Sailing, swimming, and getting lost in the world’s third newest country (Montenegro)


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Europe » Montenegro » Kotor » Kotor
June 26th 2011
Published: September 8th 2011
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We’re trying to decode a Croatian sign which, in our estimated translation reads- ‘Stop, Police’. It’s what you would expect at a border crossing. Ahead of us are a couple of port-a-cabins and a simple boom gate barrier that you see at car parks set up for the weekend footy. There are about three or four cars parked on either side of the road and apart from that it’s just us, stopped next to the sign which tells us to do so. British sensitivities in order we figure that if we just sit here and wait patiently someone official will tell us what to do next. A packet of jelly snakes, a massive bag of peanuts, and a re-application of sunscreen later nothing has happened.

Luckily Carol (Katie’s mum, who we met on the plane) is experienced in the way of Balkan border crossings and with a big smile and red passport in hand she strolls up to the port-a-cabins to see what’s going on. She’s had a win. Emerging nonchalantly the border inspector waves us on up, where we have our passports casually inspected before the boom gate is opened and we’re allowed on our way.

We transverse no-mans land before arriving at the Montenegrin border where our passports are again handed over for stamping along with a small car ‘tax’ in Montenegro’s assumed currency, Euros. After having voted for independence from Serbia in a 2006 referendum, Montenegro is now the world’s third newest country and by the choice of their adopted currency it appears that Montenegro’s ambitions are very clear. EU membership. And why not?

With Carol as our guide, whom we’re lucky to have with us because it was impossible to buy a Montenegrin road map in Notts before we left, we make good progress south. We pass through the northern resort town of Herceg Novi before arriving into the marina in Tivat by mid afternoon. The skies are clear, and the temperature is in the very comfortable low 30s. Ahhhh... Aussie weather.

Katie meets us and takes us through the marina to where her and Tim’s yacht, Monty B, is moored up. Tim welcomes us on board with an icy cold beer and Katie whips up a lovely local styled salad of tomatoes, cucumber and feta accompanied by fresh bread. Delicious! Not too long afterwards we’re casting off, motoring out into the bay. The scenery is truly stunning as the bright blue waters are flanked by huge mountains with green forested lower slopes and barren rocky tops.

As we head out into the bay, Tim points out some of the significant landmarks and explains how faith and geography in the region mix. To the north we can see the coast of the (mainly) Roman Catholic Croatia. Beyond the mountains to the east is Serbia, which is (mainly) Orthodox and only a few hundred kilometres to the south is the (mainly) Muslim Albania.

We motor past an island church (how cool) before anchoring up out of the strong northerly winds behind another nearby island. With the anchor set, the afternoon passes in a relaxing mix of swimming and chilling onboard the deck of the Monty B listening to Tim and Katie tell us about their sea change from the 9-to-5 in the UK, to life on a boat in the Adriatic. As it grows dark, Katie cooks up a fantastic dinner and Tim show us the bioluminescence in the water and we marvel as we run our fingers through it and see the water light up. After quite a few glasses of local wine and lots of catching up, we call it a night. Ariana, who normally suffers from seasickness, is perfectly fine, and so, looking up through fore-cabin's overhead window at a sky full of stars, we comfortably drift off to sleep.

Monday greets us with more clear skies and warm temperatures and from our anchoring spot, Tim motors back into the main channel, past Tivat and up into the bay of Kotor. As we round the point and into the bay proper we’re greeted with the most fantastic view. Rising around all sides, straight up from the water’s edge, are towering grey mountainsides. Apparently it is often described as being Europe’s southern most fjord, but geographically speaking the bay of Kotor is in fact a ria, an unglaciated drowned river valley (the same as Sydney Harbour). Nerdy geography semantics aside, Kotor bay is absolutely breathtaking.

We cruise past a pair of churches built onto the islands in the bay and then past the heritage listed village of Perast before anchoring up at the far end of the bay. While Tim rows to shore in the dingy to walk the dogs, we make the most of the beautiful weather by going for a swim. Floating around in the clear water looking up at the steep mountainside is heavenly.

