Future Travel: Drawn to the Edge in the Western Balkans

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Future Travel: Drawn to the Edge in the Western Balkans

A forward-thinking cross-border collaboration between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro shines a light on one of Europe’s most beautiful regions.

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The bordering municipalities of Foca and Plužine are in different countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro respectively. That’s about where the differences end. What they share is one mountain-, lake- and river-strewn landscape, an ancient culture, and a combined reputation as the up-and-coming adventure-travel star here in the heart of Southeastern Europe’s Western Balkans.

To solidify that commonality, the two municipalities have launched an historic collaboration. The Tourism, Adrenalin, and Rafting Adventure project (T.A.R.A)—a responsible tourism partnership supported financially by the European Union—shines a spotlight on this border-straddling adventure hub. In doing so, it promotes the communities and strengths of each municipality while working to increase the overall success of both.

Massif Bioc-Volujak-Maglic-crop.jpg Image: courtesy of Nature Park Piva

These kinds of partnerships are uncommon in the world of international travel. Such an effort necessitates that each participant work for a greater good rather than convincing guests to stay in only one (their) country. The selfless and collaborative aim is to double the enjoyment for visitors, pool resources for locals and provide mutual support. The payoff for this forward-thinking philosophy can be filed in the “a rising tide raises all boats” category. The added benefit: a unified effort also means greater regional security for local tourism during uncertain times.

The idea of these two cross-border municipalities working together, however, is more than strategic. A partnership also magnifies the fundamental nature of healthy environmental values and sustainability. The region’s landscape—a haven for trekkers, climbers, kayakers, rafters, cyclists, horseback riding, bird- and wildlife-watching, and cavers—is as fragile as it is beautiful. The treasures sandwiched here between Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Sutjeska National Park and Montenegro’s UNESCO-inscribed Durmitor National Park include a rare primeval forest, the Nature Park Piva, glacial lakes, pristine rivers, and limestone mountains.

inarticle2 plu fo.jpg Image: Radojica Cosovic

In early autumn, I trekked across the municipalities with Thierry Joubert, the director of Green Visions, an eco-tourism operator based in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As we made our way along the Via Dinarica hiking trail, which links the two countries—walking over peaks, through villages, past shepherds with their flocks, and around clear, rushing streams—we could feel the vortex of energy that connects this stretch. It became clear a unified vision here must look beyond any artificial line man can draw on a map.

When we arrived at Dragan Šain’s stone guesthouse in the mountainous Montenegrin settlement of Sokolina, that sentiment was emphatically underlined. Dragan’s swath of earth seemed to float above the juncture where southeast Bosnia and Herzegovina meets northwest Montenegro. “The view from here is like having the best seat in the house at a concert,” Thierry said. “But in this case, the musicians are dramatic landscapes and panoramas covering two countries.”

In front of us, the Tara River Canyon, the second deepest gorge on the planet at 4,265 feet (only the Grand Canyon is deeper), dropped straight down and disappeared into a forest of firs, aspens, and beech trees. A deep velvet-green ocean, with splashes of orange and yellow, rolled across the land’s undulating contours in the crisp fall air. Due south and in the distance, the majestic and craggy Bobotov Kuk, the tallest summit in Montenegro’s Durmitor Range at 8,278-foot, speared the horizon. To the west, the Piva River Canyon was flowing into the electric-emerald waters of Piva Lake. Behind it, the 7,835-foot Mount Maglic, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest point stood guard over the famously heart-shaped Trnovacko Lake.

“The beauty and pleasure here can be preserved only if the presence of man can be felt and noticed as little as possible,” said Dragan, a sturdy man with a gray beard and a relaxed smile. Dragan, who was born in this house, believes that understanding the area’s rare and important wildlife is key to any plan. “This kind of respectful behavior is at the crux of this region.”

inarticle1 plu fo.jpg Image: Radojica Cosovic

This oft-overlooked region is among the most beautiful and pristine in Europe. The T.A.R.A project looks to remedy that anonymity while also preserving and ensuring the health of its embarrassment of natural riches. The plan is to promote the region’s intersection between untouched nature and cultural heritage to responsible and sustainable-minded travelers looking for a balance between remote landscapes, adventure, old-world traditions, and conservation.

In the Foca municipality, adventures include hikes in Sutjeska National Park, climbing Mount Maglic, rafting the Tara and Drina Rivers, or just standing in the presence of greatness in the Perucica primeval forest, one of the last remaining in Europe. Medieval tombstones, known as stecci, are scattered across this stretch. Cumulatively, the sacred markers have been inscribed on UNESCO’s heritage list for their “outstanding universal value.”

“Cross-border cooperation has made a significant contribution to the creation of an internationally recognized tourist destination for active tourism that compliments cultural and historical heritage,” says Ljeposava Djajic, the director of the Foca Tourism Organization, who believes the combination of rich traditions and challenging adventure experiences make the region special. “It is a unique tourist destination, because the content of one municipality continues in another.”

The Nature Park Piva acts as the central headquarters for the Plužine municipality. Sitting directly between Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mount Maglic and Montenegro’s Bobotov Kuk peak, this swath of land is as dynamic as any spot in Europe. Travelers are within hiking and cycling distance from pristine lakes, rivers and trails, but they can also visit cultural highlights such as the Zagradje Monastery, built in the early 1400s.

“The area of Plužine and Foca Municipalities are special due to incredible natural values … that leaves everyone, especially nature lovers, breathless,” says Slobodan Delic, the director of Nature Park Piva. “If you decide to visit Plužine, and do not visit Foca, or vice versa, then your ‘mission’ is incomplete.”

inarticle3 plu fo.jpg Image: courtesy of Nature Park Piva

The next day, with dew on the ground and a biting freshness still in the morning air, we waved goodbye to Dragan and left Sokolina. The entire world—or the only one we needed at the moment—spread out before us in that velvet-green ocean below.

“This region is an old school-travel destination, where farmers still welcome travelers with food, stove-cooked coffee and homemade schnapps,” Thierry said as we hiked into the Tara Canyon. “But these municipalities are also special because they take us, as travelers, to the edge—and humans are drawn to the edge. Once we get to that precipice, we realize this isn’t just another jigsaw-puzzle line on the map of Europe. This is a place of absolute wonder and discovery.”

Visit these websites — Foca and Plužine — for more information about places to sleep, eat, and see while in the region.

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Alex Crevar is a travel journalist and contributing editor at Paste Travel. He lives in Zagreb, Croatia.

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