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Published: July 15th 2018
Our somewhat brief stop in Shköder, Albania for lunch was for all intents and purposes our last look at that country. I realized then that I liked the more interesting city of Tirana much better than the more modern Shköder though Shköder obviously does have its own attractions. From Shköder we were headed to Montenegro, another new country for us, for the next two nights; we had to make a border crossing out of Albania, then another into Montenegro all of which turned into a lengthy process considering we were not allowed to leave the bus. This would happen again and again as we went from country to country. At each border crossing, all passports had to be collected and turned over to border security/passport control, stamped and returned to us in contrast to crossing borders in Schengen countries where passports aren't necessarily stamped or even looked at except on arrival in airports. For those of us who prize passport stamps, the wait at the Balkan borders was very worth it!
There's a lovely restaurant on the Montenegrin edge of Shköder Lake where we enjoyed a coffee on a terrace on this sunny day under a bright blue, cloudless sky
during a brief stop. Ownership of this lake is shared by both Albania and Montenegro, and it is at this point where our guide introduced us to the concept that certain Balkan cities or geographical features such as lakes may be known by as many as 3 different names. For example, Shköder Lake is also known as Skadar and Scutari. This variation in names has a lot to do with the language of ancient conquerors (Roman, Venetian, Slavic, Ottoman, Greek or other) or more recent governments of a particular place.
As we traveled further into Montenegro, the landscape changed considerably from that of Albania -- from rocky, and dry to lush greenery. We bypassed the capital city of Podgorica
, and instead continued to climb higher into the Bjelasica and Sinjajevina mountains of the Dinaric Alps
. Though our final destination for the day was the winter resort town of Kolašin,
we eagerly looked forward to first visiting one of the most historical and notable sights in all of Montenegro -- Morača Monastery,
a site I had only recently read about.
The oft-contested medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery was founded in 1252 by Stefan Vukanovic of the Nemanjic dynasty. While there
are still many monasteries in Montenegro, Morača
may be the most well-known and visited. Located off Route E65 just near the banks of the Moraca River between Podgorica
and Kolašin, t
he entrance path leading to the monastery is quite obscure. We walked along a mostly weedy path until we came to a stone walkway, passed by picnic pavilions, then crossed a small wooden bridge over the rushing river. The entrance gate was part of a system of walls surrounding a large courtyard inside of which was the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God
in the center of the monastery courtyard, and then, the much smaller Church of St. Nicholas
off to its right side. In 1505, the monastery was burned and the artwork damaged by the occupying Ottomans. Eventually a more moderate rule was established by Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, himself originally a Serbian Christian but a product of the Ottoman "Devshirme" system (the practice whereby young Christian boys were kidnapped from their families by Ottoman military and brought up to serve the Ottoman Empire and forcibly converted to Islam).
The essential reason to visit, of course, is to see the stunning religious artwork in the main
church which is almost more than the eye can take in. The front exterior of the church has some lovely, but fading frescoes. But, inside the artwork covers all interior surfaces of the church -- frescoes, individual paintings and triptychs, the ornate iconostasis (altar screen), carved wood, brass objects and gilded surfaces. Painted in rich, jewel-like colors, the paintings depicted legions of saints, angels, holy men, Mary and the Christ Child, and various scenes. Though the guide did an admirable job of explaining the paintings, it is difficult to remember what he said now, and no books in English about the monastery were available for purchase in the church's vestibule that sold religious items, postcards of the church's interior, holy cards, and the like. While we took many photos of the frescoes of the church's exterior, taking photos even without flash was not allowed inside the main church; and, since one of the monks accompanied us inside of the church even attempting to do so was not possible.
