Hiking the Balkans: Via Dinarica, Croatia, Pt.1

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.

And while all this proved to be true, the trail proved to give so much more. From humbling to empowering, the tiresome kilometres not only took me through breathtaking landscapes with no one else in sight but also helped me dive deep into myself. As I progressed, I found two things to be true: I really liked the trail, and I really liked myself.

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

Follow the trail markings

DAY 1.

Fuzine to Bitoraja hut, 20 km

The gap between deciding to do the trail and actually going on it seemed awfully small. In reality, it had been more than half a year; I had read a blog post detailing one couple’s trek on Via Dinarica, and before I had finished reading it, I was thinking, I could do that. I should do that.

I board the 7 a.m. bus in Rijeka where I spent the last two days preparing for the hike. Or more like having anxiety attacks over how underprepared I was. You had months to prepare, I told myself, why did you have to start planning a day before? Anxiety is a tight knot in my stomach.

I know what I’m doing. I hope I know what I’m doing.

I nod off; when I wake up, I am in Silent Hill. A thick mist surrounds the bus on all sides as it silently glides through the winding little roads. Fir trees leaning onto the road are just dark shadows.

I am the only person getting off at Fuzine. The bus unceremoniously leaves me on a little gas station, and before I even know it, I have started.

The plan was to hitchhike down to Lič where the trail actually starts but it is early and there is no traffic, so I hoist up my backpack and walk the asphalt road for five kilometres. After all, over the next two weeks I was going to hike for over 200 kilometres – what would five matter?

Asphalt turns to gravel. I pass by sleepy farm houses as the rising sun starts burning through the mist. The last wisps of it float above the road, but by the time I am out of the town and take a left onto a dirt road, it has cleared and given way to a bright, hot day.

That’s where I hear the first satisfying beep from my hiking GPS. I prop my camera up on top of my water bottle – precarious and reckless – and set it on delay to take a picture of myself, arms outstretched, like embracing the trail ahead.

I’M ON THE TRAIL!!

Walking is easy on this first day. The trail ascends modestly through thin pine forest, rising above the tree tops every once in a while to grant me a view of the farm land below. As the day progresses, I lose all sight of man-made structures. All that opens up below my feet are rolling green hills and fir trees.

By the end of the day, my back is hurting, neck and shoulders are sore, and my feet ache. But in my mind there’s only victory. I’m doing this! I’m really doing this!

I’m spending my first trail night in a hut by the Bitoraj peak. The door is jammed but I manage to shoulder it open. If it ever was a hiker’s hut, it isn’t that anymore: tools lean against the wooden walls or hang from hooks, buckets and plastic sheets littering the narrow side tables. There is a table and two sturdy benches, and on the floor three couch cushions. I spread my sleeping mat on them, thankful for a soft place to rest.

Sleep will not come. Even above the soothing music I have put on, I can hear the little scrapes and scratches on the walls, and I wonder if it is animals or trees scraping against the hut. Uninvited, a spooky story that had scared the shit out of me as a kid shoots into my mind and splashes everywhere. It’s a story of a hunter who gets lost in the forest in the dark but comes across a little cottage and decides to spend the night there. He feels uneasy going to sleep, though, because there are paintings of angry faces on the walls. In the morning, he wakes up and realizes that there are no paintings, only windows.

I toss and turn and avoid looking at the windows behind me. I can’t shake the feeling that I am trespassing, like the owner of the hut is going to burst through the door in the middle of the night and be enraged to find a lost little Finnish girl sleeping in his workshop. I crawl out of my sleeping bag to move the two axes away from the door.

That first night I fall asleep buried deep into my sleeping bag – if I can’t see them, they can’t see me – clutching my pocket knife in hand like a child clinging onto a teddy bear.

First peak conquered!

DAY 2.

Bitoraj to Tuk village, 16 km

I wake up the rumbling roar of thunder. It’s pouring; I can hear rain beating the roof and overflowing over the edges in rapid little waterfalls. I am still exhausted from a bad night’s sleep, so after breakfast I wrap myself back into my bright red sleeping bag and go back to sleep.

