As you may have noticed if you follow this blog, during July and August of 2015 we spent a month traveling in the former Yugoslavian countries of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Croatia. I have finally finished processing my photos and have posted a gallery of my favorite photos from the trip.
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.
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 — 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).
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.