The mountainous wilderness around the river Piva always had a magical draw from my family. Ever since I was a boy I heard about my grandfather’s long fishing expeditions there from his native Nikčić and his strong opposition to the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam Martinje, which eventually did flood his old stomping grounds, albeit a few years after his untimely death.
On top of associating the Piva with a double loss for us – of a beloved husband and father, as well as of a place he spent a lot of time in – this wild, remote region was pivotal to my family in a lot of ways: my grandfather’s father, a merchant, made his wealthy by trading with Lazar Sočica, a famed Plužine merchant, my two great-grandmothers hailed from the nearby towns of Foča and Žabljak, and it was around the nearby Sutjeska, that my granddad participated in one of the most important battles between the Yugoslav Partizans and the Nazis and their collaborators in 1943 – the only story that survived of this feat of his was they were so famished that they had to eat tree barks to survive.
Thus for me, going to the region around the Piva, has always been more than a trip to what if probably one of the last remaining really wild areas in Europe, but also a trip to a mythical land of family lore, making it a place to which I always yearn returning to, and which always deeply surprises me.
2011: Rafting on the Tara, Piva monastery and the mountains
The first time I went there was in 2011, for a rafting trip with my family down the Tara canyon, the second deepest in the World. While the rafting brought all the excitement and wonder which brings tourist from all around the world to see this truly stunning river, what really stayed with me was everything surrounding it.
Once we were taken from Foča to a small camp in the canyon, we entered a new world, in which time went on much more slowly. Besides the amazing local food – heavy on amazing local dairy and meat from herds which graze on these huge mountains – we were treated with a view of the stars which I as, a city kid, never imagined could be so breath-taking, as they peeked from the deep cut made by the canyon. That night we also got close to the local wildlife as what seemed like dozens of dormice played on the roof of the tiny house we stayed in. The energy we lost not sleeping, was more than recovered with a hearty local breakfast of priganice (dough fritters) and local jam, sill probably the best I ever had.
After the rafting trip, and a few dips in the freezing Tara, we continued past my grandfather’s impressive nemesis – the Martinje dam, and up the mountains above the Piva to see the ancient Piva monastery and stay in one of the many “ethno villages” in the area. The monastery’s spartan grey walls, hid not only impressive centuries old frescoes but were also a special feat of engineering themselves. As the waters started rising in mid-70s, once Mratinje was constructed, the Monastery was dissembled from its old location and brought and re-assembled in a safer place in 1982. It was a marvel that it continued existing, especially as it, through its almost five centuries long history served as a safe haven for the locals (including my grandfather during WWII) and their most precious relics. It is also a testament to the multi-confessional nature of these parts, as one of the frescoes depicts a man in an Ottoman garb (assumed to be the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, whi is originally from these parts) alongside a Christian Orthodox Metropolitan Savatije Sokolvić, dedicating its church to the Virgin Mary.
The stay in one of the huts up above the Piva was equally magical. We felt like we were on top of the world and anywhere we looked and hiked there was something stunning to be seen, however we also realised that anything we could see would just be scratching the surface of this truly special part of the world.
2019: Sutjeska, Perućica and Foča
A bit less than a decade later, I returned to the area with my friends, albeit on the Bosnia and Herzegovina side. Given that Yugoslav socialist monuments were all the rage, we decided to make a pilgrimage of sorts to the Sutjeska national park and see the Valley of the Heroes in Tjentište – a memorial complex designed by Miodrag Živković, one of the best sculptors of that era.
As we travelled from Belgrade down the Drina we saw many stunning sights, but nothing prepared us for the grandeur of Tjentište, and the Maglič looming over the Sutjeska valley. After seeing the newly restored museum of the battle (decorated with some truly amazing frescoes and names of the fighters), we went up Maglič to just marvel at the view and see the late October Sun setting over the autumnal forests.
The next day, we also tried to see Perućica, one of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe. While the drive up was difficult, it was more than worth to just sense the calm of the forest and marvel at the Skakavica waterfall in the distance.
On our way back we went to Foča, an important trading town in Herzegovina on the ancient caravan route linking Dubrovnik and the Adriatic coast to the interior of the Balkans. Although the town suffered a lot during the 1990s Bosnian war, we found it lively and fun. The old Ottoman town on a hill and the recently re-built Aladža mosque were a testimony of its historic importance, while the new town centre was full of cafes, including Kelt, which was serving a great local craft beer from the Raft Brewery. Once again, our weekend getaway proved insufficient to see more: from the Zelengora mountains, Trnovačko lake, to the many UNSECO-protected stećci sites around Foča, which preserve ancient wonderfully decorated gravestones.
After a year spent without travelling dur to COVID, my father encouraged me to go back to the Piva area once again, this time to enjoy the stunning road between Žabljak and Plužine. Goring through the Durmitor National Park and passing by its highest peak, Bobotov kuk, as well as many mountain lakes, even in June the road was snowy, which gave it an additionally otherworldly look. The peaks around us looked as if they were sculpted by some giant abstract artist and thrown to the ground. The segment between Trsa and Plužine was equally breath-taking thanks to the roughly hewn tunnels just over the lake.
Once we arrived to Plužine we could relax looking over the calm Piva lake and a small promenade next to it. We were amazed that the house of Lazar Sočica, where my great-grandfather might have met with his business partner, was turned into a rustic restaurant, focusing on local dishes and preserving the vernacular architecture of the area. As we looked over the gilded dome of the new church, once again, my dad and I agreed that the next time we come to the Piva region we will “do it properly” and “see everything” – an impossible feat.
This article was produced with support of the European Union, Municipalities of Plužine and Foča, and T.A.R.A (Tourism, Adrenaline and Rafting Adventures) project