There is something about border towns. Perhaps if you ran into them in the middle of the country they would seem less disquieting, more common. Perhaps it is only one's heightened anticipation of change, one's alertness to potential of the unfamiliar, that creates a perception that there is different light and shadows.
Herceg Novi is the first town we pass through in Montenegro. While it sits on a wide bay, a hazy sky colors the water gray. Apartments which from a distance look clean and fine appear shabby and dishevelled closer up. A huge, strange, industrial or hotel complex looms, either darkened or abandoned--we pass too quickly to be able to confirm whether the large sign above really did say "MILOSEVIC INSTITUTE". Coming into a country still connected to Serbia, whose awful ex-leader perpetrated many of the crimes of which we've learned in Croatia, we wonder what it will be like. There is an old part of Herceg Novi, but after a guy in a swanky car aggressively and dangerously cuts us off while pulling out of a driveway, we decide to get out of town.
The road hugs the Bay of Kotor and becomes more scenic though the sky is still hazy.
The bay is the largest fjord in Southern Europe and another UNESCO heritage site. Our ride along the water ends in the town of Kotor, with its walled old city and the crumbling, barely-visible walls of an old fort snaking up the steep hills above town.
We find a mediocre room on the noisy main road whose owner points us towards a more scenic area along the water nearby. A string of cafes beckon with menus of pizza and pivo (beer). Before giving in to their allure, we must climb up to the top of the fort. It's a totally worthwhile if sweaty endeavor that rewards us with spectacular views of the town and bay.
Of course we deserve and claim our second reward, the pizza and pivo.
The next day we stop in the very well preserved old town of Budva, one of the most popular beach resort areas in Montenegro. Unlike Dubrovnik, all the tourists seem to be locals. The center of town itself isn't enticing, so it's on to Cetinje, the old capitol of Montenegro. Along the way we pass though what will be the first of many unlit tunnels, dark and wet with non-existent lane markings. At least they are wider and taller than The Scary Scary Tunnel in Hvar. The secret to successfully navigating these tunnels is to let your eyes adjust to the absolute darkness while slowing way, way down.
We head to the summit of Lovcen Mountain to view the mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic Njegos, a revered Montenegran leader of the past. The ride is intriguing, rising up above Cetinje through farmland (which has not been common so far) and rugged limestone hills. There is snow at the top, so we must park below and hike up.
The mausoleum is stark and striking, with a huge marble sculpture of Petar II with a symbolic eagle behind.
We head inland and the weather heats up about 20 degrees. Montenegro is another mountainous country, though the sharp ranges are mostly lush green instead of snow covered in this area.
Earlier we received warnings of very large snakes and are finally exposed to a number of these creatures slithering across the road (some alive, many squashed.) The small wind-y road drops down into a bend in a wide river, dappled with vast lacy sheets of lilypads and backed with triangular islands posed mistily in the mouth of the channel. It is the wrong road, but it sure is scenic.
Back up we go, and finally we are at Lake Skadar. This is an ecological haven for birdwatchers and nature lovers.
The main town of Virpasar seems to have about twelve houses and one hotel, the Pelikan. We would like to pay less than the rather high going rate and are met by a burst of (snide) laughter from the lady hereby referred to as "Mama". Surprisingly Mama agrees to lower her price to ours, though she continues to glare at us during the rest of our 2 day stay. We eat at the Pelikan Restaurant, which has been referred to in our guide book as "one of the best in Montenegro". It is fine, but not really special. Maybe Mama told the kitchen to keep the fancy stuff away from the cheap motorcycle tourists.
We take a long day ride the next day. A steep one lane road hugs cliffs above Skadar Lake's south side.
The road is narrow and barely wide enough for one car. Guardrails do not exist and the drop along the roadside looks intimidating. Luckily being on the motorcycle gives up some extra breathing room, so Erika's mother does not need to have nightmares. Fortunately, the cars approaching in the opposite direction seem to be accustomed to the hazards of this type of driving. The road is a bit rough with several potholes and gravel patches, which the Transalp handles with ease.
The panoramic vistas are tantalizing but somewhat brief as the road cuts inland. There is more farmland to discover, which seems more remote and inhabited by elderly folk tending to their land in the rugged canyons.
Eventually we descend to the coast and the town of Ulcinje, close to the Albanian border. There is, relative to the paucity of merchandise in Cetinje, an abundance of stores selling a vast array of expensive kitchy stuff. Mansions which would look showy in California are sprouting up everywhere. This feels like a different side of Montenegro. Speculation from others is that money springs up along the border thanks to smuggling and a variety of other illegal activities.
The route back to Virpasar from the coast entails climbing back over the mountain range. Erika is struck by an immense rock formation that looms over a small town. She wonders how the inhabitants feel about their constant surveillance by The Big Spider.
Enough of the coast. The next day it's back towards the mountains. We take a detour towards Ostrog Monastery, which is built into a steep stone cliff.
At the beginning of the turnoff a taxi driver beckons holding a bag of bread and other food, gesturing to the monastery and requesting something. It seems that we are to be the bearers of lunch for the monks. Feeling rather proud, we take the bag up the 10 kilometers of switchbacks. Almost there, another taxi driver sees us and pulls us over. We have been the proud bearers of lunch for the second taxi driver.
The monastery is impressive. While visiting, we talk with a young man studying to be a priest in the Serbian Orthodox church. He speaks of his need to find a wife after finishing his studies as S.O. priests must marry. We wonder later if the church will help arrange a match as it is unlikely he has been doing a lot of dating while cloistered in his studies.
Our last stop before heading to Bosnia will be Durmitor National Park, in the northeast corner of Montenegro. This is very different countryside, with those familiar dark clouds. More small roads but rounder, higher, colder, sparser mountains. This reminds Erika of Finland or Nova Scotia (neither of which she has obviously ever been to as they are probably nothing alike). Houses are square and plain with high peaked roofs, anticipating that abundant bad weather. It is windy and cold. Villages feel remote.
Grass is yellowed from its recent release from a thick snowy cover. Shallow lakes live briefly over dips in the meadow that will only hold them til the sun comes out. The main ski town is Zabljak. It is small and looks dreary in the weak light. At the small travel agency we once again luck out with an entire apartment for 10 Euros a night. It is cold as a refrigerator and the bathroom floor is perspiring water, but that's nothing that a space heater and a few dozen towels can't fix.
Zabljak hosts us for 3 nights as we continue to wait for the weather to improve. It's a time for extra sleep and email while the town stays shrouded in fog and rain. Erika finally reads her book, "The Kite Runner", in two days. We manage one walk to the lake nearby; but though it is pretty, the ring of mountains that make it a vacation destination remain under clouds.
We only talk with one local person, Aleksandra, who works for one of the tourist hotels. Her opinion is that people have money to invest but the government makes it almost impossible. She is comfortable with her permanent, stable job and the income she receives and feels that those who want Montenegro to separate from Serbia are wrong because the people of those countries are one and the same. She alludes vaguely to Serbians feeling victimized but does not delve into any of that country's involvement in war crimes. She prints out an article for us with a perspective she feels we should understand. We like talking to her but neither of us makes it through the article, which is dense and philosophical and in thickly translated academic English. Another interaction, another viewpoint.....
Posted by Erika Tunick at May 20, 2005 03:59 PM GMT