When I wake up again, thunder has stopped, but the rain still beats on. I also have a visitor. The dormouse, or puh, is a notorious pest to all Via Dinarica hikers. This cute little animal looks like a love child of a squirrel and a mouse, but do not trust him: he will chew through anything to get to food. I have hung up mine from the rafters but I worry that he might still be able to acrobat himself into the bag, so I pack my stuff and embrace myself for the oncoming storm.

When people think of Croatia, they think of beaches. Sun. Mediterranean. Warmth. Girls in sundresses holding onto big hats.

I never guessed I would be so cold in Croatia.

These parts are known for strong Bura winds that can turn any summer’s day into autumn chill in seconds. Within fifteen minutes, my shoes are soaked through, and the wind is throwing rain left and right. I can’t stop to even look at the map or to snack; if I stop, the windchill gets to my bones, and I will be a shivering mess. So forward, forward, only forward, as water starts to creep up my sleeves and sneak down my neck.

But as all good things come to an end, so do the bad ones. Rain eases until it disappears, and in the afternoon, the sky clears and a few shy rays of sunshine creep through. I arrive at my destination, a mountain hut in the village of Tuk, with water splashing around my shoes.

The hut is bigger than I expected: three floors build into a sturdy log cabin, its front door open like an invitation. A tour bus is parked outside. I throw a hungry look at the vending machine that stands next to the entrance but it’s empty.

I haven’t seen another human since I got off the bus at Fuzine yesterday, so the crowd at the bar takes me by surprise. Suddenly, all eyes are on me. I ask if anyone speaks English, and the crowd turns to themselves, chattering in dubious Croatian.

One of the men – undoubtedly the one with the best English – says that they have space for me, and would I mind waiting outside for a moment?

I’m not entirely sure why but I comply. As I wait, the man comes out and offers me bread and a schnitzel. Proudly, he tells me he’s made the bread himself and everyone loves it. He talks to me a while about his daughters and what he is going to see on this trip. I tell him it sounds nice. It reminds me of the church trips my grandma likes to take.

For 10 euros (75 kuna) a night, I have a dorm room all to myself as well as running water and showers. I have to hang up everything to dry. I text mum: ‘Still on the right track. Happy midsummer!’

Easter Islands or Via Dinarica?

DAY 3.

Tuk village to Dragutin Hirc hut, 22 km

My shoes are still damp when I tighten my laces and grab my walking stick. The weather is beautiful, though, with the sun rising onto a pure blue sky. What makes me even happier is that a large part of today’s route is going to follow a wide, flat forest road. After two days of roaming through badly unmarked underbush, I am happy to get off a little easy today.

Well. That’s what I thought.

A few kilometres out, a car stops in front of me in a crossroads to drop off another hiker. We exchange a few words before I trudge on. He is likely not any faster than me, but knowing he is walking behind me makes me push on harder, like wanting to show just how tough I am. I’ve been on the trail for just two days and already I feel like the queen of it, just by the merit of having been the only person on it for the whole time.

I don’t mind. I am enjoying my own company. Today I understand why. I was scared of intrusive thoughts: of going to that deep, dark place within myself that I’d sometimes sink into when I spent too much time in my own head, replaying and re-evaluating past events until they’d be so twisted and ugly that I felt like I was consumed by a heavy, dark substance, like shadows, like darkness. But those thoughts have stayed away without any effort on my part. My mind is clear and suddenly I realise that I’m happy.

From Samarski stijene

The trail leads me up Samarski stijene and Bijele stijene, two impressive karst formations jutting out of the deep green forest below. They are just an introduction to the larger karst mountain region that I will enter in two days, but it is nonetheless popular with daytrippers and weekend hikers.

The two peaks are connected through Vihoraski put, a narrow route that two Croatian mountaineers first discovered by following bear trails. It is also notorious in the hiking community for its demanding nature: while the trail is only a few kilometres long, conquering it can take up to five hours and requires some mountaineering experience.

It’s clear that I’m going to pass. Even if I had the time, I am still not surefooted under the weight of my backpack. Luckily, there is an alternate route: back down to the forest road and up again at Bijele stijene. The roundtrip does add some four odd kilometres to the journey but will cut travel time massively.

