Risky Roads Lead to a Fortress of Underrated Attractions [Montenegro]

Travel

[This is the second of a four-part trip recap; Previous Post: Driving a Region Less Sought [Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania]]

October 24, 2015 (continued) – Driving in the Black to the City Dressed in White

After quickly driving through Albania, we arrived at the Montenegro border. With a freshly-stamped passport in hand, Robyn drove west toward the Adriatic Sea on the highway. All of a sudden, the road that our Garmin guided us to turned into a small one-car-fits-all road on the mountains. It was pitch black with no sign of life.

Our Opal Astra continued up steep hills with sharp turns. When we would meet another car, we would basically have to pull over in the ditch in order to get through. At this point, we had to really use the restroom due to the combination of our travel jugs of water and nervousness. Robyn is scared of heights; it was almost a blessing that it was dark out because she was not able to see the steep cliffs our car was straddling.

Somehow, someway, we eventually made it to a decent highway along the Adriatic Sea, only to be quickly put back on a steep switchback road. At this point, we were driving through lit up towns that were perched on the sides of mountains. We were finally on the last stretch to Kotor, our destination. Around 11 p.m. local time, we arrived and found parking near the Bay of Kotor. After an exhausting ride, we were delighted to see an ancient castle lit up on the side of a mountain. We knew we were staying in the UNESCO-protected Old Town in Kotor. We lugged our suitcases through the enchanting passage to the center of Old Town, where our host Lazzar was waiting for us at a local bar. Our Airbnb had a really convenient location. We found a late-night fast food place to quench our hunger. After that, it was nice to walk around Old Town, which was styled with white stone buildings and streets.

 

October 25, 2015 – The Hike to St. John’s Castle & Bay of Kotor Beauty

Boy, did we need to sleep in. After all of that stressful driving and navigating, we needed the rest. We walked around Old Town to see the white-stone buildings in daylight, including the Cathedral of St. Tryphon. We walked outside of the historical site and became overwhelmed with the picturesque view of the Bay of Kotor. After I would take a photo with my phone, the picture looked fake, like a painting on a movie set.

One of our goals of the day was to walk up to the top of the mountain where St. John’s Castle and the Illyrian Fortress stood. Along the switchback hike, we would stop to take in the ever-changing view of the bay but also to catch our breath in the altitude. There were a few smaller “castles” along the hike up the mountain, including the Church of Our Lady at Remedy. After about an hour hiking up, we reached the top at St. John’s Castle. Atop the castle waved the Montenegro flag to complete the view. Within the castle were several nooks and crannies to explore, with part of the castle still intact while the rest was crumbled in ruins. A couple foreign guys were brave enough to stand on a ledge for photos. I was jealous, so I found enough courage to post up on the ledge.

The walk back down the mountain went much faster as expected. Once we reached our stay, hunger set in and we found a local Italian restaurant called Old Winery in Kotor. We both had a vegetarian risotto and a bottle of red wine to cap off the day. We ate dinner pretty early, so we explored the stores and streets of Old Town before stumbling upon some pistachio gelato. Apparently wine and gelato was not enough, because we later bar-hopped across the town, drawn out by great laughs, Montenegrin drinks and a pack of cigarettes. Our last stop was Cafe Perper, a bar at the bottom of our Airbnb stay. The cafe seemed like a man’s bar, as the 40+ aged locals were watching soccer on TV and chatting about the day.

When we got home, we thought we would put some of our dirty laundry in the small washing machine so that we could have fresh clothes for the rest of the trip. We packed the machine with our dirty clothes and let it run overnight as we slept. In the middle of the night, I kept getting disturbed by the washing machine, as it was making noises washing machines should not make. Eventually, I just turned it off so we could sleep.

October 26, 2015 – Finding Our Way Up and Down Montenegro

We woke up and read the washing machine manuals to see how to fix it. There was a metal drum inside the washer that appeared stuck, and it wouldn’t open for us when we tried. I emailed our host to let him know our issue. We were worried, especially since we needed those clothes to continue on the trip.

