03.10.2012 - 07.10.2012 26 °C
Episode 15: Belgrade to Podgorica 3 October 2012
Hiking the karsts, celebrity vibe, Germans galore, not much else
Montenegro is not a country that I had on my bucket list so knew very little about the place before I got there. However, this was an opportunity to visit Pius, my hiking buddy from Mongolia, so off I trundled to Podgorica (pronounced Pod-gor-i-tza not my aussie Pod-gor-i-ka).
When I lived in Mongolia, a group of us used to go hiking in the hills surrounding Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, nearly every Sunday. The only restriction we put on ourselves was not to hike if the temperature fell below minus 25oC and that was simply because our lungs would have frozen inside our chests and become popsicles. We would meet outside the round Brau Haus Restaurant at 11 am, decide where to go and then hop either onto the local bus or grab a taxi to our starting point.
Our hiking habits changed when Pius joined our group - simply because he had a car. As befitting the ambassador from Germany, he had a BMW something or another 4-wheel drive which was usually driven very fast over very ghastly roads passing very dilapidated trucks and cars at greater than even a nominal safe speed. But we survived and this allowed us to expand our hiking area and some glorious hikes were made over the next four years not only in the Khan Bogd Mountains but also in Terelj National Park where we ended up hiking every mountain and ridge available to us.
I knew that Pius would take me on a hike into the mountains somewhere in Montenegro, so I was quite happy to head south from Belgrade to visit him.
I opted not to take the train from Belgrade to Podgorica despite there being a direct train line simply because I was told by a number of people that if I wanted to be in Podgorica this century then taking the train was not the way to go. Supposedly, the trains are excruciatingly slow and unreliable and as I did need to get to Podgorica by German National Day 2012 AD, I decided to take the bus.
Bus #11 seat 7 departing 0830 from the main bus station in Belgrade, 2,960 serbian dollars, arriving in Podgorica at 1830. The morning started out well until I discovered that I should have been given a token by the person who sold me the bus ticket which would have given me entry into the bus station. I had also asked for a window seat and I failed on both accounts. I managed to plead for a token and once dropped into the token box, I was safely in the station. I’m not sure of the purpose of the token: maybe a means of counting people? A way of employing people? I also discovered that getting your baggage on the bus costs extra – it is not included in the cost of the bus ticket and the charge is per piece. It wasn’t expensive (about 10 serbian dollars a piece) but just annoying.
It was most entertaining watching the buses depart from the station that morning. There were twelve buses parked in the various bus bays and spot on 0800, they all started up their engines and backed out. All at once. It was smooth, beautifully choreographed and executed with not one bus hitting another. It reminded me of the hippopotamus dance in the Disney movie the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
The bus trip itself was quite uneventful: the usual 10 minute pitstops in the middle of nowhere, the blue nylon curtains that would explode at the sniff of a flame and the ubiquitous, non-ending Zorba the Greek accordion music. The crossing from Serbia to Montenegro was easy peasy as no visa stamp was needed. The road finally got interesting as we passed through the mountains of Montenegro: I was quite impressed with the multitude of long tunnels, the narrow, winding roads and the gorges plunging down into the river beds. Montenegro is certainly a very scenic place and would be worth exploring and hiking as long as you overlooked the piles of rubbish strewn down most of the mountainsides from the side of the roads.
If you have the luck of finding a postcard in Podgorica, then that’s really the only reason to write home about it. Podgorica itself is a small, fairly bland city with little remaining of its communist legacy. The old town (Stara Varoš) dating back to the pre-Ottoman era is very small and not at all impressive. There is the stone and brick clock tower, and an area with rabbit warren streets, but not much else. There is a lovely spot by the river where they have a café and the 15th century Ribnica arched stone bridge, but these are marred by an eyesore of a concrete bunker style hotel directly across the river. Whoever wrote the local tourist guide describing the main drag, Hercegovacka Street, as “lively” needed to reign in their imagination and learn some new adjectives. I found it dead as a doornail. However, there was the bakery that imported frozen bread dough from Germany which was then baked in town which was quite yummy.
Pius and I did manage a hike into the Dinaric Alps in the region of Treskavac Mountain and Bukumirsko Lake, some 45 km to the northeast of Podgorica. The mountains are a giant karst system which have been eroded over the eons so they were rugged, steep and sharp. You had to avoid grabbing a rock or using it for balance as you could easily cut your hands because the rocks had the texture of coarse, ground glass. It was during this hike that I decided that Montenegro was the land of red dots: there was no distinct, groomed trail to follow. Rather, you had to keep a look out for red dots painted on the rocks to find your way up the mountain.
As I was keen to start moving down the coast of the Adriatic Sea, I planned only a short stay in Montenegro. Pius acted as tour guide during my few days in Montenegro, so I managed to see a few of the sights: Cetinje, Lake Scutari, Kotor Bay, Sveti Stefan Island (small, but oozes celebrity), a few churches and the museum for Marko Miljanov, a Montenegrin general who fought against the Ottoman and wrote books.
And Pius still drives the same BMW in the same maniacal manner that he did in Mongolia.
Next stop: Dubrovnik