THE ULCINJ SALINAS: A PARADISE FOR FLAMINGOS

  Saline Ulcinj flamingos1aSaline Ulcinj flamingos1More than a year ago, we visited the Salinas in Ulcinj (see my blog post: http://montenegro-for.me/2014/12/winter-ulcinj-salinas/). Yes, we saw many different birds and enjoyed the beautiful nature – but unfortunately, our biggest wish did not come true: we did not see any flamingos. Of course, we could not wait to come back and try our luck once more.

Well, things have changed in the meantime. By the way, did you know that the Ulcinj “Solana”, built in 1934, was once one of the largest salinas in the Mediterrean, with its surface of almost 1,500 hectares?

Saline Ulcinj coots3Unfortunately, the new owner went bankrupt a few years ago and the investors came to the conclusion that the land should be “developed” for their purposes by building hotel complexes and golf courses on it… And thus, salt harvesting stopped and the machines for pumping out fresh and pumping in salt water were switched off. This left the migratory birds, more than 250 species of about 500 registered in Europe (e.g. Eurasian spoonbills, Dalmatian pelicans , various birds of prey and many other water birds and waders) without food. Food that used to be abundant in these wetlands due to the regular flooding and subsequent gradual drying of the evaporation ponds.

Saline Ulcinj brids5As a consequence, the biodiversity of the area was endangered. But soon, activities started to protect the area. International organizations and EU authorities urged the Montenegrin government to save this important nesting ground and fortunately, money was made available for the reparation of pumps.

Nowadays, the Center for Protection and Research of birds in Montenegro (CZIP) is making huge efforts to protect and promote this unique bird reserve. Many volunteers have offered support: regular surveillance increases the pressure on hunters to refrain from shooting birds, birds populations are monitored, groups are guided on bird watching tours…  As expected, the Salinas will soon be listed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, primarily as a bird site. The bird population has grown in the last few years and according to the latest information, ornithologists observed 500 flamingos in the Salinas last week.

Salie Ulcinj6That was good news indeed; time to revisit this bird paradise! We announced our visit in advance and, after registration at the gate, we were allowed to enter with our small car.

Passing dilapidated buildings, corroded machinery, muddy salt basins and old wagons, we followed the grass trail along the canal. Driving slowly, we could observe large groups of birds around us. White and grey herons were quietly standing in the water. Hundreds of coots were resting in the salt flats. Hearing the sound of our car, they started to run across the water surface with much splashing, before taking off. Huge swarms of birds were circling above our heads. We saw a purple heron flying just above the water surface and far away, big white blurs indicated the places where seagulls had gathered.

Saline Ulcinj cowsIt took us about half an hour to arrive at the observation tower where we left our car. And we were lucky: the water level in the basins was low and the grass surface of the trails around the shallow salt basins was not too muddy. The day was sunny and the silence in the extensive lagoon area was absolute – we were the only human beings in this vast area.

Knowing that flamingos could be observed at the outer edge of the salt flats only, we were prepared for a long walk. And indeed, after half an hour, we saw a pinkish-white blur, far away in the distance. Could it be true? So many flamingos at one spot?

saline Ulcinj flamingos7It was a pity that we could not get closer to the flock, as we didn’t have professional photo cameras. But all of a sudden we found a possible solution: a few cows were slowly passing over one of the narrow and muddy earth walls that separate the salt basins. They moved in the direction of the flamingos and we decided to follow them, quietly staying behind their backs. With the grazing cows in front of us, we gradually approached the extensive flock at 50-60 m distance.

Saline Ulcinj flamongos8The view of these elegant birds with their pink legs in the blue water against the background of snow-covered mountains was unforgettable. In the silence of nature, their goose-like honking was simply deafening. Some of them were standing on one leg, the other one tucked beneath the body. Other ones were feeding with their head down in the water. We were standing there for a long, long time, taking photos and listening to their voices. Then they started to become restless, slowly moving to the other side of the basin. That was the sign for us to quietly withdraw, as we didn’t want to disturb them. When we walked back to the grass trail around the salt pans, the honking sounds faded away and the flock of flamingos became invisible behind the reeds…

Ulcinj salinas heron9aIs it true that happiness can sometimes be caught in a single moment? For me, being with the flamingos was such an experience. And I know for sure: the Ulcinj Salinas represent one of those irreplaceable treasures of nature that should be preserved for the generations to come. It should never be spoiled by building tourist facilities. So let’s join our efforts to protect this paradise of nature!

saline Ulcinj9

 

 

 

5 AMAZING MONASTERIES IN MONTENEGRO

Sveta Trojica monastery1I have visited dozens of Orthodox monasteries all over Montenegro. Each one has something special: its architecture and position, beautiful frescoes and icons, a peaceful garden, stories about miracles, a turbulent past… It is difficult to select 5 outstanding monasteries that are typical for Montenegro, its culture and religion, but I’ll give it a try:

  1. Holy Trinity Monastery (Sveta Trojica) in Pljevlja

Sveta Trojica monastery2What is so amazing about this monastery? First of all, the impressive architecture of this well-preserved complex, built in the 16th century (photo 1). I was really surprised to see that it totally differs from that of other monasteries in the region; it reminded me of some stunning monasteries I visited in Bulgaria. Situated among the hills surrounding Pljevlja, above the source of the Breznica river, the monastery is immersed in the lush greenery of a vast and quiet park. But the courtyard and internal buildings are very interesting as well (photo 2): the Holy Trinity Church and its narthex show beautiful frescoes, painted by Priest Strahinja from Budimlje around 1600. The monastery is also famous for its scriptorial school and treasury with a wonderful collection of icons, while the library holds several copies of valuable illuminated manuscripts and rare copies of printed books.

