CROATIA – MONTENEGRO, 3th – 7th June 2017
It was not only Chris that developed warm feelings for Bosnia during our week of cycling through the western part of the country. Besides all the stories and meetings we will now always relate with that country, it was also the many little details and notions that moved me. It was the home-made elderflower squash that Mustafa gave us that was like my mum used to make it. It was the integrity and confidence of his spindly teenage son when he sang a Bosnian song for me in the garden. It was cracking the thick hard shell of the duck eggs and cooking with them for the first time in my life. It was the curious stare and waves from the shepherds in the fields. It was the colour of the river Una and the myths that was told about it. It was day after day discovering new types of wild flowers as we moved through the country. It was the life that was no longer being lived in the abandoned houses. It was learning how to pronounciate ‘Sarajevo’ stressing the ‘aj’-syllable instead of the ‘je’-syllable. Saraj’vo. It was how Jakov hold up his hand close to my arm without ever touching it when he wanted to say something to me. It was the TV in his bar playing VH1 Classsics non-stop because he loved all the good old music – and the fact that all his records had been destroyed when his house was hit by bombs. It was the anxiety about leaving the road when camping or finding a natural toilet because of the risk of there being the land mines. It was shopping in the little shops in the villages instead of Lidl. And there buying cheap ice cream and cherries freshly picked by the locals.
But it was also and most of all because of the people we met. I sensed in them a deep, but subtle dignity and a general gratefulness towards life, appreciating family, nature and a slow (and hard) lifestyle, rather than money and prestige. I felt we shared many values despite our different origins. And it felt like their hearts were at their surface. Jakov said that the war had left the Bosnians emotional, and I thought that was maybe what I sensed in the Bosnians we interacted with. There was at once a helpless sorrow, but at the same time a will to forgive and forget. To now appreciate the little things in life and the present moment. There was no hate and no self-pity. Again and again we heard people say: “Good people are good people” meaning it doesn’t matter which ethnic group or religion you identify with, a good person is a good person. Simple as that. We met good people in Bosnia and we were also treated like good people. They smiled genuinely to us, they spoke openly, they listened to us and seemed to understand us although not only our languages, but also our lives were so, so different. With the horrors of the civil war being such recent memories and with reminders of it still screaming silently from the empty, overgrown houses, bullet holes and mine warnings signs, such an attitude was more than admirable. The Bosnians made a great impression on me, they filled me with sympathy and respect. I was glad we had still not made it to Saraj’vo, although it had always been a place that intrigued me. Because it gave me a reason to come back to Bosnia once more sometime in the future.
But it was time to leave Bosnia and go briefly into Croatia again as we had reached the Croatian enclave on the coast where the picturesque and historical city of Dubrovnik is located. From the border high up in the hills we had a stunning view over the Adriatic sea once again, it was just a shame that it was the first cloudy day we had had in more than a week. As we went over another hilltop the view of Dubrovnik was revealed deep down under us on the coast. It was an impressive sight with the white, uniform town buildings within the long, thick walls of the fortress. What was also was revealed was the view of the busy and narrow, coastal main road that we had to cycle on now. There seem to be many touring cyclists who cycle through the Balkans mainly using this road which I find difficult to understand. Yes, it is beautiful along the coast, yes, there are beaches and hotels and restaurants, and of course you can go to the Croatian islands. But not only do they miss out on Bosnia, to me cycling on such a road is not just unenjoyable, it is scary and stressful. Having a high drop on my right side and a big truck zooming by less than a meter from me on my left side left no place for mistakes. But my body sensed quite rightly danger and reacted quite opposite of what was needed, my heart beat raised and I found it difficult to just steer the bike in a straight line. Chris sensed my distress and cycling behind me he comforted me by saying: “You only have to focus on cycling straight, I’m right behind you looking after the traffic, it is going to be okay.” And I trusted him and relaxed enough to cycle straight, and eventually my senses became numb and deaf to the potential danger I was in. But cycling like that, deaf to my senses and not able to stop and take in the beautiful views was certainly not my favourite way of travelling.
