A Travellerspoint blog

Montenegro IV

All we want to do is climb mountains

semi-overcast 70 °F

Dan and I woke up early the next day in Plav, anxious to get a little more info and then get out on a mountain. The map we had picked up the day before outlined a good number of ambitious, but doable looking hikes, but most of them also said that a guide and climbing equipment was recommended/required. Additionally, because the peaks of these mountains also form the border of Montenegro and Albania, we should also notify the Albanian border guard before summiting. Clueless on how to notify the border guard, and doubtful that a guide and equipment were truly necessary, we headed to the Plav Tourist Office to take care of these things.

We had seen the day before that the tourism office opened at 8am, however when Dan and I got there at 8:20, it was all quiet in the office. We returned after a quick breakfast and found 2 teenage girls working there (read: surfing Facebook and the internet). Very quickly, it became clear that neither of them spoke any English, which was perhaps too much to expect in a Montenegrin tourism office? After communicating that we wanted to hike, they excitedly showed us the map that we were already holding in our hands. For any question beyond “hiking”, the girls broke out Google Translate and we spent a painful 10 minutes typing messages back and forth. The conclusion to this exchange was Dan and I realizing that the girls somehow knew less than we did about these hikes, and also didn’t have any idea how to contact the Albanian border guard. They suggested we go to the police station regarding the border guard, but long-story-short that resulted in another 30 minutes of wasted effort.

We returned to our hotel around 10:30 feeling defeated. “All we want to do is climb mountains”, and somehow we could not sort out how to do that (without dying or being arrested by Albanians). Expressing our woes to one of the friendly hotel employees, he excitedly told us to wait for a couple minutes and ran off. He returned 5 minutes later with a friend of his who occasionally worked as a guide for the very same mountain trails that we were interested in. Counting our lucky stars, we quickly asked him the few questions we had been searching to answer since the day began.

· This map says climbing ropes and harnesses are needed for these routes. Is that totally necessary? No, not necessary for most of these routes.
· It also says that guides are required/recommended. What do you think? Not required. A guide would be helpful to have, but it is not necessary.
· How do we notify the Albanian border guard? You are planning to hike to the summit, but not then continue into Albania? Take your passports, but don’t worry about notifying them

As they were the answers we were hoping for, we quickly accepted them, thanked our helpful friend, and hurried to the car to get onto the trail. We had chosen a fairly ambitious route, and the unexpected delays that we run into meant we were a couple hours behind schedule before we even hit the trail.

We retraced our route thru Gusinje and Vusanje to get to the trailhead. The trailhead was just a little further down a road that we originally took to the waterfall from my last post. The Prokletje Mountains were described as the least hiked (and by extension, least maintained) mountains in Europe, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when we had trouble finding the trailhead. With all of the trouble we had had this morning trying to get onto the trail, you might assume that we were in a foul mood at this point, but we found it easy to stay in high spirits when surrounded by so much beauty.


When we eventually found the trail and began hiking, we struck a fast pace to try and make up some time. The trail was well-marked and beautiful for the first hour or so. It climbed quickly, and Dan and I admired the pristine surroundings and relished in the lack of other human traffic. Those who know Dan and I aren’t surprised that we were attracted by these “Cursed Mountains” largely because they were described as the least explored and traveled mountain range in Europe. Hiking trails come in all flavors and for the two of us, hiking on a road or exquisitely manicured trail can barely be considered hiking, and we were prepared to do some bushwacking to follow this raw, lightly maintained route. That strategy and perspective worked great, until we emerged from the woods onto a rocky slope, where the trail suddenly disappeared.

We both have at least moderate experience hiking trails, and Dan has additionally done a significant amount of winter camping, where he had often had to follow trails in the dark, so we have a lot of confidence in our ability to find and follow a trail. There are certain techniques you can use when you’ve lost a trail to get back on it, including fanning out in various directions looking for our familiar trail markers. In this case, none of these strategies produced much of anything, and we spent the next 40 minutes picking around large boulders, looking for the continuation of the trail. Delayed further by a red herring trail marker, after almost an hour of searching high and low, we decided that the trail evaporated into the brush (or rocks) and that we had to come up with Plan B.