  1. Ostrog Monastery

Ostrog monastery3If you believe in miracles, you should visit the famous monastery of Ostrog, one of the most frequently visited pilgrimage sites of the Balkans (photo 3). Carved in steep cliffs (900 m above sea level) between Danilovgrad and Nikšić, it is dedicated to Saint Basil (Sveti Vasilije), who lived in the 17th century and whose body is enshrined in a reliquary kept in one of the two small cave-chapels. According to the legend, Saint Basil’s body was found seven years after his death, and had not decomposed at all. Ostrog is visited by pilgrims of all confessions: Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims. A lot of people have told stories about the spiritual changes that happened in their lives after visiting the monastery. Yet many more claim that they were healed of physical diseases. They like to tell the story that, once upon a time, there was a mother who left a wooden cradle on top of a wall near the monastery. The baby moved in the cradle so that it fell off the wall from about 70 meters high. The baby remained unharmed – a real miracle! Near the Monastery is a large “konak” that offers overnight possibilities for visitors. Around the complex, souvenir shops are selling religious souvenirs. Although these activities spoil the mystic atmosphere of this beautiful place, I suppose that there are no alternatives for satisfying the needs of both pilgrims and tourists… (see also: http://montenegro-for.me/2013/08/round-trip-with-visit-to-the-ostrog-monastery/)

  1. Piva Monastery

Piva monastery4aIt’s true, the Piva monastery is not particularly attractive, but it has a very interesting history: it was originally built between 1573 and 1586 at the source of the Piva River, but when a dam and storage lake had to be built for the needs of the Piva Hydroelectric Plant, it was relocated to another site, 9 km from Plužine. The church building was carefully taken apart and then rebuilt, stone by stone, along with its 1,260 square meters of frescoes that were removed from the church walls and transferred to the new location. The works lasted for over a decade, from 1970 to 1982.

Piva monastery5When I visited the monastery, I could not stop admiring the beautiful frescoes, painted by priest Strahinja from Budimlje (photo 4) and the gilded, richly carved iconostasis with icons painted by the famous painted Kozma in 1626. I was deeply impressed by the mystic atmosphere in this “rebuilt” church (photo 5).

 

  1. Cetinje Monastery

Cetinje monastery6The monastery of Cetinje was first erected by the Crnojevići family in 1482, but this building was destroyed by the Ottomans. The present monastery was built in 1701 by Prince Danilo, founder of the Petrović- Njegoš dynasty (photo 6). In the centre of the complex there is a church dedicated to Virgin Mary’s Nativity, with a reliquary of St. Peter of Cetinje. Apart from the original architecture of this monastery, I find this monastery particularly interesting for its treasury-museum, which contains an outstanding collection of manuscripts and old printed books from the 13th to 18th century and two important relics, the hand of Saint John the Baptist and a fragment of the Holy Cross. Since the Cetinje monastery was the residence of Montenegrin rulers, numerous valuable items related to their spiritual rites were also preserved: panhagios, robes, miters, scepters, etc. This is certainly one of the most beautiful treasuries in Montenegro!

  1. Morača Monastery

Moraca monastery7aThe Morača Monastery, built in 1252 by Stefan Nemanja in typical Byzantine style, is situated at a distance of 46 km from Podgorica. The architecture of the monastery complex is quite simple (photo 7). It consists of the church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin, the small church of St. Nicholas and the sleeping quarters. When I entered the beautiful garden courtyard for the first time, I got the feeling as if I stepped back into the 13th century. That was also the time when the frescoes were painted; the most famous one is “The Raven feeds the Prophet Elijah”. What impressed me most was the iconostasis. No wonder that the icons in this Monastery belong to the most famous medieval icons of the world; they are mentioned in many foreign books about medieval art. But also the small St. Nicholas church contains frescoes of an astonishing quality and beauty (photo 6). (see also: http://montenegro-for.me/2015/01/monasteries-moraca-canyon/)

Nowadays, it is difficult for me to show you the beauties of frescoes and icons displayed in the interiors of churches and monasteries. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take photos without the written permission of the Serbian-Orthodox Metropolitan Amfilohije. This is a practice we already knew from our visits to Macedonia and Serbia, but for instance in Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria you can buy a photo permit, often at a price that is much higher than the entrance ticket. Wouldn’t that be a good possibility for the Orthodox Church in Montenegro to obtain some additional money for restoration purposes?

moraca monastery8

 

 

 

 

WINTER TRIP TO MADRID

Palacio Real Madrid1Madrid city bus2There are several reasons why Madrid is a nice tourist destination during the winter. First of all, it is not overcrowded, which enables you to visit the numerous museums and churches in a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. Second, the weather is not too hot for long walks and sightseeing. And there is a lot to see in Madrid…

Nowadays, low-cost carrier Ryanair offers many European flights at a low price, which makes it much easier to travel from Podgorica all over Europe. Several domestic travel agencies offer favorable package tours and we decided to make use of such services for a five-day city trip.

