The Rails-to-Trails Movement Reaches the Balkans

An old train route connecting Croatia and Bosnia will become a 124-mile bike track.

Image Flickr/Dmitri Gasulla
The Bosnian town of Počitelj lies just off the new trail. (Flickr/Dmitri Gasulla)

By the end of this year, a 200-kilometer (124-mile) railway track linking Croatia’s coastline with Bosnia’s mountainous hinterland should be open for travelers once more. A historic line that journeys from Venetian-built Dubrovnik up through a landscape of steep valleys, upland marshes, and dense forest, the reopened link should attract visitors to a beautiful, criminally under-visited part of Europe. There’s only one catch: travelers will need to provide their own two-wheeled transport.

The new line is actually a new long-distance cycle track, opened up along the path of a former railway. As the track is smoothed out and cleared for visitors, the rail-to-trail movement is creating its first true outpost in the Balkans.

It seems remarkable now that constructing a rail line in such a quiet region was ever financially viable. That’s because it probably never was. First opened in 1901 when the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the line was constructed more for strategic and military reasons than to meet passenger demand. In independent Yugoslavia, the route nonetheless managed to hang on in service until 1971 as a steam engine-powered leisure line.

Nature has since reclaimed it, with trees overhanging from the embankments and weeds pushing up through the line’s stone track ballast. Not for much longer, though. As the path is cleared and smoothed out for cyclists and hikers, several former stations along the way will be converted into hotels.

Trails like this one have already proved a hit elsewhere. The former Parenizana railway line—linking Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia on the Istrian Peninsula (not strictly part of the Balkans)—is already known as one of the most beautiful cycleways in Europe. The new trail’s creation still matters more than most. This isn’t just any old rail-to-trail project, because the region it passes through isn’t just any old corner of Southeastern Europe. Along its brief length, the railway trail passes through Croatia, the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Republika Srpska, territories that the Bosnian War tore apart, both through direct violence and through forced displacement that redrew this region’s ethnic map.

Twenty years after the war’s end, relations between the Bosnian-Croat Federation and residents in the Serb Republic can still be testy. Traffic has nonetheless flowed freely between the region’s different political units for some time now, and former front lines are thankfully returning to their prewar status as the region’s boondocks. It’s a welcome sign to the outside world of just how much tensions have calmed that the biggest story to come out of this peaceful backwater recently is something as benign as a new bike trail.

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