The thing about being a traveller with a penchant for the extreme, is that no one can ever lay down a serious adventure in front of you without immediately jumping up and shouting “challenge accepted!“. That’s exactly how I felt when I was taken out for a taste of the incredible Via Dinarica Trail.
The Via Dinarica offers an experience that would be completely unique to any other in Europe. The potential of trekking across the Balkan states from Slovenia all the way to Kosovo, some 1,000 kilometers through old growth forest, around jagged mountain peaks, and into some incredibly rural villages, perhaps the most enticing part.
One of the true beauties of this trail, however, isn’t even the potential to offer hikers a unique excursion, but the opportunity to bring true development and cooperation to a region of the world that has seen far too much strife and bad press over the past couple decades. This is a fine example of how tourism can help develop rural infrastructures, and potentially even help coalesce a region that has long been fractured.
Crossing an incredible 6 countries, and various types of geography, the Via Dinarica is actually a set of 3 parallel trails labelled the white, green and blue trails.
The white trail is the section of the Via Dinarica I got the chance to sample. It essentially follows the highest peaks of the Dinaric Alps from Slovenia to Albania and Kosovo. This section is rugged, and as I learned during my visit, completely unpredictable. At the base of the mountains, in a village within Sutjeska National Park the air was crisp and the ground was cold but coated in bright green grass. A dozen or so kilometers up the road, in the heart of the mountains, heavy snow pelted us and high winds knocked us around. The white trail really does offer the greatest challenge, but also the most reward.
On the other hand, the blue and green trails are much more tame. The blue trail stays down towards the beautiful coast starting from near the border of Italy in Slovenia, along the beautiful Dalmatian Coast, and ending in Macedonia. Perhaps the biggest draw to this section of the trail is the ability to ride the length of it on a mountain bike. The green trail carves through the old forests of the Balkans as the colour denotation might lead you to believe. The beauty in the trail system is that it really does offer something to everyone.
Moreover, one doesn’t have to hike the entire length to use the trail system. Sections can easily be managed in shorter outings, and even day trips.
For me, the one major draw to this trail is the opportunity to engage with the people in the rural areas of the Balkans. Throughout my time in this region, I’ve been floored by the warmth and welcome of the people, and it seems the deeper we dive into the area the kinder the people are. And I’m sure you can’t get much deeper than along the Via Dinarica.
Truly a grassroots project, the Via Dinarica aims to do all the right things a proper tourism development initiative does. It provides real opportunities for local people to earn money and build a sustainable business, for one. The trail should create business opportunities in the villages along the way in the form of guesthouses, campsites, and restaurants, as well as the potential for the need of local guides. On the other side of the coin, the project offers a real experience to travellers. It’s not easy for tourists to get off the beaten path and have real interactions with local people, and this trail puts visitors right into their welcoming arms.
But,for me, the most incredible opportunity of this project is the potential for collaboration between different groups of people who have spent far too much time warring and not nearly enough time reconciling and cooperating. I’ve seen firsthand in many places in the world where tourism has managed to bridge the gap between nations. And I truly believe that well projects like this might not lead to a perfect peace, it certainly can help lead a positive change.
So will I ever hike the Via Dinarica? Who knows. The truth is that had it not been the dead of winter, I would have likely been packing a bag and setting off to race along the white trail. The idea of hiking from village to village in one of the last true rural settings in Europe is so appealing to me. I can see myself sat at a table in a local bar drinking a big glass of rakija listening to stories told in a language I can’t understand. I can almost feel the warm smiles of welcome in each of those villages too. This might be one of the rawest travel opportunities left in Europe, and if I’m ever back in Europe with enough time, you better believe I’d be hiking the Via Dinarica.