Discovering wild Balkans

Along the foggy southern ridges

Entering the clouds at 1700 m
Entering the clouds at 1700 m

October 29th gave us a nasty surprise – instead of a bright, sunny day that we were expecting, the high ridges of south Serbia were covered with clouds above the altitude of 1700 m, and that was really a letdown. This part of Serbia is famous for it’s ridgeway trails, which are not only grassy, steep and attractive (and tricky in places), but also offer some breathtaking views. Which we, of course, didn’t have in the clouds, including the view from Besna Kobila, the 1923 m high peak that tops the whole area. Not only were the views gone, but the grass was frozen, and as such presented quite some challenges in the potentially slippery spots.

However, we overcame those challenges and successfully arrived at the Vlasina lake, where we made our lunchbreak that day, following our trail further up Gramada mountain afterwards. The goal for the day was reaching the Jerma river, which was ambitious, but it turned out, perfectly managable. We’ve had another nice (and dry) evening in a hideout by the Jerma river where plenty of firewood is always available.

The magic of Stara planina

It was time to pass through the short, but striking Jerma canyon, pass through Pirot and devote the next few days to Stara planina, probably the most striking Serbian mountain ridge, that leave no one impartial. Plan for the day was ambitious, but realistic, managable in one day if we don’t get unexpectedly delayed somewhere. Contrary to the day before, we’ve had a perfectly sunny day (but freezing cold and windy).

We quickly passed the less interesting parts and started our steep ascent towards the main ridge of Stara planina, along which the Serbian/Bulgarian border goes. There are border patrol ways on both sides, so I had to warn the people not to get mixed up on some junctions and to accidentally drive into Bulgaria – driving along the border is legal, but crossing it outside the official border crossings is not.

After a lunchbreak in an amazing spot at a scenic view at 1700 m altitude, the awe inspiring ridge journey continued for several kilometres, before we turned inland again, headed for another rocky peak that offered great views in all directions and a fantastic spot to take photos of the cars on the rocks. We weren’t far from our goal for the day – we returned to the main road to reach the Dojkinci village, and then drove 12 km further up the Arbinje valley to reach our campspot in the red rock riverbed.

Arbinje could easily be the most beautiful river valley in Serbia, and this campspot is, beyond doubt, among the most exotic places to spend the night wild camping in Serbia. I was aware that, being at the altitude of 1250 at the beginning of November, the price to pay will be undoubtedly some below freezing night temperatures, so the cold didn’t surprise us. But we did manage to gather enough firewood to make a huge campfire to warm us up a little bit before we zipped up our sleeping bags for the night.

The highland dreamscape

What followed on the next day is beyond doubt the trail that is the highlight of all of our eastern Serbian tours – traversing the wildest and most beautiful part of Stara planina towards Babin Zub and Midžor, it’s highest peak (2170 m). This trail offers all kinds of scenery and challenges, the most inspiring one for sure being the 20 km long grassy ridge, where you have the feeling that you’re in a whole different world, looking more like some central Asia than Europe. It looks as if there’s nothing and no one around you for hundreds of kilometres.

Old house in the Topli Dol village
Old house in the Topli Dol village

However, bad weather can easily spoil these magnificent views, and on that November 1st there were more clouds than sun again. We did get a few nice views while we were crossing the first peak of the tour, but had no luck when we started ascending Midžor, very soon getting into thick clouds, with 0 visibility.  So we decided Descending to the villageto call it a day and return to the cosy and warm rooms of the Babin Zub mountaineering hut, making another break from the camping routine.  It would really be inhumane to camp on or around Babin Zub in November, at 1600 m of altitude – it’s a place where temperature can drop to zero even in mid summer, and at this time of year it usually doesn’t rise above zero all day long. Just in time for dinner, Mario rejoined us for the rest of the tour. So we were finally complete, for the first time – six participating, and two guiding vehicles.

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