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  1. Sunday was a relaxing day in Kotor. We were slightly perplexed when we woke up and found that there was no electricity, but our landlady soon appeared and reassured us that there had been a power cut in the whole area. I was glad that in an idle moment I had memorised the obscure phrase "Is the heating gas or electric?" from the "Renting a flat in Zagreb" chapter of one of my Croatian textbooks, or I wouldn't have had a clue that "struja" was the word for electricity. Our landlady was amazingly friendly but had taken my admission that I spoke a little bit of the language as a licence to carry on detailed conversations at full speed! My Croatian/Montenegrin was at the stage where I could almost always get the gist of what she was saying, but found it difficult to reply coherently in real time. We managed to communciate though, and the only time she lapsed into broken English was half an hour later when, with the power back on, she reappeared to say that she was baking us burek, but we needed to sit on the terrace for an hour and wait for it. The confusion on my face was more a result of the surprise that she was offering us a burek than that I hadn't understood what she meant, and the general confusion only became greater when she translated this into English as "My cake is ready at one clock" (the word "sat" in Croatian means both "hour" and "clock/watch"). When the burek appeared they were amazing; enormous, still warm and filled with cheese. The view from our terrace during the day was marred somewhat by the arrival of a massive cruise ship in the Bay of Kotor. I looked up the name of the ship on the Internet and found it had space for almost 3,000 passengers; a shocking number given that the population of Kotor itself is around 5,000. The majority of those 3,000 people spent the day traipsing around the old town in organised excursion groups and presumably being pleased that they could spend their Euros here after the inconvenience of them not being accepted in Dubrovnik. Montenegro doesn't have its own currency and, after a spell of using the Deutschmark, has adopted the Euro despite not yet being a member of the European Union. I doubt many of the cruise tourists made it to the top of the fortress and I bet even fewer of them were able to pronounce the word for fortress (tvrđava), which is probably one of the most difficult words I have tried to say this holiday! They certainly all missed the spectacular sight of the fortress walls being illuminated as dusk fell across the bay. We got a bit complacent about booking bus tickets after our successes on the holiday so far and didn't head out to the bus station a couple of kilometres away until late afternoon in order to book our tickets to Dubrovnik the next day. Imagine our horror then at finding that what we believed to be the only bus of the day - at 14.45 - was already sold out! Thankfully, it turned out that on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays there is an additional bus which runs at 15.55 and there were plenty of seats left on that one. That meant we had almost another day to spend in Montenegro, so the next morning after kissing goodbye to the wonderful landlady and getting permission to leave our suitcases in her garage until later, we set off on an excursion to the nearby town of Budva. Or, perhaps more accurately, we tried to set off on an excursion to the nearby town of Budva... The timetable at the bus station in Kotor indicated that there were several buses to Budva every hour. Arriving just after ten, I purchased tickets for us on the 10.17 bus and we stood on the platform waiting for it to arrive. Our tickets indicated that we had been allocated seat numbers 33 and 34. No bus appeared at 10.17, but being aware of the relaxed attitude to time-keeping which is prevalent in this part of the world, I wasn't unduly concerned. About 10.25, a minibus pulled into the station. In appearance it was similar to a Ukrainian marshrutka (ie. twenty years past its best!) and, while it did display a small sign on the front indicating that it was going to Budva, it also clearly indicated on the door that it had a capacity of 27+1 people. It couldn't be our bus, then, because we had seats 33 and 34. There wasn't much space left on it anyway and there was a big queue of people trying to pile on, so we decided to ignore it and hope that our bus would arrive soon. A few minutes later another bus did arrive. This one was also a minibus, but much emptier, and also displayed a sign on the front which, at first glance, suggested it was going to Budva. Perhaps this was ours, then. Unfortunately, when I approached the bus driver to confirm, he explained that this bus had come from Budva and was going to Herceg Novi. We should have got on the other bus, which had just departed. Oh dear. Tim went back into the bus station to seek clarification from the woman in the ticket office. When she stated that the 10.17 bus had already left, he explained that there wasn't enough space; we had seats 33 and 34 but there was only place for 27. She shouted back at him in English that the numbers didn't refer to the number of seats on the bus but to the number of tickets which she had sold, ie. she had sold 34 tickets to a 27-seater bus. Right. Okay. In our defence, the numbers did appear next to the word for "seat", but there was nothing for it except to buy two more tickets for the 10.44 bus! The 10.44 bus, when it arrived, actually resembled a proper bus and had enough space for all the passengers to have a seat. Within half an hour, we had arrived in the seaside town of Budva. We had been motivated to visit it after seeing a beautiful postcard picture of its old town, although the Montenegro guidebook did warn us that it was a busy coastal resort and extremely popular with Russians and Ukrainians on package holidays. The guidebook's adjective "Eurotrashy" was probably a bit unkind, but it was immediately clear that it wasn't quite such a classy resort as Kotor. The extended sprawl of the town gave the impression that anybody who owned a small patch of grass was in the process of selling it to build holiday apartments. There were various signs for strip clubs and the like which gave the impression that it could be a bit seedy after dark. The driving around town was nothing short of manic and the best strategy for crossing the road seemed to be to say a prayer to the Orthodox God and just start walking in the hope that some vehicles might stop. That said, the old town itself was impressing, with big foreboding walls like in Kotor. The majority of the historical buildings were destroyed in a serious earthquake in 1979 and the town spent the best part of a decade rebuilding them. The stonework on this little church certainly looked rather new. Some of the little streets were still very atmospheric though. The day was a bit cloudy, but from the edge of the old town there was still a lovely view out to sea. Once we'd seen the main sites, we decided it was better to be safe than sorry and jumped on an early bus back to Kotor. It was a minibus this time, but we managed to get a seat after the driver made two Americans move their oversided rucksacks into the boot. We arrived in Kotor with plenty of time to have lunch, retrieve our suitcases and get back to the bus station for our 15.55 bus to Dubrovnik.
  2. Today it was unfortunately time for us to leave Montenegro behind and return to Croatia, on our way back home. I had bought tickets online for the 10.10 bus from Kotor to Dubrovnik, and when I spoke to the daughter of the lady who owns the apartment the other day, I had asked her if she could arrange us a taxi to pick us up and take us to the bus station at 09.30. She said that she would do it, but something seems to have gone wrong somewhere, because when we were standing outside the apartment today with our luggage, after a final breakfast on our balcony overlooking the Bay of Kotor, there was no sign of any taxi. Initially I thought it was maybe just late, but as the minutes ticked by it became increasingly clear that it wasn't going to come, and so eventually I had to admit defeat and go and track down the lady who owns the apartments. She said she would call us a taxi straight away and that it would come within five minutes, which turned out to be the case, but in the midst of all this confusion we nearly ended up with a taxi all the way to Dubrovnik rather than just to the bus station! Eventually it was all sorted out and a beautifully air-conditioned taxi arrived to take us to the bus station, for the bargain price of €2.20. We were still there on plenty of time for our bus, which according to the timetable was due to arrive in Kotor at 10.00, so around that time we began anxiously standing near the entrance to the platforms, hoping to be among the first to get onto the bus. This bus was originating in Budva, so we knew there was the potential for it to already be quite full when it pulled into Kotor, and judging by our experience on Monday it didn't seem like there was much chance of us getting our reserved seats. 10 am came and went with no bus, as did 10.10 and 10.20. Finally, around 10.30, the bus pulled into the station. Mom made a mad dash for the luggage hold and we did indeed manage to be the first people to pay for our luggage. We didn't get our seats, but we did get seats quite close to them, and we were very glad that we had rushed when we later observed other people wandering up and down the bus, unable to find anywhere to sit. The bus driver did eventually manage to cram everyone in somewhere, and we were off. It took a while to get out of Kotor, but then we were once more on the beautiful road around the bay, admiring the views of Perast one more time, and then passing through Herceg Novi. A few miles outside Herceg Novi we suddenly came to a halt in a line of traffic, and I was worried that this could be an exceptionally long queue for the border, which was around 4 miles away at this point. We must have sat in the traffic jam for 20 minutes or so, but ultimately the traffic started moving again so we think it must just have been an accident somewhere further up the road. It all added on to the delay that our already delayed bus was experiencing though! Crossing the border was a different experience this time to on the way there. Both at the Montenegrin checkpoint and at the Croatian one, we all had to get off the bus one by one and show our passports individually to a policeman at a desk. This seemed like it took a long time, but it was actually better than having the passports collected up and taken off the bus; firstly because we don't like being seperated from our passports, and secondly because it gave us an opportunity to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. All in all it probably still took an hour to get across the border though, and so by the time our bus finally arrived into Dubrovnik it was about 14.15. That was just slightly later than its scheduled arrival time of 12.30, but that was actually good for us because we couldn't check into the apartment until 14.00 anyway. As we are just staying in Dubrovnik one night this time and leaving quite early tomorrow morning to get a bus to the airport, we had chosen an apartment near to the main bus station. It was quite easy to find, only a 5 minute walk away, although our hearts did sink when we saw that there was a huge flight of steps up to the door. We were met by the owner of the apartment, who gave us a quick tour and then asked us to sit down while he poured us a glass of the orangest looking orange juice you have ever seen. Closer inspection later revealed it to be orange and carrot juice! It wasn't very nice at all, but we all sat politely sipping it while he talked and talked about the best way to get to town, the best way to get to the airport etc. Eventually he left, and we were able to relax a bit before setting out to walk into Dubrovnik. It was a couple of miles into Dubrovnik from where we were and it was an incredibly hot day today, but after hours of sitting on the bus we really enjoyed the walk. It was particularly great to get the views out across the sea again, complete with flowering cacti. There were several cruise ships docked in Dubrovnik today, but when we got to the Pile Gate it wasn't actually too busy, because lots of people were leaving rather than arriving. The main motivation for us walking into town was that I wanted to use my spare kunas to stock up on some Croatian reading materials. From being in Dubrovnik last summer, I knew that there were two bookshops on the Stradun. We walked to the furthest one - Algoritam - first of all, where I was hoping to be able to pick up some translations of easy English books; perhaps something like Agatha Christies. I was surprised when we got to the front of the store that it looked closed, although according to the opening hours on the door, it looked as though it ought to have been open. Then we noticed that all the windows were papered over and it didn't look like there were actually any books inside... it must have closed down for good! That was a surprise, but luckily there was still the other bookshop, which is admittedly smaller but has a better quality selection of books. It also had very good air-conditioning, so we all spent a while inside browsing and after a helpful chat with the shop assistant, I came away with ten new books I asked her what had happened to the other bookshop and she explained that the chain had recently got bust, being unable to pay its debts! So it's not just the Algoritam shop in Dubrovnik which has closed down, but all their shops across Croatia. Laden down with books, we set off into the sun once more. We went for a walk around the old harbour... ...had a final view of Mount Srđ... ...and across to Lokrum too. It seemed amazingly busy in the harbour this evening, with dozens of little boats coming and going, and a mixture of locals swimming and fishing. We sat on a bench for a while to enjoy the views and then headed back into the town. We decided that for our last meal we wanted to go to a restaurant in Lapad which we had eaten at earlier in the week. It seemed like a good idea and the map showed that it was only 2.3 miles away, but it felt like much longer in the heat. Eventually we made it and settled down for another enormous meal. Mom and I decided we would order a bottle of Graševina wine, which we had tried one night in Montenegro and really enjoyed, although at 150 kuna for a bottle it felt quite expensive. I asked the waitress and she slightly confused me by asking me whether we wanted half a litre or a litre (it was only on the menu as a 0.75cl bottle). We went for half a litre, which appeared in a carafe and was delicious. Imagine our surprise when we got the bill and saw that we had only been charged 40 kuna! Perhaps asking for the wine in Croatian had helped Feeling very full, we strolled back through Lapad and along the harbour to the apartment, watching the sun set in the distance. It's been another lovely day, and we've had a brilliant holiday together in Croatia and Montenegro. We've packed so much in that it's difficult to decide whether our favourite bit was walking around the shady woods of Lokrum... ...strolling around the bay in Cavtat... ...walking around the walls in Dubrovnik... ...looking down on Dubrovnik from the top of Srđ... ...sitting on our balcony with this view of the bay of Kotor... ...climbing up to the church within Kotor's mountain fortress... ...attempting to paddle in the Adriatic... ...taking the boat to Perast... ...or exploring the old town of Herceg Novi. Each place has been different, but beautiful in its own way and I think it's fair to say that we have all had a great time
  3. We didn't have any firm plans for our final day in Montenegro, so breakfast involved a bit of discussion about where we should go. Dad was interested in seeing the Roman mosaics at a place called Risan, but the guidebook didn't make it sound like there would be much else to do there. We contemplated the idea of going to Budva, but it felt like it might be a bit of a comedown after visiting Perast the day before. In the end we settled on Herceg Novi, a town on the northern Montenegrin coast that we had passed through on the way from Dubrovnik on Monday. As the decision was quite last minute, we hadn't planned the practicalities very well, so we arrived at the bus station just after a bus to Herceg Novi had departed at 10.28. That meant we had a rather long wait until the next bus departed at 11.18. The tickets to Herceg Novi were good value though, costing just €4 each, and it didn't look like there were too many people waiting for the same bus... That turned out to be a false impression, of course, because as soon as the bus in question pulled into the bus station, a horde of people seemed to appear from nowhere to elbow their way onto it. Despite having been waiting for so long, we were some of the last people to manage to get on, but luckily did manage to get some seats towards the back of the bus. It was a little disappointing that it wasn't a particularly clean bus though, so we were hardly able to see out of the windows as we wound our way around the Bay of Kotor and towards Herceg Novi. I thought the journey was supposed to be about 45 minutes, but with a slight delay at the start and a few traffic jams leaving Kotor, it was over an hour before we finally arrived at our destination. Herceg Novi is a town built on the side of a hill, with the bus station being at the top, the old town in the middle, and the sea at the bottom. Our first challenge was to follow a series of winding and sloping roads, interspersed with staircases, in what I hoped was the direction of the town. Eventually we found a square which looked promising. We climbed up the steps and walked under the tower. Although the clock looks quite new, the clocktower itself is presumably quite old. There is an inscription one side of the tower in Arabic script, dating from the time when the town was ruled by the Ottomans. Just after we walked through the clock tower, we were waylaid by a man who wanted to show us his bookshop, which at 3.8 square metres is apparently the smallest one in the world. It can sometimes get a bit tiring in Montenegro with people trying to waylay you and sell you things, but in this instance it was actually quite a welcome intrusion. Herceg Novi is a town where the Cyrillic script is quite prominent, and as soon as I went into the bookshop I saw that they had a number of books in Cyrillic. I asked the man to recommend me something, perhaps for children, and came away with two books of Serbian fairytales which are going to be great Cyrillic reading practice. I also got a book about the history of Herceg Novi in Serbian, which looks like it's going to be an interesting read. As far as I was concerned, this already meant that the hour bus journey to Herceg Novi had been worthwhile We continued our walk downwards towards to the sea, passing the town's large Serbian Orthodox church. It looks really pretty, surrounded by palm trees, and it was really beautiful when we went inside it for a quite look as well. From the church square, more steps led downwards... ...and we soon had a beautiful view of the sea. We climbed down even further, past one of the town's large fortresses... ...and finally we arrived at the bottom, next to the large statue of the Bosnian king Tvrtko, who founded the town in 1382. One of the nice things about Herceg Novi is that there is a long promenade along by the sea, which makes strolling along quite relaxing. We walked along it for a while, and were amazed by all the different cacti growing along the edge. Some looked like they were about to flower... ...and in the end we found one that was already in bloom We walked for 20 minutes or so, enjoying the beautiful views out across the water. It was 2pm by this stage though, so we decided we'd better turn around and go back to the town to find something to eat. We found a lovely little restaurant with an outside garden area, completely shaded by three large trees. They had a huge grill where they were cooking meat, and grilled meat did indeed seem to be one of the staple items on the menu. Mom and Dad went for stuffed chicken and I went for a punjena pljeskavica, which you could translate as a stuffed hamburger, but I don't think that would do it justice All our meals were enormous, and very meaty. While I was eating I even had a view of the fortress through the trees. All too soon it was time to start to climb back up the steps towards the bus station. With views like this, the uphill was almost enjoyable though We must have taken a slightly different staircase on the way back up, because we soon came across some sights which we hadn't seen before. The first was this very small church... ...and the second was this display of enormous old anchors. From there we continued to walk upwards, through some of the narrow streets of the old town... ...and soon we could look back down towards the churches that we'd seen. We also found this funny little statue of a man, although I wasn't able to work out from the Cyrillic inscription who he was or what the statue was supposed to represent. Our bus back to Kotor was due at 16.25. We were at the bus station with plenty of time to spare. When I went to the cash desk to try to buy tickets fro the bus, however, they told me that I needed to buy them on the bus itself, and pointed out to me something which only looked slightly larger than a minibus. This made us a bit anxious to make sure we got on it and we got a seat, as there wasn't another bus to Kotor until after 6pm, so we had a rather long wait hovering outside the bus. Once we got on, the bus was actually quite good though; there was plenty of leg-room and the windows were a lot cleaner than this morning's bus, so we were able to enjoy views of Perast from multiple directions as we wound our way back around the bay. The only slight inconveniences were that the air-conditioning was leaking quite badly (although luckily not onto us!) and at one point we took a corner so violently that one of the curtains was detached from its hooks and landed on Dad's head. Apart from that, the journey was uneventful and we were back in Kotor in around an hour. We spent some time sitting on our balcony, enjoying the wonderful views of the bay as the sun set. Tomorrow morning we are heading back to Dubrovnik, prior to having to go home on Saturday, so we took the opportunity to go for a final walk around the old town of Kotor in the dark. The town itself looked really pretty at this time of day... ...but we were slightly concerned by this scary looking man, who has suddenly appeared on one of the town walls. I am glad I took a picture of the reflections here yesterday, to prove that I'm not going mad and this thing definitely wasn't here 24 hours ago!
