On August 31, 2020, after spending the entire month in Croatia, I was preparing to finally cycle out of the country, out of the European Union and into Montenegro. Montenegro was a country I had been looking forward to ever since I left Northern France, if only for the fact that this blog’s domain name is registered in Montenegro.
A good day to enter Montenegro
I left Dubrovnik by the main road, and soon had my last sea bath in Croatia. The road remained busy until the airport, located some distance south of the city due to topography, as Croatia became a thin, steep stripe of land squeezed between the Adriatic Sea and the Bosnian border. After the airport, I could cycle on a small rural road where I fed myself with blackberries so sweet from all the summer sun they tasted like blackberry jam. There was a last supermarket, which looked more like an airport duty-free store than a supermarket, and the road went up through cypress woods to the Montenegrin border.
Before even passing the customs, I was welcomed to Montenegro by a giant red billboard translated into four languages, first of which was French, announcing that wild camping was expressly prohibited. Bienvenue au Monténégro! The border crossing was smooth. I had an identification check and cycled down into the coastal town of Igalo, where I was soon welcomed by cheering crowds singing slogans, blowing car horns and waving blue-white-red flags which I only later identified as Serbian and ex-Yougoslavian.
I was quickly approached and explained with a great deal of bear sputter that there had been parliamentary elections, that Montenegro was Serbia, you know, and that Serbia was winning the vote, so it was a great day for Montenegro. Feeling confused, I had a break in Herzeg Novi, a seaside resort busy with young tourists from all over the Balkans. The final results of the vote must have fallen roughly when I attempted to exit the town and cycle to a nearby campsite, for the roads where suddenly packed with constant honking cars and cheering. But as a good part of the population was celebrating, it was equally obvious that another part did not approve the results of the polls, and instead looked at the ongoing party scenes with grim.
It so happened that I had entered Montenegro on the day of the country’s first ever political shift in its short history. But since I had left the European Union, I no longer had internet access on my phone, and therefore had little idea of what was happening. What I understood though, is that the party would go on for much of the night. And since I came from a country were this situation would most likely end up in burned cars and teargas, I decided to turn back into the town and look for a hotel. I stopped at a small pizzeria where I tried to get more information from the owner, who explained to me that the other party had won, and suggested Hotel Plaža, a large but oldish and largely empty grand hotel where I obtained a room for less than 20 euros. The receptionist was too professional to get into political talk, but she too seemed incredibly depressed by the result of the polls.
Bay of Kotor and moustache ales
The next day, first of September 2020, it occurred to me that I had left academia for exactly six months, and I woke up full of good intentions for the coming, well, six months, or maybe rest of my life while I was at it. I would become vegetarian, stop drinking alcohol, and travel on a smaller budget. I was very serious about this. As for today, I planned to cycle 60 km to the coastal town of Budva, where I would reach my 3000 km milestone, and sleep in the little campsite right in the town centre. Funny how when you believe you have finally taken control of your life, the world seems to suddenly unite to remind you how dependent you truly are. For none of the above actually happened.
The first thing that happened on September 1st is that I took the elevator down from floor 7 to floor 2 of gigantic Hotel Plaža to enjoy my 3-euro breakfast — something very simple I expected — and be served a giant plate of steamy smoked sausage and bacon, actually the largest plate of meat I ate since getting ill on Krk Island. Vegetarian intentions? Gone.
A few kilometres after leaving town, there were two touring bicycles parked by a beachside café, the first I had seen in a long while. As I was beginning my third round of stares on the customers, searching for anything with the looks of another mad cyclist, Jean-Miguel came to meet me with a great smile. He and Eva, two Frenchies like me, had travelled all the way from Grenoble around the Alps, across the Po Plain and along the coastlines of Istria and Dalmatia. It was their first long-distance bike tour, and they had now been on the road for fifty days. They were, I believe, the first bicycle tourists I met who travelled both so slow and so long as I did.
