Entertaining, convivial company, breathtaking scenery together with broad cultural learnings made for a splendid holiday. We will not be forgetting Montenegro – or Belgrade – in a hurry with its accursed mountains, epic lakes, deep canyons, scrumptious squid, friendly folk and hot trains.
We started off in Sofia, had a brief scoot around some of the Roman bits, pressed our noses up to the windows of the National Palace of Culture which was closed for ‘hurried renovation’ ahead of Bulgaria’s Presidency of the EU Council in 2018, had a rather splendid cocktail atop Sense Hotel and after all that excitement spent the night at one of silver medal winning 1972 Olympic wrestling champion, Ognian’s apartments.
Leaping in the car already stuffed with a month’s worth of H&P’s belongings, we set off on the road to Montenegro via Serbia. Many chats, a couple of borders, podcasts and some stunning views later we arrived in Rožaje at ‘Zeleni Raj‘ where Izmet the ageing hippy greeted us. Weirdly we hadn’t been able to get car insurance at the border, despite the all-knowing internet suggesting that should have been the case. None of the locals seemed to be bothered; “It’s the weekend, nobody will challenge you, get it on Monday.”
We didn’t seem to be able to communicate that it might be a different story if we drove someone off a cliff, that insurance in that case might actually be useful, or indeed entirely necessary.
Not a lot we could do about it, so we had beer and a fish/sausage dinner, followed by Paul’s delish apple microwave cake – which Izmet also joined us for, with gusto. Slept like logs.
Plav and Ali Paša Preen
Next day we found ourselves in local Berane for breakfast, where we were faced with our first fully Montenegrin menu. Word of the day: jaja – egg! We all hoovered up a plate of omelette and all of the Wi-Fi, as if we’d been disconnected for years. (It had been barely 24 hours).
Paul’s meticulous holidiay planning was certainly paying off… Helgi continued our drive (still uninsured) (we had to just not think about it) and we rounded the corner to be amazed by Lake Plav’s enormity, overlooked by yet more of those accursed mountains. It was hot – there was no shade on the EU-funded jetty, so we made half a plan to dive in later on.
On to… Alipašini Izvori. Fresh, ice-cold springs which gush out of the ground all over – we tried the water and walked in the shadow of another cliff-side where rockfalls seemed to be the norm. (I had to not think about that as well). The Scacavica falls were possibly a bit too far to trek in this heat so we wandered back to the car along a dried up river bed.
Magnitude of Mrtvica
It was Monday – a weekday. We got insurance!! Everybody sighed with relief so we decided to walk 10 miles in a canyon to celebrate. WHAT A DAY. Helgi decided to carry on a little further (read: another 5 miles) so that he could see the ‘Beam Tunnel‘ AND STILL managed to catch us up before we got back to the car. I’m weary just thinking about it.
Further driving was necessary to get to Virpazar before the end of the day, where we walked from our accommodation into town for dinner at – not of – Pelican. We were offered over-priced boat trips by a chap who visited our table throughout the evening, which we didn’t commit to. Indeed, nobody could think straight by this time; my Fitbit registered 29,899 steps at the end of the day just as I collapsed in a heap.
It also managed to forget this spectacular number by the morning as the battery had run out – as had mine..
Well none of us – apart from Helgi of course, who is clearly part machine – were up to much the next morning. We had a lovely lie-in and luxuriated in the fact that we had two big bedrooms, a huge lounge, fully-stocked kitchen* and bathroom to play in.
*Apart from oven shelves. We don’t know either.
Eventually we were recovered enough to jump in the car to have lunch and some cultural stimulation at the old capital of Cetinje, where we even found the old Bulgarian embassy! Art, ice cream and a gorgeous big ginger cat were the afternoon’s entertainment – what’s not to love?
Jeremy offered to drive us home along some crazy narrow, winding, cliff-edge roads whilst Helgi tried not be a back-seat driver.
On our return, Helgi & I did a hard yoga in the light of the setting sun whilst Jeremy cooked up a feast of bolognese and Paul uploaded reams of photos to Facebook. YUM! (The dinner, rather than the photos, although they were great too.)
Another incredible drive along another stretch of Lake Skadar, this time nearly touching the Albanian border and driving through the town of Ostros on market day. No thank you, we don’t want to buy your ram.
We lunched in Ulcinj at Marinero overlooking a mosque and a packed beach of sunbathers. Bikini-clad, muslim and proud. Yes, it happens.
We continued on to find a ‘dead’ town of Šas which hadn’t been occupied since 1522, but the ruins of two churches purported to have been built around 1300 were clearly visible. An eerie sight overlooking the eponymous lake.
We had a delightful dip in the sea not far from Bar on the way home and lay on the pebbly beach to dry off in the sun. Time to get back to Virpazar where I had my first brave attempt at eating Lake Skadar squid on a ship. Ahaarrr me-hearties, etc. Twas delish.
Virpazar (Double) Visions
By now we’d had time to do our own research into getting an early morning boat trip, and confirmed that Pelican’s boat pusher was taking the proverbial pi55. So a bit of hard bargaining the night before with Ivan from Kormoran got us a splendidly early, not-too-expensive, 2-hour boat trip on Lake Skadar which was FABULOUS!
Great-crested grieb, a squacco heron, kingfishers, cormorants, terns, coots and all sorts were spied, and Helgi was switching between binoculars and bird book in contented awe.
Further local exploring was on the cards today, which at 36˚ was still quite strenuous, even at a slow pace. We explored the Bezac Fortress and popped to the Durisic vineyard later on. It took us all of 40 minutes to drink enough to fall out of it again having bought quite a few bottles!
More sunset yoga helped sober things up, before bolognese and further wine helped us toast our fabulous adventures all together.
Our travels in the Bar municipality had been further coloured by the fires raging in the mountains. As we boarded the train in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, waving goodbye to our fellow travellers, we had no idea that we would be travelling THROUGH the fires, catching glimpses of orange flames and inhaling plumes of smoke.
Despite that, it was a stunning journey through the mountains (again!) also taking in the highest railway bridge in Europe. We arrived at Belgrade Central Station 10 hours after setting out; hot, sticky and in need of a wee. Sharing a cabin with a baba, a Serbian couple and a Portuguese interrailer, we were satisfied that this was the archetypal rail trip.
Belgrade Never Sleeps (we did though)
After checking into the very spacious Madison Rooms we were refreshed by Jelena beer, and went out to explore. Not many minutes later we were lost and suddenly VERY tired! Another beer on the trendy Skadarska ulica did help us sleep well, despite barely being able to pick our feet up on the way back!
Nobody should be in a city when it’s 37˚C. We did an excellent free walking tour with Nevena starting at 10.30 but were in pieces by lunchtime (after a hearty pljeskavica and a beer) when we just needed to be indoors – or cool. Or both. We did stagger out again later – by 21.30 the temperature had dropped to 28˚C thankfully – to sample the delights of Restaurant Stanica 1884 which was fine dining at very reasonable prices.
The next leg of the journey was another train. It was supposed to be 10 hours to Sofia with a 2.5 hour break, before catching the sleeper to Burgas. As it turned out, the train was 2.5 hours late, and we had all of ONE AND A HALF MINUTES to run for the sleeper. We made it…with 29 seconds to spare.
We did however, sleep like babies! At 5.47am we were back in our home town, packed full of a heap of new memories.