  4. When we woke up this morning and went out onto the balcony, we were thrilled to see that there were no cruise ships blocking our view of the bay Consulting the internet showed that there was one boat due into Kotor that morning, but it turned out to be so small that we couldn't see it from our apartment. As we walked into town after breakfast we did find that there were some tour groups being offloaded from coaches, but overall the town was significantly quieter than yesterday, and we were able to enjoy an early morning wander around the almost deserted streets of the old town. There were hardly any people at all in the main square, which was wonderful. While we had been eating dinner the previous evening, we had noticed some people walking along what looked like part of the walls in front of the town. It wasn't immediately obvious how they were getting up there and there certainly weren't any signs, but then I had a flash of inspiration and remembered some steps which lead up to the terrace of a cafe, from the far corner of the main square. We followed them upwards, and sure enough we found our way onto a narrow little path along the top of the walls. As we walked along we had views of the harbour on one side... ...and views back into the old town on the other. When we looked upwards, we also had views up towards the fortress and to the church where we had climbed yesterday. The path wasn't very well maintained so you did have to be slightly careful not to trip over anything, but the views were definitely worth going up for. Eventually the wall came to a dead end, near to the Gurdić gate and it was time to turn back around. We walked back to where we had started and climbed back down to the town near to the Serbian church. Once back in the town we went to the post office to get a stamp for a postcard, stopped off at a cafe in the main square for a coffee, and then walked out of the main gate towards the waterfront. We had bought tickets for a boat tour to Perast, which was due to leave at midday. It cost €15, which included the return boat trip from Kotor to Perast plus a trip to the island Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks). We were at the boat on plenty of time and able to get a good seat. As the boat pulled out of the harbour in Kotor, we had some lovely views back towards the town. There was some commentary on the boat which gave us some interesting background about the bay of Kotor including the fact that, although in places it looks like a Norwegian fjord, in the strict technical sense it isn't a fjord because the bay here was created by movements in tectonic plates, whereas fjords are created by glaciers. After about half an hour on the boat, the small town of Perast began to come into sight on the horizon. The tall church tower in the centre of the town looked very familiar from my previous visit here last summer. Our boat deposited us on the island Gospa od Škrpjela, which is the only artificial island in the Adriatic. We had half an hour to spend there, and I was determined that this time I wanted to get inside the beautiful church of Our Lady of the Rocks. Last time I had been here there had been too many group tours, and so although I had visited the island, I had only been able to see the church from the outside. This time Perast was noticeably less busy, probably due to the lack of cruise ships moored in Kotor, and so I was in luck. We paid 1 euro to enter the church and were initially slightly disconcerted when walking inside to find it occupied by a large Slavic tour group. But they quickly moved on, and the guy who had been selling the tickets invited us to sit down while he gave us some facts about the church in English. He repeated the story which I had partially understood from my landlady in Kotor last year; that the church had been built on this location because at some point in the fifteenth century, some sailors had found a painting of Our Lady on a rock in this bit of the sea. They took it back to Perast with the intention of keeping it in the church there, but the next day it reappeared on the same rock out at sea. This kept happening, until they realised that it was a sign that they needed to build a church on this rock to house the picture. And so they set about bringing rocks out to sea to build an island, which was pretty slow work until someone hit upon the idea of strengthening the base of the island with old fishing boats. Eventually they had an island which was big enough to build a church on The other interesting story linked to the church is about a woman who embroidered a beautiful picture, partially using her own hair as the thread, while waiting for her husband to return from the sea. The embroidery is kept in a museum upstairs in the church and once the tour group ahead of us had dispersed, we were able to get a good look at it. It isn't possible to make it out in the photos, but the hair of the angels around the edges is brown in some places and grey in others, reflecting the age of the lady when she sewed it. Visiting the church and hearing all these stories was great, but the only problem was that we had nearly used up our allotted half hour on the island. We rushed out of the church and back towards our boat, which was getting ready to depart. As the boat sailed across from the island to the town of Perast, we had another lovely view of the island. Once we got to Perast we had a choice of either spending half an hour there, and returning on a boat at 14.10, or staying for two hours and returning on a boat at 16.10. We started having a walk around, and thought it was so pretty that we would stay for the two hours and have lunch there. Our boat had arrived opposite Perast's main square, which is dominated by the large church of St Nicholas. The church has an enormously high tower, which we didn't feel energetic enough to climb. As we strolled along the sea front we had a view not just of the island which we had visited, but also of the island of St George, which is home to a monastery. We walked as far as we could in one direction along the coast, until we got to the end of the village. Then we turned around to stroll back again, continuing to admire the views both out across the bay... ...and of the town of Perast itself. Perast really is a beautiful place After a while we found what looked like a good restaurant and sat at a table near the sea to have lunch. It turned out to be the best food we had had all holiday; everyone's meal was amazing, and the view was pretty stunning too. After lunch we wanted to explore the part of the town away from the sea front. We climbed up a number of staircases in the hillside and eventually found ourselves at the main road above the town, from where we had a good view back down towards it. From there we were able to walk down a slightly easier path back towards the coast. There was about half an hour left until our boat was due to depart, so we just had time for a quick stroll along the sea in the opposite direction... ...before we needed to walk back towards the harbour. The boat back was quite a bit busier than the boat we had taken out. We managed to sit on the opposite side to where we had been before though, so we had an interesting view of some of the other little settlements on the opposite side of the bay. Once back in Kotor, we retired to the apartment for a while to drink coffee and eat some Serbian chocolate (the latter does not come highly recommended!). In the evening we set out again, climbing down the steps alongside our apartment to the promenade, and having dinner outside at a restaurant beside the sea. When we arrived it was still daylight, but as we sat there twilight began to fall and the mountains were soon just dark outlines above the bay. By the time we had finished eating, the bay was in complete darkness. The way the lights reflected in the sea was amazing. We wandered back into the town to see the fortess lit up at night again as well. For me the most impressive view tonight was actually the reflection of the walls in the clear water of the sea. It's been another fantastic day in Montenegro
  5. Our plan for today was to explore Kotor, so we were able to have a bit of a lie-in until 07.30, before heading down the steps towards the sea to buy bread. Having breakfast on our balcony with a view across the Bay of Kotor was beautiful, although we were slightly disappointed to find that there was not just one cruise ship but two cruise ships in the town this morning! Kotor is only a small place and it was clear that each cruise ship held several thousand passengers, so it had the potential to get very busy in the old town indeed. For that reason, when we walked into town after breakfast we decided to skip the main gate and walk along the outside of the town walls to the Gurdić gate at the south of the end of the town. I figured there would be fewer people going in this way, and happily I was right As we walked through the gate, we realised there was a place where we could climb up onto the walls... ...and have a better view out across the bay. We walked through some of the narrow streets of the old town... ...and saw the first of many churches which we were going to encounter in Kotor that day. We also came across sign saying "Ulaz u tvrđavu", pointing towards the entrance to Kotor's fortress. I know from past visits to Kotor that the climb to the top of this fortress is a very tiring experience, especially on a hot sunny day, so we hadn't been planning to do it. When we were standing there we started to feel tempted though... and the entrance fee was only €3... so in the end we decided to pay it and just go part of the way up. We bought our tickets and began the climb. The list of rules was slightly concerning, especially the part about encountering reptiles! This was a different entrance to the fortress to the one which I have used when I've climbed it on previous occasions, and the path started off quite gently. We didn't have to climb far before we already had a great view of the harbour... ...as well as a great view of one of the huge cruise ships, of course! Rather than just being relentless stone steps, this route took us along the mountainside via a more conventional path for a while. We had a great view of the mountains. For a while we walked alongside a high wall, where we could peer through narrow windows to the town below. In this picture you can just make out Kotor's huge Serbian Orthodox church. Eventually we came to a flattish viewpoint area, where the path we had been walking on joined with the steeper path I've taken before. Only one path led upwards from here, and so it was time for us to tackle the rocky steps which I remember so well from previous visits. Climbing up them was hard work, but with every corner that we turned we could see further and further out into the bay. In addition to trying to avoid dying from exhaustion/sunstroke/an encounter with a reptile, one of the major challenges today was that the path was incredibly busy! One of the cruise ships, which seemed to be Norwegian, was evidently having a shore excursion for some passengers to go to the top of the fortress. They must have started out quite early, because as we were trying to come up the steps they were streaming down in groups. Because the steps are so narrow, and in places the stony path alongside them is too steep to step across onto, we kept having to wait until there was a break in the crowd to be able to get onto steps at all. This did give us a good opportunity to catch our breath though. After a while we began to have a fantastic view down onto the red roofs of Kotor's old town. We were all getting pretty tired by this point, but decided to keep going until we reached the church, which is perhaps just under halfway up. This is the Crkva Gospe od Zdravlja... ...and this is the amazing view it has. We were thrilled to have got this far up, and once we'd taken some pictures of the view, took advantage of the cool shade inside the church to recover for a bit, before deciding that this was definitely as high as we were going to go today and beginning our descent. As we set off back down the steps, we kept peering up the mountainside behind us to see how far from the church we had come. The further down we progressed, the clearer it became how the church really is just perched on the edge of the rocks, and also the more justified we felt in feeling tired after climbing up to it. Eventually we were down! We started to wander around the streets of Kotor, looking for a likely place to have lunch. Eventually we found an restaurant which looked promising in the square outside the cathedral of St Tryphon. It was a beautiful location in which to have lunch, but the most memorable part of the whole experience was probably an English man sitting a few tables away, who announced to a rather confused Montenegrin waiter than he wanted a shandy. The poor waiter clearly had no idea what a shandy might be, so the man started explaining to him that it was beer with lemonade. The waiter became increasingly bemused: "You want me to put lemon juice in your beer?". Having disappeared into the restaurant, he emerged a few minutes later with two beers and a shot of lemon juice The man then started trying to explain to him that it needed to be a fizzy sort of lemonade. "Fanta??!" In the end they seemed to reach a compromise whereby the waiter bought him a bottle of Sprite, which he proceeded to try and pour into his beer. Once lunch was over, we set off to explore some of the churches within the walled town. The cathedral of St Tryphon is actually more impressive inside than out; you have to pay €2.50 for a ticket to get in, then enter some sort of museum which might be very interesting if you had any idea what the various exhibits actually were, but unfortunately rather than having descriptions next to each object, they had instead just given them a number. The numbers presumably corresponded to explanations in a guidebook which they were selling, but we didn't feel like forking out additional money for that. The church with the most spectacular interior was definitely the Serbian Orthodox church of St Nicholas, which had all kinds of exotic decorations inside. We also visited the tiny Montnegrin Orthodox church of St Peter of Cetinje. I never worked out what this church was called, but I loved the shape of its roof... ...and the fact that, if you look carefully, you can see the fortress church on the hillside in the gap between its two towers. There was one more gate out of the town left for us to explore. There was a good view up to the fortress from just outside this gate. Just looking at it was making us feel tired at this point, so we decided to head back to the apartment to cool down and have a bit of a rest. Once we had recovered from our exertions a bit, we decided to go out for an afternoon stroll down to the beach below our accommodation to dip our toes in the Adriatic. This sounded like a fun idea, but you have to remember that there is no such thing as sandy beach in this part of the world; beaches are either rocky or pebbly. This was a pebble beach and I naively assumed that the pebbles must not actually be that uncomfortable under foot... but I was wrong! We walked to the edge of the sea and took off our shoes, instantly confirming that the pebbles are actually very, very sharp! I decided to try and paddle anyway but was quite taken aback when, upon stepping into the sea, my foot began sinking into a very unstable mass of pebbles. I had imagined that they would be quite solid underfoot, but that definitely wasn't the case. I think Dad enjoyed himself anyway though We decided that beaches aren't really for us, and went for a less pain-inducing walk along the promenade instead. Both cruise ships had left now, and so the views were wonderful. In the evening we walked into the old town, where we had a lovely pizza sitting outside in the main square. Darkness had fallen by the time we had finished, and so walking back we were able to enjoy the beautiful sight of the fortress all illuminated for the night. It was a perfect end to the day
