The Seas and Skies of Montenegro

I was collapsed in a heap at the border munching desperately on a stick of Kendal mint cake. The first day back on the bike was always going to be tough. We had just cycled 50 or so kilometres  from Dubrovnik to the border with Montenegro. The small road followed the open ocean and I could not contain the whoops of joy at the ultimate freedom I felt when beginning a new adventure with only a path of uncertainties and mysteries stretching out before me. To be back on the bike again after a long cold winter was simply liberating.

Then, in a well worn gesture, the border guard returned our freshly stamped passports and we free wheeled down to the delightful but shabby little town of Herceg Novi. This relaxed simple place is perched on the edge of a fjord that cuts deep into this bumpy square shaped country. This new country, I enjoyed saying the word, Montenegro. The first few words that came to mind when I saw this land, were spectacular, mountainous, rugged, wild, plain, simple, easy, relaxed.

It was Switzerland without the price tag or the rules. The feeling of pureness and freedom tingled in the air. People kicked back and relaxed. Anything goes on the Balkan it seemed, who cared? We gobble down a kilo of strawberries for dinner, sold to us by some local farmer, and joined the locals on the sunny terraces.

The following day we followed the waters edge, delving inland, all the time being chased by the sea. Sharp, steep mountains rose abruptly all around us. Mountains mingled with the sea, a potion of every natural form blended into one. A  Euro ferry fare took us closer to the medieval city of Kotor nestled on the shore. This town was a maze and we lurked in a dusty back street cafe, hiding from the heat and the tourists. Moving to the cooler shore front we leant against a rusty upturned hull chewing on bread and cheese for lunch while watching the sun beams over the cliffs that barricade this tiny spot of a settlement.

We then spent hours climbing the steep sun bathed surface we had been gazing at. The road curled effortlessly into the sky like a shiny spring. At the top, the glassy waters stretched around far below our feet and we meet a scruffy happy German family on the cliff edge and they told us in the breeze that they were pulling their boat all the way to southern Albania. Then suddenly, toppling over the edge of this mountain plateau we finally got rid of the sea for good and instantly greeted the mountainous valleys and trails for real. Collapsed – again – in a roadside cafe we sipped on strong Turkish coffee for 50 cent. One last push was needed to reach the mountain top town of…

 

…Cetinje and when we find it, it appears like a  tumbled jigsaw through a valley of thorny bushes. The residences pace the streets in which ever direction they wish and during the forthcoming twilight we watched the towns uneventful rhythm flow, from the terrace of a pizzeria. After crawling up the little hill that over looks the town we fall asleep in our small green tent, peacefully watching the sky move over this dramatic land, dark bushes and black crags framing the picture.

From Cetinje the road plunged back down to the sea as we came upon lake Skadar. A vast ocean like water that sits still on the border between Montenegro and Albania. At the edge of this lake the waters were dark and murky, leaves laced across the surface transforming it into a swampish thick green layer. The road was also alive with movement, from every corner, a lizard darted into the shadows or a stick insect froze on the hot surface when our wheels rolled on past. Pedalling through the sleepy villages without a pause, secret rural scenes were revealed to us over and over again. Colourful vegetable patches, rusty red tractors chugging along, old ladies waiting under trees ready to sell their home made wines to passing cars, empty buildings, restless children.

When we worked our way down to the shores of this expanse of water we found a stony beach in Murici where we decided to spend the night. Our only company; a couple of wading long legged birds and a night time fisherman with his eyes glued to the depths. The shades of blues and greens faded to a quiet night.

Several sloping hours later it was the perfect place to wake up to. At 6am the fisherman friendly waved us goodbye and I finally felt truly and blissfully disconnected from the world outside, back home in Britain. I curled up in my sleeping bag, breathing in the fresh air and nibbling on cheesy croissants and grapes for breakfast. Excitement and anticipation for the new day happily alight.

The last hill in Montenegro appears. There, among the yellow flowers and the hot Balkan breeze, Lake Skadar lay to my left, the Adriatic to my right, the skies clouded with the mounds of Montenegro behind me and the anticipation of Albania in front of me…a pretty irresistible position…and my pedals spin again.

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The Road to Valbona.

5am. We wake up on a quiet Albanian hilltop, to the sound of drizzling rain. Grey deserted land surrounds us. We are back on our mountain bikes and on the road by 7am.

22km of dirt road lies between us and the ferry, which leaves at 9am from the end of lake Komani.

What follows is a wild canyon chase to catch this only ferry of the day. The greys of the land are soon left behind as we quickly plunge deep into the lush greens and blues of this long, isolated, jungle like valley.

