Balkan Doživljaj Part IV: fog, breathtaking nature, and the road to hell. Sort-of.

Read more about our road trip: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains | Part III: Fleeing the Russians


As we’d come to discover in this part of the world, the fog nestles in the canyons, blanketing the landscape in a dreamy cotton morning, sun warming the day and revealing the treasures that lay beneath. And it’s no exception when we arrive at the bridge spanning the Tara Canyon.

The story goes that the Đurđevića Tara Bridge was put into service just before the Italian army invaded at the beginning of WWII. Built between 1937-1940, it was quite the engineering achievement, earning the title of largest concrete arch vehicular bridge in Europe. Rather than help the enemy reach deeper into Montenegro, one of the project’s engineers sacrificed the bridge by blowing up its main arch and hindering the advance. When this man was ultimately captured, he was executed on the very same bridge he helped erect.

Sad history (and ziplines) aside, the bridge is gorgeous. As the fog swirls to reveal the canyon below, we are even more excited for the rafting trip we’ve just booked. So the (birth)day’s adventures are set: rafting in the morning, hiking Durmitor National Park (Part I) in the afternoon.

It’s rather off-season for the rapids as well, but we enjoy a spectacular view of the Tara Canyon from the river, C takes a dip in the frigid waters (I’m further convinced that Swedes do not feel cold), and we arrive back at our starting point with smiles on our faces and hopes to see the river again at its peak.

It’s late in the day to start a real hike, so we lunch in town, find a reasonable-sounding guesthouse for the evening, and take a nice afternoon stroll around Durmitor’s lake, where Chris is adopted by a local dog and we watch the sun fade over the water, mountains reflecting their tranquil mood in its mirror.

Birthday: pas mal, as they say. Also bonus: this night’s guesthouse ranks many stars above our previous evening’s experience. We’re greeted by a vivacious (!!!) host who not only gives us answers to every question we had but also answers to those we didn’t even know we’d wanted to ask. Suffice to say, we’ll be fully-armed to hike tomorrow, as it’s our last day and a last madcap dash through Montenegro, into Bosnia and back into Croatia to get C to his flight on time.

It’s only at dinner that we realise that each of us had the same thought whilst in the shower: our very friendly host lives with his mother in a little house in a little village and nobody knows where we are. But we meet mom in the morning (she prepares the strange and massive hodge-podge brekkie before we set off), and we’re convinced that they are just Montenegro’s sweetest mother-and-son team.

Erm, one hopes…


The next day: more cool nature, crazy roads, and why I’m going to hell.

Our host sends us off to the other side of Durmitor National Park, pointing us towards a hike he suggests will take approx. 5 hrs round-trip. We guestimate it’s a 4-hour drive from here to Dubrovnik, and we want to make the most of our last day. So we clip the hike a little (I think C feels a little guilty for giving me his cold and then sending me up and down mountains with a head feeling like a wax factory), then wend our way through the moon-like hills of this part of the park, stopping occasionally to gape at nature as it unfolds (several-fold) around us. NB: I could spend days here.

silly Google Maps direction aside, join us as we wind our way through Durmitor

We decide we’ve got time for lunch at another (ok, the only) roadside place, and also time to do a quick pass by the Ostrog Monastery, a marble wonder carved into (or superimposed on) the side of a mountain in 1665. Again we climb a white-knuckling switchback road towards this next really weird experience.

First, the pilgrims. People from all over the world come to this monastery to be blessed. They walk the umpteen bajillion steps, barefoot, to pay homage to the saint, who lays wrapped in a shroud in a cave in the monastery. When you get to the upper monastery (there are two), you are met with a sprawl of humanity, the pilgrims (literally hundreds) sleep on mats outside the monastery (to what end, I’m not clear), and queue to take their turn kissing (and, presumably, being blessed by) the shrouded saint. It’s at this point we decide to enter the monastery to see its intricate mosaics. We apparently get in the wrong queue because as I duck into the cave*, I realise I’m in line to view the saint. Who is flanked by a priest. Who is holding a wooden cross at my face so I can kiss it. And so I panic, wave it away, shake my head, bow a little and say no, thank you. To which he answers, aghast, shocked, maybe pissed off, Vere. Arrr. You. Frrum? in a rolling-rrrr voice that sounds more Count Dracula than priestly. (inside my head is shouting: What. Is Happening???) In my humblest voice, I say, The US. The priest nods. I leave (again, cursing my blue passport and all that it represents). Chris has a hearty laugh. I’m going to hell.

