SUMMER IN KOTOR

View of the Bay of KotorKotor summer1The world’s leading travel guide, Lonely Planet, awarded Montenegrin tourism a significant recognition, by ranking Kotor first on the list of top ten cities to visit in 2016. And indeed, this beautiful old town has become an outstanding tourist attraction.

We visited Kotor last weekend and we were surprised to see so many foreigners exploring the town. Two cruisers had arrived early that morning (photo 1) and many groups were visiting the historical and cultural sights, individually or with tour guides.

Kotor summer2A lot of tourists bought tickets for the hop-on hop-off bus “Kotor Open Tour” (photo 2). This is a good way to visit Kotor and its surroundings. Buying a voucher you can travel from Kotor to Risan on the open bus, with stops in Perast and at the beach of Bajova Kula. The price (20.00 €) includes coupons for the Roman Mosaics in Risan, the Museum of Perast and for a walking tour with guide through the old town of Kotor. If compared with other cities like Rome or Madrid, the price is rather high, but for one-day visitors this is certainly a nice way to get acquainted with the Bay of Kotor.

Kotor summer3Since last year, many things have changed in Kotor. The town is clean and well-maintained, the open air terraces are attractive and the service is good.

It was very crowded in front of the entrance gate and many people were pushing each other to get through, so we decided to take a rest on the new giant bench in front of the entrance (photo 3). Nice!

Finally, we succeeded in entering the town (photo 4) and we found a place at San Giovanni’s pub where we enjoyed a good cup of coffee, watching hundreds of people passing by. Asian ladies with fancy hats and shawls making selfies (photo 5), fat British girls in extremely short “hot pants”, Italian dandies and Dutch tourists with their typical sandals and white socks …. The whole world meeting in Kotor!

Kotor summer4But in spite of the overcrowded squares and streets, we could still discover authentic narrow back streets and romantic corners (photo 6); the atmosphere was quite cozy. All kinds of souvenirs (photo 7) were exhibited in shop windows, most of them pure kitsch, but why should we give our opinion about it? If people like them, let them buy!

A folklore group was dancing and singing on the main square. An old man played the saxophone in front of the Orthodox church and on another street corner, a young student played Mozart on his flute. All pubs and terraces in the open air were full of people and everybody was in a good mood. Of course, you could eat fresh fish and grilled meat, but there were plenty of other possibilities: pizza, pasta and other light lunches were obviously more popular. We had an excellent chicken burger in a pub called “The Square” in front of the St. Triphun’s cathedral for 5.50 Euro (photo 8).

Kotor summer5A Dutch couple at a neighboring table told us how impressed they had been when they entered the Bay in the early morning. “I have never seen something more beautiful in my life”, said the middle-aged man, his arms full of tatoos. Of course, we were really glad to hear that. But then his wife asked: “Are we still in Croatia or is this already Serbia?” Hmmm, we tried to explain that Kotor is situated in Montenegro, but obviously, this was too difficult to understand for these tourists who traveled by cruiser all around the Mediterranean….

I must say: Kotor is wonderful, not only off-season, but also in July and August, even when it is overcrowded with tourists. In some way, this town is alive, it is real. It does not look like a theatre scene, it is relaxing and offers a lot of different experiences.

Kotor summer6If you ignore the beggars and young men offering “Ray Ban” sunglasses on the streets and terraces, you can have a wonderful time here.

And if you want to avoid the crowds – come to Kotor in the months before or after the high season!

 

 

Kotor summer7

 

 

DURMITOR: SUMMER IN MALA CRNA GORA

Mala Crna Gora1Mala Crna Gora2 Sušica CanyonOne of the most popular excursions in Durmitor National Park is the jeep safari called “Ring around Durmitor”. From late May, when the snow on Štuoc is finally cleared away, adventurous tourists start to explore the spectacular natural beauties of Durmitor. As a rule, they make a stop at the Tara Canyon panorama point and enjoy the breathtaking view, they pass by the junction where a narrow asphalt road turns off to the village of Mala Crna Gora (photo 1 and 2), and then continue to the Sušica Canyon and the village of Nedajno. A great tour indeed!

Mala Crna Gora3This month, we have accompanied two Dutch groups on such a jeep safari, without entering Mala Crna Gora. So last weekend we decided to also explore this authentic “Little Montenegro”, whose natural position between Sušica Canyon, Tara Canyon and the high mountain pass of Štuoc is the reason that it is almost inaccessible during the winter. We did not expect to see anything special, but the fact that this village is so isolated and totally cut off during six long winter months made us quite curious.

Mala Crna Gora4Mala Crna Gora is situated around 25 km from Žabljak at an altitude of 1,800 meters. The inhabitants practice sheep and cow farming, as the mountain plateau mainly consists of pastures surrounded by beech and pine forests. Piles of stones collected from the grassland are scattered everywhere and are characteristic for this impressive landscape.

