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Crna Gora '15
First Reflections
As a quick trawl through "On Tour" will demonstrate there are plenty of pictures and more recently route maps with which to re-live the journeys of the amoeba.

Few words have been added though; an oversight which this tour has compelled me to rectify, at least in part.

Montenegro truly was a journey of discovery, an adventure into what I had only guessed at and didn't suspect and from that perspective the most engaging tour since our first spin around Bulgaria.

A search for more famous thoughts than mine yielded a few quotes including those of Byron and Sophia Loren, but one which paralleled my own came from GBS, “Am I in Paradise or on the Moon?”.

This captures what could be seen as the two faces of Montenegro; the "obvious" Adriatic coast and the “hidden” mountainous interior and it is was this uneasy sense of the hidden or dark that led me to later explore the history of Yugoslavia.

Montenegro or Crna Gora, whichever way you prefer it is truly the land of the Black Mountain and this was our journey through it.

Day -354 : The Plan
Having just completed one tour it is time for PrH to plan the next, the arrival of the following email kicking the process off and its time of sending indicating that his wife and children didn’t see much of him over the weekend.

15/09/2014 - Montenegro! - the email and the plan.

Not even a month hence an the deal is done – the tour is selected via the usual balanced, the route planning completed (with DrH) and everything booked!

22/10/2014 - Booked! - the email and the final plan.

To quote PrH, "I love booking.com" - and I love his choice of overly saturated 1970s holiday brochure photos!

Note however that he has now used up his reserve of decisiveness for the year.

Day 0 : Herceg Novi
After the usual cheap flight induced early start my anticipation is mounting, not so much for the tour but for the well-rehearsed mini-break that is the first day's travel – commencing with the reunion of the Amoeba.

I was first up at Gatwick, where I dropped into Jamie’s for a first cup of European café culture - my bike and panniers longingly looking on as they had to wait outside.

Cafe Culture

Coffee quaffed I waited until first DrH and PrH arrived, then MrL; big smiles, hugs and hand-shakes all round – just in time for the paparazzi stampede to get the first shot for the red-tops, in this case the Bedfordshire on Sunday.

Amoeba Depart

The remaining dominoes topple, check-in, outsize luggage, the Guardian for MrL and an overpriced breakfast but now we are in our stride and it feels real, Apollo 11 has cleared the tower!

Flight’s end arrives in the form of Dubrovnik Airport where as ever we warily await the arrival of our bikes, before stepping into the midday sun and loading up our pre-chartered mini-buses, for the short trip over the border to Herceg Novi.

Odd to think that fewer than only 25 years earlier, Montenegrin units of the Yugoslavian Army were ransacking the airport and laying Siege to Dubrovnik itself, so I could only assume that the considerable distance between the two border posts on the main road to Montenegro was recognition that there was a similar distance in official relationships when they were built.

Anyway we rolled into our quiet corner of Herceg Novi, sweating nicely in the air-con free van, only to then sweat very profusely in the heat as we re-assembled our bikes in whatever shade we could find and rehydrated with a refreshing can of Nikšić lager – to become the tour tipple.

Seat and Shade

The evening introduced us to views of the outer basin of the Bay of Kotor and a wander down the Herceg Novi prom, which felt quite like parts of Greece, definitely built for tourists but everything on a small scale – apart of course from the faded “statement” hotel from the era of the one-party state.

A few more Nikšićs and something decent to eat - a quiet evening to cement the re-establishment of our amoebic esprit de corps and fuel us for the day to follow.

HN Evening  
Day 1 : Nikšić
Not our earliest of starts but following our Full Montenegrin we set off down the coast road from the outer basin of the Bay of Kotor through a narrow inlet, almost a portal, into the inner “fjords”.

But before we had really started we stopped for a coffee and a bun the chance to take in the captivating views.

Kotor Bay 01

Take two; Within only a few miles we had really started the holiday taking the well-engineered post-Yugoslavian main road out of the bay, steadily gaining altitude and taking in ever more.

Kotor Bay 02

As we ascended I expressed a concern, shared by DrH, that there may actually be nowhere to eat between the coast and Nikšić, nothing had been indicated on Google Maps and the Satellite view of the route proved inconclusive.

On this basis we decided to stop and eat at the first opportunity, which of course came earlier than expected, but ensured we missed out on the passing squal, before heading higher up through jagged limestone hills onto a bleak plateau – where we bypassed the only village on the route, Grahovo and its war memorial.

