6.11.2015

Contemplating Wild Beauty

My recent trip to Montenegro with Mike marked my third time in the country and his first. I have a passion for traveling in the Wild East and Montenegro, with its rugged mountains, beautiful coast, and off-beaten-path feel, has all of the elements I look for when traveling abroad. 

The tourist board for the country touts its "wild beauty" and after traveling there extensively, we wholeheartedly found the description to be accurate. While reflecting on the trip, two themes emerge that capture the essence of most of our experiences in Montenegro.

First off, Montenegro is not for wimps. Is it any wonder? Take a look around and you'll find a country filled with rugged terrain, extreme weather, and a long and tumultuous history. The nature of the country has bred toughness into its people, many who are tall, blocky, and strong. Notice the propensity of rock roads, trails, buildings, plazas, and more. Stones are everywhere in this country and used for building everything. Someone had to cut them, move them, and build with them, and Montenegrins don't shy away from the task. Mike is pretty certain that given the abundance of stones and the need to move them, individuals with bad backs no longer exist in Montenegro.

As a traveler, you quickly learn Montenegro is not for wimps when you are planning your trip. It starts with getting there, which takes an eternity if you're coming from the western United States. The main international airport in the county is in Podgorica and it is tiny, a lot smaller than Bozeman's airport.  While there are some obvious pluses about flying into and out of a small airport, such as non-existence lines, the downside is that flights are infrequent with the airport only servicing a few European cities. This made for a  20+ hour travel day to Montenegro and a trip home taking over 30 hours. Ouch!

Auto šleps are everywhere
Montenegro is a small country, about the size of Connecticut, and much of it is mountainous so many of the roads are windy and narrow. Most of the country is rural (Only 600K+ people live there) so you can expect to find cows, sheep, rocks of all sizes, tractors, potholes, and more on the road. As you can imagine, Montenegro drivers are not wimps so if you've rented a car, which we did during part of our trip, you'll need to be on your guard. I suggest you adopt the local habit of tooting your horn as you navigate blind corners along narrow roads. While we found it to be a helpful practice, you will still need to slam on your breaks from time to time.

Hiking was one of our main activities while we were in Montenegro, and we found the trails to be rugged in every aspect. Rocky surfaces, spiky plants and bushes lurking in the lush vegetation, steep trails rising thousands of vertical feet from the coast and the bay, and poorly marked trails are the norm. Plan on spending more time than you think you'll need for most trails and be ready for more of an adventure that you expect when merely hiking.

Accommodations can be a bit rough too. While we didn't stay in luxurious digs, we weren't afraid to spend money on good places to stay. Every place we stayed was clean and tidy, but they tended to be small and the showers often flood.  Overall not a problem, but something to be ready for when traveling in Montenegro.

Secondly, Montenegro is full of stories and mystery. Given the country's history, it is little wonder there are so many old buildings, forts, stone walls, churches, monuments, and more, each with its own story to tell. But there are also newer buildings in various states of disrepair and abandonment offering so many other questions.
A medieval mystery, tombstones known as stećci. As seen near Novakovići.
Some mysteries include...

Built into a cave over 3,000 feet above the valley floor, the 17th century Ostrog Monastery leaves one wondering how it was ever built so many years ago.


Who is this skier and why is he memorialized? We spotted this along the Tara River in Durmitor National Park.  There are some big mountains in Montenegro so perhaps he was a successful ski racer or maybe just a leader in the country's small and fledgling ski industry.


The grand Hotel Durmitor
What ever happened to Hotel Durmitor?

Somehow, this grand old hotel with glorious views, nice lawns, and its own ski lift has been abandon while the ramshackle Hotel Planinka continues to attract guests.
A web search revealed nothing about Hotel Durmitor but we did find we weren't the only ones that were wondering. Hotel Durmitor certainly does have a haunted house feeling but we weren't brave enough to explore it!

Haunted Hotel
What is it with the coffee? It comes with so many names and forms. Most were easy to figure out but one or two still left us baffled. Here's what we discovered. In Montenegro you can get:
  • Kafa - This is the literal translation for "coffee." Like much of Europe, Montenegrin coffee is stronger than we're used to at home and comes in little cups.
  • Espresso - Same as at home. Comes in the standard 1.5 ounce shot.
  • Ness Café - We're pretty sure this is a lesser form of coffee but we couldn't figure out if it were instant or just a weaker (Possibly drip) coffee.
  • Deutsch Café - Hmmm....this was mostly a mystery to us. We weren't familiar with any coffee traditions that are German so we were puzzled. This might have been espresso with milk but why would that make it German?
  • Kafa sa šlagom - Coffee with cream. Self explanatory
  • Domaća Kafa - Literal translation is "house coffee." I'm pretty sure this is Turkish coffee, which is popular throughout the Balkans as much of the region was once under Ottoman rule.
And how about this monstrosity built right into the hillside near Petrovac. It didn't look like it had been abandon that long ago so it's likely the victim of the recent economic crisis. But beyond that, what's the story? What is being done about this eyesore that now mars a beautiful coastline? Did the developer just walk away from it?