of charades, conquering mountain tops and seeing sights that no tourist bus could get to.

This is the first part of two parts describing the hike in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Hopefully future Via Dinarica hikers will find it useful, and the rest of you will find it entertaining!

Oh and hey, one note! In this journal, I’ll mention the Bosnian war a few times. Since it’s not really relevant to the hiking story, I won’t talk about it much, but if you’d like to learn some more about it, check out this post first.

DAY 7.

Lukomir village to Tušila village, 18 km

I leave the village pretty late. For the 40 Bosnian marks (20 euros) that I paid for my accommodation, I also got a simple breakfast of homemade bread, egg and marmalade, and I didn’t want the family to wake up too early for me. Not that I would wake up early for myself either. I am notoriously bad at mornings and being on the trail has not fixed that. I often set multiple 6 a.m. alarms but end up falling back asleep after turning all of them off.

The trail follows along the Rakitnica canyon for a bit before turning away into thin forest and meadows. A suicidal salamander flashes out of nowhere and I scream when I accidentally step on him, but he is gone as quickly as he came, leaving behind just a splotch of blood. I also come across an adder with a dead mouse in his mouth. My heart seems to jump through my chest. Luckily, he doesn’t seem interested in fighting me for his treasure, and peacefully slithers away. I make sure to stomp extra hard for the next ten minutes.

I arrive at the old Umoljani water mill where half a dozen little cabins act as emergency shelters. The steep descend to the river is the last bit of nature before I start a lengthy road walk. The hot asphalt helps dry my still wet shoes, and the winding road is easy to follow. Every once in a while, a farmer in his car slows down as if wondering what the hell I’m doing there, but they never ask any questions, just drive on.

I take my lunch break in the Bobovica village. As I’m sitting on the edge of the well, snacking on biscuits and trying to focus on the e-book on my phone, a small crowd starts to gather. I give them a smile and a friendly ‘Dobre dan’.

They are very curious as to why a lone girl like me might want to lug her heavy backpack across Bosnia for fun. One of them speaks such great English that I think he must have spent some time abroad. He translates my answers to the gawking crowd, and they smile and murmur approvingly.

‘What do you think of Bosnian men?’ the guy asks me. ‘You shouldn’t continue. You can stay here and we will find you a husband.’

I look at the muddy quad bike he’s riding and the ten-year-old girl squirming in his lap, obviously a daughter from a previous or existing marriage. He’s missing a few teeth and dressed in a dirty sweater. Yup, the man of my dreams.

‘I think I’ll go to Vito first’, I answer and laugh, ‘but if I ever want to live in Bosnia, I promise to come back here first.’

I follow the red-and-white waymarkers from the village and up a steep hill. The climb up to the Vito peak might be gruelling, but every hiker that I talked to praised this section of the trail as unmissable. Soon I am surrounded by tall, straight-backed pines. The trail is soft with fallen needles. It emerges from the forest into small fields bathed in golden sunlight before diving back in. I run into a few groups of locals armed with plastic buckets and berry-picking rakes. Indeed, bushes full of plump, delicious blueberries surround the trail everywhere, and soon my hands are dyed purple from picking them.

The ridge walk to Vito is absolutely gorgeous. Walking the knife-edge with a sheer drop into the canyon on my right and the steep slope on my left is like a deleted scene from Lord of the Rings; but instead of four hobbits, there is only one, and it’s me. Taking myself to Isengard! to Isengard! to Isengard!

Sunlight filters dramatically through dark clouds, bathing the green grass and blueberry shrubs in soft gold. I can hear the thunder rattling the far-away peaks on the other side of the canyon. I fear for a moment that the horror of yesterday might repeat itself, but I reach the Vito peak dry and safe.

I can’t afford to enjoy the gorgeous view for long. It’s already past six, and I have less than two hours of daylight left. The way down is incredibly steep. For a few days now, my blisters have been getting worse, and after ten minutes my feet are on fire. Every step feels like being stabbed through the sole. I try to rest as often as I can, but even when I put my feet up, they never stop hurting. And I can’t afford to take too many breaks; by the time I reach the bottom of the mountain, it is getting dark and the sky above is fading from pink to blue to black.