Out of around 100 inhabitants, only 30 stay in the village during the winter and this number is decreasing each year. Their life is hard in those lonely months. Sometimes they can only dig a small path through the snow connecting their house with the stable, where they keep their cows and sheep. It may happen that even visiting a neighbor becomes impossible, as does seeing a doctor. Each year, TV teams visit the village after the winter isolation and each year they ask the same questions: “How did you spend the winter? Was it hard? Are you happy you can see your grandchildren again?”

Mala Crna Gora5The summer is short in this area, but wildflowers are abundant. We followed the narrow winding road through the village, edged by beautiful wild roses (photo 3), while the pastures were covered with yellow wildflowers (photo 4). But what impressed me most was the authentic atmosphere. I could not see a single house that spoiled the quiet rural atmosphere by brightly colored walls or shiny corrugated sheet roofs. Many houses and cottages were made of wood in old Durmitor style (photo 5).

Mala Crna Gora6We made a stop and got out of the car. The silence was complete. A dry breeze made the air cool and transparent and the clouds playing above the canyon were a pleasure for the eye. Small wooden shepherd’s cottages, built who knows when (photo 6), were scattered throughout the landscape. A young woman was collecting hay, putting it on traditional haystacks (photo 7). Everything was neat and tidy, there was no garbage around, the wooden fences were well-maintained.

Mala Crna Gora7I asked myself why the first inhabitants of this village settled down here three centuries ago. Why did they decide to start a new life on this cold, high and isolated plateau without any water springs? It is a fact that village was so remote that Ottoman forces allegedly never managed to enter it, so that could be a reason. But even fifty years ago, Mala Crna Gora had still 400 inhabitants, sixty oxes and 3,000 sheep. Now there are hardly 300 sheep left. People are leaving the village in search of a new and better life.

Mala Crna Gora8 butterflyFinally we reached the end of the road, just above the Sušica Canyon, in front of the Memorial House of Radoje Dakić. This national hero-partisan from World War II was born here in 1911 and died in Russia when he was only 35 years old. Many personal items and also the urn with his ashes are kept in this house.

It was time to get back to the modern world, leaving Mala Crna Gora as one of the few really authentic villages in Montenegro. It is important to understand that this authenticity has a special charm for many Western tourists who are always willing to explore the untouched and unexposed and to avoid areas and activities in presence of other foreigners, surrounded by typical flora and fauna (photo 8 and 9).

Mala Crna Gora10Many travelers are desperately searching for authentic local experiences. The regular tourist destinations have become boring for them, they have already visited many churches and museums, popular beach resorts and perfectly renovated “old towns”. They want to live the local life, to get familiar with local culture and traditions, and to discover the pristine beauty of nature. For them, holidays have become more than just periods of rest and relaxation – they are now opportunities for learning and self-development as well.

Maybe the promotion of “authentic tourism” could be a new chance for this beautiful village? Even if the summer is short, it might be an interesting source of additional income for the decreasing population. Of course, it would be a big mistake to build a hotel or fancy restaurant here. But I believe that there are people who would love to spend a few summer weeks in this typical Durmitor village, helping the farmers with their daily activities or hiking/biking in these spectacular surroundings… (photo 10).

As far as we are concerned, we will certainly spend a weekend over there with our camper!

Mala Crna Gora9 Susica Canyon

 

CAMPER TOURISM – A PROMISING CHANCE FOR MONTENEGRO

campers1 Albanian bordercampers2 Cathedral PodgoricaA few years ago, I wrote some articles about camper tourism as a missed chance for Montenegro (see:http://montenegro-for.me/2012/10/camper-tourism-a-missed-chance-for-montenegro/). But if the Ministry of Tourism and the National Tourism Organization would be aware of the possibilities offered by camper tourism nowadays, I still believe that there is a good chance to develop this type of tourism.

Traveling by camper is getting more and more popular, not only in the US, Canada and Australia, but also in Western Europe. Can you imagine that there are around 100,000 campers in the Netherlands (population less than 18 million)? Many of these tourists travel to well-known destinations, like France, Spain and Italy. Just an example: 5.6 million camper tourists per year, both Italians and foreigners, spend their holidays in Italy.

campers3 Zabljak Camping Kod BoceSome surrounding countries – in particular Croatia – have already taken advantage of this opportunity. More than a quarter of tourists visiting Croatia stay in campsites and campers are always eagerly received as guests on the coast.

But the number of those camper fans who want to travel to less known, adventurous destinations is constantly growing. Albania is getting more and more popular, as it offers authentic experiences, pure nature and good campgrounds, often also suitable for groups – one of the best examples is Lake Shkodra Resort (see:  http://montenegro-for.me/2013/08/albania-lake-shkodra-resort-a-place-to-be).

campers4 StuocIt is interesting to see that Montenegro is experiencing an invasion of Dutch camper/caravan tourists this year (photo 1). Several clubs from the Netherlands organize group tours – with up to 20 campers/40 people – through the Balkans. In former times, they just passed along the Montenegrin coast on their way to Albania and further on, but the situation is quite different this summer. Several Dutch camper clubs organize a longer stay in Montenegro, also visiting the northern part of the country, eg. Durmitor, Biogradska Gora and Bijelo Polje, before spending a few days on the Montenegrin Coast.