It was still early in the day, and neither of us felt fulfilled with our hike thus far. The sun was elbowing its way thru the clouds that had been threatening rain and storms all day, and we weren’t ready to throw in the towel either. Giving up on following the actual trail, Dan came up with our Plan B: Well, the trail is gone, but there’s a fun looking rock slope over in this direction. When all else fails, just keep climbing skyward. [DISCLAIMER: That philosophy is not typically a good idea and can get you into trouble. As I’ve discussed, it’s always easier to go up than down.] Plus Dan and I are hardened hikers, right?, certainly capable for scrambling up a loose rock slope.

It took all of 3 feet for us to realize that the only way to ascend would be side-by-side, or one at a time, as each step brought a cascade of rocks down below. And it wasn’t just the smaller rocks in this case. Typically when you are hiking up and down loose rock slopes, you’re safe when you stick to the larger rocks. The smaller rocks are just waiting to tumble down the mountain, but the bigger rocks have usually found their resting place. Not the case on this slope. The most extreme case was when we stopped to rest, and Dan leaned his pack against a rock that probably came up to my hip and weighed more than a ton. Just leaning his pack against it soon led to the rock careening down the mountain. Dan luckily snatched his pack up right before it fell and we were left to watch this massive boulder tumble down the mountain, just keeping our fingers crossed that it didn’t hit anything living on the way down. After 15 tense minutes, we had made it to the top of the rock slope, and were rewarded with some great photo opportunities overlooking the valley and the town, Visenje.

On the way up

On the way down

The valley

The plan had been to get up to the top of the rock slope and see what we see up there, but we were incredibly surprised to re-find the actual trail close to the top of the loose rock slide. The path that the trail took to get up to that point was never really clear, though we are pretty certain that it was not the path we followed. By this point, the weather, which had been threatening all day, was not looking great, and we were now hours behind our original timeline for hitting the peak. We had talked about turning around after the rock slide, but after re-finding the trail, we spent the next 2.5 hours playing a game back and forth:
- “Let’s just make it to the top of this ridge. We’ll get some cool views and then turn back.”
- “Okay, but we turn around then. We really should be heading back down.”
- "Agreed......... Well hope about we just go to the next ridge? Last one."

The weather continued to hold and actually grew sunny as we continued up. The views kept getting better as we climbed deep into the “Cursed Mountains”. We came across fields of Queen Anne’s Lace, scorpions, a mountaintop cave (lovingly named “The Rooney Cave”), and miles of brush grown over the path. In the end, we made it right up to the Albanian border, but turned around probably an hour or more from the summit. Though it is always way better to reach the peak, by that time we were happy with our day, having done it on our own in typical fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style. Going back down the loose rock slide was even more nerve-racking than going up (as it always is). Not typically faint of heart, I let out a large sigh of relief when we both made it down that section, and the hike down from there was cake.

Queen Anne's Lace... (right?)


Tough to pick out, but there is a dark spot in the top right section of the mountain that is the cave

On the way back down, we decided to forgo another night in this area, anxious to see beautiful Croatia. Montenegro held almost too much natural beauty to believe, but also seemed backwards in some ways. We came up with a bold plan to leave, involving sleeping in the car, sunrise on a mountaintop, and Croatia by tomorrow afternoon, but first we had to get out of Montenegro. And that proved to be quite the challenge, and were close to potentially spending a whole lot longer there than we planned.

Until next time :)


Posted by danza 15:44 Archived in Montenegro Tagged mountains hiking dangerous cursed_mountains Comments (0)

Montenegro III - Kotor and the Plav

From the water to the Cursed Mountains

sunny 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.


Prokletije Mountains

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...

