Falling in love with Montinegro

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
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Trip End Nov 20, 2010


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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Amazing mountain scenery in Montenegro
As you head towards Montenegro from Croatia the mountains suddenly become more purposeful increasing in both size and steepness. The road from the border hugs the coast and leads up to the bay of Kotor one of the main attractions in Montenegro. It is basically a large bay almost cut off from the sea, surrounded by massive mountains which virtually form cliffs around the whole bay. It is often compared to the fjords in Norway (with good reason). The main road avoids the bay by taking a ferry across the entrance of the fjord. There is however a smaller road which goes right the way round the bay (about 30km) hugging the coast all the way. The views are spectacular, there are numerous pretty villages dotted along the way and loads of kamikaze bus drivers to avoid. The weather was sunny but in places extremely windy (at times I thought I would be blown off the road). Kotor is the largest settlement on the bay and has a pretty little old town with fortress walls all the way up the sheer mountain behind. I thought that i had better take a day off to explore as this looked like my kind of place. I was delighted as I woke to beautiful sunny weather the next day. I decided to go do the touristy thing and pay the €2 to climb up the fortress (this was more in my budget than the €10 they wanted in Dubrovnik). I set off and was slightly disappointed to find out that the small cruise ship docked in the bay was of course British. This meant that I had to listen to many a moronic English conversation (cruise ships seem to attract a certain type of person, maybe its a good thing because at least it gets them out the country for a bit) and be exposed to numerous fat tattooed men with their shirts off because it was over 10 degrees. I made good time (I don't do slow when I'm walking or when I'm riding a bike for that matter, I like to go at my own pace). Near the top I bumped into a couple from New Zealand who were also staying at the hostel. They had set off earlier so already been to the top and were sitting admiring the mountains behind. I said "it's such a nice day, I wish I could go up the mountain" they had also just been thinking the same and pointed to a small dot half way up, "that's the other guy from our hostel" they said. I left them to it and continued to the top. Once I got there I noticed a small path which seemed to lead to the mountain. I was just pondering if I could get down to the path from the fortress when I saw the New Zealanders walking along it. Luckily I had a bit of food and some water so I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. I searched around for a few minutes and almost gave up as I couldn't figure out how to get over the fortress walls. I then stupidly realised I was standing on top of a wall directly above an archway with a bıg sign post, it couldn't have been more obvious. I wandered along and soon met the main path, quite worryingly disturbing a baby snake on the way. The path up the mountain was something else, I had seen it when I was riding into town the day before. The hill was so steep it had walls holding it up as it zigzagged all the way up to the top through olive groves and rocky farmland. It was actually the old route into the interior from the coast. Quite surprisingly there were a couple of houses half way up and despite no road access (Montenegrin people will live anywhere unlike most countries even when you look out at the mountains (many of which are over 2000m high) there will still be odd huts perched near the top with a plume of smoke meandering from the chimney confirming they are inhabited). As well as olive trees there were also loads of pomegranates growing many of which had been polished off by the local birds. I decided I wanted to take some back to try but unsure of what a ripe pomegranate looks like I had to get a selection and adopt a trial and error method. As the climb continued the view became more spectacular, it had everything, mountains, sea, villages, boats, a fortress and the weather was also perfect. When I got to the top of the path I saw the New Zealanders already admiring the view. We were only part the way up and the path continued ever further into the mountains, we were all slightly annoyed we didn't have time to get to the top but I guess as we didn't even know we were going to be climbing a mountain in the first place we had done quite well. We chatted for a while before they headed off back down, I just sat in the sun staring at the amazing view wondering why I hadn't come to the coast sooner. The walk down was just as interesting as the climb up, I was unfortunate to meet the "mummy" snake (who was quite a lot bigger than the one i had seen earlier which freaked me out a bit), I think I walk too fast so tend to ambush them. The best sight however revealed the answer to the question "how can people live halfway up a mountain with no road" an old man was wandering up the path with a couple of wooden boards under one arm, he was following a very laden donkey which presumably was carrying the weekly shop. It was such a perfect sight and I just wish I had spotted it earlier so I could have got a photo before they spotted me.