We enjoy a long slow lunch on the deck of the boat, and as the sun starts falling Tim and Katie release the sails and we begin our wind assisted return to the marina at Tivat. Cruising through the bay with no noise other than the sound of the waves crashing into the hull is fantastic. It’s easy to see how people get hooked on sailing.

Back at the marina we bid farewell to Tim, Katie and Carol and jump back into our Croat plated hire car. We’re staying the night in the UNESCO listed walled town of Kotor- our directions are simple... turn left, follow the water.

The one and a quarter lane road winds its way along the coast between terra-cotta roofed cottages and the water’s edge, where every hundred metres or so there are small wooden fishing boats moored up alongside simple concrete jetties. Kids play on the road and local families stand around chatting. It is all very chilled out.

Kotor’s old town is pedestrian only, so we park the hire car up on the outskirts of town, grab our bags and set off into the maze of cobbled streets. The Venetian styled buildings are blushed with pink from the setting sun and we don’t mind having to take a couple of circuits of the old town before we find our hostel. After checking in we head out for a tasty Italian inspired dinner.

Tuesday morning we’re up early and first on our to do list is to climb the fortified walls which extend up the mountainside directly behind the town. We’re glad to have risen early as by the time we’re heading downhill again there is a steady stream of cruise boat tourists in their way up, faces red from a combination of the morning sun and the exhaustion of their ascent. Back in the town we pick up some road maps of Montenegro and the surrounding region before checking out of the hostel and hitting the road.

From Kotor we take the road inland as it climbs up the mountainside into Luvcern National Park stopping along the way for photos and to check out the view. After no fewer than 26 hairpin turns we eventually reach the top - the best part of a 1100m climb!

Once the coast disappears from view, the landscape changes remarkably. It becomes forested mainly rocky country with limited farming. There are high stacks of loose cut summer grass drying. The temperature has dropped up here too. According to the hire car the outside temperature has dropped by 11 degrees in comparison to the temperature as we left Kotor that morning.

Following the mountain roads we pass through the city of Citinje, before trying to find our way along the scenic road to Lake Skadar (mental note: next time get a more detailed map!). We continue along a one lane bitumen road in search of the lake when, through the thick scrub which has been hemming us onto the road for the last hour or so, we eventually get a glimpse of its northern corner. The view is spectacular, but somehow we’ve ended up on the eastern side of the lake!

As we head inland towards the Montenegrin capital Podgorica (where we know we can turn west again) we agree to make the most of the wrong turn and seeing as the bilingual English / Serbian tourism signs tell us we’re officially in wine country, we decide to stop at a cellar door.

So we turn off the highway following the brown tourist signs on to a one lane sealed road which soon turns in to a dirt road... and Ariana questions whether this really is a good idea.
“Of course - this is going to be fun.”
The dirt road takes us through the centre of some farm buildings before coming to a dead end at a simple house. Other than the vines out the front there is nothing to suggest that this place has anything to do with winemaking, much less anything to do with wine tourism.
“Uhhh... perhaps we should turn around?”
“Good idea.”
So we head back to the main road. Maybe Montenegrin tourism should’ve checked with the vineyards before putting up the signs. No doubt in a rush to show the world they are open for business it appears such attention to detail was overlooked.

Podgorica, when we reach it, is a hot and fairly unremarkable place. In some ways with its parched summer grass and dust, it is not dissimilar to some western Central Queensland towns. This is clearly another face of Montenegro, which, with a population of greater Nottingham and a land mass the size of Wales, has already shown us that it is remarkably varied.

Investment in the infrastructure around the capital seems to have been substantial and with the help of some new motorways and a tunnel or two we soon find ourselves back on the coast on the outskirts of Budva. We’ve booked a hotel just off the highway on the southern coast but we completely miss the turn and end up just short of the Albanian border at the town of Ulcinj. Luckily we come across a tourist information centre on the outskirts of town so we pop in to see if they can help us.

We explain our problem to the young bloke at the desk who looks at us and asks “Are you Australian?”
“Yes”, we respond (slightly bemused as how he could tell).
“Then slow down, I can’t understand you”.