Plaza del Oriente Madrid3Although we had to make a stop-over in Brussels, the flight connections were good and we safely arrived – at midnight – on Madrid’s airport Barajas. A taxi cab took us for € 30 (fixed price) in twenty minutes to Hotel Florida Norta in the central part of the city, near the Royal Palace (photo 1). The accommodation was satisfactory and the position of the hotel was excellent – opposite to the shopping mall Principe Pio that is housed in an old railway station.

As we always practice when making a city trip, we bought a ticket for the “hop-on hop-off” tourist bus (photo 2). This gave us the possibility to get an idea about the points of interest and to plan our three-day stay. We also bought a “Paeso del Arte” Card for the three most important museums. And off we went…

Thyssen Museum Dali4There are so many things to see in Madrid that I can mention only the highlights in this post. First of all, the huge Royal Palace (2,800 rooms) in Rococo style, built in the 18th century, and its surroundings. After exploring the nearby Sabatini Gardens and the beautiful Plaza del Oriente (photo 3), we visited the Almudena Cathedral just beyond the Palace. Witnesses of a great past!

Of all museums we visited, Museum Thyssen-Bonesmiza was the biggest surprise. As a matter of fact, we got a quick lesson in the history of Western Art from the 13th-20th century by seeing great master-pieces of lesser-known painters, but also lesser-known paintings of great masters: Rembrandt, Monet, Chagall, Picasso, Dalì (photo 4) and many other artists. It was a great experience indeed.

La Latina Madrid5The old part of Madrid, La Latina, deserved a long stroll through the narrow streets with beautiful old façades (photo 5) and hidden squares like El Rastro. Plaza Mayor, built in the 16th century, appeared to be a fascinating place, surrounded by old painted buildings (photo 6). We also watched the street artists on the Puerta del Sol square and explored the market on Plaza San Miguel.

Of course, the Prado Museum with its huge collection of Spanish Baroque art (Velazques, Goya, Murillo, Caravaggio…) is a highlight for all tourists. Personally, it was particularly impressed by Goya’s lugubrious “Black Paintings”.

Plaza Mayor Madrid6It was a great moment to see Picasso’s famous “Guernica” in the Reina Sofia Museum. The remaining collection is interesting for lovers of modern art. It was astonishing to see so many young school children in all museums (photo 7). Very disciplined, in school uniforms or with colored scarves, the groups were accompanied by teachers and you could find them sitting quietly in front of famous paintings, breathlessly listening to their teacher’s explanation. Nice to see that Spain obviously pays much attention to cultural education.

What else could I say about Madrid? Spacious boulevards, hectic traffic, many police with machine guns on the streets (fear of terrorist attacks?) and friendly, open people. And don’t forget to visit the Plaza de Espana with the bronze sculptures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (photo 8)!

Museum Reina Sofia Madrid7The food? Not spectacular, but you can eat good tapas in Calle Baja or Calle Alta (La Latina) or, which is even better, in Calle Huertas opposite to the Prado Museum. We had a tapas plate for two persons in a typical Spanish “taberna” for € 20.

Altogether, we had a wonderful time in Madrid. I would certainly recommend the trip, but take care where you book! Our trip was organized by Globe Travel and, among many Montenegrin couples on the plane, we were the only ones who had to travel separately: our boarding passes, received on the evening before departure, referred to seats in different rows on all flights. Our protests were ignored. Not very serious, isn’t it?

Playa d Espana Madrid8

MONTENEGRO AT THE UTRECHT HOLIDAY FAIR

Utrecht Holiday Fair1 2016Utrecht Holiday Fair2 2016For the first time since 2011, the National Tourism Organization of Montenegro has participated in the Utrecht Holiday Fair (Vakantiebeurs), the most important annual holiday event in the Netherlands. There were several reasons for this decision. So far, the lack of direct flights between Amsterdam/Brussels and Montenegro has been a handicap for Dutch tourists. This year, many things have changed. Tour operator TUI – Holland International has introduced Montenegro into its program and charter flights from Amsterdam to Tivat (via Ohrid) will take place twice a week in the period May-October. Other possibilities are flights from Brussels with low-cost carriers Ryanair and Thomas Cook.

Utrecht Holiday Fair3 2016During the last few months, Dutch media have paid much attention to Montenegro. One of the most influential newspapers, De Telegraaf, published a nice article about Montenegro as an upcoming tourist destination. Why? For Dutch travelers, it is very important to travel to a safe and inexpensive country without terrorism, robberies or extremism. Many countries that have been popular as a tourist destination have lost their clients just for this reason – e.g. Tunisia, Egypt and even Turkey. This offers new possibilities to Montenegro. Moreover, there is a growing awareness of the exceptional natural beauties of the country.

Utrecht Holiday Fair4 2016Tour operator TUI – Holland International offers favorable package tours to the Montenegrin Coast with many possibilities to make excursions to the continental part of the country. But … most Dutch tourists are individual travelers; they like to take the plane and rent a car on the spot, so that they can travel around by themselves. Or they book a tailor-made round trip through Montenegro, using a specialized travel agency. And according to the interest shown at the Montenegrin booth, many potential visitors travel around with their own camper van. This is a typical phenomenon for the Netherlands, as the country has around 90,000 registered camper vans, most of them owned by retired (60+) people who spend much time by traveling through Europe, always in search of new destinations. Most of them are well-off and spend a lot of money in restaurants, museums, tourist attractions, etc.

