2017, Daily Log, Personal, Travel

Riley Goes to Montenegro Tuesday October 3, 2017

We woke to the bells of the old church next to us, and the sound of children going to school. The only bad thing about our place was its proximity to the church, but there’s not much to be done about that when you want to stay within the old city and then old city has lots of churches which ring bells in the morning. (Though this church went to town on the bells, jesus christ.)

We grabbed some crepes from what appeared to be a crepe chain run by a disorganized woman. The good news is that they were both cheap and tasty.

Then we walked back to the bus station to take the 10:17 bus. We were some of the few people on it as apparently nobody wants to go from Kotor to Budva on a weekday morning.

The drive to Budva goes through a tunnel so it’s inherently less scenic, albeit much faster, than the old route which would have rounded out the “fjord.” Instead, for much of the trip, we got to see what coastal Montenegro looks like between the mountains.

However, the view improved drastically when we came down into Budva. “The Budva Riviera” is the really resorty part of Montenegro and, seeing it from afar, we were very glad we were not spending any time here. It just looked like an endless coastline of resorts.

In Budva, it was like a whole new bus ride as the bus got absolutely packed with people. And we began the crazy, winding, switchback-full ascent out of Budva to Cetinje (pronounced Tsetinye). The climb is full of great views but I’m very, very glad I wasn’t driving.

At some point we opted for spending time in the current capital Podgorica (pronounced Podgoritsa) instead of Cetinje, the former capital, and I’m not sure exactly why we did that, except that Podgorica has an airport and is on the train line to Serbia, and Cetinje has neither. Cetinje is small and is in the shadow of the “black” mountain that gave the country its name. On the top of that mountain is a mausoleum which was initially high on my list of things to do. Alas, we never got there, running out of time. You can see a lot from the approach to Cetinje, including the largest lake in the Balkans, which we would later cross.

Everyone got off in Cetinje and a few people got on for the final 30 minutes or so to Podgorica. Podgorica is the largest city; it is located on a plain which looks unlike virtually the entire rest of the country if you look the right direction (because it’s so flat). There are mountains on close to three sides in the distance, but the plain to the south (southeast?) is completely flat and unlike anything else here.

Podgorica also has traffic lights in abundance, which are in short supply in the rest of the country.

The drive in was slow as this is not a city like we have – there is no beltway or highway so you just have to drive in, which feels interminable.

I printed off a map for us to get to the rental car place, thinking it wasn’t that far a walk. But, with luggage, in the hot sun, it was quite the walk. Worse, the street signs in Podgorica, such as they are, are extremely hard to find for tourists, feeling as if they do not exist. (Also, Podgorica is one of the parts of Montenegro that does sometimes use cyrillic, and some of these signs are in cyrillic to boot.)

Once we figured out which way to go (which took a while and involved both a local who attempted to be helpful but didn’t know how to read a map, and a cab driver who apparently didn’t want a fare from people who didn’t speak the language), it took rather a long time (20 minutes? 30 minutes) to walk from the bus station to the Enterprise with luggage.

Speaking of Enterprise: we chose Enterprise because it’s an established brand and because it ostensibly has two separate offices in Podgorica, where we could pick up and drop off a car.¬† These offices apparently have long hours and so choosing Enterprise appeared to be the best option for us, arriving in Podgorica by bus, to rent a car for a few days.

I had printed off three maps of the Enterprise office, one of which showed it in a bank, one of which was just a map of the area (a guess) and one which was a screen cap of the Enterprise map on its site. (I did this because the street number was “Bb” and would not appear in google maps, which doesn’t do the best job in Montenegro.)

Forgetting about my screen cap, which likely showed the exact location of the office, we walked down an essentially two block street (albeit a long one) with a ton of different businesses on it, looking for the Enterprise office. When we saw a Europcar office, we quickly ran over to it, because they have the same corporate colours. (This office was located behind the office buildings, and we only saw it because Jenn looked down an alley.)

We entered the office, after a very long walk in the heat, hoping that Europcar was the franchisee of Enterprise. They are not. They are a separate company. However, their staff were wonderful to us.

The Europcar staff called the number on our reservation and they couldn’t get through. So they called someone else who was able to find a working number for Enterprise. The Europcar staffer who informed us that they could give us directions to Enterprise or they would come pick us up. Tired, and not told where the Enterprise office was (such as how close it was) so we opted for the pickup and were told “10 to 15 minutes.”

