One might guess that the name Montenegro derives from the Latin words for ‘mountain’ and ‘black’. It lives up to this name very well – the entire country being made of very rugged mountainous terrain. We had some tough climbs in Albania but since then the inclines have been manageable. We hoped this trend would continue…
We had done well during our first month – completing over 2000km in just 30 days! We think we are fitter now than we have ever been, what with the fewer rest days and longer distances per day. We’re managing to eat up 700m climbs before our morning tea break if we put our minds to it. The new lower gears are certainly helping as is the need to carry less water now that we can fill up pretty much anywhere.
All the people in Montenegro are extremely tall. Tall and straight backed. This is no exaggeration, its successful basketball team is a good testament.
Montenegro is very, very beautiful – a great place for outdoor lovers – and we enjoyed some really nice cycle days making our way down to Podorica, the capital. We didn’t have the best weather, the blue skies of Kosovo disappeared under thick grey clouds with us experiencing some epic thunderstorms later in the week. Fortunately we managed to escape most of the rain by strategically stopping in undercover spots and camping underneath bridges.
We spent the Easter bank holiday here and as its a predominantly orthodox Christian country we recognised a few of the festivities. We were looking forward to buying a large chocolate Easter egg but they don’t have them here… The cadbury’s commercial takeover of Easter hasn’t reached here and instead they paint hard boiled eggs. We got given these beautiful ones by a family outside a shop on Easter Sunday.
We still missed our chocolate eggs though… Maybe someone at home can buy one in the Easter sale and keep it for us for when we get home…. 🙂
Because of its topography, Montenegro doesn’t boast any major dual carriageways or motorways. They have gotten very good at building small roads which twist and turn nicely up the side of a mountain but anything bigger than an A road has defeated them. To solve this problem they’ve turned to the Chinese government – Who better than the Chinese to sort this problem, we know from experience how good they are at building huge infrastructure projects in remote, rugged mountainous terrain.
On our way down to Podorica we pass miles of construction and tunnel building all being worked by Chinese workers. The Mandarin signs and direction plaques coupled with the mountainous terrain made it feel we were back in Yunnan. It reminded us both of our two months in China, probably our best time of the trip and we both felt nostalgic for the delicious food, quirky people and epic scenery…
It feels more Slavic here and the country has a subtle overlay of Russian culture about it. Montenegro sided with the Serbs after the breakup of Yugoslavia and for a time the two countries united under the banner of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Lots of people seem to speak German as a second language here, possibly because of the Austrio-German occupation of this area before the First World War.
Podgorica the capital was once called Titograd has almost nothing to offer – harsh, but true – and all we did there was stop at the riverside park to eat lunch. It’s not much of a city, more of a town with plenty of concrete apartment blocks.
From here we climbed towards Kotor and took a detour to Montenero’s old capital Rijeka Crnojevica; a picturesque tiny village on lake Skadar which is an exceptionally amazing place. We were there during the thunderstorms which gave an awesome Jerrasic Park like feel to the landscape.
Stopping at the famed bridge in the morning we then climbed out of this amazing valley over the mountains to Kotor, Montenegro’s tourist gem which sits nestled in a large natural inlet called a ria (not a fjord!). The road down to Kotor boasts no less than 29 hairpin bends and the panoramic views before you descend are something special – the Adriatic Sea sweeping round from the left and then the old town of Kotor protected by its castle walls nestled into that famous Ria to the right. The only thing to spoil the view was the cruise ship monstrosity sitting right outside the old town….
We get down to the waterfront and find a very special camp spot literally on the water in a grassy car park area. A Dutch couple in their camper-house are already stopped here for the night so we set up camp and, once the cruise ship finally takes off, enjoy probably the best viewing spot in the whole of the town…
We have a lazy morning because the sun is beating down and it’s lovely here. We need to recharge all our electrics, wash clothes and have our first warm shower in two weeks so the plan is to book into a hostel for one night here. The timing is good as it was due to rain HEAVILY overnight. We found a very good hostel and had a rare afternoon apart. Paddy sat in the reception on a borrowed computer to update his CV and I headed out to walk around town. Kotor is very lovely but touristy, even this early in the year. I think we’ve both been travelling for so long now that these sorts of places – particularly in the way that they are set up for you to spend as much money as possible – grate on us a little now. We’re in a different travelling mindset I guess. I’m sure if we were here for a week we’d be lapping up all the swanky restaurants and boutique shops!