Posted by danza 23:38 Archived in Montenegro Tagged mountains beaches natural_beauty rental_agencies Comments (0)

Montenegro II

Conquering Mountains and Laid Low by Food

sunny 75 °F

11 pm, our 2nd night in Zabljak:
Dan seems to have it the worst of us. Ever since we returned from our hike, he has looked terrible and hasn’t left his bed except to run to the bathroom 3 or 4 times. Ruby and I aren’t feeling great either, but try to get some sleep thru Dan’s frequent sprints to the toilet, hoping he’ll feel better in the morning. I’m unable to sleep, owing primarily to the knot in my stomach, but I count my blessings that I’m better off than Dan. The realization that it just took longer to hit me happens about 2 am when I suddenly bolt upright, hesitate for a second, and then make my own headlong SPRINT to the bathroom. My hesitation was costly as I made it into the bathroom, but not quite to the toilet before I’m spewing the little food I managed to eat that night. I’m in there for a little bit, mostly cleaning up my mess, but thankfully I got out when I did because not 5 minutes after I make it back into bed, I see Ruby, who hadn’t yet joined Dan and I in our sprints, take her turn at the toilet. At that point it was totally confirmed - food poisoning. I managed to get an hour or two of sleep after just one more sprint, but amidst my tossing and turning, I hear more trips to the toilet, though I didn’t check to see who it was at this point.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up to our first morning in Zabljak, a small town just outside Durmitor National Park in Montenegro.

Ruby, Dan, and I woke up in our B&B in Zabljak ready to rule the day. We would only be in Durmitor a day and a half because then we had to get Ruby to Tivat airport near the coast, so we knew we wanted to make these couple days count. We knew that Durmitor offered lots of good hiking, but another of the major attractions was the Tara Canyon, the 2nd longest canyon in the world behind the Canyon that is Grand. Our B&B manager “has a friend” who offers great deals on rafting tours, so we had signed up for one in the morning.

I put that in quotes because we would learn after a few more days that everyone in the tourism business has many friends with deals. Every hostel or hotel worker has friends who give his customers good deals on cabs, or good deals on rafting, or rental cars, tours, or whatever you may need. In small doses, this is just good business and can be a mark of a great hostel worker, but it is so prevalent in Montenegro that we soon recognized it as a form of mild corruption. Everyone seems gets a kick-back to push business to particular groups, but you’re not really getting any sort of deal or better tour, just the person they’ve got an agreement with.

Before our tour, we head downstairs to get breakfast, and find the cute, lovable, non-English-speaking Grandma bustling around the kitchen. She sets down some bread and jam, and since there are things in the oven, we think there is more coming. There was more coming as she sets down 3 shot glasses and pours us each some rakija. Rakija, if I haven’t introduced it already, is a type of alcohol made throughout the Balkans and in many areas it seems to be a key component of everyday life. As a review on the Balkans put it, if you’ve been in the Balkans more than a day and haven’t been offered rakija yet, you must be doing something wrong. Lonely Planet describes rakija as a homemade alcohol distilled from just about anything (direct quote). Seemingly like moonshine in some ways, it is always at least 40% alcohol and can be found in all liquor stores, but the best stuff is apparently the homemade rakija, which is what Grandma was serving us. The further out in the country and away from what we might consider a “legitimate” seller, the better is the advice we were given. In Montenegro, it seems that 9 am before going rafting is the perfect time for rakija, as she refilled our glasses after we finished the first. We didn’t get anymore food, however, and that is how our accommodations came to be known as the Bed & Booze.

Our van to rafting soon came and 40 minutes later we are overlooking a beautiful canyon valley. This area of Durmitor is represented by its postcard-gracing bridge, 172 m (564 ft) high and spanning a gap of 365 m (1198 ft), which we saw from above and below. From here we can see that there are many companies that do the rafting trips (some at a lower price), but true to form, our place has rakija waiting for us when we arrive. When in Rome…

Tara Bridge, from the top
And from the bottom, during rafting. People laughed with me whipping my phone out and standing up in the raft to snap some pictures
Ready to shove off

The rafting itself was pretty slow and calm (translation in Bryan’s mind: boring), but the group we did it with was great. Our group was made up of 2 couples, our 3, and German family of 3. Tatiana, the German mother, had me pegged right away. After one of the only sections that resembled rapids in any way, I cheered and she told me - “Bryan, you are very spicy.” Probably one of my favorite compliments ever. We did go ashore several times, which afforded us some good pictures and a small spot for some cliff jumping.

