Hiking the Balkans: Via Dinarica, Montenegro

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.

The hike in Montenegro was a part of my 21-day super-long-distance-trekking-bonanza that started in Bosnia and Herzegovina; that’s why the numbering starts at 14. You can read all about the Bosnia sections here and here, and earlier VD hikes in Croatia here and here.

DAY 14.

Piva dam to forest, 6 km

My journal entry opens with these words: ‘So today was a very “welcome to the Balkans” kind of a day.’

I get the 11 a.m. bus from Foča, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Mratinje, Montenegro, where I know I can pick up the trail again. It says Mratinje on the ticket. The driver checks it. I even ask him about it.

I’m pretty engrossed in Cheryl Strand’s Wild, so I’m not really paying much attention to our route. I do notice us crossing the Piva canyon, though, and that makes me a little worried since I know Mratinje is on the other side. Checking the map on my phone, I see that we are definitely not going to cross back. I go to ask the driver who tells me that, actually, this bus does not go to Mratinje.

I get off in the next possible town. It is a good thing, since now I can withdraw some euros. It doesn’t take me too long to hitch a ride back up the road with some Turkish students who drop me off by the bridge. The trail is easy to pick up from there.

When past Dinarica hikers tell you that the ascend from Piva is one of the hardest they’ve ever done, BELIEVE THEM. Nothing you can do to make it easier – the only way is up. The trail is very narrow and steep. While I’m struggling up, up, up, I thank my lucky stars and a few extra gods that it’s not raining. I have these cartoonish images of myself comically slipping in mud and sliding all the way down to the bottom of the canyon.

The reward for a steel-thighed hiker is the vast Piva plateau that spreads out on like the frosting on a cake. (If only cakes were green.) Stone-build farmhouses dot the rolling expanse of green fields, and in the horizon, I can vaguely see the first grey peaks of the Durmitor national park.

 Montenegro might be tiny, but it packs a lot of punch in its size, and it’s an amazing destination for any outdoor junkie.

An elderly couple at a farmhouse lets me fill my bottle from a tap on their yard. I have debated asking them if I could pitch my tent on their grounds but in the end my Finnishness wins over and I just thank them and flee the scene. There are lots of good camping spots in the pine forest after the village, though. Even one dilapidated house that looks so severely haunted that I don’t even dare go investigate.

I set up camp on the edge of the forest. As I’m sitting in my tent journalling and sketching, a curious fox creeps by, stopping to stare at me for a fleeting second.

Today I have felt a strange tinge of something new: excitement for something undiscovered, like anticipation of something great to come.

I feel good.

DAY 15.

Forest to Nedajno, 19 km

I feel tired and sluggish today. My feet are just dragging the rest of my body along. I feel sick, almost nauseous. Maybe it’s from the sun. Little twinges of pain travel up my body: down my shin, across the neck, through the hand that holds the walking stick. How broken do you have to be that even your hands hurt??

What makes me feel even worse is that the trail is easy today – 19 kilometres of asphalted road that should take no more than a hop and a skip to conquer. There are loads of wooden benches along the road; I sit down at each one I see and nap against my hands. I open Maps.me over again, calculating the kilometres left again, but they drag by slowly like torture.

Just a few kilometres before arriving in Nedajno, it starts to drizzle. I’m walking in the cover of a pine forest, too tired to note the rain starting and stopping intermittedly.

My arrival in the village of Nedajno is accentuated by an ominous sight: the first thing that I see is the small church with a graveyard in front, guarding the perimeter of the village like a gargoyle. Black clouds crouch above the peaks that fringe the village. As I walk in, hunched under my backpack, thunder rumbles.

Luckily, Nedajno Guest House has space for me inside – I don’t feel like camping today. The bed is uncomfortable: the springs poke me in the back, and the room is chilly. I curl up under a blanket, dig out the rest of the sweets I’ve got left in my trail mix and put on some episodes of Brooklyn 99 I’ve downloaded on Netflix.

After a few hours of rest and a hot shower, I feel more like a human again. The dining room is almost full of people but I prefer to take my dinner alone in the corner, sipping home-made blackcurrant juice and trying to connect to the capricious wifi. I’m so used to being the only person on the trail that the sight of other people feels strange. I feel like a ghost moving around the living.

I’ve finally reached the foothills of the Durmitor national park, the most popular hiking spot in Montenegro.

DAY 16.