Climbing further we hit the road to Nikšić, just short of the Bosnian Herzegovinian border and continued through the harsh countryside, stopping for a drink (no food available) at a roadside café, before descending into the Nikšić field.

Niksic Field

Passing a few young Americans on bicycles we entered Nikšić – the second city of Montenegro - and made our way to our accommodation a large two floored house sitting incongruously in a street of medium-rise 70s apartment blocks, within a town built very largely in concrete and since the war.

That said the town truly came to life that (Saturday) evening, shops and bars open and the main drag and square thronged with promenaders, Southern meets Eastern Europe, although our lack of a scan of the internet or local knowledge (despite asking a few locals) for where to eat left us with very few options. Pizza!

This, along with our family owned/managed accommodation (a little plug below), the general neatness and orderliness of the town, including statement hotel left me very positively surprised despite not visiting the key sights the town had still to offer.

Dragovic

The half complete civic centre (?), a mixture of concrete and rusting steel, for example, would have made my day!

Day 2 : Žabljak

Equipped with hindsight from the previous day, we anticipated this as a day of fine scenery and sparse evidence of civilisation as we headed deeper and higher inland and so it was to be - and more.

Our day started gently as we trundled up the Zeta valley on the old road, before starting to climb steadily through a rocky mountainous landscape, enjoyable cycling but through country that felt greener, warmer, less barren than the previous day’s.

Niksic Savnik

The long steady climb was rewarded by what was a shorter steeper descent into Šavnik the only village we would see between departure and arrival that day, beautifully situated at the end of a verdant canyon.

Savnik

Leaving Šavnik on another section of new road the green immediately gave way to a barer succession of grey, glaciated limestone valleys and at the top a new road tunnel taking us through the final ridge.

Savnik Zabljac

This should have been a godsend but having taken little notice of the warning given by one of the locals at lunchtime that it wasn’t lit (water has seeped into the electrics), we discovered otherwise as I led MrL through the tunnel in the belief that my LED lamp would provide searchlight like illumination – hmm.

How I navigated through I have precious little idea, I remember there was occasional light from car headlamps, very considerable periods of absolute darkness and perhaps the faintest view of the road surface ahead, but most of all I remember moments of considerable discomfort; hitting the kerb or sunken drain covers plus the constant fear of worse. Health and Safety 0 – 5 Crass Stupidity.

That said all emerged physically unscathed at far side but only to stop, mentally recover and recount our experiences.

Delivered

What remained of the cycling day was straightforward, we crossed an undulating karst plateau of grey, seemingly airbrushed with the thinnest coat of ungrazed pasture and as we approached Žabljak, dotted with holiday lodges and cottages.

Žabljak itself was much the same as many small alpine resorts, just less polished and expensive than one would expect of the Alps but nevertheless boasting far more amenities than other Montenegrin villages and even a slight hip, healthy, outdoorsy vibe, should such a phenomenon exist.

St Moritz

This provided a few late afternoon drinks, a good evening out, reasonable accommodation and breakfast – my only disappointment being that these distracted us from making the effort to cycle to the, much recommended, Black Lake nearby.

Day 3 : (Near) Bistrica

Leaving Zabljak we gently descended through a landscape of smallholdings and other small-time agriculture, unsurprisingly Alpine in character

We stopped, along with a few German bikers, to take in a first view of the only feature of the tour I had bothered to research beforehand, the Tara River Canyon, which appears to qualify as Europe’s most impressive gorge/canyon by a country kilometre but yet by the Continent’s standards virtually unvisited.

Tara First View

This was just a first taste of what was to come and now we descended more swiftly…

Tara Two

…this time to the Tara Bridge, the only crossing of the Canyon and hence a vital link to the North East of the country and beyond but the sparsity of traffic, even today, betrays its isolation.

Tara Bridge Distant

Cue a lengthy stop to take in the (numerous) photo-opportunities (see Photos) including DrH’s lunch…

Tara Bridge Salad

…and a chance meeting with Harrison Ford and Edward Fox amongst others.

Ford and Fox

Time, alas, waits for no cycle tourist and we headed down to the only stretch of road running at river level down the Canyon - good road, in a canyon next to a river and we just about had it to ourselves, a fine tour, getting better!