Utrecht Holiday Fair5 2016The Montenegrin booth, in the hall for Mediterranean countries, was furnished with many flyers and brochures (Budva, Tivat, Bar…). Representatives of NTO, hotel groups, Montenegro Reizen and the Camp Section of the Montenegrin Tourism Association provided information about all possibilities the country has to offer.

With two photo presentations daily, Paul Wennekes, author of the only Dutch travel guide to Montenegro (to be ordered from www.boekscout.nl) , was promoting the “Wild Beauty” and with his enthusiasm, he succeeded in convincing many visitors to consider spending their holidays in Montenegro.

Utrecht Holiday Fair6 2016I had the opportunity to talk to many visitors and I got aware, once more, that a lot of them, especially young people, don’t know anything about the country. First of all, they asked for information about the geographic position, but afterwards they were also interested in seeing and hearing what Montenegro has to offer. Exactly for that reason, it was a pity that the only brochures available in sufficient quantities referred to the coastal area. If Montenegro intends to participate in the Utrecht Fair next year, I think that it is very important to take into consideration that Dutch people are nature lovers, which means that plenty of brochures about the Panoramic Routes, the National Parks and hiking/biking maps and descriptions should be made available. By the way, editing the attractive tear-off map of Montenegro with indication of roads, interesting places and national parks was an excellent move; it was taken by almost all visitors.

Finally: when participating in an international holiday fair, I think that it is very important to know something about the preferences of the country’s people. In the Netherlands, it should be clear that many people are not interested in package tours on the basis of “sun-sea-beach” – the “Flying Dutchmen” are explorers, adventurers and globetrotters!

Utrecht Holiday Fair7 2016

 

 

10 INSIDER TIPS ON HOW TO DEAL WITH MONTENEGRINS (IF YOU ARE A FOREIGNER)

Montenegrins1Most people from Montenegro are not very different from Western people, but there are certain peculiarities, which may emerge when you get to know your Montenegrin friends or business partners closer. They are mainly based on old customs and traditions, but they are also an expression of their Slavic temper. If you decide to come and live in Montenegro, you can use the following tips as a guideline:

cycling path Podgorica21.ON THE ROAD: Montenegrins despise traffic rules and regulations. Car drivers love to cross against the red light, to park their car wherever they want, and to “compete” with other drivers on the road by passing them under the most dangerous circumstances. You will be surprised to see many of them smoking a cigarette and – at the same time – using their cell phone while driving! As long as the police keep their eyes closed, the only thing you can do is: relax, accept the chaos and take care, especially on roundabouts! By the way, cycling is getting more and more popular; new trails were introduced in Podgorica, but be careful, many car drivers are not used to them yet.

Montenegrin dinner32. WHEN INVITED BY FRIENDS: If you are invited for a meal, expect that the hosts will feed you until you feel completely full and not capable of moving. If you want to stop eating and drinking, just leave some food on your plate and leave your glass (half) full, otherwise you will end up badly. As a guest, you are expected to bring a gift: chocolates, a bottle of wine or flowers are a good suggestion. But always buy an odd number of flowers, an even number is good for funerals only! When entering a Montenegrin home, you are expected to take off your shoes, especially in rural areas. Of course, this does not apply to urban surroundings, i.e. apartment buildings. In Montenegro, people usually toast with traditional home-made rakija (grape brandy), by clinking glasses and saying “Živjeli!”. A speech can be made on formal occasions, normally by the host, but a guest may give one, too.

Montenegrin43. GETTING INTRODUCED: Shaking hands is customary when being introduced or meeting somebody. Kissing is not usual when you meet somebody for the first time, but every time you meet from then on – of course, if you like the person in question – you should kiss him or her three times on the cheeks. Of course, you can also kiss once or twice while giving a hug.

4. DOING BUSINESS: As a foreigner you are expected to be on time at all appointments, but your Montenegrin partner may be late. Patience is extremely important – meetings may last long, and many Montenegrins, especially the older generation, like to hear themselves speaking and it would be very rude to interrupt them. Never say to a Montenegrin partner (or friend) that he is a liar and never point at him with your finger. Standing with your hands in your pocket or turning your back on somebody is considered rude.

Podgorica pub55. IN A RESTAURANT: Do not count the change or check the bill too openly in restaurants, cafes and pubs. For the waiter this is a sign that you don’t trust him and he will be offended. Don’t be surprised when the waiter doesn’t smile at you – it doesn’t mean that he is rude or has negative feelings, Montenegrins just don’t like formal smiles. If you invite a Montenegrin girl or woman somewhere, be prepared to pay for her everywhere. When you go out with Montenegrin friends, they will always try to pay the bill. It is customary for a host to take care of all expenses while a guest is staying with him or her. Of course, you can accept it – Montenegrins are very generous indeed -, but it would be a sign of bad education if you would not insist on paying the bill for the next lunch or dinner, regardless of their “protests”. And you will have to understand that smoking is allowed in many restaurants and pubs, although people in your company will certainly agree to turn off their cigarette, if it bothers you.