In some of the brochures we read about Kotor, most of the suggestions included taking a boat on the Bay of Kotor. We walked down toward the bay to check which times it would leave. After much research, the locals said 10 a.m. would be the time of departure. We walked to our favorite bakery to grab pastries and drinks. This cafe was amazing because it made gluten free pastries and desserts! We walked back down toward the bay while a large cruise ship approached the waters. A bunch of foreigners departed the boat in droves, reminding me that I never want to be part of a cruise.

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No tour boat ever came. We eventually found some guides that said tours were closed for the season since it was late October. Oh well, we had a Plan B. In southern Kotor, we found the bus station to grab a ride to Cetinje. The bus made a few stops toward Budva and then we headed east toward Cetinje. Budva had amazing views of the bay and an island on the Adriatic Sea. The bus continued up steep hills toward our destination; I fell asleep in the back of the bus as the sun through the window felt comforting on my body. We woke up in time to jump off the bus in Cetinje. We arrived and could not see any direction to the mausoleum we were going to visit. After walking down an unpaved road with little to no sight of humans, we began to panic with frustration.

No one spoke English here. A lot of times, I feel guilty being a foreigner who always wishes everyone speaks my language. Sure, English is a worldwide language now, but I can’t expect everyone to know it, especially in a small town in Montenegro. We asked several people for directions and finally a woman helped us.

It was becoming mid-afternoon, so we grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant. The woman who had helped us said that we definitely would have to take a cab to Lovćen, the mountain we wanted to see. The first cab driver we found seemed unwelcoming and confused, so we turned him down. Another cab driver across the street spoke to us in Serbian, as if we seemed local (a compliment I suppose?) After our facial expressions and body language clearly indicated we did not understand Serbian, we thought he would maybe try a different language. No. Eventually, I got out my Google Translate app and asked him to take us to Lovćen, which was 20 minutes drive away. We were worried/hopeful that he actually understood our ask correctly. Also, it was getting late enough that we would likely miss the bus back to Kotor after we were done at Lovcen. His name was Dragán.

The cab driver drove us through beautiful roads covered with fall foliage into Lovćen National Park. The roads, at times, were the same level of terror as our drive into Montenegro. With his manual transmission driving, I was T-20 seconds from vomiting. Our cab made it to the top of the mountain. Dragán was so excited to go with us that he ended up being sort of a tour guide of the place. He was really fun to be around.

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It was a decent climb up stairs to get to Njegoš Mausoleum. The view was absolutely stunning at the top, where you can see the black mountains (for which Montenegro is named after) as well as Italy, Albania and the Adriatic Sea.

At the mausoleum, there were a bunch of students on a field trip who left shortly after we arrived. The mausoleum includes the remains of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, a prince, poet and philosopher from the 1800’s. We walked through the marble tomb and then out on a narrow walkway that led to a circular lookout. It was unbelievable. Dragán would try to speak to us in English and then would switch back to Serbian in which we would just smile and nod our heads. I have never felt so liberated as I did atop that mountain. I think the fact that this place is so remote and underrated as a landmark of beauty added to the moment.

As we hoped, Dragán drove us back down the other side of the mountain to Kotor. Before our trip, when Robyn and I were researching the region, a website called http://www.dangerousroads.org popped up and this drive to and from Lovćen was listed there. Imagine how those hairpin roads felt when Dragán drove us around. It took him about 45 minutes to drive us back to Kotor. It likely would have taken 3 hours and 3 Xanax for Robyn and I to do the same.

