Into Montenegro

Into Montenegro

Our time in BiH had been even more interesting than we could expect, and although we would have enjoyed to have spent quite some more time absorbing the culture and history, gradually and slowly we went towards the border with Montenegro and eventually it was time to cross it…

As much as we enjoy a place there is always some cycling momentum we feel we should keep. And there is also always some excitement in being in a new culture and having new experiences.

So there we were, about to cross into Montenegro. The country seemed so small in the map that we wondered how long we would stay. At one point, while doing our usual planning/dreaming, it seemed we could if we wanted, cross it in two nights. But we didn’t want that…

So as usual, we found the smallest roads possible, up in the mountains where we like to be. And sure enough, shortly after we crossed the border, we decided to take a shortcut and turned off to an even smaller mountain road. This turned out to be a very good decision.

It was just a small winding road, going through forested and shrub covered hills, with very few cars and only the occasional small villages. It seemed like the whole country was deserted… or at least very sparsely populated. The upcoming days in the country would support more and more this impression…

However, although we had just entered Montenegro, the excitement of exploring this new region had to be calmed down. Rain was coming, heavily and to stay, for at least a few days. It was Slovenia all over again… So we found another cave to take shelter from for a few days and headed there.

The road to reach it however prooved to be… interesting. We had a mountain bike experience back in BiH which had proved to both challenging and fun. In this one however, the pavement suddenly turned into gravel but of the very loose type. Let’s just say there was a looot of pushing… By the last stretch, the rock was so loose that fun was quickly turning into exhaustion. The look of astonishment and bemusement on a shepard’s face, who we crossed just as we come off the gravel, just before reaching again the “blessed” paved road, made it all worth it. And it also made having a few days off all the more worth it as well…

The town of Niksic was to be our new base for a few days. Luckily the cost of living is different from our initial Balkan country of Slovenia and our cave was of a considerable larger size. Even too big I would say. There were three sofas in the house and two single beds, besides the double bed which we took… two cyclists in a house where 6 or 7 could fit.

Not only the “cave” was much bigger but apparently food was somehow included. For two times it happened that we suddenly would hear the door bell ringing and when opening the door would be handed over a tray or plate of local food the lady of the house had been cooking down below. Not much explaining, she would just hand over the plate and off she went back down the stairs.

We used these days to stock up on food (usually further hurting our budget besides the cost of accomodation…) and doing what we love doing best when have a permanent rooved base : roasted veggies, homemade pizza, baked bread and pancakes are most usually in the menu.

It was also a chance to get a map and plan our next steps. We wanted to explore the mountains in the north, Durmitor natural park seemed like it would offer amazing views of snow covered mountains. However, winter was catching up with us. As much as our sense of adventure takes us to explore how much cold we can survive in our tent, the forecasts of temperatures between -5 and -17, seemed to be a step too far. So we decided to head south instead…

As soon as we left town, we took as always, the smallest road possible, up to the mountains… The hilly bushy landscape remained deserted of people and almost houses, much like the first day… How many people live in this country?? Where are they all ?? This were some of the questions that crossed our heads…

After much wiggling about, suddenly the feel of an empty tyre.. “Sarah… another one….” It seems our magnetic attraction to mountain gravel roads has had its impact on the wear of our tyres. Luckily just nearby there were some buildings of what seemed to be a cafe. We pushed our bikes there and used it’s concrete floor as the ground of our instantaneous bike mechanics shop.

Soon after the owner of the cafe peered out from behind the building and looked at us with curiosity but without saying a word went inside his cafe. A while later, a car full of young people parked over and observed us with curiosity and some laughter. The day was coming to an end, so we exchanged a look and knew we should try and ask to spend the night…

Tyre puntcure repaired, we parked the bicycles next to the cafe door and asked, in our best sign language, if we could camp. The owner and one of the younger people inside, quickly pointed to the back suggesting that it would be fine… But not before taking a selfie with us.

We installed ourselves around the back and prepared to spend the (quite chilly) night. Although we survived it rather comfortably snugged up in our sleeping bags, we woke up to a very frosty tent and pair of bikes. The layers of frost suggested that it had been quite a cold night. It also suggested that heading south, had been perhaps rather wise.

Shortly after we prepared to pack our now white covered tent, two figures appeared in the front of the building, with gestures of shaking in the cold, asking us if we were okay and inviting us to come inside. We saw the smoky chimney suggesting the warm fire inside, so there was no way we would refuse. Once inside we asked for a coffee and two locals sat in front having their own coffee, and we couldn’t help to notice, they also had a shot of rakija each.

We couldn’t also help but laugh, when after a few questions on where we were from and how we had survived the night, both cafe owner and one the man in front of us, “fought” over who would offer us the coffee – the owner wanted to offer and the customer wanted to pay our coffee too. We’re still not sure who won…

Warmed by the fire, coffee and the generosity, we started heading towards Kotor and for the first time since we left Barcelona we would see the sea, more than four months before! Our jaws had to drop, as we jumped with excitement, when we contemplated the views over Kotor bay. They were simply astonishing… And the ocean again at last!