  6. It was another beautiful sunny day when we woke up in Dubrovnik this morning, with hardly a cloud in the sky as we sat on the terrace having breakfast. Our bus to Kotor was at 10am and the owner of our apartment had offered to arrange a taxi to pick us up just across the road from the apartment at 9. We were ready well in advance of the taxi, and stood by the side of the road, trying to find some shade under a palm tree while we waited for the taxi to arrive. It turned up exactly on time and whizzed us to the bus station in record time, following a series of shortcuts and narrow side roads which seemed more direct than the route which we had walked the previous day. The end result was that we arrived at the bus station around 09.15, so with plenty of time to wait before our bus to Kotor! We found a shady bench to sit on while we waited, and it wasn't actually too long before our bus arrived in its appointed slot. I assumed it wouldn't be possible for us to load our luggage and board until much nearer the departure time, but as a queue of people without luggage started to build up outside the door of the bus, I eventually realised that the driver was loading luggage onto the opposite side of the bus, and we needed to get a move on. He turned out to be the grumpiest bus driver that I have ever encountered. The man in front of us was obviously a bit confused about the concept of having to pay extra to put his baggage in the hold, and had a small bag which seemed to be attached to the side of a larger one. He had paid his €1 for the first bag and the driver had affixed a baggage label onto that, but when he then attempted to put both bags into the hold together, the driver went ballistic at him because he needed to pay another Euro for the second bag. It took a while before this misunderstanding was ironed out and we were able to get our bags in. The bus company was from Montenegro and I realised belatedly that he was charging people in Euros rather than kuna for the luggage, but fortunately when I asked him if we could pay in kuna that wasn't a problem. What did turn out to be a problem was getting our assigned seats on the bus. I had reserved 7 and 8 (next to each other) and 11 (behind) all on the same side of the bus, from where we ought to have a good view of the Bay of Kotor. Unfortunately it seemed to be one of those buses where people weren't obeying the proper seat numbers, and although we managed to get two of the reserved seats, number 11 already had a girl sitting in it. We tried suggested she move but then a slightly scary conductor lady who was sitting at the front of the bus checking the tickets intervened and told us that the numbers didn't mean anything and we just needed to sit wherever. Oh well! It was a beautiful journey anyway, with the bus firstly travelling up into the hills above Dubrovnik and giving us one more spectacular view of Lokrum and the old town as we drove past. Then we travelled through the Croatian countryside, towards the Montenegrin border. According to the timetable, the bus was supposed to arrive in Kotor around midday, but I don't think that had factored in the fact that there might be a wait at the border. I had indicated when booking the accommodation that we would arrive at 1pm, as I was expecting a delay of 20 - 30 minutes. It turned out to be quite a bit longer than that! We arrived at the Croatian side of the border first and pulled up into a lane behind several other buses. The bus driver disappeared off somewhere, perhaps to have a cigarette as he seemed to have a bit of a chain-smoking problem. Wherever he went, he had closed the door of the bus and we suddenly became aware of a bit of a commotion, as an American backpacker came to the front of the bus and was desperately trying to get off... because he'd just realised that he'd forgotten his passport!!! The bus driver returned shortly afterwards and there was a bit of an altercation, as the American tried to explain to him what had happened. As you can imagine, the driver was singularly unimpressed. There was much swearing and waving of hands, which culminated in the American having his luggage removed from the bus and being left at the side of the road as we all moved on across the border. Goodness knows how he was going to make it back to Dubrovnik! The Croatian police boarded the bus and took our passports away. After what felt like a long wait they were returned to the driver who passed them to the guy in the front seat, but then shouted at him when he made a move to start handing them back out. We drove through the brief stretch of no man's land which separates the Croatian border control from the Montenegrin one, with this guy holding an enormous pile of passports, and then the driver took them back to hand them over the the Montenegrin police at the other end. The drama continued at the Montenegrin border control. The bus pulled up into a lane and the driver started shouting and pointing that there was a toilet here. Numerous people got off the bus to take advantage of it. A Montenegrin policeman then started shouting and waving his arms, indicating that our bus was in the wrong lane and that it needed to join an adjacent lane behind several other buses. The bus reversed and drove to this other checkpoint, which was quite a way from where he had dropped passengers off to use the toilet. We can only imagine how some of them must have panicked when they emerged and found the bus was nowhere near where they had left it! There was another long wait here while all the passports were checked and stamped. The queue in the opposite direction, coming from Montenegro back into Croatia, was even longer and while we were waiting we saw one woman who seemed to be having some serious problems with her car. When she was nearly at the control point, ominous smoke started emerging from her vehicle, which got worse when she got out and lifted the bonnet up. A Montenegrin policeman came over and after a heated conversation, she was made to leave the queue and drive back in the direction she had come from; hopefully towards a garage! Finally the passports were returned and the entire pile passed down the bus for people to try and find their own. I think we all felt happier once we were safely reunited with ours! The entire process had taken around an hour, so it was already midday as the bus started driving away from the border and towards the first real town on the Montenegrin side; Herceg Novi. The driver seemed to have used up any goodwill he might have felt to mankind by this point, so our progress through Herceg Novi and then around the Bay of Kotor was punctuated by much honking of the horn and chain-smoking. The views were spectacular though, especially as we passed Perast, and the fact that he was driving with one hand while talking on the phone with the other was only slightly distracting, as we wound around the narrow bends alongside the sea. It was 1pm by the time we arrived in Kotor. I wasn't completely sure how far away from the main town our apartment was located, on account of it being one of those "bez broja" (numberless) buildings that are difficult to reliably locate on Google maps. There were various hopeful looking taxi drivers lurking outside the station. We went with the second one who approached us saying "taksi", and agreed a price of €5 to the apartment, which didn't seem unreasonable. The taxi turned out to be ridiculously hot, but the good news was that the apartment wasn't too far away, and 10 minutes or so later we were pulling up on the drive of the apartment. Before we had even finished unloading our cases from the back of the taxi, we were approached by the owner, who was quite flustered to see us as she thought we were going to be arriving at 4. I've got no idea how this confusion can have arisen, because I was sent an email by booking.com last week with a link to click and input our arrival time, and I know I had definitely said 1pm. But anyway, they seemed to have had some other guests checking out later, and they hadn't quite finished getting the apartment ready for us. The lady was very apologetic and brought us up to sit on the terrace while they finished cleaning the room. It was hard to complain when the view from the terrace was like this. They brought us a refreshing glass of orange, and we were quite happy to sit and drink it while admiring the view of the bay. It wasn't long before all the cleaning was finished, and we were able to get a proper look at the apartment. It turns out to be huge, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus an enormous living room which features unusual decorations that include what appears to be a gun mounted to the wall. The most impressive thing was that we have our own water machine, a miniature version of the sort you would get in an office, complete with a new barrel of water to fix onto it when the old one runs out. This was a great surprise and is going to save us a lot effort in not having to buy bottled water and carry it back to the apartment. The apartment is in a very scenic location; this is the view from my bedroom And this is definitely the best view I've ever had from a bathroom! Once we had settled in, we set out for a walk to see if we could find some shops. The lady had explained to me that we could walk down a staircase by the side of the house, then down a small road to where there is a promenade with restaurants along by the sea. I was really glad she had told us about it because I had never found this promenade on previous visits to Kotor, and the steps looked quite private so I don't think we would ever have walked down them without knowing. We followed the instructions though and were able to have a very pleasant stroll along by the sea. Unfortunately there was a large cruise ship in the bay, slightly spoiling the view in the other direction. We found a small shop where we could get some milk, then later walked into the town to do some more serious shopping in the main supermarket. By the time we returned to the apartment after this, the cruise ship was just getting ready to depart, and we were able to watch little boats being hauled up to it, hear the announcements from the ship's captain, and finally watch it sail away in the distance, on its way towards Greece. The view of the bay without it was 100 times better In the evening we walked towards the old town and got our first views up towards the imposing fortress. We walked as far as the main square, where we sat outside and ate a very tasty meal of punjena piletina (chicken wrapped in bacon, and stuffed with cheese and ham). It was absolutely beautiful, and a nice relaxing end to our first day in Montenegro
  7. We had a comparatively early start this morning, with our bus to Podgorica leaving at 08.50. There are only two buses per day from Žabljak, so it was important that we didn't miss it. It was very cloudy and spotting with rain as we left our apartment in Žabljak and headed to the bus station/car park. I had bought the tickets online again, which made life simpler as there wasn't any sort of ticket office at the bus station, and theoretically we had seats 7 and 8. The bus arrived promptly at 08.40 but turned out to be only slightly larger than a minibus and not have any numbers on the seats. There was plenty of space anyway, so we were able to get seats without any problems The journey to Podgorica took just under three hours, so we arrived in the Montenegrin capital some time around 11.30. It was a journey full of twists and turns as we made our way through the mountains, back towards Nikšić, and then down towards Podgorica. The closer we got to Podgorica, the darker the clouds seem to become and by the time the bus pulled up at the bus station it was raining torrentially. We got soaked just getting out suitcases out of the boot of the bus and running into the bus station! We couldn't check in to the hotel until 2pm, so our plan had been to get a coffee in the bus station and then find somewhere to get lunch. Podgorica bus station, however, turned out to be one of sorriest looking bus stations I have ever seen and there wasn't really anywhere where you could sit down in the station itself. Luckily we did spot what seemed to be a cafe next door to it, and although first impressions also weren't very good (there isn't a smoking ban in Montenegro, so the first part of the cafe was full of people smoking), once we went further back we realised that there were actually some quite nice tables and a food menu The food turned up to be surprisingly good. In the end we had a glass of wine, a beer, a water and an apple juice, plus a Caesar salad and a spaghetti bolognese which was larger than I could eat, and in total the bill came to less than €15. Not much change of breaking one of our €50 notes there! By the time we had finished lunch it had stopped raining, so we decided to try heading to the hotel a bit earlier and see what happened. We stepped out of the bus station and were immediately accosted by a man asking whether we wanted a taxi. Our first instinct in these situations is always to say "no", and we were indeed planning to walk. We had a map printed from Google, but were struggling to work out which side of the bus station we were standing, so the taxi man offered to take a look and help us out. He started giving us directions, but when he saw where we were going he announced that the taxi fare would only be €2. It seemed worth paying this just to avoid getting lost, so we jumped in and were soon on our way. We were staying in the Ramada in Podgorica which is a bit posh for our standards, but we have got quite an early started tomorrow and I wanted to find somewhere where we could have breakfast in the morning. It was €70 for the night including breakfast, but they did indeed let us check in early and we've had a lovely big room with good air-conditioning The weather had improved significantly by this point so that there was almost a blue sky when stepped out of the hotel to start exploring the town. Our expectations weren't very high, as I had read in several guidebooks that there isn't really anything to see in Podgorica at all. It's a bit of a strange city because it was historically never the capital of Montenegro when Montenegro was independent (the capital was historically Cetinje) but became the capital of the republic of Montenegro within Yugoslavia in 1945, although at this point it was renamed Titograd. Podgorica was ruled by the Ottomans for four centuries until 1878 and the architecture of the town used to reflect this, but it was bombed heavily during the Second World War and pretty much everything was flattened. What was rebuilt was mainly concrete! We decided to try and explore the new town (Nova Varoš) first, as this is where the current city centre and government buildings are. First of all we found the Montenegrin Central Bank... ...followed by the Montenegrin parliament... ...followed by the palace of the Montenegrin President. They all looked a bit... samey! The opposite side of the road was a bit more promising though There was a bridge with a pretty view over the river... ...and a statue of King Nikola I, who ruled Montenegro from 1860 to 1918. We soon found ourselves in the main square, Trg Republike. The best thing we could say about it was that it had a fountain! After that I wanted to find the Millennium Bridge, which was built across the river in 2005 and is now supposed to be the symbol of Podgorica. It reminded me a bit of the UFO bridge in Bratislava! More attractive was the little park we found with a statue of the famous Montenegrin ruler and poet, Njegoš. By this time we felt we had seen everything the new town had to offer, so we set off to track down the few remaining pieces of the old Ottoman town. This is the old Clock Tower, which was built in 1667. A few streets behind the clock tower we found the Osmanagić Mosque. This was originally built in the eighteenth century and has recently been restored with the help of donations from Turkey. There is supposed to be a second mosque somewhere, dating from the fifteenth century, but we weren't able to find it. We headed back to the hotel to pack up our things (mainly working out the correct split between suitcases of all the books we had bought in Dubrovnik!) before going out for a meal. It took us quite a long time to find a restaurant, but eventually we came across what looked like a nice pizzeria. We both had a wood-fired pizza, plus a bottle of wine, and Tim had a couple of beers, and overall the bill came to €25! One good thing about Podgorica is that the prices are incredibly cheap, much cheaper than on the coast where they are inflated for tourists. And with that our summer holidays for the year come to an end We've got an 11.10 flight from Podgorica to Stansted tomorrow morning, so will just have time to get up and have breakfast at the hotel before setting off for the airport. We've had an amazing time in Croatia and Montenegro over the past two weeks and it's been particularly exciting for me to get so much language practice and see how much I've improved When we were discussing the holiday over dinner just now, all the places we've been to have been so lovely that we struggled to identify anything as being our favourite bit of the holiday, but we managed to establish that Tim's least favourite part was the rather painful climb to the top of the fortress in Kotor
  8. The weather had improved dramtically overnight and there was a beautifully clear blue sky when we woke up this morning. Our plan for the day was to walk to a place called Ćurevac, where there was supposed to be an amazing viewpoint over the Tara River Canyon. You may never have heard of it, but the Tara River Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in Europe, being 51 miles long and 1,300m deep at its deepest point. The main reason people come to Žabljak in the winter is for skiing, but the main reason in the summer is for rafting on the Tara river, which is effectively the only way to get a view of most of the canyon. There was no way we were going to go rafting though(!) and so this paragraph in the Lonely Planet Guide to Montenegro had caught my attention when planning the holiday. ""If you’d rather stay dry and admire the canyon from afar, head to the top of Mt Ćurevac (1625m) – although even this view is restricted by the canyon walls. The viewpoint isn't well signposted and it's difficult to find. From Žabljak's central square take the main road east and before you leave the town, turn left at a sign reading 'Restoran Momčilov Grad'. Shortly after, turn right and follow this road as it climbs the hill. Where there are any forks, chose the road that loops up and follow any signs that say 'Tepca'. Eventually there are some small wooden signs pointing to Ćurevac or vidikovac (viewpoint). Stop at the grassy parking spot with the national park information boards and clamber up the small track behind." We hadn't got a map of the national park which showed the viewpoint but we looked it up on Google Maps and found it was about 7.5km from where we were staying, so it ought to be possible to walk there and back, if only we could find the correct road. We almost fell at the first hurdle, when we walked on the main road east out of Žabljak until we had completely left the town and at no point found a sign which said 'Restoran Momčilov Grad', but on the way back we did spot an info-board with a map of paths around the town, and this suggested that we ought to be taking a road which started behind the supermarket. The main town is only really a couple of rows of houses deep, and so almost immediately upon walking behind the supermarket, we found ourselves in the meadows. There were some beautiful views of the mountains in the distance as we started following the road in what we hoped was the right direction. The road took us upwards through a number of small villages outside the main town. After some of experiences with scary dogs in out-of-the-way parts of Lithuania last summer, I was a bit worried every time we approached a new group of houses that we might attract the attention of a vicious canine. A lot of the houses we walked past did have kennels outside, but the dogs mostly seemed to be off elsewhere. Then we walked past one particular row of houses and could hear a dog alternatively barking and crying. He was tied up outside his house though so not going to cause us any trouble... until his owner untied him. There was a rather fraught moment when I suddenly became aware of the sound of paws coming up behind us! Luckily it turned out to be a very friendly dog who didn't try and chase us away, but instead decided to accompany us for some of our walk. He trotted along, alternatively ahead of and behind us, for several kilometres as we made our way through the forest. He wasn't too fond of cars though, and every time one passed close by he started chasing it, accompanied by loud barking. We were grateful for the guidance in the Lonely Planet book which had said to follow signs towards Tepca, because we must have been walking for about two hours before we came across the first sign that mentioned Ćurevac. We lost the dog at this point and continued walking through the forest on our own. At one point a car of Russian tourists pulled over and asked us if this was the way to Ćurevac, so at least we weren't the only people trying to find it. We told them we hoped it was only another couple of kilometres! Around midday we finally arrived at the car park with the national park boards which had been mentioned in the guidebook From here there was indeed a small rocky track leading up towards the viewpoint. We began to follow it, and soon got our first views of the canyon. It was so deep that it was actually really difficult to see the river at the bottom (this photo is very zoomed in to show it!). This is more what it looked like zoomed out. The views were qutie vertigo-inducing, but luckily there was a handrail on this part of the path! The rocks were extremely steep in places. At this point we met the Russians who had overtaken us in their car. The reason I'm laughing in this photo is that the man we'd spoken to recognised us and said in English "Oh, I should have given you a tramp!", whereupon his companion corrected him with "A ride. You should have given them a ride!" I don't know enough Russian to know what the word is in that language, but in German "trampen" is a word for "to hitchhike", so I'm guessing the confusion came from something like that. From the nice handrailed part of the viewpoint, a narrow path continued to lead further uphill. We followed it carefully - it was a long way down! After a couple of minutes we came to a slightly higher viewpoint. Wow. Slightly higher up again, we came to what may be officially the world's scariest bench. It was the sort of bench where you definitely wanted to hold on! Or, at least, I did; Tim was a bit more confident From there it was possible to go a bit higher again. This position gave a bit of a better view of the river at the bottom of the canyon. It was a very long way down! That was about as far as the path went, so we turned around to head back down again. Luckily these rocks weren't slippy like yesterday's! On the way back down there was just time to take some more photos on the bench. Then we were on our way back through the forest again, this time without any intervention from dogs! It was a quicker walk this time because we knew where we were going and it was overall downhill, but I was quite tired by this point. Overall our step count for the day was just short of 12 miles. By mid-afternoon we were back in the meadows outside Žabljak again... ...admiring the views of the mountains. It was an exhausting, but very beautiful walk, and definitely worth it for the spectacular views of the canyon
