There are many ways to travel through the Western Balkans. But only some of these ways bring you closer to this Region’s core, making how you travel part of the adventure. It’s travelling by vigour instead of motorised vehicle. And sprawling paths called greenways stretching more and more throughout Western Balkans make it possible.
Greenways are a relatively new trend in Europe. Still, they are gaining in popularity, thanks to a growing network of more than 10.000 kilometres, ranging from Southern Portugal to Southern Italy and beyond.
They provide sustainable pathways for non-motorised vehicles throughout both urban and rural parts of Europe. Types of greenways range from quaint grassy trails, newly laid bicycle roads, winding city walkways and more.
In the Western Balkans, disused narrow-gauge railways, remnants of a past that clashed two rivalling Empires, the Austrian-Hungarian and the Ottoman, are perfect targets for expanding the current network.
Yugo Cycling Campaign, an NGO established 40 years to advocate the promotion of cycling as an alternative route in Yugoslavia and later in Serbia, is spearheading the greenways transition in the Region.
Thanks to Western Balkans Fund and European Union funding, the Western Balkans Greenways Project presented its findings earlier in September at a Conference in Priboj, Serbia.
This destination was also chosen to promote the newly built greenway spanning from Priboj to Uvac. The goal is to connect in the near future Serbia with Bosnia and Hercegovina, with a bike line extending through the abandoned railway bridge next to the border crossing, to Rudo and beyond.
The findings of the Conference will facilitate the rapid multiplication of greenway lines, offering a clear understanding of the current situation and obstacles for further development to multiple stakeholders, including local governments, policymakers, interest groups, etc.
Greenways provide more than just an adventurous form of transportation. They also play an important role in the preservation of European travel ways and culture. In a region as historic and well travelled as Western Balkans, sustainable travel protects the infrastructure while helping the environment. By traveling via greenways, tourists and locals alike have the opportunity to experience WB’s untouched and most preserved locations, giving them an active, spiritual travel experience they just can’t get with traditional travel.
During the implementation of the WBF-EU funded project, three greenways were visited by Yugo Cycling and partners, MTB.ba, Nature Lovers Montenegro and OKC, the Priboj-Uvac line and the partially functional Sutorina-Herceg Novi-Zelenika in Montenegro and Hum-Trebinje-Jazina in Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Hosting the Conference, the founder of Yugo Cycling Campaign, Mirko Radovanac, explained the dream of an uninterrupted network from Belgrade to Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Niksic and beyond is doable.
His aspiration already started to take shape through the few greenways realised by the three Contracting Parties of this project. It might look hard, but most of the network is already there in the form of abandoned narrow gauge railway lines, built from the middle of XIX century to the end of the Great War (WW1) approximately.
The great expansion of the modern railway network in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes accelerated further under Yugoslavia, bringing as a consequence the abandonment of the narrow-gauge lines.
However, all over the Western Balkans, they remain almost intact, under state property and require, with a few exceptions regarding fallen bridges or tunnels, only minor investment to be converted to a greenline.
Giulio Senes, President of the European Greenways Association, present at the Conference, underlined how this is no fantasy but already a growing reality all over EU.
“In Italy, we have more than 1.000 km of greenways that have replaced abandoned railway lines. There is a plan to convert 7.000 more km of such lines. In Spain, there is already 3.200 km of “Via Verdes”. In Portugal, 700, and so on. Earlier this year, Ireland committed 60 million Euros to expand its greenway lines”, he says.
Greenways are communication routes reserved exclusively for non-motorised journeys, developed in an integrated manner which enhances both the environment and quality of life of the surrounding area. These routes should meet satisfactory standards of width, gradient, and surface condition to ensure that they are both user-friendly and low -risk for users of all abilities. In this respect, canal towpaths and disused railway lines are a highly suitable resource for the development of greenways.” Lille Declaration, 12 September 2000
Suppose the bike corridors of Yugo Cycling Campaign go according to plan. In that case, the Western Balkans uninterrupted greenway will start from Belgrade, extending in the direction of Obrenovac and Lajkovac.
In the vicinity of Lajkovac, two other branches of the greenways unite. One spanning from Valjevo and the different from Mladenovac, Arandelovac and Lazarevac.
This bike highways then continues to Ljig-G.Milanovac-Čačak-Požega-Užice- Šarganska Osmica. From there, a branch coming from Priboj-Uvac-Rudo feeds the “highway” in the two directions, one Goražde-Foča and the other to Sarajevo through Pale.
It doesn’t end here. From Sarajevo, the corridor then continues in the direction of Konjic-Jablanica-Mostar-Čapljina-Metkovic-Ravno-Hum. From Hum, bikers can choose to continue in the direction of Dubrovnik-Herceg Novi or Trebinje-Bileća-Nikšić.
More than 700 kilometres of greenways. It might look a lot. It is a lot. But when you visit the touristic packages offered in the website of the European Greenway Association, in total 137 packages from 15 different countries, there are many other similar or even longer routes.
There is no reason why the Western Balkans should not be included in this map, an opinion also shared by Boris Mrdovic, Chairman of the Municipal Assembly of Priboj.
“All the Region benefits from such initiatives”, he says. “Under Yugoslavia, our Region, now divided between two countries, was developed as a singular cultural and industrial entity. This is why any initiatives that unite us benefit our citizens directly”.
The Priboj-Uvac greenway is only 6 kilometres long for the moment, but the Chairman of the Municipal Assembly already sees towards the future.
“Priboj is already an intellectual and touristic hub. We are very proud of our multicultural and multi-ethnic culture. I am glad that such heritage, will be discovered more and more by future tourists coming with their bikes to appreciate our values, our clean environment and our beauties”, he adds.
Priboj is already an intellectual and touristic hub. We are very proud of our multicultural and multi-ethnic culture – Boris Mrdovic, Chairman of the Municipal Assembly of Priboj
On the other side of the border, there is a genuine will to be part of the greenway adventure. “Rudo is a small town, but inhabited by people with big ideas. We already see how this project will bring sustainable benefits in all the region, not only Priboj and Rudo, but also Visegrad, Zlatibor, Bijelo Polje and more”, underlines Dragoljub Bogdanovic, the Mayor of Rudo.
We already see how this project will bring sustainable benefits to all the region, not only Priboj and Rudo, but also Visegrad, Zlatibor, Bijelo Polje and more – Dragoljub Bogdanovic, Mayor of Rudo
In March 1941, the edition of the Royal Geographical Society, a Science Journal published since 1831, printed an article about the Balkan Railways (https://www.jstor.org/stable/1787398)
The articles started with a simple statement: “Even a simple map of the Balkan Peninsula will show that the area is one of complex relief, with broad areas of highlands, yet withal traversed by a number of fairly obvious routeways”.
Almost a century later, the map of our Peninsula shows the same features. The same complex reliefs, the same highlights, same highlands. With a small addition, a new, fairly obvious routeway, the Belgrade-Sarajevo-Dubrovnik-Niksic greenway.
Product of the dream of small organisation, run by one of the best urban planners of Belgrade, who is willing to dare big.
And thanks to Western Balkans Fund and European Union funding, is about to change the tourism as we know, maybe as much as the narrow gauge railways did when they were laid to give birth to the New World.
From Priboj, Klevis Gjoni WBF Public Relations Officer