Montenegro: the interior

After basking on the sun-kissed Montenegrin coast, we turned inland to explore the “real” Montenegro—the formidable mountain strongholds that had resisted domination by the Italians, the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Nazis, and almost every other would-be ruler. Because how would they even get there? Today, several impressive highway tunnels burrow under the steep coastal range into the interior. But you know us…we chose to take the more ancient and scenic routes over those mountains. Because why take a nice, straight, well-maintained highway when you could choose a steep, sketchy old road with lots of hairpins and no guardrails? 😉

Our first foray inland was from Kotor, up the infamous Serpentine road over Mount Lovćen, the “black mountain” for which the country is named. The moment we crested the mountain pass and lost sight of the bay, the vibe completely changed. It was sorta like we had left the Italian Riviera and entered…Kazakhstan. A broad, lonely valley opened before us, dotted with modest red-tiled farmhouses and some sheep. The “highway”, if you can call it that, with no striping and barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, meandered down to a small village (apparently called Njegusi and boasting a population of about 30). We were definitely off the tourist track now, and as we drove across that valley and back up the other side, I began to wonder: was this really a good idea? And: would we ever be heard from again?

Njegusi village & Mount Lovćen, just behind Kotor, Montenegro

Dark clouds gathered above us as we wound through the hills toward the small, historic Montenegrin capital of Cetinje. For centuries, Montenegro’s prince-bishops ruled from their palace in this remote mountain outpost, selected precisely because it was so inaccessible. I tried to imagine how 19th-century foreign ambassadors felt as they made the trek up into the mountains to their embassies here (and what they must have done to earn such an ignoble post!). After WWII, most government functions were wisely moved down to the much larger and more practical city of Podgorica; but Cetinje remains the honorary and spiritual capital of the country, home to the presidential palace, the national museum and library, and a handful of other institutions. But once the proudest city of a proud people, with wide tree-lined boulevards and grand buildings, Cetinje now feels partially abandoned, a living relic.

As we descended out of the mountains into the city center, those dark clouds above us erupted into a full-on downpour. We parked in a large dirt lot and ran for shelter, looking for someplace to eat lunch on the main street—where we found plenty of other folks huddled, drinking and smoking under various awnings and overhangs. We ended up in the Scottish Pub Academia, which seemed to be nearly Scottish or academic; in fact, nobody even seemed to speak English there, unlike on the coast. But it was dry inside and the food was cheap.

By the time we finished, the sun was back out—fickle Montenegrin weather—and we went out exploring. We wandered past a stately old British embassy that is now a music college, the ornate 19th century presidential “Blue Palace”, and a large, sprawling, and conspicuously modernist hotel complex that had perhaps once been the country’s most prestigious accommodations—but now seemed to be boarded up and abandoned. Surrounding all of these were two leafy and surprisingly well-kept parks, strangely devoid of people, and on the other side, a couple more palaces and the proud old legislature building, all now converted to museums—also nearly empty. We also found the tiny, adorable “Castle Church” built on the site of the town’s first monastery, where some Montenegrin royalty are buried. Overlooking all this from the side of a hill, we found the new monastery, this one very much in working order, complete with dozens of bearded monks shuffling about and chatting. Of all the landmarks in this historic town, this Serbian Orthodox monastery is apparently the most important, where it is said that the “destiny of the Montenegrin people was decided upon and where it was shaped” (Museums of the World). Though I’m still not really sure what that means. It does supposedly have some interesting relics, including the right hand of John the Baptist…but we didn’t see anything particularly memorable. After a bit more wandering, we were satisfied that we had experienced this odd has-been European capital. So we meandered back to the car and headed toward the coast.

After a few days lounging on the beach in Budva and checking out Sveti Stefan and Petrovac, we again headed inland, this time in earnest. We switchbacked up and over the coastal range again, and in the shadow of even taller peaks, followed a stunning road down into a forested valley. But the forests of lowland Montenegro are not what you might imagine—not like the majestic pines of California or the beeches and oaks of central Europe. The forests here are made up of small, gnarled trees and shrubs, a little like our drab chaparral, but finer and denser and fairly impenetrable. The land itself is karst, made up of a chunky, crumbly, perforated gray rock, more like loose concrete than solid stone. Somehow, everything about it feels ancient, like the countryside is a weathered, wiry old man.