Possibly the best road ever!
The next day I set off on what looked like it could be an interesting road from the map. It headed up the hill behind town and into the national park. Of course the weather was perfect again (I was beginning to enjoy waking up knowing that it would be nice the whole day). I was actually really liking everything about Montenegro, the drivers were no exception. As mentioned before it is common in many of the Balkan countries for drivers to give you a hoot to let you know they are passing, and occasionally people coming from either direction would honk and wave. In Montenegro however it was a very common occurrence (maybe one in 5 cars would wave and smile) they were so friendly and so happy to see a crazy Brit riding, it got to the point where I was getting a bit fed up of waving all the time. And so to the road, well it was a road like none other I have ridden, in fact I can safely say it is THE BEST ROAD I HAVE EVER RIDDEN! This is the gist of it. It starts off as two lanes but quickly becomes as single lane back road, it has over 20 of the most amazing hairpin bends many with pretty sheer drops (instead of a safety barrier they have concrete blocks, fine if you are in a car but I could have easily ridden through the gaps between them), it climbs over 1000m from sea level and although the finish is only a few km from Kotor it takes a massive 30km to get there! This gives you an idea how wiggly it is. The view are stupendous and as the route circles round the end of the bay you see it from many different angles. It took about 3 hours of actual riding to get to the top plus another couple of hours as every bend leads to a more impressive view so I found myself stopping very 5 minutes to get my camera out. It was amazing, you could see a car on the road below and it would take about 20 minutes before it would pass you. I was also pleased to find that the road actually looped all the way round and followed the ridge above the grassy patch we had walked to the day before so inadvertently I had to discovered what the view was like at the top. The end of the climb took me inland through small villages where people were sat outside drinking under patios shaded by grape vines, it was very Mediterranean. Apart from the lack of sun once I rode over the summit the road continued to be amazing and the view very different but also great, looking out of the many mountains which covered pretty much all of Montenegro. Montenegro is my kind of country huge mountains everywhere (many over 2500m) hardly any people (the population is 600,000) so much of the land is unspoilt and free of houses, beautiful coast, amazing roads, friendly people, I was beginning to fall in love with it.

The next day i had lost most off the 1000m I had gained the day before as I road into the capital Podgorica (which of course is pretty tiny so I was through it in about 20 minutes). I soon found myself climbing again, the road was the old main road, it too had it's fair share of hairpins and was really nice to ride even though it was another 20 odd km of continuous climb. The main traffic I shared the road with was small lorries which were all laden with logs. It appeared at as the first snow had come a few days previously people were eager to get the firewood in (most people even in the cities rely on logs for heating which means you get the wonderful smell of wood smoke in the streets). Once again the views got better and better, this time over the large mountains in the interior, the road was great and passed through lots of small villages so I could watch people going about their business as I slowly pedalled through (of course there was much waving going on as well). When you are riding a mountain pass generally you will look ahead and try and guess where the road will go or spot glimpses of other cars up ahead. Often it is quite easy to guess but the Montenegrin roads were so twisty and amazing it was always a surprise as to where they ended up.

