The long and winding road
On a clear, cold April day, I loaded my well-worn companion Olivia and left Pljevlja for Montenegro’s second largest city, Niksic (pop. 75,000); it would have been nice to know I was driving in the wrong direction.
After 25km, I “asked” the townsfolk in the village of Gradac (pop. 364) “which way to Niksic?” This elicited an amused round of laughter. By “asked,” I mean to say I pointed in each direction, and said “Niksic,” with an implied question mark on the end of the word. A fifty-year-old man with a single tooth and traditional handmade farmer’s clothes, seemed quite sure that I had indeed traveled the wrong direction. As much as my prideful self would have rather traveled around the planet in the other direction, my retreat was imminent.
Durmitor National Park, and the crazy highways of Montenegro
From my course correction in Gradac, I drove past Durmitor mountain and national park, on a cracked, dirt road that just about wrecked me time after time. I saw a frozen lake and rather than drive over a mountain, tried to coax some construction workers into letting me pass through an unlit and
Frozen lake in the national park.
unfinished tunnel they were working on. I was lucky they refused, as their path would have led me ten miles into the side of an icy mountain cave, with no exit.
Everywhere I expected to find a sign to point me to Niksic, I couldn’t. I was forced to ask locals probably eight times. When I finally found a sign toward Niksic, it confused me just as badly; it pointed to two different directions, both indicating Niksic
! I took out my camera and videoed myself actually flipping a coin to see which way I should go. I followed the “heads” direction and soon encountered a natural roadblock of snow covering the road for an eternity. Standing straight up in two feet of snow was a toy sand shovel, seeming only to serve as the punch line in the joke that is often my life.
Public transit: Montenegro style
Hitchhiking is a main form of transportation for the Montenegrin country folk. They often stand by the side of the road and wait for the next ride, which will universally pick them up. This spirit of togetherness made me wish I had ditched my Vespa one hundred icy kilometers
City of Niksic
Montenegro's second-largest city, just 75,000 people.
ago! Cooperation made sense for the people here, in this impoverished former communist republic to put resources to their most functional use.
When I finally entered Niksic, I was immediately commended for my outrageous travels by a police officer on a street corner. Soon after, as I stopped to buy some food and the local beer at a market, several French college students rushed over to me and said they had seen me out on the road and were excited that I had traveled all over Europe. They had left Brittany for a 10-day airplane and hitchhiking adventure through the former Yugoslavian republics of Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia. After we talked a bit, they told me they were headed off to stay at Ostag Serbian Orthodox Monastery – same as I was.
The road to Ostag Monastery wasn’t your average street; monastery paths seldom are. This one, in particular, crawled along the side of a great valley for more than a dozen kilometers, creeping higher and higher until, finally, the 17th
century facade stood opulently perched like an eagle’s nest above what must have once been a tremendous prehistoric river. The monastery itself
Crouched in the rock of this dominating mountain.
was actually built into the hard face of a rocky mountain cliff, leaving a dramatic and unforgettable impression.
All guests are welcome to stay at Orthodox monasteries, and I was not alone at this one. A teeming zoo of international citizens, all found themselves at Ostag for one reason or another. Faithful Orthodox visited for the purpose of reflective study. Others used the peaceful place as a sanctuary from a life in crisis. Still others were weary travelers or humble pilgrims paying homage.
The next morning my French friends, having spent a lifetime enjoying the finest coffee blends in the great cafes of France, struggled to swallow the instant Turkish coffee. In between anguished gulps, they told me that the orchestral snoring combined with the thick, horrible air in our cold, damp, 50-bed dorm room had made sleeping impossible for most of the night. Our chamber had reeked with the intense, biting odor of a high school wrestling mat.
Sometimes when I drink at the edge of a great landscape, I get spiritual and reflective. In anticipation, I’d picked up the local Niksic beer, and prepared to enjoy it
These magnificent birds sat in the tree as sunset came upon us.
with my dinner. But I received a stern warning from the monastery guard, Rayu, that alcohol was unacceptable. Apparently much was impermissible, including recording video footage at the monastery – a request to which I adhered. Rayu also decided he needed to tell people when their bedtime was, which was the command he gave me after I snuck out to stare at the intensely vibrant stars in the Montenegrin sky, reflect philosophically, and drink my beers.
In the morning, it was not hard to rise. The dew clung to the concrete walls, and the smell was as bad as when I had lain down. There was a prayer at six in the morning, and the humanity that occupied the dorms filed obediently out and toward the chapel. The chapel of the church only held about two-dozen, so the remainder lined up just outside the church, tweaking their ears to hear the words of the priest. Though I love the Orthodox faith, I did not join them. Standing in line near the entrance to a church, where I could not even hear the words spoken, in a language I could not understand at all, seemed less than meaningless. Instead, I
stood below a leafless tree in the courtyard, filled with birds loudly proclaiming a warm greeting to the rising sun.
Today would be a good day. And today, I planned to sell Olivia in the capital.
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