Dan, photo bombing our friends' picture

Cliff jumping:


I think my favorite part was not when I led the group in taking the plunge, but when Tatiana worked up the courage to jump before even her son or husband did (“I never do something like this before”). If you look close, you can see her screaming during takeoff

Undoubtedly, Pierre had the best form I’ve ever seen (read: most awkward and hilarious). From this picture, it's possible to imagine Pierre turning this takeoff into a graceful dive, but let me assure you that that is as far from reality as it could be. I’m glad that the rock was not high because from any real distance, that landing would've be painful.

Pierre’s girlfriend, Josephine, thankfully did much better with the form, but I was ready to dive in and save her if it came to that ;)

After 80 minutes of rafting, we were out and being handed more shots of RAKIJA! Do you notice a pattern here? The rakija quickly warmed you up after the cold canyon waters, and before we were driven back to Zabljak, we received a large homemade lunch of soup, bread, “home cheese”, fruit, and fish, that we all agreed was quite tasty. Could this have been the culprit of our indigestion later that night? Unsure, but we’ll return to that later. For now, we were enjoying a wonderful meal in beautiful weather with some new friends, and we found that we were planning to hike the same peak as Pierre and Josephine in the morning - the tallest peak in the park called Bobokutuk… or Bobobock… or Bobo-gonash… like I said - the land of mispronounciations. We offered to meet up and drive them there to spare them a cab. I really enjoyed talking with them - I love the idea of couples from very different countries and cultures - Josephine was Hungarian from Budapest and Pierre was obviously French. In the US you can date someone from the opposite coast, or even the South, but the differences between experiences, customs, and values isn’t there to anywhere near the same degree. They also met on CouchSurfing - Josephine first staying with Pierre in Paris, then giving Pierre a large incentive to plan a trip to Budapest. Before heading back to Zabljak, we stopped by the bridge, giving us a great opportunity for some fun photo ops and to buy our own bottle of plum Rakija.

Posing with his array of Rakija
On the bridge overlooking Tara Canyon

We got back from rafting feeling great and with several hours of daylight left, so Dan and I decided to go out on a light hike. Ruby wasn’t feeling too great, possibly a sign of things to come but more likely just tired from our schedule the last few days, and decided to stay and rest. Truly intending to do a quick hike, maybe to a lake a few kms away, and set out with about a liter of water and a few Cliff bars. The way I’m narrating this, it sounds like our plans changed a bit, doesn’t it?

Little did we know, but this was the peak we were destined for

I’m still not sure how we ended up climbing that mountain. With clear skies and bright sunlight, Dan and I were loving doing what we love - being out in nature, hiking, and continuing catching up on everything that’s going on with our lives. You would think that this should have been completed in the last 2 days of constant contact, but I had a lot of stories to tell, and Dan can talk for hours on a number of topics. I remember 1 junction where we made a conscious decision to take the uphill direction to try and get some good views before heading back, and before we knew it, the saddle between to peaks was in sight. At this point we recognized that the water we had brought was almost out, but the saddle (or col) held the potential for some fantastic views of areas of the part that we hadn’t ventured to. Keeping in mind our dwindling water supply, we thought it was well within reasonable reach. Those of you out there can guess what happened next - once atop the saddle enjoying some great views, the peak was tantalizingly close. We raced up this last bit and spent a while on top, taking pictures and basking in the waning sunlight before it dipped behind more westerly peaks.

On the ascent. We almost stopped here, but the col was calling for us
Beautiful Black Lake. This is really the place to get the view

