HIKING THE LADDER OF KOTOR

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One of the most popular hiking tours on the Montenegrin Coast is the so-called Ladder of Kotor, also called Ladder of Cattaro. It is a descent (or ascent for the more vigorous hikers!) from the 940 meters high Krstac pass to Kotor, following an old horse trail with more than 70 U-turns and magnificent views of the whole Bay. Photo 1 shows a view of the Ladder from the opposite Vrmac peninsula; as you can see, the trail starts on the left side behind the old town and zig-zags almost in a straight line to the top of the mountain.

ladder of kotor2But let me tell you something about the history of this path from Kotor to Cetinje that was described by many travel writers and other visitors of Montenegro in the 19th century as being very steep and rough. It was built by the Austrians as a military road up to the frontier with Montenegro. The road also served as a supply line for essential provisions – and moreover, the legendary billiard table ordered by Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, prince bishop of Montenegro, from Vienna, was transported by mules and donkeys over this trail from Kotor to Cetinje; of course, with huge efforts. The “Montenegrin market” was held outside the eastern gate of Kotor and that was the place where Montenegrin women sold smoked fish from Skadar Lake, but also ham, cheese, honey and wine. At the same market, they bought olive oil, salt, petrol and clothes for their own needs.

ladder of kotor3In the beginning of the 20th century, Henri van der Mandere, a Dutch travel writer, mentioned the Ladder of Cattaro in his travel book “Montenegro”. He wrote: “From Kotor to Cetinje there are two roads; one built in 1863 that is used by post and other vehicles, and another one that was built in 1822. The last one is a very steep and dangerous mountain trail, and only born Montenegrins are capable of climbing this path without visible efforts. It is true that this horse trail is much shorter than the other one: it leads directly uphill to the Krstac pass in Njeguši, where it joins the other road to Cetinje. On this old path you can see small groups in picturesque dress, climbing the steep and rocky trail with heavy burdens, accompanied by mules or horses. A foreigner only needs to see one of such groups to become aware of the position of women in Montenegro! The man proudly steps ahead, riding the only horse or mule and protecting himself against the blazing sun with his umbrella; the women, carrying heavy loads, walk behind him, sometimes at a greater distance. Their faces show the traces of a hard life, as we can see in many countries, where women are no more than pack animals. In our country, women were treated like that in the period of the Batavians, two thousand years ago!”

ladder of kotor4Several Montenegrin agencies for outdoor tourism organize this tour with guide and transport to the starting point, but we did it by ourselves. Of course, we took the easy way out and made the descent from Krstac to Kotor, which took us around four hours, including photo stops. We parked our car in Kotor and took a taxi cab to Krstac, following the “new Ladder”, a narrow asphalt road with 26 serpentines, until the place where the trail starts. The price? Around 15 euro!

The mountain pass of Krstac is situated at an altitude of 940 meters and the view of the Bay of Kotor is magnificent from that point (photo 2). The trail – no. 759 – is clean, well-marked and equipped with signposts. It starts downhill from the asphalt road, near the cave, and leads through dense forests downhill (photo 3). The first part is an easy hike, provided that the fallen leaves and needles on the path are not too slippery by the rain. After a while, the forests stop and the views become more and more picturesque.

ladder of kotor5From the beginning, we passed an endless series of U-turns, at first through the forest. But when we got out in the open, we could enjoy stunning vistas (photo 4). At some places the trail was damaged by the 1979 earthquake and we had to find our way through boulders and loose rocks. It took us around two hours to reach the almost deserted village of Špiljari. Here we made a short detour (5 minutes) to an old church that could be seen in a clearing on the left side, the St. George’s church (photo 5). Unfortunately, the chapel was dilapidated and when we entered we could only see some faded frescoes and a stone altar at the end.

ladder of kotor6At this place we had two possibilities: to walk back to Špiljari and continue zig-zagging downhill or to climb through a – well-marked – hole in the wall of the St. John’s fortress and then follow the stairways downhill along the city walls, which would be 30 minutes shorter. We decided to take the old military road. Also from here, the view was breathtaking (photo 6). After an endless series of switchbacks (photo 7), we reached the old water power plant, continued walking along the Škurda river and then crossed the old stone bridge. And so we ended the hike at the northern gate of the old town, thirsty and tired, but deeply impressed by the fantastic scenery.

