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Saturday, 30 December 2017

Montenegro: Land of Adventure

 

It was a little unsettling when we received word that the cycling tour in Montenegro we had put a deposit on was cancelled due to insufficient sign-ups. It was just a week before we were to leave for Europe and now we had nowhere to stay and no plans for our time in Montenegro.

What to do?

Thank goodness for the Internet. We found and reserved hotel rooms, and then contacted tour companies in Montenegro. We heard right away from two of them; one was booked for the week and couldn’t help us, but the other was happy to put a schedule together. Marko, who heads Active Travels Montenegro, asked us what we wanted to do and what restrictions we had. Cycling, hiking, and kayaking we told him – with really no limits. Oh, and maybe a boat trip … and how about swimming in the Adriatic Sea? No problem, Marko responded. I’ll work on it and see you in a week.

Cycling Above Kotor Bay

Marko got to work; contacting guides, arranging bicycles, kayaks, and boats, and lining up excursions. He is a presence; tall and handsome with years of experience in hospitality, and he has carved out a niche in Montenegro as a specialty tour guide. He’s good at what he does.

While Marko was working out the details we headed off to explore the Balkans, in south-east Europe. We spent a week traveling in Belgrade, Serbia; Sofia, Bulgaria; and Split and Dubrovnik, Croatia. It’s an interesting part of Europe, steeped in history and successfully recovering from communist rule, a civil war, and economic challenges. We were pleasantly surprised by the renovation, modernization, and friendly people. The past is visible with evidence of intrusions, contrasting architectural styles, and urban sprawl; but there is innovation, too, including efficient transportation, up-to-date communications, and a well-developed infrastructure. We were welcomed and the locals seemed to enjoy hearing our accents and helping us. Our hotels were modern and comfortable and staffed with some of the friendliest and most helpful staff we have met, who steered us to good restaurants, interesting museums, and inexpensive shopping.

(A quick note about Split and Dubrovnik – those beautiful and historic Croatian cities suffer from tourist overload as masses of people, including cruise ship passengers and Game of Thrones fans, crowd the walkways, overrun the shops and restaurants, and taint the tourist experience.)

Our ferry boat ride down the Dalmatian Coast from Split to Dubrovnik was a highlight. We stopped at the islands of Brac, Hvar, Korcula, and Mjlet with views of lavender, green trees, and stone houses with red roofs. At Dubrovnik, we disembarked and hired a taxi to take us across the border into Montenegro, to the town of Herceg Novi, our home for the next six days.

Montenegro is a 600-year old country on the Adriatic Sea, across from Italy. It’s about the size of Connecticut, with a population of less than 700,000 people. We didn't know where Montenegro was until Donald Trump pushed aside the prime minister of Montenegro to get in position for a photo at the recent NATO meeting. The more we read about Montenegro the more interesting it sounded, so we decided to explore it.

Our home base, Herceg Novi, is a small, historic town on beautiful Kotor Bay, with an appealing old town, beach resorts, and excellent restaurants. We stayed at Garni Hotel Bokeska Noc, a small, family-run hotel with balconies, sea views, fantastic breakfasts, and an easy walk to the beach and downtown. Bozidar, the gentleman who owns and runs the hotel, checked us in, helped with our luggage, and recommended restaurants within walking distance. We were soon seated in a comfy café on the water enjoying a massive platter of octopus, mussels, shrimp, and langoustines. Meals in Montenegro, like hotel rooms, are high quality and inexpensive.

Oldtown In Herceg Novi

The next morning Marko met us at our hotel and introduced us to Danilo, a local guide and nature enthusiast, who led us up Vrmac Ridge, a 2,500-foot elevation that separates Kotor Bay from Tivat Bay. A stone pathway follows the line of an Austro-Hungarian road from 1860, and we followed switchbacks in and out of pine forests and enjoyed blooming crocuses, wild pomegranates, and fantastic views of the bay below. At the peak we explored a stone fort built in the 1800s by occupying Austro-Hungarian troops. After our hike, we entered the walled city of Kotor for lunch, and then joined Marko for a private tour of the south gate and the ancient stone wall that zig-zags up the mountainside.

