Montenegro is a small country — about the size of the state of Connecticut, or in Colorado terms roughly the size of the broader San Juan Mountain region. (See a visual size comparison here). Despite the small area, Montenegro is packed full of beautiful mountain ranges, only a few of which we had time to explore during our travels. One such lesser known range is Zijovo, which we briefly visited on our way from the Prokletije mountains to the coast.
We car camped nearby Bukumirsko Jezero, a popular lake enjoyed by many Montenegrin vacationers. Once the crowds ventured on in the evening, we had the lake to ourselves and enjoyed a pleasant sunset along with a tasty bottle of Vranac. Have I mentioned how incredibly delicious the wine is in Montenegro? When we arrived back at camp, we met a couple of friendly fellows from Slovenia, who insisted on sharing their wine with us and we ended up talking for hours into the night. A refreshing swim in the lake helped ease my throbbing head the next morning!
Though we had hoped to do a long hike in these impressive mountains, our legs were too tired from all our recent treks, the weather was too hot, and our motivation levels dangerously low. So we decided that our time in the mountains was finished for this trip and onwards we went, driving the long winding roads towards the coast.
After our strenuous loop trek through the Prokletije mountains, we spent a few days relaxing at an eko-katun (mountain lodge) in the Grebaje Valley, just on the other side of the mountain spine that we had trekked below the day prior. The Grebaje Valley is absolutely jaw-dropping spectacular, with massive jagged spires rocketing out of the valley. These are amongst the most dramatic and abrupt mountains I’ve seen, on par with the Dolomites or Julian Alps.
Although we were intending to relax, we just had to go on a hike up Talijanka (aka Popadija), a 2057m peak with an epic panoramic vista of the most jagged part of the Prokletije range. The upper half the hike ascends a high ridge line with precipitous cliffs that drop nearly vertically down to the bottom of the Grebaje Valley far below, offering dramatic views of the impossibly rugged Karanfili massif across the valley. I could have spent weeks in the Grebaje Valley, but alas we had to keep on traveling on!
Forming a natural border between Montenegro and Albania is a jagged spine of mountains called the Prokletije in Montenegran and the Bjeshkët e Namuna in Albanian. Both names translate to “cursed mountains”, likely due to their foreboding vertical spires, deep winter snows, and inhospitable ruggedness. These are the biggest and burliest mountains in the Balkans, but despite their grandeur remain relatively unknown and surprisingly undeveloped. In late July we spent 5 days trekking a loop route through the heart of the range, mostly camping and sometimes staying in Albanian villages along the route.
The “cursed mountains” lived up to their name in one respect, which was the oftentimes oppressive heat during the day. This big cave entrance provided a brief respite, with a chilly breeze blowing out from its depths. During the hike up here we met a Serbian caver who has explored this cave numerous times in the past and was back again with a group of friends to explore and chart even further.
After jumping through a series of bureaucratic hoops at the police station in the nearby town of Plav in order to document our proposed border crossing into Albania, we started hiking from the village of Vusanje, near the town of Gusinje in a far southern corner of Montenegro. We hiked up a remote pass where we camped for the first night, then down into the valley of Valbonë (sometimes spelled Valbona) in Albania.
A recently paved access road and a push for tourism is quickly transforming this traditional shepherds’ valley into a more popular destination. The direction of development seems unclear, which became apparent as we descended into the valley and could hear the thumping of techno music blasting from a party thrown by the Albanian Mountain Club of all people. The party bumped long into the night, including even a set of enormous spotlights spinning around illuminating the mountain walls. At 1:30 in the morning once the band finished playing, a gang of motorbikers felt obliged to rev their motors for half an hour, no doubt scaring the crap out of every animal in the valley. Quite an odd way for a mountain club to celebrate their love of nature if you ask me. But you didn’t ask me, I’m just another tourist after all. But I do hope that the people of Valbonë can find a balance of increasing tourist traffic while still retaining the traditional atmosphere of the valley.
In the Prokletije (and most mountains along the Dinaric Alps for that matter) water can be scarce. The karstic limestone and dolomite rock of these ranges is full of cracks and caves that drain all the surface water, so permanent lakes and streams are a rarity. Most water must be collected at natural springs. In Albania sometimes at these spring locations you’d find little remote cafes that chill sodas and beers in the buckets of spring water to quench the thirst of weary hikers. On this day we had crossed the pass between Valbonë and Thethi during a thunderstorm, and were quite relieved to take a load off here!
Thethi is another traditional Albanian village in a deep, remote valley. There’s no paved road here (yet) and although more trekking lodges are popping up, the village still retains an almost completely traditional atmosphere. We stayed in a woman’s home in the village; she grew all her own crops, milked her own cows, made her own cheese, even made her own rakji spirits with grapes strung along her terrace.
I mentioned the heat earlier; on our last big day of hiking we had to cross another big pass from Thethi back into Montenegro, during the blazing heat of the day. We missed a few springs on our way down into Montenegro and were facing another extra few hours of hiking in the dark to the next spring when we miraculously came upon a friendly Austrian couple who were camping out in their camper truck; they graciously offered us a big 6-liter bottle of water, a plate of freshly cooked veggies and cheese, and entertained us with anecdotes from their extensive world travels over the years. Our saviors! The next day they even gave us a ride back down the dirt road of the Ropojana valley back to our car in Gusinje, saving us many more hours of hiking in the heat. Perhaps these mountains aren’t so cursed after all…
As with all these recent trip reports, I have lots more photos to add once I’m back home! So stay tuned for an update!