Montenegrin66. QUEUES: Montenegrins are not typically very respectful of line-ups. If somebody pushes you out of the way in the supermarket, bank or other public building, just relax and remain quiet. Hardly anybody will stand up for you if you complain.

7. PATRIOTISM: Montenegrins love to criticize their own country, but will be offended if a foreigner does. You can better talk about the beauties of nature and tell them something about your family. Avoid discussing politics, you will never understand the complicated political situation in the country!

8. RACISM AND DISCRIMINATION: Try to understand why Montenegrins sometimes stare at persons of another race. They are no racists, they are just curious – there are not many foreigners from other continents in Montenegro … By the way, most Montenegrins feel a bit strange about gays and lesbians, they prefer not to talk about it. Respect their feelings, they are based on traditions and the Orthodox religion.

Montenegrin family79. MONEY: Montenegrins have other ideas about money than people in Western Europe. Talking about money is considered to be impolite. Money is to be spent, not to be saved on a bank account – which is understandable, as many Montenegrins live from one month salary to another (the average net salary is around 480 €), often depending on some family support, which means that resources are combined to enable all family members to survive. Most Montenegrins are not much interested in big fancy homes and modern furniture, but they could not live without good food, a cup of coffee with friends in the pub and a trendy cell phone. Planning their yearly expenses, paying different types of insurances – they find it a waste of time.

Lovcen Mausoleum10. THE MONTENEGRIN CHARACTER: Montenegrins are proud and self-confident, hospitable and generous. But many of them are also lazy… They enjoy doing nothing, sitting in a pub with their friends and discussing all possible world issues. They just don’t have the “internal need” to work. Don’t blame them! Try to understand that family and friends remain the center of Montenegrin culture and the pinnacle of importance on the people’s mind, despite the changes in the last decades (see my blog posts: People of Montenegro and Women of Montenegro).

Above are only a few suggestions how to deal with the Montenegrins. In general, as a foreigner in Montenegro you will always be welcomed, appreciated and accepted – provided that you are open and friendly and that you don’t act like a “know-it-all”, just because you come from a wealthy and developed country. As I already mentioned: Montenegrins are proud, they do not appreciate it when you act superior to them. Listen to them and respect their opinions, even if these are different from your own!

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MONTENEGRO: 7 TIPS FOR DAY TRIPS IN 2016

Sveti Stefan1a

A new year has started and many people are already planning their holidays in 2016. Obviously, Montenegro will be a popular travel destination this year, so this might be a good moment for some insider tips. I am sure that most tourists are not only interested in the sun, the beach and good accommodation – there are so many other spectacular things to do and to see in Montenegro. And even those who arrived by plane can hire a car and discover the hidden corners of this beautiful country. By the way, this posting is also meant for “expats”, most of them living in the capital city of Podgorica, who might be interested in making a day trip in the surroundings.

I have explored most places in Montenegro, but there are some highlights I always return to. No matter if you are a hiker, nature lover, adventurer, birdwatcher, botanist or just a curious foreigner (or local!), you will be surprised at the variety of sceneries in this tiny country. Don’t think that the Adriatic Coast is all Montenegro has to offer (photo 1) – the continental part is even more picturesque and authentic; each highlight can be reached within a few hours time.

Lipa cave2So let me give you seven personal tips for a day trip in the central part of Montenegro:

  1. For “speleologists”: Explore the Lipa Cave (photo 2)

A new tourist attraction in Montenegro was opened in July 2015: the Lipa Cave, one of the largest caves in Montenegro that starts in the village of Lipa – not far from Cetinje – and ends in the mountains directly over the Adriatic Sea. Although you can also make a short Family Tour (7 €), I would recommend the Adventure Tour (20 €), which lasts 1.5 hours and covers around one kilometer of cave halls and galleries with impressive stalactites and stalagmites. Exploring the most authentic part of the cave with a guide, without trails and lighting, is a fantastic experience! Best time to visit: all year round.

  1. For train travelers: Travel to Nikšić by train (photo 3)

train Niksic3A train journey from Podgorica to Nikšić (56 km or around one hour) is a very pleasant surprise. New trains on this line were introduced in 2013; they are comfortable and clean. The trip offers you beautiful views of the Bjelopavlići valley, picturesque rural railway stations and the experience of traveling together with villagers on their way to the market or the “big city”. As there are several departures each day, you will have enough time to make a walking tour through Nikšić, to have a cup of coffee in one of the numerous pubs in the old center with its picturesque houses and to explore the Orthodox church and the central “Freedom Square”. Best time: all year round.

  1. For culture lovers: Visit the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Podgorica (photo 4)

Orthodox cathedral Podgorica4Although this Cathedral is quite new (its construction has lasted two decades), you will be impressed by the splendor of its interior with colorful frescoes, magnificent marble floors and mosaics, and a huge chandelier. Don’t forget to visit the crypt and to climb the stairs to the balconies, where you have a fantastic view from above. The Cathedral has become a new landmark of Podgorica. Best time: all year round.

