Mysterious Montenegro

Picture the scene; it’s 9pm and dark, you are on an unmarked road, and the sat nav springs late to life and says “turn right in 200m”. Albania still looms in our minds and we try to think – do we go ahead, or take the right?

We decide that it hasn’t been impeccable but the sat nav seemed to help us out of Albania, so why not get us deep into Montenegro. Off we go. Within 50m I regret that.

White knuckle ride on a single track road, I noted there are no verges. What I should have been worried about was the lack of any sides as this mountain pass had no barriers and no markers. Just eerie silence and winding switchbacks that put hairs on chest and then shave them close as you like.

I say I should have been worried as I really should have. But I wasn’t. I was laughing maniacally and Kat smiled throughout – this hunk of plastic had directed us to the local mountain for a 4×4 adventure and it was just hilarious.

The track becomes worse, Tarmac gives way to gravel, the switchbacks become hairpin like, then there is the occasional truck or 4×4 as if to emphasise both the ridiculously high chance of crashing and the woeful inadequacy of a Kia Cee’d estate on the worst terrain we find all trip.

But we care not a jot. We figure if we make it through this, there are no roads, no tracks, no hills or mountains we cannot tackle. We feel Alive!

Montenegro is a country that is mysterious. It has a chequered past in regional conflicts and some questionable decisions made by politicians. But we are not politicians, we are travellers, seeking real stories with real people.

We pass buildings that are as diverse as the people here. We see the signs of a country that has seen a fair bit. From bullet holes riddling walls in a church near Podgorica to some graphic graffiti professing colourful sentiments – these are just part of the story.

In Podgorica we find the sights a little less impressive than some of the other destinations. It feels like a city that has had a fair amount of Soviet era buildings to redecorate and they have yet to complete the task.

Socially the place is vibrant despite the slow pace and lack of “top billing” attractions. It has a university, millennium bridge, lots of cafes, a cathedral – but look closer and you see they all date 1990-2015. Unlike Skopje, some are in modern styles, some old soviet streets, but none scream grandeur.

But it is the life and culture which is to be seen on the city walls. Like the below, a mural for Milan Mladenovic, the famously anti-war Serbian musician in the Zabjelo district of Podgorica.

Going inside the Orthodox Cathedral in Podgorica you can be assured of the jaw dropping moment when you look up and see the murals. Built between 1993-2013 the building looks every bit as impressive as it should albeit again giving rise to the fact this is a city that has had to build everything of cultural value in the last two decades.

Having arrived in the dark the night before and spent a few hours in our latest host city, we face our first real dilemma. We are done with Podgorica and unsure what to do. Maybe it is travel weariness, but we just cannot think where we want to go next.

Do we stay longer in Montenegro? Do we go to Bosnia and stay around Mostar and the national parks? Do we just call quit and go to Dubrovnik early? We go to check out of our hotel and chance the question to the hotel receptionist. Like a toss of a coin, I figure Heads, we stay, Tails we tuck and run!

She starts with talk of museums and tours of northern areas before pausing … so far it feels like Tails. I am just fiddling for my car key twitching for the door where she says; “okay, if it was me? My favourite way would be to drive to Cetinje, then head the Njegusi pass, head into Kotor. Leave now, the view at sunset will be amazing. ”

Heads it is! We figure, it’s kind of on the way to Dubrovnik, and if we dislike it we have other places we can go. We don’t book any hotel to give us flexibility and we hit the road.

Less than 40 minutes later we arrive in Cetinje. Home of an Orthodox monastery of real age (dates back nearly a thousand years), and in the area that was once the regional capital; truly a city fit for kings. It takes us an hour to walk about, precisely how long we were advised to stay.

Nearing 5pm, I was wondering why on earth we are here and why she was so precise on timings and when to/not to use a sat nav. We get into the car a bit bemused and – as instructed – tap in “Kotor” whilst in Cetinje. The sat nav blurs then spits out an arrival time nearly 2 hours from now – 7pm. For 20km. I cannot see why this would be the case but we just drive as instructed.

For the first 10km, it is a simple road with simple signs and clearly driven by the few not the many. But it is wide enough and good enough. At a crossroad is where it gets interesting. Advising a right turn, we just look at the zig zag switchbacks and smile. Repeat of the previous night? Oh much more. On the map our route looks every bit as crazy as it was.

