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

The Balkan Doživljaj Part II: Up (and up. and up.) into the Mountains of Montenegro

[Read Part I here!]

Having escaped the throngs, we catch a local bus to take us to the main bus terminal to catch a fancier bus to take us to the airport to get the rental car we’ve hired to get us from points A to Z (and several others, like B, K, S, L, O and D*), and back to again in a week… it’s like a series of semi-strategic moves as we shuttle ourselves to the next square in the game of What’s Next!?

Car, check! Green card that clears us to move freely in and out of the surrounding borders, check! Snacks, check! And they’re off!

A colleague of mine whose family is from this area had told me that crossing the border into Montenegro is like going back in time 10-15 years. As we wend our way towards Kotor, over the border and through the (hills, villages and gorgeous seaside vistas), I’m reminded of his words as we pass through villages that look as if they’ve been bodged-together from scraps of Soviet-era block housing, brick, medieval limestone, corrugated metal and palm fronds (in not necessarily that order or quantity). Interspersed in the weird architecture are ancient palazzos, churches and other structures, each (IMHO) warranting its own page in Lonely Planet. Kotor is nestled in a rocky, fjord-like bay**; a limestone mountain backdrop springing majestically from the sea. The photos do not even do it justice.

Never mind the cruise ships… Kotor is still much more likeable than Dubrovnik

And it’s bustling. Kotor has become both a cruise ship destination and something of a smaller, sweeter Dubrovnik to the south. Because we’ve raced a cruise ship here (and there’s another already in port) we’ve decided to wander around the old town, climb up to the top of the fortress, and find lodging on the outskirts of town to avoid the bustle (and the congestion) in the morning.

The old town is a pleasant surprise: its narrow, labyrinthine streets, now a familiar folly from a few days in Dubrovnik, are softer and warmer and much more inviting than those to the north. Venetian lions flank every gate, many a corner and a few fountains dotted throughout the town. So we wander the alleys, marvel at the cats of Kotor (there are hundreds, perhaps thousands here – there is even a Cats of Kotor museum down one of these narrow streets) and bask in the Mediterranean sunshine.

Kotor’s fortress was built into the near-vertical limestone foothills of Mt. Lovćen (which we are to hike tomorrow), and it, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (actually, two: it’s part of the Natural and Cultuo-Historic Region of Kotor as well as the Venetian Works of Defence between the 16th and 17th Centuries). The town itself dates back to Ancient Roman times (Montenegro was part of Dalmatia too), and while the original fortress on the hill was built by the Illyrians c. the 5th Century, the fortress of Sveti Ivan (the one that stands there now), was built some 1000 years later. To get to the top, you first have to navigate to a back corner of the old city, find the guy at the entry gate and pay a fee to enter the city walls (NB: the book said 3€, we paid 8€; we couldn’t determine whether the fee had gone up or the toll-taker was making a side-living fleecing tourists). From there, you begin the climb. To the top, it’s roughly 1200 metres, or approx. 1350 steps.

Did I mention that it’s quite steep?

These city walls are higher than Dubrovnik’s, and perhaps this has kept out the nouveau-posh cafés and trinket shops besmirching its character. But along the way, there are a couple of old men selling water from a bucket and snacks from a blanket laid out on the old stones. Here, it just fits. We’ve come prepared (with water and trail food, but perhaps not expecting the day’s heat: it’s 25 and there’s not a cloud in the sky!), so we slog upwards past the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, noted for reportedly curing plague victims in the 1500s (also noted as the cover shot on Lonely Planet: Montenegro). The trail then continues up to the top, where, from his fortress, the spirit of Sveti Ivan watches over a now-peaceful Kotor.

If my Photoshop skills were better, I’d use them to blot out the two cruise ship-sized eyesores from an otherwise gorgeous view.

An aside about our itinerary: We had a guide book, some websites, and a rough plan of seeing as much of Montenegro (and possibly Albania) as the week permitted. No rules, no reservations, and fingers crossed for access to Wi-Fi so we could secure a place to crash for the night.


The day: simply wonderful, and we had yet to make it to our (first of many) last-minute choice of lodging, a B&B in a restored 16th Century Venetian Palazzo in the (pick one or more adjectives: adorable, charming, romantic, lovely) exquisite seaside town of Perast. We had this tiny town virtually to ourselves, as the cruise ship folk don’t make it here and the regular tourists have mostly gone for the season. The architecture alone in this little gem is worth a night or two. Did I mention that there were loop-holes in the walls of the room?! (I had to look that term up: these are the slits in castle or fortress walls from which guards can shoot arrows). Ours had, of course, been restored as windows (not needed anymore, as the conquering armies are now safely tucked away in their cell-like berths aboard their floating cities).