I soon find out I’ve taken the wrong turn to climb back up. Climbing past the Bijele stijene peak is technical and difficult, and the passage is marked by points too narrow to cross with my backpack on. By the time I get the hut to my sights, battling sunlight, my whole body is screaming for rest, and I am exhausted both mentally and physically.

Then I hear children’s voices.

What the…?

The ranger looks mildly surprised as I barge in with the last light of the day. He is over in Dragutin Hirc for the weekend with his family, and they have taken the route straight up from the car park.

‘It’s just about twenty minutes of walking’, he says.

Great.

He charges me ten euros (70 kuna) for the night and gives me a shot of rakia. The smell of strong alcohol permeates the hut as he pours the drink into smaller, schnapps-sized bottles. I politely refuse to the drink but accept the carrot pie that his wife offers me, munching on it silently as a little boy climbs up and down my seat and leans onto me for support.

There’s also a second hut, Miroslav, right next to Dragutin but hidden by the trees, which is free to stay at and always open. Today, though, I am too exhausted to take one more step.

DAY 4

Dragutin Hirc to Duliba (Zelena) hut, 14 km

I wake up early and get up carefully to not wake up the two guys snoring away in the room. The 6 a.m. air feels chilly; it’s the first time I have to put on my gloves.

I make the climb up to the top of Bijele Stijene, following along the same path I stumbled down the night before and take a new turn to reach the peak. It requires some climbing, but without the heavy pack it’s not too hard. Without the imminent danger of toppling over, I find the challenge exhilarating, exciting.

On one side, forest in deep royal green, the wispy clouds trailing above the landscape. On the other; a fantastical dreamland, the rising sun breaking through clouds in silver beams that hit the valley and the forest shrouded in mist. The view from the top is a perfect 360, and even though I shiver a little, I stay until the sun burns through the clouds completely and the magic is gone.

I set out on the trail after another breakfast of pre-packaged oats and a cup of tea. The trail is in extremely bad condition. I whack through underbrush and step over fallen trees, and without the help of the GPS, I would not be able to follow the rare, faded red-and-white circles. Tired – of the trail, and also just tired – I change routes and take a biking path down the hill. It does mean more walking on the asphalt road but it beats whacking through stubborn Croatian forest for half a day.

I take lunch and an accidental nap against my knees at Stalak, an abandoned ranger station by the road. It’s raining slightly. I hate rain on the trail; my shoes have still not fully dried from the soaking they got two days ago. But no way to go but forward. Unless I hitch a ride with one of the slim, thin cyclists that pass by on the asphalt road in occasional clusters. ‘Bok!’, they yell out a hello as they go. I wonder what the hell would persuade anyone to go and do something as silly as long-distance biking.

Well, look at what you’re doing.

Right.

The path from Stalak to the hut where I’m overnighting is in reasonably good condition, although it becomes confusing towards the end as I turn onto a new forest path by a wreckage of a building. I suspect that might be the old Duliba hut. The new one isn’t in stellar condition either, but it has a roof and a door and unbroken windows, and at this point that’s really all I could hope for.

I’m not alone, either. A forty-something police officer from Zagreb, the very same I saw getting on the trail two days ago, has been walking ahead of me for an hour or so, ever since he passed my slumped figure on the trail and wished me ‘good luck’. I trade my Snickers for his bacon, and we exchange stories from the trail, this one and ones we’ve hiked before.

The hut is divided into two rooms with basic wooden bunks. Zagreb takes the other room as I retire to the other and try my best to wipe away mouse poop before spreading out my sleeping mat. It’s not comfortable, but the thought of getting into town tomorrow – real bed! hot shower! cold Coke! – cradles me into soft sleep.

Duliba hut

DAY 5

Duliba hut to Vratnik pass (to Senj), 26 km

Scribbled in my journal: It doesn’t matter if the turtle or the hare wins the race, as long as both finish.

Excited at the prospect of fresh laundry and running water, I set out a bit before seven, unusually early for me. It’s only been four nights, but I feel like I’ve been on the trail for weeks. And as much as I love the aloneness and peace, my mind spends the day chanting: pizza! pizza! pizza!

