Day 13 – Wednesday 10th August – From Kotor to Shkodër (209.1km)
Today was the big day – Albania! I was very excited about this, I had heard lots of things about it, mostly contradictory – that it was a beautiful country, but the roads were the worst in Europe, that its people were very kind but it was the place where many stolen vehicles from Europe end up in… But all that would have to wait. First we had a whole day to cross Montenegro and experience some deep contradictions.
On the agenda for the day were a ride into Lovćen National Park to see Njegoš mausoleum, atop one of the highest mountains in the Kotor Bay area, a visit to the coastal city of Budva, where we wanted to see something called ‘Mini Montenegro’, a town built on a small island connected to the coast by a narrow bridge, and a long ride along the southern shore of lake Skadarsko before crossing the border into Albania and stopping for the night in Shkodër, the first big city on the Albanian side. A complete day, then.
Njegoš mausoleum is built on Lovćen peak, overlooking the Kotor bay. Njegoš was a Lord, bishop and poet of great importance in Montenegro who wished to be buried in the mountain that he had seen all his life from the town of Cetinje, where he was born. The story has it that he built a chapel there, but when he died in 1851 bad weather and an ongoing conflict with Turks prevented his people form burying him there. More than a century later, between 1970 and 1974, the Yugoslav government built a mausoleum on top of the mountain to honour his wish.
The most direct way to access the peak from Kotor is the P1 road, which takes you from sea level to almost 1,600m through more than 30 heart stopping hairpin corners that make the Stelvio pass pale in comparison, with an breath-taking view of the bay to complete the experience. Not that you want to get too distracted while driving it, mind you – there are few protections separating you from the edge of the cliff, and from time to time a local zooms past the opposite way not caring much about the fact that there is very little space for two cars to drive past each other. On the other side of the mountain, the M23 road down to Budva, on the coast, is faster, wider and with great mountain views. I don’t know how these ‘best roads in the world’ articles are written or how the roads are selected, but I am sure that it is impossible for them to take into account all the roads in the world. Well, here is one that should be high on any of those lists, do not miss it if you come to Montenegro.
The mausoleum is also worth a visit, you access it via more than 400 steps through a tunnel that ends at the very peak, and it contains a huge statue of the poet carved from a single block of granite and a ceiling covered in real gold.
After a great ride down we reached the town of Budva, a popular coastal destination around here. We did not go into it, as the ‘Mini Montenegro’ we wanted to visit was a bit more to the south, but to my eyes it did not look like the kind of place I would like to go to – big hotels and gaudy blocks of apartments, and the usual dreadful traffic.
A few kilometres down the road we followed the signs to Sveti Stefan, which is the real name of what we had seen advertised in tourist agencies in Kotor as ‘Mini Montenegro’ and found a supposedly two-way street packed full of parked cars where it was almost impossible to make any progress at all. At the end of it, nowhere to park, not even a motorbike, except for a private car park full of luxury cars where they informed us that it was 2€ an hour. Tired of manoeuvring the bike in the stifling heat, I decided that we were not going to spend more than that visiting the town, particularly in riding boots and trousers, so we paid and parked.
We had just set foot on the pedestrian bridge that connects the beach to the town when we heard a voice behind us shouting ‘Sir, Sir, you can’t go there, it is private!’ I turned around find a textbook example of a security guard – tall, burly, shaven head, sunglasses, earpiece, the lot, who explained us in a condescending tone that the town was a hotel and that access was restricted to guests only. I looked down the walkway at the town, then at the guard again. ‘The whole town?’ I asked. ‘The whole town’, he replied in a tone that said ‘get your filthy boots of my bridge, you lowlife’.
We looked around and saw that access to the beach on both sides of the town was also barred by security guards, and that everyone around us was getting off high-end cars or luxury airport shuttle vans and wearing watches that must cost more than my bike. Well, ‘fuck the rich’, we thought, and got the bike out of the car park and the hell out of there.
It was well past midday, and the heat was becoming unbearable, so we headed fast to the interior in search of the road that followed the south bank of lake Skadarsko and a cooler place to stop and eat. With the traffic, the heat, and the disappointment of Sveti Stefan, I was thinking that if I heard the words ‘beach’ and ‘holiday’ in the same sentence anytime before 2030, I was getting a divorce.
According to the map, this was the second main road south of the lake and to the border after the coast road, but it definitely did not look like that. It was little more than a paved dirt track, barely wide enough for a car, that connected all the tiny villages on the lake, and the place could not have looked more different from Budva – we were in deep Montenegro now, and I was having a great time.
Turning the last corner on the road, we left the lake behind and at our feet was Albania, just a short ride down the mountain. There was no small backroad border crossing this time, and as we joined the main road coming from the coast I was anticipating long queues to leave Montenegro and long queues to enter Albania. There were quite a lot of cars, buses and campervans, but two things made things a lot easier than we expected – this was, according to a sign proudly displayed on the wall, the first joint border crossing in the Balkan region, built with EU funds, which saved us the double exit-entry process, and were directed to the pedestrian crossing point, where another motorbike was already being processed, so we jumped the whole queue.
Once on the other side we stopped to buy insurance, as I had read that Albania was not covered in EU policies, but when the guy in one of the booths by the road offering insurance checked our green card, he said that we were already covered. Great!
We found our hotel, more by chance than thanks to the GPS, and were surprised to see that it had an underground car park with CCTV and rooms that, apart from huge, were far more luxurious than we were expecting at those prices. After a shower we went to the centre to change some money, find a country sticker and have a beer to celebrate our arrival in a new country.