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.

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IS PODGORICA REALLY UGLY AND BORING?

Podgorica1Podgorica2I have been living in Podgorica for almost 40 years. If you have ever thought about visiting this city (or living in it), you will probably be surprised to hear that I really love living here, as many travel guides, web sites and blogs will give you the advice to avoid Podgorica, as it is “ugly and boring“, or in other words “nothing special“.

I must say that “Lonely Planet” has changed its former negative opinion about the capital city of Montenegro. Its website now says: “Podgorica is relaxed and unpretentious. If you can get past the sweltering summer temperatures and concrete apartment blocks, you’ll find a pleasant little city with lots of green space (photo 1) and some excellent galleries and bars.

Podgorica3Daniel Hamilton, a British blogger, also finds Podgorica a pleasant place, although he admits that “nobody would claim Podgorica was in line to win prizes for either its architecture or range of tourist facilities…“. But he likes the setting and the green parks, and he also mentions the trees that line the well-maintained roads and mask some bad examples of communist architecture. He is impressed by its calm and relaxed atmosphere, charming and friendly people and the good bars, restaurants and shops in Hercegovačka and Njegoševa Street.

Podgorica4By far the most negative blog post ever, with the title “Podgorica is a hole!”, was written in 2013 by the well-known Australian travel writer Michael Turtle. He visited Podgorica in August and illustrated his text with depressing pictures showing abandoned houses, overflowing trash bins, graffiti and grey apartment blocks (photo 2) “where each window looks the same and each appears a hollow dead eye that has given up life because there is nothing worth looking at it…”. In his text he describes the deserted streets (no wonder in the holiday period!) and concludes “that even the citizens have lost faith and given up on a city they show no pride in”. The posting got many angry comments, only a few people agreed with his opinion.

Podgorica5 VektraI would invite Mr. Turtle to visit Podgorica on a sunny day in spring, when the surrounding mountains are still covered with snow, while the bars with their open-air terraces are full of charming and relaxed young people; I would recommend him to spend an evening in one of the excellent restaurants in the pedestrian zone downtown and then visit a nightclub with good live music; and I would take him for a walk along the Morača River and explain him that a good travel writer MUST write in a reliable and objective way!

Podgorica6It’s true, we should not close our eyes for the fact that the townscape of Podgorica is characterized by hulking concrete residential blocks that certainly don’t contribute to the attractiveness of the city. By the way, if you are interested in Brutalist architecture, characteristic for communist regimes between the mid-1960s and the late-1980s, you can find astonishing hideous examples in the city: for instance, the building of Radio Television Montenegro (photo 3), the catholic Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus (built in 1969) and the University building (photo 4). Fortunately, things change, and nowadays many new and modern buildings try to give the city a different, more attractive look (photo 5).

But let me give you a few reasons why I love living in Podgorica.

Podgorica6a pedestrian bridgeGEOGRAPHIC POSITION: First of all, Podgorica is a good basis from where you can make trips all over the country. When you want to enjoy nature and silence, you need just half an hour to drive to Piperi, Kučke Planine or Skadar Lake; when it’s too hot in town, you can find refreshment in the mountains of Durmitor or Prokletije; on a sunny day in spring or autumn, it will take you less than one hour to drive to the coast and have a swim and a delicious fish meal or a cup of coffee on the beach. And by the way, the distant mountains and forest-covered hills surrounding the city provide a wonderful backdrop; just lift your eyes above the grey concrete buildings towards the sky …

Podgorica7MEDITERRANEAN ATMOSPHERE: Although situated in the continental part of Montenegro, the atmosphere in Podgorica rather reminds you of a Mediterranean than a Slavic country. Like in other Mediterranean countries, Montenegrins spend most of their leisure time out of their homes, walking along the “corso” or drinking an espresso in the pub. When the weather is nice, they adore basking and chatting on open-air terraces (photo 6). Young people – many of them students – are handsome, well-dressed and always in a good mood.

Podgorica8 Capital PlazaGREEN VEGETATION: The emerald Morača River that runs through the middle of the city is flanked by lush parks, and several bridges (of which three pedestrian) offer a beautiful view of the river and its green banks (photo 7) . Strolling through Podgorica, you come across a public park every few hundred meters. The wide sidewalks along the main boulevards are shaded by tall leafy trees and decorated by flower beds, inviting for a relaxing walk (photo 8).

