From the water to the Cursed Mountains
08/03/2014 - 08/05/2014 78 °F
I do apologize to anyone out there who was disappointed when these posts abruptly stopped. That had never been my intention, but while traveling I slowly fell further and further behind. This seems to happen very easily when the adventures themselves are peaking. I should have sped and caught back up after returning to the US, but after recharging for 10 days at home, I set off on a road trip west across the country. 17 days later I was moving into my new apartment in Palo Alto, CA, and for the past 2 weeks, I've been busy starting my job and new life out here. I don't expect many people to finish thru to the conclusion of my tales, which is too bad for everyone as many of my favorite adventures were here near the end of my journey. If you can put up with the obvious contradictions to me recording these events well after the fact, please do enjoy the thrilling conclusion (or last month) in Europe.
When I left you last, Dan and I were just dragging ourselves back into the land of the living. After almost a full 24 hours period of feeling more useless than I ever had before, we both felt generally recovered and feeling good when we woke up the next morning in Ljuta, a town 10 minutes down the road from Kotor. The day before I wasn’t in the best state to fully appreciate what we were driving into, but despite that the Bay of Kotor was pretty mind blowing. Similar to 95% of the country, the bay is filled with glorious mountains, only here they press right up against the crystal clear water of the bay. Any other place that I’ve ever heard of that claims to have both mountains and shoreline in one place doesn’t hold a candle to this.
The best way to describe how quickly the land goes from water to mountains, thru much of the bay, there’s only a single road that runs along the shore. There are a few small side-streets spread out along this main street, but the flat area isn’t wide enough along most of the coastline to accompany anything wider than a single street with houses and businesses lining it. When we asked for the address of a restaurant our hostel owner, Stephen, recommended, he laughed and told us, “Montenegro does not have the need for addresses in this area. You have the name. You go along the road until you see the restaurant.” Stephen was a large, round-bellied Swiss man with a low, guttural voice that would have served him well as an organized crime boss, and also happened to be a fantastic host and a good friend. Though we only stayed there 2 nights, we were very glad by the end of it that Stephen was there to help us navigate this backwards country.
We woke up the next morning fully recovered from our food poisoning episode, and ready to squeeze Kotor into 1 day, already with ambitious plans for climbing more mountains the elsewhere in the country after. The only activity that we knew we wanted to do was to climb the steps of the old military fortress that climbs its way up the mountain right behind the old town. A popular spot for travelers, the fortress wall walk gives you a bit of history, a fair share of exercise, and plenty of beautiful views as you ascend. The fortress doesn’t go anywhere near the top of the mountain (which would be a MUCH less popular attraction if tourists had to hike the whole way up), but nonetheless, the views over the old town and the bay were magnificent.
After retreating from the elevated fortress, we wandered thru the streets and the churches of the old town, soaking in the first of the ancient seaside walled-in Romanesque towns that dot the coast of the Adriatic I would see. I would continue to see similar, and always beautiful areas in Croatia as I moved around the coast. After staring out at the beautiful water in the bay, after a little walking around, we felt the pull of the sea, and headed back to the car to find a beach.
There are countless seaside spots to relax and take a swim, but more limited sandy beach areas. Stephen, the hostel owner, turned us onto his favorite beach a little ways out of the main Kotor area. Being outside of the main Kotor area, it generally attracted more locals and less tourists, but going on a Sunday as we did, we arrived to see the beach crowded with people of all ages. The main beach was a sandy expanse, typical of most of the beaches we’ve all been to before, but once you got out in the water, you were blown away by the color of it and how clear it was. Being in a secluded bay, the water was also very warm compared to the water on the beaches in Spain. I think the general rule that far south is, the further removed you are from the ocean, the warmer the water will be.
After swimming out a ways, we decided to check out the rocky coast to the north, and see if we could climb up on that and explore. Not only were the rocks in that area very painful to walk on, but I soon realized that many of the rocks beneath the water were covered in dirty little small sea urchins. Some of you may be unaware of my previous encounter with sea urchins on a Spring Break trip, but let me sum it up: I HATE SEA URCHINS. Nasty, spiky things that won’t hesitate to shoot your foot full of spines was not what I felt like playing around, so I carefully navigated to the edge of these rocks and pushed off back into the open water. I would be fine if I never ever laid eyes on a sea urchin again, but that doesn’t seem totally likely.
We still hadn’t scoped out Stephen’s favorite part the beach - a secluded section a ways down a walking path and around a bend. This section was characterized not by a smooth, sandy coast, but instead by a stark, rocky section with plenty of flat areas to lie down on, and some good places to dive into the water. Without the soft sand, this area was much emptier, and in many ways seemed more comfortable, but only if you had the foresight to bring the cushioned mats that were popular with the locals. We, of course, did not have this, so after a few swims in the water, we headed back to the other beach to throw the frisbee around for a bit before heading back to the hostel.
