Note: This piece is the Essential travel article in Paste Quarterly #1, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.
From the ledge atop the day’s final pass, a grassy, amphitheater-shaped clearing, encircled by mountains, appeared beneath us. The Albanian Alps rippled behind, marking our path from the last several days along the 1,200-mile Via Dinarica mega-hiking trail, which traverses all eight countries in the western half of the Balkan Peninsula. To the north, peaks towered above and lined the border with Montenegro. Directly ahead and to the east, a jagged collection of summits faded into Kosovo. On the valley floor below—the size of several city blocks—multiple flocks of sheep occupied quadrants of the expanse and moved with a balletic unison perfected over centuries in this corner of Southeastern Europe. They drifted like fluffy schools of fish or lethargic marching bands. Instead of music, however, the sound echoing up to our ridge was a cacophony of bleating and the clanging of atonal bells. Hyperactive herding dogs ran circles around the animals and nipped at band members breaking formation.
In the distance, and on the apron of the plateau, we could make out the nomadic shepherd village of Doberdol, our destination for the evening. The cluster of impromptu lean-tos, temporary shelters, and thatched-roof huts built of stacked flagstone was abuzz with families bringing in horses and filling jugs with stream water. Smoke curled from chimney pipes as villagers began feeding wood into iron stoves in preparation for dinner.
Over the past couple of months on the Via Dinarica, our Balkans-based crew of hikers—the number waxed and waned as we crossed borders and welcomed new friends or said goodbye to others—had grown accustomed to stumbling upon such Edenic locales. This trail, which traverses and connects Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, and Macedonia, had, in fact, been created, from 2010 to 2015, for just this kind of discovery. The route provides an authentic avenue to some of Europe’s last remaining Old World settlements and a corridor to an embarrassment of cultural riches. The path summits the region’s highest peaks, dips into valleys, passes lakes and rivers, and strolls along the cobbled streets of remote
villages. It can be walked for three months, three days, or three hours, depending on the stretch of land an adventurer has time to cover. As importantly, the trail unfurls like a variegated quilt, the squares stitched together across epochs and empires with the heritages, gastronomies, music and traditions of the South Slavs, Albanians, Greeks, Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Venetians and Austro-Hungarians all on display.
Our expedition team descended into the pasture. It was impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the majesty of the landscape—even for mountaineers who make a living hiking throughout the Via Dinarica region. Just as powerful though, was the palpable sense that we were part of a Balkans-wide, philosophical sea change in adventure tourism.
“Just look at this spot—it’s incredible,” said Thierry Joubert, the director of Green Visions, an adventure tourism company based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Green Visions is part of a group of operators across the Western Balkans, the Via Dinarica Alliance, which leads trips along the entire trail. “We are getting a chance to travel back in time to a perfectly preserved shepherd community,” he continued and pointed with one of his hiking sticks as we walked down the steep path framed by craggy limestone outcroppings and under the weight of packs loaded for the long-distance trek. “And to think that because of past politics, we wouldn’t have even been allowed in Albania 25 years ago. What this shows is that with the right concept—like a cross-border trek in the mountains—even countries with complicated histories can build peaceful relationships. Beauty and nature are more important than petty differences.”
As we crossed the pasture, the shepherds called in their dogs for our safety. The dogs panted and begged for attention around their owners’ legs, and each man smiled in turn and waved us on to the settlement. When we reached the edge of the structures, a stocky Albanian bounded over and shook our hands with weathered self-confidence. He informed us in broken English that they weren’t expecting us. “But you relax,” he said. “We will make all okay.”
He turned to leave, calling out directions to villagers in every direction. His brother came over with a recycled plastic bottle filled with rakija, homemade schnapps made of herbs. Another man ambled over and offered cigarettes and thick, hot Turkish coffee. Another was sent into the field to retrieve a sheep for our dinner. Behind us a woman got to work consolidating two families into one shanty so we would have a hut to sleep in and spread out gear to dry. She shooed chickens out of the dirt-floor dwelling, lit the stove, and motioned us over.
When the sun disappeared behind the peaks, we sat on wooden benches around a table crowded with our dinner: grilled meat, young cheese, beans, and more rakija. We wiped our plates clean with dense, farm-made squares of bread. Maps were soon spread out across the rough-sawn surface.
We rolled cigarettes, sipped schnapps, and inspected the route. Shepherds and hikers alike hypothesized about the weather over the coming days and the time it would take to reach the next villages across the border in Kosovo. “The places you are going are good. Good for trekking,” our host said and then stood. “But here is better. This is life.”
Image: Aleksandar Donev
Zagreb, Croatia-based Alex Crevar is the editor of Paste’s travel, science, and health sections.