We heathens continue up to the top of the monastery, and into the other cave to view the frescoes, well-preserved in the cave’s cool atmosphere. There are thankfully no more run-ins with priests. All I can wonder is what kind of curse I’ve been dealt, and cross fingers, touch the Ganesha that rests around my neck, and hope the rest of the trip is incident-free.

This bit of adventure takes a tad longer than expected: the book does not account for the harrowing road or the local traffic jam (a herd of sheep). But each little experience adds some fiber to the story, and we still have time to drive through Bosnia (country #3!) en route to the airport. The views are not bad as we go…

Tea in Bosnia, check! Passports stamped, check! Airport, check!

And, like that, the week’s adventure comes to an end. C is en route home and I’m on a bus back into Dubrovnik, and to the port from which I’ll take a ferry up to Split tomorrow and continue my wandering through Dalmatia. Just in time: there are 2 cruise ships in port when I arrive.


Some final observations: Montenegro is a tiny country with a history as meandering and unforgiving as its mountain roads. But it’s also beautiful and packed with terrain I never expected, its landscape reads as if nature tried to use everything in its palate to paint this little part of the world: rocky coastlines and breathtaking canyons and daunting mountains and rolling hills… Wild and rustic and rough around the edges, it’s a little place with a giant heart. In contrast to the attitudes we encountered in Croatia, the locals we met were warm and proud and content. Even in the bustling silliness of Budva, we were warmly received by our hostess.

It felt as though Croatia had somewhat sold out to the cruise ship industry, trading tourist € for a slice of their own heritage. And while Montenegro’s reputation as organized crime central is not a secret, one hopes that the tourism blight that has tainted Dubrovnik’s charm will take its time spreading beyond Montenegro’s coast, sparing the inland the tour buses and selfie-crazed throngs.

One can only hope. And look forward to revisiting the mountains, hiking the canyons, and maybe having some of that kačamak or cicvara again.


*Ostrog: how they built this is unknown. For centuries, monks and others have used these caves to hide out and hang out doing their meditative retreats (or, erm, whatever else one does when hiding in a cave in a supremely remote location). And so, the enormous marble façade of the monastery is actually built in front of the caves, creating a surreal structure when viewed from below.

Read more about our road trip: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains | Part III: Fleeing the Russians

Balkan Doživljaj Part III: Fleeing the Russians for the countryside

Part I: Arrival and a much-needed holiday | Part II: Into the Mountains

Our view as we approach Budva

The guidebooks do not paint a welcoming picture of Budva (or they do, but perhaps I’m not their target audience): a seaside party town with an exploding club scene (or as explosive a scene as one finds in this part of the world), fuelled by a booming Russian tourist crowd. Welcome to the Daytona Beach of Montenegro. Knowing this, our plan is to find a hotel outside the general hubbub, take a stroll through the old town, and leave early enough in the morning to get into the countryside. This we do, and settle into our surprisingly posh and quite cosy little hotel (booked while we were still atop Petar’s mountain in Lovćen).

The old town is now a familiar formula, with its fortified walls and narrow alleyways. This one is equally charming, but not nearly as big as Kotor’s, nor as bustling as we’d expected. And then we venture down the boardwalk, or the assemblage of the Daytona-esque restaurants and shops that constitute their waterfront. It’s a string of big, over-lit, trying-too-hard-to-look-like-South-Beach seaside restaurant-bars advertising their drink specials, tho it’s the very end of the season and there are literally no customers. We walk by dozens of proprietors who are too done to even bother with their seasonal cat-calls (Where you from? Are you hungry? You look for best dinner? You like feesh?) or to look up from their smartphones to sneer at us as we walk by. The impression it leaves is that of a desperate has-been resort town, where you’d expect a neon sign to pop and fizzle out, or a dangling H from the ‘otel Budva sign to wobble, grab on to a disappearing iota of hope, and fall into the (coarse, cigarette butt-ridden) sand.