And to complete our day in the saddle we ignored the chance to visit a historic monastery (probably about #189 on the list of opportunities spurned) and carried on and up into a hanging valley, where at the far end (as far as the road was concerned) we stopped at our lodge for the night. Tara Three

I say our lodge but apparently, it had a previous life as one of Tito’s hunting lodges – so unbeknownst to me, I had crossed off the first in my list of “night’s to spend at Dictator’s country residences”, Stalin’s Dacha next? All-in-all, truly a red-letter day.

Day 4 : Kolasin
Hotel Ravnjak Back on the road the following morning we followed the Tara down the remains of the Canyon as it morphs into just a very decent valley, stopping up at Mojkovac (in retrospect) an interesting place and just about OK for a snack. Mojkovac

Whilst snacking a quick inspection of the route for the rest of the day indicated it just be a short trundle down the valley to Kolasin, so we added in a stiff but tranquil climb through the forest to Biograd Lake, another of the Montenegran Interior’s massive tourist draws – barely room to move.

Beograd Lake

We unnecessarily strung out the remainder of the trip down to Kolasin with a couple with a drink and lengthy meal stop with the result that for a limited day’s cycling we arrived quite late – but we still managed to squeeze in the first drink of the day and a bit of a wander ‘round town.

Eastern European brutalism on a small scale but with real ambition – for twenty minutes I died and went to 1970s heaven - the rest was like Zabljak a small winter sports resort, but with a considerably less developed summer trade.

Brutalism

Thereafter we found our rooms for the night (lowlight) and deploying our best schoolboy French in a conversation with the owner gained directions to his mate’s restaurant for a Montenegrin dinner (highlight).

Day 5 : Podgorica
The only thing notable about breakfast was our decision not to take the main road down the valley to Podgorica but instead to follow DrH’s route through the mountains to the east, a decision that I would not have taken on my own.

Anyway, we were very shortly gaining altitude whilst working our way up through various back-valleys making a couple of interesting drink stops along the way, #1 being a stop across the road from this, being built by Chinese engineers financed by the Chinese government.

Highway One

#2 being a stop and a chat with this local (university student with excellent English) working on the highway project, punctuated by another conversation with a mate of his who had worked as a plumber in Doncaster for three years – you can’t make this stuff up.

Highway Two

Climbing further resulted in increasingly impressive views and isolation – well worth the effort for those alone but followed by 1000m+ descent including distant views of Podgorica through the haze.

Podgorica Prospect

We rejoined the main Kolasin-Podgorica road for a much-wanted lunch…      …and final run down into Podgorica, a quick trundle through the town centre and our end of cycle beer, prior to seeking out our hotel, a big-city-luxury!

The erstwhile Titograd proved to have a small but attractive capital city centre where, just off the main square, we found dinner at a seafood restaurant and then a wander around and a few drinks in the trendier (than us) bars in the corner of town between there and the government quarter.

Chuckle Brothers

Yet another full-featured day on tour, so much to enjoy in the moment and in time to process and understand.

Day 6 : Budva via Cetinje

Looking out of my hotel room to the West I could see dark clouds and rain hanging over the mountains between us and the sea; not happy about that but what can one do?

Not for the first time, having taken the long way out of town we found our navigational mojo and headed into the hills, destination Cetinje, the previous (Royal) capital of Montenegro and as we climbed found the cloud and rain noted earlier laced with a nice drop in temperature.

To Cetinje

Following a stop for a basic snack, we continued up until we reached the edge of a depression within which sat Cetinje shrouded in mist and cloud, dropping into town the rain had just about stopped so we checked out the main streets and found somewhere serving pizza and pasta – the ultimate stodge for keeping out the cold.

Downtown Cetinje

Having eaten, if not dried or thawed, we left Cetinje under-explored and tackled the final climb of the day taking us to 900m and spectacular views of the Adriatic coast which as the heavens opened again were obscured by the cloud never to be seen but hey it was all downhill from here.

And so it was, very steeply and on switchback roads awash with the lashing rain, which as a start was unpleasant enough.

Add in a stream of traffic including artics and coaches barreling past my shoulder just a foot or two away and then catching me in their wash and I was pretty uncomfortable.

And then about a third of the way down a rear brake pad wore through to the metal and I was left with my brake levers clutched tight to the handlebar with seemingly no effect - 30mph - all of the above still going on, a switchback looming, *#@*!?!!!!

As fearful as I have ever been on a bike I made plans to bail out in a vaguely controlled manner rather than crashing out at the corner and readied myself by putting a foot on the road, which as chance would have it slowed me sufficiently to negotiate the corner.