Upon arriving to Kotor, we said goodbye to Dragán and tipped him generously for his time, help, and most of all, companionship. We walked to our Airbnb where we met our host Lazzar to discuss the washing machine fiasco. Apparently, there is a drum that you have to latch together before starting the machine, a completely foreign concept (literally) to us. We paid him for the repair bill. He was super nice about it and even hung out our wet laundry on a clothesline outside our place. We later went to eat at a nearby restaurant and of course got ice cream. I should also note that everywhere we would go and eat in Kotor had stray cats lingering the streets. The cats would wait underneath our table for scraps. Robyn is a huge cat lover and was delighted to feed them quality restaurant food.

After a day full of anxiety, uncertainty, delight and wonder, we tucked in for our last night in Kotor.

October 27, 2015 – Driving Along the Adriatic Sea

We left our stay in Old Town Kotor and got some of our favorite regional potato chips (called Chipsy) and some bananas for the road. I know, a strange combo for a snack. Our car, which had been parked by the bay this whole time, was luckily still there and intact. Unfortunately, someone had parked slightly behind our car which made it nearly impossible to get out. An old man who wanted our parking spot got out of his car and helped us maneuver out of the spot. It was about a 20 point turn to get out of there, but as soon as we were able to get out, I was ready to hit the road.

For miles we drove along the Adriatic Sea, a magical drive in the daylight as the sun sparkled off of the water. The roads were windy, but wide enough to field two-way traffic. Next on our trip itinerary was Croatia, a time to explore the sea…

[See my next posts to learn more about Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina]

Driving a Region Less Sought [Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania]

Personal Life, Travel

The time of year had come to plan for another worldwide adventure. My friend Robyn and I had heard a lot about Croatia as a popular destination, leading us to research the region. The U.S. Dollar was also strong against the Euro and most European currencies, so it was a perfect time to travel to Europe. Our past experiences, as you might know, had been to Latin American countries, so it was time to switch it up.

We of course wanted to hit up Croatia, but we researched the region and were fascinated by the recent history of the breakup of Yugoslavia. After much research of several of the Balkan countries and looking at flight schedules and cities, we landed on Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. For those wondering where these countries are on a map, they are just to the east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea and north of Greece. SIX countries in ONE trip? Yes, if you look at a map, it’s almost the equivalent of driving from Chicago to Kentucky, so it wasn’t that bad. The terrain, however, differs quite a bit (I’ll talk about that later). After a couple of days of looking at flight/cost scenarios and learning all the rules and regulations of border crossing between countries, we clicked “book trip” and were set to travel to Southeastern Europe in late October.

Before the Trip
Those friends who we reached out to from the region were SO excited to hear that we were visiting their former homeland, as it’s not popular among Americans for tourism. Most asked, “Why are you going in October? The best time to go is in the summer!” Well, when you live in Chicago, you have to spend summers in the Windy City because the rest of the year is pretty much freezing. Robyn and I also don’t need sun and a beach for traveling, as it’s more about the experience and adventures. I also reached out to my colleagues at the Google Croatia office in Zagreb. They provided me with wonderful recommendations regarding rental car companies, watch-outs, and points of interest.

Robyn and I did quite a bit of research about driving in the Balkans. We had to make sure that the countries we were traveling to allowed entry and exit across borders. We chose Sixt as our rental car company and double-checked pick-up and drop-off locations. We were especially concerned about travel in and out of Kosovo, as it’s still a disputed territory. Also, the region still has some leftover tension from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, ranging from religion, warfare, politics and alliances. While we didn’t receive any criticism as American tourists, we were vigilant that our car had a Macedonian license plate. Keep in mind that we did not travel to Serbia (excluding Kosovo), a big player in the breakup of the former Communist region.

To prepare for the trip, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet, as some of the region uses this in communication, signs, and everyday language (especially Macedonia). For example, here are the translations of the countries using the Cyrillic alphabet:
Macedonia = Македонија
Kosovo = Косово
We knew we would struggle with the language barrier in this region (and we definitely did!).

