A Roller Coaster Ride Through Montenegro

Our day started early.  Well, by Montenegrin standards.  We were to meet our driver at 8:30 in the main common area of the hostel, in Kotor (see 1 on the map below).  After the full day before, we really wanted to stay in bed a bit longer.  But this was our only full day in Montenegro and we had come all this way to see Ostrog Monastery, carved into the side of a mountain.

Not only is the Old Town Hostel beautiful and comfortable (just bring an extra blanket if you’re travelling in winter), but they organize numerous tours and transfers.  In the summer, there are tours and transfers almost every day from the hostel to a variety of different places.  They have tours to Northern Montenegro, Greater Montenegro, a rafting tour in the summer, and a tour to Ostrog Monastery.  They can also organize a driver to Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to Tirana in Albania since trying to arrange public transport to these places is quite frustrating.

We met our driver, Slavko, at 8:40 am (which is on time in the Balkans) and he explained that he had two other passengers in the car that were heading to the airport in Podgorica so our journey to the monastery would take the long way around.  Fine by us.  The more we get to see, the better!

We walked out of the Old Town and to his tiny hatchback.  Fortunately the other travellers were not huge Australian rugby players and I fit into the back seat well enough with another lady passenger and her husband.  Bob, and his cane, got the front seat.

We set off.  We travelled winding roads that went between the limestone mountains and the sea.  We travelled through small resort towns and were told a little bit about Montenegro.  Basically, this tiny country the size of Connecticut is a bit of an over-achiever.  Their Nikšicko beer is the best in the Balkans, brewed with natural ingredients and mountain water and their wine is also award-winning.  Not only that, their basketball team also won the the Games of Small States of Europe (didn’t even know there was such a thing).  The success in basketball might stem from the fact that Montenegrins are on average quite tall (we did actually notice that people in the Balkans are generally taller than us). Because they are an Orthodox Christian country, they continue to use the Cyrillic alphabet alongside the Latin alphabet.  And because their language is a Slavic one and still uses the Cyrillic alphabet, the winter sees many Russians coming to Montenegro.  Something else we learned is that primary students go to school from 8 am-2 pm and older students go to school from 2 pm-8 pm (an absolutely brilliant idea, if you ask me!).

After about an hour, we pulled over and parked beside a lovely restaurant with a spectacular view of an idyllic island (2 on the map).  We went into the restaurant and sat on the terrace for a coffee.  (“Coffee” here is espresso.  “Coffee with milk” is a latte.)

This island, called Sveti Stefan, was at one time, a fisherman’s island.  Then the Yugoslav government under Tito bought it and paid the fisherman handsomely to move elsewhere.  Which they did because they made enough on the sale of their tiny fishing hut on this island to buy two or three houses on the coast.  When the island was rebuilt into a resort-type island consisting of 50 rooms, cottages and suites as well as a beach that faces the Adriatic, heads of state would stay there.  More recently, the island was bought by a 5-star hotel franchise.  Some cottages or suites are rented out at an extraordinary price (between 1000€ and 1500€ a night) to whomever wishes to pay the price.  Madonna rented out part of the island after her concert and a massive Tennis star rented out the entire island for his wedding (he also has Montenegrin roots and has a house here as well).  Brad and Angelina also vacation here.  However, if you search for rooms on Trip Advisor, you can find rooms for around $150 or so.

After Bob and Slavko had one more smoke, we set off.  Our next stop was at Lake Skadar.  Slavko and Bob immediately lit another cigarette.  I was seeing a pattern to this sight-seeing trip.  This became a recurring joke; he wasn’t really stopping so I could take photos.

Lake Skadar (see 3 on the map) is actually shared with Albania; the border cuts it in half.  In Montenegro, the lake is a designated National Park and the pride and joy of the country. It is an ecologically diverse freshwater lake that is 44 km long, 8 km wide and on average around 8 m deep (though at one spot, it is 60 m deep).  When we arrived at around 10 am, there were several small fishing boats out on the water.  Slavko said that people rent boats, bring out food and drinks and enjoy a day on the water, whether they catch anything or not.  Sounds kind of like Canadians.

Again, after a few minutes, we squished back into the car and headed towards the airport in the capital city, Podgorica (see 4 on the map).  The only stop we made in Podgorica was at a supermarket, at which I was able to miraculously find some gluten-free crackers and then at the tiny airport (the Aerodrom – I love this word).

After dropping off our two homeward-bound co-passengers, I thought we were headed for the monastery.  And we were.  In a way.  But it was now around 11 am and time for breakfast, a coffee and another smoke.

