I planned to leave Kotor in the early morning, and cycle the 25 switchbacks up and out of the bay, my first mountain pass since leaving the Alps, while the mountain slope was still in the shade. During my last night in Kotor though, I had unwanted dreams, woke up well before sunrise and failed to find sleep again. The church bells rang loudly at six, then again at seven, at which point I got out of bed feeling drowsy and lazy.
Back to the mountains
After a double Deutsch and last fruity muesli from Konoba Roma, the climb went surprisingly well. The road went through a little pass with views on Herzeg Novi and the outer bay, then back above the inner bay, before it rose well above these two arms, above the city walls of Kotor, above, even, the steep mountains surrounding Kotor that seemed so impassable when seen from below. I counted three switchback fewer than was numbered along the road, probably because I began the climb on the new road towards Budva instead of directly above the old town. In any case, shortly after the last turn, I passed the milestone of 3000 km. After 1000 km at the foothills of the Alps with such weather I could not even see them, 2000 km with cars lining up behind my bike on a construction site in Rijeka, the 3000 km milestone coincided with a gorgeous viewpoint on the Bay of Kotor and a terraced cafe serving fresh orange juice.
Until the elevation of 1000 m, I thought this was one of the most beautiful and pleasant climbs I have ever done on a touring bike. The road ran up an steep mountain side, but kept an impressively constant and low gradient so that I cycled the whole time on my third lowest gear. Around the elevation of 1000 m, the road split towards two mountain passes, both leading to Cetinje. I still had energy and so decided to ride the highest road, running through Lovćen National Park. At this point I must have left the historic road, and the newer road, designed for speed rather than saving energy, became larger and steeper.
The road eventually left the Bay of Kotor, and the landscape became somewhat Alpine. The air became cooler, and a sweet scent of pine trees mixed with the now familiar fragrance of sea spray. At 1450 m above sea level, the road finally stopped climbing and the landscape opened up to an inland maze of dry karstic hills disappearing in thick haze at an oddly low angle, as if the topography behind the range was forever declining. I was too lazy to cycle the last 200 m of toll road to the second highest peak and main attraction of the park, which hosts the mausoleum of the Montenegrin poet and philosopher Njegoš. Instead I cycled downhill to Cetinje, which felt like a long roller-coaster, the road constantly turning left and right, revealing new holes and hills in the complex topography of the karst.
Finally, perched in a little karstic plain in the heart of the mountains, the old royal capital of Montenegro appeared. Prices here were significantly lower than in Kotor. I had a pizza before cycling over a little pass and down again to a campsite in the middle of the slopes below the city. Camp Oase was a serious contender to my so-far favourite campsites in the Vosges Mountains and in the Pivka Valley. No, let me correct that. This was the most beautiful campsite I have seen since beginning my tour in Northern France. The place was beautifully designed and the owners warmly welcoming. The sun was setting in the hills and there were gorgeous views on Lake Skadar and, very far in the distance, Albania.
By the shores of Lake Skadar
I woke up the next morning after some more dreaming and, for the first time in a long while, feeling cold. The day began with a gorgeous sunrise behind the distant Dinaric Alps to the east. Then there was a 100 m uphill back to the old road between Cetinje and Podgorica, but the camp site was totally worth it. The pavement on the old road was in poor condition and made for a slow and bumpy downhill, but I had seen from the camp that the new road was busy with heavy traffic. The old road was in near complete disuse and would make a perfect cycle road in the future, I thought. As I was loosing elevation, the air became again hot and filled with new scents of deciduous and cypress trees.
As if the previous day was not enough, the road along the southern shore of Lake Skadar quickly became one of my favourite stretches I ever cycled. For much of the next two days I nearly had the road to myself. It was so empty of cars that I cycled much of it without a helmet and often on the left side just so I could get better views on the lake. The road was narrow, often steep and ever winding through the karstic landscape, so that cars could not drive fast anyway. After a few hills I ran into another magical place: an isolated, incredibly beautiful little cafe overlooking the lake where it turned from swamps to open waters. There was reggae music, tables made from wine barrels, a carved wooden fence and assorted homemade chairs. I drank there the finest, roundest, tastiest Turkish coffee I have ever had, which came accompanied with a fresh green fig, a fresh purple fig, and a floured dry fig. All that with a gorgeous view.
