BiH’s majestic outback
For most people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sutjeska National Park is a pilgrimage, not for its astounding nature, but for its historical significance. It was here that Tito’s Partisans, in a brilliant display of guerilla warfare, were able to beat back a better-equipped German army in the mountainous terrain of eastern Bosnia during the Second World War.
The park is still visited by tens of thousands of visitors each year. They come to pay homage to the fallen, who secured the birth – and future success – of Yugoslavia. What few know though: this swath of Mother Nature is quite possibly the most pristine and stunning corner of southeastern Europe.
Sutjeska was declared a national park in 1967. It was the second area in Bosnia and Herzegovina to be designated as a protected natural area (the first was Kozara in the far northwest). National parks in the former Yugoslavia, and indeed most of Eastern Europe, didn’t always follow Western conservation norms. A small part of the park – approximately 17,500 hectares – is a strictly protected zone. A much larger portion, still under the jurisdiction and management of the park, enjoys some protection but is open for hunting and more intense forest exploitation. Nonetheless, this untamed border area is home to more bio-diversity than anywhere in the country.
Sutjeska National Park is home to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest peak, Mt. Maglić at 2,386 meters. Below the towering peaks of Maglić is one of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests: Perućica, which scientists date to be 20,000 years old. This lush, green oasis shelters bears, deer, chamois, wolves, and dozens of other creatures. The grassy green peaks of Zelengora Mountain flank the park’s southwestern edge. Not quite as rugged as the Maglić side, Zelengora is dotted with mountain lakes, alpine meadows, and beautiful forests of spruce, oak, beech, and black pine trees.
The Donje Bare area of Zelengora was a favorite hunting spot for Tito. His villa, destroyed during the last war, was set on the banks of the Donje Bare lake. Bears and wild boar still visit it as their main watering hole. Sutjeska’s main infrastructure is located in the Tjentište Valley, which cuts through the park thanks to the power of the Sutjeska River. Aside from the gargantuan Socialist-era monument in honor of the historical battle, Tjentište almost resembles a tiny town. There is a post office, police station, park-management office, and a small grocery store on the east side of the main road. On the west side are tourist facilities. Hotel Mladost is the main accommodation provider in the valley. It doubles as a welcoming center and has a decent resta rant. A few hundred meters from Mladost is a lake-sized, natural swimming pool, where they’ve semi-dammed the Sutjeska River. It’s a nice place for a dip after one of Sutjeska’s many grueling hikes to the towering 2,000-meter peaks in every direction. Just outside the park is Tentorium, a family-owned restaurant with exceptional local food.
A recent EU-funded, tourism development project has enabled the park plans to expand their offerings. There are ongoing improvements on trail maintenance and marking, and a new tourism information center with good maps can now be found near the Mladost Hotel entrance. Mountain bikes are available for rent and the new Via Dinarica trail goes right through the heart of park with well-marked trails. All of the mountain huts dlodges have gotten a much-needed facelift. Despite the lack of a superior infrastructure that would further open the park to the world, Sutjeska National Park is the Yosemite of the Balkans. The raw and rugged beauty of this land is second-to-none in this region of Europe. It is required by the park’s management to hire a guide for any hiking excursions through Perucica Primeval Forest. An alternative is to join an organized tour with the andful of operators from Foča and Sarajevo, which operate regular hikes to the park.