At a lay-by we caught up with another touring cyclist who had stopped there. Chris and I are always keen on talking to other cyclists, so I rang my bell eagerly to catch his attention and indicate we could chat. He looked back at us, waved and then, to our great wonder and disappointment, went straight out onto the busy road again. Did a little chat with fellow cyclists really seem more terrifying than more cycling on that road? It left us puzzled and feeling a bit like two bright coloured, unwashed weirdoes…
After a few kilometres we reached what we thought was the road we could take downhill into Dubrovnik but it appeared to be a narrow one-way road with many cars coming up it, so there was no way we could sneak down on it going the wrong way. The only way to get to the town now was to go several kilometres back on the busy road to the real entrance road and I felt very little like it was something I wanted to do. With great conviction Chris said: “They say the best thing about Dubrovnik is the view of it from a distance. Like here. I think we actually get the best of it right here.” I looked down at the beautiful, old city once again and totally agreed. It was amazing.
And so we went on south leaving the wonder of Dubrovnik behind. We were still on the busy main road but only for a few kilometres until there was a turn off for Lidl. Oh did I not mention? That was really the reason why we had come back to Croatia and EU. We went and found all the cheap groceries we knew and liked, and then we headed down to the nearest beach, jumped in for a swim and finally dried off in the shy sun that kept hiding behind the clouds, while eating cream cheese sandwiches that tasted like we were back in Germany. Things had changed abruptly from the remote Bosnia on the other side of the hills to this bustling tourist place with holiday homes and a Lidl, and I knew which place I found more interesting, but I didn’t have any problem appreciating a nice beach and panniers full of crisps and peanut butter. It was all just different parts of everywhere.
We spent the rest of the day cycling through the enclave of Croatia nearing the border to Monetenegro that we would cross the next morning. We opted for the smaller border crossing to avoid the main road, and it took the day’s very last energy to climb hill after hill after hill to get close to it. Behind us the sun set beautifully and at one point I said to Chris: “Why do we cycle east on this trip? It means we will always miss out on the sunsets. I wish we were cycling west!” I should soon learn to be more careful with what I wished for.
The next morning we got up lazily expecting a short and easy day of flat cycling along Kotor Bay to the guesthouse we had booked there, as there was the same issue with registration as in Bosnia. We went down a glorious downhill overviewing the sea again and then it was one little climb up to the border.
On the way up there two vans that had just overtaken me tightly came reversing back downhill, and I couldn’t help shaking my head at their silly way of driving. What were they doing? They were followed by a few more cars (driving the right way though) and one of them stopped, the driver told me the border was closed. I did not want to believe that. That would mean going back over… No, it could not be so! We cycled up to the border checkpoint and heard the truth with our own ears. There were some technical problems, they couldn’t let anyone through, and in these digital days it was not possible to do the registration by hand. I guess no one knew how to do that anymore. A man from Zagreb, which is in the other end of the country, was on his way to fix the problem. It could take an hour or the rest of the day, no one knew, because in these digital days such things are difficult to predict. I sighed quite loud. The border guard seemed to understand that it was a detour of 16 kilometres to go back to the main border crossing. I sighed again. Did he also understand that there were four big hills to climb, four big hills that I had already struggled to lay behind me the evening before? He looked sorry for us, but there was nothing he could do. So we turned our bikes around, not saying much to each other (I think Chris mumbled something about “No wrong turns only different…” but I told him that this was not different, but the SAME part of everywhere) and cycled up over the ‘glorious downhill’ and passed that point where I had wished we cycled west. I try to remember to never do that again.
It seemed there were also problems at the main border crossing, because we sneaked around a long queue of cars and right up in front of a German campervan with a smiling and waving couple behind the panorama windows, they didn’t seem to mind us squeezing in in front of them. At least they did let cars through here although at a very low frequency. We loaded our patience and took part in the general “we’re-all-in-the-same-boat” conversations that often develops among strangers in such a situation. People were chatty and cheerful and it was not so bad having to wait a little, it was just very, very hot in the midday sun.