  9. The rain had been quite torrential in Žabljak yesterday evening, but we were relieved to see when we woke up this morning that there was a beautifully clear blue sky. Our plan for today was to visit Crno Jezero (the Black Lake), a beautiful glacial lake on the outskirts of the town. It was the sort of activity which would have been rather miserable in the rain. We set out straight after breakfast, to make the most of the good weather. We started by walking down Žabljak's high street, in the direction of the mountains. Žabljak isn't a large town, and soon the shops and houses started thinning out, giving us an increasingly good view of the mountains. This one in particular looks so rocky! Crno Jezero is located just 3km outside of Žabljak and it's an easy, well-signposted stroll down a road which doesn't have much traffic. As we started to get closer, we turned a corner and had a spectacular view. The forests looked like something out of a fairy tale, with mist rising from them in the early morning sunshine. A couple of kilometres from the town, the road is roped off and you come to a little wooden hut. This is the point at which you have to pay an entrance fee (€3) to enter the national park. It seemed like a bargain. Once we had paid, there were another few hundred metres to go before we got our first glimpse of the lake. Wow. It isn't immediately obvious why this is known as the Black Lake, because the waters seemed to be a shade of blue which would almost rival Plitvice. While we were admiring the views on the shores of the lake, we even found some ducks Although the lake is referred to as Crno Jezero, in summer it actually splits into two lakes - Veliko Jezero and Malo Jezero - which are connected by a narrow strait of rocks. In other seasons when the water level is higher, they join together to form one lake. We were currently at the first bit of the lake, Veliko Jezero. Although there had been some groups of other tourists at the entrance to the national park, by the time we had wandered around the shore for a bit there were only a handful of other people in sight. Everything which I have ever read about Crno Jezero has said that there is an "easy" 4km path around the edge of the lake. Walking paths in Montenegro are graded as blue (easy), red (medium) and black (hard) and the signs at the entrance to the national park confirmed that this was a blue path. In my mind this had led me to imagine something in the Swiss style of easy paths around lakes, which generally involve a tarmac surface you could push a wheelchair along and plentiful opportunities to buy ice-cream. Lulled into a false sense of security, I had therefore decided to wear my trainers today rather than my walking shoes. The path started off easily enough around the shore of the lake, and everywhere we looked we were rewarded with fantastic views. As we came to the far edge of the first lake, the path led uphill into the forest on its route around the second part of the lake. The forests were beautiful in their own right and reminded us a little of the amazing forests we'd experienced in Lithuania last year. The trees blocked out the view of the lake for a while, but every so often we would come across little clearings It was around this point that we began to experience the true meaning of an "easy" path, Montenegrin-style, and I started to regret not having worn my proper shoes! Let's just say I don't think I feel ready for a medium path In fairness, the path is probably a lot easier if the weather is completely dry. But it had rained quite heavily last night, and everywhere was still pretty wet, especially under the trees. The main surfaces of the path were damp rocks, damp tree roots and damp mud, all of which were slippery in different ways at different times. But the rocks were all quite stable, so if it hadn't rained I don't think they would have been quite so much of a struggle! The good news is that the views did continue to make the effort worthwhile. One of the most striking things about the lake was how clear the water was. As you can see in the photo, we could not only see a perfect reflection of the trees but the clouds as well. In some places the reflections did make the water look darker, although I still think calling the lake "black" is a bit of an exaggeration. We began to make good progress around the second lake and back towards the first one. Partway around we came to a sign for "Titova Pećina" (Tito's cave). Although you wouldn't think it to look at it, there was some serious fighting around Žabljak during the Second World War, with the entire town ultimately being burnt to the ground. The inscription on the plaque reads "Here Comrade Tito stayed with his Supreme Staff from 20 to 29 May 1943 and took the decision about the breakthrough across the Sutjeska (river)". Unfortunately I don't know enough about the history of the Second World War to know what the significance of this decision was, but it sounds like it was important! Soon after the cave we were coming back around to where we had started. The lake and the mountains still looked beautiful in the sunshine. And the path became a bit easier at this point as well Now that we were up close by the water we could see how amazingly clear it was... ..with hundreds of tiny fish swimming in it. It was coming up to lunch time by this point, so we decided we'd better head back to the main town to get some food. It was a pleasant walk back We went back to the apartment first so I could wash mud of me (it was that sort of walk!) and then to a restaurant we'd passed on the way to the lake which advertised itself as a pizzeria. I had a very cheesy margherita pizza and Tim ordered something called "piletina u kari sosu" (chicken in curry sauce). This was a promising name, but when it arrived it turned out to have the colour of mustard and be very bland, not even as spicy as a korma. The chicken looked good though, and the entire meal including drinks only came to €20. It was about 2pm by this point and we walked back towards the lake, in the hope of exploring some of the other paths which start from there. Unfortunately, by this stage some rather dark clouds had started to descend over the area and it was getting increasingly cold and windy, as if it might rain soon. The weather can be very volatile in this part of Montenegro, so we decided we'd better not risk another walk and set off back to Žabljak instead. We'd walked 10 miles already by this point anyway and got some fantastic photos in the sunshine, so we couldn't complain It turned out to be a good decision, because we'd just got within sight of the local supermarket when the heavens opened!
  10. It was a beautifully sunny morning in Kotor today when we got up and had a final breakfast of burek on the terrace. Our friendly landlady arrived at 9am for a final chat and some advice on English grammar, and then we were off on our way to the bus station. There are only two buses a day between Kotor and Žabljak, a town high up in the Durmitor National Park. We had tickets for the 09.40 bus, which I had bought online before we came. There was a large sign in English in Kotor's bus station though, announcing that anyone who had bought a ticket online had to pay a surcharge of €1 for the bus station to check the ticket, otherwise it wasn't valid for travel. This seemed a bit unfair, but I assumed was because the bus station doesn't want to lose out on loads of revenue if people start buying tickets online. We got to the station on plenty of time to go to the counter and sort this out, but when I asked the lady about it she said no, we didn't need to pay. Whether this was because I'd asked her in Croatian and this is only a tax on English-speaking people I'm not sure In what must be a first for this holiday, the bus arrived on time. We had been allocated seats 17 and 18 and it was a 30-seater bus which was a good start, although the beginning of the route was in Budva so there were already two people sitting in our seats when we got on. It didn't seem worth having a dispute about though, as the bus wasn't completely full. We sat in seats 15 and 16 in the end and no one raised any objections. It's a four-hour journey from Kotor to Žabljak, so I was relieved to see that although the bus looked quite battered from the outside, it was reasonably comfortable on the inside. None of the seats were broken at least (an improvement on the bus to Herceg Novi!) and there was air-conditiong of a sort. The first part of the journey took us along the Bay of Kotor following the same coastal road as yesterday. Before we got as far as Herceg Novi, the bus took a sharp turn upwards into the mountains and we had some truly spectacular views back out across the sea as we climbed higher and higher. We were able to see all the way back to Perast and make out the two islands in the middle of the bay, before we finally entered a tunnel and passed through to the other side of the mountains. The views were so impressive that I was too busy admiring them to remember to take any photos! But as you can probably imagine from the photos we've taken of the scenery around Kotor over the past few days, the mountains were incredibly steep and rocky. At times it seemed touch and go as to whether the rather antiquated bus was going to make it to the top of the pass; we passed some road signs announcing that the speed limit was 80km/h, but we certainly weren't in any danger of reaching that! We got there in the end though, and from then on the road became a little more level, though the countryside we were passing through was still dramatic. About two hours into the journey, the bus descended towards the town of Nikšič, Montenegro's second city. Calling it Montenegro's second city makes it sound quite impressive, but actually with only around 50,000 inhabitants it is smaller than Nuneaton. There was a 10-minute pause there anyway before we were off on our way again, climbing back into the mountains towards Žabljak. We were due to arrive in Žabljak at 13.30 and the bus actually surpassed itself, arriving nearly 15 minutes ahead of schedule. We were lucky that this was the terminus of the bus and that everyone was getting off here, because there was actually nothing to indicate that this was Žabljak. Normally when I arrive in a place I expect to see some sort of sign confirming the name of a town. Or when I get off a bus I expect to see some sort of structure approximating a bus station. In Žabljak there appeared to be nothing; the driver just pulled up in what appeared to be a car park and indicated that everyone should get off. At least we had a map of Žabljak with the bus station and our apartment marked on. Check-in was possible from noon, so we were planning to head straight there. The map we had printed made it all look quite straightforward, and in particular all the key roads were nicely marked with names. Road names are normally a very useful feature in navigating, but unfortunately in this instance they were rendered completely useless by the fact that there are absolutely no signs with street names on in the whole of Žabljak at all. Oh dear. The other tool which is normally quite useful in locating a specific house property is its number. Unfortunately we were out of luck here too, because the place we were looking for was labelled as "bb" which stands for "bez broja" (without a number). How the post office ever manages to deliver anything to anybody I'm not sure! In the absence of other options, we started walking down what we hoped was the main street in the overall general direction of the apartment. Within a few minutes we thought we'd struck lucky, catching sight of a sign indicating the apartment name and pointing up a side street. When we went up the side street, however, we couldn't see anything that looked remotely like the place we were looking for, and there were no more signs of any description. We decided to adopt the tactic of walking up all the surrounding streets, on the lookout for a building that resembled the photo on booking.com, but the turns we tried either appeared to become dead ends or quickly degenerate into gravel tracks. In the end we were saved by a man standing outside the town's backpacker hostel, who could see us confusedly consulting a map and offered assistance. It turned out the apartment was indeed just around the corner, up a bumpy gravel track which was clearly not designed for pulling suitcases. The building didn't look terribly auspicious from the outside, but I kept reminding myself that this was graded 9.2 on booking.com so it must be okay inside! Tim soon managed to track down the owner, who showed us into a cosy little apartment which seemed almost Swiss with all its wood-panelling. Phew. I wasn't entirely sure whether it was safe to drink the water in Žabljak, so once we had unpacked a little our first aim was to track down a supermarket. The issue of whether you can drink the water in Montenegro is a bit of a confusing one, with the answer tending to be that it's safe to drink, except when it isn't. The Bradt guidebook had said that the water was mainly drinkable, except in the coastal towns during the summer, but then went on to mention something about an unreliable supply of drinking water in Žabljak. We had been erring on the side of caution in Kotor, stocking up with water from the supermarket every time we walked past it. Fortunately bottled water in Montenegro is very cheap, and when we did eventually find the supermarket in Žabljak we were able to buy bottles of 1.5 litres for 45 cents each Finding the supermarket was a slight challenge though. This is the main street in Žabljak and it isn't entirely clear where the centre of town might be. We walked in that direction first, establishing that there was nothing but a petrol station and the bus station/car park. The town centre was the opposite way. As we walked towards the centre, we got temporarily distracted by the fact that what looked like an alien spaceship appeared to have landed in a field behind the town. Upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a Yugoslav memorial to Partisan fighters during the Second World War. The monument was raised up on a bit of a mound, so we got a good view of the mountains behind the town. It looked like a storm would be upon us soon though! Žabljak is at 1,460 metres, so it already felt a lot cooler here than it did in Kotor. We eventually did find the supermarket and bought our water, then started looking for a restaurant for a belated lunch. We found one not far from where we were staying, where the menu seemed to consist entirely of variations on the theme of grilled meat. Tim ordered some promising-sounding sausages, which unfortunately turned out to be Frankfurters, while I had a "punjena pljeskavica", which is like a large flat burger, folded in half and stuffed with cheese and ham. We just about managed to finish our meal and get back to the apartment before the heavens opened and it began to pour torrentially for the rest of the afternoon. Hopefully the weather will improve tomorrow, because it looks like it will be a really pretty place in the sunshine