And finally a few warnings for hikers: this is a rather easy trekking tour, but I would certainly recommend the use of hiking sticks and good hiking shoes, as descending 940 meters puts a lot of strain onto your knees! And don’t forget to take enough water with you, in particular during the hot summer months!

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HIKING THE CITY WALLS OF KOTOR

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Climbing the city walls of Kotor up to the St. John’s fortress is a perfect hike, also on a sunny day in the off-season months. I would certainly recommend it to all tourists, nature/culture lovers and, of course, photographers (the view from the top is incredible!), who are physically fit and have sturdy shoes. During the summer you should do the climb in the morning, as it can get very hot during the day. But in the cooler months, the best time of the day for this hiking tour is around noon, when the sun shows the beauties of the Bay of Kotor in all its splendor (photo 1)!

kotor city walls2High above the town, the city walls represent a mix of ramparts, gates, churches and fortresses. Their construction started in the 9th century and in the 15th century they finally formed a full loop up into the hillside, 4.5 km long. During the day time it is not easy to see the difference between the grey stones of the walls and the greyish rocks of the surrounding mountains (photo 2), but at night the walls are illuminated and then Kotor looks like a fairy tale!

A few months ago, we made the hike for the third time. We started our walk near the North Gate, entering through an archway and passing through a narrow street with lines of drying clothes. As the season was already over, there was no need to pay an entrance fee (which amounts to 3.00 € per person in the period May-September, from 8 AM to 8 PM) and we just followed the walls upwards.

kotor citiy walls3If you think that it is an easy walk, you are wrong, especially during the hot summer months: for the steep and rocky climb along the city walls to the fortress of St.John (San Giovanni) you have to count 1355 steps; its altitude above sea level is around 260 meters.

We slowly walked uphill, most of the time using the steps. This was easier than following the path made up of rough cobbles, although some steps shift under your feet. The path was obviously used for hauling supplies up the mountain by cart, as big iron rings were fastened in the rocks at regular distances.

kotor city walls4After around 20 minutes we arrived at the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, at an altitude of 100 m, where we made a break. The church was built in 1518 by survivors of the 14th century plague and became a site for people to make pilgrimages to. The view of the red roofs of the old town and the harbor below was magnificent (photo 3). But we still needed another 40 minutes to reach the top (photo 4) By the way, the whole hike in both directions takes around two hours – so don’t forget to take a bottle of water with you!

Soon we reached a small fort with shelled out rooms and crumbling walls, which was interesting to explore. And just beyond these ruins, we came to a fork in the road, where we decided to take a detour and climb through a window in the walls. A narrow dirt path led into a small valley between two hills, where we saw a small, rather dilapidated church. The door was open, but what a pity: the interior was ruined and we could only see some faded fragments of old frescoes and a stone altar at the end. This appeared to be the church of St. George, built 1000 years ago on the back side of St. John’s hill (photo 5).

kotor city walls5Back through the wall, we continued our hike to the St. John’s fortress. The higher we climbed, the more fascinating became the views. When we finally arrived at St. John’s fortress, decorated with a huge Montenegrin flag, we saw old Kotor with tiny roofs really small-looking below. High mountains surrounded us, but the view of the blue Bay and the town of Kotor below us was breathtaking (photo 6).

By the way: if you don’t want to walk the same way back, you can also return – through the above mentioned window – to the St. George church and from there follow a marked (red and white) trail that leads over grassy terraces and via an series of switchbacks down along the outer side of the city walls on the northern side of the moat. This trail is part of the so-called “Ladder of Kotor”, the centuries-old trail that led from Kotor to old Montenegro and was used by the Montenegrin women to go to the Kotor market. But that will be the topic of my next blog post!