We also prepared for the continuous change of currencies throughout the region, as most of the countries do not use the Euro: Macedonia (Macedonian Denar), Kosovo (Euro), Albania (Albanian Lek), Montenegro (Euro), Croatia (Croatian Kuna), Bosnia & Herzegovina (Bosnian Marks). Don’t try to use Macedonian Denars, for example, in Montenegro. They will look at you like you are nuts! The currency exchange locations throughout the region were a bit snobbish if you tried exchanging a foreign currency in which they despised.

All of our lodging we booked through Airbnb, a home-sharing site that has become super popular over the past year or so. With this option, we were able to keep prices low while still finding unique and convenient places to stay across the region.

October 22, 2015 – Crossing the Atlantic to Zürich

We left from Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD) airport in the evening for an overnight trip to Zürich, Switzerland. The last time I had been on a flight across the Atlantic was my return flight from London in 2011, in which I began to have reflections of the leg room agony of a 6’5″ adult. I sat in the middle of the airplane and quickly connected my headphones as a girl to my right was in full breakdown mode (tears and all); I think one of her relatives/friends was not allowed on the plane because of an expired passport. Whoops. The passengers consisted mostly of German or Swiss-German speakers. I watched the Hunger Games knock-off movie “Divergent” to pass some time before falling asleep. I woke up again when we were flying over France, a quick shot to Zürich from there.

October 23, 2015 – Settling in Skopje (Or at Least Trying to)

By the time you travel eastward across the world as the globe turns in the other direction, you lose pretty much an entire day of your life. Anyways, we arrived in Zürich and transferred to our flight to Skopje, Macedonia. The passenger clientele changed quite a bit from our previous flight; dark features, fashion differences, noticeable religious preferences, and the all-so-obvious language change in-which-I-know-you-are-not-from-a-place-I-am-familiar-with.

The flight took about 2.5 hours from Zürich to Skopje. A few Germans got rowdy in the front of the plane, influenced by the quick downing of European spirits. The flight surprisingly offered “lunch,” which included a brick of bread with chicken pieces and sauce spread in-between. I believe a word related to “schnitzel” was thrown around, but I’m not sure the dish deserved a name.

Quickly we landed in Skopje, the first city in our adventure through the Balkans. Luggage arrived <THANK GOD> , check. As previously mentioned, we chose Sixt as our rental car company and received our white Opal Astra from the airport. The attendant was super nice and helpful, but of course had to scan our lives away (passports, driver’s license, paperwork, etc.).

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Robyn volunteered to start us out on this trip, and I gracefully let her have the honors since I drove first when we traveled to Costa Rica. Keep in mind that Robyn and I do not have a car or drive in the United States. In the Garmin we punched the address of our first Airbnb reservation, which was located in central Skopje. Despite it being cloudy, the drive from the airport to the city was beautiful, with green mountainous countryside and unfinished homes showing up sporadically alongside the road. The signs, as expected, were headlined in Cyrillic letters but also translated into English.

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Once we arrived in the city, traffic was low, but the traffic signals were hard to understand. People would honk even if it was a red light, so we erred on the side of caution and just waited for a green signal. The buildings looked run down with graffiti covering the lower levels of the cityscape. We navigated to where Garmin took us, which was obviously not where we needed to be. We asked some locals for driving directions (who were likely staring at us because of Robyn’s red hair). I contacted the Airbnb host and met her at the Greek Embassy, which was about a block away from our stay. We parked, and she showed us around the apartment. We were on the top of a five-story building and had a great balcony with a view of the city. She was so welcoming and excited to host us.

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We walked around the city to make the most of the day we had left. The streets were dark with lots of stray cats. We went to a mall/supermarket to buy some water and snacks and also got some local currency (denars). Robyn and I later purchased some cheap cigarettes, as EVERYONE in the city appeared to be smoking. When in Rome! (Disclaimer: Mom/family/friends – I do not smoke in the U.S., so do not be concerned about the subsequent mention of cigarettes 🙂 ) I took my first selfie with a graffiti backdrop to commemorate arrival in Skopje.