  11. One of the reasons that Kotor is a good place to base yourself in Montenegro - beyond the fact that it is exceptionally beautiful - is that it's also well-situated for transport links, with regular bus services to lots of places in Montenegro and beyond. We therefore had lots of options for places we could go to on a day trip today, and after weighing it up we decided to visit Herceg Novi, a coastal town near the Croatian border which we had passed through on the way from Dubrovnik on Saturday. First of all though we needed to walk into Kotor and visit the post office. We wanted to buy some stamps for our postcards and Tim also needed to post a parcel of books to a friend who lives in Serbia. After breakfast on the terrace, we left the apartment and set off for the town. Imagine our dismay when we found not just one but two cruise ships sitting out in the bay! There's only space for one to dock at Kotor's harbour, so people were being ferried from the second one in a succession of small boats. This Cunard one was the larger of the two, towering over the walls of the old town. Look at how long it is!! As you can imagine, there was chaos inside the relatively small old town of Kotor with so many people descending. We fought our way through the hordes to the post office and successfully completed our transactions, before setting off for the bus station. It's only a 10 minute walk from the old town to the bus station, but as we walked we could see that we might be in for a rather long wait at the bus station once we arrived. The entire main road along the coast was grid-locked, seemingly mainly because of all the people disembarking from the cruise ships. Everyone who gets off the ships has to cross the main road to get into the old town, and there was a policeman controlling the zebra crossing, alternately letting batches of people and vehicles across. We bought tickets to Herceg Novi (€4 each) for a bus which was due to arrive at 11.18. As suspected, it didn't arrive at anything approximating 11.18; it was closer to midday when the bus finally pulled into the station. We had been allocated seats 20 and 21 so I was eager to see whether the bus actually contained 21 seats (not a given in this part of the world!). Happily it did, although none of them were numbered, so we just sat in a couple which were free The journey was beautiful, travelling around the Bay of Kotor again, past Perast where we had been yesterday and then onwards towards Herceg Novi. The traffic jams in Kotor were still causing chaos though, with the result that a journey which was supposed to take just under an hour ended up taking more like 90 minutes. It was around 13.20 by the time we arrived in Herceg Novi. The history of Herceg Novi seems quite complicated. The town was founded by the Bosnian king Tvrtko in 1382, who called it "Novi" on the basis that it was "new". The "Herceg" part was added later, being a corruption of the German "Herzog", the title of a subsequent rule who expanded the town. Herceg Novi was captured by the Ottomans in 1482 and they ruled it for 200 years, with a break in the middle when it was ruled by the Spanish. After that it followed the rest of the region in being ruled by the Venetians, the Austrians, the French, the Italians and the various incarnations of Yugoslavia. The part with the Spanish completely confused me, but they left behind the Tvrđava Španjola (Spanish Fortress). The fortress is not far from the bus station, in the highest part of the town. It only cost €2 to get in and explore. Nowadays the inside of the fortress is mostly used as a venue for outdoor theatre and cinema. It's in an amazing location, with views of the whole of Herceg Novi and the coast. We could see some buildings in the town which looked worth exploring later, including what looked like it must be the dome of another Orthodox church. We spent a while walking around the fortress. We particularly wanted to make the most of the views of the sea, because tomorrow we will be heading inland for our final destination of Žabljak. Then it was time to head down into the town. The main part of Herceg Novi is quite a long way below the fortress, and we followed a series of streets that were more like staircases than anything else to get down towards the sea. Once in the centre of town, we quickly found the Serbian Orthodox church which we had seen from up high. It looked beautiful, especially flanked by palm trees. We followed some more tiny streets through the old town... ...and found the church of St Jerome, which is the town's Catholic church. From here there was still a bit further down to go... ...until we found a second fortress close to the sea. On the sea front there is also an enormous statue of the town's founder, King Tvrtko. The view from behind him is possibly more impressive with the fortress. One advantage which Herceg Novi has over Perast is that it has a proper promenade path where you can walk beside the sea. We strolled along for a while, before finding a cheap restaurant on the sea front for a (rather late) lunch. As you can see, it was a beautiful location Once we'd finished eating it was time to start the long climb back up towards the bus station for a bus back to Kotor. We arrived at the bus station and I was about to go to the counter to buy a ticket, when we were intercepted by the driver of one of the buses which was sitting waiting outside the station. Happily for us, his bus was going to Kotor and he told us that we could get in and buy a ticket from him instead. Presumably it was some sort of attempt to defraud the bus station (who take a cut of the tickets they sell) but it worked out well because he charged us €3.50, which was less than what we had paid on the way there. With the benefit of hindsight we might rather have paid the extra 50 cents and had a slightly calmer driver. His driving style turned out to be somewhat aggressive, with a particularly memorable incident when he overtook three cars in a row, accompanied by much beeping of his horn! We made it back in one piece though, and were able to enjoy a final sit on the terrace before packing our bags for tomorrow's trip to Žabljak
  12. When I was chatting to the landlady last night she had made some suggestions about places we ought to go in Montenegro. Not all of them sounded like things we would enjoy, but one of her suggestions sounded promising: a trip to Perast. Perast is a small town on the Bay of Kotor, about 15km north of Kotor itself. You can get there as a stop on the hop-on-hop-off bus tour which operates around Kotor for €20 each. Or you can do what our landlady recommended and take the public bus for €1 each. We decided to take the second approach The bus to Perast is supposed to leave from outside the main shopping centre in Kotor at quarter past each hour, so we were there and waiting at 10.15. There's no way we would have known of the existence of the bus if they landlady hadn't told me, because while there is something approximating a bus stop outside the shopping centre, there are no timetables or signs on it about what sort of buses might be departing from there or when. I was glad when a small crowd of other people materialised at the stop, presumably waiting for the same bus, because 10.15 came and went without any sign of a bus, as did 10.20, 10.25 and 10.30. Sometime around 10.35, the bus finally arrived - phew! The driver wasn't very communicative but the fare did indeed seem to be a Euro each, which was good. The only problem now was that the bus was already quite full and so we weren't able to get a seat. We managed to find space to stand and spent the next 20 minutes desperately hanging onto poles as the bus sped around the hairpin bends of the bay at lightning speed. There didn't really seem to be many defined bus stops along the route and so the passengers, many of whom were old ladies, just shouted loudly at the driver when they wanted to get off and he pulled over at the side of the road. Luckily there were quite a few people who wanted to get off in Perast and he stopped in a reasonable location on the edge of the town. Perast is just a small village today but during the days of the Venetian empire it was an important harbour with a fleet of Venetian ships being stationed there. As a result, there is some beautiful architecture in the town, with numerous houses and palaces that were built by the Venetians. It's also in a beautiful natural location. We started to walk along the main street towards the town. The main road is literally right next to the sea, and there are no pavements, so you had to be on your guard as you walked to make sure you weren't mown down by any Montenegrin driving! Soon we had reached Perast's main square. St Nicholas' church is in the middle with its huge bell tower. There were some smaller churches in the town too. The most impressive views though are out to sea. The reason that lots of tourists visit Perast is because of two islands in the bay not far off the coast of the town. The first is Ostrvo Sveti Đorđe (Island of St. George). This island is home to a Benedictine monastery which dates from the twelfth century and is closed to tourists. The second is the island of Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks), which is the only artificial island in the whole of the Adriatic. This second island is open to visits by the public and there are rows of boats on the waterfront of Perast waiting to take tourists across. Our landlady had advised us that the going rate was €5 per person for a return fare and that we shouldn't pay more than that. We strolled along the promenade to the far end of Perast to admire the view. One man approached us, interrupting a conversation we were having, to ask if we wanted a boat trip. We said no to him as he thought he was a bit presumptious, but yes to another man who approached us much more politely a few minutes later. He confirmed that the price for a trip to the island was €5 and soon we were on our way. We soon had some beautiful views of Perast as the boat pulled away from the shore... ..and got closer to the islands. First we got a brilliant view of the monastery on the island of St George... ...and soon we had a brilliant view of Our Lady of the Rocks too. When we arrived on the island, the captain asked how long we wanted to stay and agreed to come and pick us back up in half an hour or so. We thought that ought to be enough time, because the island is really quite small. The main building on the island is the church of Our Lady of the Rocks. The landlady had told me the story of the church last night. As far as I understood it (and this may not be 100% accurate because she speaks Montenegrin quite fast!), some sailors in the fifteenth century had seen an apparition of Our Lady who had asked them to build a church on a small rock in the middle of the Bay of Kotor. The rock wasn't big enough to build a church on, so over the years the locals sailed out into the bay with boats full of rocks to build up a proper island. Eventually a solid artificial island emerged from the sea and a church was built on it. The current church was constructed in 1632. There is a festival in Perast every summer where locals still row out with boats full of stones to help support the island. The church is supposed to be really interesting inside as well. Our landlady was telling me that there is a famous embroidered icon in there which was made by a local lady, waiting for her sailor husband to return from a long voyage. She sewed some of the tapestry with her own hair, which is what makes it particularly famous. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see it because we weren't able to get inside the church! Unbeknown to us, this is a "shore excursion" for some of the cruise ships which dock in Kotor and there were several large boats which arrived at the same time as us, disgorging large groups of passengers on tours who were queuing to get inside the church in organised groups. We didn't stand a chance! Instead we made the best of the views from all around the island... ...and back across to Perast. We located the boat we'd come out of and began our journey back to the town. There were some more brilliant views Once we were back in the town we strolled up and down the sea front once more, looking for a likely place for lunch. There are some quite expensive hotels and restaurants in Perast, but eventually we managed to find a reasonably priced place from where we had a lovely view out to sea. Later in the afternoon it was time to head back to Kotor. From what the landlady had said to me, I understood that the bus back was supposed to arrive in Perast around half past each hour, so we went to stand in the main square at the appointed time. As on the way out, we waited and waited and waited, and again about 20 minutes late a bus arrived. This time we even managed to get a seat, so we were able to enjoy the views as we sped back to Kotor
  13. It seemed to have rained overnight but it looked like the weather was set to improve for the rest of the day when we got up around 8am this morning. After a breakfast of delicious meat burek on our terrace, we set off for the short walk into the old town. We wanted to see a bit of the town before the cruise ship hordes descended and also complete the steep climb up to the fortifications before it got too sunny. The city walls in Kotor are completely different to those in Dubrovnik because they don't just surround the town itself. The ramparts continue up on the mountain beind Kotor, culminating in the fortress of St John high above the town. In the photo below, you can see the normal town walls in the foreground and then hopefully just make out the ramparts zigzagging up the hillside. The Church of Our Lady of Remedy, which I tried to convince myself was halfway up when we got to it, is a bit under halfway really, the highest point being past the top of the trees. The more we looked up at the fortress the more daunting it seemed, so we decided to stroll around the old town first for a bit of a warm up. We went through the main gate in the walls... ...and into the main square with its clock tower. The old town is full of beautiful little streets and it's possible to wander around for ages. There are lots of attractive little churches too.. ...although the one which towers above the town is the Serbian Orthodox church. The way up to the fortress starts from the far end of the town. It costs €3 each, though before you pay you need to know what you're letting yourself in for; a series of rocky staircases in the mountainside with approximately 1,400 steps before you get to the top. The scenary is amazing though and almost as soon as you start off you get a view over the red roofs of the town. Within approximately three minutes we already felt out of breath, and the possibly halfway point of the church was still a long way off! The higher we climbed, the better the view we got of the Serbian Orthodox church though. We could also see the Catholic cathedral, which we had taken a photo of from the town yesterday evening. Kotor began to fade further into the distance... ...and eventually we had made it to the church! The church was built in 1518, at which time Kotor was part of the Venetian empire. The fortifications in their current form were built during this period too, although there had been some sort of fortification on the mountain since the sixth century. The intention of the Venetians was to deter attacks by the Ottomans, although the Ottomans did have two successful sieges and occupations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the end of the seventeenth century, Kotor transferred to the Austro-Hungarian empire and the fortress was last used for military purposes by the Austrian up until 1918. The path continued steeply uphill from behind the church. The path is essentially like this the whole way up; on one side there are steps and on the other side a rocky track. Some people seemed to prefer the rocks, but we found the steps much easier and only stepped onto the rocks when we needed to let other people pass. Now we were definitely halfway... ...although there was still a fair way to go. By this stage we had some brilliant views around the Bay of Kotor, though they would have been even better if it had been a clearer day. Eventually we seemed to be getting nearer to the highest part of the ramparts. There was just a bit further to go... ...and a bit further (the flag is the top). It really is a tough climb and we were glad to see other tourists struggling as much as we were, even though the sun wasn't as strong as it could have been. It was slightly less encouraging though when we were passed by an enterprising local who was jogging up in his flip-flops with a large cool box on his shoulder, full of cold drinks to sell to the tourists! Just when we thought we couldn't take another step, we got to the top The views of the bay were breathtaking. Even the large cruise ship in the port looked tiny from up here The distinctive Montenegrin flag was flying high above everything. There isn't a lot to see of the fortress itself once you get to the top, as no real maintenance has been done since the Austrians pulled out in 1918. There was also a strong earthquake in Kotor in 1979, so in places you can see some serious holes and cracks. Once we'd finished admiring the views, it was time to set off back down to Kotor. The good news is that it is a lot easier going down than up! Though another reason why it's good to go up earlier in the day is that there are fewer people. On the way down we had a lot of stepping on and off the rocks to enable people to pass us. Some nationalities were more helpful with this than others! Soon we were back down at a level where we could appreciate the true size of the cruise ship! All in all I think the trip took us about two and a half hours, with over an hour to get to the top. When we got back down to the town we were amused to see a map on the wall which we had missed before we went up. It may be difficult to make our here, but the blue path up as far as the church at number 14 is described as "relatively safe walking path" while the pathways above there are described as "zone of increased risk" (yellow) and "high risk zone" (red), by which I'm guessing they mean there aren't any safety railings and it's your own problem if you fall off. They also comment that "You are advised to use caution on the trail and consider your physical condition" which seemed like sound advice Actually I don't think the path is particularly dangerous; it wasn't slippery even thoug it had rained overnight, and all the stone steps are quite solid and don't move when you step on them. The thing I was most worried about were snakes, as Montenegro is home to some nasty biting varieties and I had read that they like to sleep in cracks in the stones. We didn't encounter any at all in the end though, which was a relief Once we had recovered from the morning's exertions, we had another stroll around the town. There were fewer clouds now and so we were able to get a nice photo of the Orthodox church with a blue sky behind. All of the restaurants in the old town are quite expensive by Montenegro standards, though still reasonably priced by Western European standards. We sat in a restaurant in the main square and had a beautiful late lunch/early dinner of "punjena piletina" (stuffed chicken). It was a chicken breast, somehow rolled up and stuffed with ham and cheese; absolutely beautiful Finally it was time to return to our apartment to relax and read on the terrace. After a while we were ambushed by the friendly landlady who brought us a cup of strong Turkish coffee plus a plate of delicious cherry cake, while she gave me some tips on where to go tomorrow, as well as some hilarious anecdotes about her neighbour (who we mustn't say hello to, because they're having a building dispute!) and who apparently doesn't understand a word of English, so the guests who stay in her apartments have to try and communicate with her by writing things down and drawing pictures. It was great practice for my Croatian and overall a really great day, albeit quite a tiring one!