We had to head back to the hostel to meet with our rental car company and exchange our car for a smaller, cheaper option. I normally wouldn’t include these mundane details except that our interactions with this rental company became an adventure in itself. When I originally booked a rental car, our company didn’t have any of their cheaper options available for the first few days of our rental. This worked out okay, because with Ruby with us, a larger car was nicer for the 3 of us, but after we dropped Ruby off at the time, we made arrangements to make a switch to a cheaper option. The plan was to meet at our hostel at 6 pm. At 8 pm we were still waiting, getting hungrier by the minute. Talking with Sladjana, who I came to this agreement with, we decided to head to the restaurant and whenever the car finally showed up to our hostel, Stephen would give him directions to the restaurant.
That night Dan and I went to dinner with 2 German women from our hostel. Paired together by the fate of asking Stephen where we should go to eat at the same time, Rebecca and Julia were German school teachers in their 30s on vacation during summer break. We went to Stephen’s top recommendation, a nearby place that did local Montenegrin and Mediterranean food. Though I now can’t remember what we had there, I remember that it was delicious. 2 hours of dinner, and still no rental car. Dan and I simply shrugged our shoulders - not our fault.
The more important part of dinner for the story was our server, Demo. A friendly local in his early 20s with curly dark hair and an explosive laugh, we had a good time shooting the shit with him during dinner. After dinner, I’m not sure exactly how Dan worked his magic, but his inquiry into a “next bar” recommendation turned into us agreeing to meet Demo in a half hour at a beachside bar down the (only) road. We made a quick stop back at the hostel before heading to the bar. Stephen let us know that apparently the person from the car rental place, waited at the hostel for nearly 2 hours before listening to Stephen and going to try and find us at the restaurant, where he also managed to miss us. This was more funny than a specific annoyance at the time, but it all seems to contribute to the altercation down the road.
The 4 of us wandered down the dark road of Kotor down to Demo’s hangout. He was there with his girlfriend at the time, so we got drinks and headed to the dock to sit down. As the DD, Julia bought my 2% ABV ½ beer ½ grapefruit juice, and I settled down to dangle my feet in the water and stare out over the peaceful, twinkling bay. Doing this type of fast-moving travel, things can at times seem like a blur, but there are particular moments where everything slows to a crawl and you are brought abruptly into the moment to marvel at what a great time, place, and circumstance that you are living in. As my hero Ferris used to say, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
After Demo joined us, Rebecca and Demo were trying to entice others to get in the water, but I was too content to move.
We got a few more drinks and talked about life, adventure, exploration, and art. Demo was going to school for sculpture, and happened to temporarily live in a tent near the bar. Despite that, he had the optimistic passion that I had come to recognize (and at times envy) in many of the struggling artists I had met in Europe. A part of you had to respect the zest for life they show despite being in a financial position that would make most of us in the US pee our pants just a little.
As always, the conversation had to hit on our varied travel plans, and Dan explained our plans to head to Eastern Montenegro, to a town called Plav, to hike the Prokletije Mountains. Demo is astounded: “PLAV? Not even I have been there!!!” As Dan and I glanced at each other, a smile spread across both of our faces. After another round of drinks, we began to head back to the hostel. Demo invited us back to his tent for more drinks, but Dan and I chose to walk the girls home. Oh yeah, did I not mention that before? That Demo was living a few hundred meters from this beachside bar in a tent? Yes? I did mention that? Okay - I was just making sure. Because Dan and I found that just amazing. Instead of the tent, we headed back to the hostel and to bed, knowing that we had a lot still ahead of us.
Much in the make-it-up-as-you-go spirit of our wanderings, Dan had first read about the Prokletije Mountains 2 days before we headed that way. Located along the eastern border of Montenegro, the Prokletije Mountain Range is spread across 3 countries, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania. This region intrigued Dan and I because the material we were reading indicated that these mountains were the “most remote and least hiked mountains in Europe”. Our eyes lit up at that mention, and the name, which translates to “Cursed Mountains”, was the cherry on top. Plav and the Prokletije Mountains looked perfect for our next adventure.
Our journey out to this remote region of eastern Montenegro started with a continuation of an annoyance from the night before. If you read the last journal entry, you’ll remember that we were trying to meet up with someone from our rental car company to exchange our big, nice, VW Touran for a cheaper option. The previous night, we had waited for Peter, our local rental car delivery man, for 2 hours at the hostel and then for 2 hours at a restaurant, and never saw him. Today we finally meet up with him in Budva, on our way out of town.