One of my favorite pictures all trip

The last rays of sunlight

Still feeling good, we began our descent. We had brought headlamps and flashlights, so the light wasn’t much of a problem, but we wanted to get below the section of loose rocks before those were needed. Having not eaten in 6 or 7 hours, I broke out on of the Cliff bars just below the rocks section. Trying to conserve our remaining water, I hadn’t drank anything in a while and my mouth was very dry. Swallowing my first bite of Cliff bar was a little rough, and as soon as I tore off my second bite, I decided no more. Before I could get that bite down, however, I was bent in half, bringing up the little bit that was in my stomach. Convinced that this was due to dehydration, I drank most of our remaining few sips, hoping that that would set me straight. There was a small spot where we knew we could refill with clean water, but that was down almost near the lake where we started. After a few minutes of rest, we set off again. 10 or so minutes later, Dan was also overcome with a fit of dry heaving, presumably needing to throw up also but lacking the liquid in his stomach to get it out. Thinking ourselves foolish for not bringing enough water, we came up with a system to take things slow, keep an eye on each other, and rotate our pack between the two of us as the bouncing of the additional load seemed to speed up the stomach problems. Dan had a couple more bouts of dry heaving during the next 45 minutes of descent, but eventually we reached our clean water salvation, or so we thought. Being careful not to chug down the water, a common mistake following dehydration, we took a bit of a break slowly hydrating before continuing down. A few minutes after our break, even after hydrating well, I threw up again, and we were puzzled. Dan had another dry heaving fit before we finally made it back to our room, some 5+ hours after we had left Ruby. Still thinking that our issues were caused by dehydration, or possibly the numerous shots of rakija we had had, we laughed about our brashness, but we openly admitted to also feeling a bit proud that we had spontaneously climbed a peak called Savin Kuk, 2313 m high. It wasn’t until Dan, maybe an hour we made it back, did the first sprint of the night, did it start to dawn on us that there might be something more going on than just dehydration and foolishness.

Dan seemed to have an intuition that were weren't just suffering from dehydration. When we were climbing down the mountain and initially started having stomach problems, he said, “I feel like there is just something wrong in there, and my body is trying to get it out.” Once we had each made a trip to the bathroom, it became obvious that we had food poisoning. The initial reaction was to blame the homecooked meal, with the “home cheese” as a character under high suspicion. We all uniformly agreed to this, but the following day thru messages with Pierre, we learned that they did not suffer the same fate as us, so I find it most likely that the sketchy “mixed meat” platter the previous night was to blame.

This was my first bout with food poisoning, but both Ruby and Dan seemed to agree that this was one of the worst they had ever experienced. The plan had been to wake up early, pick up Pierre and Josephine, and get an early start on Bobokinish. We were on a somewhat tight timeline because the hike was supposed to be about 6 hours round trip and the airport was a 3 hour drive from there, so there wasn’t much time to kill. My alarm woke us up at 6:45, an hour or two after I had finally fallen asleep, and I felt... not good, but not terrible, and voted to give the hike the old college try, knowing we could always turn back if we didn’t feel well. Thankfully (praise the lord), I was out voted. No Bobotuk (real name) for us. I sent a message to Pierre, explaining that we were sidelined and couldn’t give them a ride, and we went back to sleep. I woke up a few hours later feeling worse than ever.

Ruby and I somehow managed to drag ourselves out of bed and all the way down the street to the grocery store to stock up on fruit juice and some fresh fruit and veggies - anything that we thought we could keep down. After we sloughed back to the room, we both went right back to bed. At noon I stumbled my way to the shower, but had to lie down again after that. To get some fresh air I made my way outside around 1, and ran into Grandma and her son (also no English). Thru some miming, they asked how I was feeling. Either they had heard some of our trips to and from the bathroom, or more likely, had heard from other guests. I gracefully mimed some upchucking and a stormy stomach, and the son nodded, and drew me into the kitchen. “Rakija - good for stomach!”. Almost laughing, I shook me head, “No, no rakija”. Puzzled, by my response, he counters with, “Grappa?”, and I wonder how anything gets done in this country. The Bed and Booze doesn’t disappoint. By 3 pm we are all still feeling terrible, but we don’t have much of a choice except to start driving because of Ruby’s flight. I drive for a couple hours and Dan mercifully takes over so that I can lie in the back. By the time we drop Ruby off around 6 pm, we are starting to feel like human beings again, but it was still a large effort for Dan and I to decided to go out and split a meal at a restaurant that night.

This food poisoning sidelined the 3 of us for almost 24 hours. We couldn’t decide if it was a good thing that we were all going thru it together, or that we would have really preferred to have just one of us fit and able to take care of the other two. In the end, we made it, and in retrospect, Dan and I were super glad about our impromptu mountain summit. Once we had established that our stomach problems weren’t solely due to our poor planning (though it still wasn’t the best idea), and especially when we were unable to do our hike the next day, we were very thankful that we got at least some of our hiking needs fulfilled. Montenegro kicked our ass during that day, but we at least got in some good licks before going down.