  14. Today we were leaving Croatia behind and travelling onwards to our next destination: Kotor, in Montenegro. The bus to Kotor wasn't until 10am, but I set the alarm for 7am so that we had plenty of time to pack. In particular, we needed to experiment with ways to fit the 20+ Croatian books which we purchased in Dubrovnik into our luggage! Happily we did manage this in the end, though Tim ended up with a very heavy backpack and even heavier suitcase. We checked out just before 9 and walked around the waterfront to Dubrovnik's bus station, which is a fair distance outside the town, past the port. There were two large cruise ships in the port today, with hundreds of people busy unloading into coaches as we walked past. When we eventually arrived at the bus station it appeared quite quiet in comparison! I was a little bit nervous about today's bus journey for several reasons. Firstly because I had decided to book the bus tickets online in advance, using a new website called busticket4.me. This is a revolution in the world of Montenegrin bus tickets which, as the website explains, aims to make it possible for people to get information about bus timetables without actually having to visit bus stations to look at them on the wall!! A limited number of tickets for certain buses are also available for sale online and I had experimented with purchasing ones for this journey, because I knew from previous experiences of trying to travel between Croatia and Montenegro that the limited number of buses can be extremely busy. Now I was starting to have regrets about this though, in case this whole concept of online bus timetables was struggling to catch on and the driver might accuse me of not having a proper ticket when I tried to board the bus with a barcode printed from the Internet. The other thing I was slightly concerned about was that the website had automatically allocated us seats 1 and 2 on the bus. This might not seem like a major problem, but there seems to be some sort of unwritten etiquette of Balkan buses which means that the driver doesn't want anyone to sit in the first few seats. Usually he makes this clear by strewing a random assortment of bags and belongings across seats 1 to 4, moving them only in cases of extreme need. So I was also worried that we'd struggle to sit in our allocated seats, then struggle to find any other available seat to sit in, because the Dubrovnik to Montenegro buses are mostly used by tourists and tourists, unlike locals, tend to want to sit in the seats assigned to them on their tickets. In the end it turned out that I needn't have worried and everything worked out fine The bus driver looked like he was at the end of his tether dealing with people speaking to him in English (our personal favourite was a girl who addressed him with "Is this the right bus?"), so I think we instantly became his favourite passengers when we greeted him with "Dobar dan!" and paid for our luggage in Croatian. He didn't bat an eyelid at the online bus ticket (phew!) and although he did have a strategically positioned sports bag on seats 1 and 2, he didn't say anything when we moved it to sit down. We were lucky that the system hadn't allocated us seats 3 and 4, as he had laid out a full suit of clothes across those seats!! The benefit of being at the front of the bus was that we had a fantastic view of the countryside throughout the journey. The bus started off by travelling uphill into the mountains above Dubrovnik, so that we had a bird's eye view of the old town and the island of Lokrum as we drove past. Sadly we weren't on the right side of the bus to get photos of that, but we did get some beautiful views through the windscreen of the bus as we then made our way south towards the Montenegrin border. The border crossing itself was a bit different to last time we came. When the bus got to the Croatian border, everyone had to get off and individually present their passports to a policeman in a little booth, just like at the airport. Once everyone's passport had been checked, the bus drove past the control point and we were all allowed to get back on. The bus continued down the road for another mile or so until it came to the Montenegrin border checkpoint. Here the bus driver had to collect up all our passports and take them to the border guard for him to check and stamp. The driver managed to do it very efficiently though, managing to the hand all the passports back in the same order in which he'd collected them, and as there were no queues at the border today, we probably only had to wait for 10 minutes or so before we were reunited with our passports Now that we were in Montenegro, the landscape quickly became more mountainous. We had a quick stop in the town of Herceg Novi not far from the border, memorable for three tourists who incurred the wrath of the driver by managing to ignore his multiple announcements to the effect that we were now in Herceg Novi (which is where they wanted to get off) so that he had to get up and hunt them down. After Herceg Novi, the bus began to follow the coastal road around the bay of Kotor. The bus drives really close to the edge of the water in places and there are a lot of twists and turns. We finally arrived in Kotor around 12.30, which was around half an hour behind schedule, but that just meant we didn't have quite as much time to kill before we could check in to our apartment. We passed the time with a drink in the Kotor bus station cafe, an amazing establishment where the first five or so items on the menu are different types of rakija and pretty much everything you order turns out to cost 1 euro. I had an Americano for 1 euro and Tim had a beer, also for 1 euro It wasn't too far to walk from the bus station to the apartment, although I had forgotten that the last part of the journey involves negotiating some staircases; not ideal with our suitcases now laden down with books! We got there in the end though and met the very friendly landlady who we remembered from our previous visit here. Her English is quite limited so she was very excited that we could communicate in Croatian and chattered incessantly as she showed us around the apartment and brought us some drinks to cool off on the terrace. She told me about how she has been trying to learn English to communicate with her visitors and had a hilarious story about how she'd now got a cleaning lady to help her with the apartments and that she'd been saying to guests for several months that her "wife" did the cleaning ("wife" and "woman" are the same word in Croatian/Serbian) until someone had eventually corrected her and now she realised all her guests must have thought she was gay We relaxed on our terrace for a while, enjoying the view of the sea and the mountains. Then we walked into the old town to get some food and it was really beautiful, but both of us managed to forget to brng our cameras with us, so photos will have to wait until tomorrow! I had a slightly odd Hawaiian pizza (the topping was olives and pineapple rather than ham and pineapple) and Tim had a burger, at a restaurant in one of the main squares and it cost us less than €20 including the drinks. I don't know what we are going to do with the €50 notes that I only realised today the Post Office has lumbered us with! We went back and read on the terrace for a while, then set out for another stroll in the evening. It was lovely wandering around the little streets of the old town in the twilight. But what we had come out to see was the view of the town fortifications lit up at night. Beautiful, but they look so high! We'll have to see what the weather is like in the morning before we decide whether we have got the energy to climb them or not!
  15. We got up nice and early ... though not as early as we would've had to. We were going to travel to Podgorica by train, but our landlady advised Clare that one of the truisms of Montenegrin transport is that trains don't always come and so we should take a bus. The bus left an hour or so later than the train would have, and so we had an easier start. That gave me a little more time to play with my new friend. People have different attitudes in this part of the world towards animals than we do back at home, and so during our stay I'd made a point of befriending a feral kitten. She is a beautiful brown tabby, probably about 12 weeks old. I'd seen her mother on the first evening, thinking her a kitten too (she's so much smaller than our girls, but I suppose that most cats are) and a pet too, but I just got swatted for my trouble. But the next day I discovered that this tiny cat was a mother to two kittens, and so I started work taming the more courageous of the two. It's amazing what can be achieved with a stick, a little bit of patience and later on some ham, but I was soon allowed to pick up Tabbycat and she would come to me whenever I called her. Kittens are ace. Not long after her sister was brave enough to come for food too, though we never crossed the bridge of picking her up. I wasn't bothered - I only had eyes for Tabbycat, and so now I said goodbye to her. She'd make a lovely pet, though no doubt she'll have kittens of her own before too long. A shame, that. Lovely cat. Our helpful landlady, Vilka, decided that she would drop us off at the bus stop and so we loaded up her car and got ready to board the bus. She presented Clare with some oranges from the garden (which should more accurately be called yellows) to add to the four from the previous day that we hadn't eaten and had snuck into our bags so that we could dispose of them without leaving any evidence. Then we said goodbye and boarded the relatively empty bus to Podgorica, on which we had a reasonably free choice of seats. Seconds into the journey, we started lurching backwards and forwards. It seemed as though we'd hit a new low with regards to potholes, only the road was perfect whilst we continued to emulate a rollercoaster, the seats swaying back and forth. When the vehicle stopped moving (and a second or two later so did the seats) we moved to the row behind and then saw the nature of the problem: it was possible to move the seats by hand, since they weren't bolted down! A chap came on board and I thought "He's going for that one, he's going straight for it." My Serbian isn't good at all, but I managed to say "Ovoj nisu dobri", which may or may not mean "Those aren't good", and gave it a push and pull to demonstrate. He responded "It is fine" and sat down. Well, two minutes later he got up and relocated without saying a word - I guess they weren't so fine after all! The journey was otherwise uneventful, save Clare's recognising where we'd been the day before, and we got to the bus station in Podgorica with plenty of time to spare before making our connection to Belgrade. Everything seemed to be going fine. Our bus turned up in good time ready to set off at 09:45, we were at the front of the very small queue for luggage, and although the bus was nearly full, seats 24 and 25 were visibly free, ready and waiting for us as indicated on our tickets. As we sat down, somebody started shouting at us from the outside. I ignored it but then he did so again and I asked Clare what he was saying. Clearly he didn't like us. Clare said that he was saying that those seats belonged to him and his girlfriend, and so I descended to show him that they weren't. He said something loudly and rapidly with a dismissive wave of the hand. "Who cares what the ticket says? You sit where you want and we were there first." I didn't want an argument but I don't mind having one when I'm in the right and our tickets indicated that we were, and so we headed in the direction of the bus driver and Clare explained that she didn't understand that our tickets indicated 24 and 25 and yet -" The driver immediately responded that the seat numbers meant nothing! So what was all this about having to have a reservation? The upshot was that we had to sit where we could. In my case, it was next to a big man who had no concept of personal space and so whose arms held across his chest were coming into contact with mine whilst his leg crossed the middle. I hate making bodily contact with strangers and so pulled away, with one foot hanging out of the aisle. He also had one of those disgusting coffee breaths when he yawned and so I resolved that I would change seats at the nearest opportunity. It would have the bonus of getting me away from the teenagers on the back row (the row behind me) who thought the world needed to hear their awful music and pointless conversation too. I caught myself thinking I wish I'd had a couple of days to teach Tabbycat to attack on demand and brought her with me. Aw, Tabbycat ... I thought I'd glimpsed the opportunity to get Clare and me a seat together when a couple stood up as we apporoached a stop. Sure enough, they got off the vehicle but in the three seconds it took me to get out of my seat and head there, a cushion was thrown into the seat by a woman sitting nearer. She and her friend both decided that they wanted a pair of seats to themselves and my pitiful protestations of "me and my wife" whilst pointing at the seats got me nowhere. These two witches were determined that they were going to have their pair of seats each and I had to return to the teenage music and bad breath at the back. I hated those witches. Coming into another stop I saw another chance. A lady who was sitting on her own picked up her bag and got off the bus leaving nothing behind, so I sped in front again and jealously guarded those seats until Clare joined me. We settled in, sharing stories about unwanted body contact with strangers whose legs passed the halfway mark when I felt suddenly deflated; the lady who had vacated the seat came back on board having presumably got off for a cigarette. I stood up and in my broken and limited Serbian apologised for stealing her seat: "Žao mi je. Vaša." And she waved it off with a smile and sat down next to Halitosis Joe, no doubt feeling sorry for me because of what happened before with the witches! Finally - someone who wasn't a totally selfish cretin on that bus! Speaking of the witches, there was a telling moment later on in the journey. A young man came on board and there being rather limited options, asked one of the witches to move her bags so that he could sit there. She told him she wouldn't, so he shrugged his shoulders and stood in the aisle. The driver stopped the bus and came up to tell him he wasn't allowed to stand and he explained quite clearly that he asked to sit down and the witch wouldn't move her stuff - so the driver moved it himself! And a little later the other witch had to share her seat too, and so the pair of them through entirely selfish reasons went from sitting with a friend to sitting with a stranger. Ha! There wasn't much more of note during the ten or so hours that we were on the road, aside from the fact that we observed how much confusion was absolutely unnecessary. OK, we can accept that maybe the seat numbers on the tickets don't mean anything, but it's presposterous to see that every time new passengers come on and find what appears to be a free seat, somebody comes back from a cigarette break to say "That's mine". They all accept it, but could it really be the case that they're not in general intelligent enough to think "If you vacate a seat, leave a magazine or water bottle behind to show that it's in use"? Surely a system like that should've evolved, even if the basic approach of "go by what it says on the ticket" seems too complicated. The idiot who had our seats went through this same routine at every stop ... although we laughed when he didn't make it back to the bus on time after a break and it set off without him, with his girlfriend looking frantic but not knowing what to do so choosing to do nothing. (The solution, idiot, is to say "Stop, please! My boyfriend's not here!") Unfortunately he materialised out of somewhere a couple of minutes later and so our Schadenfreude came to a swift end. Bother. The light descended very quickly and our reading had to stop because though we pressed the buttons in the overhead panel, the driver hadn't initiated whatever he had to to trigger them. Since we were the only two who appeared to read anything during the entire journey, I don't suppose there was ever a reason to think he should. (How do people not read? Especially over the course of a ten-hour journey where there's little else to distract you from unwanted body contact and bad breath?) We were still outside of Belgrade and not on course to arrive on time. Plus Clare's phone, which had been fully charged the night before and on which was stored the contact number for our apartment, died. We had the office phone number on the reservation, but that wasn't going to be much good at 20:00 when we finally rolled in. We hoped that the person meeting us would stay a little later. We'd decided in advance that we would break with tradition and use a taxi to get to the apartment, and so we went with the first person who approached us. We agreed the price and set off over the road, whereupon he asked us to wait whilst he went to retrieve his car. I suppose the fact that it wasn't with all the other taxis should have been a sign. He pulled up in a banger. And not only that, but he'd driven the wrong way down a one-way street! He loaded up the car and proceeded to reverse a hundred metres or so, backing out onto a main road and following the directions that his satnav instructed. He jibber-jabbered all journey long and somehow Clare not only understood it all, but she replied too! After a few detours (including driving on a pavement following an illegal u-turn!) he got us to the destination, a rather grimy building. Crucially, there was nobody there waiting for us ... We tried ringing the office number that was on our reservation using my phone. No luck at all; it simply wouldn't ring. We charged up Clare's phone using my laptop to retrieve the contact number she'd stored there ... and it turned out to be the same number. Great. We tried using her phone too with no luck. A kindly lady took pity on us and confirmed that it appeared to be a genuine number (complete with the correct country code). She flagged down a young chap who was on his way out for the evening to say how terrible it was for us and he looked over the reservation too. We explained that the number was an office number and didn't work, and he corrected us, saying that it was a mobile number! And with that, the lady went to get her Yellow Pages to see whether the office number was there, whilst this fellow rang the number from his own phone ... and got through first time! He had a chat for a few seconds and then explained that the person on the other end was on holiday in Greece and would make a phone call to have somebody come and meet us immediately. We weren't homeless! We thanked this helpful chap (there's a beer with his name on it if I see him) and sat down to wait in the darkness for what would be about half an hour or so. "Sorry, have you been waiting long?" "Yes." came the reply in unison. I'm usually that direct - Clare wasn't in the mood to do the very English "everything's fine" thing, since her phone had now been recharged and we could see that they hadn't made any effort to contact us during our delay. It seems that they hadn't been there as arranged at all. This certainly became believable when we paid the bill - we'd added an extra night and it wasn't there! Clare even showed the lady the email she'd sent (in Serbian) and confirmation response received. Fortunately, the room was vacant for that extra night so we avoided having to locate a new apartment at the last minute and settled up. Drama averted, we set out at 22:00 for our first proper meal of the day ... and came back to find the aircon is faulty and had dripped all over the floor: What a day. At least tomorrow can only be an improvement.