Nedajno to Skrčko Lake, 13 km

The trail today is easy: half of it downhill road walking, the other half pleasant, shady forest trails before starting the steep climb up to the Skrčko Lake. I’ve arrived in the Durmitor National Park, and its popularity is unquestionable. When I take a break at the ranger’s hut before entering the park – and after paying the 3-euro entrance fee -, two shiny Volvos park in front of the hut and out hops a family with small children and a grandmother in tow.

Solitude here is not only unguaranteed but almost impossible to find. In moments like this I feel almost isolated; these day hikers have no clue how far I’ve already come and they look at my bags and ragged clothes curiously even though they smile at me.

When I arrive at the lake, multiple tents have already popped up in front of the mountain hut like large, colourful mushrooms sprouting from the ground. The ranger is a quiet, surly man who doesn’t speak any English: he writes 6.60 e down on a piece of paper and when I nod and smile, he shows me to a two-person room in the first floor. Camping would have been half cheaper but I figured, if I can stay in, I should stay in.

My decision turns out to be right; not half an hour after I’ve settled, the sky opens and batters the surroundings with incessant rain. People run around securing their tent flaps and gather around the kitchen table inside the hut. I’m the only solo traveler out of the bunch and to be honest, feel slightly misplaced. While these are backpackers too, I feel like I am the odd one out. While everyone is friendly and exchange some words with the people around them, they mostly stick to their own little groups.

After dinner, I retire to my room, wrap myself up in a sleeping bag and write.

DAY 17.

Skrčko Lake to Žabljak, 14 km

While the official Via Dinarica trail takes a different route, I’ve decided to divert to a popular detour: the route climbs up Bobotov Kuk which at 2,523 metres is the tallest peak in Durmitor, and the second tallest peak in the whole Montenegro.

The cows grazing by the hut cast curious looks at me leaving the hut. Early in the morning, the emerging sunlight lends the landscape a golden glow, but hiking up the side of the mountain, the shady areas are still cool. Almost immediately the trail starts to climb up. Safety ropes have been set at the steepest or most narrow spots, and  I take good care to advance slowly, carefully. One misstep could have me tumbling down the steep slope, falling seemingly forever. The sharp-backed peaks surrounding Bobotov Kuk keep a watchful eye on me on the background.

the “trail” is sometimes vertical

The climb up is only approximately 4 kilometres but it takes a few hours to work my way there. I leave my backpack at a junction on the bottom of the peak; I’ll climb the remaining 500 meters without it. I’m not the only one with the same idea. Temporarily abandoned backpacks lie around in neat rows with their brightly-coloured rain-covers on – just in case. Some hikers are sitting around eating biscuits, clearly already having mastered the feat.

It takes some more scrambling on my hands and knees to reach the top but when I finally get there, a magnificent view opens up in front of me. Below I can make out the irregular blue oval of the Skrčko lake and a tiny dark dot that must be the mountain hut where I spent the previous night. Turning to the right, I can already see my destination: the town of Žabljak, small but with its robust man-made structures fiercely out of place in the middle of this fantastical world of sharp, pale mountains.

The way down is gruelling. Down a slope slippery with stones that slide under my feet, through a field of boulders where the familiar red markers lead me from rock to rock, then thankfully changing into a narrow, grassy path that descends gently into a green mountain valley. Pine forests up here have had to give way to squat, scraggly patches of dwarf pines.

I arrive in Žabljak at sunset. I turn to take one last look at the Durmitor mountains behind me, now silhouetted against a pink and purple sky. While there are countless guest houses, hotels, motels, mountain huts and campsites in this town that most visitors to the Durmitor use as a base, there is just one hostel in town – Hiker’s Den – and that’s where I head to book two nights.

Tonight, a sense of accomplishment follows my steps. I walk lightly, gingerly, without the weight of my pack. I’ve done some calculations and realised that counting together the trails I’ve done in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro this summer, I’ve passed the 500 kilometre marker yesterday.

Amazing.

DAY 18.

Žabljak, 0 km.

I booked a flight home today.

I only have six weeks left. It sounds like a long time but then considering how much there is still to see, I get restless and start to worry that it isn’t enough. The days are getting colder now. As I’m moving south, I kind of just expected summer to last, but seeing green turn to yellow here has made me realise that it’s almost over. Bushes that were heaving with raspberries, blueberries and blackberries in Bosnia are dried and withered here. When I camp out, I sometimes shiver in my sleep.

Žabljak is a good place for a rest day. It has a big supermarket that stocks everything I need and more, and cheap restaurants that offer large, hearty Montenegrin meals. Meat-heavy, true, but needed after a few long weeks of hiking.

