Getting out of Montenegro
After escaping the Prokletje Mountains unscathed, we decided to head back towards Kotor and Croatia. As much as we would have loved to continue hiking in these mysterious but beautiful mountains, one of the common problems with traveling is that there’s so much to see and never enough time to see it. So, attempting to maximize our remaining time, we came up with a bold plan.
It was dark by the time we made it out of the mountains and back on the road, so why not drive thru most of the night? We had previously discussed the majesty of sunrise observed from mountaintops, but unfortunately, sunrises on mountaintops don’t typically jive with my sleep schedule. With our plan, we would drive the 4 hours back to the “Black Mountain”, one of the large mountains that surround the Bay of Kotor and gave Montenegro its name, and then pass out til sunrise. After sunrise, we would continue driving north into Croatia, ending up in either Dubrovnik or Split by dinner.
Happy with our plan, I took the wheel and set off down the windy, poorly maintained road that acts as the only pathway between Plav and the rest of Montenegro. Those that understand foreshadowing should have some alarms going off. After driving for about 2 hours, not 5 miles from the end of this road, I swerve around one pothole only to drive right over an even bigger pothole, popping the tire. Not a huge deal, as Dan and I both know how to change a tire… if only this rental car had a spare tire in it! It does not, and miles from the nearest town without a working phone did not leave us with many great options.
Eventually, a nice man drives by who stops to see if he can help. Not only does he let us use his phone, but he also happens to know a towing company in the nearest town. We call the tow truck and also call our rental company to figure out what we should do from their end. Now this rental company has been a pain to work with from the start, so we are surprised that, after a few calls back and forth, that they tell us to get the tire changed, and that our insurance covers it, so if we meet up the next day on our way to Croatia, they will reimburse us. It sounds fishy, but we figure that we don’t have much of a choice. A helpful reminder is that for rental cars in Montenegro, you pay cash up front, so we knew we already paid for having our car for another week or so.
The flat tire was inconvenient, but after a delay of about 90 minutes, we are back on the road, still excited for the rest of our plan. We arrive near the top of Black Mountain a bit before 4 am, and “tuck in” for a quick 90 minute nap. We wake as the sun is peaking over distant mountaintops.
Tough to not wake up to this with a smile on your face.
The restaurant and tourist center atop the Black Mountain
Despite our difficulties and subsequent lack of sleep the previous night, it was tough to think of any of that watching the sun rise from a mountaintop. Dan had been educating me on photography since we joined forces, and I was surprised to learn that it is arguably impossible to distinguish in photos whether a sun on the horizon is rising and setting. This surprised me because, though I'm not often awake for them, sunrises always seem to have this energy about them - the potential of a brand new day. Or perhaps that feeling is a somewhat fatigue-induced hallucinated, considering that almost every sunrise I've seen has been on the tail end of an all nighter. Either way, it was magical and would have served as a beautiful farewell to Montenegro, if only that chapter had ended there.
The heavens reaching down to us
As nice as it was, after 15 minutes in the sunlight, I was ready to pass out again, and we retreated to the car to throw jackets over our heads and sleep a few more hours. At 9 we head down the glorious, winding road from the Black Mountain to Kotor, gorgeous views abounding from all over.
Dan and I head back to our stomping grounds - the Hostel City Beach, where we were to meet Peter from our rental company. When Peter arrives we are surprised to see 3 of them pile out of the car, instead of just the 1 that we had met with up to then. Very quickly, it becomes apparent that our misgivings about their reaction to the flat tire was not unfounded. Not only do they tell us that they won’t reimburse us for the tire (which is not part of their policy but they did tell us on the phone), but they also ask us for the keys. “What? We’ve already paid for this car for another week!” Apparently existing agreements don’t hold too much weight in Montenegro - they had other people who would pay a higher rate than us, and “didn’t want to deal with us anymore”. They continue to ask us for the keys, which we refuse to give them. It is not worth recounting everything that was said in this heated argument, but soon enough we realize that there’s no way we are driving away from there, and our attention shifts to getting our money back.
We came very close to calling the cops as these people were completely unreasonable, but thankfully our hostel owner intervened and convinced us not to. As he explained later, Montenegrin cops are not always the most ethical, and all it takes is a “Oh, English is not my first language” to void any verbal promises. As I’ve mentioned a few times, Montenegro is beautiful, but a little backwards. In the end, we agree to give back the keys if they give us the money that we had already paid for the next week. They drive away, leaving us with no transportation to continue our journey. What do we do now?
At this point, we are trying to find the quickest way to Croatia, out of this corrupt country, but the options are limited. There is no train and limited buses connecting Croatia and Montenegro, despite the fact that they border each other. We target 2 buses that will work, though neither is ideal. I suddenly think about BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing website that I used several times in France and Spain, and I find someone driving from Kotor, all the way to Grenache, France, dropping people along the way. I send him a message, telling him that we are heading to a beach bar, “Baywatch”, with internet and will await his reply. Knowing that it is tough to contact me, I also give him a basic description of the two of us (2 males in late 20s, each with a large gray backpack and each with a 2nd smaller bag - 1 red, 1 orange). If that falls through, we decide to find a cheap hostel in Kotor, and take an early morning bus to Dubrovnik.
