Montenegro Weekend Road Trip: Take Two

Montenegro Weekend Road Trip: Take Two

Last weekend we ventured out for another Montenegro Weekend Road Trip like the one we did a few weeks ago. This time the destination was Kolašin. To get there we drove down the coast to Budva, over the mountains through Centinje (previously the Royal Capital) and past the current capital city of Podgorica.

The trip through the Tara Canyon was familiar to me. At least up to Kolašin, as I had done this route once before last winter on a previous Montenegro weekend road trip. This time, the roads were dry and free of snow, but it can be pretty nerve-wracking along the steep canyon which is reminiscent of driving through narrow Rocky Mountain gorges.

Within a couple hours we arrived at Kolašin 1450 Ski Resort. The off season is lovely there. Families are stocking up on firewood for the winter, and there a scent of wood burning fireplaces and stoves in the air. The town is very quiet. It really does come to life when the ski season starts. We had drinks in an old pub style bar that was full of tributes to Tito and dined on traditional foods at a local restaurant. Both “Konoba” (traditional national restaurants) we wanted to go to were closed for pre-season renovations. Bianca Hotel & Spa was warm and welcoming, with a huge fireplace in the lobby. Again, the scent of burning wood warmed the surroundings.

After a night at Bianca, the next morning we drove about an hour up the valley to Tara Canyon Bridge. The bridge is an incredible 172 metres (that is 577 feet) above the river below. A dramatic sight by any standard.

Tara Canyon Bridge

Tara Canyon

We continued our drive to Žabljak Ski Resort. This was my first time. The scenery was completely different than the canyon. The wide open flat plains with rolling hills and wandering cows were beautiful. It was Sunday which was also election day. There were over 1,000 polling stations open and we saw many along the route from the bridge to the ski resort. Some where just small huts in remote communities.

Cow in Zabljak

Cow in Zabljak

The road from Žabljak down to the Bay of Kotor has been recently re-done, so the trip only takes about an hour and a half. The rains from the night before brought down a rock slide just above Risan which left just enough room to squeeze by in the car. Luckily nobody was hurt.

The Bay of Kotor

The Bay of Kotor

A must do for anyone wanting to see the stunning variety in the geography of Montenenegro: the superyachts of Tivat – the old town of Budva – the capital of Podgorica – the quiet mountain town of Kolašin – breathtaking Durmitor National Park – beautiful Žabljak – Nikšić and its beer factory – Risan tucked away at the end of the bay – World Heritage site of Kotor.

In just a few hours on the road, you will see so much and feel like you have traveled through many diverse lands.

Lunch at Prova in Tivat: a story of Eclipse, Ox and Ulcinj

Lunch at Prova in Tivat: a story of Eclipse, Ox and Ulcinj

The other day I was having lunch on the Tivat waterfront at Prova Restaurant (one of the prettiest places in the town of Tivat to sit and dine or relax by the water). I was with one of my favorite colleagues from Porto Montenegro. He is from the port town of Bar in Southern Montenegro. A man with an incredible memory, attention to detail; full of stories and someone who knows everyone in the country. This was a particularly special lunch because he gave me ideas for two more blog stories:

The First:

Eclipse in Tivat

With Eclipse, the largest yacht in the world, sitting in the Bay of Kotor just beyond the jetties of Porto Montenegro, he thought it would be a good idea to tell the other story of Montenegro; the one of those who live at the other end of the financial spectrum than the owner and guests of Eclipse; those people in the mountains just a few dozen kilometers from the more affluent coast. There, transportation is still dominated by the ox. From immense superyachts to ox-driven carts; it is all part of the story here in Montenegro. He said I should interview them and ask about the US Presidential Election or the European Union to see their perspective; both are probably not on their radar screens. Vast contrast in close proximity (which takes some getting used to). The writing of this story will require another road trip to Niksic, a translator and some interviews. I am very much looking forward to that adventure, and I will post the story and photos as soon as I get there and back…

The Second:

His other idea was to tell the story of Ulcinj and the legends of its history of piracy. When I mentioned to him that my trip to the most south point of Montenegro, near the Ada Bojana (which the NY Times has named one of the best beaches in the world) where the sandy beaches stretch on for kilometers, felt like I had left the Balkans, he could not have agreed more. To me, the area seemed more like Northern Africa than Southern Europe. I could not have told you why that day, when I went exploring, but something was so different than where I had just come from up the coast. He explained that, towards the end of the 14th century, Ulcinj became a centre for piracy and continued to be a dangerous refuge until the 18th century. Populated by North Africans, Maltese, Turks and others for centuries, it is for this reason, that this place feels so different than the Montenegrin coast or the mountains. This new post will also require another road trip (less invigorating than the mountain drive to Niksic and Ostrog Monastery), a translator and some interviews too… but I think it will be worth it!

Stay tuned.

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Tivat: A Tale of Two Cities

Tivat: A Tale of Two Cities

It was a late August evening in Tivat, around 9pm. I ventured out to have dinner with a friend (the same one I wrote about in my post “Two Years Later and Back to School“; who, has made great positive changes since that post) at a local pizzeria called Recoleta in the new Magnolia Square, a new commercial and residential complex in the center of Tivat. He pried me out of my habit of always staying in the Porto Montenegro Village. I had because so lazy over the summer, barely venturing more than a couple hundred meters from home for food, drink, fun, my friends and entertainment.

