Through brotherly teamwork, Sean and I “completed” the Slavic Balkans for House Stevens when I ventured to Montenegro. In 2004, Sean horrified the people of Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia by his presence. Incidentally, the first three countries I visited in the region were the countries spared the ignominy of hosting Sean: Bulgaria, Macedonia and Montenegro. The latter wasn’t even an independent state when Sean travelled, which is perhaps indicative of how palpably recent historical events and changes to the political map have occurred in south-eastern Europe. Montenegro, a tiny and perhaps obscure republic to Australian readers, provided a vastly different experience to other republics of the former Yugoslavia.
Montenegro borders the Adriatic Sea and is sandwiched between Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. The coastline was historically dominated by the Republic of Venice and the Old Town of Kotor is an exemplary vestige of that epoch. The Serbian tribes of the interior mountains achieved notoriety by remaining independent from the Ottoman Empire for four hundred years while the rest of the Balkan Peninsula came under Turkish hegemony. Their independence fostered a unique “Montenegrin” identity separate from other Serbian people. Consequently, Montenegro was included as one of the six distinct republics within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the twentieth century. Montenegro remained loyal to the Federation during the Yugoslav Wars (its forces participate in the Siege of Sarajevo). The republic obtained its sovereignty peacefully when Montenegrins voted to terminate the federal union with Serbia in 2004. Despite its infinitesimal geographical size and population (just over half a million), Montenegro was a fantastic country to visit and you could easily spend weeks exploring its hidden treasures.
I caught an overnight bus from Ohrid in Macedonia to the coastal town of Kotor in Montenegro, via Albania (Not included in my country count, although technically I was there). I arrived in the country by bus at around sunrise and was treated to exceptional views of the Adriatic coastline. I was fortuitously blessed with magnificent weather on my first day in Kotor, as the torrential rain of the following day made wandering untenable. The immaculately preserved Old Town is surrounded by thick stone walls and wide moats and is entered through three grandiose gates with imposing friezes of the winged lion; the Republic of Venice’s chief representation. The buildings exhibit almost identical architectural compositions with white stone walls, dark green shutters and terracotta roofs. Spires of Orthodox and Catholic churches alike sprout from the skyline. The Old Town is surprisingly small and can easily be seen within an hour. The most impressive feature of Kotor is its remarkable fortifications. Kotor occupies a strategically valuable position at the centre of the Bay of Kotor, which is surrounded by steep mountains. The Old Town is situated on flat terrain, but slopes rise almost vertically upwards immediately behind it. Fortification walls therefore run dramatically upwards with the slope to the remains of an ancient fortress. The site now provides breath-taking views of the Old Town and the Bay of Kotor. Unfortunately mass tourism plagues the Old Town as gigantic cruise ships regularly moor at the port.
Per square metre, Montenegro is perhaps the most naturally beautiful country on the planet. My bus journey from Kotor to Zabljak followed a mesmerising scenic route around the Bay of Kotor and into the mountains. We passed numerous quaint villages hugging the coastline of the Bay of Kotor. The steeples of their historic churches were utterly dwarfed by the immense slopes to the rear of the villages. Several tiny islands dotted the bay and featured old stone buildings. The bus eventually climbed one of the slopes and delighted passengers with panoramic views of the bay’s dramatic topography. We were exceptionally disappointed when the bus entered a tunnel and concluded the spectacle. Nevertheless, we then journeyed through rugged and mountainous terrain of exposed grey rock, unusual rock formations, wild vegetation growth and atmospheric fog. Eventually we descended the slopes of a mountain that overlooked lushes grasslands and pristine turquoise lakes. We drove through countryside filled with pine trees just before arriving in Zabljak.
Zabljak is a small town located in the north-west of Montenegro near the Serbian and Bosnian borders. It was my base for exploring the World Heritage-listed Durmitor National Park. While its hardly “off the beaten path”, the region has yet to be discovered and exploited by mass tourism. Zabljak instead attracts true backpackers (i.e. not the type of people intent upon binging on the coast for three months) and self-identified “travellers”. The town consists primarily of wooden buildings with high slanting roofs to cope with the winter snow. I stayed at a cosy hostel where everyone quickly knew everyone else. I met Canadian Luke who was starting a two-year adventure; Cambridge-educated British Josh, who was my first hiking partner; Irish Jon, a civil engineer who was one of my hiking partners on day two; Taswegian Megan, hater of cities who prefers slow-paced travel; and slightly eccentric fifty year old American Maria, a veteran “traveller” of over seventy countries. This eclectic group contributed to a highly enjoyable three nights and two days in Zabljak.