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ALBANIA: FASCINATING KORÇA

korce1 korce1aA few months ago we made a trip through the eastern part of Albania. One of the places that impressed me most was Korça, in Albanian called Korçë, not far from the Greek border. I think it is exactly this Greek/ Macedonian influence that contributes to the creation of a specific exotic atmosphere in this small town. Not only the churches and museums are worth a visit, it is also a pleasure to walk along the Boulevard Republika with its old villas and gardens, and to explore the cobbled streets behind the cathedral.

korce2The huge Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection (photo 1) is the largest church in Albania and it dominates the central square of Korça. It was rebuilt in 1992 after the previous church on this site was destroyed by the communists in 1968. Although the interior is quite modest, we liked the huge carved wooden iconostasis. When we crossed the square, we could not miss the huge statue of a warrior with the Albanian flag (photo 2). Quite impressive!

Although the First Albanian School is known as an important museum (founded in 1887, it was the first secular school with subjects taught in Albanian), the door was locked (photo 3). But fortunately, with the help of a local inhabitant, who made a phone call, we succeeded in finding someone who could open the Medieval Art Museum, which was not so easy off-season… And this museum is, no doubt, the best icon museum I have ever seen! It has a collection of 6,500 icons, but – what a pity – only 200 icons are on display in this curious building that was once the most important Orthodox church of Korçë.

korce3Most icons are from the 16th-19th century, but some of them date back even to the 14th century. It was interesting to see that Orthodox religious art must follow special instructions, e.g. Mary can be depicted in nine poses only. I could not stop admiring the collection of the 16th-century Albanian master Onufri. His icons are famous for their vivid colors – especially the “Onufri red” color – and wonderful details (photo 4). The museum also had a shop and I was very happy to buy a beautiful, hand-painted icon for €60 only. It has got a special place in our apartment!

But after this fantastic cultural experience we wanted to see another aspect of Korça: the Bazaar (photo 5). The chaotic Old Bazaar district gave us a good idea how this town looked like in Ottoman times. Walking around, we saw that the narrow streets were piled high with all kinds of goods, from shoes and clothes to car parts, while the traditional byrek and grilled meat were offered at each street corner. The green market showed many vivid colors, characteristic for this time of the year (October). The strings of onions, garlic and red peppers looked picturesque indeed (photo 6)! By the way, we heard that this district burned down several times, but it was always restored.

korce4As we had to continue our trip – there was no camping ground in the surroundings -, we didn’t have time to visit Han Elbasan, one of the two “hans” (inns) in the Balkans that are still working. There are many interesting sites in the surroundings of Korçë (one of them is Voskopojë – see my blog post: The Churches of Voskopojë), and I am sure that we will be back soon next spring to explore all the sights this part of Albania has to offer.

 

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AMSTERDAM: NEWS FROM THE BIKING AND HIKING FAIR 2015

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We are just back from the annual Biking and Hiking Fair (Fiets- en Wandelbeurs) in Amsterdam. Full of impressions, of course. Also this year, almost 20,000 nature lovers visited the two-day event. Yes, a very special kind of visitors indeed – all of them passionate hikers and/or bikers, most of them dressed in typical outdoor clothing & shoes and eager to learn more about new destinations (photo 1) or to buy some new equipment for their next travel adventure. The choice was enormous!

fwb2Many tourism organizations – but also individual travel agencies – participated with a stand, promoting original hiking and biking tours; through Holland, Germany or France, but also through more exotic places like Tibet, Vietnam or Peru. Moreover, a lot of trade companies were selling different types of bicycles, outdoor products, hiking shoes, camping equipment, etc. Special biking trails were set up in a separate part of the fair and attracted numerous visitors, who wanted to test some of the new bike models.

Those who were really interested in a special topic or country could attend one of the lectures or presentations. Paul was one of the lecturers: he made two presentations about hiking in the “the two most adventurous countries of Europe”, Montenegro (photo 2) and Albania, including the cross-border project “Peaks of the Balkans”. This was a good opportunity for Paul’s editor Boekscout to hand him the second revised edition of his book: the first Dutch travel guide about Montenegro. Now completed with city walks, hiking tours and a lot of extra photos. A great success indeed!

fwb4Holland is a famous biking country and this fair was the place where you could see many types of bicycles: not only mountain, touring and city bikes, but also lying bikes (photo 3), tandems, and in particular a great variety of e-bikes, i.e. electric bikes, which are getting more and more popular. By the way, did you know that there are 18 million bikes in the Netherlands, which is more than one per head of the population? And the sneaky electric bikes accounted for over 19% of sales last year, which means that the market share of e-bikes in total bike sales in Holland has tripled over the past six years! What about the price? Somewhere between 800 and 2,000 €!

fwb4aHikers and backpackers were more interested in camping equipment (photo 4). Tents, sleeping bags, dried food, GPS, solar collectors, etc. could be found in all types and sizes. It was really amazing to see so many different electronic devices that are designed for outdoor activities only!

