Montenegro: Black Mountain

I have finally started to look through my Europe photos in the hopes of organizing, sharing and printing them. While doing so I recalled that I had intended to turn my blog into a travel blog and post updates along the way, with photos and interesting tidbits. Well, that didn’t happen. But I’m going to do a few blogs posts in the next little while that will highlight some of the amazing places, things and foods we saw and ate during our Eastern European adventure. Note they will not be in any particular order, as I will write about what inspires me at the current moment rather than what happened in chronological order.

First up: Montenegro.

Before we started planning our trip, I don’t think I had ever even heard of Montenegro. Or if I had, it was one of those places that you hear the name of but don’t actually know where it is or what it’s about. In fact, the only reason we ended up planning our route through Montenegro was because we intended on driving through it to get from Serbia to Croatia.

Let me fill you in a little on Montenegro: it is a country located at the southernmost coast of the Adriatic sea, and is bordered by countries that in North American opinions might be considered “scary”: Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania and Serbia. And Croatia too, but that’s not scary. Really, none of these places are scary anymore.

It is an interesting place – apparently a hot spot for Russian tourists (we saw Russian billboards and signs everywhere). It has been joined with such countries as the former Yugoslavia, and Serbia, and even occupied by Italy, but has been officially independent as its own state since 2006.

The name (Crna Gora), literally translated, means “Black Mountain”, and I can see why. It is made up of tall dark mountain ranges that soar into the sky and plunge into the sea at an alarming angle. Many of its coastal cities are built directly on the water and are backed by steep inclines.

I wish there was something nice I could say about Podgorica, its capital, but unfortunately, it is a boring, difficult to navigate hell-hole. We only drove through (and around, and out of in the wrong direction, then back, then around again). There are no signs to speak of in this city. We had to pull over and ask some cops “which way to Serbia?” And we still got lost. About a thousand times. And the roads from the coast to the capital were some of the scariest we had ever seen. Imagine a sheer rock cliff on one side of the two lane narrow highway, and a sheer dropoff on the other side, leading to a chasmic abyss that you can’t even see the bottom of. Yeah.

Not to mention the nerve-wracking experience of getting pulled over by police when we were coming around a corner. The way they get you is to clock your speed, then step out onto the road with a baton and wave it to pull you over. This having happened (with my beloved Cheesler at the wheel), we waited while he was asked to approach the officer in the cruiser. We (in the car) groaned at the sight of arms waving to and fro, gesticulation, the shaking of heads and worse, the sight of something being filled out on paper. When Cheesler returned, he said that the officer had avised him that he was speeding, and was getting a ticket. To pay the ticket, he must leave his driver’s license, drive to the next town and pay at the post office, then return with his receipt, and his license would be returned. Ever the suave player, Cheesler suggested that he might make things easier just by paying the officer, who laughed and asked him if he was a tourist. When his Canadian passport was waved around, the officer tore up the ticket and told him to continue on with his day.

Anyway, I digress…

The areas we did spend time in, were lovely. The Bay of Kotor is this cool inlet of the Adriatic with a highway going around its perimeter and a bunch of cute little towns built as described above – directly on the sea shore. Now, you would think that a bridge could be built between the little peninsulas to allow travel back and forth from either side of the inlet easier. But no, they have only a ferry. Which we couldn’t take the rental car on. So, around the zigzaggy inlet we drove, back and forth in a switchback motion. It made for a nice drive, however. We spotted monasteries on tiny islands in the middle of the bay, being buffeted by waves. Those crazy monks and their island monasteries.

There was a perfect ratio of buildings-lovingly-restored-or-preserved to buildings-charmingly-falling-apart. Kotor is known for its Venetian architecture. In the city of Kotor, where we stayed for one night, there are many stray dogs and cats and in my own words “hulking, sinister men” hanging around and staring at tourists. We learned later that the hulking sinister men were actually quite friendly and helpful once you spoke with them. It is just a Slavic mannerism, to be hulking and sinister in appearance.

When we arrived in Kotor, dishevelled and grumpy after a genuine and wholesome CF in Dubrovnik earlier that day, we were eager to relax. We found an apartment to stay in for the night, paid the man then went out in search of food. We ended up going to a small pub-like restaurant and having local beer and pizza. When we left, the heavens had opened up and was dumping (no, heaving…no, gushing) a downright deluge of rain, and we were soaked by the time we got back to the apartment. We decided to stay in for the rest of the night, watching Montenegrin satellite tv.

After a fitful sleep (get 4 wet backpackers sleeping in the same room and you have a rather warm and pungent night), we got up the next morning and headed to the base of the mountain to climb up to the fortress that the town is famous for.

This climb, my friends, was the most difficult thing I have ever done physically. Imagine zigzagging stone steps winding their way up a 45 or perhaps even 60 degree angle. The steps are crumbling. The “protective” walls are very short or non-existent in places. The climb to the top is very far. People on their way down are warning you how far you have to go yet. You have been living off of potatoes, pizza and sausages and not getting any exercise for the last 3 weeks.

Reaching the top, drenched in sweat, we admired the fruits of our efforts: a breathtaking view and a real sense of accomplishment.

We looked out over the clay tile rooftops of the ancient city below, the gorgeous turquoise bay beyond and the mountains towering afar. We heard the church bells of the Serbian Orthodox church ringing, and watched flocks of crows and pigeons swooping in formation down the mountainside. On the other side of the fortress, we were treated to a delightful view of a secretive homestead in a valley far below. I spotted a donkey and whistled at it, which sparked a series of barks from the dogs at the house. There was also a cow. Old rock stairs climbed the mountain on the other side of the valley, which we later learned was the trail that was used in ancient times as a foot-trail that lead to the interior of Montenegro, protected by the fortress and accessible even if the bay was blockaded by invading foes.

You think that was all? The trail down the mountain was almost as hard as going up. I used muscles I never even knew existed. I swear, my eyelids were tired by the time we reached the bottom – I was a shaking gelatinous mass, almost unable to stand on my own two feet.

The next stop between Kotor and Podgorica was Budva, which sounds like some kind of Zen retreat but is really the capital of Montenegro’s party tourism crowd, at least according to the lonely planet. We stopped there for lunch, originally with the intention of scoping out our next accommodations for the evening, but ended up moving on in the hopes of making it to Belgrade that night. (Ha! ha ha! Silly tourists). We had lunch at a seaside café which was literally immediately next to the crashing waves and whose tables sat atop the rocky beach.

All in all, Montengro was definitely worth a visit, and I think I would like to return, if only to experience its beaches in the height of summer.

To view the entire Montengro picture album, visit my photo sharing site: Camp Caution Eurotrip 2010.

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  1. Riga, Latvia « Soph n' Stuff - December 1, 2010

    […] will take everything you have.”* Perhaps this is the reason for my nervousness felt later towards “hulking, sinister men” in Montenegro. She did, however, recommend a brief foray into the Moscow district during the day to […]

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