Friday, July 1st, 2016, and I’m now two weeks on the Via Dinarica mega trail. Two weeks surrounded by mountains, flowers, cattle and flies. I try to stick rigidly to the Via Dinarica Trail, but sometimes the weather, the conditions of the route, or people change my plans.
During those first two weeks I saw more animals than people, but the few people I met set the tone for the rest of my journey. They showed me hospitality goes further than inviting someone in and offering them a cup of coffee; it’s more than just a gesture, it’s about making someone feel welcome. People were curious, surprised and impressed. I literally walked into their lives and they opened their doors, their arms and sometimes even their hearts. And so did I. That’s how I ended up spending just as much time drinking coffee as I did solo-hiking (in local languages, the word for solo is ‘sama’).
After crossing several borders, I realized that every country on the Via Dinarica has its own typical expressions and behavior, its own characteristics and its own identity. In Bosnia and Herzegovina each mountain chain has its own microclimate with its own unpredictable features. It’s diverse and intense. Everything. And the most exceptional cultural characteristic of all is a sense of time slowing down. ˝Polako, polako,˝ (“Slowly, slowly”) is what I’ve learned in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Take your time, relax! Drink your coffee”… At first I thought it was my lack of ‘polakoness’ that had people telling me to slow down, but it turned out, it was just a cultural metaphor for a lifestyle in general.
Once I got to Croatia, there was a different cultural matter at hand. The ‘take it easy’ attitude was supplanted by constant warnings of a potential disaster or ‘katastrofa’. There were always long and descriptive explanations as to why a disaster may occur. But despite the constant prospect of imminent disaster, Croatians also like to take their time drinking coffee with friends and family. Another curious cultural practice in Croatia is that they start hiking after work, preferably when it’s already dark. Their destination is not a spectacular peak, but a cozy mountain hut where they spent the rest of the night with a bunch of friends, eating and drinking. And singing!
In Slovenia it was the consistency that struck me. There is, for example, a church on pretty much every hilltop, usually with a top-register right next to it. Slovenians run up to a mountain before breakfast, sign the register, drink a cup of tea and sprint back down to pick up their daily routine. Surprisingly punctual, and predictable.
The mountains in Albania were covered with flowers and therefore Albania has a huge population of flies that terrorize the mountains. In Slovenia, bears eat from the bins and in Bosnia and Herzegovina it’s not the bears or the flies that you should fear but the dogs… I believe that Montenegro has more sheep than people and Croatia is the most popular country among puh, dormice. If it’s not the night-hikers, it’s definitely the puh who are partying all night long.
But there are also commonalities throughout the Balkans. The importance of spending time with friends and family, sharing food, drinking good coffee and bringing domestic rakija to special occasions. The slippers (papuče) for guests to wear inside the house, the question of what horoscope sign you are (with the understanding nod after your answer) and the unshakable belief that it's ‘no good’ to travel alone. “Sama?!”
Yes, I hike all on my own. In the mountains. And no, it’s not scary. It doesn’t mean that I’m never afraid, but I don’t feel safer when I travel with a man or a dog by my side. The reality is that even when you’re with two girls, people still ask if you are alone I gave up explaining and immersed myself in the local traditions and customs. I opened up and learned to let go. Good company is when you can be your own silly-self while with others. And feeling welcome is, I think, the first step to getting there.