The weather was rather unsavoury on my first day in Durmitor National Park, so British Josh and I adhered to the hostel owner’s advice to attempt only the low-ground trails and to avoid the mountains. We walked around the Black Lake, whose named seemed especially appropriate on the overcast day we visited. The lake is surrounded by pine forest and it creates a vast clearing that allows the dramatic cliffs of nearby mountains to be seen. We walked through pine forest toward another lake, the Snake Lake. I love walking through European forests because they provide such different experiences to forests in Australia. In Durmitor, virtually no undergrowth existed below the pine trees and consequently the land appeared quite bare below eye-level. Unlike the Australian Bush, there are no tangible threats of encountering a venomous snake or spider if you stray off the paths. Bears and wolves apparently dwell in the national park and I spent much of the day expressing how I wanted to stumble upon a bear (but not a wolf). We bumped into no such creatures, although a couple remarkably well-behaved dogs stalked us for a while. The Snake Lake was substantially smaller but prettier than the Black Lake, because it exuded a sense of seclusion. The forest grew right up to the shores of the lake. We spent hours attempting to find the third lake in the area but were unsuccessful. The paths in the national park seem to feature “targets” (hauntingly similar to Target’s logo) every ten metres, but an absence of reliable signs occasionally made them useless. After walking through thick bramble in the afternoon, we came upon an abandoned field on a mountainside and hibernated from the rain in a deserted wooden hut. We then hiked up a slope in (false) hope of obtaining a view of the mysterious third lake. To my befuddlement, the vegetation changed from coniferous to deciduous forest. The endeavour proved futile and we opted to return to Zabljak before the light disappeared.
The weather change was mind-boggling the next day as we woke up to open blue skies. I returned to the national park with Irish Jon and Finnish [can’t remember his name] and we hiked up the mountains to the fabled “ice cave”. Its amazing how sunlight can improve the aesthetics of natural scenery so intensely. The forest seemed revitalised, the water of the Black Lake radiated a deep blue and the colours of the national park appeared magically uplifted. The first hour of the hike was through thick forest up muddy trails covered in leaves and interspersed by treacherous roots. The tree-line abruptly ended and suddenly we had views of the Black Lake, the surrounding pine forests and grey-rock mountains, Zabljak and the grass plains beyond. The middle section of the ascent was relatively easy as the trail was stable and only gradually rising. We passed through thick bramble of low growth. Eventually we reached a shepherd’s hut and all vegetation, save only for grasses, disappeared. The last third of the hike was agonising on the calves, as the trail climbed very steep slopes on unstable stones. The view from the ice-cave’s entrance of the upper mountains and the lower forests, lakes and grasslands was absolutely worth every effort. As you may have deduced, the ice-cave is a cave high in the mountains full of ice! We opted to return to the lower slopes via another path. We were required to scramble down vertical rock faces, so we were rather pleased we had that route for the descent and not the ascent. I had a brilliant time hiking in Durmitor National Park and thoroughly enjoyed being off the conventional tourist route.
Unfortunately Montenegrin cuisine is not a compelling justification to visit the country (not that it ever is). Venice’s influence on the coast is still evident in the seafood dishes available. I sampled a classic Venetian dish of black risotto with cuttlefish. The unappetising colour of the rice is obtained from squid ink. In Zabljak, I ate heartier food that was more traditional for the Balkans. Conveniently situated immediately opposite the hostel was a bistro serving typical food of the mountainous interior of Montenegro. On my first night in Zabljak, I accompanied three weary hikers to the bistro and enjoyed sausages and peppers roasted with garlic. After a cold day of hiking in wet conditions, British Josh and I returned to the bistro with Irish Jon and American Maria. I was warmed by delicious veal chowder and a massive fillet of pork stuffed with cheese and ham. On my third night in Zabljak, I convinced the other guests to try another bistro. The northern region of Montenegro is famed for smoked pork, which I sampled as an entrée. The meat was surprisingly very tender and tasted similar to prosciutto, although the slices were quite thick. I also had an uninspiring Montenegrin dish known as kavajak, which basically consists of piles of polenta with loads of butter.
When I was planning Globo Trip, I read that many tourists visit Montenegro on a daytrip from Dubrovnik. I was tempted by this idea, but I am now entirely grateful I did not rely upon this option. I could probably have visited the Bay of Kotor in one day, but I would have made the grievous error of skipping Durmitor National Park and the brilliant hostel in Zabljak. Montenegro provided a contrasting experience to other countries in the Balkans, as its character is not defined by ethnic identity and the struggle for independence. The most appealing attribute of this tiny country is simply pure nature.
That’s all for now,