Towards Vito

I arrive at Dom Vrala after dark. The village of Tušila is barely more than half a dozen houses. The mountain hut is easy to find, though. At first I think it’s closed; all the lights are off, just a faint light like candle light shines through the front window. The lady who takes cares of the hut wakes up when I enter, though, and shows me to a room upstairs.

After a shower, I sit on my bed, clean and exhausted, listening to the Lore podcast and using crackers to eat goulash straight out of the tin. My feet are soft and raw and I can barely walk. Peeling back the old plasters reveals just how horrific my condition is.

Two more days until a zero. Steady feet don’t fail me now.

On the Vito peak

DAY 8.

Tušila via Ljuta village to forest road, 23 km

Everything doesn’t always go as planned. But if you’ve been reading on my Bosnian adventure so far, you already knew it.

I had breakfast with the old lady who’s in charge of the Dom Vrala hut. Her English is excellent, and she showed me pictures of her sons who were both living abroad, in Dubai and Singapore. After the war, many young Bosnians moved abroad to escape the dire economic situation in their homeland.

She tells me she is hoping to retire later that year; that would mean there would be no one to man the mountain hut after she’s gone. Shame, since it’s a great shelter for the hopefully growing number of Via Dinarica hikers.

Early morning

The path today was easy, mostly walking on wide forest roads, so I didn’t rush. Comments by previous hikers said that there’d be a ‘household’ called Oko Treskavice in the Ljuta village where I could overnight. I wasn’t sure what to expect. A guest house? A family stay? A place for my tent in someone’s garden?

Turns out I wouldn’t find out after all. Ljuta was quiet when I walked in. Just one old man, skinny and shirtless, was working in his garden. I stopped to ask him if he knew where the household was.

I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I could decipher the word ‘no’. ‘Boknici Sarajevo’, he repeated.

I run it through Google Translate. “Hospital.” From what I could understand, the man who lived in the household had stepped on a mine and was now in a hospital in the capital.

As sorry as I felt for the family, I couldn’t help but feel a lump growing in my stomach. ‘Ne kamp?’ I asked the man. Nothing before Kalinovik? He shook his head.

Fuck.

July 2019 update: According to a recent VD hiker, the owner of Oko Treskavice has passed away so there is no more accommodation in Ljuta.

Threatening rain

From Ljuta, it’s 24 kilometres to the town of Kalinovik, and there was no way I was going to make it before sundown. The path would keep following the forest road which would mean there wouldn’t be many viable camp sites along the way, and leaving the trail would be no option due to the mine risk – the risk that had just been proven to be very real.

Well, I figured, there must be some place to put up my tent. So that’s how I ended up here, in a gravel pit next to the road above some new-looking houses. There’s a well with good water and a bench near me, and although the ground is hard, there could be worse places to spend the night.

DAY 9.

Forest to Kalinovik, 11 km

I wake up to the sound of a motorbike. The forest road might not experience heavy traffic, but that one bike is enough to shake me awake and pack up camp.

My feet are seriously destroyed. Every step seems shorter than the last one and hurts twice more. I decide to skip the few last peaks of the route and follow the forest road straight down to Kalinovik.

After all the tiny farmer villages I’ve walked through in the past few days, Kalinovik seems like a small metropolis. I walk past a school building on my way into town. It must be summer holidays but there are still a few small boys kicking football on the far edge of the field. Two girls sit at a picnic table near the school entrance, but when I greet and smile, they just stare at me. The name of the school is written above the entrance in Cyrillic letters, and when I walk further into town, I start seeing more signs bearing this incomprehensible alphabet. It takes me a while to realise it: I have walked into Republika Srpska.