To be fair we should’ve known better and have spoken clearly and slowly to start with, and when we do the young bloke is more than happy to help us out. We conclude that this discussion adds weight to our theory that Australians are disproportionately represented in the travelling community.

With better directions we manage to find our hotel, a relatively new construction right on the rocky Adriatic shore. We check in and then unwind by the pool with a glass of Montenegrin white wine as we watch the sun sink into the sea. Lovely.

At breakfast in the morning we manage to order without being able to speak Serbian, but as always a smile goes a long way and soon enough we’re brought freshly made omelets, coffee and orange juice. It has been a while since we’ve been in this situation and we feel a bit embarrassed not to have had even a few words memorised from a phrase book. Next time, maybe.

Back on the highway we turn left and head north. We’ve given ourselves all day to drive basically the length of coastal Montenegro to Dubrovnik in Croatia. Our first stop of the day is at the ancient ruins at Stari Bar before heading to the gorgeous island village of Sveti Stefan. We make it to Perast for lunch where we take a table at a local taverna. Ariana orders a tomato and fish based pasta and Lachlan a squid ink risotto. We have a great time chatting with the guys running the family owned restaurant while we wait for our meals to be prepared. The view out onto Kotor bay (where we were sailing a few days earlier) is amazing, so even though our meals take a while, in our book it’s time well spent.

From Perast we continue around Kotor bay and pass through Herceg Novi before taking the main motorway crossing back into Croatia. It’s late afternoon by the time we make it to Dubrovnik. Again we get lost on the way to the hotel, but a quick phone call sorts us out and a couple of minutes later we’re at the guesthouse which we’re staying at. The Croatian family which run it are extremely friendly and we feel instantly at home. After a stroll around the local area we take a restaurant recommendation and begin our 15 minute walk in the direction of the old town.

Making it just on dusk, our first impression is that Dubrovnik old town is simply amazing! The hulking fortified walls are a sight to behold and the only way through them is across a draw bridge over a dry moat. Cool! Inside, the main cobbled street is wide with grand buildings lining the road. Side streets off rise up at an angle of 30 degrees and the stones underfoot have been worn smooth from the thousands of feet which have crossed them.

The restaurant we’re in search of is on the harbour, so we walk down the main street, through the fortified walls and with our restaurant in sight we’re just lining up a table when we run into... Lachlan’s cousin Kim! Together with some Aussie mates, she’s just finished a week long sailing trip in Croatia and is about to fly out tomorrow to Barcelona. What a coincidence! So, joined by Kim, we grab a seat at one of the outdoor tables and over fried baby octopus, bread, olives and a bottle of red wine we catch up. What a great first night in Croatia!

Thursday morning is our last in the Balkans so we’re up early for a quick trip around the Dubrovnik old town to see it in the daylight. Ducking down all the little side streets, through archways, and following the fortified walls we are having an absolute ball but we’ve got to make it to the airport for early afternoon so we grab some gelato before hitting the road.

We farewell Dubrovnik and as we approach the airport, we stop at the small harbour town of Cavtat to grab some lunch. Cavtat is lovely. It feels very Croatian, just like Dubrovnik, but things are much slower and the town centre is much smaller. Kids bomb dive off the jetty, locals and tourists fill the harbour side cafes, and a variety of yachts and motor cruisers are moored up out in front - their wealthy owners also enjoying a leisurely brunch on the deck. If only we could stay longer...

It is true of almost everywhere we go: we wish for more time to experience, more time to learn, more time to relax. But what we have enjoyed in our short stay has been loads of fun. Montenegro was great, Tim and Katie’s hospitality more than generous, and the scenery breathtaking and stunningly varied. Croatia has been great too - the people friendly, the coast magnificent, the food fantastic. It is with some irony too that while we’ve been away we’ve missed the two warmest days in the UK for the last two years, but we wouldn’t trade our weekend in former Yugoslavia for the world. We’ve had a ball.


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9th September 2011

Great photos yet again Lachlan
The water looks very clear and warm

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