The mountains are nuts, and the drivers insane
15th to 23rd October, 2019

Beautiful Bellbirds and Tui chortle and sing outside the door and the Manuka is in flower. We're back in New Zealand, at a friend's house in Waikawa after more than six months away. It's time to catch up with the blog (again) before my memories blend into the past. We've been to many places and yet only seen a fraction of the world.

The mountains of Montenegro were a welcome contrast to the rest of our trip and gave me an opportunity to fill up my soul. History and culture are all very well, but the world has a lot more to it than the history of seething humanity.

After our five-week tour through Croatia, Montenegro was a quieter, yet more adventurous, option than seeing yet another walled city. We said goodbye to our Norgie friends at Dubrovnik airport and drove south, wondering how the border crossing would go. It was easy to get through, and the friendly customs guy showed us how to pronounce "thank you", said a bit differently than in Croatia.

The day, like every day while we were there, was sunny and warm. Dropping down to the coastline at Herceg Novi gave us our first views of the mountains. They were weathered karst limestone, and incredibly rugged. Figuring out where to go to a few weeks beforehand, I'd found an image of the Accursed Mountains on the border with Albania. They were violently precipitous and jagged, and could have been imagined for a science fiction story of some forbidden planet. I wanted to go there.

Montenegro was almost a complete mystery. When finding out about the Via Dinarica trail, I'd noticed that while there was a lot of information written about the trail in Slovenia and Croatia, quite a bit less was available about it within Bosnia and Herzegovina, and almost nothing in Montenegro. It just seemed to vanish as it entered there. All I could tell was that the mountains were stunning, and seldom-visited.
The Accursed Mountains of Montenegro
Like the rest of the Balkans, Montenegro's had much violence in its history. There was the usual mix of cultures from east and west, different people vying for space to live, and the insanities of religion and politics. The coastline had been popular with tourists for years, but the further inland we got, the more like the Wild West it became. Getting to our base in Plav meant driving due north halfway up the country to Nicsik, before heading due south again to Podgorica, then due north to Kolasin, then due south and a little east, to Andrijevica and on to Plav. It was a massive zigzag, forced by Montenegro's tortured, rocky terrain.

On our way north to Niksic, we had an enforced stop for a few hours because of roadworks. It gave us a chance to rest and get some food for the long day, which it turned out we would need. It also provided an addition to our list of World's Most Horrific Eating Experiences. In Naples, it had been deep-fried pizza. At a roadside cafe in Montenegro, it was loosely-described as Hamburger. Unexpectedly, there was neither bun nor toppings, just a mashed-out, oily grey horror of questionable origin and an unquestionably vile taste.

The drive from Podgorica to Kolasin alone was worth it for the scenery. High up on the opposite side of the gorge, I could see a railway that leapt from precipice to cleft, in spite of the landscape. The downside of waiting until 4pm for the road to open, unfortunately, was that darkness fell while we were still many hours from Plav.

The other drivers on the road seemed determined that we would never make it. Keeping to the right was an exception, passing on a blind corner de rigueur, and the larger the oncoming truck, the bigger the challenge. That gorge stands out in my mind as one of the most harrowing trips I've ever done, and A did a stunning job keeping us from being smeared across the front of something careless and ugly. We were in Montenegro just over a week and many of the drivers we encountered were either reckless, shit-crazy, incompetent, or an insane blend of all three.
Nothing to do
“As we walked by, many sets of idle eyes followed us from the shade."
After getting to Matesevo alive, Google helpfully sent us on the most direct route to Andrijevica by indicating we turn onto a road that immediately disappeared. One moment it was a decent, two-lane secondary route, then suddenly it was a narrow, potholed and convoluted track covered in mud. With night well and truly upon us, confidence was low. By this time, as chief navigator, I'd decided Google was not to be trusted. Our printed map showed we were going the right way, so we pressed on. After two hours of potholes, crumbling hairpin bends, dark forest and steep grades, we made Andrijevica. Then it was a straight run to Plav. Google's AirBnB link had sent us to the main street, which was nowhere near the apartment. With no phone data, it took luck and deduction from the photos we'd seen of the place to find it. By then, we were toast.

Wonderfully, our host had stayed up to greet us, and the fire was lit. After a long journey, we could enjoy the relief of being off the road with our spleens intact, the feeling of radiating warmth from the stove, and a soft bed.

