Montenegro - Part I

As an avid map-reader, Paul had had his eye on Montenegro for a few years. The diversity of its climate and geography in such a small area (about the size of Connecticut) is unrivaled in Europe. The country is home to a maze of canyons, including both the world’s second deepest (Tara Canyon), and Europe’s last discovered canyon (Nevidio, translated: never seen). The geology is dominated by limestone, resulting in ruggedly layered karstic terrain blanketed with a variety of flora and accentuated by caves, basins, lakes, rivers, disappearing green-blue streams, and reappearing springs. The Dinaric Alps tower over much of the country (the range along the north-west border with Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of Europe’s least explored Alpen regions). Stark transformations in climate, from continental to sub-tropical, occur in multiple regions of the country; no more dramatically than where the mountains dive into the Adriatic Sea as you descend from the birch forests of Lovcen National Park to the palm-tree-speckled submerged river canyon that forms the fjord-like Bay of Kotor. The geography of Montenegro, or Crna Gora as it is called in the local language, could not be more different from the flatlands of the Netherlands where we are currently living. We had considered a trip here in October 2010 for our honeymoon but choose to go to the Philippines instead. Now just a short flight away, we were excited to explore this small Balkan nation in October 2013.

In the 1980s, Montenegro experienced a brief burst in tourism; however, the political and military conflicts of the 1990s abruptly eradicated the tourism industry. It is now beginning its revival. Montenegro is one of the newest independent nations in the world, declaring its independence from Serbia through peaceful referendum in 2006.  Following this declaration, the country saw a short burst of foreign investment. Property prices peaked in 2007, before receding with the global recession. The pull-back since 2007 is evident by numerous unfinished real estate developments in key locations; but the country feels like it is ready to explode with tourism growth. Tourism is seen as the backbone for Montenegro’s future economy, and the government is making strategic investments around tourism and infrastructure. This was evident as we drove across the country. 

This nation’s development as a tourist destination is not without challenges. Although we never witnessed evidence of its existence, or were naive to it, organized crime is still a problem. Fortunately, the nation is steadily progressing towards its suppression. As big of a challenge as fixing the crime itself, is fixing the perception of Montenegro within Europe. The country is looked upon with disdain by many citizens in developed Western European countries. “The Switzerland of the Eastern Block”, they call it, since despite its natural beauty the nation is regarded as beneath Western Europeans’ standards. Others shy away because foreigners (unreasonably) fear stepping on landmines, even though Montenegro has been clear since 2007.  To many people, the entire Balkan region still carries the stigma of the former communist Yugoslavia and the conflict and oppression that went along with it. The 1,000 years of history that preceded this period in the region is absent from the minds of most would be travelers. Forgotten are the attractive and unique fortresses and monasteries built throughout the Roman, Byzantine, Slav, Serb, Venetian, Dalmatian, and Ottoman history of this region.  Today, this is a country at peace. The political and criminal challenges facing the country are similar to those faced by other developing nations. With government committed to implementing necessary reforms, this 2016 candidate for EU membership has a bright future. By our assessment, this scenic European territory is undervalued. 

The best way to explore Montenegro is by car. Road widths are not yet up to EU standards, with many roads often not wide enough for two cars to pass without one pulling over onto the extremely narrow shoulder. Although they are narrow, much of the country’s roads have been recently paved, and the new roads take you virtually everywhere you want to explore. Up and down mountain sides, along rivers, and through canyons. You cannot take a wrong turn when exploring this country’s natural beauty. Bottle up the geography, history, and charming winding roads, and you have a combination that tastes like road trip heaven. Montenegrin wine doesn’t taste bad either.

