Hiking to Planinica

For the next hour to hour and a half we walked through this magnificent landscape where horses were grassing in the distance. Even better it was for the most part somewhat straight with no serious ascends.

I’d had a hard time researching the possible option for two city dwellers hiking in Durmitor and all I’d found apart from the shorter hike around the black lake was a suggestion to hike to Planinica and back. According to the blog it was a rewarding walk which was doable in one day.

At the tourist info centre they were not much help and at one of the many travel agencies in town we were told that we wouldn’t make it in one day. Thus, I was very confused regarding our options when we set out in the early morning for Durmitor National Park.

The girl at the Visitor’s Centre was clear in stating that a trip to Planinica would be six hours. Now that I look back I am not so sure if she meant six hours to and from or one way. She also claimed that the dotted line which on our map clearly stated unmarked trail was marked and possible to follow, meaning that we could take another trail back.

I trusted her because she worked at the Visitor’s Centre, and thus we set out for Planinica on this beautiful summer’s day with lots of water and a map.

Now this shouldn’t sound like a blog on how it all ended in disaster because the trip ended up absolutely amazing and at no point were we in danger of any kind, but I look back on this day wondering how on earth we did it. I’ve even promised my boyfriend never to plan another crazy hike again.

On the trail to Planinica

The hike started out on flat land and for some parts on a road. It was easy peasy and we managed to make a short stop at the lake Zminje Jezero. We’d read on the map that a spring would be available here and thus had filled already emptied a large part of our water. But we never found the spring.

But so far the hike had been easy and we still had two litres left.

After another hike through the pine woods, the road started to go up, but it was manageable and the trees covered us from the sun as we slowly ascended reaching a clearing with a beautiful meadow called Crepulja Poljana. It is a stunning place in the middle of the pine wood forest and encircled by the mountains. I was hooked and despite our ascend I was ready for more.

Those I imagine were my famous last words, because from there it went straight up. At 1716 meters above sea level, we started out on more than a 200 meter ascend in order to reach the entrance to the Ališnica Valley at 1940. I have no idea how I survived, but I imagine that some of the reason was that we were distracted a large part of the way by a butterfly which decided to hitchhike on my boyfriends finger most of the way.

It was strenuous and constantly as we thought we’d made it another climb came into view. as if there was no end to this personal hell. Having to save on water as well and far away from the pleasant pine woods I was close to collapsing.

Ališnica Valley

But after what according to the trail signs was only 45 minutes but to us was close to two hours, we made it to the top of the trail and around a small bend. And this is why we climbed all this way. The Ališnica Valley is a most beautiful piece of this earth and if I’d had any breath left from climbing up there the sight would have taken it away.

For the next hour to hour and a half we walked through this magnificent landscape where horses were grassing in the distance. Even better it was for the most part somewhat straight with no serious ascends.

When we reached a sign midways, it became obvious to us that the unmarked trails which the girl in  the Visitor’s Centre had claimed to be marked were no such thing. Moreover, the trail we had hoped to follow was across a mountain ridge with an ascend of 400 metres. No thank you.

It had become clear that our only option was to take the same trail back, and with near to no water left and the clock closing in on 4 PM we were slightly concerned. But meeting a couple of hikers going the opposite direction, we were told that Planinica was only another 45 minutes away and we decided to keep on walking.

That was just before another heavy ascend began reaching the flat peak of Planinica at 2330 metres. When we’d made it, I was slightly disappointed and close to collapsing. Nothing seemed extraordinary about this place in comparison to the valley we’d left behind. But my boyfriend stuck to the idea that from somewhere we should be able to see the two Skrcko Jezero lakes.

With indication of a trail through some bushes we nearly climbed on our knees searching for a way to the viewpoint indicated on the map. And there behind heavy scrubs we found the actual peak of Planinica – a wide meadow with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and down a small trail we could see directly below us Malo Skrcko Jezero as an emerald nestled between the mountains. What a beautiful place.