The road is rough and full of potholes, climbing and descending relentlessly. Time is running out, as the river continues flowing always on our left while children waiting for the school bus are screaming hellos from our right. Their stares are of confused surprise and delight.

Rising over the brink of yet another soul destroying climb, we glimpse the huge grey form of Komani dam from where the ferry sets off. Twenty to nine…passing through the damp solemn buildings of Komani town, the ashen faced residence send yet more stares our way. Yet I have no time to really consider their expressions, I have no desire to be delayed a day in this gloomy place. Splashing through puddles, mud flickering over everything, I only focus on the last climb up to the top of the dam. To the local herding his goats off a rocky mountain ledge, we must appear like crazy lunatics, cycling up such a mud encrusted, reckless trail. The dam comes closer but we are then thrown into darkness as the road took us through a 400metre long unlit tunnel.

We emerge at the other end to clear daylight and a bustling scene of people gathered on the lake shore, sorting possessions into different heaps, amongst old and battered cars. The ferry was approaching from upstream. After a breathless adrenaline fuelled ride we had made it with 5 minutes to spare.

The crowd stood back, carrying looks of amusement. We, along with all our possessions, are drenched in thick mud and sweat but insanely relieved to see this homemade contraption chugging towards us. The cabin of the ferry is made from the shell of a bus, glued onto a solid metal hull, the driver using the original steering wheel and motor to direct us up river.

The voyage along lake Komani takes 3 hours to connect the 2 roads at opposite ends of the lake. Along the way we only see majestic, giant and steep cliffs falling straight into the water or wild and rough impossible river banks where thorny vegetation runs wild.

Unbelievably some of our fellow passengers live in villages along these river banks, which are only connected to the outside world via the boat. Gradually, we drop them off at spots on the river bank which seem random but are in fact muddy grassy front doorsteps for them. The passengers then dissapear into the woods, hauling behind them plastic bags of shopping.

Every time we witness this our startled expressions prompt conversation with the locals. An elderly man in a well worn brown suit babbles on at us in Albanian, pointing insistently towards the high mountains. Could there be a village up there? really?

The boat pulls up at a particularly overgrown, steep section while three passengers prepare to disembark. The woman is wearing a smart white jacket and her hair is tied up neatly. I look up the steep, tree covered mountain side and then at the boatman, who speaks good English. “But where is their village?”,  I ask. “Three hours over the other side of the mountain”, he replies, “but she is wearing such a nice white jacket!” “she has been in the city” he shrugs.

Then the journey is over. We are dropped off on a rocky bank, next to the abandoned car ferries, a wooden shack, a dirty toilet, and a caravan with a German number plate.

Back on the bikes, the road gradually finds its way into wide green meadows and a hidden corner of north east Albania. The road is lined with leafy trees, while snow capped mountains linger on the horizon. Shepherds herd their flocks of sheep across the road while other farmers stare at us from the shade.

16km to the north of the ferry terminus we find the town of Barjam Curri. On the steep main street, shops sprawl out onto the pavement. We eat burgers at the local fast food joint while outside little children play with our bikes and helmets. Using our last few Leks to buy a handful of chocolate bars, we begin the final stretch to Valbona national park, another 21km down a mostly unpaved road into the heart of the untracked, aggressively rugged mountains of north east Albanian.

But then the sky crackles and blows up above our heads to release bright scary bolts of lightening. Rain starts to fall heavily on the dirt track riddled with potholes, which under the current rainfall have become vast ponds. We enter the Valbona valley but still have 20km to go untill we reach the Rilindja Hotel. Dodging stray cows and deep puddles we pass a few vans and building sites. One of these vans overtakes us and flings open its doors. Grateful for the offer of a lift, we climb into the dark interior of this old van lugging our bikes behind us.

A welcoming look is soon replaced by tense silence as we do not share a single word in common. The dark haired girl on the back seat offers a timid smile. The driver bumps violently over the rough road surface, as rain continues to pour down. After 11km the road turns to tarmac and we jump out to cycle the rest of the way. Hotel Rilindja is a cosy wooden cabin hidden amongst the intense greenery of the beautiful Valbona mountains.

After such a journey the location and facilities of this hotel are rather amazing. It is warm, homely and charming with comfy beds, warm showers and a simple but delicious evening meal on offer.

The road to Valbona has been unique, exhilarating and unforgettable. And now I feel happy to relax awhile in this untouched and secret corner of Europe which happily buzzes with wild, untamed beauty.