The Serbian area of Bosnia and Herzegovina is largely autonomous, and where most Bosnians hold a grudge for the Serbian government because of the recent war, this is the region where the general who committed genocide is celebrated as a hero. The region is ethnically majority Serbian; the blue-white-and-red striped Serbian flags fly on the windows instead of the cobalt and yellow of Bosnia and Herzegovina. When I check into Hotel Moskva, a portrait of Putin stares down at me behind the reception desk.

My room looks like it was ripped straight out of the 70s. The window gives to the main street where there is little to see but sad facades of colourless buildings. A glass ashtray rests on top of a dark wooden table as a reminder of different times.

As soon as I get in, I peel off all my sweaty clothes and sit on the bed in my underwear. Taking off my socks hurts the most; some of the plasters I have wrapped around my blisters have come loose and stick to the fabric inside, and as I pull on the socks, they pull off some skin. I can barely look at my feet. They look horrendous. Pink and raw, like I’d dipped my toes in a very inefficient meat grinder. I count 29 blisters.

I was supposed to have a zero tomorrow but I’ve got to Kalinovik pretty early. I could chill for the rest of the day and get going again tomorrow. Maybe. I don’t know. My feet hurt, and since the hotel claims there is no way to get my laundry done, the thought of slipping back into my smelly, sweaty hiking gear doesn’t appeal.

But there is something weird in the air, like a vague air of hostility or maybe just foreignness, and I feel a little anxious locked up in my little Soviet hotel room.

Kalinovik

DAY 10.

Kalinovik, 0 km.

So I decided to stay. I feel strange. Emotional and delicate, lonely and tired. It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve really talked with another human being. Short encounters on the trail barely count, those where we don’t even share a language even less. I called a friend last night but the connection kept breaking. In the dark, I paced back and worth my room trying to chase the evasive signal like a ghost haunting my own premises.

I guess I’m a little homesick. I’ve been looking at flights home today but I didn’t book anything yet. While I have loved the freedom of the trail, it’s no secret that the Bosnian section hasn’t been easy on me. It has been both physically and mentally more challenging than I expected, and I’m exhausted.

The lady in the corner store knows me already. I’ve been there like three or four times in half a day, every time picking up more fresh peaches and sweet plums or a bar of chocolate and an ice cream. There are three tiny shops in Kalinovik. They are nothing compared to the little markets I’m used to stocking up in, but I manage to buy enough to last me until the next stop.

At least staying here is cheap. Forty Bosnian marks (20 e) for a room with breakfast and a restaurant downstairs. Last night I nursed my self-pity with a big plate of meat – the waiter said it was for one person but honestly, I could have shared and not walked away hungry. I finished every last bit. Tonight I’m having a pizza that only costs me three euros.

Better go to sleep now. Tomorrow’s a long day.

 

DAY 11.

Kalinovik to Stirensko Jezero, 21 km.

As I’m leaving Kalinovik – my blisters somewhat healed, some clothing articles more-or-less clean after two bars of hand soap and a hotel room shower scrub – a dog comes running at me. He’s medium height, brown with a black back, and has a stupidly happy grin on his face.

He jumps against me, his tail wagging so furiously it could power up a small engine.

‘Heyy, girlie.’ I bend down to greet him; for some reason I thought he was a girl. And then: ‘Ouch, play nice, buddy’, as he starts to happily nibble at my fingers.

The dog follows me out of town and to an abandoned-looking petrol station where I stop to take one last look on Kalinovik. Surrounded by grey clouds it looks duller than ever. I snap a few photos of the dog in front of the landscape, then tell him it’s time to go home.

He’s having none of it.

He follows me all morning, past abandoned factory buildings, through pastures surrounded by white line to keep the cattle in and into a spruce forest that somehow reminds me of forests in Finland. When the sun comes out, I’m happy to be in the shade of tall trees.

I decide to name the dog; he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

‘Leia? Artemis? Aphrodite? Nah, you’re not any of those, those are way too pompous for a little thing like you. And I’m not gonna name you like some nerd,’ I say, proceeding to name him like some nerd: ‘You know what? I just finished watching Gilmore Girls. It was pretty good. The reboot not so much. Maybe I should call you Rory. Rory? Hmm. How about Lorelei?’