My mental state for rest of the descent was reduced to DEFCON 2 and by the time I reached the coast the rain had stopped, the sky cleared and my hands were jemmied off the handlebars, stop. (Apologies for the saga).

All’s well that ends well and time for a coffee with MrL, before heading the final mile into Budva to reassemble the amoeba and settle into our luxurious? rooms.

Budva Welcome

Unfortunately not enough time for Budva, a town of two halves; the original walled town – a wander, dinner, a few drinks, architecture fleetingly appreciated, middle-class travel credentials boosted...

Budva Old

...and the new bit, another seaside resort but either a world away from, say, Bistrica.

Budva New
Day 7 : Herceg Novi
Budva Farewell

Our final day in the saddle is blessed by summer weather and we take the quiet option and initially head over the hill rather than down to the coast, stopping off for breakfast where we met the road to Kotor and then headed down the valley to its commercial outskirts.

Here the amoeba split; I went through the delightfully well-lit tunnel (dodgy brakes) with MrL and stopped in front of the walled town opposite the cruise-liner quay, whilst DrH and PrH went over the hill and after a while, joined us for a couple of drinks.

Kotor

Old Kotor, once an outpost of Venice, is acknowledged as one of the gems of the Adriatic so the Amoeba decided that it would be pointless to pass through the ancient gates and explore its historic interior, instead heading along the coast to find somewhere for our final Montenegrin lunch.

After a considerable time faffing, seldom an option on this tour, somewhere suitable if not ancient nor historic was found for lunch and we whiled away a couple of hours just talking shite and relaxing, whilst taking the odd photograph – one of the oddest being…

PrH

That didn’t leave a great deal of time to complete our trip around the inner bay of Kotor, so we just put our heads down and headed for “home”, Herceg Novi, ignoring the remaining sites of interest roman mosaics, St. XXX, unique scenery, etc.

We only came to rest for our final break at the same café as we had for our first, safe in the knowledge another beer would not be an obstacle to completing the final few miles to Herceg and the well-rehearsed final act of the tour - but prior to disassembly and packing; shorn of its panniers my bike appears naked and alone.

Lonely Bike

The following day’s return journey was the usual flat experience, save for the journey from HN to Dubrovnik airport this time via the scenic route but again featuring a sizable no-man’s-land between border posts.

Post Tour

As I noted at the start of this "On Tour" the interior of Montenegro felt somewhat hidden or dark (Black Mountain?), not just in the sense that it is inaccessible and sparsely populated, but that somehow there was more to it than that.

This uneasy sense and vague twenty-odd year old memories of the civil war within Yugoslavia led me to read that led me to later explore the history of Yugoslavia and particularly its disintegration through the violence and wars of the 1990s - reading this history amplified my experience on tour, this was a hard place until recently mastered only by hard people.

Partisans

As a simple indicator of this history I noted numerous monuments by roadsides commemorating the Partisans lost fighting the Axis forces in WW2 and the occasional monument to the struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Ottomans

And therein lies much of the rub, because it was the Montenegrins that fought against the Turks to re-establish their nation, only to find themselves as part of Yugoslavia, effectively a small empire of disparate nations under the leadership/yolk of Serbia.

Although the departure of Montenegro from Yugoslavia was thoroughly painless, when compared to that of say Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are still clear signs of a divide within the country along Serbian and Montenegrin lines.

The use of Cyrillic or Roman script is an obvious one but also we saw many graffiti alluding to allegiance to the wider Serbian cause and I suspect some of the gangs involved in it and previously the Yugoslavian War.

Graffiti

Given the visceral hatred unleashed during that conflict I doubt that the single generation timespan since then has closed all of the wounds - have a read of this short excerpt of Misha Glenny's book written from his experience as a war reporter present at the time.

That said, the country is developing, Niksic as described by Glenny was not the one I saw (through my tourists eyes, mind), the new roads we cycled are part of a European-wide network and indeed the ease of passage from Croatia to Montenegro and vice-versa speak of peoples just getting on with improving their lot and that of their children.

If you want to see a part of Greater Europe on the move in the right direction, visit Montenegro!

Finally and most prosaically, my eagle-eye for trivia spotted a surprising proportion of VW Golf Mk2s on the roads, as per image below - apparently produced in Sarajevo until 1992!

VW Golf Mk2
Related Links

Here's one I really liked - interesting stuff from someone who made the country their home, Montenergro-for.me