The views from our B&B were divine, and in our short stay we could feel the different moods of this enthralling village: the nostalgic undertones of the Venetian stone buildings, old and new; the warmth of the sunset reflecting in a flat-calm bay; the whimsical fog dancing with the same at sunrise… this is a place that calls one back.

Morning came too quickly, as I wanted to revel in the understated luxury. I watched the fog play at the water’s surface as the sun warmed the air and morning dawned another perfect day in Montenegro. Today’s first adventure: a hair-raising, panoramic, thrill-ride up Kotor’s back road, a narrow, serpentine, one-lane (2-way) road that winds you up to Mt. Lovćen.

(sped up a tad for dramatic effect)

We arrive at the top unscathed and are rewarded with what Google calls “Best View of Kotor.” The rest of the views are not half bad either. For the effort, C wins all the adventure points for this drive! Had I been behind the wheel, I would have ended up pleading for mercy in a corner of one of the road’s 25 hairpin turns. And that was just the morning’s adventure (there’s also a precious resident stray mutt up here that, for some moments, I consider smuggling home with me).

As it turned out, by driving up the snaky road and following Google Maps into Lovćen National Park, we overshot the trailhead and ended up in a parking lot at the top of the mountain. So we did the hike in reverse, first visiting the mausoleum of Petar Petrovic Njegoš (Montenegro’s own philosopher prince. Ish.), the site situated atop Lovćen’s 2nd highest peak, with its breathtaking views of the valley and surrounding mountains. The day was so clear, we could see into Bosnia. And, who knows…Montenegro is so small that perhaps we could even see into Albania. With these views, I guess they wanted to ensure Petar could look out over his kingdom in the afterlife as well.

Beginning with the hike down the 461 steps we had already hiked up, we found a rocky trail that led to dry, grassy fields, and came out on a local road in a mountain village that was quite obviously taking a deep breath after its busy summer season. So we had the outdoor restaurant virtually to ourselves, where we lunched in style on local cheeses and Montenegran salad. They present salad here in sort-of an “assemble-your-own” format, so each meal has been an interactive experience thus far. The local cheese, sir, is divine; the air, fresh; the travellers, sated. And the travellers push on, back towards the top, but not before missing a cue on the trail, ending up back at the park ranger’s station and having to walk along the road we rode in, then meeting back up with the trail a few kms ahead.

All in all, another stellar day. Montenegro is looking like a winner already.

Tomorrow’s adventure: Budva (the Russian Riviera of the Balkans) and into the National Parks of central Montenegro. Yay!


*Budva, Kotor, Skadar, Lovćen, Ostrog and Durmitor to name a few…

**while it looks like a fjord, Kotor (like Sydney Harbour and many more like Kotor up and down the European coastlines) is actually a ria, or a drowned river valley that remains open to the sea.

Read more… Part I: Arrival and a Much-Needed Holiday

The Balkan Doživljaj*: Part I (arrival, and a much-needed holiday)

Preface: I had not taken a proper holiday all year. Months of 50+ hour weeks were grating on this wanderer’s spirit. I had planned literally NOTHING for the trip, save a B&B for the first and last days. I had not read the guidebooks. I had not figured out what one does in Croatia or Montenegro or Bosnia and Herzegovina for that matter. But I was on a plane, headed for the Balkans.


Part I: Dubrovnik

I arrive, late and groggy, and foggy from the long flight. Warm sea air and fortress walls welcome me to a new place I’ve read near-nothing about due to a near-overflowing plate of things to do back at home. All work and virtually no play for months make this a much-welcomed holiday (NB: as I begin to write, I am 9 days into a 17-day holiday and have not as yet looked at my work email or read any news.).

I sat and contemplated the upcoming 2 weeks, toes dangling in an aquamarine Adriatic on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, thinking and so it begins:

The B&B here in Dubrovnik is the only place I’ve booked for the trip, and the only “known” knowns at this stage of the adventure are these: my feet are on the ground, there is an old walled city to be explored, and my co-adventurer will arrive at 2100 tomorrow. I am the least-prepared for any trip I have ever taken.