We kept descending, past a few scattered villages and roadside konobas (restaurants), until we reached the valley floor, now almost back at sea level. The highway here is ramrod straight, following a railway line along a causeway toward Podgorica. But halfway across the valley, we made an abrupt turnoff, followed a little road as it squeezed between some buildings and then emerged into the tiny town of Virpazar, straddling a river. Immediately, a man flagged us down and tried to sell us a boat ride. Because about the only reason anybody comes to Virpazar is to take a boat out on Lake Skadar.

Heard of Skadar? We hadn’t either. Which is strange, because it’s one of the largest lakes in Europe. Too big to fit within Montenegro, in fact, so half of it is in Albania. At its most swollen, it’s about 200 square miles, slightly bigger than Lake Tahoe (and a half dozen European countries). All that rain that falls on Montenegro and quickly percolates into the karst? A whole lot of it ends up here. We couldn’t see the lake yet, but we knew we were right next to it. (When full, the lake reaches right up to the town, but that wasn’t the case then.)

But we weren’t stopping to check out Skadar or Virpazar today. Our destination was a farm a couple miles outside of town on a narrow country road. We were really in the boondocks now. Google Maps was no help here, and after way overshooting it, we found our way back (with some help from the neighbor) to our place, the Country House Djurisic. It’s just a small, plain two-story farmhouse in a cluster of several others. But appearances can be deceiving, and we quickly fell in love with this quaint little place—all except for the roosters crowing at 4 in the morning!

Marko, our host, wasn’t there to greet us, but we met him later that evening. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the musical artist Moby, Marko isn’t your typical bear-like Montenegrin man. He’s a soft-spoken intellectual and a plucky entrepreneur, who has been transforming his family’s centuries-old farm into a highly successful winery and farm-stay experience. We immediately clicked with him, and over the next few days, we spent hours discussing life and politics in Montenegro, poring over maps and apps as he told us where to go and what to see, and enjoying some of his amazing farm-cooked (and vegan-friendly) meals, made from a lot of his own produce.

He even took us down to the small cellar below the house, where he makes his wine and rakija, a traditional Montenegrin beverage that’s more akin to paint thinner than fermented juice. Thinks grappa, but made from whatever fruit they have on hand. He said his grandfather downed a dram of it every morning. I could barely sip mine! Marko never told us what variety of grapes he grows, but there’s a good chance it’s what we call Zinfandel, which originated in this region. Marko’s little winemaking operation wasn’t unique; apparently all the families around here grow their own grapes and make their own wine, just as they’ve done for centuries.

As for the farm, it didn’t look like much at first, but we soon realized that crops spread amongst the trees on the hill behind the house. The grape vines and fruit trees were the most obvious, but they had a little bit of everything growing in that surprisingly fertile soil. We loved walking outside and just picking fruit to eat, especially the grapes. Marko said the tap water was fine to drink, but he preferred to fill a pitcher with spring water from a pipe that stuck out of the ground in the orchard. It was while we were filling the pitcher one evening that we met someone else who liked the water: the largest toad I have ever seen, bigger than my hand, who proved quite hard to catch!

Marko’s guest house was nothing fancy, but with its mismatched furniture and random knickknacks, it felt like a cozy old farmhouse. What I most appreciated was the view from the porch over the valley, toward the mountains we had driven down to get here. Angry grey clouds always seemed to cover some part of the sky, even if the rest was bright blue, creating a moody, filtered light. We often heard a low rumbling of thunder in the distance, and sometimes a warm summer rain would fall briefly. I couldn’t stop taking photos of the view, though almost none really did it justice.

Our first morning, Marko greeted us with coffee and the most amazing bowl of traditional fried pastries, basically unsweetened doughnut holes, still hot from the oil, which we slathered with jam and gorged on. Then he sent us out to explore Lake Skadar, pointing us down a sketchy one-lane road (actually a regional highway) that wound along the mountains on the south side of the lake. With lots of hairpin turns and steep cliffs, no guardrails, and few spots to pass, it was definitely a white-knuckle driving experience in our Kia SUV. Especially since I kept lurching to a stop, often right in the middle of the road, to snap photos of the amazing views over the lake. It was at one of these stops that we encountered a Dutch woman, dressed all in black and covered with tats and piercings, who was apparently heading the same direction on this hot August morning—but on foot. Crazy European tourists! But as the road was even less amenable to pedestrians than motorists, and it was already quite hot, we offered her a ride to the next village, Godinje, where we were stopping anyway. What she was going to do there, we had no idea. Especially since the villages here aren’t like you might imagine, with a few shops and cafés lining a quaint main street. This was just a scattered bunch of houses along the road.