We finally got through both border check points and found ourselves in Monetenegro, a new country, zooming downhill to a wonderful bay of clear, blue water surrounded by hills and holiday towns. We cycled along on a pedestrian path right next to the beaches, there were shops selling colourful towels and bikinis and bars playing reggae music and again I felt a bit like I was in Asia, although a different type of Asia, more like the Asia of Thailand or Indonesia.
We were very happy to see a family coming cycling towards us and this time they didn’t seemed too scared away by our appearance or maybe there was just no way to escape the encounter on the narrow footpath. No no, they were nice and chatty, and they were riding on two well-loaded bicycles, one was a fusion of a tandem and a recumbant with Patrick pedalling at the back and the oldest daughter sitting in front and with at least six panniers attached to the frame, and on the other normal bike Janeke was towing the smallest child sleeping in a shaded trailer. They were smiling, tanned Dutch people that had spent three weeks cycling around Montenegro, and they had many good things to say about it. We got some good advice on which roads and routes to take and a little spark of inspiration on how to travel on bicycles with small children, before we said goodbye and went each our way.
Chris and I went for a brief swim, it was ever so refreshing, but we could not hang around long as we had a guesthouse to reach and the sooner we got there the more time we would have to relax there. The short, easy day of cycling I had dreamed of was long gone because of all the mess at the borders, but at least it was now a flat and very enjoyable ride along the bay. We admired the scenery, and our excitement grew when we realised that we were still only in the outer bay. The real and spectacular Kotor Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was still hidden behind the hills that walled the outer bay.
We crossed the narrow fjord that connects the outer and inner bays on a small ferry, then followed the small road around a corner and before our eyes a real wonder of a place displayed. Grey, rocky mountains rose high up over the quiet, clear waters of the bay and the charming fishing villages along its banks. The villages were now mainly used for holiday accommodation but the atmosphere was calm and peaceful here (except from a few cars that seemed to think the narrow road along the bay was some sort of race track) compared to the hedonistic feel of the outer bay. We took time for another swim and I kept my glasses on so I could lie in the water and take in the views of the mountains. They looked massive, so high and insurmountable. They were a fortress of nature protecting and hiding this little pearl of a place. When we got to the old town of Kotor we saw, that people here actually impressively enough also had built a real fortress with a wall climbing high up of the mountain’s sides. I wondered how they had been able to get up there.
We did our best to get the most out of our relaxation at our guest house, which basically meant getting some things done that we could not do while cycling. For example did we book accommodation in Istanbul giving us a deadline of three weeks to get there. We had taken our time and enjoyed ourselves through the Balkans but we had also realised that we probably were the last team in the pack of cycle tourers heading for Central Asia this year. We had to keep up a more than relaxed pace to make it to and over the big Pamir mountains before it would get too cold, and so we set out motivated for a first big day leaving the town of Kotor as early as 1pm after a brief walk through the old town that was sadly too touristy for us to enjoy.
We knew there was quite a climb awaiting us as the first twenty kilometres went up to 1,000 metres. A tasty, greasy burek, which is a cheese-filled pastry that is popular all over the Balkans, gave us the energy to get up through the first switchbacks from where we managed to take Chris’s country sign picture no. 57 and sat down to enjoy the view over the bay from above. It was quite incredible.
We did some more switchbacks that took us away from the inner bay so we instead could see the outer bay, then the road went back on the mountains surrounding the inner bay and slowly, very slowly we climbed up going back and forth across the mountain side. “This was how they got up on that mountain” I thought, soon we were higher up than the wall of the fortress and I began to realise that it actually was possible to get over this insurmountable mountain. It was an impressive road construction and the views of the bays grew more and more surreal as we kept being able to look all the way down to where we had started. I thought this was a great way to take in the scenery of Kotor in all its beauty and sweat-causing splendour.
Late in the afternoon we made it to the top. We had counted more than 30 switchbacks during the climb, looking down at the bays underneath us about twice as many times and now I was keen to see what different part of everywhere would be waiting on the other side of the wall of mountains. A lush green valley with little villages and an angry dog that chased us, but nowhere to camp. Therefore we decided to keep going although it meant climbing up another 300 metres. At the end of the day our cycle computers showed 37 kilometres and we had climbed almost 1,300 metres, but when we looked at the map we were only about seven kilometres from where we had started – and one day closer to our arrival date in Istanbul.
