Hiking a new mega trail in the Balkans (2023)

CAt the top of Mount Maglić, on the border of Bosnia-Montenegro, a deafening thunder cracks through the rugged Piva National Park. The summit of the 2,386-meter limestone peak is not far away, but with one look at the darkening sky, our guide Lorenc decides it's best to turn back.

We descend to the perfect heart-shaped lake Trnovačko and enter a forest when the rain falls. When the storm passes, the view of the valley is our reward - bright, luminous and mist-blasted. The slopes are flanked by tufts of grass and a golden eagle hovers over their heads. The scene silences us and we walk in silent contemplation until Lorenc stops us and points to a sign: “Welcome to Bosnia”.

balkan map

There is no checkpoint and no confusion - perhaps surprising given the history of these once war-torn Balkan countries. We walked part of a new mega trail – theVia Dinarica– and here the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia seem a thing of the past. The main artery is the White Trail, which runs from Slovenia to Albania - via Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro and will soon extend to Kosovo - along the Dinaric Alps for 1,260 km, encompassing the highest peaks. Fully opened in 2017, it has mapped and assembled ancient trails, shepherds' paths, royal hunting grounds and military routes, with accommodation in mountain huts, riverside houses and inns along the way.

When two more trails are completed (blue, along the coast, and green, connecting small villages - see map above), the route will also lead to Serbia, which unites seven Balkan countries.

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It takes about three months to walk the White Trail from end to end, but I joined a tour with just seven days to spare.Green Visions, a Bosnian operator involved in the development of the route, which focuses on a route through three spectacular contiguous national parks: Sutjeska in eastern Bosnia, Piva on the border and Durmitor in northwest Montenegro. We hiked an average of six hours a day and covered 40 miles in six days, with a day off for rafting and a few road transfers to save time.

Our group of 10 meets in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, about three hours northwest of the trail, and we head to the Hotel Mladost, a dormitory on the outskirts of Sutjeska, our base for two nights. It's late summer and the next morning dawns bright and clear as we set out to explore the park, site of the eponymous battle in World War II. On the way, we pass Donje Bare - one of the many glacial lakes that dot the mountains - and a concrete memorial to Yugoslavian soldiers who died in the war.

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As we begin the two-hour climb to 1,858-meter Ugljesin, Lorenc points out smooth circular indentations in the slope – air-raid craters. Today they are studded with flowers: faded daffodils, purple crocuses, fragrant thyme, mint and oregano. It's a landscape that's easy to love: a collage of rolling hills, craggy peaks, squat evergreens, and fields of flowers that turn golden in the late-afternoon sun.

"Although it's all in our backyard, walking is still not natural for people in the Balkans," says Lorenc, a former Yugoslav boy scout. Via Dinarica, he says, is for locals and tourists alike and, he hopes, will encourage people to explore their homeland.

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We went down to the hotel at sunset for a meal of roast beef, ripe tomatoes and huge chunks of fried cheese. Sleep falls easily, and the next day more hikes await you in Piva National Park and Perućica Reserve - one of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe, dense with 300-year-old Greek maples, spruces, spruces and beeches. Wherever we go, we rarely pass another soul.

On the third day, we trade land for water and paddle the electric blue Tara River through Europe's deepest gorge. We'll raft for three hours between limestone walls streaked with mauve manganese and disembark on the steps of Camp Highlander on the riverbank, where we'll sleep in small log cabins. Meals here are a feast, with spiral-shaped puff pastry pockets stuffed with meat, cheese or spinach (BurekorPita-Brot), pillow-type breads withCreme(milk cream) andAjvar(pepper paste), sausages and cheeses, fresh figs, tomatoes and grapes and whole roast kid.

Leaving Bosnia behind, our route takes us deeper into Montenegro, where we walk seven hours from the Mratinje Dam across a grassy plateau to the edge of Durmitor National Park, past mysterious cruciform medieval tombstones. Drenched in sweat, we arrive at the doorstep of Dragan, a Montenegrin shepherd who runs Sokolina Guesthouse, a small white house on the edge of the gorge overlooking the 96,000-acre park. He renovated the family's abandoned home 10 years ago after learning it was on the route of a new cross-border hiking trail.

"My friends and family thought I was crazy - they said no one would come to such a remote place," he tells us. But now he welcomes visitors from the Philippines and Australia.

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As the sunset turns the sky purple, we drink homemade pearbrandy(aguardente), passed in a single glass. The next morning, Dragan fries hearty donuts, served with sour cream and washed down with wild oregano tea and strong Bosnian coffee brewed over an open fire. We continue into the park, our backpacks carrying sleeping bags and groceries for the last few days as we'll be staying in rustic mountain cabins.

In two long days we covered 30 km and walked through a humid deciduous forest, with the imposing Durmitor massif as a backdrop. We swim in the icy blue-green lake Škrka, surrounded by spruce forests and karst rocks. That night, a herd of brown cows with long whips joins our lakeside cabin, and a chamois, the elegant goat antelope endemic to the area, trots to the water. There's no electricity, so we light candles, cook pasta over the fire, and drink a bottle of wine before rolling out our sleeping bags.

Six days on the trail goes by very quickly, and before I'm ready to leave, we're back in Sarajevo. I can't resist planning one last hike on a section of the trail near town before heading out: a seven-hour circular hike to Lukomir, Bosnia's highest and most remote inhabited village. I stop for one last spinach pie in this breezy, tin-roofed settlement perched over a karst gorge.

I remember something Lorenc said one night on the way: “Hiking in the Balkans still sounds exotic to many people. It's beautiful here, of course, but I hope one day it won't be a surprise."

Looking at this remarkable landscape, I think he will be right. But in the meantime, I'm enjoying the silence.

The trip was arranged byGreen Visions, whose week-long tour of Via Dinaricathrough Bosnia and MontenegroCost€835 including guide, most meals, transfers and accommodation.It also takes day hikes to places likeLukomir-Dorf(45€).australian airlinefly from Heathrow to Sarajevofrom €300 round trip. To seeviadinarica.comfor trail maps, mountain huts and other accommodations. The main hiking season runs from May to September. snowshoes on youOther activities are possible in winter

Looking for inspiration for a walking holiday? Browse The Guardian's selection of walking tours atguard holidayswebsite

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