Returning

But it was 5 PM and the last thing we needed was to get caught on the mountain by night. Thankfully most of the way was descending, but particularly the climb down from the Ališnica Valley was terrifying with the fear of falling and with the light slowly fading. We were completely robotic at this point only thinking of putting one foot in front of the other dreaming of reaching a place where we might saturate our thirst and find comfort for our feet.

After Crepulja Poljana the descend became easier, but what we had remembered as a short and relatively easy ascend proved a very long trail down through the darkening pine wood. The road seemed to go on for hours and as darkness was falling around us a sign let us know that we had another 1 hour and 30 minutes to Crno Jezero – the black lake. From there it would be 900 meters to the entrance and if we would find no taxis then 3 kilometres into town.

If I’d thought too much about it I would have crumbled up, but all I could do was put one foot in front of the other. At least we’d made it down the mountain and onto the trail that for parts followed a road. My fear of being stuck on the mountain in the night was not realised, thank goodness.

But the best part of the day was when a small red car with a Belgian couple stopped after I threw out my thumb. Before making it to Crno Jezero we got a ride into Žabljak where these amazing and friendly people dropped us off in front of the supermarket.

After a run through the store and a short waiting in line, we sat down at a nearby bench draining each our litre of water before starting on the lemonade and orange juice and another water. Never has a beverage of any kind tasted as great as on that bench in Žabljak.

We ended up eating a pizza at some fancy place in town where the waiters forgot us and the chairs were uncomfortably high. And we agreed that the following day we would spend recuperating.

Was it worth it? Yes, but I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known how hard it would be. I guess ignorance is bliss.

Zofka

Žabljak

Our driver could smoke, text, talk and drink a Red Bull all while he took us up into the Montenegrin inlands past the Bay of Kotor and the mountains behind.

I’d stressed excessively about whether or not we would be able to get tickets for the once-a-day direct bus from Budva to Žabljak. Arriving in Budva we’d bought the tickets but this morning they were nowhere to be found and we ended up having to pay another 30 euros for the bus ride for a new set of tickets.

Donald Sutherland drove us to Durmitor

When the minibus drove into the bus station, it looked like something that had seen the birth of Tito. Our driver at the same time looked like Donald Sutherland.

We were lucky to get the front seats offering proper space in this tiny bus, though also a firtsthand experience with the front window in case of an accident since seatbelts is an exotic commodity in Montenegro.

But our driver was a professional and a multitasker. He could smoke, text, talk and drink a Red Bull all while he took us up into the Montenegrin inlands past the Bay of Kotor and the mountains behind.

While our driver was amazing, the minibus was falling apart. I don’t know if it was overheating or the road increase up the mountainside, but for long parts of the journey the bus moved around 35 to 40 km/h. I felt like I was riding that small train which takes tourists up the hill of Montmartre.

For hours we snaked our way up the mountain side, while other vehicles zoomed past us. We were the annoying tractor on the road I imagine. Our driver, however, took it calmly while lighting one cigarette after the other..

With front seat rows we got to enjoy this bus ride which had become a small adventure all on its own through the mountainous roads of Montenegro, while we could see as the speedometer slowed down to only 20 km/h.

In Nikšić the bus got full and some people had to stand up for the last leg of the journey. I really needn’t have been that worried about getting tickets.

We finally made it to Žabljak, where an unfortunate backpacker was impatient and opened the wrong side of the luggage storage. The bus almost came apart and the driver, the unlucky backpacker and a strong guy amongst the passengers had to fight to close the lid again.

After spending double on our bus ride by buying two sets of tickets we decided to tip our driver. Partly for his battle with strenuous mountain roads and stupid backpackers and partly for allowing us to stay up front all the way.

Žabljak

Žabljak is the regional capital of Žabljak Municipality and according to what I’ve read before coming it is nothing special. However, after spending our afternoon here and figuring out how to see Durmitor National Park in the next two days, I have to say I rather like this quirky place.