He turns his head when he hears that, like approving my choice.

Later, when I figure he’s actually a boy, I just choose another Gilmore Girls name and decide to baptise him Jess. Dean was always a little bitch anyway.

The clouds come back as I reach the end of the forest road. The conjunction between the road and the trail is marked by a small parking lot and a large, worn down sign welcoming me to the Sutjenska National Park. A group of men have gathered around one of the picnic tables – quite optimistic, actually, as I eye the gloomy sky – and raising their beer cans, urge me to come sit with them. I smile and wave, and then me and my little trail angel continue on to the great unknown.

It starts to rain.

The Sutjenska National park is a relatively popular hiking area in Bosnia – in fact, it’s the trail narrative from this exact place that first inspired me to tackle Via Dinarica. I run into a group of foreign students who have bells swinging from their backpacks. They warn me against bears near the lake before we continue our separate ways.

It’s easy to lose the way; the trails are well-trodden but there are several networks, and some marking don’t match the GPS trail. Sutjenska is definitely a section where you should be following your GPX route religiously. The ground is uneven, wet grass growing in treacherous tufts that could easily trip an unaware hiker.

By the time I get to the lake, my shoes are soaked but at least the rain has stopped for a while. Jess bounces out to greet three other hikers that have already set up their tents on the marshland by the Stirinsko Jezero.

They are French and seem to prefer to keep to themselves, but they still offer me some cookies as we all gather around the one bench that sits lonesome next to the lake. Because of the grass, it’s the only good place to put up my stove.

There is no sunset, and when the light drizzle picks up again, I wish the boys good night and crawl into my tent. I can make out Jess’ figure a few metres further where he’s laid down for the night.

For the first time on the trail, I wear two layers of clothing to bed. Nights are starting to get colder now.

DAY 12.

Stirinsko Jezero to Donje Bare hut, 19 km

Jess stayed asleep at the lake when I left, and for a moment I thought I’d lost him, but when he came bouncing back I felt childish, overwhelming joy. In just a day I’ve started to love this little dog. I wonder where he’s from.

He’s got a white tag in his ear, so I assumed he must belong to someone. Later I found out, though, that he is a registered stray: vaccinated and well-kept but not really owned by anyone. I’d read stories about sheep dogs like this in the area tagging along with hikers, so it didn’t seem too strange that Jess took a liking to me. I wasn’t even feeding him; I guess he just liked hiking.

The trail runs downhill for the first part of the day through grassy meadows full of small blueberry bushes. I pick them until I’m sick of their sweetness. The weather stays good too, thankfully, even though the sun peeks around the clouds only occasionally.

I have started to realise just how unfit I am for this hike. On the other hand, it should be inspiring how I’ve managed to come this far with my blistered feet and near-broken back; on the other, it’s embarrassing how slowly I am walking. I realise I’m in trouble when the sun starts to set.

There’s no time to even take a snack break. I’m starving. As I rush along the trail, I hear a growl. Wow, I must be really hungry. But then I look up and realise it’s not my stomach, it’s Jess, who’s a good ten metres ahead of me on the trail and frozen in place, growling softly. His every muscle is tensed.

I follow his gaze up.

‘Wait, that’s a bear.’

He’s maybe two hundred metres away. Black and kind of small, I guess, even though I’ve never seen a bear before so I wouldn’t really know how they compare. He has noticed us too. The few moments that he stays in place, staring at me and Jess, seem like a minute although no longer than a couple of seconds could have passed. He takes off in a gallop – in the opposite direction, thankfully. I watch him go, those big, powerful paws hitting the ground as he flees uphill.

‘Jess!’ I call to him. ‘Did you see that?? That was a bear. A BEAR JESS. That was so cool! Look at him! Oh my god, I can’t believe we saw a bear!!’

See that black dot? That’s a bear.