In the morning, we explored into town and went for a walk down to the lakeshore. We quickly noticed that in Plav, nothing much was going on and very little of it was being done by the men. Mostly aged between their twenties and fifties, they gathered everywhere there was a place to squat and lean, smoke, and drink coffee. As we walked by, many sets of idle eyes followed us from the shade. It was quite unsettling.
Occasionally, down a side street, we might see a woman cleaning clothes, or caring for children, or carrying firewood. Women herded stock, kept house, bought the food and prepared it. The only time I saw a woman driving was when the passengers were also women. We'd not wanted to pay the rental company for a second driver (thanks to a misleading claim from them about family members) so A was the only driver. I could sense the progress of my emasculation as we drove past and they all saw a man being driven by a woman. I don't know how I would have broached a conversation about it, to discover the roles of men and women there. It was certainly different to Croatia. As the week progressed we became a little more used to it, but never felt comfortable. Just as well our reason for being there was the mountains. The guy in the tourist information office was happy and motivated, and gave us many suggestions.

Having stayed healthy up to now for the whole trip, A had been feeling pretty average for the last few days, so our first walk was a short and steady one. Near the border with Albania was Gusinje, a small town of coffee shops filled with men doing nothing. We wended through it, avoiding more men as they ambled down the road or paused to chat to each other. Traffic flow was in a parallel universe and barely existed in their reality. Down an alley, I saw a woman cleaning carpets.

Teeth of the World
Only one way through
Beyond Gusinje we found Ali Pasha Spring, a seepage from the bottom of a scree hill that provided a good flow of clear water. There was an old mill and some other farm buildings there, but nobody was in sight.

At the upper end of the next valley over was the tiny hamlet of Skala. There was a national park hut where we were supposed to pay the park fee but, in all the times we went past, it was never open. Flies buzzed and died, trapped inside against the hot glass.

Of all the landscapes, karst is the most jagged and beautiful to me. In the Accursed Mountains, the layers of rock have been twisted and then lifted into vertical knives of grey. Above Skala, the trees climbed as far as they could. Their leaves were turning to autumn, and it was as though the landscape was molten, glowing hot in the sunshine.

The track upwards followed our map only occasionally, twisting its way along a steep hillside within the forest. We were aiming for Vrh Karaula, but A's energy and the late start stopped us on the final ridge towards it. After so many days of tourists and forts, being in the forest on a warm day, with just the two of us, was bliss.
Our second day's goal was to reach a small lake called Gjeshtarje, at the head of the next valley south. The climb was only a couple of hundred metres, spread over several kilometres. It would take us very close to the Albanian border. The trail was a gravel road, in good order. It was in morning shadow, which gave us a cool start. The mountains marched by on either side and the sun shone down through fiery autumn colours. When we reached the lake we found it was dry, and had been so for some time. An open, grassy bowl took its place and on the far side a rocky bluff seemed to block the way beyond. Maybe the bowl filled with water for a month or two in spring. We could see a small structure on the far side which probably marked the border. We stopped where we were, content to lay on the grass and scan the peaks above us. Some enterprising Croat had driven their van up to the road-end for climbing, but we couldn't tell where they were in the chaos of rock.

We tried to add in another walk in the afternoon up Bandera, the high hill above Plav, but the access road there put us off. I'm sure it would have been fine, but the day was wearing on and we wouldn't have had much time to enjoy it. On the way back, we followed a sign to the monastery of Sv. Trojice that took us to someone's back yard. A nearby road proved to be the right one, but the small church at the end didn't bolster our flagging interest, so we headed home.

We had a quiet evening with a fire back at the apartment, and our usual salad of mozzarella and lettuce, with balsamic reduction.
People - not a fan
“It gave a certain human counterpoint to the natural beauty around us."
Deciding to go on a longer walk the next day, we drove up the valley behind Plav to Katun Bogicevica. A katun is a collection of shepherd's huts and these looked to be still in use, but as holiday houses. The road up there was good to start with. After the initiation drive to Andrijevica by night, our perception of what constitutes a good road had changed significantly. It climbed past many farms with good pasture and healthy stock. After crossing the river and seeing the rutted road beyond, we turned back and parked, out of respect for the car.
Same as the day before, the climb was easier than expected but still a good, long walk. We made our way past old huts and onto a gravel road for a short spell, before climbing the grassy slopes beyond and onto a trail. We passed a group of walkers there, the only people we saw the whole day. Once more it was sunny and warm, the pine forests less colourful than the trees in Skala, but still gorgeous. Low bluffs marched above us, but were easy to climb around to the ridge, where the wind picked up, blowing over from Albania.

