So many adventures, so little time
07/29/2014 - 08/01/2014 80 °F
Apologies to those following this blog closely and may be upset by a chronological jump in the timeline. I’ve been behind my current adventures by about a month for a while and it is difficult to catch up while you’re still exploring new cities and places. To prevent this blog from becoming a chore for me of communicating all of my adventures up to the present, I have decided to fast forward 5 or 6 days, to when I was about to depart Belgrade, Serbia, and head to Montenegro. The events hereafter cannot be glossed over as this is when one of my best friends, Dan Jentzen, joined me for the next 10 days of wild adventures.
I don’t mean to skip over Romania and the better part of Serbia because I didn’t enjoy it there, it is only that it has become tedious trying to catch up. Apologies specifically to Ruby, who was a great companion thru this stretch and who I had some great times with. There are some highlights from Romania and Belgrade below with captions:
A couple shots of downtown Timisoara, Romania:
The big cathedral in Timisoara:
The bride and groom cutting the cake (or pies in this instance:
A singing a lovely duet:
An INCREDIBLE wine shop we found. You can sample the wines and they buy it by the L or 2 L for absurdly low prices. The 3 2Ls that we got cost us about 14 euros. And were actually pretty damn good wine.
Their nightclubs are actually on big boats floating out on the Sava River:
A shot from the fortress erected in Belgrade at the intersection of the Danube and Sava Rivers
Panorama from the fortress:
Belgrade at night:
Still in Belgrade...
Dan Jentzen is one of my oldest and best friends in the world. I have had the unique pleasure of knowing him, his sister Julie, and their parents since I was a baby-faced baby of 1 year. Our families lived across the street from each other and grew closer with each year. Even when they moved the massive distance of 5 minutes away, we have always been close. Dan is 2 years older than me and went thru that period in his teens that we all go thru (but not me of course) where he was a big brat and delighted in tormenting Julie and I, but we’ve been able to get past that and for the past 10 years, Dan has been one of my closest friends, and frequent (but not frequent enough) adventuring partner. It is a very special and unique thing to be friends with someone for this long, and it is remarkable how much we now, decades later, we share with our personalities and interests. Those who know us know that the two of us gallivanting around SE Europe for 10 days together is an exciting but dangerous proposition. So now that the stage is set…
Dan was flying in to Belgrade and the plan was to hop a night train to Montenegro, where we were anxious to get started on some legendary outdoor adventuring. There would be a few hours between his flight and our train, so we decided to meet at the Nikola Tesla Museum, the only “couldn’t miss” site for Dan in Belgrade. Ruby, after a change of plans in Romania and a new flight purchased, was sticking with me for a few days more, and we made our way to the museum. We were supposed to be meeting there at 2:30, giving Dan a little more than an hour to get there after his flight landed. No sign of Dan, but we bought a couple tickets to the museum and started wandering. Dan still wasn’t there when the presentation and tour started at 3 and I started to get a bit a nervous. Around 3:30, I told Ruby that I wasn’t going to worry about it until after the tour ended, if he still wasn’t there, but that was a lie. I was already close to freaking out. We had only a couple hours before we had to be at the train station, and with neither of us having working phones, if something had gone wrong anywhere along the journey, we might be screwed. I could barely pay attention to the very interesting presentation of some of Tesla’s inventions when Ruby tapped me on the shoulder and I was able to exhale as she pointed towards the door to where Dan was standing, backpack on, already inspecting the various museum displays, haha. He arrived at the perfect time as 20 seconds later, our tour guide turns on the Tesla coil and all of the tubed lights we are holding turn on all across the room.
Tesla was such an incredible inventor. A unique individual that was able to contribute significantly both on the theoretical and practical fronts, increasing our understanding of electricity and magnetism and in the process, inventing many ingenious things that we still use in one form or another today. Among his lesser known inventions - did you know he came up with the first remote control? He used it in a demonstration to control a large boat in the sea and those in attendance thought that he was a magician, moving the boat with his mind. One of Arthur Clarke’s 3 Laws says: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and this was never more true than with Tesla who discovered new laws and developed practical uses that utilized and demonstrated them. Anyway, enough of my nerding out. Dan happened to reading a book about Tesla at the time, so just be happy he’s not writing this entry or this section might be several pages long.
After the museum, Ruby, Dan, and I headed to the train station. Apparently, the 11 hour train route from Belgrade to Montenegro was discontinued in 2014 (though still advertised on the railroad website) and so we were boarding a 15 hour overnight train - the longest single journey I have made thus far. Though the distance is not too great, the lack of high-speed infrastructure and extremely mountainous terrain of Montenegro makes this one of the best (and only) options, and it was supposed to be extremely beautiful. The name Montenegro means “Black Mountain”, which already conjures up poetic and frightening images and the Lonely Planet summary paragraph was enough to give me goosebumps - a country bordered by so many beautiful beaches and containing so many beautiful and exciting mountains, it’s tough to believe that it is so small.