On day two we met Janko, our guide for the next two days, who brought bicycles and led us around the peninsula that extends into Kotor Bay. A light rain kept our ride from getting too hot, and it stopped in time for our final downhill ride. Wildflowers bloomed and olives hung from trees near the narrow roads.

Cycling In Montenegro

People in Montenegro remember the 1990s Bosnian War, which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. Montenegro was caught in the middle and many of its men fought in the war, including Janko’s father. Janko was a boy when NATO forces, led by the U.S., bombed a communication tower across the bay from his home in Herceg Novi. He remembers seeing a missile streak past his house and hit the mountain below the tower. With his father away at war, he and his mother ran to the basement and hid until the bombing stopped.

Day three had us on bicycles again with Janko, this time in the mountains north of Kotor. We cycled on narrow, quiet roads lined with beech trees and moss-covered stone fences, accompanied by sounds of woodpeckers and views of black mountains in the distance.

That night we ate grilled calamari and tuna at an outdoor restaurant in Herceg Novi’s old town and listened to chanting from an Orthodox mass in a nearby chapel. After mass the priest strolled through the square in his black robes, visiting with parishioners and blessing children.

On day four we switched from bikes to a boat and accompanied Marko on a ride in the Bay of Kotor. We enjoyed views of the black mountains that surround the bay and small villages with stone houses along the shores. We docked at the tiny island of Mamula, and Marko showed us a stone fort built in 1853 by Austro-Hungarians. The fort, which originally guarded the entrance of the bay, was infamously used during World War II by Italian forces as a concentration camp, known for torture and cruelty to prisoners. We cruised across the bay to a large man-made cave built into the mountain to hide submarines during World War II, and to a series of beautiful “blue” caves, some of which can be entered by boat. Once inside, reflection of the sunlight on the water gives it a stunning azure color. We stripped to our swimsuits, jumped in the sea, and swam through and around a sea cave. The water was cold, clear, and refreshing!

Blue Cave In Kotor Bay

Submarine Garage

Our final day in Montenegro began when Marko drove us past the beautiful medieval town of Stari Grad and the tourist towns of Budva and Bar to the village of Virpazar on Lake Skadar, the largest lake in southern Europe. We took kayaks out on the lake and paddled past blooming lilly pads and long-necked cranes, and then stopped for lunch near a small stone monastery. After lunch, we changed from kayak gear to cycling clothes and rode past wineries and farm houses, noting the presence of homemade stills cooking up traditional spirits.

Kayaking In Lake Skadar

That night, as we sat on our balcony and watched the sun sink into Kotor Bay, we reflected on the adventures we had enjoyed and people we had met. Montenegro is ideal for people who enjoy nature and outdoor activities, and we vowed to return. It is one of the remaining places in the world where adventure-seekers are welcome, folks are friendly, activities are affordable, and every day offers another rewarding experience. In our case, that was partially due to Marko, Danilo, and Janko, who showed us the best of their country. It was also because of the friendliness and help we received from Bozidar and his family, and from the warm reception of wait staff, shop owners, and locals. Because of them we re-discovered the miracle of travel -- opening your eyes to new places and people around the world.


©Dale Fehringer

 

Published in interest

"Why go on a journey of 20,000 km … when 10,000 km would be enough by flying over the ocean? Why spend 12 months on the road when only 12 hours would be necessary in the air? Why so many efforts, when I could just sit and wait? Efficiency, speed, and very little effort - these are some really trendy values nowadays. By seeking and obtaining everything, immediately and easily, we lose both the taste of things and the appetite for life. In my opinion, we are missing the best of it. Cycling, on the contrary, is getting back to what traveling really means. Cycling is also about holding your own destiny with a firm grip rather than letting it wander; while you sit in the saddle, you are the only captain on board and you can choose to go wherever you want. You are free."

Published in interview

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