Žabljak can boast close to 2000 inhabitants. It is also the highest placed city in the Balkans at an altitude of 1456 metres. Most of the city is new as it was nearly completely destroyed during the Balkan Wars and then burnt to the ground during WW2.

Today the city caters to winter sport as well as mountain activities in the summer as it is the gate way to Durmitor National Park.

All the houses seem to be built in stone, old wood and tin, in various combinations. Most houses have tin roofs which are anything from orange to blue or green. Many are old and rusted giving the city a unique look.

In the centre lies the very beautiful Žabljak Hotel, which stands as a mountain itself. Behind it we found an odd area consisting of two streets with houses which seemed to have burned out some time ago. Derelict and desolate with graffiti and weeds everywhere, this small area close to the centre is a ghost town.

Walking through it we only met an old woman with blue hair and her grandchild a long with a massive cow grassing by one of the houses.

In so many ways Montenegro is developing fast and furiously, and also in Žabljak you find new hotels being built. And then you come across such an odd scene as this and all you can think is that here is proof that we are still in the Balkans.

Žofka

Walking the Budva Riviera

So after taking my shots of this iconic sight I’ve decided to return in 2038 if I am able to and with the hopes that the Montenegrin government wont lease the islet out for another 30 years.

Montenegro is in many ways a land of extremes. It has both coast and mountains, seems small, yet big. But mostly it is extreme in the difference between rich and poor, between the Montenegrins and the rich expats and tourists who are settling in Tivat and on the Adriatic Coast.

On the one side Montenegrins are living with very few means and the buses have not been updated since they left the French bus service in the 1960s. On the other side, there are large amounts of luxury yachts in the marina of Kotor, Tivat and Budva. This is where the elite likes to keep court.

The Budva Riviera offers a hotpot mix of low budget hotels for the average Russian and Ukrainian and high-end resorts where a spot on the beach costs 100€ for the day, and any use without payment will mean immediate police prosecution.

The closer to Sveti Stefan the more upscale it becomes and the closer to Slovenska Obala and Budva the more low cost.

Sveti Stefan

In 2008 Montenegro leased out the picturesque islet and historical resort Sveti Stefan to the international group Aman Resorts for a 30 years period. Thus, access to this number one photographed spot in Montenegro has been limited to the few who have money enough to pay for one of the 58 guest rooms. The rest of us have to stay on land photographing the islet from afar.

Many would argue that it is sad that the rich can close off access to such a cultural pearl and claim it a great failure that the government of Montenegro issued the contract. Principally, I agree. I am not much for exclusive resorts and jet-setter attitudes especially when it limits the open access of the public to historical and beautiful places around the world.

However, I am also one to quickly get frustrated with other tourists and I know that the real beauty of this place is its setting , which is best enjoyed from the coast. If Sveti Stefan was open to the public, the beautiful islet and the road leading up to its gates would be full with tourists and souvenir shops and probably far from as beautifully restored.

So after taking my shots of this iconic sight I’ve decided to return in 2038 if I am able to and with the hopes that the Montenegrin government wont lease the islet out for another 30 years.

The coastal road to Stari Grad

After a bit of food and two spots on the much cheaper public beach we walked along the first stretch of the coastline from Sveti Stefan towards Budva. It is a gorgeous – but in parts overcrowded – first half of the coastline with Przno as the absolute high. Here we took another swimming break and again at Kamenovo where we lounged for a bit.

But after Kamenovo comes a tunnel and past that and some beautiful rocks, which seem to have been thrown into the sea by giants, we came to the least attractive but very lively Rafailovići where all the average people on low-budget charter enjoyed the sun.

Here the hotels are a disaster and the beach becomes very dirty along with the sea. But it was enjoyable to see the many people having fun as the last sunshine of the day warmed us.

I’d like to say that we walked all the way to Stari Grad but at some point we got far too exhausted from the day and uncertain of how to walk any further, so for the last stretch we caught a taxi.