We sat next to a restaurant under construction overseeing the bay, and struck conversation with a couple, that once realising our departure point, insisted on pouring the hot tea from inside their thermos into one of our bottles. How comforting this tea felt as we contemplated the views having our lunch..!

On the way down to the town, we lost count to the number of times we stopped to take photos.. it was just too hard not to stop at each hairpin of the winding road down (25 ‘tornanti’ numbered on the road walls).

And then the contrast when we reached town… We had spotted from above and as we went down, a cruise ship entering and contouring the bay. It had just reached town when we arrived and started pouring into it thousands and thousands of tourists. Full streets and speedy taxis all around made us put our noses down until we could reach a quieter, more breathable, road around the bay.

We found a camping spot next to it and finished our loop the next day, by taking a ferry across two closer legs of land. Still, we knew that from there on we would have to be in the bigger (and therefore busier) roads we always try to avoid. As much we appreciated to see again the ocean, soon we were questioning what the heck were we doing there and how and when could we escape to the mountains again.

It was truck and speedy cars hell! As soon as we could, we took a side road even if it made us cycle three times the distance and up a steep hill, just to join the road once again further ahead.

This detouring made us be behind where we thought we would be and we took a break in a gas station to get some water and decide where to aim for the night. Soon after stopping we spotted another cyclist going the opposite way but also stopping in the station.

We call out to him and met Mael. Mael has been cycling since May and started off from France. More precisely, in Annecy, where in fact we had passed a few months before.

If we thought our route might seem a bit random to someone looking to the dots in our map, Mael’s route was quite more random appearing – from France to Benelux, from there to Scandinavia, to the Baltic countries, to Romania, Serbia and Kosovo, to Albania from where he was coming, to Montenegro to where he was heading. We wanted to know more about his traveling but there was no chance…

Mael carried in the back of his bike a pole with all the flags of the countries he had been, besides his one French flag. The same one that called the attention of another French expat leaving the gas station. Frederic when recognizing the flag rushed towards Mael. Both were perhaps happy to see a fellow countryman and to speak a bit of their language.

The night fell as we talked about cycling (us and Mael) and local customs (Frederic to the rest) and soon after, all the cyclists were offered a roof to stay under, in Frederic’s three floor house, 1 km away.

His house, currently for sale, had been rented to tourists in the summer season for many years. But Frederic was fed up of the tourist housing construction in the coastal hill he had found virtually unexplored many years before. Now he felt it was not any more the place he wanted to live.

Between the dinner and the breakfast the next day, we were somewhat bombarded with information on the local living, culture and his own experiences living here. By the time we left the next morning it was already 13h, perhaps the latest we had ever left in what was meant to be cycling day. But we had a warmshowers host lined up for a few days time and didn’t want to delay our arrival.

Nonetheless we went up the mountain to avoid once again the big and busy coastal road towards Albania, our next destination. Given the late departure that night we were once again not where we had anticipated being and had to be creative about our sleeping location. We ended up spending the night at the door of a 5th century castle, just by Skadar lake and a bit before the Albanian border that we would cross the next day.

We had a somewhat interesting night by the castle door. When already in our pijamas and sleeping bags, suddenly a car appeared and parked just in front of the tent, the lights full beam on it. We had seen on the door of the castle that it was meant to be open only until 18h and wondered if someone would come to close it but they never did… until then.

We wondered what they thought of finding us there and if we would have to move on. It took us some time to get out of our sleeping bags and outside. By the time we came outside two people were already struggling with the gate lock trying to close it.

Trying to make some connection I offered help with my headlamp light, again wondering what they thought of us being there. When they finally managed to close it, we began to ask if it was okay for us just to spend the night. But by the time we finished the sentence they were already inside the car starting the engine and quickly reversing and left saying “ok ok”. They couldn’t care less…

The next day we woke up to great views of a misty covered Skader lake and surrounding mountains. The sunlight cutting through the mist was just amazing. We packed up and started to move towards the lake Skadar, not being able to help but constantly stop to admire the amazing views of this magical lake surrounded by mountains.

We were overhappy with our decision to take the mountain road over the busy coastal road. This brought us however another reminder to the harsh reality of borders and our ‘golden’ tickets. Along this road, we had been occasionally meeting several hunters by the side of the road. As we slid down to the border we saw a group of another hunters, or so we thought. Looking and getting closer however, we realized, reminded by our border crossing into Bosnia, that it was a (rather cheerful) bunch of young people in migration. Given that we were going down there was only time for a quick hello and a wish of good luck.

Unfortunately, they did not have the lucky side of the coin. Shortly after we were crossed by two police cars heading their way. And a little while longer still, after we had our lunch by some oak trees, we were overtaken by the same police cars, and in the back sitting the young man we had greeted a few hours before…

With some mixed feelings inside, we eventually got to the border and easily crossed into Albania and pedaled towards Shkodër and the warmshower base that would host us for the upcoming days…

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