Once my excitement wears off and I’ve rewarded my brave guardian buddy with plentiful pets, we need to keep rushing along. And when the trail turns up and starts climbing up the same hill where the bear disappeared, I have to keep calling out: ‘Heyy, bear, if any of you or your buddies are still here, I’m just passing through, no worries, please don’t eat my face.’

It’s been long dark by the time I get to Donje Bare. A German shepherd comes barking at us as we pass the parking lot, but Jess pays him no mind. He’s such a nice dog; way more well-behaved than most dogs I’ve seen on the trail and endlessly happy.

After dark is definitely not the best time to find out that Donje Bare, instead of being a hiker’s hut, is more like a little mountain house that’s been rented out for a very confused young couple for the whole weekend. I pitch up my tent uphill near a simple picnic shelter. It’s my last night on the Bosnian trail and even though I was looking forward to sleeping inside tonight, there is certain poetry in laying down on the hard ground again.

DAY 13.

Donje Bare via road to Foča, 6 km.

The last day on the Bosnian trail runs downhill through a pine forest. There are no water sources so I’m being mindful about my water. All the time I secretly hope that Jess would finally decide to leave me so I wouldn’t have to White Fang him, and his loyalty breaks my heart as he keeps coming back to me, tail wagging and with that stupid grin on his face.

Since I didn’t know the exact date I would be crossing from Bosnia to Montenegro, I didn’t get cross-border permits. There is no official border crossing on the trail, and while I’ve heard of many people successfully crossing without having their permits checked, I didn’t want to risk it; so I decided to hitchhike up to the town of Foča, resupply there, and take a bus to Montenegro the next day.

Jess follows me all the way down to the asphalted road. I’m so worried he might hit by a car. During these past few days, people have often asked me if he’s mine, and a part of me has started fantasising about taking him home with me. I’ve always been more of a cat person but for Jess, I’d make an exception.

But of course it’s impossible. I have no home – actually, no clue what I’m going to be doing or where in two months. And this is Jess’ home. A sheep dog that loves his hiking life this much would never be happy in some stuffy little apartment back in Finland.

There’s a rest stop about 200 metres up the road where I manage to hitch a ride with a Bosnian man in a rather fancy car. Leaving Jess behind feels like a betrayal. I’ve been telling him all morning it’s our last day together but how could I really explain that to him?

The man doesn’t speak a word of English but I manage to find out that he is 52 years old, has a sister and two brothers who don’t live in the same city as him, and that he sings in a Bosnian folk music band in his free time. (Didn’t get my international communications degree for nothing!) Actually, he does know two word in English. When we get stuck behind a truck going about 10 km per hour, he happily exclaims: ‘Fuck you’ at the truck and digs out a bottle of homemade rakia from under his seat.

‘Bosnia Red Bull’, he says and grins as we both take a swig.

Foča is the biggest city I’ve seen since Mostar. I’m staying for the night at a small guest house to stock up before crossing over to Montenegro tomorrow. I finally get to do my laundry, change into a dress and go out for a big meal in an actual restaurant.

It’s always good to reward yourself with some cheesecake after a long hike.

Epilogue:

Even after finishing the trail ten days later, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jess. I wondered if he made it back into the forest and safely out of the road. I felt a little guilty about leaving him on the side of the road like that.

So I posted a few of his pictures on the Via Dinarica Facebook group and told others to keep an eye on him. Almost immediately, a Dutch hiker who’d been a couple of days behind me on the trail in Croatia, commented on my post. The same dog had followed him for a few days on the same area. But his group originally ‘adopted’ this trail angel from another group, a Canadian couple.

They had originally found the dog by a lake, from where he’d followed them for almost ten days. They decided to name the dog after the place where they met him: as jezero means ‘lake’ in Bosnian, they called him Jez.

What are the chances??

Anyway, if any future hikers come across this goodest of boys, make sure to give him a few pets from me.

 

This is the second part of my 13 days of hiking in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Read the first part here.

Would you hike Via Dinarica?

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