At a turn that’s supposed to lead up to the Alino Bilo peak, I choose the bike path that goes around it. It’s a little longer but my mind and body are together refusing any chance of climbing more mountains today. The path is easy and even, almost boring, until I round a bend and see the sea.

It’s my first glimpse of the Adriatic since leaving Pula a few days ago, the first time on the trail, and it’s somehow reassuring. Like knowing I have come to the right part of the trail, the part that I’m supposed to follow. I can’t get lost, theoretically, if I just keep the sea to my right. It threatened rain earlier, but suddenly the sky is blue again, and countless variations of butterflies are flitting from one flower to another. I laugh out loud – because no one is around to hear it, and because the scene is so ridiculously beautiful.

There’s supposed to be water behind an old school in the village of Krivi Put, but as I linger by looking for an entrance, two huge dogs barge at me from the neighbouring house, barking away. They don’t look like they’re there to say hello. I growl at them and they stop on their tracks but continue barking, so I quickly pass by and find a spot further along the village to finish off my trail mix and sit down to book an apartment in Senj.

Mobile reception! How happy can simple things make a person.

From Krivi Put, walking is easy. The asphalted road undulates through Croatian countryside, winding through meadows and forest and country villages, some of which are very much alive, some collapsed into ruin. I am less than an hour from my destination when I come across a field full of sheep. I slow down slightly to look at them, when…

Two more dogs! If the two previous ones were big, these are HUGE. Like miniature bears, and with similar tempers, too. As soon as the shepherd sees me, he grabs his smaller dog, but it doesn’t stop the two bigger ones from attacking me. They come at me from two different sides, barking and snapping at me, like trying to pin me between them to… what? Have me for lunch? I yell at them and strike my stick towards them, inching away but they follow, won’t let me stay, won’t let me pass. The shepherd is trying to help ward of his own dogs but if he has ever held any command over them, he has lost it now. All I know is I need to keep moving forward, forward. The dogs retreat but then they strike again, one coming at me from behind, but when I turn, the other one has circled to my front. Again and again I yell, I strike without hitting anything, the shepherd is trying to put a loop around their necks and drag them away one dog at a time.

And finally, I’m past the meadow, past the point where they won’t follow me anymore. They are still watching, though, and barking, tensing on their back paws like planning to lurch at me again. I only turn back to raise a hand at the shepherd and yell out a shaky “hvala!”.

The section of the trail ends by the highway at a little clearing near the settlement of Vratnik. I’m a few kilometres from Senj, a little coast town that will serve me as a setting for a day of rest and resupply. And pizza.

DAY 6

Senj, 0 km

Senj makes for a perfect day of rest. Last night, after hitching a ride to town, I wandered into the quiet centre and sat down in a nondescript little restaurant. I was the only customer. I ordered cevapici, a local dish consisting of minced meat sticks and onions, but it was bland and hard, almost as if it had been made earlier in the day and then reheated. As I made to leave, the waiter offered to get me a beer on the house, but I was feeling the kilometres, and back at my apartment I lay in the darkness in deliciously clean linen, hair still slightly damp from showering, catching up on friends I’d ignored while I’d been gone.

Today I got up at two in the afternoon. I bought a thing of minicroissants and mandarins and sat in the shade at the central square eating my late breakfast, indulged in the sweetness of stillness. Taking a full day to rest pleased my lazy side but strangely, I missed the trail.

It is peculiar how quickly one can become accustomed to and infatuated with the trail. Even with the weight of my backpack biting my shoulders, slumping my posture, soles of my feet aching and back twisted, I was enjoying the hike.

Sunset in Senj

DAY 7

(Senj to) Vratnik to Oltari, 18 km

Today has been soul-bending. Last night, perhaps nervous about returning to the mountains but more likely just fascinated by all that modern luxuries could grant me, I’d gone to bed late, ignoring the looming 6 a.m. wake-up call. As a result, my feet have been dragging today. It reminds me of the time I was trekking in Peru, similarly with three hours of shut-eye to back me up, and I had to sit down in the light drizzle to fuel up on trail mix so I wouldn’t pass out. That day had been preceded by a great date with a cool guy, but this time I didn’t even have any other excuse other than my own stupidity.