So what were we doing here? Marko had told us to hike up to one of the oldest parts of the village, called Lekovići, which apparently dates from the 13th century. He had told us that when the Nazis and Fascists invaded Yugoslavia, it was here that an armed civilian uprising broke out against them—supposedly the first in all of Europe. (I haven’t been able to corroborate that detail, but I did say that you don’t mess with the Montenegrins!) We hiked up a steep road until we found a few dozen ancient stone houses clinging to the hillside. Half of them were abandoned and crumbling, some with collapsed roofs and trees and shrubs growing out of the rubble. But others were still inhabited, and a few folks acknowledged us as we wandered past their homes. We found our way down to a small overgrown creek, from which the village seemed to get its water through a series of janky pipes, and then out to “Paradise“, an unlikely organic food & wine establishment at the very end of town with a big, somewhat sketchy deck. But it was apparently closed.

We were just about to head down to our car when a voice called out from somewhere: “Dober dan!” (good day!) A moment later, a large, cheerful, slow-moving old fellow emerged from the nearest house, looking a bit like he had just woken up. His was a rather humble home, but it faced the lake, and from the second story, a large, covered concrete patio projected precariously over the hillside, merging seamlessly with an open-air kitchen. He beckoned us up, so we came. I asked if he spoke English—”Engleski?”—but he shook his head. He pulled out his phone—because even here, in a half-abandoned, 700-year-old village, people have cell phones—and started plunking away, presumably writing us a message that he would then translate. Sure enough, he was writing to ask us if we would like something to drink or to taste some wine for free? Um…sure, why not? We followed him slowly down to a dim basement, where we were surprised to find three large, very modern stainless steel vats, along with stacks of unlabelled wine bottles, but it was so dark that I couldn’t tell if they were full or empty. He offered us a taste from each vat, and when we indicated our favorite, he produced a bottle, this one full and sporting a surprisingly pretty, modern label, which we bought for a very reasonable price. Back up on the patio, he got Griffin a Coke. Then he went back to cooking something that we presumed was his lunch. With conversation rather difficult, we sat quietly at a plastic table and admired the view, before awkwardly saying our goodbyes. So this is what a home business looks like in rural Montenegro!

We continued driving for almost an hour along that daunting cliffside road, climbing higher and higher, until we found the turnoff Marko had told us about, towards the village of Donji Murići. Far below us, a trio of islands stood just offshore. On the largest of these, there was rumored to be a 14th-century monastery where the nuns will cheerfully offer you something to drink. We drove down the narrow village road, dodging herds of roaming goats and sheep and the occasional donkey, until we reached a small dirt parking area by the beach. Marko had told us we would find a tiny restaurant and a couple of guys offering tourists exorbitantly priced boat trips out to the island. Sure enough. He had also given us the number of a man named Sasha who would take us out for a more reasonable sum, but we couldn’t track him down. So we just plunked down on the beach and enjoyed the sun and the surprisingly warm water. Some clouds had gathered, offering a reprieve from the heat and creating more of that moody lighting. The lake is so large that we could barely make out the other side through the haze, which made it feel like an inland sea. Except there were no waves, and it was unbelievably quiet—utterly serene. Well, except for the occasional yelps from the only other people on the beach, a family with three teenage girls. They looked like locals but were speaking…English? Turns out the dad had grown up in this village and still owned land here. But he was raising his family in New Jersey, and they were all back for a visit.

Beška island (with its monastery tower just visible) & Lake Skadar from the cliffside road

But we had come so far to see this monastery, and you know me—I’m a little, you know, determined. And the island was so close, only 600 or 700 feet offshore. So while Griffin and Amy played in the water, I started swimming towards it…carrying my shoes over my head. It was a lot harder than it seemed, so I was pretty tuckered out when I finally got there, and had some difficulty scrambling up the sharp rocks. I had aimed towards a small structure I had seen from the shore, which turned out to be a makeshift fishing shelter some industrious person was constructing out of scraps. No one was there, but they had left their tools, and I was a little worried that whomever it was might not be too pleased that I had invaded their spot. Problem was, the monastery was on the far side of the island, but I couldn’t find a path, and the brush was so unbelievably thick that I couldn’t penetrate it—not without getting shredded alive. And if I got injured, who was coming to help me? (Probably not the nuns!) But, determined, I spent twenty minutes or so trying to find some way around or through, until finally admitting defeat and making the long swim back to my family…this time wearing my shoes. While watching the overpriced motorboat guys speeding back to shore from the far side of the island with some less obstinate tourists.