The road was unimaginable. Still under construction, this road is mostly stones and narrower than the other night. Hair pins with sheer drops and no barriers, meeting lorries and cars both ways. It takes most of my mental energy to make it up, where we pass the village of Njegusi and reaching the summit we pause for a selfie and the achievement we feel having conquered the beast.

But we hadn’t. That was the easy uphill part! This was our next leg.

Cresting the mountain we see the downward spirals and a sight our eyes will never recover from. The beauty, the scale, the demanding landscape – they rush the senses and we both stare speechless with a tear in the eye at how unimaginable this is. I still cannot describe it. Our photos do scant justice either.

We feel as if we soared where the eagles fly, closer than Icarus to the heavens. I have no fear, no worries on the roads, only pure elation at having been one of the very few to do what we did. The magnitude of that sets in as we park up and walk in.

This is a place for tourism, yes, but where the cruise ships dominate. We arrive to the first hotel we can find, negotiate a rate, and enquire as to parking. He seemed shocked; “you drove from Budva?” Knowing that was a straight shot south, it was a good guess, but wrong. We point to the mountain and his eyes wildly move; “you drove from Cetinje?” Suitably impressed.

Not knowing anything about Kotor, spend the evening clawing the city and fortress walls (our first effort that day – 2km up, 2km down), finding out as much as we can about this “mini Dubrovnik”. We meet a couple near the top fort, Nayla and Nacho (typical short name for Ignacio in Spain), and chat about the trip so far. They are on an adventure also, and we depart them practicing Yoga poses on the dominating walls!

We enjoy an amazing night and following the study of the maps, a quick check on our timings, we decide. This is where we want to spend another few days.

This is a city that in 1979, along with vast areas of Montenegro, were devastated by an earthquake. Losing so much, the took the time to rebuild the city. A UNESCO world heritage site (the 6th of our trip), you can see they earned every bit of it.

Booking.com furnishes us with the most amazing apartment in the city for two nights at a fraction of the cost of an Ibis in Luton. The Casa Jovana will be our new home for the next few days, we meet Stefan who shows us around and gets us settled. Leaving us with keys and a few words of advice about how to get about and he is off.

We settle to more sightseeing and eating in this amazing place. The odd cruise ship aside it isn’t as busy as other Old Cities, and has far more going for it in activities.

On the topic of cruise ships I shall offer an aside to our tale. Sitting in a romantic restaurant feeling smugly satisfied that we have found the real Montenegrin gem, we hear the fog horn of a docking ship. Minutes later our meal is disturbed by at least 50 tourists ram raiding this very place. It dawns on us as our chairs are bumped into and we hear; “sorry mate”; the Brits have landed! Kat’s face says it all

Being real travellers, not the boat dwelling kind, we decide to brave the hiking trails around Kotor. Famed as some of the best hiking trails in the country we grab 2 litres of water, chocolate, suitable clothing and footwear and head off.

The “Ladder of Kotor” is a series of 72 switchbacks, rising 1,000m (yes 1km), taking 8 hours (round trip) over 10km of brutal mountain trails.

The promise? Best views in Kotor. The price? Sweat! We pass a guard-donkey braying as we breeze past, the Bull and his Cow right on a switchback forcing us to clamber loose rocks 800m above the nearest landing, to the mountain goats laughing at us when we ran out of water before the top.

Finally reaching the top feels like we have won the lottery. This caps off 3 days exploring the city and an amazing time. We feel relieved but we have to still head back down! Knowing we have no water we decide we have to try knocking on the door of the only house. Half way down, at the junction for the hill fortifications and the rest of the trail.

Amazing how without any language connections, two groups of people can give the simplest gifts that mean the most. Water when it was needed, from those without everything, for no charge. It makes you re-evaluate true wealth.

Blistering hot, we await someone from Casa Jovana to hand our keys back. She is delayed by forest fires that have struck the hills. Without our exit to Bosnia and Croatia in doubt we seek local directions. She helps us head costal roads and avoid the fires now burning on the very hills we drove the days before.

Our time in Montenegro really has opened our eyes. It is a country that has a lot on offer. For anyone trying the same, skip Podgorica, head out to the hills and come find the real way into Kotor. And if you find yourself on a cruise ship, look up the Ladder of Kotor, and earn your tan!

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