  1. For botanists: Discover wild orchids (photo 5)

orchids5For botanists or just nature lovers, spring is the most beautiful season to discover wild flowers in the central part (around Skadar Lake, Lovćen National Park, Piperi, etc.) of Montenegro. In April and May, the meadows are filled with flowers and delicate wild orchids can be discovered along most hiking trails. The beauty of some ophrys orchids is incredible! Best time: April-May.

  1. For birdwatchers and nature lovers: Make a boat ride on Skadar Lake (photo 6)

Skadar Lake6Skadar Lake does not only offer magnificent natural beauties, it is also a paradise for birdwatchers and culture lovers, as it hides around fifteen medieval monasteries. But this National Park is, first of all, famous for its Dalmatian pelicans that can be spotted during a boat trip on the Lake. I would recommend you to book a boat cruise with Skadar Lake – Boat Milica, which offers a great variety of different excursions. Best time: April-October.

  1. For water fans: Admire the Niagara Falls at the Cijevna river (photo 7)

Niagara falls7Montenegro has its own Niagara Falls, at a ten minutes drive from Podgorica. They are part of the Cijevna River and they are most impressive in spring time, when you can see numerous cascades finding their way through the karst. During the summer, you can refresh yourself in the cool water and have lunch at the “Niagara” restaurant on the bank of the river. Best time: March-October.

  1. For nature lovers and hikers: Follow the Circuit around Korita by car (photo 8)

The marked Panoramic Route “Circuit around Korita”, 65 km long, contains a two-hour hiking trail along the old patrol path that leads to “Grlo Sokolovo” or Falcon’s Throat, a panorama point that offers a breathtaking view of the Cijevna Canyon and the Albanian Prokletije mountains. Other highlights are the Medun Fortress and the Marko Miljanov Museum – and all this situated against a magnificent backdrop of high mountains, authentic villages, picturesque forests and pastures. Good for a fascinating experience! Best time: April-October.

In the previous years, I have written several postings about the above mentioned day trips. You can find them in my blog: montenegro-for.me.

Kucka korita8

 

 

 

 

 

CHRISTMAS IN SHKODRA

Shkodra Christmas bazaarSkadar Lake MuriciThere are many places where Catholics and Protestants can celebrate Christmas, but Podgorica is certainly not the most attractive one. Most inhabitants belong to the Orthodox church, which means that their Christmas is celebrated two weeks later, on January 7th. That is the reason why we have spent most Christmas holidays abroad so far.

But this year we decided to stay „at home“ in Podgorica. Unfortunately, it was really disappointing to see that „our“ Christmas would not be celebrated at all: our foreign friends had left the country and everybody else would have normal working days, schools and shops would be open – and we felt a little bit „lost“. An Albanian friend suggested us to spend Christmas’ Eve in Shkodra, as this town has a large Catholic community and the atmosphere was expected to become quite festive (photo 1).

Hotel TraditaAnd so we left for Shkodra on December 24th, taking the picturesque road around Skadar Lake (photo 2). But we were not the only ones! There was a long queue at the Sukobin border – many Albanians working abroad, most of them in Italy, were on their way home to spend Christmas holidays with their families.

We had booked a small hotel in the town centre, Hotel Tradita, which is accommodated in an old traditional house and its rooms and restaurant look like a ethnographic museum (photo 3). The owner, a Catholic Malissore with a Muslim wife, had arranged a typical nativity scene (photo 4) in front of the picturesque building. He told us that there are even 8,000 mixed marriages in Shkodra. It is estimated that the proportion of Muslims and Catholics in town is around fifty-fifty, although the statistics for Albania show different figures: 70% Islam, 20% Orthodox and 10% Roman-Catholic.

Chirstmas in Shkodra1It is typical for Albania, once the first and only „atheist“ country in the world, that religions have started to develop very quickly since the early nineties. But honestly speaking, I don’t have the feeling that people are „deeply religious“: they respect the religion of the family they are born into (similar to the Montenegrin idea of religion), but they don’t know much about the real meaning of their belief. Indeed, they celebrate the holy days and they respect the Catholic traditions of marriage, death and baptizing. And – what is most important – they show a high level of tolerance for other religions. In that respect, Albania can be considered as an example for many other countries in the world.

Shkodra city hallCatholics celebrate Christmas Eve with their family and everybody attends the Holy Mass at 10 PM. After that, the real celebration begins. Muslims visit their Catholic friends, club and pubs open their doors for special „Christmas parties“ with live music, and firework is let off at midnight.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the beautiful illumination in town. The pedestrian zone Sheshi or Kol Idromeno Street was brightly decorated. The city hall looked like a fairytale (photo 5), the palms like Christmas trees and all streets in the town center had got a festal look.

Cathedral ShkodraWe had an excellent dinner at the well-known Vila Bekteshi restaurant. The prices in Shkodra are still ridiculously low, even if compared to Podgorica; we paid 10 € p.p. for a three-course meal with drinks.

Of course, we were quite curious: what would be our impression of the Holy Mass at 10 PM (photo 6)? It was a surprise to see the huge Cathedral congested with believers, most of them young people and families with small children. The Mass was served by the archbishop and broadcasted by an Albanian TV station. Although we could not understand a word, we were impressed by the solemn atmosphere and the choir singing Christmas songs. Who had ever thought, thirty years ago, that this would happen in Albania?