So the next day we set out with the ambition of cycling 80 kilometres, no matter what! Frustratingly we were soon held back by some roadworks where three big diggers blocked the road, but some nice Montenegrin men entertained us and after 30 minutes we were going again. We stopped to shop in Cetinje, the Old Royal Capital of Montenegro, and here I felt the real Montenegro, something that had lacked in the tourist places of Kotor Bay. Soviet architecture, a shop with a woman insisting that I could not touch the vegetables myself, groups of school kids shopping snacks in their break and an impressive number of solar powered lamp posts lined the roads. It was wonderful.
From Cetinje we went to cycle along Lake Skadar, that is the biggest lake in the Balkans and quite a stunning sight as it is surrounded by high hills. Unfortunately we also had to cycle through these hills and when we reached the lake by midday we found an elevation chart over the route showing that we had six hills to climb of various sizes, but in total rounding up to around 1,000 metres like we had spent most of the day climbing the previous day. Luckily it was also very scenic and that’s what I tried to focus on, especially as the last two climbs, that were also the biggest, coincided with the light on the landscape turning from white to orange to purple as the sun set.
The elevation chart had not shown the last bit of our route and so we began the day with another, steep climb that we were not prepared for, but I don’t know if knowing about it would have made it less hard. Hard it was, but at the top we enjoyed the view of Shkadar Lake one last time while chatting with other travellers in cars who also had stopped to enjoy the view.
On the other side of the ridge we overlooked the flatter landscape of western Albania with great relief and we headed down the small, steep roads taking us to the border. I stopped in a little town waiting for Chris when a man walked passed with his herd of sheep.
“Good sheep!” I said to him, not because I know much (or anything!) about sheep, but more to get to talk with him.
“Where are you from?” he asked, maybe sensing that I had no clue what I was talking about.
I told him I was from Denmark and to my greatest surprise he then asked:
“Hvor i Danmark kommer du fra?” which is Danish meaning: “Where in Denmark are you from?”
I could not believe it. This man walking around with his sheep in this tiny village in Montenegro spoke Danish. How was it possible?
It was possible because Masudin, as the man was called, had been a refugee in Denmark for ten years during the war in Kosovo (I reckon he had Albanian roots). He had lived in a town called Randers close to where I had studied, worked as a chef in a restaurant in a mall and asked me if I knew it and maybe a girl he had worked with? I did not. I asked him how it was to be back home, and I sensed an ambiguity and sadness in him. In Denmark he had the security from the welfare system, but life was mostly about working. And the weather is quite depressing if you are used to the weather of the Balkans. Here in Montenegro he was home and I knew from my years of travelling what a special feeling that is. There is nowhere like home, it is the place where your person as a whole belongs. But in Montenegro he and his wife and child was depending solely on him, there was no financial subsidies to rely on should they get in trouble, and Masudin didn’t have a job here, but was providing for his family only with the sheep and vegetables they were growing themselves. Told to me in Danish by a man who knew how life in Denmark was, I suddenly understood the reality of this kind of life. I had had a romantic idea of the simple life I saw people live in Bosnia and here. Masudin expressed to me the insecurity and very little options for change and choice of ways of living that this way of life also meant. It was first of all about providing for yourself and your family and there was always a potential risk that you would fail with fatal consequences that was unbearable to think of. An idea of travelling the world like we were doing, relying on the financial and social security that were embedded in us coming from the middle class in Western Europe, was something far out of reach for a man like Masudin. He understood the difference, because he had been given the same privileges for a while, and that was somehow brutal. And I understood it through him. It made me sad and slightly guilty that I couldn’t share some of my privileges with him. But it also made me very, very grateful for them. Meeting Masudin made a great impression on me, I gave him my contacts and hoped he would write to me, but he never did.
With that our short time in Montenegro was over as we rolled up at the border crossing to yet another new country, Albania.
(Dubrovnik) – Kotor – Lake Skadar
252 kilometres cycled