campers5 Susica canyonWe had the opportunity to accompany a group from Shkodra and the North Albanian Alps to Durmitor National Park on their one-month round trip called “Off the Beaten Track”, organized by the Dutch camper club NKC. A second group will follow this week. In Montenegro we visited the Orthodox cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Podgorica (photo 2), the Morača Monastery and the Tara Bridge. The group found accommodation at campsite “Kod Boče” in Žabljak (photo 3), from where they made a spectacular jeep tour called “Ring around Durmitor” (photo 4, 5 and 6) that included a delicious lunch in Trsa (photo 7). Although the weather could have been better, there is no need to say that all participants were astonished with the natural beauties of Montenegro and many of them promised to come back, even before they had visited the Bay of Kotor, where they will stay at campsite Naluka in Morinj (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2014/07/boka-kotorska-the-charm-of-morinj-2/).

campers6 Susicko lakeWho are these camper enthusiasts? Well, most participants are retired and their average age is above 65! Surprised? Why should you, when you know that most of these tourists are in perfect health and their income/pension enables them to travel as much as they want. Some of them even sell their house to buy a camper (the price for comfortable camper vans – homes on wheels -can be up to 100,000 €): they spend 4-5 winter months in Spain or Portugal and travel around Europe and beyond for the rest of the year.

It’s a fact: Traveling by camper has become a lifestyle. It means escaping from the usual itineraries of mass tourism and, instead of that, discovering the magic of pristine nature, thrilling landscapes and ancient traditions in a completely flexible way. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity!

campers7 TrsaIn January 2016, the National Tourism Organization hired a booth on the Utrecht Holiday Fair – for the first time in five years. And it was a success! The daily presentations of Paul Wennekes, author of the first travel book about Montenegro in Dutch, were attended by many people who were interested in traveling to Montenegro. And of course, most of them were camper tourists…

The fact that the Croatian booth had available tons of brochures about camping possibilities might be a good lesson for Montenegro, if they intend to participate in the Utrecht Fair next year.

campers8 village guest houseMoreover, it would be absolutely necessary to provide more and better campsites. At the moment, there are only a few campsites that can accommodate a group of 15-20 campers. Let’s be clear: it is not necessary to provide luxury – camper tourists just require clean sanitary facilities, electricity, water and a flat pitch. And don’t think that they are not willing to spend money in the country: most of them have lunch or dinner in a restaurant, they visit museums and national parks, buy souvenirs and other articles – and if excursions would be organized to private guest houses in authentic villages (photo 8), this would also open economic possibilities for the population of Northern Montenegro.

The project “Panoramic Routes” that has started with signposting of the “Circuit around Korita” represents a real boost for the promotion of camper tourism. I really hope that this type of tourism will be promoted much more intensely, as it also offers a good chance for development of the northern part of Montenegro (photo 9).

campers9 Durmitor

 

THE AMAZING METEORA MONASTERIES

Meteora1 AnapafsasMeteora2 VarlaamOne of the highlights of our last trip through Albania and Greece was a visit to Meteora, a collection of Greek-Orthodox monasteries perched on gigantic 400 meters high rock pillars above the town of Kalambaka. It is no wonder that six (out of the initial number of 24) historical monasteries have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List and that they are visited by numerous tourists from all over the world.

Approaching the Meteora after a long drive, we got aware that this is really one of the most spectacular places to visit in Greece: a unique experience of nature’s grandeur in conjunction with history, architecture and the Orthodox religion.

Meteora3 VarlaamGood hotels and campsites can be found everywhere: we found accommodation at camping Vrachos Kastraki, where we enjoyed a delicious Greek moussaka, while watching the sunset behind the rock pillars.

But let me tell you something about the history of Meteora. Between the 14th and 16th century, the monasteries were built by monks who had lived there as hermits in caves from the 11th century. It took months and years to carry the building material to the top of rocks. The monks used ropes, long ladders, nets and baskets. They liked the isolation and difficulty of access, as this allowed for quiet contemplation and prayer. Of course, the monasteries were also suitable for fending off invading hordes of Turks.

Nowadays, six monasteries are open to visitors (entrance fee: € 3.00). You don’t have to get hoisted up in a basket any more, but getting there is still not so easy, as you have to pass many steps and bridges that were added subsequently. A strict dress code is enforced: shoulders must be covered, men must wear long trousers and women long skirts. Although I was wearing long pants, I had to lend a skirt to cover myself!

Meteora4 Great MeteoronAfter a quiet night, we got up early to make a round tour of the monasteries on the basis of a good map that was provided by the campsite. But of course, it was necessary to make a choice, as it would have been impossible to visit all monasteries in one day.

The first monastery we saw from the road was Agios Nikolaos Anapfasas (photo 1) – in translation: Saint Nicholas the one who rests you. It was founded at the end of the 14th century and has an extraordinary position on the top of a rock pillar.

Meteora5 Great MeteoronWe decided to pay our first visit to Varlaam, the second biggest monastery, located opposite to the Great Meteoron Monastery. It was founded in the 14th century by Hosios Varlaam (photo 2).