RESTAURANTS, BARS AND SHOPS: Podgorica is a nice place for eating, drinking and shopping. Most good restaurants and bars can be found in the city center, but the new business quarter on the other side of the Morača River offers a great variety of fancy establishments. Podgorica is the place where you can eat a fantastic pizza or excellent seafood, and have the best espresso and cappuccino. Apart from shopping in downtown, you can also visit the shopping malls of Delta City, Mall of Montenegro and Capital Plaza (photo 9 and 10) – good for a rainy day… Or go to the big market and enjoy the huge offer of fruit, vegetables and all kinds of Montenegrin specialties!

Podgorica9 Capital Plaza2MISCELLANEOUS: When you live in Podgorica, it is good to be in a place where you can find everything you need, all-year round – an interesting cultural life (concerts, exhibitions, theatre), an extensive international community, good medical care, different state institutions, banks, embassies, sports clubs, and even cycle paths (photo 11)….

I am aware that Podgorica will never be an outstanding tourist attraction or an example of architectural beauty. But in my opinion, for foreigners it is a pleasant and quiet place to live in. What do you think?

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THE “HOUSE OF PEACE” IN ŠĆIT-RAMA LAKE (BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA)

Rama Lake1Rama Lake Scit2One of the places we always return to when traveling the Balkans is the village of Šćit (difficult to pronounce, isn’t it?) on Rama Lake in Bosnia & Herzegovina. It is a hidden gem in a country that is still characterized by a large number of destroyed and abandoned houses – consequence of the last war -, alternated with brand-new big churches and mosques in every settlement.

After the artificial Rama Lake was created by the Rama dam in 1968, Šćit found itself on a small peninsula in the new lake, with its Franciscan monastery and church (photo 1).

Rama Lake Scit3aWhat makes this village so special, apart from the wonderful landscape? Well, so far it has hardly been visited by tourists. The core of the village is the Franciscan Monastery that was probably built in the 15th century, before the arrival of the Turks. During its turbulent history, the monastery was burned down and rebuilt many times. Nowadays, the refurbished monastery accommodates the “House of Peace”, an institution that welcomes all those who seek peace, tranquillity, guidance…

Rama Lake Scit4aWe arrived in Šćit on a sunny day, with the intention to visit our old friends from Konoba “Gaj”. Apart from an nice restaurant and excellent home-made šljivovica, they also offer camping facilities and we were glad to find a place for our camper on their lot, with a fantastic view on the lake and the surrounding green hills.

For us, a walk around the cloister courtyard is always one of the highlights of Šćit, as it houses several beautiful art sculptures, e.g. the Rama Cross made by the sculptor Mile Blažević (photo 2), and the Last Supper by Divo Grabovčev (photo 3).

Scit Rama lake4bThe Church of the Assumption is simple (photo 4), but decorated with an impressive painting, made by Albert de Rhoden, which depicts the angels returning the Our Lady of Sinj to Rama (photo 5). Behind the church is an interesting ethnographic museum that illustrates the life of the local people.

The House of Peace (Kuća mira), part of the monastery, is a place of retreat. It offers all forms of prayer, counseling and meditation, thus helping people in need to find their inner harmony. Honestly speaking, the whole monastery complex and its surroundings always make me happy and calm, as Šćit is an oasis of peace indeed (photo 6)!

But some changes are happening in the village. Walking around, we saw the construction site of a huge building… a hotel? No, fortunately not, it is going to be a nursing home for elderly people, funded by the monastery and the state of Croatia. Another good initiative is the implementation of the “Our Lady of Sinj Route” project.

Rama Lake5Originally, this route is a pilgrimage trail, used for thousands of years from several directions, to walk towards the Marian shrine in Sinj (Croatia) that contains the miraculous painting of Our Miraculous Lady of Sinj. Franciscan monks from Rama took this painting to Sinj, while fleeing from the Ottomans in 1687.

But the newly marked trail is not only meant for pilgrims, as it leads you through picturesque areas full of medieval tombstones, ancient villages, remains of old paths and bridges, lookouts and cafes, all representing checkpoints where you can get a stamp as a memory of this unforgettable hiking tour. Certainly a good idea for all hikers, tourists and nature/culture lovers!

Next morning, we woke up by the sounds of nature and the tapping of a woodpecker. The lake had a deep emerald green color in the morning light (photo 7). Full of new energy, we arrived in Podgorica the same day.

Rama lake6