Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Montenegro



It often surprised me during this trip how crossing a border, which is basically nothing more than a man-drawn line on a drawing board somewhere, actually means entering a new landscape, a new culture and a different style of living. There is sometimes a transition area, where one country gradually flows into the next, but quite often things change direct at the border. The Balkan is somewhat special in that respect. What we know now as Slovenia, Bosnia - Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro for example were once part of one country called Yugoslavia. For the best part of the 20th century there weren't any borders here. At the same time this area has seen so many changes that it's hard to comprehend how this must have affected the region. So what happens when crossing a border which has only been there 20-odd years or so?

Strangely enough things still change quite dramatically! From Slovenia into Croatia was a big change, into Bosnia an even bigger one and as we found out today Montenegro has again little in common with Croatia. We entered Montenegro along the Adriatic sea, with its tourism oriented villages, and yet it immediately felt quite different.

Driving style was different too! Gone was the Croatian aggression, in fact everyone seemed to obey the speed limits!?! Can't even remember the last country where that happened! Part of the reason might be the frequent police check-points. Montenegro seems also slightly less prosperous. Especially when we went into the mountains. We quite liked Montenegro!

Entering went with a small hick-up when the Montenegro Police at the border noticed my green card was out of date... I had never checked the date on the card when it came in but just packed it... then I realised this was my old green card, so I probably packed the wrong one... Shit, now what? Digging a little deeper into my folder with paperwork I found I had actually packed them both! Phew! 

Once we entered the mountains we saw another side to Montenegro. But again a beautiful side! We entered this strange world where time seems to have stood still. Small farms, beautiful rocky landscapes and a very relaxed atmosphere. We rode north along a pristine gorge and took a turnoff to a mountain road which a Montenegrin couple had suggested to us. The road climbed through a series of small curved and unlit tunnels. Rocks where strewn on the road for good measure and to make it more interesting there were enough potholes to make it the devils' golf course. 'Not advisable for caravans' it said on the map. Really?

The R14, as it's called, was to take us to Trsa and from there towards Zabljak... but in the end didn't. The road was narrow, winding and steep but beautiful. Once we were in the highlands we found a yet different world again! No fences anywhere but sheep and cattle everywhere. Just as it should be. Unfortunately the ride ended abruptly: snow on the road! Lots of snow. 

We took the bikes off the road and followed tracks through the grass to avoid the snow covered roads. Having worked our way around 4 snow blockades this way, we found another and saw the road climbing much further into snow covered mountains. There was no alternative but going back. A cyclist we met from Germany was stranded there too, the locals had told him it was impassable but they had given him another route. Slightly further north and even narrower but passable, he had been told. We tried that too but it turned out to be a dead end.



Police headquarters...
Back-tracking down the mountain, but still at 1,000 mtr above sea-level we found a small campground along a wild flowing river operated by a lovely couple. They charged us just 5 euros for a night. We had a small problem with their wildlife though... A young playful cat had taken a liking to our tent and decided she needed to know everything about it... which included climbing on top of it! 

We spend quite some time along the river that evening, discussing which road to take and generally enjoying the views, before calling it a day. The hot muggy weather we had on our first day in Montenegro changed to overcast and even patches of rain in the morning. The path we had skidded down yesterday was steep. Getting up now that it was wet would be tricky. The owner pointed to another track which was longer but much better.



We tried an alternative route to Zabljak, which turned out to be a dead end as well... grumble. There was no avoiding the main road now, which meant a detour of 50-odd km but turned out to be a real beauty. The first part was in rainy weather, fog took away the views and the roads were tricky. Cracks, potholes, rocks all over the place and poor visibility didn't do anything to lighten our spirits. But as soon as we had crossed the mountain ridge and rode into the next valley, the rain cleared. 

What we found was hard to describe. Like we had not only ridden from one valley to the next but gone back in time another 100 years. We saw old wooden houses, even the roofs were made from wooden shingles. Farms were small holdings, a couple of pigs for meat, a cow for milk and a horse instead of a tractor. Clothes are plain, mostly black or grey, and functional. No hard earned money is spend on fashion here. Washing is done in the river like it has been done for thousands of years. The river also supplies the drinking water, which is fetched in a bucket of course. Here people live without Google or internet. The only concession done to modernity was a wonky connection to electricity for some of the houses.

Montenegro, rural Montenegro was an eye-opener. I had no idea something like this existed anywhere in Europe. It is beautiful, really beautiful. Life seems so pure here. We liked Montenegro more and more as we travelled through this strange land. We saw kind and friendly faces, both young and old.



That feeling didn't change until we reached the last town before the border with Kosovo. Here things changed for the worse. We stopped at a campground, which was a dump but as we were tired, we decided to take it. We were unpacking when the lady suddenly changed her mind and said the price she had told us, which was already steep (especially for the dump it was) was now per person... so we left. I've made it a principle not to stay with people like that. We continued on towards the border with Kosovo, which was up another pass... and which had a small surprise for us. But before we got to that border, we had to pass the border guard from Montenegro. He must have been living in the village we just past as he was a nasty piece of work. Yelling was his only way to 'communicate' and his whole demeanour was more like a prison guard. It didn't change our feeling about Montenegro though. Montenegro is beautiful, both its people and its nature.


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