Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Dabbling in the Dinaric Alps

Since our European trip has come to a close, we're starting to think back on all of the incredible experiences we've had over the past two and a half months. We've been too busy to blog much on the trip. Vacation is hard work!

Don't tell anybody (especially our friends and family back in Colorado, who love their Rockies, or our Transylvanian buddies who can't get enough of their Carpați), but we discovered the most beautiful and awe inspiring mountains we have ever seen - the Dinaric Alps. The mountain range stretches along the Adriatic coast: from Slovenia in the north-west, through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, into Serbia, and then covers the entire country of Montenegro until it drops into the sea.

We spent a month in these five countries, much of it in these beautiful mountains. Three particular days of driving stand out as highlights of our whole trip.

Perucac, Serbia

The first of these days was in Tara National Park, Serbia. Sarah wrote a little about our trip in a previous post, when we were looking for that medieval village.

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We camped in a pear orchard in the middle of nowhere near Kremna, Serbia but as we drove towards the Tara National Park and the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, we really started to feel the wilderness enveloping us. We saw fewer and fewer cars and the road became narrower and narrower until we weren't even sure if we were supposed to be there. The fact that the roads were perfectly paved and maintained gave us the confidence to push on.

We drove around aimlessly for a couple of hours, argued lovingly with Rupert (our faithful Peugeot 308 GPS), and finally found a lonely woman at the official National Park entrance a million miles from nowhere. It was the perfect place to sell overpriced maps, because we had no idea where we were, or how we had gotten there. Now with an old school backup for Rupert, we made our way through the beautiful park and back to camp. In the end it was a lovely day of driving, but not surprisingly, most of the roads we traveled that day don't exist on Google Maps.

Little did we know at the time that this was just the warmup for the next big mountain adventure: the road from Sarajavo, Bosnia and Herzegovina to Žabljak, Montenegro.

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The drive through Bosnia and Herzegovina was lovely, but as soon as we crossed the border into Montenegro we knew that we were in another world. The embankments became cliffs and the valleys became gorges. It felt and looked like a wilderness that I'd never seen or experienced before. The mountains are mostly made of limestone which lead to amazing karst formations and gives a ruggedness that is completely unique. One of the coolest things about this day was that it was all a complete surprise - we didn't have any idea that we were going to be driving through mountains, much less the most amazing we'd ever seen.

Mountains Near Zabljak, Montenegro

After about twenty minutes of driving through these beautiful vistas with views of the incredibly blue (from the dissolved limestone) Piva river on our right hand side, Sarah saw an incredible bridge over the river. It seemed to be suspended only by the air underneath. To make it even more dramatic, we couldn't see where it started or where it stopped; it seemed as though it came from the mountain itself on one side and went straight into a mountain on the other. Sarah's heart jumped into her chest when she saw that there was a car stopped in the middle.

Piva River Bridge

I calmly and naively said, "Don't worry, honey. It doesn't look like we have to cross it." Ha! Just at this moment Rupert tells me "In 200 yards, turn left." What? There is no left. To the right is a cliff with the river below us, and to the left is the sheer rock face of the mountain. But Rupert was insistent, and as we approached the bridge, the road suddenly turned left into a tunnel. Sarah's stress level started to increase as we slowly realized that the bridge does in fact come straight from the mountainside and we were curving back towards the river. On cue Rupert said "If possible, make a U-turn." You've got to be kidding! There's no place to even think of turning around. We're in a tunnel and about to drive across a narrow bridge over this chasm! I quickly promised that we didn't have to stop on the bridge, but just as quickly reneged when I saw how incredible the view was. This was also why the other car had stopped. Our compromise was that Sarah didn't have to get out of the car. I couldn't help myself, though & had to get out for a closer view.

Through the Pass

The rest of the trip to Žabljak was one incredible view and experience after another. Every tunnel we entered was like a lottery ticket that paid off with dramatic vistas on the other side. And a word about the tunnels. These are not your ordinary American tunnels that are nicely finished with concrete. I am pretty sure that these tunnels were hand carved by dwarves from Middle Earth. It was like driving into a cave. They never had lights, and often we were engulfed in pitch dark, with no visibility in front or behind us except trusty Rupert's headlights.

Tunnel in Montenegro

Once we settled into Žabljak, we went to see the world's second longest canyon, the Tara River Canyon. It is second only to the Grand Canyon. Most people here raft through it, but we thought it would be more fun to see it from the rim instead. It felt like we had the entire world to ourselves that morning, as we didn't see any other signs of humanity until we got back to our car at the end of the hike.
Tara Canyon, Montenegro


Lonely Bench, Tara Canyon, Montenegro

Our last big day of driving was in Slovenia's Triglav National Park. Triglav is a huge three-peaked mountain in the west of the country, and our day was basically spent driving around it with amazing views the whole time. The national park is famous for its 50 switchbacks. Each switchback has cobblestones for added traction.

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Aside from the beauty of the park, it is also an important historical area. It was the site of many months of warfare during WWI. For two years the town of Kobarid and the mountains there were the front between Italy and Austria-Hungary. It nearly destroyed the town, and there were incredible casualties on both sides (totaling about half a million). Eventually the Italian forces were driven from Kobarid and retreated, but the region was given to Italy after the war. I'm not sure how I would have dealt with this if I were a Slovenian in this region. You win a two year battle against invaders to your homeland, only to lose the war and lose your homeland in the end anyway. Thankfully everybody's friends now, and there's an excellent museum on the subject in Kobarid with great exhibits in English, Slovenian and Italian. This was probably one of our longest days in the car, due to plenty of stops along the way to enjoy the view and the history of the area. But it was definitely worth it.

Triglav National Park, Slovenia

Switchback Number 50!

In the end, these days in the mountains just made us all the more homesick. Even though we had to pick our jaws up off of the ground a few times here in Europe, there's nothing like those Colorado Rockies. Thankfully we'll be back home before we can blink - tomorrow in fact!