We finally made it back safely to the little town of Virpazar that evening, where we enjoyed a relaxing (if mostly unmemorable) dinner at one of the riverside restaurants.

But we weren’t done with sketchy adventures. The next morning, Marko, who claimed to be a hiking guide amongst his many other hobbies and enterprises, planned out a hike for us up in the mountains. Only he wasn’t going with us…but did give a very detailed GPS route. Thus far, he hadn’t steered us wrong, so off we went, parking the car by yet another monastery (Donji Brčali) and then hiking down a gravel road. We soon found ourselves traipsing along an ancient trail (the Orahovštica Trail, apparently) through the forest, which at these higher altitudes seemed just a bit more like more of a traditional European beech forest. Along the trail, we could see the remains of old terraces, which apparently had once farms before the forest reclaimed them. Where the trail split, we were astonished to find well-maintained wooden signposts, pointing the way to villages several kilometers away. Marko had told us that there were still some settlements out here only accessible by foot (or by mule cart, I suppose, for which the trail was just wide enough), and that these trails were Montenegro’s original roads. But our destination was a small, lazy river at the bottom of the canyon, which we finally reached. It was a lovely spot, shaded by tall trees, with a deep, emerald-green pool traversed by an impressive stone footbridge (the Opačac Bridge). Surprisingly, there was a bench and even an interpretive sign. Even more surprisingly, we found another couple there lounging on the bench, apparently tourists like us, but they soon departed, leaving us alone to frolic in the water for a long while (Amy in nothing but her panties) with the snails, fish, and crawdads.

That afternoon, I indulged Amy by taking the highway back out to the coast to see Stari Bar, an adventure I described in our previous post.

On our final day on Marko’s farm, we wandered back down to Lake Skadar, this time at a much closer and somewhat hidden beach that Marko had told us about, where we spent a few hours playing in the water, chasing frogs, and clambering into an old rusty dinghy we found. If you’ve ever said you wanted to slow down—well, this was it. On the edge of this silent and serene lake, nothing was in a hurry—not even the sun or the wind. It was like one of those childhood summer days that seems to go on forever. Even I was forced to relax. (Check out this video Amy took for some sense of it.)

We were sad to finally leave Marko and his farm that Saturday. Our next stop was the city of Podgorica, a mere 30 minutes on the highway. But of course, we didn’t take the highway. So that we could experience a little more of his “real Montenegro”, Marko helped us plot out a much more meandering route, switchbacking up the hills on the old road, passing through ancient villages, and enjoying fantastic views of Lake Skadar below us. Along the way, according to Marko’s directions, we made a pitstop at the most unlikely of spots: a little roadside kiosk in the middle of nowhere, overlooking the lake, where we got coffee and more of those delicious unsweetened local doughnuts. Yum.

Our next stop was the little riverside village of Rijeka Crnojevića. It was a lot like the town we had just come from, Virpazar, only even smaller and more remote, where again the main industry is taking tourists out on boats to Lake Skadar. There were also a couple of charming riverside cafés and a pretty arched stone bridge; but at least half the village was comprised of collapsed and abandoned buildings set along a large, overgrown riverfront promenade. Perhaps the once-proud town had been damaged by one of Montenegro’s many devastating earthquakes and never fully rebuilt. Or perhaps it had declined more gradually as traffic shifted to the newer, much shorter highway to Podgorica, and younger generations moved to the city looking for opportunities. Whatever the reason, the dilapidated charm of this little town appealed to Amy, and she declared that we should buy one of the ruined houses here and fix it up. But since this was something she said at least once a week, I didn’t pay much attention!

A mile or so outside the village, I found the very hillside where my favorite music label, Anjunadeep, had recently shot a breathtaking 2½ hour DJ set for their latest compilation. (Betcha not many other fans have done that!)

A half-hour later, we finally descended into the Podgorica (pronounced pohd-gore-eetsa, best I could tell), the country’s new capital. It’s radically different than the old capital of Cetinje. First off, it’s by far the biggest city with over 185,000 people—almost one-third of Montenegro’s population. And unlike Cetinje or any other place we had been thus far in this ridiculously hilly country, Podgorica is spread across a low, flat plain. This favorable location just north of Lake Skadar, at the junction of two rivers and multiple trade routes, has been inhabited for eons and was the site of the Roman town of Doclea. But this position also makes it vulnerable, and the city sustained heavy damage in WWII. After the war, it was quickly rebuilt, declared the new capital, and renamed Titograd, after Yugoslavia’s autocratic ruler-for-life, Marshall Tito. (It was finally changed back in 1992, twelve years after his death.)