Curtain falls on Budva and we wake to have a weird and terrible breakfast at the Hotel Moskva across the street. Had our Russian been better, I think the service might have been too. Budva done and dusted, our next stop is Skadar Lake National Park, where we hope to take a boat ride around this bird sanctuary on the Albanian border.

We drive up another exquisite-yet-harrowing mountain road to the interior of the country and arrive in another end-of-season town where we find a guide ready to serve. Within 30 minutes, we’re on a boat heading into the national park. They’ve supplied us with enough crnogorske priganice (Montenegran fried dough with honey) and cheese (and juice and wine!) to serve a boatload, and it’s late in the season, so we have the entire boat to ourselves.

It’s a treat to be motored through the wetlands and out into the enormous lake. The only problem is that it seems to be late in the season for the birds as well, and we see only a smattering of waterfowl and cormorants. The ride is relaxing enough, but we’re eager to move now… and we’ve got our sights on northern canyons!

Montenegro’s interior is literally littered with mountains and valleys, canyons and rivers. We leave Virpazar and wend our way along what Lonely Planet has dubbed a “thrilling, spectacular stretch of road.”

Morača Canyon; you know, just another horrible roadside view!

Our route, from Podgorica northwards, takes us along the Morača Canyon, over mountains and eventually down an increasingly sketchy dirt road to arrive at a trailhead in the Mrtvica Canyon. We’re greeted by a random guide, waiting for his clients to return from their hike (umm, okay), and he points us the trail with a warning that the locals have not forgotten the war and (oh, by the way) we have Croatian plates on the car. Hike in peace…(and hope our stuff is there when we return)

It was actually the waning daylight that worried me more than his warning as we hiked into a hairy fairy forest so full of greens and blues that photos could not do it justice. The trail, fantastic; the light, not so much, and I was sad to cut this hike short, but relieved to be off the trail before sunset (and to find the car intact – that is not a travel story I wanted to tell).

Another late reservation thanks to international data roaming, and we were off to find a guesthouse in the hills of Kolasin, strategically chosen so we could hike Biogradska Gora in the morning.

The guesthouse owner points us in the direction of Restauran Vodenica, a local place famous for its regional specialties, so we try the kačamak, a potato and cheese dish (this region’s answer to mac and cheese), and cicvara, its partner-in-crime, a polenta and cheese indulgence. We top this off with a local red (pas mal) and wobble back to the guesthouse to crash.

Local specialities served with a pot of “sour milk” (handmade yogurt) on the side. This goes on top of the other stuff. Because, you know, one can never have enough dairy products in one dish. The knives are merely garnish…one barely needs teeth to eat this.

It’s on to Biogradska Gora, and the trail at least 2 locals have professed as the best in the park. I’ll wax poetic about pristine mountain trails, exquisite views and luscious canyon floors. But if I’m honest, the 14+ km slog up a gravel road to a lovely but not fantastic view was not my favourite of the trip thus far. The tea at a trailside farm, with local med (honey) to soothe a creeping cold, did help improve the mood tho.

After tea, we find the trail, finish the hike (shortcuts, yay!), and line up another last-minute guest house. It feels as if we’ve gone 412kms, tho the tally was more like 24, and the only thing I’m looking forward to at this moment in my existence is a hot shower and a comfortable bed in our next stop, a country chalet.

…At which point we reach the Tara Riverside. What they’ve failed to advertise is that the river is alongside the busy local road, and that the chalets are something more like IKEA kit cabins. Too shattered to protest (and, really, for 25€ a night, can one?), we partake in the folly and revel in a tepid shower (the intricate details of which I’ll spare: suffice to say it included a hand-held showerhead and no actual shower enclosure; oddly reminiscent of showering on a boat, or a weird roadside cabin in the middle of nowhere…). We indulge in the local fare for dinner, crash, and high-tail it to Tara Canyon in the morning, wending our way up the switchbacking, windy, foggy roads. Not the way I’d hoped to wake up on C’s birthday, but it is memorable if nothing else.