However, some people visiting the smaller St. Nicholas Church
were taking photos liberally both inside and out because no one was there to stop it. The exterior frescoes are fading on
both churches but it's easy to imagine how vivid and beautiful they once were. It's said the oldest fresco of the monastery dates to the 13th century and depicts eleven scenes from the life of the prophet Elias. Other frescoes are said to date to the 16th century. Out of these later frescoes, the depictions of "Paradise and the Bosom of Abraham" and "Satan on the Two-Headed Beast," and that of the "Last Judgement" (1577-8) are said to be of some note.
In addition to the churches, there were living quarters for monks, additional buildings, gardens, beehives, a carillon of bells, and pathways connecting most all of it. Unfortunately, we did not explore the other buildings inside the courtyard and do not know whether they were even open to visitors and regardless, it was time for our group to move on.
Montenegro is known for its thick pine forested mountains. Driving the long, winding road through the mountains to reach Kolašin
gave us plenty of opportunity to enjoy them. By themselves, though beautiful, the mountains were not the most incredible view --- it was traveling along road overlooking the Tara River Gorge
and its dizzying heights which took
your breath away! The Tara River Gorge is considered the second or third deepest gorge in the world (depending on the information source) after Nepal's Kali Gandaki, and America's Grand Canyon.
But there is another way to enjoy the Tara River. For whitewater rafting enthusiasts like myself, rafting on the Tara River definitely has exciting possibilities, and if I had been traveling independently, I would have arranged for at least one day of rafting here. But several companies offer multi-day trips which include rafting plus overnight accommodations and meals and they look like great packages for a very reasonable price. Since rapids and “hole” categories run the gamut here from level 5 (high level of difficulty) to 2 and 3 (low to moderate), one should choose their rafting trip here carefully according to their previous rafting experience. Want even more thrills? Try ziplining over the gorge near Zabljak, Montenegro.
We went directly to our hotel, the Bianca Resort & Spa
, in small town of Kolašin
which was our home base for 2 nights. Set close to this small town, the hotel looked both like a modern architectural building and a rustic-looking ski lodge at once. We enjoyed the
atmosphere of the hotel including the open wood-burning fireplace which sent a woodsy-smoke fragrance wafting throughout the hotel. If you didn't know better you might think it was snowing outside.The hotel has many amenities including the Fitness Club & Spa, a very large indoor pool, saunas, and just steps away, the Adventure Park Kolašin which offers a number of outdoor challenge trails gauged for children or adults.
is located in a beautiful mountainous region of Montenegro, it draws people in all seasons for its fresh mountain air, agreeable climate in summer for hiking and rivers for rafting, the nearby ski venues in winter, and two important Montenegrin national parks: the impressive Durmitor National Park
, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
, and Biogradska Gora
including Lake Biogradksa (Biogradsko Jezero)
While some members of our group took the chance to wander into the center of Kolašin
, I didn't see too much to draw us there although there were a few small places to eat and such. Spring here is rather quiet though still beautiful. The air is so clean and crisp, the forests green, and the sky is clear blue that it was a pleasure just to enjoy what
could be seen around the hotel. Kolašin
, which is about only 50 miles from the capital city of Podgorica, has been the site of constant struggle for control since its 18th-century founding by the Ottomans as a defensive military outpost against the onslaught of Christians from Brda (meaning highlands or hills) and Herzegovina. The Christian Montenegrins were victorious in 1878, liberating it from the Ottomans. The online site 'Montenegro.com' states that Kolašin
was seized/changed hands 20 times during World War II. Perhaps the only thing that is reminiscent of Kolašin's
history now is a monument erected to the fallen of World War II.
Following a buffet breakfast at the hotel, we'd visit both of these parks on our second day in Kolašin
with a local guide in tow. Zorka, our guide, gave us a lot of facts and statistics but unfortunately but a lot in the way of local lore. We'd also stop at the famous Đurđevića Tara Bridge
(this bridge was featured in the film, "Force 10 From Navarone") crossing the Tara River Gorge
. Here we stopped for photos of this beautiful bridge which required enormous engineering skills to build, and is a well-deserved point of pride
with Montenegrins. There is an excellent place to have a coffee with a view of the bridge. There are also a few small shops here, but many people come to this point to zipline across the Tara River Gorge which looked pretty exciting --- a sport I have since given up after ziplining near Arenal in Costa Rica.