Budva – Stari Grad

The evening we spent in the magical Stari Grad which seems so cute and intimate in comparison to the larger fortified old towns of Dubrovnik and Kotor.

But unlike in Dubrovnik and Kotor, Budva Stari Grad is also very much alive in the evening and all the way to 1 o’clock at night bars and discos are open for the young tourist hoards. I had to try sleeping to the noise of several ultra famous 2017 hits beating away at the next door bar. This was the only minus to our wonderful hotel, but one I fortunately knew had an expiration time. All I could do was wait until the magical hour of 1 o’clock.

I am happy that I got to see Budva and I look forward to returning in 2038 when the Montenegrin government hopefully ends the leasing out of Sveti Stefan.

Cheers

Zofka

Back to Kotor

Finally crossing the border into Montenegro and following the long and winding road at the edge of the water, we made it into Kotor where a small studio apartment with a balcony offering views of the mountains and the bay was awaiting us.

By late afternoon we made our way into Kotor, where our first order of business apart from fawning over the beautiful old town was to arrange a tour to Lovćen and find something to eat.

With the assistance of the tourist info desk just outside the Sea Gate entrance we made it to the north-eastern corner of the old town and the office of Montenegro Golden Bay Tours, booking ourselves on a five hours tour for Lovćen two days hence.

The guy at the office was marvellous and made me feel even more excited about the trip than I’d been before. He also pointed us in the direction of Café Pizzaria Pronto, which there seems to be some consensus on being the best pizza in town. Two slices later I could only agree.

With our hunger sedated and the tour planned, we walked the pretty streets of Kotor. Dubrovnik might be majestic and beautiful with its tall walls, but when inside the old town, I prefer to get lost in the pleasant alleys of Kotor.

The surrounding city-scape beyond the old town offers stark reminders of Montenegro’s recent past with old concrete rises and complexes in between the idyllic bay front houses. This is a place where both the Venetian, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian past as well as the years of Yugoslavian architecture is still achingly alive.

By sunset we found our way to the local beach where we took a swim in the bay and a cold beer before returning home to our bay view balcony.

Day in Perast

Apart from dreaming of a visit to Lovćen National Park and the Mausoleum of Njegoš, I wanted to see Perast and the two islets Lady of the Rocks and St. George . Thus, after a cosy breakfast on the balcony we made it into town where we found a boat tour  departing for Perast and Lady of the Rocks at noon.

With two hours to spare we walked through gradska pijaca, the market to the south of Seagate where we were offered a taste of some of the amazing products Montenegro has to offer. As a Mediterranean country they make brilliant olive oil and cheese and has a relatively big wine and rakija production.

But it is the Njeguški pršut  (ham) which stands out. I was extremely amazed with the ham and cheese I tasted, and I’ve promised myself not to leave Montenegro without some Njeguški pršut. While the cheese reminded me of the Spanish Manchego, Njeguški pršut seems similar to Parma or Serrano.

We passed the southern Gurdić Bastion where we entered the old town. Here we spent the following two hours enjoying the cooling alleys and another pizza slice from Pronto, before making our way to the boat.

Bay of Kotor

It is a magnificent experience to sail on the Bay of Kotor, though also slightly daunting with the imposing mountains rising up in front of you. Out in the middle of the bay, it seemed as if we were cut off from the rest of the world by massive walls of solid rock.

Reaching Lady of the Rocks, we had 30 minutes to make our way around the island. I’d thought that it seemed quite a short amount of time, but as the islet is only around 3030 m2 and offers a small chapel and museum – none of which we had any need to visit, we had time to spare.