Many European countries were present with their travel agencies and specialized programs. Unfortunately, not Montenegro, although hiking and biking should be a very important tourism segment. What a pity, as the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism recently published a complete series of brochures with top biking trails! Where will they be distributed, if not at a biking fair? But it was nice to meet two representatives of the newly-founded travel agency Montenegro Eco Adventures from Podgorica, Scott and Alex, who promoted Montenegro in a very enthusiastic way, offering brochures, but also ham, cheese and Montenegrin drinks (photo 5).

fwb5There were also several travel agencies from Macedonia (photo 6) and Albania, which promoted their hiking and biking tours. An example? A biking tour (11 days) called “On the trail of Alexander the Great”, from Skopje to the Ohrid and Prespa Lakes. Price? Around 800 €.

It should be understood, also in Montenegro, that hiking and biking tourists are not “poor”. They are willing to spend a lot of money, if they really get what they want: unspoiled nature, good road signs and interesting trails, and, of course, comfortable B&B accommodation.

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WILL THE MONTENEGRIN COAST SURVIVE AS TOURIST DESTINATION?

 

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A few days ago I read a very interesting article in „Vijesti Online“: the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism has made up a Draft National Strategy of Integrated Coastal Management, which clearly points at the danger of irrational urban planning on the Montenegrin  Coast. I could not believe my eyes when I read that the area of planned building land would be sufficient for the construction of apartments for another 600,000 to 800,000 inhabitants and tourist capacities for at least 270,000 new beds (photo 1).

ZavalaCan you imagine that the number of overnights in the best period of Montenegrin tourism (1985-1988) was higher than today? That more than 50,000 people were employed in tourism and catering at that time? And that tourists from Western Europe realized even three times more overnights in 1986 than in 2013?

Yes, I can imagine that, as I lived and worked in Budva in the seventies of the last century. I remember very well how the Montenegrin Coast looked like in that period: authentic, clean, with charming old towns and villages, magnificent natural beauties and transparent clean sea water.

Budva2What has happened in the meantime? First of all, it seems to be impossible to stop illegal building. The authorities don’t even know how many buildings have illegally been erected along the coast, but also many legally built structures have a negative impact on the landscape and cause pollution of the sea water.

During the last few years, I have discovered many new „projects“ and, in my opinion, none of them has contributed to the attractiveness and authenticity of the Montenegrin Coast. Let’s take Zavala or Dukley Gardens (photo 2). The beautiful green peninsula between Slovenska Plaža and Bečići has now become one big construction site. Such a pity!

Some new apartment buildings simply look ridiculous. I even discovered an eight-storey building along the highway through Budva, which is less than 3 meters wide!!! (photo 3). What a difference with the Slovenska Plaža hotel settlement that was built on the spot where the former hotels were totally destroyed by the 1979 earthquake (photo 4). It has a true Mediterranean look! Or is this hotel settlement, which is now in a rather neglected state, also planned to be demolished like the Adriatic Fair, so that a new skyscraper can be built here?

Budva3But there is still one beach left … Jaz is not completely spoilt yet, although various (illegal?) buildings have already taken a position directly behind the beach (photo 5). I remember that a large tourist settlement was already planned here around fourty years ago, as I did translation work for the developer at that time. But nothing happened, as the private land owners were not willing to sell their land. And I don’t know anything about the future of this area – except for the famous music festivals that are organized here.

JazBut the biggest disappointment for me is Petrovac. I thought that there was an agreement about the prohibition of constructing high-rise buildings in this charming village. And when I saw what is happening now, I was completely shocked (photo 6). The beautiful skyline disappeared and the view is blocked by several huge buildings. Will all those future guests and tourists in Petrovac have enough space available on the beach? I really doubt it!