It makes me kind of sad to know I only have three hiking days left.

DAY 19.

Žabljak to meadow via Zminičko jezero, 22 km

Off we go again!

The last leg of the hike treats me gently. After leaving Žabljak, the trail turns into a wide gravel path that passes by small farmhouses and herds of cows grazing peacefully in their green pastures. The land is flat and the sun is out, and I take my time strolling along. The people who occasionally pass by smile at me.

I take a break at the town of Njegovuđa. The tiny village has barely enough people to support its two general stores and one bar-hotel; in fact, the streets seem more populated with cows. A few meander past me and stare me down but either decide that I look too scary to attack or that they’re too lazy to do that.

Zminičko jezero turns out to not be the peaceful natural haven that I expected. I round the corner to face a view of a dozen half-built skeletons of holiday cottages dotted across the hill and a crew of men working on them, shouting instructions at each other over the rumble of a small truck that’s idling next to one of the cottages.

There is a narrow wooden bench next to the lake but otherwise it has been fenced off and tagged with an unfriendly sign: PRIVATE. DO NOT TRESPASS. Since the sign is only written in English, I guess it’s been put there to ward off sneaky tourists wishing to camp for free at the lake. Like me.

It’s still early so I decide to keep going for a few hours longer. It starts to drizzle as I pick up my pace and dive into a dense pine forest. The trail follows the foresting route for a few kilometres before cutting through a small pasture and emerging into a vast scape of rolling green meadows and gently upward sloping hills. I walk in the shallow valley between the grassy ridges, the green grass brushing past my ankles, along a snaking path that at times disappears into the grass and then re-emerges a little ways down; mischievous but not deceptive.

When I feel like I’ve walked far enough, I find a flat patch of grass and put up my tent there. It just might be the most gorgeous site I’ve camped at so far: I’m in a small bowl that is protected on all sides by these soft hills. Few pine trees stand around, not enough to make up a forest but enough to contrast the pale greenness of the grass with their dark silhouettes. In the distance stands the collapsed foundation of an old farmhouse; if I stood there, I could see the nearest house, but because it’s behind the ridge, I feel completely isolated in the wilderness.

After dinner, I’m reading in the tent when I become aware of a bright light. A little hesitantly I poke my head out. No, I’m not getting abducted by Balkan aliens; it’s the full moon, huge and bright and yellow, so insistent it penetrates my tent, so sharp in draws dark shadows like at midday. I can almost hear wolves howling. Of course there are no wolves but with a view like this, I almost feel like there should be some.

DAY 20.

Meadow to Zabojsko jezero, 12 km

The plains are beautiful but monotonous. Endless green hills host a network of intersecting trails that seem to have been set out to confuse a poor hiker. Long grass and treacherous tufts make it feel like walking in sand. I’m following the GPS religiously today.

Rain drizzles, dies down, ends. Slim rays of sunshine filter through the dark clouds and disappear as I wade through never-ending fields and meadows.

Tonight I’m staying at Zabojsko lake. There are a dozen brand-new cottages for Via Dinarica hikers, and even though I feel tempted to splurge in double the money to grab one of the super cute A-frames, I settle for a bed in a four-bed dorm for 10 euros a night. I’m alone anyway. There hasn’t been any water on the trail all day so it feels good to fill up my bottle here.

Raka, the owner, doesn’t speak any English but she is very friendly. In a minute, she’s conjured up a huge plateful of cheese, hard meat, apple slices, cucumber and freshly baked bread. For five euros, the dinner’s a steal.

With just one day left, I can’t wait to get to Podgorica now – to publish some new blog content, to dye my hair, and to buy new jeans. Mine have got too big. I’ve got ridiculously slim on the trail. Slim – but strong. With all the mistakes I’ve made (overpacking, not training beforehand), I feel incredibly happy that I’ve managed to walk hundreds of kilometres all by my lonesome.

DAY 21 – FINAL DAY.

Zabojsko jezero to Mojkovac, 36 km

Last day on Via Dinarica.

I leave my little hut at 7.30 in gloomy drizzle. The lady hasn’t woken up yet and I am alone in the world. I slip and slide up muddy hills before the trail turns back to horizontal and starts to snake through meadows dotted by red heathers and slim timothy grass. Groups of white karst rock jut out from the ground like bone breaking through skin. I’ve never hiked in Scotland, but something about this wilderness makes me think of Scottish moors.