Posted by danza 09:06 Archived in Montenegro Tagged hiking rafting dehydration food_poisoning home_cheese rakija Comments (0)

Montenegro (Part I)

So many adventures, so little time

sunny 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:

Timisoara, Romania:
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.

Belgrade, Serbia
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.

Posted by danza 15:56 Archived in Montenegro Tagged mountains beaches countryside gorgeous_views jentzen Comments (0)


Entering SE Europe and the backpacker's Mecca

sunny 80 °F

After my overnight train from Granada to Barcelona, I had a precious 10 hours in the wonderful city of Barcelona before I had my flight to Budapest. After careful debate, I set my sights on Montserrat, one of the sights outside of Barcelona that I hadn’t managed to squeeze in before. Though I wouldn’t have time to do the full extent of hiking available there, I decided that half a loaf was better than none at all, and hopped on a train, loaded down with my heavy packs. Montserrat, meaning “Saw Mountain”, was a place holy to Catalonia, both in a religious and cultural sense. The mountains overlook a small town, rich with culture, and also houses a large and magestic monastery up in these tall mountains. I took care of my two primary objections right away by finding hiking maps at the tourism office and spoke to a kind gentleman at one of the hotels in the area, who agreed to let me stow my large pack in their luggage room for the day. Knowing that I only had a few hours, I set off hiking at once, with water and apples in my pack to sustain me along the way, forgoing the beautiful monastery buildings for the natural beauties held by the mountains.


The pictures really speak for themselves, showing the jagged, “saw-like” mountains that gave the area its name. The hiking was laborious (most tourists choosing instead to take the cable cars up and down the mountain) but rewarding with a good mix of religious and natural viewpoints to stop at along the way. With a little more time, I would have liked to hike to the housing extension of the monastery complex set even higher up in the mountains, but I hadn’t missed any land or air transportation departure on my trip yet (stupid Finnish ferry), and I intended on keeping that going.

That's the monastery complex you can see, partway up the mountain

Monastery again in the background

Tough to see, but right near the center is the extension of the monastery that I didn't have time to hike to


What time is it? SHIRTLESS O'CLOCK

And the money shot - looking over the whole valley. Here you can see how high up the monastery itself is

After racing back down the hill, I found myself with enough time to duck into the main monastery building before catching my train back to Barcelona. A couple hours later, I was on my way to Budapest, and a corner of the continent that I had been anxiously anticipating.

Inside the main monastery building:

As I had told to anyone that would listen, I had been looking forward to SE Europe my entire trip. Priding myself as a fearless adventurer, I recognized that as far as foreign destinations go, Western and Central Europe is about as tame and safe as it gets. While that may have been a great comfort to my mother, I was almost disappointed in myself that I wasn’t stepping further out of my comfort zone and visiting more raw, authentic, and potentially difficult areas of the world. SE Europe, for me, represented at least a small step in that direction. An area that was largely communist until the 90s, SE Europe in general hasn’t seen the tourism or relative prosperity that is on display throughout much of the rest of Europe, at least in the big cities. In general, this meant that these countries were typically more difficult to travel thru, especially for a mono-lingual American such as myself, but also could help round out my view of Europe, by showing me some areas that were still in a state of recovery from not-so-distant wars or dramatic governmental changes.

After talking with enough travelers, I knew that the majority of that previous paragraph did not apply to Budapest. Hailed as a Mecca for young backpackers, Budapest’s reputation among European travelers is that of a city on the cusp of a tourism explosion. Similar to Prague 5-10 years ago, it has begun gathering attention and praise from the international community, but is still cheap and not over-crowded with tourists yet. The change that I saw between Prague on this trip and when I first visited 5 years ago was dramatic, particularly in the density of tourists roaming its streets. To me, this meant that now is the time to visit Budapest and capitalize on all the beauty and culture that it has before it gets overrun. Adding to this was that I had heard from countless travelers in hostels all over the place, that Budapest was their favorite destination, particularly because of the wild and raucous nightlife.