We continued on with our visit to Biogradska National Park
first where we had nice walk to see Biogradsko Jezero (Biogradska Lake),
and see the small natural history museum there. The lake's mirror-like surface was supremely serene and echoed the quiet surroundings of the lush green forests covering the mountainsides. It would have been a special treat to rent one of the available boats there and row on the lake.
, we took a lunch break at the chalet-style Enigma Hotel and Restaurant
near Žabljak The interior certainly looked like what you would expect a traditional Montenegrin restaurant in the mountains to be -- heavy wooden furniture, cozy and warm. Our lunch began with dessert which we were told was typically Montenegrin -- "oily balls" with honey. These were fried pieces of dough which we drenched in local honey.
The main dish was Moussaka with salad and bread which was very filling and wine or beer was included with the meal. My husband had a Montenegrin Vranac wine, a dry red wine that is a specialty of this country.
While the Enigma Restaurant
is on the ground floor, the hotel is on the second level and above. It looked like a great place to stay -- clean, well-furnished, though the rooms look a bit bare but come with all the usual amenties including a private bath. Some rooms can be booked with a Tara River Rafting Package and there is plenty of skiing and outdoor activities in close proximity to make this hotel a very convenient place to stay.
Lunch at the Enigma
was followed by sightseeing around Durmitor National Park
, a huge expanse of nature and a variety of geographical features and wildlife encapsulated within park borders. With the temperature here at about 48F degrees, we walked a good mile or so in the rain with no umbrella to see Durmitor National Park
lake. A little thunder and lightening was added in to make it especially memorable!
Montenegro seems to be brimming with fresh honey,
figs, and wines -- lucky them! Montenegro produces some very fine wines and beers, but to really warm you up you'll need to try some Rakia or rakija, the Montenegrin national drink --- a homemade version of plum rakija
made rounds on the bus after our chilling visit to Durmitor
! All I can say is, be prepared for the feel of liquid fire in your throat!
This was a very active day with a lot of walking and we were ready for a rest. After our buffet dinner at the hotel, we spent most of the evening relaxing in our large room, catching up on journaling and watching a bit of TV as the evening rain pattered against the window.
On the last morning in Kolašin,
we enjoyed our last buffet breakfast at the Bianca Resort before setting out on the road, moreorless retracing our steps as we drove down the steep, winding road next to the Tara River Gorge
once more. Though the sky was clear and bright, the highest mountain tops were shrouded in thin clouds making for a beautiful sight. The valleys below were dotted in small farms and people could be seen
going about their daily chores.
We were then meant to go on to see the museum at Cetinje
, but as construction in that direction had the road completely closed, we diverted directly to the coast. As beautiful as the mountainous regions of Montenegro are, my first sight of the Bay of Kotor
was so stunning that it was almost too much to absorb. This dramatic change in landscape from the mountains to the impossibly blue Bay of Kotor and golden sand beaches on Adriatic coast confirmed to me that you really can have it all in Montenegro! Traveling along the coast we had great views of the copper-colored terra cotta tiled roofs of the exclusive Sveti Stephan
island, and soon passed through the golden beach town of Budva
before making our way to Kotor.
Kotor was meant to be our lunch stop; as there was a cruise ship in port, the place was crowded and there really was no time for lunch. To see anything of this ancient town, lunch was out of the question -- finding open seats at any restaurant would have been difficult and time was a definite factor.
Our guide surprised us with an
unscheduled stop in the town of Perast
known for its famous church "Our Lady of the Rocks,"
reachable only by boat. Our whole experience in Montenegro left us wanting to see more. As both are fascinating, Kotor and Perast deserve more exploration time as well as blog time, so they will be covered in a separate post.
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