I am glad that a public debate will be held on the above mentioned strategic document. If accepted, many urgent measures will be taken to protect our wonderful coast. Deadline? 2020! But don’t you think that it is already too late?

Petrovac

 

 

THE MONASTERIES OF THE MORAČA CANYON

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Moraca2When you are in Podgorica, it is a good idea to spend a day in exploring the Morača Canyon and its monasteries, in particular off-season, when there is less traffic. Just follow the road to Kolašin and Belgrade and it doesn’t take long before the scenery becomes breathtaking.

The highway – one of the most dangerous roads in Montenegro – follows the Morača River into a nearly perpendicular canyon, also called Platije, with barren rocks up to 1000 meters high.

The Morača Monastery is situated at a distance of 46 km from Podgorica, on the right side of the road. We had already visited this place several times, but only recently I learned that the icons in this Monastery belong to the most famous medieval icons of the world. They are mentioned in many foreign books about medieval art and that was a good reason to see them once more.

Moraca3The architecture of the monastery complex is quite simple (photo 1). It consists of the church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin, the small church of St. Nicholas and the sleeping quarters. Everything is surrounded with a high stone wall. The monastery was built in 1252 by Stefan Nemanja. It was made of special yellow stone that can only be found in an area very far from this place.

When we entered the beautiful garden courtyard, we had the feeling as if we stepped back into the 13th century. There were no visitors, so that we could freely admire the beautiful frescoes and icons.

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photographs without the written permission of the Serbian-Orthodox Metropolitan Amfilohije. This is a practice we already know from our visits to Macedonia and Serbia, but for instance in Russia and Ukraine, you can buy a photo permit, often at a price that is much higher than the entrance ticket. Wouldn’t that be a good possibility for the church to obtain some additional money for the restoration of the faded external frescoes of this monastery complex?

Moraca4The 13th century fresco “Raven feeds the Prophet Elijah” is the oldest and the most famous fresco of the Morača monastery. Most preserved frescoes date back to the 16th century, but the 17th century frescoes around the main entrance were painted in 1616 by Georgije Mitrofanović, one of the greatest masters of all times. The church’s treasures also include the icon of The Virgin Enthroned with Child, Prophets and Hymnographers (1617), part of the iconostasis, to the left of the sanctuary door (photo 2). This is really a masterpiece with exceptional colors. But also several other icons in the church belong to the most valuable pieces of icon painting of the Balkans.

Moraca5aThe faded frescoes around the entrance of the smaller church of St. Nicholas, built three years later, were also painted by Mitrofanović. Fortunately, the beautiful frescoes inside still show their vivid colors (photo 3).

Driving back through the canyon, we could see the railway from Bar to Belgrade, passing high above us (photo 4). We also saw several suspension bridges crossing the green river although they were in a bad shape (photo 5). I wonder if they could be repaired after the winter?

But we also wanted to visit another monastery called Duga, in the village of Bioče (photo 6). Although there is a road sign, it was not easy to find. We had to turn left beside the Potoci Restaurant (29 km from the Morača Monastery or 17 km from Podgorica), passing an old steel bridge and driving several kilometers until the end of the narrow asphalt road.

Moraca5And there it was, the Duga monastery that is even older than the Morača Monastery. The first monastery at this place was also built in the era of the Nemanjić dynasty and was dedicated to the Assumption of the Holy Virgin. In its present form, it was built in 1752 and reconstructed in the nineties of the last century.

We were welcomed by a young nun who spoke perfect English. She showed us the church and the magnificent old frescoes, and she told us a lot about her life and her choice to enter the monastery. The thirteen nuns run the vineyards of the property, grow fruit, olives and vegetables and make souvenirs and natural products for visitors. And I can assure you: she seemed to be really happy!

We left the green crystal clear waters of the Morača river (photo 7) and soon entered the city. What a pleasure it is to live in Podgorica, such a central point for making day trips in the surroundings!

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CHRISTMAS EVE IN PODGORICA

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Christmas Eve2After having spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in the Netherlands, we were eager to celebrate another Christmas in “our” city, Podgorica. The Orthodox Church still uses the old “Julian” Calendar, which means that Christmas Eve – in Montenegro called Badnji Dan – is on January 6th and Christmas Day (Božić) on January 7th.

