Currency: Euro, with easy access to ATMS
This overview is from my trip in September 2022, where I traveled with a small group for a week of hiking in the mountains.
Arrival and First Impressions
“Mont – a – who?” A common reaction when I tell people where I went on my last vacation. Croatia they know, but Montenegro? “You know, part of the old Yugoslavia,” I explain. A beautiful and sparsely populated region of eastern Europe waiting to be discovered by tourists. A country with only 650,000 people!! And I was following in the footsteps of intrepid souls who traveled before me.
I flew into Dubrovic where I was to be picked up with a small group to head inland, across the border to our lodge for the next two nights. The flight to Dubrovic, my entry into the Balkan zone, was concluded with the last hour flying over the Mediterranean, beautiful blue seas below me, the calm marked by the cutting white trails of the occasional boat.
The calm trip through immigration was shattered with the usual arrival mishap when trying to connect with a group. Even with so many ways to be connected, it still took 45 minutes to find the transfer since the usual phone based resources won’t work when landing in Croatia. At least the driver was waiting for one other person which took another 30 minutes or so. We piled into the van, exchanging introductions and settled in for the drive to our starting point in Montenegro, the drive punctuated by the border crossing, a wait, wait, wait behind a large bus until we were clear. No one even had to step off the bus. The road was lined with tall narrow trees, reminding me of arbor vitae gone wild, reaching up to brush the sky, somehow closer as we meandered through the hills. The coast soon emerged to the right, the calm bay waters inviting passers-by for a quick swim in the last days of summer sun. Sunny skies highlighted the stark contrast of the dark hills against the green fields, with an occasional lake buried in the hills sharing their own treasure of old cathedrals. Miles and miles of twirling pavement ran through the hills and mountains leading us to our destination, the green only broken by rusted sections of trees, a consequence of summer drought. And then arrival in Zabljak (pronounce ZAB- Jak) to stay in a large A-frame lodge in the shadow of the area mountains. And my room was on the top floor. Good for views, bad for luggage as the elevator was broken when we arrived.
I always travel with the intent that I will only pack what I can carry myself. It usually works well until I have to lug my luggage up four steep flights of stairs. And now we know why they call it “lug-gage.” Unfortunately, I was forced to check a bag because hiking poles are not allowed in a carry-on bag. And thus ensues the dangerous decisions that lead to luggage “creep” where certain items that were previously seen as unnecessary suddenly become essential to a joyous trip. That top and those slacks MUST be included! And of course, that other pair of shoes, just in case. The true test is to see what has emerged into daylight during the 17 days overseas. All escaped the bag for at least a couple excursions. I’ll deem that a success even if my back may disagree.
Day 2 – Our first excursion to Durmitor National Park. We arrived and walked up a small rise to see the Black Lake, nestled between the trees and mountains, the water levels low this time of year so that the connection between the “big” lake and the “small” lake was a dry bed of rocks. We walked the trail circumnavigating the lake, well-worn under the trees, the ground soft and black with decaying leaves and other tree debris, until we reached the west side where the trail was rocky and slick with water from recent rains and slow trickles from the mountain behind. We worked our way along the trail, slow and steady through the rocky areas, then on to more soft black trail to reach Serpent Lake, just as the rain stopped, to see the lake filled with lily pads. A soaking rain greeted us forcing the retrieval of rain jackets for a brief shower. It was lunch time and we made our way to a small picnic table at water’s edge, throwing plastic over the benches to sit and enjoy a sandwich as big as my head filled with some sort of veal or beef stuffed with cheese. Not my favorite type of sandwich. Then on to the final small lake, a pond really, nestled in an open field, surrounded by tall pines. Another rocky wet trail scramble seeming to signify a reluctant stream until we reached Black Lake again for a cappuccino in the small café. The virgin black pine forest was a quiet refuge and is one of the last in Europe, sitting under the shadow of Medjed Peak.
Day 3 – A hike to a mountain summit to view the deepest canyon in Europe, the Tara River Canyon! Thick green foliage covered both sides of the canyon, from top to bottoms with the blue river Tara cutting a line far below. The hike up was easy enough except for the rock studded trail slick with mud. The way down was another trail of slick mud, a vertical slide with tactical maneuvering and the urgent placement of poles to stop any unintended advancement. One wrong move and a rolling human boulder down the hill. My wrist was taking the brunt of the downhill tension, as I relied on my pole to stop any unintended sliding. Bright orange mushroom caps studded with white polka dots accented the trail, like festive fairy pergolas. Our entire hike was in the company of a fluffy pup, who looked like a small golden lab, full of energy and bounding with us as our private escort. On the way back to the access road, we stopped to have lunch in a grassy field next to a pond peppered with fading lily pads and a resting place for a couple of ducks. Once we reached the road to return to our van, we left a rather forlorn young dog alone by the side of the road. I hope he knew the way home after keeping us company for the better part of the day. And then, another van ride to Kolasin town. Who cares if the highway is not yet built? We drove through kilometers of rough gravel, thankfully with only a couple of other cars. There was no room for more than one lane of traffic. The journey included a stop on a famous bridge now spoiled by three zip line “adventure rides” crossing the same river. But at least from this vantage, we could look down on the tumbling turquoise tinted rapids as they raced around the boulders in the river far, far below. Our stay that night was at a “luxury” hotel, a nice hotel offering a spa with a rather large indoor lap pool, but not above the inconvenience of a short power outage.