On the path that could have taken us into Kosovo if we'd wanted, we had a delightful discovery. We found a signpost that told us we were on the Via Dinarica trail! After planning to walk some of it from Slovenia and Croatia and then bailing on the whole idea, meeting it here, near its end, was the perfect closure. The peak of Tromeda was windy but clear, with a broad view swinging across Kosovo, Albania, then east to the corner of Montenegro where we'd walked the day before. Below us, in Albania, we could see a network of roads in the valley and a cluster of houses.

Coming from New Zealand with every border the sea, it was strange to see a political line in such an arbitrary place. The peak of Tromeda was in Montenegro, I think, but the borders of two other countries joined there too. Evidence of humanity was scattered all over. The stone outline of old buildings rested below the peak, and half-ruined huts littered the slope on our way back down. Over the side of the road, just above where we'd parked our car, a profusion of stinking refuse had been cast down amongst the trees, to wash down into the stream. It gave a certain human counterpoint to the natural beauty around us.

Old Friend
We've seen this trail at both ends, now
Our last day's walk was back up the valley in Skala. We took the same trail as on our first day, but followed the main route to Valusnica, an old, benign and grass-covered glacial cirque, bordered on its outer edges by vertical cliffs that plummeted below our feet as we approached. I edged out over the drop to see the hazy outline of a farmhouse in the valley, six hundred metres directly below. In front, across a broad leap of air, karst towers of the Accursed Mountains lined our sight. Tall, sharp, imposing and beautiful.
That was the last of our time in the mountains, and our next stop was Budva, several hours' drive away on the coast. We found, after talking to a local, that the supposed shortcut we'd taken between Matesevo and Andrijevica was definitely a back road that should only be driven by day. His eyes had gone a little wide when we told him we'd come through after dark. Our host recommended we go further north from Andrijevica past Berane, and then west. It was longer to drive, but a lot easier. The only downside was we spent more time on the main roads. The almost head-on collision we had with a bus later that day was a reminder of the careless insanity of Montenegrin drivers. He was entirely on our side of the road and determined to pass another car. The fact that we were heading right towards him was a minor issue.

We stayed in Budva so we didn't have to come all the way back from Plav to Dubrovnik airport in one go. All the tourist sites mentioned Lake Skadar as a place to see. It would be on our way through to the coast, so made a perfect link-up. Call me a grump, but it was just a big, weedy lake. We stopped in Virpazar to find out about lake cruises but, having spent a week alone in the mountains, the sight of social bloggers, other tourists, and associated facilities left us cold. We got some lunch there, but it seemed the cook had a relative who owned a roadside eatery up north. The greasy meat and chips promised everything a growing heart attack could wish for.

The old and the new
Our place in Budva was pretty swanky and good to relax in, after the long drive. The next day we had a look around the old town and in the museum. There wasn't much to see apart from some sailing ship models, but I might have missed a few rooms. It was quite hot in the sun, so we had a quick look through the streets, went through a low stone arch to the beach, then back to the supermarket to grab some dinner.

Our last day back over the border to Cavtat, near Dubrovnik airport, was marred by A getting a short but violent stomach bug. She ferried dejectedly between the car and the toilet in the airport rental drop-off area, as her system opened all available exits to get rid of something nasty.

Our last evening in Croatia was warm and quiet. After a rest, A felt well enough to have a short walk around the Cavtat peninsula, shaded from the afternoon sun by umbrella pines. We sat on the quay with the sea lapping against the stones, as the sun set in a haze of soft colours. The next stages through Athens and to Jordan were on our minds and we were ready for a change from the Balkans. Even so, being here had become familiar and I was feeling sad that we were moving on. We'd spent several months in these latitudes of warm evenings, clear seas and blue skies, and it was pretty darn nice.
We left very early the following morning in order to wait for the rental company to open an hour after they said they would, and so drop off the car before our flight to Athens.

Even though many of the drivers in Montenegro were terrifyingly bad and the lineup of staring, coffee-drinking young men unnerving, I would definitely go back to the mountains near Plav. There was no middle ground there. The paths were well-established and worth following, since they offered the only conceivable way to pick through the teeth of the world.
Budva museum walk
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