June 27, 2009 GMT
Leaving Albania, and Montenegro

I left Berat in a bad mood after the hotel tried to charge me an extra 5 euros or so for paying in the local currency - especially annoying as I'd specifically got extra cash out to do just that!

My plan was to ride to Shkodra and find out about the possibility of taking a ferry from Koman to Fierze. The boat runs along a gorge and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful sights in Albania. I'd heard that the road to Koman was so bad it took 4-6 hours to cover the 25km, so I wasn't intending to ride there. But when I passed the turning I decided to at least go and have a look - a couple of girls on the Horizons forum had been asking for info, and at least then I'd be able to tell them exactly. It turns out that the road is tarmac! Not great tarmac, and it wanders off from time to time leaving only gravel behind, but essentially it's tarmac! I even got to the stage of thinking I might make the 4 o'clock ferry that supposedly runs in summer.

It was a long, hot ride, and something I'd eaten or drunk in Berat had given me violent stomach cramps so I was surviving on 2 pieces of toast and a handful of raisins. But the water below was a beautiful turquoise, and mountains rose all around, so I kept on going.

Eventually I made it to Koman, only to be told that there is only one ferry a day, at 9am. Furthermore it starts in Fierze at 7 am, so effectively if I wanted to go there and back it would take 2 days. I sat and pondered over a cold lemonade, but reluctantly decided I didn't really have that much time to spare.

By the time I arrived in Shkodra my head had started pounding from heat and lack of food. The town didn't look hugely inviting, but my efforts to find anywhere nicer were thwarted by poor signposting. Eventually I crossed a rickety one-way wooden bridge, which turned out to be one of the main roads into Albania from Montenegro, and found a hotel near the lake. The lake is clearly the real attraction n Shkodra, and I wound down after the day by watching a grand sunset from the hotel grounds.

The next morning I had to wait for my stomach to settle before heading for the border, and even after that felt very glad when they called me forward out of the glaring sun. There is a very shiny new border post, but it isn't operational yet, so you leave Albania, fittingly, via a stretch of rutted, subsiding dirt road.

My first thought on entering Montenegro was, I'm in rural England. A tiny, quiet road winds through hedgerows and past fields, not a soul in sight. Gradually the impression fades, and soon there is no doubt you're in Montenegro - though exactly where is a matter for some debate, as signposting is often optional.

I stopped in Ulcinj for ice-cream (the only thing I felt capable of digesting) then carried on to Stari Bar, and old ruined fortified town. As with so many places in this part of the world, information is relatively scarce, but you're free to wander at will and poke your nose pretty much anywhere.

My route really lay along the coast, but I made a slight detour to see Shkodra lake from this side. The road back took me up into the mountains, then hairpinned back down the other side. From the top of the world to the bottom, with views of blue sea and perfect coastline all the way.

By the time I made it to Kotor I was once again feeling drained and headachy - not surprising considering I still hadn't eaten. So it was something of a blow to realise that the hotel I had noted down as the cheapest was inside the pedestrianised old town, and even more of one to find that their only free room cost 60 euros. Luckily, the guy at reception has a friend who runs a hostel, so I followed him to my dorm bed in little flat across the street.

What had been just a place to stay became a step into a different world. Since Vienna, my last hostel, I had been mainly staying along, meeting mostly locals and occasionally other overland travellers. That had become my way of travelling, and it wasn't until Kotor that I realsied just how different it is from the communal, sociable, city-based backpacking lifestyle. It's fair to say I experienced a bit of a culture shock, especially as Kotor is a very westernised town, with smart cafes, boutiques, and very swanky yachts in the harbour. But I had been craving contact with native English-speakers for a few days, so I settled in and made the most of the contrast.

That first night in Kotor there was a huge storm. Before it broke I sat down by the harbour watching the lightning streak across the sky, rising up from behind the mountains and racing along their entire length. The next day I explored Kotor. It's a very pretty place, though very touristy compared to where I'd been for the last few weeks. During my wanderings I spotted a sign for kayak hire, and as the morning rain had stopped I went for it. The kayak was of course a sit-on-top one, so as soon as the slightest breeze picked up (which it did) it handled like a bathtub, but it felt good to be on the water again, and I even had some sunshine!