I had a nice stroll and then spotted a poster for a free classical concert taking place at 6pm. I turn up 10 minutes before the start time and there’s just a smattering of locals sitting under a huge glass chandelier in a beautiful new-classical reception hall waiting for it to start. From what I could gather, the players were a combination of students and teachers from Montenegro and Terana in Albania and they played a mixture of early Baroque and Romantic works.
I felt pretty zen after the performance, that was until I walked outside to find the skies had opened and the promised downpour was in full swing. I didn’t have my rain coat and I got slightly lost in the narrow streets; by the time I get back I resemble a drowned rat.
I find Paddy still beavering away in the busy hostel reception area. We had a fun night out with some other guests including a nice guy called John from London and we returned from the bar to our laundered clothes; presented in a tidy, folded pile smelling of washing powder and feeling all soft from having been tumble dried. Simple pleasures!! Paddy sleep walks that night and finds himself in the hostel corridor trying to find the bathroom (!) but other than that we have a good sleep in our beds.
We spend the next day cycling to the border and camp right on the beachfront again. We make a friend who curls up outside our tent all night. I’m normally very anti-dogs because we’ve had one wee on our tent before, but he was too cute and docile for me to shoo him away.
From here we will dip into Croatia for just a day to visit the famed maritime town of Dubrovnik before crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Our time in Macedonia was short – a quick jaunt across its western frontier before crossing into Kosovo. Macedonia is probably best known as the homeland of Alexander the Great. It was also the birthplace of Mother Theresa.
Unlike neighbouring Albania it was part of Yugoslavia; the entire area making up a southern region of this vast republic. The country gained a peaceful Independance in 1991 and wasn’t effected by the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s. It’s part of the UN but due to an ongoing dispute with Greece regarding the nation’s use of the term ‘Macdeonia’ it has to be known internationally by the verbose title of ‘The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’.
It was part of the Ottoman Empire but after the Balkan Wars in 1912-13 was left under the control of the Serbs which is why it was later incorporated into Yugoslavia. However, it has a dominant Albanian diaspora who make up 25% of the population. The part we are cycling through is heavily dominated by Albanian communities. A 2001 conflict between the government and Albanian rebels ended with the help of NATO intervention and led to more political and cultural representation for this Albanian, predominantly Muslim, minority.
Macedonia has a fun flag which wouldn’t look out of place at a festival and also a very cool national motto: ‘Freedom or Death’.
It feels more developed than Albania but the cost of food and drinks remains decently low. The people seem very nice but perhaps a little more reserved than in Albania. It has been the first country where we have been told we can’t camp somewhere by a passer by…
Our first day was spent resting in Ohrid where we managed to bargain an apartment for 11 euros. Ohrid is a nice town, it’s a UNESCO heritage site but Paddy and I are not really sure why… We’ve come to realise that the UNESCO labelling system can be very random and that its use is just as much a political tool as a means of protecting heritage sites…
After our stop in Ohrid we continue to head north staying close to the Albanian border. Unsurprising we see lots of Albanian flags and lots of the signs are multilingual. We haven’t seen much sun here and it’s been pretty chilli with even some snow falling at the top of the Mavrovo nature reserve. We can still appreciate the beauty though.
We’ve shared coffee with some lovely people too including two sheep farmers (father and son) who were stopped at the local garage where we had camped the night before. We have also met our first fellow cycle tourers of 2017 – Galen and Benedict from London who were on their way to Athens having started a few weeks back in Venice.
We also got invited to drink tea by guy called Sulejman. Sulejman was nice but he had a lot of opinions which he was very keen to share with us very quickly. He didn’t seem too interested in hearing what we had to say (in fact he didn’t interact with me at all) and we spent the half an hour just listening to his various unconnected thoughts – interesting nevertheless. He then took us on a tour of the local mosque which was just across the road – a very beautiful building built by two sisters and decorated in an unusual neoclassical western style paintings.
One of the funniest things we’ve seen here has been an 11 year old boy driving a land rover on his own. Apparently this is quite normal… That’s it really I towards Kosovo before heading west to Montenegro.