An hour later, an Enterprise employee walked through the door and spoke to the Europcar first, and then introduced himself to us. He was professional until we got in his car, when he expressed his frustration that we couldn’t walk down the street “1oo metres” (it was slightly farther, but I took his point) to come to the office. I apologized, because that’s what I do, but nobody told us it was down the street (though my map showed that, I realized later) and he should have just told the Europcar staff to tell us to walk down the street. (I say that pretending I don’t know something I would learn days later, that the office is super hard to find.) It’s weird that he was mad at us or, rather, that he let us know he was mad at us, given that we were tourists hiring a car in a city we’d never been to, where the street signs are hard to find, when they exist, and are sometimes in cyrillic. I get he was annoyed, but you shouldn’t let the customer know.

We rented the car in his car in the parking lot of a brand new church. Yes, that was sketchy. Had it not been Enterprise, we would have had serious concerns about the business being legitimate. Anyway, we got some European car and were done with renting it rather quickly, allowing us to get going 2 hours after we were supposed to rent the car.

Because Podgorica may be the most confusing city in the country, Jenn used her data to figure out how we could get to the highway, and we were soon heading north out of the city.

Shortly thereafter, we stopped at one of the various restaurants on the side of the road for lunch. We were shocked when the staff spoke English, given that we were now in the non-tourist part of the country. The good was once again quite good, especially for a cheap road-side stop.

We were headed to Durmitor National Park in the north of the country; specifically, the park’s portal, Zabljak (pronounced Zhablyak):

2 hours and 15 minutes for 124 km seems reasonable but let me tell you, it takes a lot longer to get there.

The drive is stunning. I mean, every drive in Montenegro is pretty stunning, but this one is stunning. The main highway runs along the side of a mountain, with a view of the valley Podgorica is in, for quite a long time. But after Niksic, things get hairy.

Well, before Niksic, things got hairy, when a guy trying to pass me passed me with oncoming traffic, so that three cars were essentially abreast in a two-lane road. It then happened twice more in the span of about 15 minutes. This really unnerved me and I thought it would be the worst thing that would happen driving north.

Things are okay from Niksic until the turn off for P5. P5 is an okay road for quite a while and I should stop to say two things about Montenegrin roads:

  • The main roads are almost all in fantastic shape and
  • The signage for major towns is quite good.

So that part is good. However, the roads are extremely narrow once you get off the main road.

So, P5 is okay for a while, though it winds and the locals drive very fast. (I would pull over whenever I could, and there are lots of places to pull off, but it wasn’t soon enough for most drivers.)

But the further north P5 runs, the windier it gets, and it’s hairier and hairier. And then, the descent into Savnik happens and it gets insane:

Those are 180-degree switchbacks and there are a lot of them. (I swear there were more than on the map.) Worse, the on-coming drivers drive in the middle of the fucking road until they see you. It was far worse than getting passed on the highway with on-coming traffic. The road was in good shape, but it was the drivers that made it super crazy. It felt like it was the worst thing I would do driving in Montenegro. I would be wrong about that.

By the way, Savnik is very pretty and almost looks like those famous Wuyi Mountains in China.

Fortunately, once out of Savnik, the road is considerably straighter and the drive is a lot smoother. During this drive, we went through many tunnels and it the difference in climate would be crazy from one side to the other. That was particularly true of the last tunnel, and the world around Durmitor feels like a different country than the drive up. At one point, the cops, standing in the middle of the road, waved at us but were apparently waving us through. So that was weird. On this section we made much better time and, after one very minor wrong-turn into a deadend, made it to Zabljak.

Zabljak is a classic mountain town that looks very similar to mountain towns in Canada and, I’m told, the Alps. With one notable exception: there are all these abandoned hotels from the Yugoslavian era. For some reason, it is cheaper to build new hotels than resuscitate old ones.

Abandoned Hotel in Zabljak

There are numerous buildings like this around Zabljak.

The hotel we stayed in was quite the luxury hotel compared to everywhere else we stayed previously – really fancy despite being not very expensive (though it was more expensive than just about everywhere else we stayed in the country).

We walked into town to look around, looking at the abandoned hotels and going to the grocery store. A lot of stuff was closed for the season, unsurprisingly.

We bought some beer and drank it at the hotel. Then we walked back into town for a smaller dinner, and had it at a bar which was possibly our first experience of the smoking in restaurants that would come to drive us rather insane before we left. However, the food was tasty and we got perhaps our first taste of the excellent tomatoes and cucumber found literally everywhere in Montenegro. (We may have had some before, I can’t remember. They’re great.)

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