Podgorica is a strange place that lacks any of the charm of Montenegro’s ancient towns and villages. Nothing seems more than a few decades old—because it isn’t. The architecture seems a cross between the sort of unimaginative concrete boxes that make up most Mexican cities and the depressingly severe minimalism of Soviet-era monuments. But on the upside, it sports wide tree-lined boulevards, lots of parks and squares, the aquamarine Morača River, and the impressive Millennium Bridge. And plenty of shopping! For rural Montenegrins, I can only imagine how exciting a trip to bustling Podgorica must be.

We didn’t spend long here—just an hour to so to meander through the unimpressive Independence Square, past the National Library and city hall, through a large park and along the river, and then finally on to a café for lunch. The place was so unmemorable that I hardly even snapped any photos. But it did have some of the healthiest food options we’d yet seen in Montenegro—one benefit of being in the cosmopolitan capital.

Then we were back on the road. Of the 125 miles or so we had to cover that day, we had somehow only done about a quarter of it, and it was already mid-afternoon! So off we went, plunging north into the mountains for another chapter of our Montenegro adventure, which I’ll cover in the next post.

After three days exploring the high mountains, we looped back down to the coast where we had started, this time taking a more direct route through the western side of the country. It was a beautiful drive, long and lonely, and we watched as the green alpine landscape slowly gave way to the tawny greys of the lower country. I was tempted to go out of our way to a little-known cave on the Bosnian border, Crvena stijena, a rich archaeological site that contains evidence of human habitation dating back 180,000 years! Or to the much more famous Ostrog Monastery, built into the side of a cliff. But this time, I restrained myself, and we kept to the highway and a more relaxed pace.

Our one stop on this long day’s journey was in the city of Nikšić, the country’s second-largest—though at 56,000 people, it’s still considerably smaller than even Santa Barbara. Set in a broad valley like Podgorica, it too was fairly unremarkable, with none of the ancient charm of Kotor or the smaller towns we had visited. After all the amazing things we’d seen in Montenegro, it was hard to get excited about this ho-hum town—a bit like visiting Stockton at the end of a tour of California. To be fair, it did have a few noteworthy sites…King Nikola’s Palace here (closed when we were there), a famous 19th-century bridge, and another much more humble bridge built by the Romans when here in the 3rd century. But, whatever. We knew the city’s real claim to fame is producing the eponymous Nikšić Beer since 1896, Montenegro’s favorite, which we had been drinking for the past couple of weeks. But we decided to forego a visit to the brewery (now owned by Coors).

Instead, we headed to the Serbian Orthodox cathedral of St. Basil of Ostrog, dedicated to the same saint as the monastery we had skipped. Crowning a solitary hill in the center of town and reached by a long staircase, the white stone church cuts a handsome figure against the pines that surround it and the relatively flat city landscape below. But inside, it seemed less impressive, so we only lingered for a few minutes to silently admire the golden iconostasis. Then we moved on, walking through the city park, and onto the commercial and social center of town, Freedom Square, which is far more lively and attractive than its counterpart in Podgorica. Here, we found a much more rewarding stop: the famous Propaganda Bar. In a country not particularly known for its sense of humor or playfulness, where democracy and independence are still quite new, this unusually hip establishment happily pokes fun at the challenging socialist era. We sat down on their large patio overlooking the square, shaded by trees and dozens of colorful umbrellas dangling from strings. It was an awesome place to grab a coffee, a beer, or a cocktail and peoplewatch, and we enjoyed the delightful laughter and conversation of a group of teens next to us. Somewhere inside, Griffin and Amy had found a book of Garfield comics in the local language. It’s good to know that some things are universal!

On our way out of town, we threaded our way through some residential neighborhoods and down a dirt road to a riverside park. Which was really just a shady spot by the river, with a nearly deserted restaurant, some partially capsized rowboats, and…a pen of goats? Perhaps it was more lively on the weekends when the locals came out. Oh well. After seeing so many incredible sites in Montenegro, Nikšić was a disappointment. You have our permission to skip it entirely on your next visit! Except possibly for the Propaganda Bar. 😉

Back to the coast for a final few days on the beach! Stay tuned.