  16. Clare

    Day 11: Virpazar

    Our aim for today was to go on an excursion to Virpazar, a small town situated on the shore of Lake Skadar. Lake Skadar is the biggest lake in the Balkans, with the northern part being in Montenegro and the southern part being in Albania. It's one of the largest bird reserves in Europe, with all kinds of rare species including pelicans. It looked beautiful in pictures so we thought it would make a great day trip. Before we could set out on our trip, however, we had to resolve the issue of how we were going to get to Belgrade tomorrow. You may remember that originally I had wanted to travel from Bar to Belgrade by train but that, following the Balkan floods earlier in the year, all day-time train services had been suspended. We didn't really want to cancel accommodation and travel at night, so the only remaining option was to travel by bus. Unfortunately when I searched online I couldn't find a bus which went directly from Bar to Belgrade during the day (only at night) so the best solution I could find was for us was a bus leaving from Podgorica at 09.45. Somewhat to my amazement I had found the details for this bus on a website which purported to have an online reservation system, so I had attempted to book the tickets in advance. I was somewhat disconcerted when, instead of the e-ticket I had anticipated, I ended up with an email telling me I needed to phone a representative of the bus company in Podgorica to discuss how I was going to pick up the tickets. Although I feel like my Serbian has improved quite a lot over the past year, I wasn't too keen to start calling random people in Podgorica, trying to explain who I was and that I wanted my tickets. I also wasn't too keen on the prospect of how much such a phone call was likely to cost me. Montenegro isn't in the EU and so calls would be £1.50/minute to make from our mobiles. The solution seemed to be to ask our landlady if she could make the call for me, so I went to knock on her door this morning and explained the problem. She immediately wanted to help, but her first advice was to tell me I shouldn't be getting a bus from Podgorica because I could catch one from Bar instead. I explained to her that there wasn't a day time bus from Bar but she didn't believe me and phoned the bus station to find out. They confirmed that I was right Then she tried to phone the person in Podgorica who had my tickets, but there seemed to be something wrong with the number and she couldn't get through. Oh dear. She phoned the bus station in Podgorica to confirm the bus existed (luckily it did - phew!) and gave them a good telling off because she didn't think they answered the phone quickly enough. Then she phoned her husband and told him that when he had finished work he could go to Podgorica and collect my tickets! That wasn't quite what I had had in mind and I felt a bit sorry for her poor husband, but she assured me it would be fine. She then wanted to know how we were going to get to Podgorica; I explained that we were going to catch a train, but she didn't think that would be a good idea because apparently in Montenegro trains sometimes just don't turn up. Buses, however, apparently always do turn up and then I discovered the secret of how everyone in this country knows when the buses are despite the fact that the timetables aren't published online, as she opened a copy of the local newspaper, turned to one of the back pages and displayed a list of all this week's bus departures from Bar. Aha, now it makes more sense! We established that there was a bus at 07.35 tomorrow which would get us to Podgorica with plenty of time for our connection, and she promised that her long-suffering husband would drive us to the bus stop with our baggage. With tomorrow's travel plans resolved, all that remained was to sort out todays. My intention was for us to catch a train to Virpazar from a little local station in Šušanj where we are staying. On Google maps it looked like the station was only a kilometre away from our apartment. Unfortunately Google maps are not very detailed for Montenegro (and things often seem to be marked in the wrong place). Unfortunately also, no one in Šušanj seems to consider their train station important enough to merit a helpful sign indicating its general direction. We walked uphill, downhill and round half the suburb, but in the end we had to admit defeat: we really couldn't find it. We had missed the train I wanted and there wasn't another train to Virpazar until around 2pm, so we decided that we might as well walk into the main centre of Bar and get some lunch. We took a slightly different route this time and we were able to get a better photo of this beautiful church. We found a nice restaurant to have lunch at next to the main train station in Bar. We looked at the menu and decided to order pizza and pasta, but when the waiter came to take our order it transpired that they were out of both pizza and pasta. How unfortunate! We had another look at the menu and decided to order Ćevapi instead. These are a Balkan speciality (although the Wiki page I just linked to asserts that "Cevapcici are Bosnian brand and comes originally and only from Bosnia, just as it is Pizza Italian brand"!!) and so it was a fairly safe bet that these would be in stock. They were, but whereas I had expected to get five pieces of meat it turned out that we both got ten, with chips and flatbread to eat them with. They were absolutely delicious but I got full halfway through mine and Tim pocketed the remainder to feed to some of the local population of stray dogs and cats. We bought our train tickets to Virpazar for the bargain price of €1, and within about 20 minutes we had arrived. The guidebook had said that the town was on the lake, so we had expected to get off the train and - well - see the lake, but we couldn't. Hmm. As we started walking out of the station in the direction of the rest of the town, we were approached by various taxi drivers as per usual. We were doing our usual trick of ignoring them, but then one of the drivers pulled up alongside Tim and said he would take us to the lake "gratis". With the benefit of hindsight this sounds a bit too good to be true, but we got in and he drove us to the main town which was actually only a few hundred metres away. He then deposited us outside the Hotel Pelican, which seems to be the main hotel in the town, and informed us that if we went inside we would find information about the lake. We walked into a somewhat dark and dingy room which had a few leaflets on a table. There was a staff member but she seemed occupied with showing some Japanese tourists around, so we managed to walk straight through the building, out a door on the opposite side of it, and escape Having now got back to Bar and done some more research into Virpazar, it seems that this man owns the hotel and is a known menace, spending his days trying to capture tourists and make them book expensive boat tours. Definitely avoid if you are ever in Virpazar! We had at least now located the town, although we still couldn't see the lake, so we decided to have a stroll around. We found a river which feeds into the lake, and the scenery was really beautiful. A few people approached us trying to sell boat trips, but it was far too expensive: €20 plus €4 for a fee to enter the national park. Tim noticed the tourist information office and went to ask whether it was possible to walk around some of the lake; they confirmed that it was and recommended that we walk to the village of Godinje. We had seen a sign pointing towards Godinje and it was only about 5km, so we decided to give it a try. As the road started to climb slowly uphill, we got our first glimpse of Lake Skadar. As we gained more height it became clear why it isn't possible to walk on a path alongside the lake; it's so extremely marshy that it's hard to tell where the ground ends and the lake begins. I guess that's what makes it such a popular habitat for birds. The road was quite relentlessly uphill... ...but it did mean that we had a fantastic view of the mountains. We continued walking for quite some time until we were far enough round the lake to look back at the road and rail bridge which we had passed over in the bus on Monday evening. We were quite tired by this point and we were glad when we saw the village of Godinje appearing on the horizon. We decided to walk down into the village and find a cafe or a shop to buy some water. We'd only been intending to go for a short stroll in Virpazar and so hadn't brought any with us. Imagine our dismay when we eventually got to the village and found that there was nowhere at all to buy water! Places to buy wine - yes. Places to buy rakija - yes. But places to buy water - absolutely not. It really is just a hamlet where locals have set out stalls in their gardens, hoping that someone will come past and buy their homemade wine. That wasn't very useful for us and it felt like a very long walk back to Virpazar! We stopped at the first cafe we found on the way back and gulped down vast quantities of water before heading back to the train station for our return journey. We had had some wonderful views of the lake on the return walk though, even if we were a little too thirsty to appreciate them at the time. When we got back to our apartment in Bar, we found that the landlady's husband had very obediently fetched our bus tickets to Belgrade for us I had another long conversation with her in Serbian when I went to pay her for them. She told me that she had been to London once and taken a train to Hastings to go to the seaside. She had been amazed by how silent the train was with no one talking to each other and said that we must have found the train in Montenegro a bit different! She ended up giving me a present of a fridge magnet with a picture of Montengro on as a reminder of our stay here And so tomorrow we are off to Belgrade. It will be another long journey but I think that it will be an interesting one and we are both excited to see the Serbian capital.
  17. We left Niš at 10am on Monday morning to set off on the next part of our adventure. The journey to Bar on the Montenegrin coast was scheduled to take in excess of 11 hours, and so it was with some trepidation that we scanned the bus station for the bus we would be travelling in. When it arrived we were pleased to see that although it wasn't quite at the comfort levels of Lux Express (who we travelled with around the Baltic countries last year), it was at the higher end of the quality scale for buses leaving Niš. Our expectation was that the bus would drive for a few hours, stop for a break, drive for a few hours, stop for a break etc in the pattern of other buses which we have caught in the region. This one was equipped with two drivers, however, each of whom drove for four hours at a time before swapping over. There was one 20-minute stop at 2pm, but otherwise the bus was constantly on the move, pausing only for a few minutes here and there to pick people up. The standard of the driving was, happily, quite good; although both drivers seemed to be struck by an urge to overtake as soon as a "do not overtake" sign appeared and on several occasions it looked like we were going to run old men on bicycles off the road, the journey passed off without misadventure and the worst we could complain about was that one of the drivers kept finishing his cigarettes inside the bus. The route took us west from Niš, through the Serbian towns of Krusevac, Kraljevo and Novi Pazar. A couple of hours into the journey, the landscape started to become increasingly mountainous and by lunchtime the bus was bouncing along winding mountain roads towards the Montenegrin border. When we arrived there in mid-afternoon it seemed that the Serbia-Montenegro border was a very low key affair compared to the bustle of the Serbia-Macedonia border. There were no queues at all at either checkpoint and a policeman was able to board our bus straight away to collect the passports. Somewhat bizarrely we didn't get a stamp to say that we had left Serbia (although we had got a stamp to record that we'd entered). The border crossing is located on quite a narrow road with a steep drop on one side. From the Serbian checkpoint the bus had to drive for several minutes around the mountain until it reached the place where the Montenegrin checkpoint had been built. We did get passport stamps for entering Montenegro From the border the bus drove through the Montenegrin towns of Rozaje and Berane before passing through the Biogradska Gora national park. At this point the scenery changed from impressive to truly spectacular. The road seemed to cling improbably to the side of a gorge which at times was so steep that I couldn't actually see the bottom. It was definitely a feat of engineering! As the road began to wind downhill towards the plain the sun started to set and it was completely dark by the time we arrived in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica at 8pm. Our Montenegro guidebook implies that there isn't a lot to see in Podgorica, and in the dark it certainly looked very concrete. From there it was only another hour or so to our ultimate destination of Bar. It was a shame it wasn't daylight for this part of the journey, as it was actually quite exciting as we passed over a bridge on Lake Skadar (a large lake which is partly in Montenegro, partly in Albania) and got our first glimpse of the sea. The apartment we had booked was in a suburb of Bar called Šušanj and when I had contacted the landlady to explain how late we would be arriving, she had replied to say that we could ask the bus driver to let us off the bus before the first roundabout in Šušanj rather than go all the way to the main bus station. This seemed too complicated to us so we had decided to continue to the main bus station and take a taxi to the apartment, which would be about 4km away. We have spent the entire holiday refusing the advances of taxi drivers who have approached us outside bus stations offering their services. Imagine our dismay then when we finally arrived in Bar after 9pm only to find that the taxi rank was completely devoid of taxis! Fortunately, as we stood around wondering what to do, one did turn up but when we showed him the address of where we wanted to go on our reservation he appeared confused and disappeared. We saw that he had returned to the bus station and was talking on his mobile. After a while he reemerged and motioned for us to get into his cab. We drove for a few minutes - with an amazing taxi meter which seemed to increase by 5p every second - and then he suddenly pulled over to the side of the road and let another woman into the taxi. We were a bit confused about what was happening but it turned out that he had - quite enterprisingly - phoned the number on our reservation and the owner of the apartment had come to meet us and direct him. When we finally reached the apartment it was located right at the end of a very uphill street in a position that wasn't at all obvious, so we would definitely have struggled to find it on our own! We were extremely relieved to have finally arrived. There was a little more drama when we couldn't get the air-conditioning to work (turned out that the batteries in the remote needed replacing) but soon we were asleep, exhausted after a day of doing nothing! We were up early on Tuesday and keen to explore our surroundings. As we ate breakfast on the balcony at 8am it was clear that this was going to be a hot, sunny day. This was the view from our balcony of the mountains... ...and this was the view from our balcony of the sea. With views like that, Bar was already surpassing my expectations. We had chosen it as a destination purely because of the transport links and despite of the fact that the guidebook described it as a town which was unlikely to feature highly in anyone's holiday plans. Bar is predominantly a port (with regular ferry services to Italy) and most of the town was constructed after the Second World War. Of more interest than modern Bar is the historical town of Stari Bar, situated about 6km inland from the current city. In 1877, when the Montenegrins were fighting the Ottomans for their independence, the town was bombarded for seven weeks with the result that much of it was destroyed. Crucially, the Montenegrin forces detonated explosives inside the Bar Aqueduct which cut off the water supply to the town and forced the Ottomans to surrender it. The town - or, at least, the remains of it - were granted to Montenegro at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. The aqueduct was repaired but later destroyed again by an earthquake, after which point the location was completely abandoned. It sounded like a fascinating story so we definitely wanted to see Stari Bar; the only question was how. It seemed a bit too far to walk, particularly because we understood that it would be uphill. The guidebook made mention of a bus, but didn't indicate where we might catch it from. We couldn't find a bus timetable online because no bus timetables for Montenegro are online; the only place you can view them with any shred of reliability is by turning up to the relevant bus station and looking at the piece of paper pinned to the wall. We decided that we had better walk to the bus station. Rather than trudge along the main road, we walked downhill from our apartment to the beach. It was an extremely stony beach, but the sea was very pretty. The views of the mountains in the background were also extremely pretty. We saw a beautiful Orthodox church... ...and we found lots of palm trees. As we had suspected, there wasn't a lot to photograph in modern Bar so we started walking out of town towards the station. On the way we were passed by a small white bus signposted to Stari Bar. Aaargh! By the time we got to the station we had obviously missed it. We went inside to search for the timetable but Stari Bar didn't feature in the list of destinations on offer. Confused, we tried the tourist information office around the corner and the lady explained that the bus leaves from a car park slightly down the road. As we walked back in that direction there was, admittedly, a small sign with a picture of a bus on it, but no other indication (like a timetable!) that this might be the place for the bus to Stari Bar. The lady said there would be another bus bus in about 40 minutes. As we were strolling around looking for somewhere to wait, we suddenly thought "Why don't we just take a taxi?!", so we approached the waiting taxi drivers (of which there were vast quantities now it was daylight!) and asked how much it would cost. It turned out to be only €5 so we decided to give the bus a miss As we got out of the taxi a few minutes later, our first impressions were that Stari Bar looks amazing. We climbed up through the steep streets on the edge of the town towards the main gate. We could sea the remnants of a stone lion, indicating that this had once been part of the Venetian empire. Once inside the gate, we were able to wander around the ruins of the old town. Again, it was a bit more like visiting a ruins adventure playground than a historical monument. The slideshow below illustrates better than words how impressive the remains of the town and its surroundings are. We were able to climb up onto part of the towns old fortress, from where we had a view of the famous aqueduct (now restored). The Montenegrin flag was proudly flying. The steps to climb up the fortress were a little steep, but we were rewarded with some magnificent views. The sun was extremely hot by this point and we were getting quite tired, so we climbed back down to the lower part of the town where there are a few cafes and restaurants. We found a lovely place where we could sit in the shade and enjoyed a meal of chicken schnitzel. The only slight hiccup came with pudding, when I tried to order us two pancakes. The waiter explained that they were very big and that we would only need one, so I agreed to order just one between us. When it came it didn't honestly looked that big (though it was delicious and covered in honey!) and he had only brought one set of cutlery. He asked if we wanted another one and I said yes, assuming that he meant "another fork". It seemed that he had actually meant "another pancake" because that's what materialised a few minutes later, much to our confusion! I'm still not sure what I said wrong but if that's the worst language mistake I make all holiday it won't be too bad; ultimately we both ended up with a pancake which is what we had wanted in the first place We didn't want to pay for a taxi back down to Bar again, but we figured it would be pretty simple to find the bus stop from this end. Wrong! Nothing is ever simple when it comes to buses in Montenegro. We successfully located a bus shelter and went to sit in it. True, there was no timetable or sign indicating what it was a bus stop for, but that seems to be fairly standard here and there was a large bay labelled "bus" in front of it so we thought we had it taped. We'd probably sat there for less than ten minutes when a man approached and asked whether we were waiting for the bus. When we said that we were, he led us away, down the hill a bit, to where the bus was waiting and about to depart from a completely different location (which definitely wasn't a bus stop!). We were confused, but grateful that he'd let us know, otherwise we would probably have sat there for an hour waiting for a bus which never came! The tickets only cost us €0.50 each so it was a real bargain. All that remained was to return to our apartment and sit on the balcony drinking Montenegrin wine as we watched the sun set over the sea