Also, I have never read or watched Game of Thrones. This, I mention, because from the throngs of tourists on GOT tours throughout the city, it’s disturbingly clear that these filming locations were the show-stoppers, and ensuring proper selfie angles were more the goal, than admiring Dubrovnik’s centuries-old and history-rich walls and streets and architectural marvels.

First, Dubrovnik Old Town is gorgeous. Its marble streets are stunning, and the fairytale-esque fortress walls certainly seem less daunting in peacetime than when they were erected – outdoor cafés and gelato shops certainly help. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old city’s fortress walls were built in the 9th Century, re-fortified in the 14th Century, and even further strengthened in the 15th Century. What they hadn’t figured out then was how to protect themselves from a 1667 earthquake that demolished the city, and the 1991 onslaught by the Serbs (ditto). Speaking to any native Dubrovnik-ite, one gets the clear message that the signage throughout the old city about the Homeland War and especially the attack on Dubrovnik in 1991 is there to remind visitors that while GOT is a fantasy world, theirs is an everyday reality. Even 28 years later.

No other metaphor is nearly as apropos: playing something like a Game of Throngs, we walked the old city’s streets and tallied countless steps through the alleys and fortress walls (little did we know that this was only a mere taste of what was to come in the days that followed!), we found what locals consider the best gelato in the city (Peppino’s), the best spot for watching the sunset (atop Mt. Srđ), a quiet place to (cat) nap by the sea, and so many charming little hidden alleys with cats galore.

But 2 days in Dubrovnik is more than plenty, so it was time to move on. Next stop: Montenegro. Kotor first; then, as they say, we’ll figure it out.


*Doživljaj (Croatian/Serbian/Montenegran/Bosnian): n. experience, adventure. NB: I discover that they are not big on vowels here and that many words I’ve tried to pronounce have me sounding like a drunk muppet. Naprijed!

[Click Here to read Part II]

Morocco, Part III: Gorge-ous terrain, Sahara proper, a declined proposition

[MOROCCO PART I]  [MOROCCO PART II]  [MOROCCO PART IV]

I’ve just parted with Part I of my tour, and the affable tour guy steers me in the direction of my new bus, plunking me in a scene that feels like I’ve walked into the middle of someone else’s family reunion gone wrong, only these are unrelated groups of twos and threes, none of whom seem to be speaking to one another.

It’s a strange and silent ride from Ouarzazate through the Oases of the Draa Valley and into the Dades Gorge, 15 minutes late for sunset proper. The landscape is other-worldly, magnificent rolling hills flanked by kms of lush palms, oases fed by the Draa River. The scenery is quite different than the cartoon oasis image in my head, the tiny lush tropical island in the middle of a sandy sea. Tho, from a birds-eye view it might look just like that. The gorge is still gorge-ous. I redouble my sentiments from earlier: I’d love to go hiking here.

 

 

Lodging: The proudly 2* hotel is freezing – there is no heat here either, but the hot shower feels wonderful, the dinner mediocre and the company, still weirdly silent. So it’s not until late in the evening, when I’ve wandered back to the dining hall and to the only lit fireplace in the building, that I meet some fellow travellers. We’re warming by the fire, and I’ve engaged the Berber kitchen guy, Izil, in a conversation because a colleague is doing some research on the linguistic origin of oranges. And I guess this interests the others, because soon we’re talking about travels and oranges and traditions in broken Spanish, French and English (I’m feeling optimistic as my broken Spanish and French are better than their broken English), all of us trying to learn some Berber words.

izilBerbers account for 40% of Morocco’s population, yet according to a recent census, the nomad population is below 5000 (this number strikes me as ironic, tho, since they by definition move around a lot and the population is predominantly illiterate).

And we also talk about the nature of Berbers (Amazigh, in their tongue) and how different people are as you get farther from the cities (the farther you get, the warmer they are; I concur!). And Izil tells us his family has some relatives still living in the caves.

Removed from the tourist/vendor relationship, the people I’ve met out here have been warm and welcoming. And I detect an unspoken tribal friction when he describes the thing I felt but could not place in Marrakech. It’s something of a transactional game as you get closer to the city; this thing the guide books warn of: people you meet want you to give your money over in a “I know you know I know you know I’m scamming you” sort of charade. Whereas in this part of the country, I feel that you would be invited to one’s home (or cave, as it were) for supper.