Frosty start leads to a warm welcome
After spending most of the day climbing up a mountain pass (over 1200m of climbing in one go!) in beautiful sunny weather wearing only shorts and a t-shirt it was quite annoying to reach the top to find a dark misty valley which had not seen the sun for sometime. I knew this was the case as many of the hills were still covered in the remains of the snow from a few days before (which gives you an idea of the air temperature). I hoped the road would descend quickly so I could drop down and find somewhere to camp, typically this was not the case. It soon became apparent that I was going to have to find somewhere to camp quickly before the light was gone, I could feel it getting colder every minute which was not helped by the wind chill. When camping the warmest spots are low down off the mountain but away from rivers as the mist normally forms there and the river brings down cold air with it. The problem was that this particular valley had steep forested sides and the road hugged the river as it wound down. I managed to find a grassy spot however it wasn't the best, right next to the river in full view of the road. "well" I though to myself "at least I have dropped down off the mountain" I checked my GPS to see my current height and was quite shocked to find I was still about 1100m! I was in for a cold night. Quite how cold I didn't realise at the time. I got set up and cooked some food. It was at 9 o'clock when I decided to go outside and do my pre bed exercise (this is running and star jumps to help get the blood flowing so that my sleeping bag warms up quicker, passersby think I'm mad but it really helps me get to sleep). I undid the zip on my tent, or rather struggled to. I wondered what the problem was but closer inspection revealed the culprit, it was already so cold I had ice forming on both the outside and inside of my tent. "oh bugger" I thought to myself, this was with good reason as my tent is very lightweight and well ventilated (read bloody rubbish at keeping heat in) my sleeping bag is also lightweight and rated down to a maximum of 1 degree at a push but the comfort zone is above 5 degrees. I decided more clothes were my best bet so ended up in my sleeping bag with 3 pairs of socks, cycling shorts with cycling tights over the top, a t-shirt a long sleeve wool base layer, my coat, a hat, gloves and a buff (a kind of cool kids scarf/headband) round my neck to keep the draughts out. "that ought to do it" I thought to myself, and surprisingly it did and I slept soundly all night. It had obviously continued getting colder and by the morning Rose (my bike) had done a Michael Jackson and turned from black to white now clad in a very thick layer of frost, my tent also had a White sheen and was frozen inside and out, even my 1.5 litre bottle of water in the porch had started to freeze. I had no idea how cold it had been but later found out it must have been at at least about -8 as a nearby town at a slightly lower altitude had been -5. I was quite chuffed at how comfortable I had been, it's always nice to know what your gear can do although I wouldn't want to go any lower!

Warming up the Montenegrin way
Not surprisingly I was quite keen to get riding to warm up and set off pretty quickly. As is normally the case in Montenegro I had another mountain pass to look forward to, it was the highest yet at 1580m but not so bad as I was starting from 1000m. I set off and came across one or two hairy patches where the melted snow had frozen turning the road into an ice rink. I was keen to get warm and therefore set a good pace so soon enough I found myself leaning rose against a sign at the top of the pass. I was just getting ready to take a picture of my bike and the sign when I heard a man shout "Hi" and beckon me across. He was standing in the doorway of a small wooden mountain hut with a really steep roof, I was quite surprised, I thought it was closed as there were large wooden shutters over all the windows and I couldn't believe there would be someone operating a restaurant as this altitude during the winter on a tiny back road. As I approached I saw a husky sitting next to the door. He said in broken English "don't mind dog", it later turned out he had a whole team and uses them with a sled in the winter, I was just transfixed by it's eyes I don't know if you have ever stared a husky in the face before but it's eyes are totally white apart from a small black pupil, very eerie. Once I got inside I found it was actually very cozy with 4 or 5 wooden tables a TV and a small bar on one side. The walls were adorned with the usual items for a mountain chalet, snow shoes, pots and pans and miscellaneous tools. The view out the two front windows was spectacular looking over a snow clad mountain range. There was one other guy there who I think was a forestry worker having his lunch. I had the usual introduction chat with the owner and as is common he spoke more German than English. He was a really nice guy and soon asked me if I wanted a drink I replied "chi" (tea) but was somehow talked into trying the blueberry schnapps his friend had made (which apparently is very good for warming up). I sat for a while and watched him running around cooking some steaks talking sporadically in-between.  As well as a restaurant he also had rooms, the location was amazing from his place you could walk into one mountain range with peaks over 2500m and the other way it was only a few km to the national park. The road although very tiny was apparently kept clear all winter despite getting over 3m of snow a year. In the winter you could go and stay there, then go off snow shoeing and cross country skiing into the mountains, I'm very temped to go back. I got his details and when I went to leave I asked him how much for the schnapps and of course he replied " no nothing it's ok, have a safe trip" (which was quite ironic considering he had just been plying me with hard liquor ready for my 10km of very fast twist decent off the mountain!)