Porto Montenegro Village

To my surprise (or naivety), Tivat was absolutely packed with people, families and lots of children. It seemed like everyone was out enjoying the warm evening; perhaps savouring the last days of their vacation or the final days before going back to school. The stores were still open; people were getting haircuts and outdoor patios were full of people having coffee, drinks or dinner. It could have been the middle of the day. In the summer, this place, like every other coastal town from Budva to Bar, comes to life, especially after the sun goes down.

Someone said to me the other day that Tivat is like a Tale of Two Cities; one brand new (Porto Montenegro) and the other historic. I think he might be right about that. Another testimony of how all things old and new in this country are (hopefully) woven through my stories in this blog.

What is so fascinating to observe is how the two worlds. co-exist. The historic town blends with the brand new superyacht marina village which occupies the ex naval base that had dominated Tivat’s geography and economy since 1889. Thousands of people wandering the streets; animating the locales; strolling the old promenade and now through the new village at Porto Montenegro which – until so recently a Yugoslav naval base –  full of yachts, shops, restaurants and new apartments.

Life and a country in transformation before our eyes!

The Marina at Porto Montenegro

Jetty One at Porto Montenegro

The (great) Restaurant at Hotel Montenegrino

The (great) Restaurant at Hotel Montenegrino

Lunch at Hotel Montenegrino Tivat Montenegro

Fresh catch of the Day

There is this lovely little hotel in the historic center Tivat called “Hotel Montenegrino”. It is one of the first small hotels in the town, and judging by old the black and white photos on the wall, it sits in one of Tivat’s most historic waterside buildings just steps away from the waterfront promenade. The interior is classically elegant and distinctly Montenegrin with lots of dark woods. The rooms are simple and clean. The dining room has prominently featured wines, white linens, a fresh fish case and a very well stocked bar. There is some seating outside, and if you get the table by the road, you can people watch while you enjoy lunch or dinner.

The real attraction to this place is its restaurant. It is a well kept secret amongst the local community. While there may be more popular locales in Tivat; where the music is louder; the furnishings more trendy or the menu more elaborate, but this one is one of the finest. Classic, simple and perfect. The food is always delicious and you never have to wait too long. The staff are always friendly, courteous and smiling. Best of all, the prices are incredibly reasonable, especially for a coastal town where prices usually are higher because of the tourist market. You can have a starter, main meal and a glass of wine for all less than 15 Euros.

I would recommend you start with the fresh fish soup; be sure to try the grilled octopus (considered the finest in the bay) and ask them to bring everything family style so you can all share! If you like steak tartar, they are also very good at making it here.

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Montenegro Road Trip

Montenegro Road Trip

You can certainly see a lot in a day-long road trip through this relatively small country.

Yesterday we decided to visit Ostrog Monestary near Niksic. Google Maps made it appear like a nice, one and a half hour, drive. The first part, getting to Niksic from Tivat, was relatively easy. The rest of the trip turned out to be a real adventure!

The drive from Tivat to Niksic was effortless. The highway is new and the trip is quick. Signs are easy and you really cannot get lost. Several small forest fires brought on by the summer heat, made the air hazy and the horizon almost undetectable, but the scenery was breathtaking. The scenery so different than the coast.

In Niksic we felt like we were driving through a movie set. The surroundings looked like we had traveled much farther into Eastern Europe than just a couple hours from the Adriatic Coast. The Communist era architecture was quite austere and this inland town had a “rough around the edges” feel to it.

Niksic Apartment Building

Our good friend who was born and raised in the city of 75’000 gave us a restaurant suggestion for lunch. The challenge was finding it. Nobody we tried to speak with knew where it was. We knew roughly the neighbourhood, so we decided to park the car and explore on foot. By pure coincidence we happened to park only a few meters from the restaurant which was hidden away down a small lane. We found it by pure fluke.

Portum Restaurant

The restaurant was called Portum. Rustic, local and incredibly good. The enormous proportions were slow cooked in an iron pot. After lunch we continued our quest to find Ostrog Monastery. It was an adventure. Google Maps, or our lack of ability to use it, lead us to a rock quarry; through impoverished Roma people dwellings, past an old prison, abandoned factories and a military graveyard.

Abandoned Factory

Military Graveyard

Hay Truck in Niksic

The road to Ostrog was windy and one lane. I am sure we must missed the main road.

Ostrog Monastery

Our trip home from Ostrog was unbelievable. I thought we would take the scenic route which would end up, at sunset, high above the Bay of Kotor. Potentially stunning. Well, we ended up on a single lane windy mountain road. Our two hour trip included wild horses; cows; wood choppers and even a flipped car off the side of the road.

Wild Horse on Road

Wood Chopper

When we got close to home, it was hours after we had anticipated returning. I wanted to show my guests the sunset above the Bay of Kotor. From the top of the mountain you can see Kotor; Tivat; Herzeg Novi and beyond to the Adriatic, but we arrived too late. The sun had set a couple of hours earlier and now all you could see were distant lights framing the bay.

On the switchback road above Kotor which takes you down 1’400 meters even the local police were staked out. They stopped us and checked our documents. They were looking for drunk drivers trying to avoid the main roads. Luckily I had been only drinking water since lunch time (I did sneak in a Nik Gold Beer – produced in Niksic – with lunch).

The day ended with a light meal at Mitzu in the village with a local group of singers covering ABBA’s Dancing Queen with on the accordion across from us on Venice Square. A slightly surreal end to a day of adventure in the windy mountain roads of Montenegro!

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