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Later on, we ran into the Macedonia Square, a beautiful city center flanked with a Greek-style triumphal arch and statues. Alexander the Great on a Horse stood on top of the city center fountain, lit up with red and yellow colors (from Macedonia’s flag). This area is a recent development in the late 2000’s to commemorate the 20th anniversary of independence from Yugoslavia. At times, the fountain and muffled music would coincide to create a light and water show; this was neat, but also seemed like a desperate attempt to excite tourists. Nearby is the Vardar River that intersects the city, with the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia lit up in the colors of the flag as well. We went down toward the Stone Bridge where we snapped our first “travel buddy” pics.

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We ate at a restaurant near the plaza called La Terrazza. I had a stuffed meat Macedonian dish with a Metaxa to drink. The Metaxa (a strong brandy) cleared up the pipes, that’s for sure. As we went to pay, I realized I did not have my driver’s license (cue the panic button). Robyn then questioned hers as well, and realized she didn’t have hers either. CRAP. I knew it had to be at the airport when the attendant was so excited to help us Americans that he accidentally left the DL’s on the copy machine. We called the airport and he denied that he would have left them there. He soon after went to check and found them where we assumed; later that night, they drove them to us from the airport. CRISIS AVERTED.

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We walked home with a little pep-in-our-step as the streets were not well-lit and the graffiti-dominant surroundings weren’t the best of backdrops to feel secure. When we arrived back, we went up to our floor and got out the key to open the door. I tried a couple of times but couldn’t get it to open. Robyn then tried. Then I tried. Then PANIC SET IN. Were we being stupid about opening the door? What did we do wrong? We double-checked to make sure we were on the right floor. Yep. We tried a few more times before calling our host who actually lives in the bottom of the same building. The host came to try and couldn’t get it open either! He then had to call a handyman to help out. We were nervous because it was a national holiday that day and it was late (around 11 p.m.). The hosts invited us to their place to wait for a bit; we played with their gigantic house dog and chatted about Skopje and the region. Luckily a large man in a bright red sweater showed up to help open the mystery door. He essentially had to saw off the lock to get us in. Apparently the door has multiple locks the more you turn the key, and one of the locks got stuck. Luckily we made it in but had to sleep with no door lock, which we didn’t even care at that point. What an interesting way to start out the trip! I was, however, excited to be in a new culture, adventure and part of the world.

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October 24, 2015 – Anticipating the Unknown in Kosovo & Albania

We got a good night’s rest to catch up after all of the flying and first-day exploring. Luckily, the sun was out and enticed us to explore some more of Skopje before we jumped back in our Opal to the next city.

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Robyn had heard about the Old Bazaar in Skopje, a Turkish-styled bazaar on the old stone streets of the city. We woke up early enough to snap some daytime photos of the city on our walk. A lot of the buildings resemble the old Yugoslavia architecture: simple, efficient, non-stylized and practical. The Old Bazaar was close to where we were in the Macedonia Square the night before; we crossed the Stone Bridge and eventually stumbled upon stone pathways to the bazaar. Not many people were out and about yet, so we grabbed a coffee. So, coffee in this area is much much different from what we drink in the U.S. They do not drink cups or mugs of coffee, but rather drink shots of espresso or small servings of coffee (I’ll get more into Bosnian coffee in a later post). We looked around an antique store and eventually the bazaar started to come to life.

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Most of the market included practical things for the locals (shoes, cleaning supplies, sundries, clothes, food, etc.). The few tourist or souvenir shops included the mass-produced Macedonian products that we are not so interested in, however, Robyn did find some unique antique vases that survived wartime Yugoslavia.

