In the mountains around Sarajevo, a snowshoeing novice finds a new—if inelegant—way to appreciate the Balkan winter.
Snowshoes, I quickly learn, are not really shoes at all. They’re more like the working end of a canoe paddle with straps and crampons attached, designed neither for speed nor comfort, let alone grace. As I struggled to buckle a pair onto my hiking boots, Samer Hajric, our Bosnian mountain guide, knelt down beside me to help. I told him I felt a bit like Cinderella.
“Except, maybe not as elegant,” Samer laughed. “Sorry.”
For those who still associate the Balkan nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the devastating civil war of the early 1990s, Sarajevo will come as a surprise. Though it remains battle-scarred, the Bosnian capital is alive with color and diversity, an exotic mélange of Ottoman mosques and Austro-Hungarian buildings that fan out from the old flagstoned bazaar of Baščaršija, the city’s Turkish quarter. It’s also a place of great natural beauty. Nestled in a valley along the banks of the Miljacka River, Sarajevo is surrounded by forested hills and the limestone peaks of the Dinaric Alps, which enabled it to host the Winter Olympics in 1984. And it was for the mountains I’d come.
Samer’s employer, an eco-tour outfit called Green Visions, is the local partner of the British travel company—Exodus—that had put together my itinerary: an eight-day snowshoeing excursion in the highlands of Mounts Bjelašnica, Igman, and Trebević, with some nights spent in Sarajevo and others in mountainside pensions or chalets. On paper, it had sounded like a great adventure. In actuality, it was much harder work than I had anticipated. And much more rewarding.
Following Samer’s tracks across the knee-deep snow, our small group lurched away from the village of Umoljani, a 90-minute drive southwest of Sarajevo on the far flanks of Bjelašnica. Feeling less princess-y and more like a yeti, I waded slowly, meditating to the swish, squeak, and clack of our tentative strides. A blizzard welcomed us on our first morning. Low visibility and a chilling headwind hindered our progress, and within an hour I was questioning why I hadn’t chosen a tropical holiday instead.
But as the weather cleared, I began to enjoy myself. There was something mesmerizing about being amid a frozen, all-white landscape with no visible paths or landmarks. At one with the elements, the rhythm of our gently crunching steps took on a lulling quality. For much of the time, the only things to gauge our progress by were bare beech trees or snow-laden spruces. It’s a mystery to me how Samer and our second guide, Lorenc Konaj, managed to maintain their sense of direction, but they led us unerringly through nearly half a kilometer of elevation gain to the summit of Crveni Kuk, a 1,671-meter peak.
“To this side of the ridge you can see Montenegro,” Lorenc said at the top. I squinted my eyes toward the distant horizon, but to no avail; a dense fog enshrouded us. “Okay, so today you might have to use your imagination. But on clear days, the view is really excellent.”
As we got used to our snowshoes, we were able to plow on a little farther each day, passing abandoned shepherds’ huts, serpentine streams, and old water mills. Whenever the pale February sun broke through the clouds, it spotlighted the brilliant whiteness of our surrounds. The countryside’s pervasive silence was broken only by our echoing chatter and the song of forest birds darting in and out of their snowy hideaways. It felt like we were the only people around.
“Bosnians don’t trek for fun,” Lorenc explained when I commented on how few people we saw. “They don’t understand why you would be out here, hiking in the cold without a need to get from A to B. So you pretty much have the whole mountain to yourself.”
We tramped about seven kilometers a day, though between some steep ascents and fresh dumps of snow, each leg took about five to six thigh-burning hours. Thankfully, the food en route was hearty and warming: meat stews, home-baked breads, stuffed peppers, and plates of burek, or phyllo-dough pastries filled with cheese and ground beef. Our lodgings were also pleasant, from a newish boutique hotel in Babin Do (the main ski resort on Bjelašnica) to the cozy bed-and breakfast in Umoljani where we stayed two nights.
With its fire-warmed pub, the hotel was especially inviting after a day’s hike, though it was all I could do to drag myself to bed after dinner. Elegance may have eluded me on the slopes, but I can’t remember the last time I slept so soundly.
U.K.-based Exodus Travels offers an eight-day snowshoeing and winter walking trip in the mountains around Sarajevo for about US$1,040 per person, twin share. Alternatively, book direct with local eco-tour operator Green Visions, which can also provide itineraries for a host of guided activities throughout the year.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Snowbound In Bosnia”).