Track the Roots walk, Montenegro (8 to 14 June 2018)

Montenegro is a tiny country wedged between Albania to the south and Croatia to the north.  A coastal strip less than two kilometres wide runs the length of most of the country.  Inland of the coastal strip Montenegro is mountainous, with an average elevation of 2,000 metres.

We stayed two nights in Budva in the south of the country when we first arrived.  With small but super-clear blue water pebble beaches and a couple of kilometres of tacky beach bars, restaurants, shops and a couple of fun parks, it has long been a favourite with Russians seeking sun and warmth.

Heading north, the road follows the coast through a series of beach towns until the coastal strip runs out abruptly at the Bay of Kotor where the mountains run right down to the sea.  Here, the road cuts through the mountains to the Croatian border.

The country is so small that, traffic permitting, you could traverse it via the coastal route in less than a day.

From Budva we travelled up to Perast, a tiny town on the edge of the Bay of Kotor not far from Montenegro’s northern border.  The trip took only a few hours.

The coastal strip is well developed as a holiday destination but the mountainous interior sees very few foreign tourists.  Tourism in the interior is generally to visit one or the other of two national parks where some hiking and ski-ing infrastructure is being developed.

We came to do a six day hike from Perast to Stari Bar in the south of the country.  Here’s how it unfolded.

Day 1 –  Perast to Kotor

The starting point for the walk is the lovely stone town of Perast on the shores of the Bay of Kotor.  It’s tiny, with a population of just 350, but sports no less than 16 Baroque palaces and 19 churches left over from its heyday as a Venetian trading port in the 1800s.

The day we arrived it was blistering sunshine.  We took a dip in the bay.  Momentarily.  Despite the high air temperature , the Adriatic waters were rather bracing.

The humidity continued to build and overnight a series of massive thunderstorms brought torrential rain, lightning and thunder.  Good, we thought.  This will rain itself out and clear the humidity by the morning.  We were soooo wrong.  We woke to black skies, more thunder and teeming rain.

The walk began with a short boat trip to Our Lady of the Rocks, the only man-made island in the Adriatic.  With an area of only 3,000 square metres, the island and chapel were built on a rock in the bay after two Venician sailors claimed to have found a picture of the Virgin Mary there in 1452.

The boat was an open sided dinghy and we were soaked to the skin on the crossing despite great wet weather gear.  

The boatman waited while we looked at the church, then took us further across the bay to a drop off point to start the walk.  As we left the island, the weather looked like it just might clear. 

Those hopes wee misplaced.  As we started up the hill, the rain started again in earnest.  The downpour became a torrent and the track became a muddy creek.  The thunder was like nothing either of us have experienced before.  At least the rain kept the temperature down, and the trees gave us confidence we were unlikely to be struck by lightning.  

A mere two hours later, right about when we finished ascending to the ridge line at the top of the range, the unrelenting downpour suddenly ceased.  The sun emerged and the ground steamed.  It wasn’t long before we no longer looked like the losers in one of those wacky Japanese TV shows where contestants negotiate Vaseline smeared obstacle courses above chasms filled with water or mud and inevitably end up in the pit.

The trail followed old military tracks from the 19th century when the area was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Following ridge lines, we eventually gained great views down to Kotor further around the bay.  

After a long climb down the mountain and around the bay, we finished the day in Kotor.  It had taken a boat trip, a mountain ascent in blinding rain and about seven hours hiking.  Kotor is a mere 12kms by road from where we started.   Why didn’t we just take the bus????  In fact, a few days later we met a group of four English hikers who’d looked at the weather that day and done just that.  Who were the clever ones, then?

Day 2 – Kotor to Njegusi

The old town of Kotor is a fortified stone town built in the 12th and 13th centuries.  It is worth at least a day to explore, so we circled back to it after the walk.  More about that in a later post.

Today began with a walk up to Kotor’s fortress which was built into the hillside overshadowing the town below.  