We get to Baywatch and instantly feel like our hellish day is finally turning a corner. Middle of the day on Friday, Baywatch is quiet and relaxing, and Dan and I cool our anger in glorious sunlight, warm bay water, and a couple G&Ts. The day passes with swimming, reading, and napping in the warm summer light. Contrary to my desire to not touch any technology, I continue checking my email, hoping to hear from our potential ride north, with no positive results. The ride was scheduled to leave at 5, and 5 came and went with no reply. I had been insisting to Dan to keep the faith in BlaBlaCar, and felt very let down. We stay at the bar until a little past 6, not because we think the ride might show up, but we were just enjoying ourselves too much.
A bit after 6, defeated but still in a good mood from the relaxing afternoon, we pack it up to make sure we get to a hostel before all the beds fill up. As we are making our way thru the parking lot, a strange woman comes running up to us - “Bryan? Dan? Orange and Red bags!” Caught by surprise, we spin to locate the source of the calls, and find a dark-haired woman running up to us. Miraculously, she is the girlfriend of Gregory, our potential French BlaBlaCar driver. As she leads us over to Gregory waiting in the car, she explains that they had been having trouble with their app and had been unable to send us messages, but they were running a little late and almost ready to leave.
After having our travel plans forcibly jerked out from under us this morning, it looked like the travel gods had decided to smile upon us once more. We hop in the car and go to their summer house, where Gregory’s 2 young kids were waiting to pack up and head home. His girlfriend would actually be staying a few more days, so we threw our bags into the already packed car with Gregory and his 2 kids.
As I’ve explained, BlaBlaCar is a great ride-sharing community, similar to Couchsurfing, but with cars. In these types of communities, there has to be a lot of trust in order for it to work, but I was still surprised to see Gregory allowing 2 strangers to ride back with him and his 2 kids. On top of that, their itinerary was just nuts. They would be driving from Kotor, Montenegro ALL the way to Grenoble, France, a drive that should take somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 hours!!! Gregory’s plan was to drive that night until he couldn’t anymore, and they would all sleep in the van on the side of the road. Sleep till night and then finish up the drive. We would only be joining him for the first 5 or 6 hours of this journey, but we needn’t despair. During our drive, we were helping him coordinate other BlaBlaCar pickups and drop offs along the way. Following the brief nap, he would be picking up at least 1 more traveler in Italy and bringing them across to France. Crazy plan, but I love the idea of this ride-sharing where everyone ends up ahead.
Once we pack up and goodbyes are said, we are off - heading out of this country that gave us some of best adventures but also our biggest struggles. Dan was up front talking to Gregory in both English and French, and I was in the back, tasked with making sandwiches to the non-English-speaking kids.
Farewell Montenegro! You were a cruel yet enticing mistress
There would prove to be one more hurdle to overcome before we finally escaped - the border crossing into Croatia. I hadn’t done many border crossings on my travels, since travel between EU countries is essentially the same as traveling between states in the US. As our luck would have it, they decide to pull us to the side and pick thru some of our baggage. We are irked by the small delay, but know we should be quickly on our way. I will always remember the horrified look on Gregory’s face when they pull out a plastic ziplock with 40 or so pills from my bag. Not knowing me, he comes to the sudden realization that he may have been driving a drug smuggler over the border.
Now, in reality, all of the pills were simply Ibuprofen - very mild pain pills in case my back started acting up. Being the shrewd backpacker that I am, I concluded the actual pill bottle took up too much space in my pack, so I put them all in the ziplock. It had never occurred to me what it would look like to a customs officer. He dragged me into an office rather roughly, and immediately begins telling me all of the fines and charges I could potentially face trying to bring illegal drugs into Croatia. I’m frantically trying to explain that they are weak over-the-counter pain pills, but he can’t find an image of them online clearing me. As the time ticks by, I can’t even imagine what Gregory is thinking out by the car.
The process took around 30 minutes, complete with him accusing me of bringing ecstasy among other things in, before we are finally able to clear it up. Amazed by the trouble caused by $1 of Vitamin I, we finally get back in the car and officially leave Montenegro.
The final hurdle to overcome once we reach Split will be to figure out where we are sleeping. Since Dan and I didn’t think we would be making to to Split that night until minutes before we left Kotor, we hadn’t booked a hostel or anything at the other end. It turns out, we had 0 reason to be worried. Gregory dropped us off at the main square around 12:30 am, and we literally barely had our packs on before an 50-60 y.o. woman came scurrying up to us.
“Accommodation! Do you need accommodation?”
“Why yes, in fact, we do!”
Marnie was a sweet, white-haired lady who rented out her extra apartment right in the center of Split. I had read that this sort of personal AirBNB was very common in Croatia, but I hadn’t expected it to be quite this easy. Dan and I did a good job not appearing as desperate as we were and talked the rate down a bit, and then followed her to our room for the next few days. Tired, but energized by the energy of a new city, we dropped our stuff off and headed out to walk around the town. After some picture taking, some pizza, and some late night clubbing by the water, we retired to bed, ready for a whole new country the next day.