Another ‘best road in the wooooorrrrrld’?

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.

20160810041018_1Njegoš 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.

20160810032325The 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.

DCIM123GOPROThe 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.

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DCIM123GOPROAfter 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’.

20160810062304We 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.

20160810080722Fortunately, the road along the lake was very nice and we found a nice spot under the trees of a small war memorial monument where we had lunch, so my mood improved soon.

20160810083247According 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.

20160810080742Turning 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.

DCIM123GOPROOnce 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!

20160810105005Traffic and the road to Shkodër were no worse than what I had seen in other places in Eastern Europe, with horse carts and other curious vehicles sharing the road with cars, buses and trucks.

DCIM123GOPROWe 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.

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Kotor Bay

Day 12 – Tuesday 9th August – Kotor Bay (0km)

Having already visited the old town and the fortress yesterday, today we decide to get a boat ride from which we could see the whole bay from the water (much more enjoyable than the views from the motorbike while stuck in traffic) and which also took us out to the open sea, stopped at midday in a beautiful beach were we went for a swim and had lunch by the sea and then into a sea cave called the Blue Cave.

20160809033539201608090713232016080909225520160809094522All in all it was quite a good trip, even though the sea was too choppy for the boat to stop long enough to allow us to swim in the cave and on the way back we were too late to visit Our Lady of the Rocks, a church built onto a small island in front of the town of Perast. At least the visit to Perast was nice, and the boat guy offered us a free ride to the church the following day to compensate, but we had already booked accommodation in Albania, so we an excuse to come back here in the future.

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Do not trust first impressions

Day 11 – Monday 8thAugust – From Dubrovnik to Kotor (107,1km)

Today I woke up with the excitement of crossing a border into a country I had never been to before – Montenegro.

We loaded the bike, which as I said on the previous post was parked in the car park of a shopping centre and rode down the ramp that led to the road to find that unlike the weekend, the boom gate was down and there was a guard in the booth. I had seen a sign detailing the prices per hour and more importantly, the price in the event of losing the ticket, and I definitely did not want to pay that so when we saw that the guard was busy with a driver who was paying his stay we seized the chance to slip out through the gap between the boom and wall and zoom down the street without looking back. We’ll be at the border before they realise, kid.

20160808025014And we were soon indeed at the border after a quick ride up the fort to snap
a panorama of the city. Anticipating long queues again we had set off early and taken a road south of the main one which followed the coast in order to avoid traffic. We were not sure whether there was a border crossing on that road or not, or if it would be open to traffic, for that matter. There were no other cars on the road, which was really beautiful, winding its way down to the green slopes overlooking the Adriatic. After enjoying the road for a while we came to the Croatian border, with only two cars waiting in front of us, and were let through very quickly.

Two corners down the road we found the Montenegrin border, where there three cars waiting, but the police there took things a lot more slowly, taking each car’s passports into the building and coming back out again a good while later. We waited patiently in the sun, with the temperature rising as the day advanced, until we were finally cleared through and arrived in the first big city on the other side, Herzeg Novi, ten minutes later, joining the traffic that was coming from Croatia on the main road. At the first petrol station we saw we found a sticker for the bike (the old Suzy doesn’t have this one!).

20160808041713We were at the entrance of one of the most beautiful and remarkable places in the Adriatic – the Bay of Kotor, an intricate bay surrounded by mountains that reach over 1000m above sea level, and which forms what might be the only fjord in the Mediterranean area. All along its winding coast, over 100km of a road I was quite looking forward to.

Unfortunately, unlike other roads that have built up great expectations in me, this one turned out to be a bit of a disappointment… the road itself is great, but it is the main thoroughfare in the area, and this time of year it sees heavy traffic. We spent most of the journey stuck behind slow traffic or not moving at all each time the road crossed a town, there was constant traffic coming the other way and it was too narrow to try and ride down the middle as I did in the Bosnian border. By the time we got to Kotor, where traffic was at its absolute worse, and turned off the road to find the apartment, I was glad we did not have to ride all 100km of it. There is a ferry that crosses the bay at its narrowest point, saving about half the trip, but I did not take it because I had read that the road was worth it. If you come here in the midst of the summer tourist season, I would take it.

Our apartment was perched on the mountain side with a stunning view of the bay, Kotor’s old town and the fortress and its walls. To get there I had to ride some of the steepest streets I have ever seen (and those who know where I used to live know how steep the streets were there). This was Nat’s first contact with far Easter European architecture – haphazard, grey, functional, partly unfinished… and she was not impressed with the place at all.

2016080810222520160808102503Only after seeing the apartment, which was the best we had found so far, and taking a walk in the afternoon in the beautifully preserved medieval old town did she start to like Montenegro. The heat and traffic jams on the way here had not helped either, so to compensate that we went for a swim in the town beach, which had amazingly clear water for a beach that was right next to a harbour where big cruise ships moor.

2016080811255620160808115859With the sun and the temperature going down we felt brave enough to dare a visit to the fortress and the city walls, an impressive feat of medieval engineering that protected the city from attacks from the mountains. The wall clings to the mountain face almost vertically behind the city, culminating in a fortress with a commanding view of the city below, the bay beyond and the mountains behind.

20160808132406Even this late in the day, with the sun behind the mountains, the temperature was quite high, and we reached the top exhausted and drenched in sweat, but the views were definitely worth it.

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