One of the highlights of a trip in Montenegro which is already full of highlights has been rafting down the Tara River. With its crystal clear turquoise spring-fed waters, the Tara is easily the most beautiful river I’ve ever seen. See more photos below! Continue reading “Rafting the Tara”→
Durmitor National Park is certainly the most famous and beloved mountain range in Montenegro. The mountains here aren’t the biggest or baddest ever, but they have an undeniably wonderful and unique character, like a combination of the rugged might of the Alps with the wild solitude of the Colorado Rockies. They seem to have a dash of everything I love most in mountains — jagged spires, sculpted peaks, vast green meadows, fields of wildflowers, misty forests, emerald lakes, and the freedom to explore it all in relative solitude. We spent four amazing days last week trekking through the heart of these fantastic mountains.
This was actually my second time visiting Durmitor; I was here by myself back in June of 2004. At that time it was the off season, the mountains were still covered in snowpack, and I was the only tourist in Zabljak, the little town situated at the base of the Durmitor mountains. There was only one restaurant open then, where I ate every evening with some Serbian army guys I met. It rained six days straight and when it finally stopped I used all my pent up energy to walk from town to the summit of Bobotov Kuk (the highest peak) and back in one day, with snowpack and all. Those army guys said it was impossible and didn’t believe me until I showed them the summit photos on my camera!
Eleven years later, in the height of summer season, the town of Zabljak is hopping. There’s people everywhere, lots of restaurants and bars, probably twice as many houses around here, and a general vibrant vibe that was completely absent during my previous visit. But despite the bustle in town, once we hiked past the popular Crno Jezero lake near the park entrance, the crowds quickly thinned. By the time we reached our first campsite we hadn’t seen anybody for hours. This range is small but there’s still plenty of opportunity to get away.
Of course Claudia and I had to summit Bobotov again on the way, and why not stay up there for sunset? On the way down we surprised some gämse, who sprinted up and away through rock fields with astounding speed and agility. Kind of made me jealous, only having two legs and not four.
This was one of those magical treks where each day was just as memorable and surprising as the last, if not more so. During our trek I got pretty lucky with light and photo conditions several times and am excited to share those photos once I’m back home to process them. I will definitely be updating this post later with lots more photos!
For the first mountain adventure of our Bosnia/Montenegro trip, Claudia and I went backpacking for two nights at Trnovacko Lake along the border of Bosnia and Montenegro. The lake itself is located on the Montenegro side of the border, but is only accessible via Sutjeska National Park on the Bosnian side. Sure enough, while we were camped there a warden came by to check our passports, which is kind of a novel thing to have happen while backpacking!
The heart-shaped, emerald-colored Trnovacko Lake provides a great base camp for hiking up Maglic (pronounced Mag-leech), the highest mountain of Bosnia at 2388m (7835 ft) — which we did, of course. From the summit we had a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and canyons, including the neighboring Durmitor mountains to the south (our next destination).
It was a fantastic first outing here; our expectations were blown away and we were filled with excitement for further adventures in other beautiful ranges along the Dinaric Alps, which I will be posting about soon.
P.S. – When I am back home I will update this and the following posts with lots more photos, but in the meantime I’ll keep posting these teasers to keep the blog somewhat up to date! (We’ve been doing so much here, I already have a backlog!)
P.S.S. – To any Bosnian or Montenegran readers, I apologize for omitting the proper special characters from some of the names and words; I just can’t get those to display properly in WordPress right now!
We have been in Sarajevo (the capitol city of Bosnia & Herzegovina) during the last few days, sleeping off our jet lag and strolling around this fascinating city. See more snapshots taken during our leisurely wanderings below. Continue reading “Snapshots from Sarajevo”→
Tomorrow we fly to Sarajevo for a month of traveling through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Croatia! I have visited this beautiful region before back in 2004, and have longed to return ever since. Our rough plan is to rent a car in Sarajevo and head south into Montenegro where we will hike and backpack in various mountain ranges down through the rugged chain of the Dinaric Alps. Perhaps we will also have a chance to raft down the Tara River, a turquoise river that cuts through the deepest canyon in Europe. Eventually we’ll work our way back up along the coast and through Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, before heading up to Germany for my sister-in-law’s wedding!
I’ll probably update the blog while I’m away, but in the meantime check out my photos from my previous travels in Montenegro and Croatia back in 2004.
I hope all my fellow American readers had a great 4th of July! Ouray was as rockin as ever — almost literally after the parade when Maj. Rasmussen, a fighter pilot from Ouray, roared through the valley in his F-16 on full afterburners. Incredible! Turn up the volume and check out this video of it:
Beer, water fights, beer, barbeques, more beer, and then we sweated out all that beer with a wine hike up to our favorite terrace over Ouray to watch the fireworks. What a day!!!
I was pleased today to receive a package of calendars compliments of Weingarten, a major German calendar publishing company. They have published a 2016 calendar in Europe featuring 12 of my photos alongside inspirational quotes by the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner.
Maybe someday in the not-too-distant future I will even be able to read those quotes on my own without my wife’s translation help! But they sound nice, and I’m stoked that my photos were chosen to accompany the words of such a legendary mountain man. The printing quality of the large-format calendar is impressive, with an elegant design and an attractive glossy finish over the photos. Danke schön, Weingarten!