In former times, on the morning of Christmas Eve, the father of the family used to go to the forest to cut a young oak, called the “Badnjak” (Christmas Eve log or Yule log). This is still the tradition in the rural part of the country, but most inhabitants of towns and cities replace the Badnjak by buying a cluster of oak twigs with their brown leaves still attached, as the burning of traditional logs is usually unfeasible in modern homes. Such little badnjaks can be bought at marketplaces or around churches.

Christmas Eve3Badnji Dan 2015 was a cold and sunny day. It was crowded in Podgorica, many people were procuring the last supplies for Christmas. Although most inhabitants of Podgorica had already bought their badnjaks – we saw them attached on cars, in doorways and pubs – there were still selling points around the Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.

We were informed that the Serbian Orthodox Church would organize a public celebration on Christmas Eve. And indeed, around 5.30 PM, people started to gather on the large plateau in front of the Cathedral, carrying big and small oak logs. The atmosphere was solemn. An open fire was built and gradually more and more people were approaching the fire, throwing their badnjaks into the flames. Somebody waved a Serbian flag and the full moon contributed to the mystic atmosphere. It was a very special experience indeed! (photo 1-4)

Christmas Eve4On our way home we saw a family with badnjaks heading in the opposite direction. A father and two young sons were carrying large clusters of oak twigs. Following them, we soon arrived at the Petrovic’s Castle where the Montenegrin Orthodox Church had prepared another Christmas fire. Much smaller indeed (according to 2009 figures, around 29% of the Orthodox population in Montenegro supports the Montenegrin Orthodox Church), but located in the beautiful Kruševac park.

But here we encountered a bizarre situation. On one side – in front of the castle – we could hear the Christmas liturgy, while on the other side – in front of the castle’s chapel, around 100 meter away – a small fire was burning and loud Serbian folk music with the sharp sounds of doodlesacks and woodwinds was interfering the Montenegrin service. Special police forces took position between the two groups, but the present people, many of them with children, remained stoic. The log-burning ceremony started and more and more inhabitants of Podgorica and surroundings approached the fire with their badnjaks (photo 5). After a while, the Serbian music from the chapel could not be heard anymore, as typical nationalist songs about Montenegro (I remember them from the time when the country got its independence) were even louder. We left the Petrović’s Castle, somehow embarrassed and uneasy. Well, isn’t it true that Christmas should be the symbol of peace? Isn’t it true that the Montenegrin Constitution guarantees freedom of religion? So, why was it necessary to interfere and disturb this innocent Christmas Eve celebration?

Christmas Eve5

 

WINTER IN THE ULCINJ SALINAS

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Ulcinj salinas2Recently I saw a video about the Ulcinj Salinas and I was so enthusiastic that I decided to go and visit this nature reserve that is still rather unknown in Montenegro and beyond as soon as possible. With 250 registered bird species, the Solana is a paradise for birdwatchers: spoonbills, Dalmatian pelicans, flamingos and various birds of prey are regular visitors here. More than a quarter of the bird species in Montenegro are nesting in this Important Bird Area (IBA) on the Adriatic Flyway.

Ulcinj salinas3And so we visited the ‘Ulcinjska Solana’ on a sunny winter day, with the help of Michael Bader from Utjeha/Bar, who intends to organizе guided excursions to this beautiful place (for more detailed information: info@utjeha.me). And although we did not see flamingos – as we expected – we were completely astonished at the natural beauty of this huge area and the numerous birds we could spot.

As the Salina with its 1500 hectares is private property, our visit had to be announced in advance. After a phone call with the manager we could enter the gate, leaving our passports with the guard. We were told that it is prohibited to make photographs of the dilapidated administrative and industrial buildings that once belonged to the salt works, which are now economically unviable and out of use. Indeed, the buildings do not look attractive, but certainly represent an opportunity for future investments, of course, in a controlled way.

Ulcinj salinas5With our small car we could drive along the canal, although some parts of the trail were flooded. Entering the first (educative) trail on our right side, we continued on the grass path that was rather muddy and slippery at some places (photo 3). We passed by the salt basins, the rusty railway and old wagons. Corroded machinery for salt production was just left here and there (photo 2). But of course, we also saw many, many birds.