Montenegrin hospitality is second to none
The road down from the mountain was great. Steep and twisty with lots of hairpins weaving their way down trough small villages. Later that day I got my second dose of hospitality. I stopped at a small shop to get some tomatoes for lunch. The guy serving me was very interested in why I was there with my bike but didn't speak much English. I was just turning to go when he said "no no one minute, my friend good English" pointing inside. His friend appeared and started to translate their questions, soon I was surrounded by a group of guys who were fascinated about my trip. I must have stood chatting for 20 minutes and was just about to go when one of them who obviously ran the shop came over and handed me a carrier bag full of clementines and bananas saying "for a good trip" I was delighted as it was such a nice gesture although part of me did wish it was something smaller that didn't weigh a few kilos! I was already loving the roads and scenery in Montenegro but now the people were turning out to be some of the friendliest and kindest I have met. I continued with my days ride but due to the clocks changing (which i was a bit confused about as i had two clocks showing different times and i didn't know which was right) it started to get dark at 5 o'clock so I had to do the last few kilometres into town in near darkness. I didn't want to camp out again as it was pretty cold and this town was at 1000m. I was trying to find a motel or cheap place to stay, there was a rather swish looking hotel with not surprisingly was €50 a night, but quite worryingly the concierge didn't know of any cheap place in town. I pedalled around a bit when I happened to see a young guy stepping out of a Jaguar with a British number plate. I was sure he would speak some English so I decided to go and ask him. My hunch was right and he had lived in the UK for a couple of years working as a chef in none other than Harrods. He was a really nice guy and was sure there was a cheap place, he said he would ask a friend.  While we waited for his friend to phone back he took me inside his auto shop and we chatted away. Eventually we found out there was a place and it was €10 including breakfast, it sounded perfect. By this time his dad who also worked in the shop had come back so he said he could take me and show me where the place was. But then just as we were leaving he said "....if your short of money you could come and stay with us instead?" I asked if he was sure and he said it was fine, I set off in search of food and said I would meet him back at the shop in an hour. So later that evening I found myself pedalling like mad trying to follow a battered grey Mercedes (a very common car in these parts) round the streets in sub zero temperatures. Luckily his place was close and soon we were pulling up to a massive 3 story brick house in the suburbs. He was part of a Muslim family so as is often the case the whole family lived together in the same building. His mum and dad were on the bottom floor, he had the middle floor and his brother and his family had the top floor.  His mother had already laid out a bed for me in his spare room and I was immediately made to feel at home. He had to pop out but as he left he said "I know you have eaten but my mum is making traditional Montenegrin bean soup, will you have some with me later?" of course I couldn't refuse so the rest of the night was spent chatting away whilst eating yummy bean soup and home made bread and watching German satellite TV (he went to school in Germany). The next day he was up for the morning prayer call at 5:30 and by the time I got up he was busy cooking scrambled egg for breakfast. He was a really interesting guy and we talked some more whilst eating breakfast. Soon enough I was following his grey Mercedes again back to the main road. As I pedalled towards the border I though to myself "I think I have a new favourite country from this trip"

A slightly tipsy welcome to Serbia
The first thing which struck me about Serbia is how dirty it is. There is rubbish everywhere, it is common to get some road side rubbish in these countries however in Serbia it seems everyone dumps all their rubbish pretty much where ever they please. The scenery was also not so impressive (not surprising considering i had come from one of the most pretty countries in Eastern Europe or maybe the whole of Europe). The first town i arrived in was Novi Pazar, no word can describe it but chaos, sheer chaos. But this was not a bad thing it was an interesting experience riding into the middle. There were cars everywhere and even more people (despite it being the middle of the day) it appeared that everyone just sat around all day drinking tea and coffee and partaking in the nations favourite pass time.... SMOKING! It can be done everywhere and everyone does it, i think about 80% of the population smokes, its pretty mad. I pushed my bike around for a bit in search of some food and a bankomat (ATM). I soon had pockets bulging with money its very confusing as there is about 130 Serbian dinars to the pound so you end up with very large amounts of notes. I met a few interesting people who starting talking at me and were trying to convince me to sit and drink tea with them, this was a very kind offer however when people don't really speak any English the conversation soon drys up and it becomes a bit awkward. I managed to get a donor kebab and set off weaving through more chaotic dirty streets to the continual sound of honking and revving engines.