The top of the fortress affords great views over the old city and the bay.  The mountain range on the other side of the bay which you can see in the below photo is where we hiked up, and then back down, yesterday.  

Climbing through a hole in the wall at the back of the fortress, we dropped down to an abandoned village below.

We followed an old mule trail up, up, up on a switchbacked trail until we reached the tree line, then a foot track which eventually petered out on rocky scree at an elevation of 1,000 metres with great views back across to the fortress.

After crabbing our way around scree and boulders in the baking sun for an hour, we popped up onto a bitumen road, which we shortly left behind.

A short deviation led to a viewpoint where we could admire our climbing efforts.

Then, skirting the Lovcen National Park boundary, we struck out across areas alternating between fields and overgrown copses, eventually again intersecting the road which took us to the sleepy town of Njegusi.

Njegusi is locally famous for production of prsut, the Montenegrin version of prosciutto.  The town was deserted, save for three or four ancient ladies at tables in front of their even more ancient houses selling prsut.  One of them took us to a stone cavern under her house and gave us samples of her prsut.  It was delicious, and so was the beer we bought from her.

A plate of prsut and cheese seemed like a fine idea, but instead we had a Monty Python moment.  The Cheese Shop had no cheese.

The tavern at the edge of town where we were staying satisfied our ‘ham and cheese’ need.  The bed was in a class of its own.  Bed springs encased in a cover.  If ever there had been cushioning inside, it was long gone.

Day 3 – Njegusi to Ivanova Korita

Away from the coastal strip, Montenegro is a country of mountains, and once again today’s walk was designed to unleash the mountain goat within.  Through lush forest we went.  Up, up, up and down, down,down.  Repeat.

Shortly before lunchtime we reached the summit of Jezerski Vhr, site of the mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic Njegos, who was instrumental in the creation of the Montenegrin state, and a poet-philosopher to boot.

Here is a photo of the mausoleum taken from where we stayed that night.  It’s the dot near the top of the hill.

Our Herculean efforts in ascending to the summit were somewhat blunted by the fact that, yes, you can also get here on an asphalt road.  But the views were amazing.  

A steep descent ultimately levelled off into a small valley surrounded by mountains.  We couldn’t find the intended track out and followed an alternative which we were confident would bring us to a road we could then follow to our destination for the night.

After initially looking easy, the path became difficult as a bushfire had destroyed the area, hiding sections of the path under fallen trees and regrowth.  Our progress was slow and the terrain was difficult, but we were too far along to go back.  We got there eventually.

On reaching the road we found we were right beside another entrance to Lovcen National Park.  Rather than expressing sympathy for our plight, the park ranger chastised us for straying into the Park without a permit!

Day 4 – Ivanova Korita to Gornji Ceklin

We headed out, determined to stick with the designated trails.  We failed.  Within an hour, we lost the track.  When notes say ‘after 160 metres, take a track to the left’, we would think this means to proceed for 160 metres along the track and there will be a track to the left.  Alas, with the benefit of hindsight, it really meant to follow the winding, switchbacked track until you are 160 metres as the crow flies, from the start point – about 500 metres from the start point.

Much time was lost with directions like this, and again we are unconvinced we followed anything like the intended route, but these mountain trails all intersect and generally converge at villages, so eventually you end up where you need to be.  The scenery was again delightful and the sun held up, so the walking was very pleasant.

We reached the town of Cetinje around lunchtime.  Cetinje is the old Royal Capital of Montenegro and has a beautifully preserved town centre with a number of historic buildings and museums.  

We would have liked to stay and explore.  We made a quick dash through the local museum but given the time we’d lost meandering in the forest earlier in the day, we were anxious to keep going.

Just outside town, the notes said to take an old track commencing behind some houses.  A young man there helpfully told us the trail was ‘full of snakes’.  With his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, John replied that we were from Australia and therefore quite used to snakes.