Cormorants were drying their wings on naked trees in the shallow water (photo 1) and seagulls were resting in large groups in the salt flats (photo 6). A lonely gray heron was flying just above the water surface (photo 5). We saw a buzzard hanging in the sky and even a kingfisher sitting in the reeds.

Ulcinj salinas6The day was sunny, but very windy and after a drive of around 4 kilometers, we arrived at the watch tower (photo 4). Alas! No paddling flamingos, no pelicans. Just the sound of seagulls and the experience of complete silence in a huge open space. What a natural wealth, what a beauty!

I knew that the owner of the company had tried for years to drain the basins and to convert them into a tourist complex with hotels and golf courses. Fortunately, with the support of Birdlife International and other conservation organizations, CZIP (Center for Protection and Research of Birds in Montenegro) has recently succeeded in persuading the government to protect the area from development, at least for the next ten years.

Ulcinj salinas4Nowadays, many activities are underway for the promotion of eco-tourism and birdwatching in the salt pans. The museum will be renovated, birdwatching towers will be built (one of them is already in use), a gift shop will be opened and for the first time in Montenegro, local guides will lead natural walks along ecological and educative trails: signposts and informative boards have already been placed.

Our trip was just an introductory exploration of an area that promises so much for the future! Walking, jogging, biking, birdwatching – the salt pans offer many possibilities! This is the kind of tourism Montenegro should promote. This is the future of Montenegro as tourist destination!

And finally, if you want to see the flamingos, just watch this fantastic video:

WOMEN OF MONTENEGRO

women of montenegro1women in montenegro2I have read quite a lot of books about Montenegro and its history; many of them were written by travel writers visiting Montenegro at the end of the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th century. For me it was fascinating to learn more about life and traditions of the Montenegrin people, but what interested me most was the position of women in those times; apart from all the admiring words the authors wrote about the Montenegrins and their character, the behavior of men towards women was often the subject of heavy criticism and astonishment that got an important place in their travel books. I’ll give you a few examples:

In 1880, a correspondent of The New York Times wrote: “The Montenegrin woman takes an equal share of labor with the man at field-work, and she does all the carrying. In travel here one engages a horse to ride and a woman for the baggage. Tremendous weights they carry, slung by straps that cross the upper chest and as they go they knit or spin.”

women in montenegro3One hundred years ago, the Dutch travel writer Henri van der Mandere described the position of women in Montenegro in the following way: “A woman in Montenegro is nothing, she has no rights, she is only suitable to work and carry heavy loads for the man. As a girl, she has to obey her father. As a woman, she has to obey her husband. She is slave and pack animal at the same time; she is not allowed to walk side by side with her husband. In the presence of guests, she will never sit at the table to eat together with the men and if so, nobody will pay attention to her. Montenegrin women are beautiful when they are young; you can see that they belong to a proud race. But this beauty disappears over the years due to child-bearing and a hard life.”

women in montenegro4 Zorka Milich, an American anthropologist of Montenegrin origin, wrote the book: “A Stranger’s Supper” (1995), which contains interviews with centenarian women in Montenegro. The interviews confirm many statements of Van der Mandere and other travel writers from those times, but the approach is much less superficial. The book shows, among others, that a woman’s happiness was mostly determined by repeated throws of the genetic dice: if blessed with many sons, she was widely respected and appreciated by her husband’s family and clan. If she had only daughters, her value was much diminished and her life seen as little more fulfilled than that of the pitiful woman with no children at all. But nevertheless, she was always protected and cared for – by her husband, father and brothers.

women in montenegro5The position of Montenegrin women rapidly changed after World War II. Women in Montenegro became more independent. They got the possibility to study, to get a job and participate in social and political life. However, today’s Montenegro is still a mixture of the traditional and the new. In the generation of middle-aged people is still likely that the woman takes care of the cooking and cleaning up, as well as the education of children – apart from her job. And when you add the fact that they often have to care for their aging parents-in-law (or parents), as there are no old-age homes in Montenegro, you can imagine that their life is not easy at all. It is thus logical that in Montenegro there is still enormous respect today for a “good woman”, one who is virtuous and hardworking, who is a dedicated daughter-in-law and with some luck bears at least one or two sons.