Our flight to Montenegro’s capital city, Podgorica, (pod-gor-eetzah, like pizza) connected through Belgrade, Serbia. The Belgrade airport is located quite a ways outside of the city, so we didn’t get much perspective, other than that the area is much browner than the Netherlands. The airport was extremely simple. Following our trips through Scandinavia and Western Europe, we were clearly in another region, and it felt good.  After a meal, some Serbian beer, and a delay to wait for a Montenegro soccer team coming back from international competition, we boarded our flight to Podgorica. It was an old plane, and the lavatory smelled of freshly smoked cigarettes. But when it comes to travel, it’s all about getting out of the comfort zone. We landed shortly after sundown and the airplane stairs walked us out onto the tarmac at Aerodrom Podgorica – even more modest in size and amenities than Belgrade. The air was warm and tropical, landscaped with palms. In contrast with the surrounding mountains, the capital lies in a flat low area with a Mediterranean climate. 

We picked up our car, a Renault Megane 1.5L diesel. It had plenty of power to navigate the mountains throughout our trip and as it turned out, on our 665 mi. road trip, we would only need to buy $65 in fuel. At $7.80 per gallon, this equates to an unbelievable (by US standards) 80mpg – aided by the previous guy topping it off nicely, and spending half the trip flying down mountains with the transmission in neutral.  Neither of us drive manual transmission cars at home, so it took a little getting used to. We punched our hotel address into the GPS and rolled out. 

As we checked in, we asked the local kid at the desk where to get some grub and he recommended a place up the road called “Lovac” for some Montenegrin cuisine. Barbecue in hefty portions for a good price, he said. He was right, indeed. The place was hard to find, as it was located in what looked like an empty residence in a dark area with no restaurant sign. It took a few drives around the block, an off-road drive, and a traipse into a bar, before we finally found Lovac. There was an item on the menu for 8 euro called mixed grill. We ordered one of these, and it turned out to be enough food for six people. It was delicious, but even with our big appetites after a day of travel, we couldn’t finish it. It wouldn’t be the last Montenegrin portion that we could not finish. Then we headed back to the hotel, eager to kick off the road trip in the morning.

The first day on the road started as early as we could muster. We had a delicious, and again hefty, fresh breakfast at the hotel before hitting the trail. We tried to find something good on the radio but there was only a couple stations of static to choose from. There was a CD in the player so we tried that, but it was some mind bending collection of Eastern European carnival music. Finally we settled on our good ol’ Americana tunes fit for a road trip. It wasn’t long before we were totally engulfed in the mountains and couldn’t keep from stopping to snap photos. At one point we were stopped in a traffic jam because of tunnel maintenance. This was the only time we noticed traffic in Montenegro. As each passenger got out of their car to chat or stretch their legs, we realized this is the only way to get through and any turning around and rerouting would take hours. Once we were allowed to pass through, the traffic broke away and we were once again peacefully, privately cruising along the mountainside. The hours passed and the red bulls emptied as we drove through Podgorica, Kolasin, Mojkovac and Dobrilovina on our way northwest towards Zabljak. 

At the beginning of the Tara River Canyon, we admired the Dobrilovina Monastery, a Serbian Orthodox structure roughly dating back before the 16th century. We also admired the canyon itself, getting all the way down into the rushing water at one point. And then from above at the Tara Bridge, the concrete arch bridge built in the late 1930s at the crossroads of three regions of Montenegro. Before we knew it, we had arrived in Zabljak and Durmitor National Park. 

We checked in to our luxurious and astoundingly affordable hotel at the base of the mountains and then went straight into the park. It was already getting chilly as the sun began its descent, so we only had time to hike to the Black Lake, or Crno Jezero, on our first night. The setting was entirely new even though we had just driven through half of the country. This tranquil lake had a stoney-sandy bottom and was surrounded by pine trees with the Bobotov Kuk peak standing as a dramatic backdrop. We attempted to circle the lake via the rocky trail in the woods but were forced to turn around when we tried to take an ill advised shortcut. We made our way back to the hotel at nightfall, more than ready for a good meal. After a long, exciting day of traveling and hiking, we ordered some room service and got some sleep.