Shkodra old centreOn Christmas morning we made a long walk through the town center. Each time when we visit Shkodra, we see progress, much progress. Old buildings restored and painted (photo 7), streets paved, parks and fountains clean and well-arranged (photo 8)… The weather was warm and sunny – a strange Christmas feeling for us, people from Northern Europe – and the pubs with open terraces were full of locals having their first cup of coffee. People were greeting us on the street with the words „Merry Christmas!“

And finally, believe me: Shkodra is gradually becoming an attractive city with a warm Mediterranean atmosphere, worth a visit at any time of the year!

Shkodra centre

ULCINJ OFF-SEASON

old town ulcinj1 kleinold town ulcinj2 kleinI still remember the first time I visited Ulcinj. Can you imagine that I spent my summer holidays there – with my parents – more than fifty years ago? We stayed in the famous Galeb Hotel and spent the days on the sandy beach, as most tourists did in those times. Yugoslavia was a popular tourist destination and Ulcinj was overcrowded with German, British and Dutch tourists.

Many things have changed in the meantime: the 1979 earthquake destroyed the Old Town and after the latest Balkan Wars, tourism almost disappeared.

old town ulcinj3 kleinWhen we visited Ulcinj this weekend, it was a big surprise to see that the last few decades have brought about a substantial tourism boom in this part of the Montenegrin Coast. This can be seen, first of all, in the Old Town, once dilapidated, but now – off-season – looking like one big construction site.

With its impressive citadel-fortress and two entrance gates, beautiful palaces and stone houses, cobbled streets and charming squares, the 2,500 years old Old Town Fortress (Stari Grad Kalaja) represents a cultural-historical monument of invaluable significance.

old town ulcinj4 kleinHow nice to see that most restoration and renovation works are now being performed according to strict building rules, respecting the historical heritage (photo 1). The Old Town will mainly consist of interesting restaurants and traditional hotels and this will certainly contribute to the upgrading and prolongation of the tourist season (photo 2).

Unfortunately, it was hard to overlook one construction site that heavily disturbs the townscape: just compare two photos of the cliff at the place where the weapon storage is located (photo 3 + 4). The first one was taken 5 years ago…

museum ulcinj old town kleinExploring the labyrinth of narrow streets and steps with their uneven cobblestones, we found a small museum with a church from 1510 that was converted into a mosque in 1693 (photo 5). Unfortunately, the museum was closed, but we could see the Slave Square, surrounded by arches. There is an interesting story about this place:  In the 17th century, Ulcinj became an important slave market. The slaves – most of them coming from Italy and Dalmatia – were captured by Ulcinj pirates. They were not sold, but kept in prison with the aim to get ransom from their family or friends. One century later, the situation changed: slaves from Africa were sold at the market place. But later, some of them also stayed here as free citizens. There is still a small community of their descendants living in Ulcinj.

ulcinj port1 dec2015 kleinAfter a nice walk through the narrow streets of the Old Town, we found our way back, admiring the new semicircular port built at the foot of the Old Town (photo 6). But also the new part of Ulcinj offers several cultural and historical monuments, e.g. the rectangular Clock Tower from 1754, and, in its immediate surroundings, the Mosque of Namazgjahu, built in the beginning of the 18th century (photo 7).

We had a cup of coffee at the Riva pub, overlooking the small sandy beach called Mala Plaža – of course, now totally abandoned, but in the summer months overcrowded like an anthill.

Ulcinj clock tower and mosque kleinDriving back to Podgorica, we didn’t want to miss the famous olive grove of Valdanos with its 18,000 olive trees, which are on the average 800 years old (photo 8). This area was put under special protection and the trees are now cultivated by their owners. Several olive mills in town produce excellent olive oil and it is really worthwhile to buy a bottle, although the extra virgin oil is quite expensive.

Ulcinj and its surroundings: Velika Plaža (Long Beach); the Salinas – a bird reserve where you can discover flamingos and pelicans -, the naturist island of Ada Bojana and the Bojana river with its charming fish restaurants are only some places you should visit, if you decide to spend a day in the most southern town of the Montenegrin Coast. I can assure you: it is a great experience!

Valdanos olive grove klein

AUTUMN FRUITS IN MONTENEGRO

kaki persimmon1kaki persimmon2Traveling through Montenegro during autumn does not only offer colorful forests, quiet roads and sunny weather; you will also be surprised by typical “old-fashioned” fruit trees that can be seen in the gardens and orchards of many old village houses and farms: yellow quinces, orange persimmons, various figs, crimson-yellow pomegranates.

Each of these fruits is unique in use and appearance. Sometimes you can also see them being sold at the street markets. But take care: there are some things you have to know…

The exotic persimmon or kaki fruit (in Montenegro mostly called “japanska jabuka”, i.e. Japanese apple) looks like an orange tomato. When you see them growing on a tree called Diospyros (photo 1), you’ll think that they are ready for picking (photo 2). But don’t try to eat them: you have to wait until the fruit is fully ripe, red, soft and juicy. Otherwise, it will taste very bitter and acrid. Villagers often pick them before they are mature enough to eat, so that they can ripen on their own over time.

quinces8When you have got a ripe kaki that looks as though it is rotten (!), you can just lift the skin and eat the sweet pulp with a spoon. It is very sweet and many people like the delicious taste. Moreover, you will find a lot of persimmon recipes on the internet, the pulp of the fruit being added to soft cookies, cakes, pies and bread. Persimmon is also useful as a natural medicine: it is high in fibers and rich in vitamin C. It may improve metabolism and help the body to cope with fat storage.

figs3Quince is another “weird” fruit (photo 3). It looks like a badly formed apple – or overgrown pear. It is ugly, irregular in shape, with dark patches, and it seems to have a kind of dusty cover on its skin. Do not eat a raw quince – it will be very unpleasant. To really appreciate a quince, you have to cook it. Before cooking you should peel it, slice it lengthways through the core, then cut again into quarters and take the core out of each piece.