Day 4 – Montenegro presents mountain after mountain, obstacles to quick progress from one city to another. But the gift of endless lush green forests. Our drive through the mountains on day four was punctuated with a stop at a small monastery from the 12th century. The small chapel was adorned with frescoes, most focused on St. Nicholas, and the larger chapel was full of frescoes and carvings from the 16thcentury, equally enchanting in its respectful homage to the saints. The grounds were full of flowers such as zinnias, nearing the end of their summer lives and giving last days of nectar to the bees living in the boxes and boxes of hives behind the small chapel. As we drove further along the serpentine road we stopped for a scenic view of the river valley, rough waters crashing far below with the mountains reaching into the blue sky behind.
Then we continued driving the turning twisting roads to a winery in the small village of Godinje, after a rather treacherous drive up another small mountain, carefully scrapping past the few cars headed down to the village. No shoulder or guard rails to keep you from plummeting down the side. Our lunch of chardonnay, rose, and red wine was supplemented with trays of cheeses, prosciutto, walnuts, raisins, sliced tomatoes, fresh bread and small homemade “crackers” slathered with an olive tapenade. We sat at a long table shaded by a pergola on a stone patio and enjoyed laughs and indulging in the lunch. This particular winery had been in the family for generations and in talking with the owner, you could hear the passion they had for what they create. And perhaps the wine would help to soothe the descent back down the narrow mountain road as our after lunch adventure was to enjoy a boat ride on Lake Skada, part of a National Park. The boat made quick progress as it skimmed through the thick vegetation, while we watched egrets and ducks under the sunny afternoon skies. We made one brief stop so the French tourists could leap into the lake for a swim and then we headed back to the village. Across from the dock, a small market was taking place and tourists were wandering about looking at the booths of wine and an enormous barrel full of grapes, free for the taking. Back into our white van for more driving on the curvy coastal roads through another town, with gorgeous modern buildings facing the sea, and finally to our Hotel Comte in Perast where we enjoyed dinner by the water, no buffet trauma in sight. The hotel offered lovely rooms with views of the water if you’re lucky enough to have a room in the front. Not me.
Day 5 – A morning drive along the coast to Kotor. It’s easy to see why Kotor was named “European Best Destinations 2019” and why it is a UNESCO listed Natural and Culturo-Historical Region. It was a warm sunny September day but we still tackled the long walk up the 1000 plus steps to a fortress/church at the top of the hill. Better handled with good foot wear but lots of tourists felt flip flops would be adequate for the climb. The steps were well cut and easy enough to manage and lots of turns gave avid tourists plenty of opportunities to catch their breath. Views of the entire city and coastline rewarded us as we stood in the sun looking down at the blue sea watching the ubiquitous cruise ships as they pulled in to dump tackily clad tourists to roam about the city. Then back down for a wander through the old town shops, restaurants, and churches. We enjoyed some good pizza at an outdoor restaurant, a visit to the church of St. Nicholas, and then up more stairs to walk along the wall for more views of the city. A short boat ride along the bay back to Perast with a stop to tour Our Lady on the Rock, a man-made island with a small cathedral steeped in history. Then back to the hotel. A warm and delightful fall day outside.
Day 6 – The day’s hike led us through Lovcen National Park to the mausoleum of a famous Montenegro politician from the 1800’s, Prince-Bishop Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, credited with bringing Montenegro into modern times. It was his wish to be buried on one of the highest peaks in the country. Probably to make tourists and travelers hike to the top. Of course, you could drive but this was a hiking holiday! We started in sun around Ivanova Korita and continued in forest, ascending through rocks and a burnt but regrown landscape to the Jezerski summit. We saw one small brown snake slither through the grasses to escape the pounding boots. Once we arrived at the monument, there were more steps – 461 up the mountain to honor the wishes of Prince Peter, buried on the second highest mountain in the country. Generous views of the surrounding country made me feel as if I could see most of Montenegro – the capital city of Podgorica, the city of Kotor, the Boca bay, and various small villages with their red clay roofs peppering the landscape in uniformity, nestled in the valleys and along the coast. For lunch, we went to Njegusi and ate local cured ham with cheese, bread, and green olives, followed by roasted pork and lamb with potatoes with local wine and cake for dessert. Delicious! It seemed to be a specific spot for tourists but if it gives me the chance to enjoy authentic cuisine, who cares? And Montenegro is not touristy, especially inland. Then back down the single lane road to the city of Perast for a few hours of free time. These mountain roads are not for the faint of heart. There was a broken-down bus at one point and for other buses and cars to squeeze by, it was a true test of courage! Hold your breath and close your eyes…
Day 7 – The weather did not cooperate for our final hike. Crashes of thunder and the bright flashes of lightning started early while it was still almost dark, the grey clouds adding to the morning gloom. Our guide arrived to agree that hiking on a mountain would not be a good idea. I could imagine the consequences of metal hiking poles with lightning, not to mention sliding down muddy trails with boots full of water. Not the adventure I’m seeking on vacation. It sounds more like a military drill. Plan B was to review the maritime museum in Kotor. And then a wander to visit churches and shops while the rain and the sun played tag all afternoon. There were other churches to explore in Kotor, such as the Sacral Art Museum, in the Basilica Cathedral of St. Tryphone as well as many shops to investigate for gifts or souvenirs. The streets were packed with tourists from local cruise ships that had docked for the day. And like many cities, there was no shortage of cats to watch. Once back at the hotel, I sat by the pool to read as it was too cool to swim, and did a quick climb to the top of the local clock tower. And the trip is basically done.
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