Fortunately, the youngest generations of women, let’s say up to thirty years of age, have reached full gender equality, at least in the urban environment. Young women enjoy their freedom, they are independent and ambitious in their work or study, they like to go out and dress well… But there is one thing that will never change: the extraordinary role that family plays in a woman’s life. And as a matter of fact: Montenegro is nothing but a large family.

women in montenegro6

 

PODGORICA: IMPRESSIONS OF BLOK 5

blok 5 In my opinion, Blok Pet (Blok 5) is one of the most fascinating districts of Podgorica. I like to walk around there and ask myself how could this neighborhood be restored and rehabilitated, painted and decorated, how could it be cleaned up and become a nice place for living again, as it was thirty years ago?

blok 5I still remember when the construction of this district started in the late 1970s – early 1980s. As a typical example of the town-planning policy in that period, it was constructed on the basis of the town-planning project of Vukota Tupa Vukotić and the architectural solution of Mileta Bojović, both famous architects and town planners. It consisted of eight residential buildings (photo 1) and five residential skyscrapers up to 16 floors high – the symbol of this neighborhood – and it disposed of wide streets and avenues, sufficient parking space, pedestrian zones, lots of playgrounds, one elementary school and two kindergartens, a policlinic, supermarkets, sports grounds and lots of greenery.

blok 5Just compare it to the present town-planning solutions in Podgorica! In the city center and also “Preko Morače”, new buildings have been erected in between old residential blocks, in the middle of green courtyards. Public parks and playgrounds have disappeared, trees were cut and parking lots reduced… just to make space for more and more apartments on a limited space. Is this right and appropriate, does this contribute to the protection of the human environment?

I don’t know the population numbers of Blok 5, but it is sure that the conditions of living in this neighborhood have seriously deteriorated over the last decades. Nobody seems to be responsible for the maintenance of residential buildings and green surfaces. The buildings have become derelict and colorless, the walls are covered with graffiti and the parks have become a meeting point for junks and yobs. What a pity!

blok 5 graffitiBut let’s hear the opinion of Paul Wennekes from the Netherlands, who has been living and working in Podgorica for the last four years: ‘People warned me that Podgorica would be a boring city that does not have anything to offer. A city without spirit, filled with concrete dwelling blocks. Of course, I liked the wide boulevards with huge trees and spacious sidewalks. And Njegoševa street with its cafes and terraces, and the green banks of the Morača river… But that was all, I thought… Until the moment I entered Blok Pet. That moment I discovered another world. A world of architecture that really touched me. Oh yes, I know that you will say that it is grey and dreary. That is true. But look at the playfulness of the buildings, the almost Gaudi-like quarter-circles that serve as balconies (photo 2). I was fascinated by the large protruding parts, here and there, from the side walls of the skyscrapers (photo 3). They reminded me of my first box of bricks I got for my fifth birthday. A playful way of building that fills your eyes with admiration – when you succeed in looking through the grey concrete mass – for the men who had the courage to design this district.

blok 5Blok Pet is a miracle in itself. Including the graffiti on the walls, they just belong to it (photo 4). The wide avenues (photo 5), the big trees and the buildings with green lawns which are – at several places – well-maintained, which means that some people really want to pay attention to their environment. The shops in the ground floors that guarantee social contacts among the people. Blok Pet is beautiful! But can it be better? Yes, Capital City of Podgorica, do something with these fascinating buildings! Make them colorful. Paint them! Blok Pet deserves it, as it is one of the most interesting districts of Podgorica!”

Blok 5&BerlinIn other cities, Berlin for instance (photo 6), such and similar districts are rehabilitated and renovated. They are painted in various colors and covered with huge decorative murals. Another example is given by the Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn who create community art by painting entire neighborhoods, involving those who live there – from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the streets of North Philadelphia.

I am convinced that the rehabilitation of Blok Pet is a must for Podgorica. Blok Pet should be proclaimed and protected as a new cultural heritage of Montenegro. It would give a strong impetus to the image of Podgorica!

blok 5