Budapest was also the start of a 2+ week stretch where I’d be ditching my independent status and actually traveling with others for a change. In Budapest, I was meeting Ruby, a friend of mine from Madison, and her cousin, Joel. The main purpose for their European trip was to attend the wedding of Ruby’s cousin, Joel’s sister, in Romania. I would also be going to the wedding, so I only had 1.5 days in Budapest to get my first taste of the city. This wasn’t a problem for me because I knew I’d be coming back to Budapest with my parents right at the tail end of my trip.

As soon as I got into Budapest, you can't help but run into incredible sights:

I landed in Budapest at night and made it to the hostel where Ruby and Joel were waiting (napping) for me around 11 pm. Luckily, with Budapest’s reputation of a late-night wonderland, we thought this would be just right. We went out and got dinner - a delicious Hungarian goulash - and then headed out to check out some of the popular “Ruin Bars”. These ruin bars are a unique feature of Budapest’s nightlife scene - large open bars with courtyards that incorporated ancient ruins, in various states of disrepair, directly into the architecture and design of the bar. We visited a few of the more well-known ruin bars during our 2 nights in Budapest and they varied wildly in style and aesthetics. We started out at Simpla, the biggest and best of these bars according to multiple reports. Simpla’s design was my favorite, with multiple rooms adorned with a combination of grunge metal mechanical parts and retro electronic parts. They had rooms with chairs and couches, dance floors with walls filled with tube television sets, a large courtyard area, and at least 4 different bars. It was crowded with backpacking tourists from all over the globe and had a fun, energetic feel to it.

Terrible picture - apologies

The one thing we found surprising was that, as cool and fun as Simpla and other ruin bars were, it didn’t reflect the wild, party-all-night atmosphere that Budapest’s reputation had led me to expect. The first night we went out was Thursday, but then the bars were even more subdued the next night on Friday when we went out again. Though we had fun and Ruby and I found a few different places with some quality music to dance to (salsa!), our expectations of the city led us to be surprised and somewhat disappointed in what we found. I’m guessing that part of problem was not being at one of the big “party hostels” of which Budapest has many, so we didn’t have a large, wild, already drunk group to hit the bars with. I know from experience that being with the right hostel group can make any night legendary and pump up your opinion of the city. It should also be said that despite our disappointment that the nightlife wasn’t as wild as we had expected, that didn’t stop us from not getting to sleep until after 4:30 am both nights there.

After sleeping in later than intended, we eventually dragged ourselves out of bed and out the door to take advantage of the 1 full day that the 3 of us had in Budapest. Our first stop was the Hungarian History Museum, where we were heavily educated in the history of Hungary, which saw many different rulers, conflicts, and upheavals throughout the past 1000 years, similar to many countries in Europe. The museum was the best or worst that I've seen. Hungary apparently has a LOT of history involving wars, conquests, various rulers and ruling parties, and by the end I was pretty museum'd out for the moment.


Haven't you always wanted a suit of armor just chilling in your hallway?

I just liked the look of this

After that, we began the long trek to the Szechenyi Baths, the most famous of the infamous Turkish Baths found throughout Budapest. Along the route we saw the opera house and St Stephen’s Cathedral, which I found remarkably impressive, even after all of the large and beautiful cathedrals that I had seen throughout Europe. The architecture didn’t seem overly inspiring from the outside, but the inside was impressive, to put it lightly. St Stephen’s also had one of the more interesting artifacts that I had seen - the actual hand of St Stephen, which was cut off, preserved, and protected after his death. The preserved hand changed hands (sorry) several times during their periods of war, but it remained in good condition and is still on display inside the side chapel of the cathedral (not pictured).


The Budapest Opera House was the only other main site that we encountered along the walk to Szechenyi, located in the middle of a large city park.