The rain has really picked up now; an endless, merciless drizzle, not heavy enough to be a downpour but it is persistent, ever present, slowly but surely drenching me from head to toe until water sloshes between my toes at every step and I curse my decision to leave for the trail and every kilometer still laying ahead of me.

The rain phases out at the same time as the path joins a country road and, to my endless relief, stays on it. Out of nowhere, a thin girl, maybe twelve or thirteen, appears on the trail and starts to walk with me. A man working the field up the hills hollers at me and I ask her if that is her father but she tells me no.

‘Germania?’ the man shouts at me.

‘Ne, finska’, I respond. Relying my nationality has become so common in this land where I don’t speak the language that ‘Finska’ has almost replaced my actual name.

‘Super’, he responds grinning, and goes back to work.

She points at my hopelessly soaked shoes. ‘Feet water?’

I laugh. ‘Da.’ Very much so. After almost 600 kilometres, the toes of the shoes have curled up into a broken smile, and the sides are starting to come apart. I’d heard of through-hikers sending themselves a second pair of shoes halfway – I now understand why.

I point at the girl’s shoes; she’s wearing pink rain boots. ‘Your shoes are so much better.’

I didn’t think she would understand, but she gives me half a smile. I think she agrees.

She follows me into the village where we’re greeted by the booming barking of large sheep dogs. Luckily, they’re tethered. ‘Ruzica?’, I ask the girl, but she doesn’t give me a straight answer. Like many locals, she doesn’t answer questions with a simple ‘da’ or ‘ne’ but rattles more of her incomprehensible language to me. She smiles, says goodbye, and sprints out to meet her friends.

I’m pretty sure the village is Ruzica, though.

Thankfully, the trail continues following the wide country road. It’s my longest day of walking and I really don’t feel like getting lost in unmarked underbush today. My bag has got so heavy, or maybe my body is breaking down under it. Every time I lift it up, or move my head, or roll my shoulders, a sharp pain shoots through my spine like a lightning bolt.

I stop at an intersection about seven kilometres out of Mojkovac. The low-lying sun reflects off a road sign and into my eyes like it never had even rained this morning. I sit there for a while, marveling at how far I’ve come. As I start walking, a passing driver stops to ask me something, maybe offering me a ride into town, but since he’s speaking Montenegrin, I can’t be sure. I just smile and wave him off. I want to savour these last kilometres of the trail.

An hour later I bitterly regret that decision.

One of the previous hikers described the end of the trail with words: ‘The last part to Mojkovac is a mystery.’ I already knew based on previous comments that the GPS trail would just lead to a telephone tower where the trail comes to a dead end, so I’ve tried following the red-and-white markers but I’ve quickly lost them in a dense forest where I can barely find my way back up to the known trail. Just 2,5 kilometres from town – so close I can see it from uphill – I’m hopelessly lost, and the light is fading.

That seems to be a common nominator to many of my Via Dinarica adventures.

I trace my own steps back to an earlier junction of the trail and the C1 bike path. It’s way longer and doesn’t lead directly into Mojkovac, but it’s clearly marked and impossible to lose so I take it. As the shadows in the forest around me grow deeper and darker, I start singing everything I can think of, from Beatles to Maroon 5 to Disney to keep the real and imaginary beasts at bay. I’m not skittish but the pitch-black forest seems too alive, too alert.

There is a little roadside hotel at the end of the trail. I could try hitchhiking into town but the traffic is scarce and the only light comes from the diminishing moon. I’m ready to pay the 30 euros for a night but the receptionist takes pity on me and lets me get away with 20.

When I get to my room, I am almost too exhausted to stand up. I peel off all my clothes and wash off the trail. There is a bruise on my hip where the water bottle has been leaning, and two ugly red welts on my shoulders to mark where the backpack has sat. My shoulders have been taking more and more weight as the trail has gone on; for a few days now, even at its tightest the hip belt of my backpack hasn’t been tight on me anymore.

I look at myself in the mirror and barely recognize myself. My face is sharper now, more refined: so are my eyes, two globes that glisten with fire. They’re full of confidence of a woman who has walked through wilderness alone and made it through. In the hotel room mirror, I close my eyes and smile.

Hope you have found these VD posts entertaining / informative / funny / inspiring? This was the last section I hiked on the official Via Dinarica route – but wait, don’t go anywhere! I’ve still got a few words to say about the Peaks of the Balkans hike, a future extension to the VD route, but that’s a story for another day.

 

Would you hike Via Dinarica?

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