Karmic payback was swift.  The young man was right.  There were snakes.  John was wrong.  Australian or not, Julie is totally creeped out by snakes, especially when the grass is long and the snakes are not obvious.

All trauma was forgotten when we reached our destination, the tiny village of Gornji Ceklin.  Population six.

We stayed in the house of a charming gentleman whose family have lived in the village since the 1700s.  He is a TV producer and lives in a nearby city with his wife, ‘a former TV star’ but keeps a cottage in the village.  After his wife cooked us a delicious dinner, they returned to their home in the city, leaving us to enjoy a long twilight, a bottle of the local ‘black wine’ and his uncle’s homemade rakija.  A man with horses loaded with firewood hand cut from the forest came past.   A friendly ginger feline joined us.  It was a rural idyll.

Day 5 – Gornji Ceklin to Virpazar

Just a short walk today, only 5kms.  Clearly no one has walked this track for a while.  Thick spider webs were strung out across the path every metre or so.  We were scheduled to meet a boatman in the village of Rijeka Crnojevica at midday.  John did his best Indiana Jones impression, fashioning a sabre from a stick and slashing our way through.

We made it comfortably in time.  The approach to town looked like a Wild West set that should have had some tumbleweeds bouncing down the street, but the town itself was pretty and is a jump off point for boating on Skadar Lake.

Skadar Lake is the largest lake in Southern Europe.  And it certainly seemed to be, as we motored on and on across to a far corner of it, where we stopped at a lake side house.  The very charming ladies here cooked us a lunch of fried trout (tasty) and fried carp (bony).

It was a pleasant spot and a beer brought on drowsiness to which John succumbed on the long, slow motor back across the lake and on to Virpazar, a small tourist-oriented lake village where we spent the night in a local hotel.

Day 6 – Virpazar to Stari Bar

The TV producer and his wife collected us from Virpazar and dropped us at a trail head somewhere in the mountains.  

The trail climbed straight up and again there were snakes.  But then the trail entered a beautiful chestnut forest and the snakes were forgotten.

This was possibly the most challenging day for track conditions.  After a long, long upward climb, we reached the top of the range.  It was fog bound at the top.  

Coming down, a major land slip has taken the side off the mountain so we had to edge across the bare side on a near vertical slope.  Then, to descend the slope, stakes with a rope to hold had been strung down the slip to guide walkers down.  It actually wasn’t too bad.  It looked way more slippery than it was.  We were grateful that it was not raining.  It would have been interesting in muddy conditions.

At the bottom we rock hopped down a dry creek bed for an hour or so, again grateful that it was dry.

Late in the afternoon we arrived in Stari Bar, another medieval fortress town.  It was the final night of Ramadan.  There was much merriment.  For us as well, as we’d finished the walk!

Wrap up:  This is an interesting walk as it takes you to a number of historically interesting towns and sights, and has a couple of boat trips.  It’s not just a six day hike.  The scenery is interesting and varied.  With the exception of some degraded areas where the track has been destroyed, the walking is relatively easy going.

The walk is offered by a local company called Zalaz.  They were very responsive and offer good support service, and the walk is well structured.  We will say, though, that the track notes really could do with a major overhaul.  Some parts look to have been prepared from google maps or similar technology using ‘point to point’ distances rather than the actual walking distance on the track, making time and distance estimates inaccurate.  In some parts, interpreting the directions was difficult as the notes clearly were not prepared by someone with English as a first language.  But hey, we didn’t need mountain rescue at any point.

We would recommend this walk, and walking in the Montenegrin mountains generally.  Montenegro is well and truly on the tourism radar on the coast but still relatively undiscovered as a hiking destination.   There are a variety of marked trails that have been created by the local hiking community, but few foreign walkers and the unspoilt nature of the walking was refreshing.  Who knows how long that will last.

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1 Comment

  1. David B
    August 7, 2018 / 6:46 am

    Great commentary Julie! What a stunning trail.

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