Szechenyi was the oldest and the most famous of Budapest’s famous public baths. Filled with water from a nearby hot spring, Szechenyi contained various large baths, ranging from about 82* to 94* F - very comfortable for lounging about in the sun. There was 1 pool with a section for people to swim laps, but this being a popular tourist destination, most people were just relaxing. One cool spot was a circular semi-enclosed area in the middle of one of the pools. Every 20 minutes or so, the jets feeding the pool would rotate and blow water in a counter-clockwise direction, quickly creating a whirlpool that was surprisingly strong. It reminded me of the times years ago when 3 or 4 of us would work hard to turn the Jentzen’s outdoor pool into a whirlpool, but with the jets this current is MUCH stronger. At first I thought this feature was designed for kids, and perhaps it was, but it was incredible to see all of the “grown-ups” like me (read: grown up children) absolutely fascinated by being spun in this circle.

Inside one of the buildings were also hot tub pools at various temperatures from 98* - 104*F or so. Also interestingly, many of these baths were labeled with a particular mineral that the water was filled with. A big thing that these natural hot springs all over the world are known for is being packed with natural minerals, which are supposedly great for your skin and health. Apparently, people can take there pick of what mineral they would like infused into their body. We tried a couple, concluded you couldn’t really tell the difference except that each pool definitely had a distinctive scent to it, mostly all very enjoyable.


We spent the majority of the day relaxing in the pools, keeping up a healthy cycle of relaxing, swimming, sunbathing, drinking, repeat. As the sun started to dip down towards the horizons, we headed out and made our way to Margit Bridge. This bridge, which we knew also connected up with a large island about halfway between Buda and Pest, was suggested to me by a lovely travel acquaintance named Kate, who I toured the Alhambra with in Granada. She told me that the bridge was simply the best place to drink some wine and look out over the lit-up city of Budapest, and in that description left out some of the best surprises that we found! She wasn’t lying about the views though:


Margit Bridge wasn’t exactly close to our hostel, or the baths, and so as we made our way thru the city, I stressed about how worth it the walk would be. This is one distinct difference between traveling solo and with others: when you’re alone you do exactly whatever YOU want to do and if it doesn’t work out as well as you hoped, no big deal. When you’re with others, there’s always compromise and different ideas of what to do, so the pressure and stress is much higher if something doesn’t work out as well. In the end, the only mistake about going to this bridge and this island is that we didn’t get there a bit sooner.

We bought a couple bottles of wine en route and were about to figure out the best place to open them when we heard the familiar THUMP THUMP THUMP of a base coming from the island. Drawn to it like bugs to light, we found ourselves approaching the beginnings of a rave in the midst of the forested island. We were obviously very intrigued, but after hearing that it would cost about 30 euros to get in, we decided to drink our wine and consider in. As we were walking away from the rave, more lights further in, moving dancing lights caught our eyes. Eager to plunge further down the rabbit hole, we headed that way.


As we approached this fountain of dancing colored lights, we also began to hear some music. As we got close, we realized that not only where they playing Avicii around the fountain, but that the water and lights were actually designed to dance in tune with the music. The effect was as pleasing and entertaining as I’ve ever seen in a joint concert of music, water, and lights. After Avicii finished up, there was a classical piece that showed the subtlety with which the fountain designers could use, with only a few spouts dancing together during the violin opening, and building as more instruments entered the mix.

Sadly, we had arrived just at the end of the last concert of the night, and after the classical piece, we were left with only a quiet, but beautiful fountain. Knowing that I was coming back to Budapest with my parents, I decided that we were definitely coming here and seeing a full show, but shhhh! its a secret! Unless they read this blog entry, which I told my mom NOT to do, haha. After finishing our wine, we walked around the island a bit more, finding a few more bars and clubs, but decided to head back towards the hostel and then back out to see more Ruin Bars. In this, we were again disappointed with the crowds and ridiculousness, especially for a Friday. Though we found some good dancing and Ruby and I were even complimented by being asked if we were Spanish while dancing salsa, it felt like a good night out in any old city, not the hard-to-believe all night craziness that I had been anticipating. Again, we got back to the hostel late and had only a brief nap before leaving for the train station, destined for Romania. Though my visit to Budapest was brief, it was enough to get me exceedingly excited to return in a month with my parents.

For now I’ve got to go and enjoy the waters of Croatia, where I am right now. Until the next installment: Romanian wedding!

Posted by danza 12:08 Archived in Hungary Tagged fountain dancing nightlife baths ruin_bars Comments (0)

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