We stopped at a little restaurant in a small town I don’t remember the name of (see 5 on the map).  The meals were ridiculously cheap!  I had two eggs, sausage, potatoes and the soft, fresh cheese we were becoming accustomed to in the Balkans for 1.5€.  No joke.  Bob had his favourite – cevapi – for 1€ and Slavko had a half a pizza for something ridiculously cheap as well.  The eggs were very yellow and I could tell they were fresh.  So I asked Slavko if everything here was locally grown. He said it was.  He also informed me that they have the climate to grow a lot of different fruits and vegetables so they don’t need to import and many households have chickens and goats for eggs and homemade cheese.  Not only that, food is grown organically because they simply don’t use pesticides.  Imagine that.  Food like it was intended to be.

But eating out here isn’t like in Canada, where you sit down, the server comes over immediately, you order and then when you are finished eating, the bill comes and you’re on your way.  Nope.  After we arrived, we sat for a while.  Then we had coffee first.  Then when we were done that, we ordered.  We ate at a leisurely pace and then, after the guys had had several more smokes and we’d had more conversation, we eventually got the bill and decided to be on our way.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that everyone smokes in the Balkans.  Cigarettes are very cheap and the lifestyle is very relaxed about it. I think most North Americans would have a heart attack (literally and figuratively) from all the smoke, caffeine, alcohol, meat and the decided lack of so-called “healthy” lifestyle choices to ward off the dangers of the above.  I don’t know what statistics say about life expectancy or health care or the prevalence of diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease, etc. or conditions such as asthma, high blood pressure, etc. here in the Balkans but I wonder how much these health concerns are negated by the fact that they don’t seem to invite stress into their lives like we do.  We spend a great deal of time lamenting about our health and how we should go to the gym more often, eat more healthfully, become more mindful. Yet, it seems that here there are no gyms because people still walk places and actually do physical work (chop wood, carry water, pick fruit from their trees, etc).  And they don’t need to worry about eating healthy because all of their food is locally grown and organic.  And drinking coffee and relaxing with family and friends is a huge part of life here.  They aren’t running around to a million and one different obligations and they don’t live by their agendas.  In fact, Slavko was called at 9 pm the night before to see if he was available to drive today.  I could really get used to this life.

On a different note, it was in this small town where I first saw graffiti that was nationalist in nature, that represented some of the ethnic tension from the war.  We saw a Serbian symbol spray-painted on several walls and anti-NATO graffiti as well.  I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the modern issues are but Montenegro was controlled by Serbia (aka the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) during the Bosnian War.  This symbol (a cross with a C in each corner – two forward, two backward to make it symmetrical) is on the Serbian flag and was spraypainted onto buildings in villages that were taken over by Serbs, was on Serbian soldiers’ helmets and on uniforms during the war.  Since the 1980’s, this symbol has been attached to the motto Only Unity Saves the Serbs (which in Serbian is S.S.S.S.) and has been used as a rallying cry for Serbs during internal conflicts.  But on this day, in Montenegro, I knew even less about the politics of the area than I do now.  This was before we got to Sarajevo, where I did most of my learning.

NOW we were really on our way to the Monastery (see 6).  Remember how I said that the monastery was carved into the side of a mountain?  Well, to get to the monastery, one must drive up the side of said mountain.  By the time we made it up and around the last, narrow switchback, squeezing other cars past us and trying not to push pedestrians off the road (and consequently down the mountain), my stomach was not doing so great.  I was very happy to finally make it to the main parking lot and get out into the fresh air.  This is the road on the way to the monastery. It got even more narrow and even windy-er as we got closer to the actual mountain.

 Ostrog Monastery is a monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church.  It was built by Vasilije in the 17th century after he’d had a dream about it.  There are natural caves in this mountain and the facade of the church was built in front of the rock.  As you walk through the doors, you walk into the caves.  Vasilije was a bishop of Herzegovina and was known for offering advice and help to anyone who asked for it, regardless of their station in life, religion or ethnicity.  In fact, this monastery is considered a holy place for Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims.  It is also the resting place of St. Vasilije’s earthly remains.  Miracles have happened here and some say that St. Vasilije still makes miracles happen to this day.  On the spot that St. Vasilije died, a tree started growing.  This is a miracle because the monastery is built on rock.  Another miracle is that a baby was brought up to the monastery for a blessing.  The baby was lying in a basket and something happened and the basket fell over the edge of the church (which is basically a cliff).  The basket shattered into pieces but the baby lay, still wrapped in a blanket, on the grass, completely unharmed.  (There is now a railing at the side of the platform.)  This baby grew into an old man that Slavko has had the pleasure to speak with.  Yet another miracle is that two bombs from WW2 were launched at the monastery, plunged through its roof and lodged themselves into the far wall.  Neither exploded.