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We headed back to our car to head off to our next destination, Kosovo. It was of course my turn to drive, but I was ready for the challenge. We were excited, anxious, and uncertain about what to expect in Kosovo. As you might know, Kosovo is a disputed territory just northwest of Macedonia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, however, only about half of the world recognizes Kosovo as its own country; Serbia still considers Kosovo part of its jurisdiction. You might also recall that the U.S. occupied Kosovo during unrest in the 1990’s. With all this history in mind, we were not sure what to expect.

We arrived at our first border crossing. There is an exit “station” for the country you are exiting and an entry station about 50 yards after for the country you are entering. We were given advice to bring money for border crossings as there is a charge, however, we were not asked at all on our whole trip to pay! One has to show his or her car documentation, insurance, and passports when at the border crossings. We did have our International Drivers Permits as well just in case, but we never were asked for them. After we excited Macedonia, Kosovo seemed gloomy and grey. The first thing we saw appeared to be a factory that was polluting the nearby foliage. After about a mile, the grey turned into pure beauty. The colors of red, orange and yellow from the fall trees provided guided access along the road. At points, we would see a dusting of snow alongside the road, bubbling brooks making their way down the mountainside, and beautiful snow-capped mountains.

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The drive was a little bit cumbersome, as I drove back and forth down switchbacks on the side of the Šar Mountains. There was a point when Robyn wanted to stop alongside the road to take pictures, so I began to pull over. Out of no where came a man in uniform wearing an assault rifle across his chest. I quickly vetoed her request and kept going, but thought, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?! A lot of other countries have police force dressed in such attire and are armed, but we were in Kosovo and didn’t want to take a chance. A few more miles, some trees had fallen into the road, likely from a storm, but thanks to my practice from Costa Rica’s driving adventure, I was able to Mario Kart around the obstacles. The road later included a “cutout” on the right hand side, where it looked like they were placing cables or something. I had to keep close to center, back and forth on the switchbacks.

We eventually made it to our daytime destination, Prizren, Kosovo. It is a beautiful city at the bottom of the mountains with red-roofed buildings and alongside the Bistrica River. First duty: parking. If you look at a map of Prizren, it looks like their urban planner took cooked spaghetti and threw it on a map and said, “Here, these are your streets.” Parking had my blood pressure through the roof, but we found a spot after about 10 minutes. I think Robyn wanted to jump out of the car a few times, but she stuck with me 🙂

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We walked down toward the river on the sunny day to find some lunch. There were a lot of people out and about sitting outside for lunch, taking advantage of the beautiful autumn weekend. We found a spot for lunch and took in the bustling atmosphere, my favorite being the call for prayer at one of the city’s mosques, the Sinan Pasha Mosque. Like most cities in the region, an Old Stone Bridge allowed us to cross to the other side of the city, which is called the Shadervan. We walked around and looked at a few tourist shops, most of which boasted the Albanian flag. Ironically, about 80% of the population is Albanian; less than 1% is actually Serbian. Prizren is a really colorful, clean and beautiful city with much life. On our way back to our car, we stopped in a Muslim store, where a guy was really eager to help us. He showed us several religious gifts including the symbol for Muhammad. Soon enough, the guy was trying to sell me black market Armani cologne; he even gave me a sample and was rubbing it on my neck! At least I smelled good for the rest of the day!

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It was Robyn’s turn to drive again, and it took us some time to get out of Prizren. The spaghetti-shaped streets also included tiny spaces to drive and multiple cars trying to get through. In the late afternoon, we drove to Albania. The highway to Albania was superb! It seemed recently constructed and allowed a higher speed limit than what we expected. A few of my references said that driving in Albania can get a little wild, but we did not experience too much craziness from other motorists.

Some of the drive through Albania included steep hills, but the beautiful backdrop of the sunset on mountains and rivers made the drive absolutely stunning. The drive also had long covered tunnels that carved out the mountains. The sun started to set, and we were anxious to get to our night’s stay in Kotor, Montenegro, yet another country border crossing. After we traveled through Albania, the drive in Montenegro became interesting/terrifying…

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[See my next post to learn more about Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina]

-Michael