The next morning was still damp, but I was determined to climb the fortress regardless. It's built right up the side of the mountain, and I can't help wondering why anyone would bother fortifying something with vertical sides. But the views from the top are worth the effort of hauling yourself up there. Partway up I bumped into Dwayne, an Aussie from the hostel, and we carried on together. Each fresh downpour of rain prompted us to seek shelter, and in each shelter we found a different set of travellers doing the same thing, who we talked to for the duration of the shower then parted from. Best of all from my point of view were a middle-aged French couple travelling by motorbike, who had been proud of their 5,000km trip until they met me with my 10,000 miles! They even took a photo of me to prove I existed!

After that I packed my stuff up and rode to Perast, where I climbed the immense clock tower for views out over the two nearby islands. Neither one is much more than a rock, and each houses a monastery. There seemed little point in taking the scenic mountain route in low cloud, so after that I wandered down the coast to Budva and the Hippo Hostel. There I found Damien, another Aussie I'd met in Kotor, and met Jackie and Baden, an Aussie couple, and Robin, a Dutch guy on a 25-year-old Suzuki that made my TA look very elegant indeed!

By the time I'd settled in it was raining again, but the others had decided to have a BBQ come what may, so BBQ we did! The Aussies, being unused to rain, were useless (though Jackie did marinade the meat very nicely), so the Dutch and British contingent got the coals going, with judicious use of a stray porn mag and a Russian dictionary.

The next morning brought more rain, a few rumblings of thunder, and a mad rush to book an extra night at the hostel rather than travel in the rain. We did hit lucky in the afternoon though, when it cleared up enough for us to make it to the beach for a few hours. The BBQ had been such a success we decided to have another one, and by the time it got going the whole hostel population was gathered outside to eat, drink and be merry.

All that relaxing did me the world of good, and by late morning the next day I was ready to go. The road over the mountains is truly spectacular, with views of the entire fjord - the deepest in Southern Europe. The clouds held back long enough for pictures, only breaking when I crested the mountain and entered the flat bowl of land behind it. As you head up and out again, all you can see is cresting mountains, wave after wave in every direction.

I'd planned to camp in Biogradska Gora National Park, but the ground there is made of rock (which doesn't stop them calling it a campsite!) so I took a bungalow. Very glad I was too, as it pissed it down again overnight. My walk the next day had to be cut short as the path deteriorated into a mud-bath, so I rode off, after having been assisted with my boxes by two awe-struck elderly local men.

The Tara canyon is, I have learned, second only to the Grand Canyon in the world. Though I'm not sure if that's length, depth, or just overall wow factor! Riding along it certainly makes you feel very small, expecially in the rain, as grey rock reaches up to grey sky and plunges down to a river you rarely see. When you do glimpse it, its bright turqiose catches your eye and holds it, the only dash of colour in the forbidding landscape.

The weather still hadn't improved by the time I reached Durmitor National Park, so again I took a wee hut, for two nights this time to allow for a full day's walking. Walking in Durmitor was infinitely more successful than in Biogradska Gora, and I was out for over 7 hours - though a fair amount of that was taken up with putting on and removing waterproofs. The area is mainly pine forest, dotted with clear, dark glacial lakes surrounded by bare peaks of rock. There are bears and wolves in the area, but my wildlife sightings were limited to some black squirrels and a very large red frog.

This morning I took the scenic route across the park to the main road. With that one road, Montenegro displaced Macedonia as the county with the most beautiful landscapes. The road runs high up, between mountain passes, across grasslands broken by cold, sharp rocks. Above it all rise the real heights, glowering down through the clouds, lonely and aloof.

The rain caught up with me at the Piva canyon, where I rode alternately in pissing rain and unlit tunnels. It stopped briefly for the border crossing, though I was mightily confused by the fact that it says "Welcome to Republika Srbska" as you enter Bosnia & Herzegovina - I actually had to pull over a mile or so later and check the stamp in my passport to make sure I hadn't somehow entered the wrong country! But no, all was well, and I have now made it to Sarajevo, were it is STILL RAINING! My speedo died in Foca, about 70km away, but I have found a local bike club, so hopefully they will be able to point me in the direction of a mechanic of some sort. Until then I will stay and visit the town.

Posted by Laura Bennitt at June 27, 2009 08:06 PM GMT
 


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