Lady of the Rocks is an artificial islets created through the centuries. According the legend two seamen discovered an icon showing Madonna and child under the shallow water in the bay outside of Perast on July 22nd, 1452. They vowed to create a chapel in the spot to honour the Lady Madonna and started to throw rocks into the bay where they had found the icon. This slowly created the articificial islets and a small chapel on top. It became a tradition for sailors of Perast to drop a stone at Lady of the Rocks before heading out to sea. Today, the act is celebrated on 22nd of July at sunset when locals sail to the islet to drop stones.

Perast

Perast is a pretty little bayside village with old stone houses and mansions. It boasts 22 churches and only around 350 inhabitants. We never managed to find a street leading further up to what I imagine will be additional streets, but stayed mainly at the seaside, where people were sunbathing and swimming in the bay.

If only we had been smart enough to bring our swimsuits, we would have been able to cool down from the intensive heat, but instead we found a bayside restaurant and a table in the shade. The food was in no way anything to write home about and the waiter managed to get our order wrong, but who cares when you sit overlooking Kotor Bay and the pretty little islets.

Carpet haggling in Kotor

At 16.30 we were back in Kotor for an evening meal and another walk through this amazing town. During our morning walk through the old town I’d fallen in love with a Kelim carpet in a small shop and by afternoon we returned to haggle. I’m really terrible at this and nearly get a stomach cramp when attempting it. But I am proud to say that despite panicking halfway through I got it for half the price. A sumak kelim from somewhere near Mount Ararat.

The shop was new and the owners Turkish. And if there are a people in this world who have made it a culture to haggle, it is the Turks. We ended up seeing the sellers surgical wounds, hear his life story, discuss the beautiful Italian town Bergamo and drink a coffee from next door. I returned home to our lodgings with my beautiful new carpet and beginning concerns on how I’d ever fit it in my backpack for the remaining part of our backpacking holiday.

Lovćen National Park

The following day we met up with our driver and a few other tourists at Kamelija Shopping Centre for a tour up the old Austro-Hungarian Road and deep into the mountains behind.

The Austro-Hungarian Road behind Kotor is an absolutely beautiful and stunning construction consisting of 26 hairpin turns. As such it is not for the faint-hearted. Despite my fear of heights, I felt quite safe with our local and very competent guide as he navigated up the road.

In the bay below us lay two massive cruise ships. I am by no way a fan of cruise ships and often find they obstruct the view for others. This is particularly the case in Kotor, where the entire old town seems to lie in the shadow of the cruise ships coming in for the day. But as we climbed further up the road adding new hairpins to our journey, the cruise ships became smaller and smaller parts of the magnificent view. They were great indicators for us to grasp just how far up we got and how much more was visible to us from the 25th hairpin turn than the 3rd.

From the view point of the last hairpin turn we drove further into Lovćen National Park. We made a stop at a zipline, where we were given the chance to soar above the cliffs.

Once again my usual fear of heights was nowhere to be seen as I swung my legs straight in front of me and out over the mountain side.

What a rush. Despite going slow the view and the perspective was stunning and the feeling of sliding through the air amazing.

From the zipline we continued through the beautiful mountains on slow and twisted mountain roads until we reached the entrance to Njegoš Mausoleum.

Njegoš Mausoleum is the final resting place of Montenegro’s greatest son Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. It has to be one of the most beautiful resting places in the world. After 467 steps uphill through a tunnel the visitor is met with the beautiful views of the mausoleum standing majestically on the top of the mountain.

While flabbergasted and stunned by the scene it is hard to imagine that the true magic only comes to show once through the mausoleum. Here the visitor will find a large circular observatory deck, which on a good day will offer views of the Italian coast 160 kilometres away. On the day we were visiting, Italy was shrouded in a mist and we had to satisfy ourselves with the stunning view of the mountains of Montenegro as well as views of Croatia and Bosnia to the north and Albania to the south. We could see Lake Skadar and the hazy vision of Shköder, which I’d passed through 12 years ago.

This little slice of heaven is proof that the communists were able to build more than grey and desolete concrete buildings. It was built in 1970 to 1974 in the days of Yugoslavia and is living proof that communists also new how to honour old religious and national heroes.