Thankfully, for this train ride we had booked a sleeper car. For only 5 extra euros, it seemed like a no-brainer. This being my first ride in a sleeper car, I was ecstatic with the accommodations - “OMG you can like, completely lie down here!” After we befriended one of our fellow bunkmates, Alex, and took a tour of the train, we realized that we were in the shittiest accommodations sleepers available. Alex had ridden on many sleeper trains before and was dumbfounded by my enthusiastic response to our arrangements. Apparently this was the worst conditions he’d ever seen, and admittedly, it wasn’t great. Cramped and a bit dirty, being in a 6-sleeper car, there was JUST too little room that you couldn’t really sit up on your bed, so we quickly went to the dining car to drink our 2 L bottle of beer (that cost less than 3 euros) and catch up. Having Dan join me filled me with an incredible energy - even Ruby commented who I was turned up to 12 once he got there. I believe we quickly wore Ruby out, and she retired to our luxurious cabin while Dan and I stayed up drinking, reminiscing, and talking with Alex. Alex introduced himself as Polish, but was originally from Russia. A fair bit into our conversation, he mentioned that he was in the army when he was younger and fought in Afghanistan. It took us both a couple of minutes to realize that that meant that he was there as part of the Red Army of the USSR. When we realized that, it was a bit of a shock, but Alex was a very nice guy. He ended up giving us great advice about Montenegro, including a foreboding and foreshadowing note to “watch out when dealing with people here. They want to take your money, sometimes for nothing.” After a couple of hours and most of our 2 L, we were ready for bed and I passed out almost immediately.
As I woke from my surprisingly restful slumber, I was greeted by bright sunlight and gorgeous views out the window. After getting my bearings, I made my way to the dining car to sit, write, and admire the landscape. Upon entering the dining car around 8:30 am, I am greeted by a group of 8 shirtless and seemingly already drunk Eastern European guys who have decided that the party has already started, blasting music and singing along, downing beers, and sprinting thru cigarettes like it was a race. I think that it is a fair bet that without a sleeping car, they figured the best course of action was to drink their way thru the night. Determined to do some writing and enjoy staring out the window, I did my best to block them out. At some point during this, a couple of officers came in and briefly interrupted their fun, making them put their shirts on and taking down their names/IDs for some purpose.
post-cop when they had to put their shirts back on. Didn't stop the party
This track thru magnificent Montenegro must be one of the more stunning routes you can travel, with the track running along and thru mountains, overlooking picturesque little towns in the middle of huge valleys and fjords. Montenegro is home to Europe’s southern-most fjords, and is covered in vibrant green plant life. We wind thru numerous lush fjords devoid of civilization, but also pass above a few small towns tucked into the valleys that remind me of those we hiked thru in the Alps. According to Dan, Montenegro is technically part of the Alps mountain range - the Dinaric Alps, the end of the line. As I am snapping pictures, I realize that these will be the first of SO many once we start driving through this wonderland.
A couple hours later Dan and Ruby are awake (Dan barely so - jet lag can be a killer) and we are pulling into Bar, a town in the south of Montenegro along the coast. It wasn’t until then that we realized that we never got a stamp at the border saying that we have entered Montenegro. We crossed the border around 5 am, so none of us were really with it, but we all got our passports out and simply no one came to collect them. It quickly dawned on us that this might be a problem. Apparently, in Montenegro, they don’t actually stamp your passport at the border but instead you have to get a little piece of paper at the tourist office or from your hotel/hostel confirming that you entered the country on a specific date. When you try to leave the country, if you don’t have this slip, apparently them can fine you up to 200 euros (not that they tell you this anywhere). Ridiculous when you think, every other country in the world just puts a damn stamp on your passport. What’s the deal? This was our first indication that Montenegro was a little backwards in some ways.
We get to Bar and pick up our rental car. It was delivered by a seemingly friendly guy named Peter, who will become a recurring character during our Montenegro experience. The company we are renting it from had cheap options, but not available for a few days, so we had to rent a larger VW Touran to start, but we figured this would work out well because there were going to be 3 of us for the first 3 days, then only Dan and I afterwards, so we thought that having a bigger better car then switching to a cheaper option would work out well. More to come on this note.
Our trusty van
After we grabbed the car, we spent an hour or so checking out the coast and taking a dip in the Mediterranean (is it the Adriatic here?). The water was great and we found some fun places to climb around, but overall we found it touristy and crowded, and all 3 of us were anxious to get into the country. So back to the car, and off we went.
The 3.5 hour journey to Durmitor National Park, located in NW Montenegro, was predictably beautiful, following winding mountain roads making it tough for the driver to try and admire the views, while navigating the turns and negotiating the passing of cars whenever you could see far enough ahead of you to know you were clear at least for a few seconds. Driving thru the countryside reminded me of Iceland, not because it necessarily resembled it but because the constant, unrelenting beauty of the drive caused us to, by the end of the drive, make jokes similar to those made during my roadtrip in Iceland - “Oh ANOTHER incredible mountain landscape. Yawn” or “Man, what is with all these wonderful picturesque views? I just long to be in Nebraska where I can just drive straight on a road for 8 hours and not see anything worth taking a picture of.”
The one notable site that we simply HAD to stop for was this old, rickety rope bridge over gorgeous gorge (I can hear the groans from here, Cornellians), that was irresistible perhaps because it looked so old and dangerous.
This was the valley the bridge spanned
We pulled into our B&B in the town of Zabljak (Montenegro became a string of poorly mispronounced mountains and towns), an hour or two before dark, and met 2 people who ran it - the grandson, who spoke English very well and we never saw again for the 2.5 days we were there, and his grandmother, who, though very nice and cute in that very grandmotherly way, didn’t speak a word of English. Not a word. After unpacking our car, we had enough time to hike into the Black Lake, one of the closest sites to see inside Durmitor. The area was beautiful and got us excited to start exploring the next day. After a dinner of questionable “mixed meat” at a local restaurant, we were in bed, ready for rafting the following morning.
The adventures in Montenegro were extensive, and will have to be in at least 3, most likely 4 installments. We were only there for like 5 days but I warned you that Dan joined this expedition was volatile. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed in the rest of our Montenegro adventure.