Chalet #1: so many frightening movies begin with views like this…and one Birthday Celebration.

Next stop: Birthday adventures in Tara Canyon and Durmitor National Park.


Read the other Balkan Doživljaj installments: Part I | Part II

Sardegna: ultima parte

[prima parte]   [seconda parte]   [terza parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

Final notes, in which we learn lessons on what to pack, proper hiking footwear and tourist attractions to perhaps avoid. Holiday ends on a high note, as much adrenaline as spirits.

Summit summited, the next day we venture out to ride mountain bikes to a secluded beach, attainable only via boat or trail, Cala Sisine. We rent bikes from the local shop (I’m giddy with excitement to have been loaned a gorgeous carbon fiber Giant that I find out is the owner’s personal ride), and I’ve brought my bike shoes from home. I’ve not been off-road on a mountain bike in ages, but as they say, it’s just like riding a bike…

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Internet photo © www.antoniofancello.it

We park at what we deem a good starting point, 10 or so km from the beach. It’s crumbly, tractionless fire road and though not that technical, it’s hard going because you have to pay keen attention to the rocks and the ruts, as the ground shifts under your tires. We’re not 3km in, and the (elephant-headed?) gods of cosmic mischief are clearly not done with us: C’s chain breaks as we get to the top of a gnarly hill. Luckily we’ve landed in front of a compound of sorts, and the owner is at home. Less luckily, he only speaks Sard (closest to Latin, they say). Through pantomime and greasy-fingered hand gestures, we determine that his tools will not help the situation, nor will the chain tool I left at home, back in the US (because of course they’ll have one at the bike shop in Sardinia and why do I need to pack that?). So it’s a limp back to the car and back to the bike shop for repairs. We acquire a chain tool (that of course we won’t need now that we have it), just in case. After a calculated stop for grilled squid for lunch, we set out to finish what we’ve started.

Consulting Google Maps (2nd mishap of the day if one is keeping track), we are directed to Golgo the restaurant, instead of Golgo the trailhead (which, we were to later find out is 17km down the road). But we don’t know that we’re in the wrong spot until we bike down to the semi-crowded parking lot for Cala Goloritzè (see map above: exchanging looks of “how did we arrive here?”) and see that a) we’ve arrived where we didn’t expect and b) it’s clearly a trekking trail. Bikes are locked in the car, and – even though today was not supposed to be a hiking day – we decide to hike the 3km (yeah, right!) down to this famous landmark.

Aside: I am wearing my mountain bike shoes, and the only other shoes in my bag are flip flops. These are trail-hardy shoes with old but decent cleats. I decide that the Sidis will be a better choice than the flip flops.

I send C ahead, as he is better equipped for the trail in his running shoes (I’m also sure he’s needing to vent some of the pent-up frustration in the day’s mishaps thus far), and it takes me at least an hour and a half to reach the beach. By which time, I have slipped, stumbled and sure I’ve nearly died no less than 6 times. When I get there I realise that the soles of my Sidis have been chewed away by the carnivorous volcanic rock, and as such I’ve essentially been walking down a treacherous loose, rocky trail on plastic and metal. Trail teaching of the day: do not hike in MTB shoes.

I’m hot, tired and grumpy when I (AT LAST!) reach the beach (and my warmly smiling companion; or maybe he’s just feeling sorry for me…). There are too many tourists here, I decide, even though this is one of the iconic Sardinian sites to see and it’s not particularly unexpected. The water soon washes away my mood and we swim out towards the famed arch of Cala Goloritzè.

The slog back up from sea level is surprisingly easier, even in flip flops. Trail lesson #2: don’t hike in flip flops either. Adventure points earned (total of 10km MTB, 8+km unexpected and footwear-impaired hiking, seeing iconic sights), smiles return, gorgeous Sardinian seafood for dinner and all is well in the world (or at least, for now, in our little corner of it).