There was another little pass and the road went down to Virpazar where I was immediately approached by business owners from both sides of the street. “Do you need a room? Boat tour maybe? Are you hungry? Are you sure?” Around the corner though, was another interesting place : an old wooden oil tanker from the lake recycled into a restaurant, definitely my place of choice for today’s lunch. By noon, I had had my dose of beautiful landscapes for the day and thought of camping in Virpazar. But curiosity took over, I shopped for foods and I began cycling the long, remote stretch of hilly road along the main, open water part of the lake.
The road remained as empty as earlier but climbed much higher than I had anticipated, reaching a staggering height of 500 m. I mean, that is how it felt. I was ready to breach the giant camping interdit noticeboard I had seen when entering Montenegro but the mountains were so steep and rocky it would have been hard to even find a place to lay a sleeping mat, let alone my fear of snakes. I passed by a saddle occupied by a little church and a cypress yard where it would have been have been possible to find flat ground, but overlooking the site was a bizarre combination of an abandoned-looking concrete building, a road sign warning for kids crossing, and a faded-colour placename sign full of bullet holes. After imaging a few different scenarios explaining the scene I decided to sleep somewhere else.
The road ran high above the lake and the landscape was filled with an eery silence. My phone still indicated an elevation of 300 m when I passed by a sign advertising a lakeside camping below. Too much uphill for the next morning, I thought. I was aiming a flatter area on my map a few kilometres ahead when a stray dog spontaneously decided I was his new master and came along strolling in the evening sun. I knew I would not outpace the dog, especially not by cycling uphill at a walker’s pace, so I tried to ignore it. Every time I stopped, the irritatingly friendly dog sat on the road patiently waiting for a signal that “we” were moving on. When it became evident that the dog would follow me up into my sleeping bag if it could, I decided to turn back and cycle down to the lakeside camping. Only when cycling full speed I could leave the dog behind, and still then I could see the poor thing rocketing in the switchbacks above as if we were playing some kind of game. If you know of better ways to fend off embarrassingly friendly dogs, please let me know in a comment.
Lake camping and chestnut forests
Halfway down to the lake, an enthusiastic old man asked where was Madame, and where was the car. After I could not bring satisfactory answers the man pointed out the direction of the camping. I cycled down to the lake only to find out that the camping and only restaurant in the village were closed. The owner spoke a few words of German and let me understand that he could be fined for hosting me, but was kind enough to redirect me to a nearby gravel beach where I could camp wild. While I carried my bags there, bells rang in the old island monastery facing the beach, and then, for the first time in my life, I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. The mosque of Donji Murići was hidden behind a hill, so that the sound appeared to come from the water itself. I do not know what one does when hearing the call. In fact I know very little of Muslim traditions. But unlike the doomsday-like sound of church bells, the chant was one that called to pause and meditation. So almost instinctively, I stopped in the middle of the beach with my 25 kg of luggage on the shoulders, and contemplated where I had arrived. Later, I had a swim in the lake, ate polenta with oregano olives, mixed seed and parmesan, which was as good as it reads, and went to bed. I was disturbed once through the night by two young men apparently looking for lost boots.
The 250 m uphill back to the main road was not as bad as I had anticipated. On my way up, I saw a shepherdess guiding a sheep herd away from the road not using a dog or a stick, but only the sound of her voice. There was ancestral knowledge in this village that was far beyond my understanding. The road continued uphill into a little vale separated from the lake by a range of low hills and up to a little pass around 500 m in elevation. Before and after the pass, there were beautiful chestnut forests that looked like they had been here forever, and where it would have been easy to find a place to camp. A sign explained that the trees could live up to 500 years old, and some indeed had impressive trunks. The road continued down to Ostros, where there were a couple of open cafés and restaurants where I could refill my water bottles.
There is no border crossing into Albania along the lake shore, so that I had to cycle up another sweaty climb to the ridge line that separates Lake Skadar from the much busier Montenegrin coastline. After a long downhill, I was back on the main coastal road of Montenegro, but similar to when I had left Croatia, the last few kilometres of road towards Albania were surprisingly empty of cars. While queuing for the identification check, I had a last-minute hesitation. Was I really going to leave a country that had everything from delicious coffee, welcoming locals and remote mountain roads? Certainly I would be back to Montenegro some day. So I handed my ID card to the Montenegrin police and cycled into Albania, which had apparently no border control, and directly felt like a completely different universe.
The route (3 days, 187 km)
- 06/09/20 Kotor – Cetinje 56.6 km
- 07/09/20 Cetinje – Donji Murići 63.3 km
- 08/09/20 Donji Murići – Shkodër 67.1 km