Legend has it that a traveller long ago stood on the road to Cetinje and observed the “stone sea” in front of him. There were dark clouds that day and he admired the black mountains before him and he named it Monte Negro (Black Mountain) and the name has stuck.
A Stone Sea it is indeed. It is a dry, rocky, rugged mountainous place but with lovely splashes of fall colour, and if you’re an adventurous cyclist, this is something close to paradise. Small roads, great scenery and very little traffic. It is hilly, though. We’ve been climbing and descending through the Mountains of Montenegro for several days.
Leaving Dubrovnik, the weather again turned in our favour and we left the Pearl of the Adriatic on a small road that was probably the old highway. Eventually it joined the main highway running south toward the border but we were able to turn onto another secondary road fairly quickly, which took us all the way to a small border crossing into Montenegro. There was almost no traffic on this road and lots of great views of the Adriatic.
We got our passports stamped as we left Croatia and again 100 metres down the road entering Crna Gora (the proper name – how we get Montenegro out of that, I don’t know). We cycled down to Igalo on the Bay of Kotor and looked for a place to spend the night. That didn’t take long as there are many rooms and apartments for rent. And just like that, we were back in the Euro Zone.
The Bay of Kotor is a large hourglass-shaped fjord with a narrow entrance at the coast before expanding into a large bay where Igalo and Herceg Novi are located. It contracts again into a kilometre-wide channel before opening up yet again into a large bay surrounded by mountains.
We cycled from Igalo along the north shore into the narrows and took the ferry across to Lepetane and continued along the south shore of the top part of the hourglass to the city of Kotor, a UNESCO world heritage site.
From Kotor, there is nowhere to go but up. So, up we went over a small pass but stopped about half way along to have lunch with a view.
After lunch we continued the climb and coasted down to Budva back on the coast where we had rented yet another apartment through Air B&B. Our host, whose name I’ve forgotten (apologies) met us on the road after I texted him that we couldn’t find the place. Turns out we passed it.
He helped us get our stuff up to the apartment and made us coffee. We sat enjoying the coffee, the view and chatting about life in Montenegro when he offered us a local drink: Rakija. Most people make this stuff in home-made stills. It’s essentially grappa or brandy, made from fermented fruit like grapes, plums or apricots. Drinking this is my new hobby.
We had not really planned a route through Montenegro. It’s a small country and we could have rode through in a day or two but we have the time and wanted to see something of the place. Upon the advise of our host we went to the old capital Cetinje. And the only way to get there is to go up. Nearly 1,000 metres up from the coast. You have to go up to get anywhere in this country, but you know the saying: what goes up, must come down.
The ride was great, despite the incline. Nice views of the surrounding landscape as we climbed higher and higher. And, conveniently, in the pass there is a small restaurant serving excellent coffee and very good prosciutto sandwiches. Just before gaining the pass we met another couple cycling. Marija and Semen are from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia and in Montenegro on a cycling holiday. We had not met any other cycle tourers in weeks. We had a nice chat although difficult since their English was only slightly better than our Russian (which is non-existent).
We said our farewells and continued on our way. Cetinje was the capital of Montenegro and remains the cultural capital of this country. Essentially, it is the place where Montenegro was born. It’s glory is mostly gone now but some of the old buildings – embassies and palaces – harken back to better times. We decided not to stay and after getting some groceries and filling up on water at the local gas station, we headed into the mountains.
We rode along a narrow mountain road as the sun slowly sank behind the Stone Sea. The fall colours are taking hold, making this one of the prettiest bits of country we’ve travelled through. As luck would have it, we found a nice flat spot that somebody had cleared out of the rocks and forest and put a “for sale” sign on it. We put our tent on it. The sun was nearly down so we happily took up residence in what will be somebody’s dream spot some day. For us, the only thing in the way of a perfect view was a power pole.
We had not camped since our last night in Italy and were quite happy to be sleeping outside again. We now have our smaller tent, courtesy of Ivona and Gary, who took our big Hilleberg, resulting in me carrying about three kilos less. We watched the sunset over the undulating landscape, sipping beer and taking photographs.
Somebody had camped here before us as there was a small fire pit and a forgotten tent peg. We made a small fire and made our dinner as an almost full moon rose over the mountains. A better evening we could not have imagined. This day had been a perfect example of what is so great thing about bike touring. You never know who you might meet or where you might end up. Life on the road is full of surprises.