In this monastery we visited the tower from where a net was used by the first monks for their ascent and descent from the rock, until it was “God’s will to have it replaced”! Nowadays, the tower is still used: it was very interesting to see how workers lowered a steel basket for bringing up building materials for the reconstruction works (photo 3).

Meteora6 RoussanouBut of course, the most important monastery to visit was the Great Meteoron Monastery or Metamorphosis, which is also the highest and the oldest. Platys Lithos, the gigantic rock on which the monastery stands, rises 615 meters above sea level. That is why it was called the monastery that was “suspended in the air” (meteoro).

It was not easy to reach the core of the monastery: we had to pass many narrow steps, first down over a bridge and then up through a stone tower and beside high walls, but finally we were awarded with a fantastic experience. The main cathedral in the central courtyard (photo 4) contained beautiful 16th-century frescoes (unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos). After visiting the museum with its wonderful medieval icons, we were shocked to see the skulls of former residents, lined up on shelves in the sacristy (photo 5). The spacious courtyard, full of flowers, offered a divine experience and a rewarding view of the surroundings awaited us on the upper terrace.

Meteora7 Aga TriadaOn our way back, we took a look inside the old refectory of the monks and the old kitchen, still black with smoke, with the original bread oven and soup hearth.

Continuing our drive, we discovered the Monastery of Roussanou (photo 6) on a lower elevation. It was named after the first probable hermit who settled on the rock. We could not stop admiring the amazing environment, a wonder of nature and architecture. As we had to cross a small bridge from another peak to get to this monastery – we just passed by.

Meteora8 StefanosThe Agia Triada or Holy Trinity Monastery (photo 7) was founded in the 15th century. It was interesting to read that this monastery was used for the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”. We also skipped the visit of this monastery, as it was very difficult to reach: we would have to walk up 140 steps cut into the rock.

The last monastery we saw on our round trip was Agios Stefanos (photo 8), the only convent in Meteora that has an unimpeded view of the plain towards the town of Kalambaka (the Turkish word for “pinnacle”). Unfortunately, we had spent too much time in the most impressive Great Meteoron monastery (photo 9), so that we were too late for a visit, but we got a good impression of the building from the parking lot.

After all these experiences, our evening was concluded with grilled meat from the campsite’s barbecue with fresh salad and potatoes. The restaurant was full of people who were deeply impressed by their visit of the Meteora. This is really a very special attraction in the northern part of Greece that can be easily reached, also from Montenegro!

Meteora9 Great Meteoron

 

ALONG THE COAST OF SOUTH ALBANIA

South Albanian coast1Traveling by car along the Albanian coast is an amazing experience. Many new tourist resorts are rising from the Adriatic Sea: in towns like Velipoja, Shengjin, Dürres and Vlora, hundreds of new apartment buildings and hotels are under construction. Infrastructure is developed in the form of palm-lined promenades, wide boulevards and sunny squares with pretty street cafés. New districts are constructed according to strict urban-planning standards.

South Albanian coast2 Himare beachMany tourists come from Kosovo and are interested in a beach holiday with good food and a vibrant nightlife, all according to the formula “sea, sun, sand”. But what about those foreigners, who visit Albania searching for adventure, pure nature and quiet beaches?

I would recommend them to follow the coastal road south of Vlora down to Saranda. At a distance of 125 km (at least three hours driving), this road offers one of the most scenic and spectacular views along the Adriatic and Ionian coasts (photo 1). Although we had visited this part of Albania before, we enjoyed our camper trip as if it were the first time.

South Albanian coast3 Ali Pasha's CastleFrom Vlora, we followed the rocky cliffs and transparent blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. South of Orikon, the road headed inland. Many small villages were scattered over the slopes of the mountains.

Gradually, the vegetation changed into pine forests: in Llogara National Park, typical flag pines could be seen, named for their flat tops. At the top of the Llogara pass, a large panorama point (1000 m above sea level) offered a breathtaking view of the Ionian Sea, with a steep slope lunging down to the water’s edge. A picturesque switchback road with lots of sharp bends brought us closer to the sea once more, passing authentic villages and deserted beaches.

South Albanian coast5We found accommodation at Camping Kranea in Himarë, a small campground with lots of shade in an old olive grove,  directly on the long sandy beach (photo 2). A wonderful place indeed, and obviously very popular – most of the pitches were occupied, although the season has not even started. Dinner – what else but fresh mussels, a specialty of this region – in the cozy open restaurant was delicious.

Next day we continued our trip. The first stop was at the Porto Palermo Castle, not far from Himarë (photo 3). It was built by Ali Pasha of Tepelena in the late 18th century, although some sources state that it was built much earlier, by the Venetians. Porto Palermo looks like a fairy tale: on a little peninsula in a closed bay, it is surrounded by abundant vegetation, a lovely beach and clear water. The slopes of the mountains opposite the castle are covered by huge agavas, their flowers tall as trees.

South Albanian coast6Yes, nature is spectacular along this part of the Albanian Riviera and it was strange to see the long and almost deserted sandy beaches, sometimes serving as a resting place for cattle only (photo 4).