  18. Clare

    Plans: Balkans 2014

    When we were planning our second two-week holiday earlier in the year, my first thought was that I wanted to do something similar to last year, when we visited Croatia and Montenegro. We started researching it but soon ran into the problem that Montenegro is quite a difficult place to get to. The country only has two international passenger airports, both of which have only infrequent flights from UK airports which did not fall on any of the days we wanted to travel. It is possible to fly to Dubrovnik and travel across the border to Kotor by bus as we did last year, but Dubrovnik is an increasingly popular holiday destination in its own right, making the majority of flights there far too expensive for our budget. We started looking at the Wizzair website, trying to find other airports in the region which might be cheaper, and hit upon the idea of Skopje. The flights were unbelievably cheap, with one-way flights on a weekend in September for £19.99 each, and so it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. A (with the benefit of hindsight) somewhat vague understanding of ex-Yugoslavian geography made us think that getting from Macedonia to Montenegro would be a piece of cake, so we could spend the first part of our holiday exploring a new country and the second part by the sea. The only question remaining to resolve was where to fly back from. Flights from Belgrade were not quite as cheap as Skopje but at £30 each it still seemed like a bargain, and with the added bonus that we would get to see some of Serbia as well. Sorted. Except, actually, finalising our exact itinerary turned out to be a much bigger task that I had anticipated. The first step was to acquire a guidebook about Macedonia. This turned out to be a challenge in itself as there is only one English-language guidebook devoted to the country. Luckily for us, it turned out to be a very comprehensive one and we were able to narrow down the places we most wanted to see to Skopje, Bitola and Ohrid. Skopje goes without saying; it's the capital city and where we will be flying to. Whilst it's probably not going to win a prize for Europe's most beautiful capital, over the past few years the government has been spending millions on giving the town centre a facelift in a controversial project called 'Skopje 2014'. The project has involved the construction of numerous new government buildings, as well as the commissioning of enormous monuments of historical figures, so we should come away with some interesting photos at least! Bitola is Macedonia's second city, although with a population of around 75,000 it's about the same size as Nuneaton, so we're hoping that one day there will be enough to see the main sights. It's located in the south-western part of the country, not far from the border with Greece. There are supposed to be some impressive Roman ruins, although with the guidebook's somewhat imprecise advice of "walk off the edge of this map for 2km", it's anybody's guess as to whether we'll find them! Ohrid is Macedonia's biggest tourist destination, a picturesque town situated on the shores of Lake Ohrid. Both the lake and the town are World Heritage Sites, and they look absolutely beautiful. Having got this far with our itinerary the next step was to figure out how to get to Montenegro. Consulting a map revealed that this was actually a lot more complicated than we had anticipated. Between Macedonia and Montenegro are rather large parts of Albania and Kosovo, neither of which feature very highly on our list of desirable holiday destinations. Albania apparently doesn't have a bus station and public transport appears to consist mainly of large vans called furgons which depart from random street corners to no published timetable and sound generally terrifying in every way. Kosovo's public transportation network sounds positively civilised in comparison but political issues mean that if you end up with a Kosovan border stamp in your passport, you may have problems entering Serbia. Having just paid £80 for new passports, the last thing we wanted was to end up with stamps that would restrict our travel activities for the next ten years. Perhaps Montenegro wouldn't be on the agenda after all. Just when I was about to give up, however, I came across timetables for a Serbian bus company who run buses from the city of Niš in southern Serbia to the town of Bar on the Montenegrin coast. As luck would have it, getting from Skopje to Niš is a pretty straightforward bus journey and so we decided to travel back from Ohrid to Skopje and then onwards to Niš. Niš itself is the third-largest city in Serbia and has the remains of a Turkish fortress, which looks quite impressive. Its other sights include a Nazi concentration camp and a tower made out of human skulls. We may give those a miss. The journey from Niš to Bar will be a long one, but it will be worth it to get to the seaside. Bar is primarily a port town and not the most scenic place in Montenegro, but we will be staying in a smaller town called Šušanj a few kilometres up the coast which looks quite pretty. Bar is well-connected with public transport and as we are staying for three nights we will hopefully be able to go on excursions to other places in Montenegro. Bar is also the terminus for the famous Belgrade-Bar railway line. This 296-mile stretch of railway is one of the most scenic in Europe, passing through 254 tunnels and 435 bridges, including the world's highest railway viaduct. The journey takes around 10 hours, and trains are supposed to run both during the day and at night. We decided to catch the daytime train from Bar to Belgrade on 11 September, before finishing our holiday exploring the Serbian capital. We were due to fly home from Belgrade on Sunday 14 September. It sounded like an excellent plan, but then two things beyond our control went wrong. Firstly, Wizzair sent an unexpected email in April to say that our flight back from Belgrade had been moved from Sunday 14 September to Monday 15 September, meaning that I needed an extra day off work. That may not sound like an absolute catastrophe but I am supposed to request my annual leave 12 months in advance and so there was a possibility that I would be told I couldn't have an extra day, leaving our travel plans in chaos. Thankfully my line manager was very understanding and bent the rules for me, so disaster number one was averted. Disaster number two took place in May, when the entire Balkan region was subjected to uncharacteristically heavy rainfall. Flooding ensued across large parts of Bosnia and Serbia causing devastation on a huge scale. It also seriously damaged parts of the Belgrade-Bar railway line, leading to all trains being temporarily cancelled. By summer 2014 a limited timetable was up-and-running again, albeit incorporating a significant diversion and adding several hours onto the original journey time. The diversion means that the day-time trains have been cancelled, with those that remain operational running overnight. We thought about it for quite some time but in the end it just didn't seem worth taking such an impressive train journey in the pitch black darkness. The nearest we're going to get to enjoying the scenery this year is on . This left us with rather a dilemma. Should we cut Montenegro out of our itinerary altogether? Was there another way to get from Bar to Belgrade? Alternative options seemed thin on the ground but extensively googling finally revealed a daytime bus from the Montenegrin capital Podgorica to Belgrade. Not only that, but the bus company appeared to have a modern website featuring not only the bus timetable but ticket prices and the option to reserve a seat online. This was unheard of sophistication in our experience of Montenegrin buses and it seemed too good to be true. Lesson learned: if it seems too good to be true then it probably is! Having filled in the reservation form on the website I expected to be presented with an e-ticket to download and print. What I received instead was an automated message telling me that a travel agent would be in touch. Later that day I missed a phone call from a foreign number and then received an email from a lady in Belgrade saying that she'd been trying to call me to confirm the details of my reservation. The details turned out to be that I need to pay the representative of the bus company in Podgorica for the tickets, so I should call him the day before I travel to confirm and agree how I'm going to pick the tickets up off him. Not quite what I had in mind when the website said it had an online ticketing system! But that is our itinerary officially finalised. Subject to Internet connections we'll be aiming to update our blog most days and we hope you'll follow our adventures
  19. In this part of the world the sun sets earlier than back home and so we knew that come 8 o'clock there wouldn't be much light. We'd already been into the old town in the afternoon on our first day and were tired after the prevous days' travelling, so we decided to stay in and watch Jurassic Park, complete with Croatian subtitles. We knew that the following morning would be hard work, since we intended to do a lot of climbing early in the day before the sun became too hot and the cruise ships inundated the place with tourists, so a leisurely night in was especially welcome. As usual I was up bright and early the next morning and so set off to track down the breakfast, which we ate on our terrace. Who can blame us when it looks like this? Before too long we were ready to tackle the morning's odyssey, a steep climb from the Old Town to the high point behind it. The climb reflects the fact that the Old Town had city walls and fortresses higher up, and it's the paths to the fortresses that we were planning to take. As we approached the Old Town we were given a sharp reminder of how prominent the walls were back in the old days: We surveyed what was in front of us, a zigzag pattern of steep slopes: That's incredibly daunting! It didn't look any easier from other angles either: To our credit, we didn't bottle out of the challenge and so headed through the gates into the Old Town: We were treated to some sights as we walked through. There was, for instance, a little church, which although blending in with the local buildings stood out to us because we tend to find colossal structures. In such a small Old Town as this, though, it really wouldn't have been possible to erect anything imposing. In the same square we found a slightly larger church, standing out more from its background because it was isolated from the other buildings. This was a Serbian one, the give-away being not only the flag but particularly the presence of the "four C" emblem in the centre. This is a nationalist insignia meaning "Only Unity Saves the Serbs" (Само слога Србина спасава/Samo sloga Srbina spasava). It struck us a strange thing to be so eminently displayed, until Radio pointed out that in the referendum about whether to break away from Serbia and become an independent state the yes vote was only 52%, and so around half of the population see themselves as tied to Serbia. Having walked the streets of the Old Town in only a few minutes we had to end our prevarication and get on with the job of climbing. It was only a little after 10 and already the sun was draining our energy. The climb was extremely steep and no fun at all. Clare and I will never win a medal for our athletic prowess, but we walk a lot on holidays and have never been so tired so quickly as here. We were treated to some nice views along the way, though: And here's one of the Old Town, giving an idea of just how small and crammed together it is: After maybe an hour's climbing we made it to the summit. I quite like that it hasn't been touched up or regenerated - it retains its historical look so much more convincingly like that. Unfortunately, the downside of there being no shop is that we had nowhere from which to purchase refreshments, which we sorely needed after our exertions and under that extraordinarily hot sky. The way down was, of course, much easier and was done relatively quickly. We decided to grab a drink in one of the squares and then do a little bit of shopping on the way home so that I could prepare lunch and allow us to slip into a relaxing afternoon of doing not very much.
  20. Our day at the Plitvice lakes was amazing and exhausting in equal quantities. The scenery was so fantastic that it was tempting just to keep walking and walking in order to see as much as possible, and by the end of the day we had walked 15 miles and climbed the equivalent of 120 staircases. We were both extremely tired, and Tim had developed a sore foot after being unfortunate enough to tread on a sea urchin while at Kornati on Monday, so we decided to spend a less strenuous day in Zadar on Wednesday. After a leisurely breakfast on our balcony, we went for a walk along the coast and into the town. Our ultimate destination was the bus station, where I wanted to make an advance purchase of our bus tickets for the following day when we would be travelling to Dubrovnik. There are only a handful of buses which run directly from Zadar to Dubrovnik (without having to change in Split) and I was keen to make sure we had a place on the 10am one. Booking a day in advance paid off, as we were allocated seats 3 and 4 at the front of the bus and so had a fantastic view of the coast for almost the whole 8.5 hours of the journey. We spent the rest of Wednesday relaxing, before heading out for a final walk around the old town in the evening. We stopped on the way to feed some ducks in a local park, before being rowed across the sea to the old town by one of the Boatmen of Zadar. Our last night in Zadar turned out to be our first meal out of the holiday (not counting a burger in Split bus station!) and we enjoyed pizza in the centre of the old town as we watched the sun set on Zadar. Almost the whole of Thursday was spent travelling. We got on the bus in Zadar at 10am and finally left it in Dubrovnik at 18.30. It was nowhere near as painful as spending 8.5 hours on a bus sounds like it ought to be though. The bus itself was nicely air-conditioned and, as mentioned, we had ended up with the best seats. The view was superb as we travelled down the coast, with mountains on one side and the Adriatic Sea on the other. We passed so many pretty towns and villages on our way that we began to contemplate hiring a car during our next holiday so that we would be able to visit some of them. We passed through the little strip of Bosnia's coast too, showing passports to a very bored-looking policeman, and arrived in Dubrovnik a few minutes ahead of schedule. We weren't actually planning to stay for more than a night in Dubrovnik on this occasion, the apartments where we stayed last year being full until Monday, and so were heading to Kotor in Montenegro for a long weekend. There is a daily bus between Dubrovnik and Kotor, but the Internet suggested that catching it could be fraught with problems. The infrequency of the timetable might mean all the seats were already sold out, for a start. Some online comments suggested that it could turn up an hour late, others that it might not turn up at all, and none implied that travelling on it would be a particularly restful experience. The first thing we did upon getting off the bus in Dubrovnik then was to attempt to purchase tickets, a process which went far more smoothly than expected. We ended up with seats 31 and 32 this time, so people evidently had been booking in advance. Panic over (at least for now!) we located the apartment where we were stopping for the night, a mere few hundred yards from the bus station. Another pizza plus an early night and we were ready to start our Montenegrin adventure! The bus to Kotor was due at 10am. We were pleasantly surprised, upon arriving at the bus station at 09.35, to find that it was there before us and there had been no need to worry at all. The only remaining mystery was how long the journey was going to take, as online reports had suggested that it depended greatly on how big the queue at the border was. The journey from Zadar to Dubrovnik had been beautiful, but the journey from Dubrovnik to Kotor was extraordinary. As we pulled away from Dubrovnik there was a fantastic view back towards the old city but this was really just the warm-up for the scenery which awaited us once we had crossed the border and began to make our way around the Bay of Kotor. We were lucky that there wasn't much of a queue when we got to the border, but it still seemed to take an awfully long time. First we stopped on the Croatian side and a policeman boarded the bus, collecting up our passports and taking them away. I hate being separated from my passport and really can't see why it was necessary now that Croatia is in the EU. About 15 minutes later the passports of the entire bus were returned, but seemingly not in the same order in which they had been taken. One particular energetic passenger volunteered to hand them back out and spent several minutes dashing up and down the bus calling out different nationalities. We had all just been happily reunited with our documents... when we arrived at the Montenegrin side of the border and another policeman boarded the bus to take them off us again! The waiting time at the Montenegrin side seemed frustratingly long but, when we eventually got our passports back for the second time, we did find they had been stamped which was a bonus As we drove through the border town of Herceg Novi and towards Kotor, the mountains became steeper and more foreboding and the road was squeezed into an increasingly small strip of land between the mountains and the sea. I think we had a glimpse of Kotor from quite a long way away, but the journey to it took some time as we wove in and out of the intricate inlets of the bay. It looked very much like I imagine a fjord looks, although the Montenegro guidebook informs me that it isn't a fjord but a ria. We arrived in Kotor at 1pm and weren't able to check into our apartment until 2, so ordered a coffee in the bus station cafe to kill some time. Oh dear. I think that was my first experience of drinking Turkish Coffee, and not one I will be keen to repeat. I nearly had a fit when I got an unexpected mouthful of granules towards the end of the cup! When we did check into the apartment, we found it was a little small but amazing value for £32/night given that it includes a terrace with a view like this

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