It’s nice to be back!
The best part of the flight between the States and Germany is the chance to see Greenland out the window halfway through the flight. On our recent flight home (between Frankfurt and Chicago) we passed over the southern tip of Greenland, and were treated to awesome views of its mountains and fjords, with glaciers flowing out from the continental ice sheet. See lots more photos below! Continue reading “Flight over Greenland”
After our travels in Bosnia and Montenegro, we made an epic train ride all the way from Sarajevo to Germany to visit Claudia’s family and friends and celebrate her sister’s wedding! We had fun visiting everybody and although I already greatly missed the Balkan wine, I was able to drown my sorrows in plenty of good German Hefeweizen! 🙂
The cobblestoned old town of Mostar is a must-see destination in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Its charming stone buildings line the Neretva River, connected by the high-arched Stari Most bridge (the one pictured below). This iconic bridge was originally built in 1566 under Ottoman rule, and is one of Bosnia & Herzogovina’s most recognizable landmarks.
The Stari Most bridge is not only a symbol of Bosnia & Herzegovina, but also of the tragic events of the Bosnian War and subsequent healing process. Mostar suffered greatly during the war in 1992-95 after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. This war is extremely complex to understand; but here’s the gist of it in a very basic nutshell, as I understand (keeping in mind that I’m no historian, I’m just an outsider trying to make sense of the history):
Since the world wars there were always deep nationalistic tensions between the Croats and Serbs; these tensions were suppressed under Tito’s rule under a unified communist Yugoslavia. After Tito’s death, poor economic times and lack of strong leadership led to a renewed rise in these nationalistic divisions. The Croats, who had felt persecuted under Tito’s regime, were eager to form an independent Croatia, while the Serbians viewed Yugoslavia as a type of “greater Serbia” and resisted the breakup of “their” territory. Bosnia (with its mix of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims) was culturally and geographically at the center this tug of war, and once Croatia and then Bosnia voted for independence, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and other Serbian paramilitaries responded brutally, occupying much of Bosnia and committing atrocities of ethnic cleansing not seen on European soil since WWII. United Nations forces were sent in to “keep the peace” by attempting to disarm both sides, but in reality their policy of “neutrality” meant that they did nothing while the much more heavily armed Yugoslav army continued their massacres.
In 1992 Mostar was attacked and bombed by the JNA (Serbs), until a UN-brokered agreement moved the JNA forces out. The defense of the city was left to the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croat armies, while Serbs from Mostar were forced to leave and many Serbian cultural and religious monument were destroyed. In 1993 the allied Croat and Bosniak forces turned against each other, due to the unwillingness of the Bosniaks to form a confederation of Bosnia and Croatia (with large parts of Bosnia carved off for the Croats), resulting in a brutal 11-month siege against the mainly Muslim east side of the Neretva River, which was almost completely destroyed though never captured. In November 1993, after 427 years of spanning the river, the beloved Stari Most bridge collapsed after tank shelling from the Croat side. In March 1994 the Washington Agreement was signed, which ended the Croat-Muslim confict. The broader war continued until finally NATO conducted air strikes that crippled Serbian networks and the Bosnian and Croat armies were able to retake large portions of land. In December 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, formally bringing an end to Bosnian War.
The Stari Most bridge was reconstructed in 2004, once again connecting the two sides of Mostar.
After our treks in the mountains of Montenegro, we were feeling pretty trekked-out and looking forward to a more relaxing stretch of travels along the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Yes, we knew it would be hot, crowded, touristy, and expensive compared to the mountains, but we wanted to visit there anyways; no trip to Montenegro would be complete without a visit to the coast.
We spent three days relaxing in the ancient walled town of Kotor at the head of the Bay of Kotor, a fjord off the Adriatic Sea. When I think of fjords Norway comes to mind, so it’s quite novel to see a Mediterranean version of a fjord.
Kotor is a very charming old town with a labyrinth of narrow marble pedestrian alleys and inviting cafes around every corner. Like much of the Adriatic coast, Kotor has a distinctively Italian influence in the architecture and cuisine. It’s a great place to stroll around aimlessly, and sit down with a bottle of Vranac and a plate of mussels!
A few hours drive up the coast from Kotor and over the border in Croatia is the famous walled city of Dubrovnik, our next destination and a romantic place to spend our third anniversary!
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.
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.
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.
For our first night we camped up on Qafa e Prosllopit, a high pass right at the border between Montenegro and Albania. After an evening spent huddling in the tent with lightning and thunder booming around, my inner masochist convinced us to wake up in the middle of the night to hike up Zla Kolata before sunrise.
At 2534 m, Zla Kolata (aka Kollata e Keqe) is technically the tallest mountain in Montenegro; 12 meters taller than Bobotov Kuk, which is generally considered to be Montenegro’s tallest peak. Why does Bobotov get all the love, when it’s not even the highest? First of all, Bobotov Kuk is indeed the tallest Montenegrin peak that is completely within Montenegro territory; Zla Kolata is right on the border so shares its summit with Albania. But once we hiked up Zla Kolata, I realized perhaps the real unspoken reason why Zla Kolata gets no fame: while Bobotov Kuk is a beautiful, striking peak and the crown jewel of the beloved Durmitor National Park, Zla Kolata is actually just a fairly nondescript summit overshadowed by a plethora taller and more spectacular neighboring mountains just over the border in Albania. So it just wouldn’t be fitting for Montenegrins to pride themselves on such an unremarkable “bump” surrounded by taller giants!
Despite the obscurity of Zla Kolata itself, it’s part of a high plateau that offers incredible views of the surrounding mountains as well as a jaw-dropping overlook into the 1600+ meter (5,000+ feet) deep Valbona valley, where we would be hiking down to later this day. Continue reading “The Cursed Mountains”
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.
Lots more photos below! Continue reading “Durmitor Loop”