The shorter days mean we don’t cycle as far. This day we only managed 48 KM, including the 18-kilometre-long climb up to Cetinje. By five o’clock it was pitch black with only dots of light here and there in the valleys below. Besides the occasional barking dog or passing car on the road, it was perfectly quiet. By about 8.30 we were ready for bed. The fire was dying and we were tired from another day of slogging up a mountain in the sunshine. We were awoken just before dawn by some snorting animal which may have been a wild pig. Where else are they getting that lovely prosciutto from?
A little later, the sun rose over our perfect little camping spot and we enjoyed a lazy couple of hours having breakfast while soaking up the landscape sprawled out before us. We weren’t in a hurry as it was an easy start to the day with the road dropping nearly all the way down to sea level and the Crnojevića River which flows into Shkadar Lake.
At the crossroads along the river is the town of Rejika Crnojevića, a run down, crumbling assembly of houses and apartment buildings with the exception of a half dozen restaurants and hotels along the waterfront promenade that are very new and shiny.
On the road through town, there was a small store but the shelves were mostly bare. We bought a half kilo of pasta and a litre of milk for two euros. Otherwise, there was nothing else but some bread and a few household items. A sad affair with a beautiful, old stone bridge across the Crnojevića river.
From the river, it’s back up again over the mountains and down to Shkadar Lake and the town of Virpazar. The lake is a big tourist draw and the town has a few hotels, shops and restaurants, as well as a lot of large sight-seeing boats that are tied up now for the winter.
We had lunch on a stone wall lining the lake shore where men were catching small fish, no bigger than 10 centimetres. They had multiple lines and would catch three or four at once, pulling them off the hooks and chucking them in buckets. A kind of fresh water sardine, I guess.
We contemplated spending the night but decided to head back up into the mountains with the hope to find another place to camp or rent a room for the night. As we had another long climb ahead of us, we decided not to load up on water, hoping to find some, but we did buy enough food for dinner and the next morning’s breakfast.
The climb started immediately from town but after about two kilometres we dropped all the way back to sea level. Then the real climb began: seven kilometres with an incline between 6 and 9 percent, climbing 445 metres in elevation. The climb was hard as it was late in the day and got steeper as it went on. We reached the summit about one hour later and began scouting for water and a place to camp.
A few kilometres down the road, with the daylight quickly disappearing, we came upon a school. There were a couple of men working on a car and we asked them if they knew if there was water. One of the men spoke English and they showed us the school’s well so we filled up, happy at least one requirement for the night was taken care of. Then we asked if they thought it would be okay if we camped there. He said that since it was Saturday and with no school on Sunday, nobody would be around. He thought it was better we stayed rather than ride on in the waning daylight on a narrow mountain road.
There were some grassy patches in front of the school facing the road, but we wanted to be out the wind and out of sight from any passing traffic. We ended up making camp inside one of the partially constructed classrooms in what looked like a stalled addition to the school of the village of Duravci. It had a flat concrete floor, no roof, was out of the wind and had large window openings with a fantastic view of Shkadar Lake and the Albanian Alps on the other side. It was perfect.
Darkness fell shortly after we got the tent up but the full moon rose over the Albanian Alps while we made our dinner. No fire that night as we didn’t want to leave a fire stain on the concrete floor. It was a dinner of pasta with goulash from a can to which we added some onion, red pepper and zucchini, and another early night. We were knackered from the climbing: a total of 2,600 metres in three days over 152 KM since leaving Igalo on the coast. Nine or 10 hours sleep was just what we needed.
Again we awoke to a brilliant, sunny morning thankful for the amazing weather. All the way down the Adriatic coast, with the exception of the rain in Dubrovnik, we’ve had gorgeous warm weather with temperatures in the twenties. It’s November! We are so lucky and wonder when the winter weather is going to set in. We had breakfast in the sun and got on the road fairly quickly wanting to make it to Shkodra that day.
The Stone Sea really asserted itself along the last stretch of Shkadar Lake. It is rugged, rocky and dry. Small villages can be seen down below where the vegetation is more lush closer to the lake shore. Minarets began appearing in the villages pointing to a muslim population, rather than an orthodox one.
We had an easy start to the day as we continued the descent we had begun the previous day, dropping down to the village of Ostros situated in a forest of chestnut trees. We had a coffee at one of the local restaurants before tackling the final climb up over the ridge. From there the road descends all the way down to the coastal plain and swings south to the border with Albania.
We spent only four days in Montenegro but they were some of the finest cycling we have done on this trip. The scenery was outstanding. It’s a wild and rugged place, worthy of another visit. Here are some more pix. Lots more on the Flickr site soon.