There was hardly any traffic on the winding and rather dangerous road, at some streches full of potholes. Farmers were transporting their milk with horses and donkeys (photo 6). From time to time, shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats were blocking the traffic.

Approaching Saranda, the scenery changed again. Dozens of hills that looked like green pyramids appeared in front of us. A long time ago, the hillsides were terraced and planted with olives and citrus trees (photo 5). Their cultivation is still very important, but many olive groves and citrus terraces seem to be neglected and abandoned – is this way of fruit and olive growing too time-consuming and labor-intensive to be competitive with other countries?

South Albanian coast7The townscape of Saranda showed up as soon as we reached the coast (photo 7). Another beautiful, sunny city opposite to the Greek island of Corfu. Mass tourism has started here many years ago.

But honestly speaking, I hope that the remaining part of the South Albanian Riviera can be saved from mass tourism development. As the most important roads leading to Greece pass through the continental part of Albania (Gjirokastra) and good infrastructure along the coast is still missing, maybe this region will remain a hidden secret for adventurous nature lovers for another few years…

South Albanian Coast8 Sarande

 

SKADAR LAKE: BOAT TOUR TO BEŠKA AND STARČEVO ISLANDS

Skadar Lake1 BeskaSkadar Lake2 little grebeIt was a pleasure to accept the invitation of our friend Jelena from Skadar Lake Boat Milica to join her at a boat trip to the islands of Beška and Starčevo. This was one of the few boat tours we had not made so far and we were very curious to see the western and southern shores of the Lake from the water (photo 1).

This relaxing boat ride lasts around 6 hours and takes you through a magnificent and still relatively unknown part of Skadar Lake. It is a fascinating experience with spectacular panoramas of the surrounding mountains, solitary islands, authentic villages and picturesque monasteries. And let’s not forget the abundant flora and diverse fauna!

Skadar Lake3 GrmozurStarting early in the morning from Virpazar, we spotted a lot of different birds. Great crested grebes were swimming around, carrying their “babies” on their back. Little grebes were moving quickly through the reed (photo 2), while grey herons stood immovably on the rocks in search of a pray. Further away, a squacco heron was wading through the shallow water, looking for frogs and insects. Yellow irises and white water-lilies decorated the wetlands with the abundant colors of spring, the most beautiful season in and around Skadar Lake.

Skadar Lake4 RadusSoon we approached the abandoned island of Grmožur. This island is known as the “Montenegrin Alcatraz”, as King Nikola of Montenegro used it as a prison for his political opponents. Nowadays, it is left to the ravages of time and its only inhabitants are seagulls, cormorants, lizards and snakes (photo 3).

Moving further along the steep and mountainous shoreline, we passed by several old fishing villages and abandoned houses. Soon we reached the bay of Raduš (photo 4), in which the so-called “Eye of Raduš” is located (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2015/03/skadar-lake-between-godinje-and-radus/). Although the average depth of the Lake is around 6 meters, this “eye” is the deepest spot of the Lake. Divers have come to the conclusion that the Lake is at least 60 meters deep here, and maybe even deeper, as the “eye” has the form of a funnel, which makes diving very scary… Due to the constant temperature of underground water springs, this is an ideal place for the spawning of bleak (Alburnus alburnus), a small fish that is smoked and served as a specialty of this area.

Skadar Lake5 Aesculapian snakeSuddenly we saw something crawling on the water surface: it appeared to be a giant Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus – photo 5). We succeeded in approaching it and were surprised with its length of at least 2 meters, which was said to be exceptional. These snakes are non-venomous, but honestly speaking, I would not be happy to meet such a monster when swimming in the Lake!

Admiring the panorama of the Prokletije mountains on the Albanian side of the Lake, we spotted the first islands that are characteristic for this part of the shoreline: the Starčevo islands consisting of Starčevo Rock, Veliko Starčevo and Malo Starčevo (photo 6).

Skadar Lake6 Malo StarcevoOur skipper Petar “parked” the boat at the foot of rocky stairs that led to the monastery gate (photo 7). There is only one monk, Father Gligorije, living on this island and to our disappointment, he was not “at home”, so that we could not visit the oldest church on the Lake, founded in 1377 by Father Makarije and devoted to the Mother of Jesus Christ. What a pity! But the smell of medicinal herbs, the fig and pomegranate trees with their bright red flowers, gave us an overall impression of the beauty of this island.

Skadar Lake7 Boat MilicaFortunately, it was much easier to visit the island of Beška, opposite to the village of Murići. The beautiful environment of the monastery that is run by 13 nuns shows their great efforts; they do not only cultivate vegetables and fruit, but also medicinal herbs, like marigold, sage and lavender.

One of the nuns showed us the two old churches (photo 8). The bigger one, the Church of St. George, was built at the end of the 14th century by Đurađ II Balšić, Lord of Zeta. Totally dilapidated, it was renovated in 2002. I was not impressed by the new frescoes, but understood that the old ones had been totally destroyed and washed away. The smaller Church of the Holy Mother was built in 1440 as a legacy of his widow, Jelena Balšić, who died in this monastery.