After enjoying the breath-taking view, we made our way back the 467 steps and onwards to the small, but very famous village of Njeguši. This is the birthplace of Njegoš and the reason for his nickname.

But Njeguši is famous for more than Njegoš. This is where the much celebrated ham from the market the day before Njeguški pršut is made. I’ll dare say it is up there with Serano and Parma – an absolutely perfect slice of heaven.

Our day ended at one of the many farms and smokehouses, where we were served homemade bine, ham, cheese and olive oil in the shade of a green roof of leaves.

It was a perfect ending to a wonderful day through Lovćen National Park and to our stay in Kotor.

Zofka

Fashion Show in Kotor

Arriving in Kotor two days ago, I met a rather strange woman at the bus station who constantly followed me, wanting me to accommodate at her place. She was extremely old and all dressed in black – looking a little bit like my idea of the witch in the Little Red Riding Hood.

I didn’t get much of her very fast talk, but after long considerations and her constantly saying Stari Grad, Moda, Stari Grad, I and a Belgian guy chose to go with her.

Kotor street
Kotor street

We came to a small apartment near the cathedral, where she immediately started serving us coffee and once again saying moda moda. I had assumed it meant modern, but her place was far from that. The toilet was in a terrible condition and on the one wall of the living room hang a poster – a coca cola calendar from 1988. Everything seemed like entering a time capsule. As if the place had been untouched for decades. Nice, but definitely not modern. My Belgian roommate and I quickly decided to go out discovering the town, mostly because we needed to get our thoughts together about this very interesting old woman.

Trg od oruzja Kotor
Trg od oruzja Kotor

We went for lunch and got to know each other a little better. He had come to Montenegro to hike in the mountains and to take pictures of the view. After a nice relaxing lunch and some funny talks about our host, we parted, he for the castle hill and me in search of a bookshop in the silly hope that they might have the new Harry Potter book, which I would love to make my travel partner through Albania.

But as I quickly discovered, Kotor is not known for its English language books. My search turned in to a sightseeing, as I pleasantly walked through the streets of this picturesque little town at the end of Southern Europe’s largest fjord.

The church of Sveti Luka
The church of Sveti Luka

I ended up with a coke at the café next to my hosts very centrally placed apartment. I finally got to catch up on my blog while waiting for my new Belgian roommate. It was a nice and sunny day and even though I couldn’t get that important bijela kava due to restrictions on water in the city centre, I fully enjoyed just following the example of the locals and relax in the shade.

Kotor cats
Kotor cats

Meeting up with the Belgian guy, we went to check out what was happening outside the cathedral, where a large podium had been sat up. And finally we understood what our host had been talking about. Moda meant fashion. Ordering a MB Pivo we each got in position to watch as the cathedral square was made into one giant fashion show with the cathedral being lit up in different colours.

Enjoying our beers, I quickly realised what an interesting guy my roommate was. Not only did he take photos of the night sky, he had also started a project some years ago – a small text on a homepage about peace in the world and about what would happen if all the radio stations in the world played at the same time, the same song. He hoped to get every single radio station to play a song by John Lennon, which one I can’t for the life of me remember. Though the idea was a mission impossible, I liked it as a thought experiment. A beautiful idea for peace.

In the meantime, the fashion show was on big time in the background with the cathedral lightening up. Every time I turned my head it had changed colour yet again… pink, green, violet, yellow, blue.

The Cathedral of Saint Tryphon during moda moda
The Cathedral of Saint Tryphon during moda moda

I never imagined that my first and probably last real fashion show would happen in Montenegro, in Kotor, this sleepy little town.

The following day I spent mainly relaxing, sleeping and sitting at the harbour… finally getting to relax as I’d dreamed since Dubrovnik. But aye, no Harry Potter. Perhaps I am lucky in Albania.

Fishing and yachting in the Bay of Kotor
Fishing and yachting in the Bay of Kotor

Zofka