That evening due to it still being pretty cold i decided i would find a cheap motel for the night. I found a few and asked around about price. I decided on a place just out of a small town as they guy running it was very friendly and spoke a few words of English and German. I was enjoying having a relax and was just in the middle of writing this blog post when i decided i had better go and search out some food. I had spotted a place a few hundred meters up the road which was grill where you could get a burger. I decided this was a good option as it would be nice and quick and i could bring it back and eat it with the rest of my beer. I arrived at the place and asked for a burger. The owner looked a little confused and didn't really speak much English. As luck would have it one of the two other guys in there spoke good English and helped out. So soon i had a nice burger with salad being prepared for me. As i waited the English speaking guy asked if i wanted to sit and drink with them, i kindly declined and told them i had to get back. We chatted away for a bit and it turned out he actually lived in Greece and worked as a souvenir sales man hence his good English. After a while he said "at least sit down with us whilst you wait" so i did, this was soon follow by "you have to have one drink its rude not too" so the first glass of rakija found its way into my hand. Then my burger came so i sat and ate that as we chatted away. Soon enough another round of drinks was ordered and so it began. It was actually good fun, they were a good laugh and all the usual bar banter was going on when i asked them what they were saying to each other it was just that same kind of names blokes in bar back home call each other. There was only the three of us there so soon the owner pulled up a chair grabbed a beer and joined in, occasionally getting up to bring in smoked meat (a common snack people have when they are drinking). The rounds of drinks kept coming but they wouldn't let me buy them a round back and kept saying "No, No your a guest here, we welcome you to Serbia". After maybe 5 or 6 rounds of drink another guy came in, he was a big guy with very short hair and a big round smiley face. He was a friend of theirs and a local plumber. Although he didn't speak any English he was such a nice guy and soon i was having translated questions asked to me. Of course then he bought a round of drinks without even asking and the drinking continued. After a while the non English speaking guy who had been there when i came had drank to much beer and sauntered off into the night leaving just the four of us. I had originally told them i had to go at 10 to call my parents. It was now about 11 and the rounds of drinks were still coming. At about half 11 i said i really must go now but of course we had to have another round of drinks first. Apparently you drink when you arrive, but then you also have to have one for the road when you leave. So after about 8 Rakijas and a couple of beers and a good 5 hours in the bar i got up said right i must leave. I asked to pay for my burger and a round of drinks however it wasn't going to be easy as they were insistent i didn't need to. Eventually i said my farewells and stumbled off into the night having not paid for anything, not even my burger, i really did try but Serbian people are just too nice. It was a great evening and really nice just to sit and drink with local people and experience a proper Serbian bar.

Unfortunately although it had been a great evening the next morning i came to realise just what your head feels like after drinking that much local made rakija. I was planning on a big ride in fact the biggest mountain pass yet at over 1800m, the weather was perfect, sunny and warm and i started to pack all my gear up and get it on my bike. I was just getting ready to go and pay when i started having second thought, my head did feel slightly like i had an elephant sitting on it and the thought of sweating it out climbing up a massive hill all morning really wasn't sounding appealing. I finally gave in and booked another night, and headed back to bed, i guess its the downside of experiencing local hospitality! I planned to use the day wisely and write some of this travel blog, sort out my gear etc however i ended up sleeping for most of it (which i guess was probably a good thing).

So finally the next day i set of to take on the challenge of crossing the highest mountain pass yet. This particular mountain pass was Kopaonik, the most famous ski resort in Serbia which is at over 1800m. On the way i came within 100m of the Kosovo border before i turned off and started to climb. It was a very epic climb indeed. It was quite steep which is not necessarily a bad thing as often it is nice to climb steeply for a couple of hours (you feel like your getting somewhere) than to climb a less steep road but for a whole morning. Quite a long way before the top the construction started, there were new hotels being built left right and centre. As i neared the top there were guys busy hammering in red and yellow posts along the sides of the roads so that they would know where to snow plough, they were obviously expecting snow soon. The actual resort was much bigger than expected, there seemed to be ski lifts and hotels everywhere. It would be really interesting to go back a few weeks later and see what its like at peak season. On the other side of the mountain the terrain began to flatten out and the last stretch to Nis was though massive expanses of farmland.
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