In many village households you will find quince marmalade or compote, prepared for the winter in glass jars. But there are also more sophisticated recipes. Quartered, quince can be added to stews and casseroles as a sauce, in particular with pork! By the way, did you know that quinces are still used as air fresheners in many houses in the Montenegrin countryside? They really exude a fresh and sweet aroma.

figs4Fig trees can be found in many backyards and gardens (photo 4). They grow on the Ficus tree, which is a member of the mulberry family, and have an opening, called the “eye”, which is not connected to the tree, but helps the fruit’s development by increasing its communication with the environment. Figs range in color and texture, depending on the variety. The most popular fig in Montenegro is called “petrovača”. Don’t buy hard green figs: a ripe fig is soft when you touch it!

pomegranate6Figs are very healthy fruits: they help lower a high blood pressure, prevent breast cancer, lower insulin in diabetes and also have positive cardiovascular effects.

The majority of figs are dried (photo 5), so that they can be eaten during the whole winter season.

And finally the most beautiful autumn fruit: pomegranate (photos 6 and 7). If you want to know more about this delicious fruit, read my blog post:  Pomegranate: Symbol of abundance and fertility.

pomegranate2

 

 

 

 

EXPLORING MONTENEGRO IN AUTUMN

autumn2 kucka korita autumn1 kucka krajinaIn October and November, the weather conditions in Montenegro have been perfect for the time of the year. The warm, pleasant, sunny days surprised both the citizens of Montenegro and the tourists who were lucky to enjoy this beautiful season.

In general, autumn is a great time to visit Montenegro: it is gentle and colorful, quiet and sometimes even mysterious. You can still swim in the Adriatic Sea until the end of October or even longer. As the summer crowds have disappeared, driving is relaxing and many “seniors” with campervans travel along the coast and through the Balkans, taking advantage of the low off-season prices.

autumn3 Lovcen stone seaHikers have excellent conditions for long hiking tours, both in the central part of Montenegro and on the coast, for instance along the Montenegrin Coastal Transversal, as these trails are often too hot during the summer.

But this weekend, the rains finally started. Podgorica was wet, windy and foggy. We can already see the first snow on the mountains around the city. This is a good moment to remember some beautiful tours we have made in the last few weeks. But although I made a lot of photos on those trips, I don’t have the feeling that I managed to capture all the beauties of nature.

autumn4 Lovcen NjegusiIt is so nice to live in Podgorica, from where it takes you just a few hours to explore the country! In October, a trip through Piperi and a day in Kučka Korita (see also Circuit around Korita) were very special experiences. The intensity and colorfulness of the beech forests in sharp contrast with the grey karst rocks – it just seemed to be unrealistic (photo 1 and 2).

In late October we also traveled to Kotor, taking the old and curvy Lovćen road that starts in Cetinje, passes through the famous ”Stone Sea” (photo 3) and the traditional village of Njeguši. This 38 km long road that is considered to be one of the most dangerous and spectacular roads in Europe, is very quiet in this time of the year. There was no traffic, just the silence of nature and the green and golden shadows of the forests on the slopes of Mount Lovćen (photo 4)

autumn5 Boka kotorskaAs always, the most challenging part of the road was the last stretch, steep and narrow, with 25 hairpin turns, the so-called “Lovćen Serpentines”, with breathtaking views of the Bay (photo 5).

A visit to the old town market in Kotor gave us an idea about all the treasures of autumn: pomegranates, olives and carob, domestic juice and marmalade of Cornelian cherries (see also An unknown wild fruit: Cornelian cherries), herbal teas, smoked meat, home-made olive oil… A feast for the eyes!

autumn6 katunska nahijaOur last trip, in early November, took us through the villages around Skadar Lake and Cetinje. We were just roaming along the narrow roads, edged by wild pomegranates (see also: Pomegranate: Symbol of Abundance and Fertility), junipers (photo 6) and the vibrant red foliage of smoke trees (photo 7). Picturesque kaki trees (also called Japanese persimmon) and the red-brown colors of the vineyards around the village houses made the picture complete. By the way, do you know that the leaves of smoke trees were used in old Montenegro for dyeing textiles in all shades of blue?

autumn7 smoketreeOn our way back, we were surprised to see a happy group of hunters along the road. They proudly showed their bag: four wild pigs, one of which was almost 200 kg heavy (photo 8). I am no hunting fan, but I know that wild pigs cause a lot of damage to crops and forests…

Well, I am sure that there will be other beautiful and sunny days in the next weeks. But after the heavy rains, the stunning backdrop of vibrant leaves has disappeared… Thus, our next trips will lead to the northern part of Montenegro: we want to see the snow!

autumn8 wild boar Cetinje