Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cruising the Montenegrin Riviera

Kotor, Montenegro, November 26

I am in a little hostel in the sublimely pretty old town of Kotor, here on the truly lovely Bay of Kotor, one of the most picturesque spots in the entire Balkans. I have spent the past two days slowly making my way northwest up the ridiculously beautiful Adriatic coast of this tiny country, happy no longer to be in the oppressive ugliness of Albania's lowlands.

I last blogged from Berat, the pretty stone town in south-central Albania. I am sorry to report that Albania declined in attractiveness from that point on. I got up early the next morning, looked around Berat in the morning light, and then headed to the old Illyrian and Greek settlement of Apollonia. The riding was flat, easy and dull, except for the heavy volume of traffic. The scenery was another matter, a never-ending stream of roadside garbage, hideously ugly concrete buildings, many half-built, and piles of concrete rubble dumped absolutely everywhere. The smoggy air didn't add to the post-Communist aesthetic malaise. Apollonia was pretty, but scarcely excavated. Its hilltop position was its best feature; the worst feature was the fact that in the days of Enver Hoxha, concrete bunkers had been dug right into the old acropolis, as well as into the Bronze Age necropolis across the valley. I wished I had been able to camp in the olive trees adorning the slopes of the ruined city, but instead I retreated to the main road and ended up camped well off the highway in a flat, dry field that was one of the better campsites I've had for a while.

I awoke to clear skies, instead of the heavy mist that had become the norm for me, and got an early start towards Durres. I absolutely flew all morning, aided by a slight tailwind, flat ground and an absolute lack of anything attractive to stop and look at. Durres, sadly, fit into that pattern; it was once a major Greek and Roman city, known successively as Epidamnos and Dyrrhachion, but has little to show of that past glory other than a large (and largely ruined) amphitheatre and a few remains of baths and walls poking out of the regulation grim concrete of the modern city. The archaeological museum showed the city's rich history, but once I was done with it, it was time to move on.

I raced into Tirana that afternoon at a good clip, along a relentlessly industrial strip of concrete and garbage, watching the sun fade to a dim yellow orb in the choking smog that enveloped the capital. It wasn't quite as bad as Pristina, Kosovo, but it was still a bit depressing to see how bad the air quality was; again, coal-burning power stations and factories seem to be the main culprits, as elsewhere in the Balkans. I checked into a little hostel, went out to see the sights of downtown Tirana, and had an evening of conversation with some of my fellow travellers.

The next day, Monday, was supremely frustrating. I went to the Libyan and Dutch embassies and a translation service, trying to get an Arabic translation of my passport information page, necessary for a planned trip to Libya. As had happened in Sofia, it was frustrating, particularly because nobody could really help me despite their best efforts. Having gotten a definitely no can do, I headed out of the smog and traffic and beggars and dumpster divers towards Montenegro, making it about 30 kilometres out of town before camping in a field near the airport.

Tuesday was a long slog of a day, over 100 km without much scenic payoff. The 75 km to Shkoder, the last city in Albania, was eminently forgettable, as was Shkoder itself, noticeably poorer even than the rest of the country. The only really top-notch thing the city can boast is a pretty hilltop castle; having admired that from below and scarfed down a big doner kebab, I headed for the border, through some visibly poverty-stricken little villages. At the border, I met a Scottish couple headed to China along my Silk Road route, but we had little time to compare notes. As soon as I had crossed the border, the cycling improved immensely, with little traffic, little garbage, lovely limestone mountains and citrus plantations. I met another pair of cyclists, this time a Czech/Slovak team, and then camped in what would have been the best campsite of my Balkans trip, except that I got chased out soon after arriving because my secluded field was right in the path of a wild boar hunt, and the hunters didn't want me getting in the way of their shooting. My second choice, found in the dark, was much less appealing but at least I didn't get shot in the night.

The last two days, riding up the coast to get here, have been pure pleasure. Lots and lots of scenic wow moments, as the coast consists of high, steep limestone mountains sloping directly into the Adriatic. The weather has been balmy, an unexpected Indian summer that has had me sweating and has provided sublime light for photography. On neither day have I posted big daily kilometre totals, as I've been stopping so often to admire the views, or to explore old Venetian towns with limestone houses, narrow alleyways and broad cafe-lined piazzas. Montenegro is definitely on the European tourism real estate radar, with lots of holiday apartments and villas going up, but at least for now, it's a far cry from the Turkish Mediterranean coast or the Greek islands or the Costa del Sol. There are lots of citrus plantations and olive groves and small villages with old churces, and now, in the low season, there aren't that many locals or tourists around.

The first day I made it to Ulcinj before lunch, an old pirate stronghold where Miguel de Cervantes spent five long years in prison before his ransom was raised. (Sounds like Somalia today! Plus ca change....) Then I scooted up a roller coaster of a road to Bar, an industrial port with a sublimely pretty old town perched high up on a hill above town. It looked wonderful from outside, but I had the itch to keep riding on such a pretty day, so I didn't venture inside the walls. I ended up camping just past the picturesque mountaintop castle of Haj Nehaj; my campsite gave me a perfect view of a Kodachrome sunset over the Adriatic. This only partly compensated for the fact that my brand-new Therma-Rest died during the evening, about half an hour after the fuel pump for my camping stove. I went to bed unhappy.
A good night's sleep put me in a better mood, and today was another day of great views, old architecture and lovely riding. I passed picturesque Sveti Stefan (a tiny offshore island connected by a narrow causeway to the coast), Petrovac and Budva (a huge resort town with a very pleasant old town jutting out into the sea) before making my way around a headland and into the Bay of Kotor, a convoluted fjord-like bay ringed by high mountains and dotted with absolutely perfect fishing villages with Venetian architecture, old Catholic churches (I'm on the borderline between Orthodoxy and Catholicism here) and still water. I made it as far as Kotor, another old town that's as pretty as a postcard, before it got dark, and I was hauled in off the streets to this hostel, whose existence I knew of but whose location was a complete mystery until I randomly walked past the front door. I spent the evening strolling the streets, looking way up at the impossibly vertical fortifications that crawl up the very white flanks of the Monte Negro (the Venetians must have had a sense of sarcasm when they named this area; it should really be Monte Bianco, or at least Monte Grigio) and drinking in the historical atmosphere.

From here it should be a more or less straight shot up the coast towards Trieste and Venice; how quickly I get there depends on weather (rain is forecast for tomorrow, to break this long string of fine weather) and how hilly the coast road is. With luck, I should make it to Dubrovnik tomorrow.

Peace and Tailwinds

Riding Day No.



From Start of Trip



Final Elevation









Daily Destination


Between Fier and Lobunje




near Fushe Kruje


10 km before Ulcinj, Montenegro


near Canj



1 comment:

  1. Hi Graydon,

    Not sure if you remember me, but we met in Kotor about a year ago. Remember three Russian-Americans with whom you had couple of drinks in Kotor? I've just found the crad with your name and your blog. I've also sent you a friend request on facebook.