Skadar Lake8 Beska monasteryAfter climbing to a beautiful viewpoint with a big cross, on the top of the island, we were invited to rest a bit and drink a glass of sage juice. It you ever have the opportunity, taste it! It is said to be a good medicine for thyroid diseases.

Our next stop was in the village of Murići (photo 9) with its sandy beach, the only one in this area. As it has become popular as a tourist destination with a restaurant, bungalows and a campsite, this village is rather crowded in the summer and some visitors even like to swim to Beška, although the distance is much farther than you would think (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2015/03/exploring-the-western-shore-of-skadar-lake/.

Skadar Lake9 Murici beachIt was time to go back, but as all visitors of Skadar Lake are eager to spot pelicans, Jelena decided to expand the tour towards Manastirska Kapija and the Morača delta, where these birds can often be seen. And indeed, we spotted a big one (photo 10) and also saw several others floating among the water-lilies. Of course, that was the icing on the cake for all of us.

Along the Morača river – with its fabulous willow woods – and passing underneath the Vranjina monastery (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2015/04/skadar-lake-vranjina-monastery-and-pelican-spotting/, we finally arrived back in Virpazar, full of impressions.

Although this trip is rather long, it offers such a variety of experiences that you simply get the feeling that those six hours have passed in a moment or that time has stopped altogether. Thank you, Jelena and Petar, for this fantastic day!

Skadar Lake10 Dalmatian pelican

 

 

ORCHID TOURS TO MONTENEGRO

Anacamptis morio green-winged orchidDino ZelenikaAs a nature lover, I have always been fond of wild orchids. From late April to June, you can find these flowers everywhere in Montenegro, provided that the soil is calcareous – on meadows and fields, along country roads and hiking trails, among rocks and under bushes. Many of them are amongst the most beautiful of all wild flowers.

The most common orchids in Montenegro are the early purple orchid (Orchis mascula) and the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis mori – photo 1). In April and May, these purple – sometimes also pink or white – flowers cover many fields in the central part of  the country. Other orchids, from the Ophrys family, grow more individually and can be recognized by their typical form. They look like a bee, a mosquito, a wasp or a spider; altogether, they are fascinating mimics of insects.

Orchis pauciflora sparse-flowered orchidAttracted by my earlier posting about orchids (see: http://montenegro-for.me/2014/04/looking-for-wild-orchids-in-montenegro/), Dino Zelenika, orchid expert and owner of the newly-established travel agency Real Earth Travel in Bristol, Great Britain, visited Montenegro in late April (photo 2). It was a pleasure for us to accompany him in his search for orchids, as he intends to organize orchid tours to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro in the future, starting from spring 2017.

Ophrys scolopax woodcock bee orchidAlthough it was rather early in the season, we spotted many different orchids. One of them was the yellow sparse-flowered orchid (Orchis pauciflora – photo 3), a rare flower that is recorded in eastern Mediterranean countries only.

By the way, did you know that Orchis means “testicle”? Instead of roots, these flowers have a pair of tubers that resemble testicles. These tubers contain a nutritious, starchy polysaccharide called glucomannan. The flour made from the tubers of Orchis mascula and other species is called salep. It is consumed in beverages and desserts, especially in countries that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, e.g. Macedonia, Greece and Turkey.

Ophrys bertolonii Bertoloni's bee orchidPersonally, I find the Ophrys family especially spectacular. Ophrys means “eyebrow”, as this flower provided a brown dye which the Romans used to day their eyebrows and hair. It was already mentioned in the manuscript “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD).

Most ophrys orchids are found in the Mediterranean region. They are protected and should never be removed from their habitat, as they are dependent on symbiotic fungi, so that it is almost impossible to transplant then.

Together with Dino, we discovered several ophrys orchids, e.g. the woodcock bee orchid (Ophrys scolopax – photo 4) that really looks like a female bumblebee visiting a flower. Maybe you can imagine it: an attracted male bee thus tries to mate with the flower, the bee is covered in pollen and then proceeds to spread it around. During the last few years I have seen such orchids at several places along dirt roads and trails, in the mountains and forests of Montenegro.

Serapias vomeracea long-lipped serapiasA variant is Bertoloni’s bee orchid (Ophrys bertolonii – photo 5). Although it is usually rare (so far, I had seen it only once), this year we discovered quite a lot of them. A nice surprise!

Long-lipped Serapias (Serapias vomeracea – photo 6) is another orchid that could hardly be spotted so far. Now we even saw groups of these orchids in different variants. The name Serapias derives from the Greek Sarapis, the Graeco-Egyptian god, and was already used in ancient times to name some orchids.

These days we have also seen many other attractive orchids, e.g. the butterfly orchid (Anacamptis papilionacea – photo 7) and the attractive three-toothed orchid (Orchis tridentata).

Anacamptis papilionacea butterfly orchidBut don’t think that you can identify all orchids you see in Montenegro. An example is the Dactylorhiza on photo 8, which is obviously a strange variety that could not be recognized so far.

