By Laura Pattara
Crossing into Montenegro from north-eastern Bosnia & Herzegovina is a real feast for all the senses. After riding through endless barren plains, we are welcomed into the country by a simply stunning, luscious gorge. For months we’ve been hearing glowing reports about Montenegro, fellow motorbike overlanders praising it to the high heavens, claiming this to be the most striking of all the Balkan countries. Truth be told, we tend to take all recommendations with a grain of salt nowadays; knowing well that one man’s treasure is most definitely another’s less-than-desirable destination. Yet just a few hours after we first tread our well-worn tires onto its landscape, Montenegro has us well and truly besotted.
During our 8 month-long motorbike trip (part of a three year Europe to Australia adventure) we’ve certainly seen our share of stunning places, yet Montenegro soon proves to be a firm contender for first place rating. It may be a small country by European standards, yet it is also scarcely populated (just over half a million inhabitants), which is one of the major bonuses for adventure travellers. Add to this the fact that this is home to some of Europe’s oldest forests and deepest gorges, and you soon realize that when it comes to pure, unadulterated wild beauty, there’s no other country in the whole continent which can really compete.
Like the rest of the Balkans, Montenegro is also swiftly recovering from the devastating Yugoslav War of the mid-90s, yet unlike its neighbours, this country seems intent on capitalizing on its ‘wild beauty’ reputation, choosing to invest on upgrading its few intersecting roads (there are no highways), preserving its plethora of natural attractions and offering but a smattering of tourist ‘villages’ where travellers can base themselves on their self-drive holidays. There’s absolutely no hint of mass-tourism here, and looks like it won’t be coming for a while yet.
We spend the first day snaking our way south along the Pivsko River which leads to the Piva Lake, a man-made fresh water oasis created by the damming of the river in the mid-1970s. Our only problem is that we don’t seem to be able to stay on the road for longer than 15 minutes at a time. The canyon is superbly photogenic, the lake resplendent, and the backdrop of snow-peaked mountains make the whole scene so beautiful, it looks photoshopped.
The Piva Lake Canyon stretches for merely 20kms from the Bosnian border to the turnoff towards the Durmitor National Park, yet it takes us almost four hours to cover that distance; random lakeside rest spots doing a rather good job in convincing us to take it easy. Chris joins a few locals in a spot of fishing but, alas, he continues his no-catching streak in fine form! Everyone else seems to be pulling in huge monsters every other minute (trout perhaps?), yet our poor little bait fails to attract even the remotest of attention from the local aquatic fauna. Oh well…luckily our bikes are well stocked with tuna cans.
On our second day in the country, we head up to the Durmitor National Park, the sparkling jewel in Montenegro’s crown. It stretches west from the Piva Lake Canyon, to the Tara Canyon to the north and is home to an astounding plateau lake-region which rests at over 1,500m in altitude and frames 18 glacial lakes.
The park’s high mountain range escorts us all the way down to Piva and as soon as we turn eastward toward it, Chris has the smashing idea to try a little off-roading. I’ve been riding my BMWF650 for almost six months now and although I’ve managed to master the tarmac, the slippery little gravel tracks still cause a little sweating under the collar. Luckily, at this altitude, the heat does not add to my woes, and as we follow a side road which is supposed to cut through the park towards its centre, we descend to a delightful valley boasting but a splattering of seemingly new farmhouses. I ride slow enough to enjoy the scenery, yet fast enough to actually feel like I’m covering ground. Exploring the Balkans has cemented my belief that whoever invented 5th gear clearly missed the whole point of travelling. No-one in their right mind would want to rush their way through this beautiful corner of the globe.
Half an hour into our ride Chris seems puzzled; apparently, the ‘road’ (we’ll call it that for argument’s sake) is not leading where it should, according to his map. It’s only when we stop beside a house to ask for direction that we realize the map we’ve been relying on was printed in 1981. In any other country this may be just fine, but in a country re-shaped anew by years of war, this amounts to it being pretty much useless.
I spot a woman hanging laundry in the garden of a pretty red-roofed farmhouse and do what no self-respecting traveller would dare do: I stop and ask for directions. I park up Pixie along the house’s fence and only upon dismounting do I notice the bear sunbaking in the front yard. As it turns out, it’s not a bear after all…but a Sarplaninac! Being the dog lover that I am, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for two months in the hope of catching a glimpse of the famed and humongous Balkan Mountain Shepherd, reputedly one of the world’s largest breeds. Both pooch and landlady turn out to be friendly, affectionate and utterly hospitable. Within merely a minute, we’re invited in for a cup of coffee, a slice of cake and lots of face licks (from the dog, not the landlady).