At least the trail in this section is easy. It follows along wide paths and asphalted roads, gently rolling in time with small hills, step by step leading me to higher ground. The Adriatic Sea has been following me all day to my right. Karst stone sticks out of the green grass like frosting. The strong coastal wind runs through tall grass growing between stone, making the plants sway like waves.

After passing two abandoned villages, I know I am close to my destination. In time, too; dark clouds have started to gather, and by the time I open the door to the Oltari hut, slow raindrops have started to fall.

The hut isn’t completely abandoned. Two young French boys, both full of zest of 19-year-olds, arrive a little after me, and an older Croatian couple traversing with their mountain bikes have already taken up two bunks in the dormitory. I pay 84,5 kunas to the grumpy hutkeeper.

The rain has paused for a while, so I wander up the road to catch the sunset. The sky changes colour in time with the sinking sun, orange to faded yellow and deep purple. Wind picks up and makes me shiver. As I turn to leave, a few tentative rain drops fall on my face.

DAY 8

Oltari to Alan hut, 23 km

Today I am getting to the section of the trail that I have most anticipated: northern Velabit, one of the more popular hiking trails in Croatia and frequently praised for its beauty and breathtaking views.

Unfortunately, rain has brought mist in its wake. As I turn from the asphalted road and emerge into forest, straight-backed trees with bark dyed black from the rain rise to greet me. Thick mist circles the dark trunks and hides the end of the trail from sight. Either a mysterious fairyland or a horrorscape, depending which way you want to see it.

I struggle up a small hill slick with fallen leaves and jump a metal barrier to briefly return to the asphalted road. It leads to the ranger’s station that marks the beginning of the Velebit national park. Normally in June the parking lot might be packed, but now it stands empty except for one car that I assume belongs to the ranger.

My shoes are soaked through. The ranger speaks English well enough and lets me into the cabin to warm up a bit after I’ve paid 30 kunas for the entrance. Thankful for the warmth, I lift my wet shoes next to the iron stove. I feel in time with the weather. I dig out my trail mix and only pick out the candies. As I’m contemplating getting back out there, another car pulls up, and two coupes emerge, all of them looking like they’d rather just turn back.

I was hoping the mist would subside as I got to higher ground but no such luck. I take my lunch at Zavizan hut – a Snickers bar and some nuts. The old guy responsible for the hut speaks zero English and makes as much effort to communicate, maybe grumpy at the slim prospect of having paying guests tonight or maybe for that very reason annoyed by my sudden appearance.

It’s only a little after midday. I had intended to stay overnight at Zavizan and explore the peaks around it but with zero visibility, that doesn’t make sense. So I decide to push on, cutting my two intended days in the Velabit into just one.

While today is one of the longer days I’ve done, going has been easy once I shook myself awake from my morning stupor. Due to its popularity, the trail has been worn deep and clear. It runs through more mythical looking forest before curving around bare hilltops and turning to stone. Slim fir trees rise to greet me in the fog, dark and solemn creatures like sketches on blank paper.

As I pass more trees with shredded bark and big piles of dung on the trail, I can’t help but think of the pictures of brown bears I saw at the ranger’s station. In the mist, every tree stump transforms into a wild bear. I start singing through Taylor Swift’s Red to signal bears to stay the hell away.

Alan is a ridiculous name for a hut but I have never been more thankful to see solid wood and windows emerging from the trees as I am today. (Actually, that’s just me every day. That’s what you get for being a slow hiker – you always end up chasing daylight.) As I rush to the door, the French kids greet me from the porch. Turns out they have taken a whole different route to get here but they seem impressed by the length of my unintended detour.

The older couple who runs the hut speak a few words of badly pronounced German but their smiles are welcoming and warm. They gesture me to leave my wet clothes to a room where an iron stove blasting at full heat will surely dry them soon.

I am hungry, damp and exhausted, and for that I reward myself with a two-course meal. First the spinach-cheese soup I’ve carried as an emergency dinner from day one, and then a vacuum-packed risotto I picked up from a DM in Senj. Down here the mist has disappeared but the sunset never quite reaches the house. It just keeps getting darker and dimmer until the windows on the hut glimmer impassable and the forest around us thickens into a looming black mass.

Only then I go back in.

Would you hike Via Dinarica?

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