The place was filled with tourists and pilgrims.  I can’t imagine how packed it would be in the summer months.

When we had seen everything we could see, we again got into the car.  This time I was in the front.  I asked Slavko if tourists often had problems with motion sickness.  He said, “Yes. Tourists are not immune to our roads.”  I was hoping that being in the front would help.

We continued down long and winding roads that were excruciatingly narrow in spots.  These roads had been repaired, widened and barriers had been put up along the cliffside edge two years ago.  I couldn’t imagine these roads being any more narrow than they already were.  However, I did find another youtube video on what they looked like while they were being expanded.  You only need to watch the first minute to get a feel for just how terrifying these roads were.   Even though they are now wider, they are no wider than the roads in the video above.  (Click through to youtube to see video credits.)

We were not geographically far away from Kotor at this point but we were on the other side of the mountains so we needed to drive around them.  We could either go back the way we came or head the other way and go through our guide’s hometown of Nikšic (see 7), home of the Trebjesa Brewery, Montenegro’s only brewery.

While we were there, Slavko needed to drop something off at his parents’ house so he took us to this lovely little house that had fruit trees growing over a metal pergola and chickens roaming free.  His sister came out to say hello and offered us some rakiya (a fruit brandy made at home all over the Balkans).  Slavko had mentioned that the rakiya bought in stores burned when you swallowed it but homemade rakiya was smooth and warmed you up.  His father has been making rakiya for decades.  We were offered apple, plum or grape.  We chose apple and were each given a shot. It’s true!  It was delicious!  (Though it still burned a little.  Or maybe I’m just a lightweight.)

After a few minutes of conversation with his sister and father that neither side could understand (because Slavko was inside with his mother), we sat quietly and just enjoyed the fresh air and the rare chance to see a slice of real Montenegrin life.  When we left shortly thereafter, we stopped at a restaurant for a drink.  Bob had tried Nikšicko the day before and really enjoyed it so he was happy to have another.  I had Montenegrin wine.  We sat on the terrace and enjoyed the warm sun, all three of us knowing that soon it would be gone and consequently much cooler.  Again we chatted about life in Montenegro, Slavko told us about his former life working in promotions for the brewery.  He had travelled all over promoting the beer.  It had not escaped my attention that he had had a shot of rakiya and now a pint of beer and he was our driver through these crazy roads.  But this is normal here.  So normal, in fact, that Marshal Tito had to make a law specifically for Nikšic, because the brewery was the main employer of the town, that nobody was allowed to drink before 10 am.

Slavko and Bob enjoying a pint of Niksicko just down the street from the brewery in which it’s brewed. We were blessed with beautiful weather again.

With the day almost done, and nowhere else to go but home to Kotor, we got in the car and started on our way.  It was now 3 pm and the sun was starting its descent.  We had another 100km through the countryside to go.  (We had already come 200km.)  The drive was quiet and reflective.

We made a stop to look at Salt Lake (and so the boys could have a smoke), just past Nikšic.  Salt Lake is a freshwater lake that was often used as a stopping point for merchants.  Merchants often travelled to Croatia to sell their goods and returned with things like silk and salt.  Legend has it that once a lady was letting her pack animal drink from the lake and the bags of salt that were strapped to its back fell into the lake.  And that’s how it got its name.

Our last photo op/smoke break was in Perast.  On our way to Kotor from Dubrovnik the day before, I had noticed these two islands on the northern side of the bay.  They are very small and seem to have only one building on each.

Perast from the Northern side of the bay.
The Islands of St. George and Our Lady of the Rocks
This photo is taken from Perast (the Southern side of the bay). The island of St. George (left) is a natural island. Our Lady of the Rocks (right) is an artificial one.

This is Perast and those two islands also have a story (much like everything in Montenegro).  The island on the left is a natural island – the Island of St. George. There is a monastery on it.  The island on the right is the Island of Our Lady of the Rocks.  Legend has it that after every successful voyage, fisherman and sailors would dump a rock overboard in that place.  Over time, the rocks emerged from the water and created an island.  The church was built on it.  In the warmer months, you can visit its church, museum and gift shop.

Road Trip Through Montenegro
Our road trip for the day.

And so concluded our tour of Montenegro. Before this trip, I had hardly ever heard of Montenegro.  Now that I’ve seen a small glimpse of it, I have no idea why we haven’t heard of its beauty, its achievements and about its amazing people.  I definitely think that it was well worth the 35€ we paid.  After returning to the hostel, we gave Slavko a gift of maple syrup (we had brought several little bottles with us) which he absolutely loved.

Then, in return, he took us out for a drink.

I love this place.


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