We finally meet and rush to throw our stuff in our new, though downgraded, wheels. While we are doing this and telling Peter about our plans, he starts to get a pained look. “You are going to be taking this to Croatia? I don’t think this a good idea.” When pushed to explain himself, he tells us that this cheaper car won’t last long driving around in this heat, and that it is without insurance outside of Montenegro. I had already explained our travel plans to our agent, Sladjana, and she had assured me that I would be set on insurance and driving outside of Montenegro, but Peter insisted “as a friend” that we should reconsider. Since we had a fairly grueling schedule planned for the car, we took Peter’s advice, but it was very frustrating that they would promise us and intend to rent us a car that their own employee says will break down during long drives in this heat. And without proper insurance, no less. Down the road, it occurred to us that Peter may have been biased since it would be him who would have to fetch the car if it broke down in Croatia, but either way, our annoyance with our rental car company grew.
Once we had sorted that out, we began the 5 hour drive to the mountain town of Plav. Montenegro is not a very large country, and distance-wise, it should be almost impossible to drive 5 hours in 1 direction from Kotor, but this drive took that long because of the twisting, snaking roads thru the mountainous terrain we would be crossing. Some of these roads were well built and smooth, with only the evidence of recent rock slides occasionally endangering it. Others were certainly not - tiny roads that are unfathomably marked as 2-way, with potholes, bumps, and at least 3 types of farm animals keeping the roads exciting. Enjoying the always beautiful valleys and mountains, the drive to Plav passed by quickly.
For sure the best road we drove on
The first impression that Plav gives to visitors is a strange one. There were a couple of modern stell and glass buildings, but many more totally abandoned, possibly half completed buildings.
Our first couple priorities after getting in were to get info on the available hikes and to find a place to sleep. Though it seemed like a fairly isolated, middle-of-nowhere town, we were encouraged by the knowledge that there was a tourism office, though it was closed by the time we got there. Instead we headed to find a couple of beds, and noted that the office opened at 8 am the next morning. We visited seemingly the only 2 hotels in Plav and the neighboring town of Businje. The hotel in Businje was too expensive, and not as nice as the one in Plav, but there we did get exactly they type of hiking map we were looking for, and the helpful attendant also told us about a cool waterfall that we could easily drive to that night before it got dark. Post-thanking him, we set down thru the surprisingly lively city of Businje, and on to the farming town behind it, Visanje. There were only a few dirt and gravel roads connecting Visanje to the larger Businje and civilization behind it, but after going down one of these windy 2-way, but 1 lane roads into the village, we were surprised to find sitting outside the rundown garage/shacks, an assortment of Lexus, BMW, and Audi cars. We never did reason our way around how this made any sort of economic sense.
After getting lost a few times down dead-end roads, we found our way to the waterfall, which was incredibly tucked away and hidden.
During our photo shoot, 2 young kids from the village came wandering up and signalled that they could take pictures of both of us. With only the slightest moment of hesitation (assessing whether I could run them down if they bolted with my phone), I handed them my phone.
Soon Dan and I were climbing up boulders following them further into the waterfall/gorge area. Only the younger of the 2 spoke passable English, which was surprising. Throughout most of the areas that I traveled, anyone under the age of 20 spoke at least decent English, but we were going to come to realize that that was not the case in this tucked away corner of Montenegro. We explore the waterfall area for a while longer, crossing an old, half-rotted bridge and generally acting like fools, before we head back to the car.
After we leave the waterfall, we talk with our 2 young friends, navigating thru the winding village streets around cows and goats alike, seeing where they live, and hearing about the local culture. Apparently Businje is the place to party, as people from all of the surrounding villages go there when they want to go out, and there is a party to be found every night of the week. Dan and I are anxious to look over our maps and plan out our next day, and we thank our new friends for their kindness. Before leaving, we agree that if Dan and I stay another night, we will return to meet their cousins and uncles and eat with them. That was not meant to be, but hope our friends understand.
We return to our actual hotel and have a simple but filling dinner, and study our maps. On the descriptions of the trails, the maps say that guides and climbing equipment is either recommended or required, but Dan and I are on the same page for that. Our goal for the morning is to get a solid opinion on how necessary those recommendations are, and we pick a few summits that look to be achievable to ask about. The other wrinkle is that it notes that you need to notify the Albanian border control if undertaking any of these routes, as the summits and ridges are right on the border between Albania and Montenegro. We aren’t sure how that is done, but felt assured that we will be able to take care of that at the tourism office in the morning...