Un ultimo giorno…

On the last day of adventuring, we are determined to a) not find mishap (or let it find us) and b) find Cala Sisine.

20160924_100947Bikes, check. Tools, check. Maps, check(ed!). Today is mountain biking for real. We drive the winding mountain road to our starting point; a desolate spot where, though there are trail signs, there are no signs of other adventurers. We’re not sure whether or not this is a good sign.

The trails are wide fire roads. It’s crumbly, tricky and windy doubletrack with rock crunching under our tires and jaw-dropping rock formations on each side. The landscape reminds me of the American West as much as it does Kauai, but the slight hint of salt in the pristine air and the almost-metallic sound of the volcanic rock under our tires reminds me that we’re somewhere otherworldly. This is possibly the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever ridden and with each turn is another photo opp, though the photos cannot do it justice. Each climb is rewarded with a tricky downhill, and the kilometers roll away as we reach the spiaggia. Riding a bike always makes me feel like a kid again, no matter if it’s down the block or down a gorgeous trail in a foreign land. We arrive at Cala Sisine, giant smiles on our faces, and are rewarded with pristine, virtually empty beach. One or two boats moored offshore, and a guy climbing a cliff with a selfie stick, preparing to jump. Gah!

We arrive, glad to have no mishaps to recount, and loll on the beach, swim in the bright blue sea and find ourselves the only ones here for the better part of an hour. Bliss, until a tourist boat arrives to deposit its load… and at that it’s our cue to make the trip back. C humming Indiana Jones music as we maneuver the Baunei backroads, wishing we had a 4×4 instead of the rental Fiat (fully-insured except for the tires…we needed to be a little careful, as Ganesh has yet to rear his elephant’s head today).

There was bistecca di cavallo on the menu at dinner (where it remained, at least at our table). Calamari, spaghetti vongole and pulpo on the plates. Red Sardinian wine in the glasses. Adventure Points earned today, then redeemed for a final gelato at dessert.

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I’m going to mix metaphors or something here by introducing the Sanskrit word sri (shree). It means simple, radiant, natural beauty. And for all the obstacles tossed, rolled, flung in our paths this week, the thing that sparkled high and mighty above all was the infinite beauty, the sri, of this place. From the bluest blues of the Mediterranean Sea to the imposing peaks of the Sardinian mountains, graceful and strong as they contrast against the azure blue sky.

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View of Pedra Longa and one of my favourite photos of the trip

A final limoncello toast this night to birthdays, overcoming obstacles, laughing at mishaps, getting lost, finding the way, sore muscles (and Sardinian mussels), grilled calamari, local cheese, pane carasau, gelato in excess, musical goats, gorgeous panoramas (and gorges), the magical Med and future adventures…

[prima parte]   [seconda parte]   [terza parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

 

Hiking and Peeping New Hampshire

I’ve spent the last week as tourist in New England. As the carpet of nearing-peak fall colour unfurls in the White Mountains’ valleys, this week I relinquish thoughts that one must go far and wide to properly travel. It’s like touristing in my backyard: open-eyed, wondrous and ready for whatever nature (and New Hampshire) has in store…

Fall cooperates fully, with seasonably-warm days and threats of hurricane and cool, wet weather all but an afterthought. Nature’s annual fireworks show begins in earnest on the drive along New Hampshire’s scenic Kancamagus Highway, as we stop intermittently (as one does) for photo opps with nature.

My friend has arrived from Europe to tick off an item on his bucket list: fall hiking on the Appalachian Trail. First stop, the Twinway Trail via the Zealand Trail and the AMC’s Zealand Falls hutDSC_2146Views from the lookout over Whitewall Brook towards Whitewall Mountain are nothing short of show-stopping (Mt. Washington making a cameo appearance in the far background, over my shoulder…actually I don’t think it even snuck into this picture), and we realise this is just the hors d’oeuvres for our big hike tomorrow: the Franconia Ridge. Looking out over these purple (green, red and orange) mountain majesties, it’s no wonder my hiking partner keeps breaking into assorted patriotic tunes as background music to the rhythmic sound of boots on rock (and f-bombs exclaiming the occasional mis-step). The only irony is that he hails from some distance across the pond.