So we had a coffee, and another coffee. We talked a bit about our respective adventures, exchanged what we had heard or read about the parliamentary elections to try and make sense of the previous day’s events, and it was suddenly 1 p.m. Budva? Well, that begun to feel a little far for the day. Besides, Jean-Miguel and Eva slept in hammocks, and they had seen better nights than their last one. The noise-making, flag-waving and driving-in-circles had stopped around 2 a.m., because then, rain had started. And rain and hammocks don’t go well along. So we decided to all meet again in Kotor and book rooms there, for the town had no campsite but was said to be a beautiful place. 3000 km? Cheap camping? Not today.
I cycled around the deep, mountainous Bay of Kotor, where steep limestone hills plunge abruptly into the sea and create a topography reminiscent of Norwegian fjords. There were plenty of figs, blackberries, and green pomegranates. Pomegranate trees had begun to appear in southern Dalmatia, giving me something else to look forward to for when the fig season would end. I passed the little town of Perast, its renovated stone houses facing two island monasteries, and finally cycled into, or rather pushed my bike into, the fortified old town of Kotor.
I directly bumped into Eva and Jean-Miguel again, for without prior agreement we had picked the same hostel. Then we went for beers. No alcohol? I may as well keep that idea for when I will be in Turkey. Besides, Montenegro must have made a very careful market study of what kind of cycle tourists were coming in this year, for they had really good pale ales (my favourite kind of beer) with pictures of moustache-bearing mad scientists on the labels. I’m glad I left academia before catching a moustache, but for fairness I would like to point out to Academija Brewery that there exist a fair deal of mad female scientists as well, though I must admit I have not met any of them cycling to Montenegro so far.
Four hands and a keyboard
In Kotor unlike Croatia, the lack of tourists was very obvious. Cafés and restaurants had few customers. The harbour was built for large cruise ships to anchor directly outside the city wall, but this year, it was empty. Everybody I met in Kotor though, appeared very relaxed about this situation. Some tourists came by land from the rest of the Balkans, and by air (and bike) apparently mainly from France, for I could hear French spoken at every street corner. This was 2020, it was a different year, and that was it.
I quickly fell in love with Kotor. Similar to Dalmatian cities of Croatia, the old town was entirely pedestrian. Once part of the Venetian Republic, the city had been fortified against Ottoman invasions, its walls climbing an incredible 200 meters above the sea on the steep rock walls behind the town. For 20 euros a night, I slept in a gorgeous room right in the old town, including a little study by the window where I could work on my blog and listen to the sounds of jazz songs played in repeat at the restaurant below.
Jean-Miguel and Eva apparently liked it too, and we all ended up staying a full five nights in Kotor. And a very relaxing four days. Every morning, I had a simple breakfast at Konoba Roma, which was just muesli, fruits and Deutsch. Just to clarify, this did not mean that I had bits of Germans in my muesli, but that I had a Milchkaffee on the side. While the sun was rising behind the mountain walls, the city remained in the shade, and I could work a few hours on my photos, after which the nearby restaurant put on their one album of jazz songs and I moved back to my room for writing. I updated my blog with a summary post on bicycle touring in Croatia, and finalized posts on cycling during the pandemic and a bicycle touring gear list. In the evenings, I typically met Jean-Miguel and Eva for drinks or dinner and we had long conversations in French.
One evening, a solo musician was playing jazz standards and remakes on an electric piano outside a bar in town. This was the first time I heard live jazz music since the beginning of 2020, and I loved the musician’s style, rich in low pitches. Then magic happened. During a break, a customer stepped in and began to play jazz tunes on the piano. The bar offered him a drink and this must have been interpreted as some kind of green light, for he came back on stage to play one jazz standard after another, with incredible ease and personal interpretation. When the first musician sat back on the piano, she first sounded very stressed, which was totally understandable after listening to such a virtuoso, but then it felt like she too stepped out of her comfort zone, and out of the zone of socially acceptable music at a somewhat classy wine bar for tourists. The two of them played late into the night, including a few four-hands. I was incredibly grateful for the evening. This was the strongest musical experience I had had in a while.
After five days in Kotor, I was beginning to feel an itch to step on the bike again. At the same time, I was feeling refilled. Socially refilled by the long discussions with my fellow bicycle tourers Jean-Miguel and Eva, by their curiosity and their open hearts. Emotionally refilled by the magical music evening. So I also knew that leaving Kotor would not be so easy.