Montenegro is a very interesting country for lovers of wild flowers and orchids. If you are interested in participating in an orchid tour from Great Britain next year, contact for further information Dino Zelenika (e-mail: dinoh@blueyonder.co.uk).

Dactylorhiza

 

 

 

THE FORGOTTEN PREHISTORIC DRAWINGS OF LIPCI

Lipci1Lipci2I am sure that almost all tourists traveling around the Bay of Kotor have seen the tourist signpost for “Lipci” on the round-about, where the new road from Žabljak/Nikšić joins the coastal road (south of Risan). And I am also sure that hardly anybody has made efforts to find this archeological treasure, as there are no other signposts or markings at all.

What is it all about? Well, Lipci Rock contains prehistoric drawings showing deer hunting scenes, a symbolic sign of the rising Sun and some other symbols. These drawings represent the most complete ensemble of prehistoric Balkan art. They were created in the 8th century BC, being the second oldest on the Adriatic coast.

The paintings show two hunters on horses in movement, throwing a spear on five stags and one doe (photo 1). There are also geometric patterns. The pictures were engraved with flintstone into the limestone rock.

Lipci3How can you get there? Park your car along the main road. Take the narrow single-lane road uphill. It looks like a private parking drive, but you can follow it until the end of the asphalt. There you will see an old reddish signpost with an arrow (photo 2). Now walk along the narrow, overgrown (!) and rocky path that leads further towards the rock face. After 10 minutes, you will see a kind of cave on the right side with a protective stone wall (someone has obviously been barbecuing in there…). Continue a bit further and you will find yourself on a wider patch of stones. Look up the cliff face (photo 3) and you will be able to see the hunting scene and some other geometric designs.

Lipci4Trip Advisor reviews show the disappointment of foreign tourists, who were unable to discover the paintings, through their low ratings (“poor”) of this tourist attraction. What a pity that the Municipality and/or Tourism Organization of Kotor do not pay more attention to the importance of these archeological findings! Putting some good signposts and clearing the path would not be too expensive. And maybe it would also be possible to place an information board at the entrance…

I can assure you, a visit of Lipci is worth the effort. It is just a small detour when you are traveling around Boka Kotorska. And it is really incredible to find yourself looking at pictures that were created almost 3,000 years ago (photo 4 and 5)!

Lipci5

 

 

KAPETANOVO JEZERO OFF-SEASON

Kapetanovo jezero1

Kapetanovo jezero2Early in May I finally had the opportunity to visit Kapetanovo Jezero (Captain’s Lake – photo 1). Unfortunately, the weather was cold and rainy, and at the altitude of around 1700 m above sea level spring had hardly begun. But maybe it was exactly the barrenness and lonelyness of this area that gave us a surrealistic feeling. Driving and walking through a kind of moon landscape without meeting anybody, we asked ourselves: are we in Europe or in another world?

Kapetanovo jezero3Kapetanovo Jezero (1673 m above sea level) is a 37 m deep glacial lake, situated at a distance of around 45 km from Nikšić. The road leads along the “Zagrad” mine and turns into a dirt road at Bare Bojovića near Mount Mali Žurim, from where it continues to the lake. The last macadam stretch (8.5 km) is suitable for 4×4 only, but you can also continue on foot (or by bike). This is an easy walk along a country road, without climbing, with a duration of about 2-2.5 hours.

Kapetanovo jezero4 grape hyacinthThe rough summits of the surrounding mountains called Moračke Planine were still covered with snow (photo 2). A lonely shepherd was on his way with a flock of sheep (photo 3), shivering from the cold wind, but the pastures were already covered with flowers. Thousands of grape hyacinths (photo 4), cowslips (Primula veris) and marsh marigolds offered a colorful contrast to the threatening dark mountains.  Fields of sweet violets and wild daffodils (Narcis poeticus – photo 5) could be spotted everywhere.

Kapetanovo Jezero4a wild daffodilA Common Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis), rarely seen in Northern Europe, was quietly sitting on a rock, waiting to be photographed (photo 6). We also spotted a Seebohm’s Wheatear (Oenanthe seebohmi), hardly visible against the black-and-white rocks.

Kapetanovo Jezero itself was totally abandoned. Unless many other lakes in Montenegro, there are no trees around the lake, but the view of the surrounding mountains gives the lake a special beauty. Although a new church and several houses were built around the lake, there are also old traditional mountain huts (photo 7) for the shepherds, who spend the hot summer months – with their cattle – in this grassy area.

Kapetanovo jezero5 common rock thrushBy the way, do you know why the lake is called Captain’s Lake? There is an interesting story about it. During the Ottoman occupation of Montenegro, a certain Captain Mušović, head of the Nikšić district, was very fond of his beautiful summer pastures and house that stood at the place of today’s lake. In the rocks above this point was a spring that bubbled up from the cliffs. The keys to the spring were kept by the mountain fairies. Every night, the fairies would come to the spring to unlock it and bathe in its transparent waters. But one night, the last fairy to leave forgot to lock the spring and its waters flooded the valley below. The next evening, when the fairies returned and saw the flooded valley, they were enchanted by the striking beauty of the scenery and decided to move the spring into the depths of the emerald-green floodwaters to source this newly-created lake forever. This is how – by the negligence of a fairy (or the magic of nature) Kapetanovo Jezero was created – and Captain Mušović lost his mountain pastures.