‘Buddy’ weighs 40kgs, is as tall as I am when he stands on his back legs and when he insists on sitting on my lap, he proceeds to re-arrange all of my internal organs.
Buddy is just 10 months old…
Wonderful Montenegrin hospitality is all we encounter during our travels; never can we stop for more than a few minutes in a small village that we are approached by locals offering coffee, snacks or just a warm welcome. It’s really no big surprise, this entire region has long been renowned for its friendliness, and we’ve certainly been on the receiving end of it for the last two months.
The Durmitor National Park is a UNESCO listed natural wonder and, considering we’d need months to see it all, we make a plan to explore its two most celebrated highlights, namely the Tara Canyon (Europe’s deepest) and the Crno Jezero, most commonly known as the Black Lake in English.
Bush camping in this neck of the woods is ridiculously easy, so although one could reach the Black Lake and the main village of Žabljak in just two hours, we actually take four days. This entire area remained blissfully mine-free for the duration of the war, the lack of major infrastructure and habitation, together with its early inception as a protected reserve, shielded it from all the disaster which befell its neighbouring regions. Head here with a fully equipped camper, and you could drive around for days not running into another solitary human being. If you’re after a little slice of paradise close to home, then dare I say northern Montenegro may be just the destination for you.
When you do eventually need to restock on supplies, head into Žabljak, the central town and considered ‘headquarters’ of the Durmitor National Park. This compact and pretty village boasts a large supermarket, sport equipment stores, activity tour companies and quite a few cool little cafes and restaurants. If you want to enjoy a more active trip, you can book river rafting, canyoning and multi-day hiking trips from here and, if you travel during the winter season, you can hire skiing and snowboarding equipment as well. The town boasts quite a few rental apartments, with small boutique hotels being built along its outer edges.
The Crno Jezero section of the park is only about 3kms from the centre of Žabljak, and can easily be reached on foot. Entry to the lakes park is just 2Euros per person, with an additional 2Euros charged for parking if coming with your own set of wheels. A long a windy forested path leads you to a breathtaking viewpoint of Black Lake and the starting point of various hiking paths.
Come here in spring and you could literally hike for days on end. This year’s harsh and long winter season means that although the insistent snow adds a priceless beauty to the scenery, it also means that hiking long distances without proper equipment is just not doable. It matters not; the 4km round-lake path is hike enough for us.
Next on our incredibly beautiful spots to explore is the Tara Canyon, the one place which, more than any other, gave rise to the term ‘Montenegrin Colorado’. I’ve never actually been to Colorado, but let me just say that if it’s only half as beautiful as the Tara region then my word is it bound to be splendid!
Continuing on my number-obsession, I will mention the Tara’s most impressive stats: the canyon is over 80kms in length, measures 1.3km at its deepest point and boasts over 70 caves and 40 waterfalls throughout its length. The Durmitor National Park section of the canyon has only one road which snakes its way alongside it, and this would have to be one of the most spectacular stretches of road in the entire country.
If you’re into some wicked white water rafting, you may want to note that this is by far the most exhilarating part of the canyon, the drop in elevation and the sheer volume of water makes for some hair-raising rafting experiences, at least according to the group of UK youngsters we ran into at one of the rafting starting points along the canyon.
We’d stopped for lunch at a clearing along the river’s edge, only to discover a group of energetic students emerging from the freezing cold waters. They were so enthused with their morning rafting session they were talking a million miles an hour and flashing beaming smiles. If I wasn’t such a tropical-temps kind of person I may have even been inclined to join them for the afternoon ride, but considering you could barely entice me to wet my toes in waters of 20 degree Celsius, not even their infectious excitement could convince me to raft in an 8 degree river. Wetsuit or no wetsuit! Come here in summer and contact the guys at Active Travels Montenegro, and take advantage of the adrenalin pumping activities this entire region offers. It’s organized enough to make it safe, yet still so dreamily uncrowded that you don’t feel like you’re part of a tourist-production-line like in many other mountainous countries.
We reluctantly head to the Kosovo border. We spent two weeks in Montenegro yet feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. We didn’t make it down to the Kotor Bay, yet another UNESCO jewel often rated as one of the most beautiful coastal stretches in Europe.
The few fellow overlanders we meet along the way think we’re nuts not to go, yet at the beginning of our long trans-continental journey Chris and I resolved that we couldn’t possibly ‘see it all’. Pick and chose is what we’ve done and although there’s a part of me which is just itching to head south, we stick to our intended route and head to Kosovo instead.
After all…leaving a few un-ticked boxes along the way is the best incentive we can think of to make sure we will, one day, return to Montenegro.
Photo of Kotor Bay by Scott Anderson