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Franconia Ridge: I’ve done this hike before, but not in something on the order of 15 years. It’s a rocky, bouldery, scraggly above treeline hike that’s accessed by the sweet-sounding Falling Waters Trail. I say sweet because for all its scenic splendor, the trail traverses active waterfalls and ascends a steep and treacherous boulder-laden trail that teases you at every corner (“we’re almost at treeline…really…just 1km to go…hehehe”). So just when your quads are screaming, “uncle” and you’ve gotten one foot stuck beneath the other in a bit of rock (and just by telling said hiking partner, will never live that admission down) there’s just a little bit more to climb.

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The above-treeline views are more the reward than are the (now-squashed) sandwiches we’ve packed for lunch. But our revelry is short-lived because the fog rolls in and its little cat feet kick our butts into gear to move along the trail, bagging Little Haystack (4760ft), Mt. Lincoln (5089ft) and Mt. Lafayette (5260ft) in the process. There’s something deeply satisfying about both checking 4000-footers off a “did that” list and feeling that you did that with your own steam. Yay, us!

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DSC_2223As if the descent might be easier than the ascent… We descend with the hope that the wisps of cloud and fog don’t follow us back into the trees and morph into forest trolls. Quads steeled for the endeavour, we march onward, downward and into the forest via the AMC Greenleaf Hut and the Greenleaf Trail. It’s all downhill from here, though this particular downhill section also includes its gauntlet of slick granite and really gnarly boulderized and rooty outcroppings. Proceeding with caution and a smattering of hummed ballads (and Queen songs), we land back at the car feeling that way you do when you’ve used the human machine as intended.

Our third day of hiking was the much more relaxing, yet only slightly less bouldery, Arethusa Falls trail to Frankenstein Cliff. As if the highest/biggest/best views thing could be outdone with each subsequent day, it delivered as promised: tallest waterfall in New Hampshire, jaw-dropping views from the cliff and an opportunity to walk along the tallest railway trestle in NH. By suggestion, I’m bringing back the term “neat-o!”

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Leaf-peeping in New England is somewhat a sport, with prognosticators forecasting the best weeks to catch peak foliage months in advance. Reality dictates that you get what you get, though we’re more than giddy to have caught New Hampshire on a good week, the right side of peak.

Another thing you don’t much do when you’re home: hire a guide. So in the tourist spirit, we hired a climbing instructor for the day from IME (best climbing store in the region), and set off to scale some rock and help me surmount a dread-fear of multi-pitch climbs.

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And so, looking from the top of the first climb, seeing Mt. Washington and the butt-crack of Huntington Ravine, I felt small but strong; held firmly by my faithful belayer and the trusty ropes and harness. The 2nd pitch was not nearly as daunting as expected (though the bruises on my legs from gripping razor-sharp rock may tell a different tale), and from something on the order of 100 feet from where my feet left the ground, the views and the feeling of being simultaneously surrounded by and part of nature were something there are not words in the English language to describe.

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While my version of travelling has little to do with seeing crowded attractions or doing the mainstream, we surely partook in our share of cider donuts (a seasonal New England delicacy), wandered in and out of gift shops and even contemplated taking the Cog Railway up Mt. Washington before nixing that idea in favor of a day of climbing across the way. Another hike to add to the next NH Adventure itinerary, I reckon…

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The ride home had us detour through Ogunquit, ME for lobsters at Barnacle Billy’s (because you have to!) and some outlet shopping in Kittery to dodge the inevitable raindrops. A good time was had by all as they say… And so the week ends with a local afternoon of people-watching in Salem as the witch-crazy flock here from all ends of the earth for their annual pilgrimage.

Next adventure will hopefully take me out of New England, but as adventures in one’s backyard – and adventures in general – go, it was pretty great.