Kapetanovo jezero6On our way back we admired the vast Lukavica plateau that is crossed by numerous – even 380 – springs and water streams (photo 8) (see my blogpost http://montenegro-for.me/2014/05/zupa-niksicka-roaming-around-the-lukavica-plateau/). With the impressive mountain tops of Veliki Žurim (2036 m above sea level) and Mali Žurim (1984 m above sea level), it is one of the most beautiful parts of Župa Nikšićka. Together with Kapetanovo Jezero, this area is a paradise for nature lovers, bikers and hikers!

Kapetanovo jezero8 Lukavica

 

LEPUSHË: HIKING IN KELMEND

Lepusha1Lepusha2aThe last Saturday of April was a perfect day for a hiking tour in the mountains. It was not easy to decide where to go, as there is still snow at altitudes above 1500 m. We had heard a lot about the hiking possibilities and wonderful nature in Lepushë, a village situated in the Kelmend region in Northern Albania at an altitude of 1200 m. At a distance of around 80 km from Podgorica, it really seems close and indeed, the first (reconstructed) part of the Kelmend road from the Albanian border in Hani i Hotit to the village of Tamarë is excellent (see my blogpost: http://montenegro-for.me/2014/11/albania-tamare-new-kelmend-road/ ). But believe me, the remaining stretch – 23 km – from Tamarë to Lepushë is a disaster for your car. Don’t even think about going there without a 4×4!

Tamarë is the place where the new asphalt road stops. You will need more than an hour or so to pass the dirt road that leads further to the north. No wonder, intensive reconstruction works are going on along this mountainous and winding road: hundreds of workers are building stone support walls and earth-moving machines are preparing the land for a new asphalt layer, but they will immediately get out of the way when they see a passenger car approaching.

Lepusha2Honestly speaking, we didn’t even notice the bad and bumpy – sometimes also muddy – road, as nature in this area is absolutely awesome (see my blogpost: http://montenegro-for.me/2012/09/discover-kelmend-valley-in-albania/).

In Lepushë we were expected at the Alpini guesthouse of Luigj Cekaj, where we were cordially received with coffee and home-made raki on the balcony, from where the view of the quiet valley and the snow-covered mountains was spectacular (photo 1).

Lepusha4aWe got a good hiking map with numerous trails in the Kelmend region, but as our company was not experienced, we asked Luigj (photo 2) to guide us on an easy/moderate hiking tour in the surroundings. Walking through the valley, we met shepherds with their flocks of sheep (photo 3), jumped over brooks and climbed over wooden fences. The meadows were covered with a delicate carpet of spring flowers that contrasted sharply against the snow-covered mountains around the valley.

Lepiusha4 Paradise gardenAfter a 20-minutes walk, the valley ended and a steep, narrow and well-marked trail took us uphill, along a mountain stream, through impressive beech forests and further to a small rocky saddle (photo 4). It was a real surprise to discover a small forest clearing, surrounded by rocks and snow patches. A mountain stream crossed the glade, edged by yellow marsh-marigolds (photo 5). This flowery clearing, named Gropa e Ujit (“water pits”), is also called Paradise Garden. What a beautiful spot!

Lepusha6 PajaWe passed the snow patches and continued our hike to the pastures at the foot of Mount Paja (photo 6). Grassland, snow, strange-looking huge rocks and silence all around us… pure nature! Luigj told us that the Montenegrin Cursed Mountains (Prokletije) – Mount Valušnica – are just at the other side of this mountain.

Abandoned mountain huts were waiting for the flocks to come to the summer pastures and sheep pens, built in the shadow of huge rocks. It was time to go back to the valley, downhill, through grassy pastures, small snowfields (photos 7, 8 and 9) and beech forests.

Lepusha7Altogether, for us it was quite an effort, but – thanks to our professional and patient guide Luigj – we made it!

Hospitality is a sacred law in Kelmend and we enjoyed the copious meal that was prepared by Luigj’s wife. The night was very cold, but we were exhausted and enjoyed sleeping in the warm bed. Breakfast was served with a variety of home-made products: different types of marmalade (I adored the blueberry jam), cheese, yoghurt …. Delicious!

Lepusha8We left Lepushë with unforgettable memories. It took us a few hours to get back to Podgorica, but we were told that the road will be finished in September. With a good asphalt road, I am sure that Lepushë will become a popular mountain resort, also for the inhabitants of Montenegro.

Nature in Kelmend is astonishing. Hiking possibilities (best hiking season: June 1st-September 1st) are numerous. The hospitality of the people is amazing. The cuisine is delicious. So far, the area has not been spoilt by modern hotels and other tourist facilities. I hope that Kelmend will succeed in keeping all of its beauty and authenticity.

Lepusha9