As I settle to sleep this night, I’m grateful for my Berber blankets and interesting conversation.

The road to erg Chebbi.

Draa ValleyMorning comes, and we drive from Dades to Todra Gorge via the aptly-named road of 1000 kasbahs. It’s here we visit another one, this kasbah occupied by some nomad families for the winter. It’s a different experience than Ouarzazate, as we are much more remote and the surrounds much more rustic. The landscape is alternately breathtaking and sad, as the living conditions in the kasbahs cannot be much better than the caves in the gorges; a trickle of river in which to bathe, wash clothes and find water to drink. They’re used to some level of tourism, tho, and we are lead through the kasbah and to a room for a demonstration of Berber weaving techniques – I can’t help but compare this experience to some similar in India, where the local way of life is peddled as a tourist attraction and I’m not sure if it’s heart-breaking or -warming to know that our presence contributes to their livelihood.

 

 

Back on the bus, the road runs through a flat expanse of brush- and trash-dotted brick-red plains, scabbed with crumbled rock, and flanked by rolling hills on either side. It’s a barren, in-between land, but the hills are morphing into higher mountains as we travel north. The periodic olive groves remind me that there’s hope for greener things. And, as if the road reads my mind, a semi-modern-looking town emerges, its redbrick buildings and Coca-Cola signs in a mélange of French, Arabic and English. Long Berber robes (djellabas) and burqas prevail. Even in the day’s warmth (striking, really, compared with the frosty nights), all are dressed head-to-toe. Men, old women, children…all visible. Also striking is that you do not see any young women. Anywhere.

Our driver has not said more than a combined paragraph this trip. Luckily, those on the bus are chatting – I think the previous night’s fireside chat broke some of the ice. So, as we roll to a stop at a weird hotel-looking place from which you can see some MASSIVE dunes, his, “descender ici” is the note on which nous descendons du bus. 5 minutes for a potty break, then it’s camel time!

Last night I learnt that “Sahara” means ‘magic’ in the Tamazight language. It also means ‘desert’ and ‘dawn’ and ‘wilderness’ and ‘wild place’ – depending on who you ask. It is all these things, I’m thinking, as we mount camels and in a matter of minutes we’ve crossed a dune and entered a Martian universe. It’s just before sunset, and the camels are moving sure-footedly through the powdery sand. I’m in awe of this landscape unfolding around me, not sure if everyone else behind me (I’m on the lead camel) is thinking the same: I’m riding a camel in the Sahara Desert…it looks just like the movies. The sun sinks lower and the sand begins to glow with its evening touch, a golden-red hue I’ve only seen in pictures, the purity of which is only just now confirmed: no photoshop required.

 

 

It’s after about an hour that we reach the campsite; a few meagre tents surrounded by dunes. We climb the highest (no small feat in itself!) and at the top are rewarded with a real Sahara sunset. Again, I’m in awe and truly speechless. Our group is quiet, but this time I know why…this moment in time makes the entire cheesy tour worth it.

 

Berber dinner. Frosty night. Heavy blankets (and a silk sleeping bag liner that has made this and the past two nights much more bearable!). A bright moon and a sky full of stars. I’ve underestimated the dryness of the desert and my headache sends me to bed a little early, so I’m wide awake well before the sun rises, and surprised to find one of our guides already up and getting ready to do his wake-up rounds.

 

As we depart with the rising sun, I’m on the front camel again. My Berber guide offers me a tasty meal of camel tagine (my camel is on the older side and will be retired soon), and proposes I stay on in the desert with him at camel camp. While the landscape offers amazing photo ops, the air is clear and dry, and a simpler life seems novel, I graciously decline. This day will be spent on the bus back to Marrakech, where I’m to meet my own (not particularly) Arabian Knight, to share the 2nd half of our Moroccan Adventure.

As seen on the road back to Marrakech from Merzouga (550+ km):

 

Marrakech, encore: This chapter winds down with one Travel Girl warming to the idea of Morocco, a bus that is an hour late, a serious need to go to the WC, and an unexpected drop-off at the opposite end of Jemaa el Fna at peak madness. It ends, happily, navigating back to the riad (on my own!) without getting hopelessly lost, then meeting a travel-weary Calvin to continue our adventuring. Next up: L & C do Marrakech.

Want to read the rest of the series? [Morocco, Part I]  [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part IV]. Cheers!