ALONG THE ZETA RIVER: TURKISH BRIDGES AND A BRONZE AGE TOMBSTONE

1 Bronze Age tomb Frutak Kujava1 Zeta DanilovgradThere is not much traffic on the old road from Danilovgrad to Nikšić, along the Zeta River. It is mostly used by local inhabitants of the villages in the fertile Bjelopavlići valley. And of course, by a few curious tourists, who want to explore this beautiful region with Turkish bridges and small water power plants on the emerald green river.

Recently, a very important discovery was made in this area: a tombstone from the early Bronze Age was found on the border between the villages of Kujava and Frutak (photo 1). And this was a good reason for us to hit the road in search of this archeological excavation.

2 Bulin mostIt was a beautiful sunny day and many people were working on the land. The river was meandering through the plain (photo 2) and soon we passed the power plant of Slap Zete and stopped to take a look at a small stone bridge on the left side of the road (photo 3). Local inhabitants told us that it is called Bulin most (Bula’s bridge – a bula is a Muslim woman) and that it is part of an old Turkish cobblestone footpath that still exists. With two different arches, a big one and a smaller one, the bridge is quite atypical! According to a legend, it was built by the wife of Adžija, architect of the Adžijin bridge that is located 2 kilometers farther.

3 Adzin mostIn a region without proper signposts, as there are many in the continental part of Montenegro, the only way to know where you can find interesting places is talking to the local people. They are eager to tell you as much as possible about their homeland and its history. And so we got detailed instructions how to find the archeological excavation we were looking for.

But at first we had the opportunity to admire another Turkish bridge, Adžijin most (Adžija’s bridge), an architectural masterpiece (photo 4) of elegance. According to the legend, nothing can separate a couple that has kissed under this bridge!

4 Most Dobro PoljeWe had been told to pass the reconstructed suspension bridge in Dobro Polje, behind the old water mill on the left side. At first we hesitated – was this really a bridge for motorized traffic? There were no traffic signs and our small Peugeot could hardly get through the narrow concrete entrance. Indeed, the bridge looked very strong, with new wooden planks. Its length was almost 70 meters, high above the river… But when we saw other small cars passing the bridge, we decided to go (photo 5).

The road led us through a rural area with nice orchards, gardens and fields – and everybody was busy with preparations for the spring. Horses and mules were waiting for the next burden to carry (photo 6) and when we approached the foot of the mountains (with high above us the highway to Nikšić), the landscape changed and turned into forests. We asked a passer-by for the tombstone and got the answer: “Just continue, you can’t miss it!”And finally, a few kilometers after passing the church of Zagorak, we saw a tombstone in the middle of a white circle – a grave from the early Bronze Age that was discovered only three months ago (photo 7) .

5 BjelopavliciThe tomb that contained several skeletons was excavated by the Montenegrin archeologist Predrag Lutovac and his group. It is probably almost 4000 years old (1850-1800 BC). Closed with several big stone blocks from all sides, it was also protected by a circle of flat white stones. This circle around the tomb had a dual function: practical, to prevent erosion, and magical, to prevent the souls of the deceased from disturbing the living people. The skeletons were found in foetus position (photo 8), which is one of the characteristics of the Bronze Age. Other subjects like a bronze needle, a bracelet, ceramics and a bronze buckle were discovered, too. And what is even more interesting – several other tombstones are situated in the surroundings and are now waiting to be investigated! This is an extraordinary archeological treasure indeed (photo 8)!

Photo: Predrag Lutovac

Photo: Predrag Lutovac

Although it was possible to join the highway back to Podgorica (you can also visit the tomb from the highway when you follow the signpost to Zagorak), we took the same road back and passed the suspension bridge once more. Soon we arrived at the hydro-electric power plant Glava Zete, situated among green cypresses. In the old days, this was a popular place for family excursions, with a good restaurant. But we preferred to continue our trip to Bogetići, where we had – as always – an excellent rural hotpot in the traditional “Konoba” restaurant.

Back in Podgorica I looked back on a great day. Why? Well, I must admit that I am still excited when I discover something new in Montenegro, although I have been living here for such a long time! And discovering a 4000 years old archeological excavation is not exactly something you experience each day!

8 tomb Bronze Age Frutak Kujava

 

 

THE FORGOTTEN FORTRESS OF SPUŽ

Spuz1Spuz2Many times when I passed by the little town of Spuž, I have promised myself that I would, once, climb the Spuška Glavica crest and explore the old fortress on the top (photo 1). I know, Spuž is not exactly a place where you might expect important tourist attractions, but the position of the fortification and its turbulent history certainly make it quite interesting.

Spuž is situated on the Zeta river, at a 10 minutes drive from Podgorica, on the old road to Danilovgrad. It was mentioned for the first time in 1379, when King Tvrtko stayed “under Spuž in Zeta”.

Spuz3Although Spuž is dominated by the remnants of the Turkish fortress (photo 2) that was built on a conical hill (“glavica”) rising from the middle of the green Bjelopavlići valley, it was not so easy to find an access path uphill. There were no signposts and so we had to ask local people, who were – by the way – astonished that somebody wanted to climb the hill and see the ruins.

The first possibility was a kind of donkey trail that started from the parking lot behind the railway station. But this path appeared to be very steep and we were sure that there should be another way, as it seemed to be easier to approach the hill from the other side. So we followed the road in the direction of Martinići (turn left after passing the bridge). Local inhabitants had built fences and private gardens at the foot of the hill, but trespassing was allowed. If you want to see the fort, just ask somebody, people are very friendly and they will certainly show you the path!

Spuz4The trail was easy and it took us around 20 minutes to arrive at the top of the hill. Together with Scott from Montenegro Eco Adventures, we followed the narrow path that led us around an old water reservoir further uphill (photo 3). We were surrounded by karst rocks, big yellow spurge (Euphorbia) and other purple flowers. A beauty for the eye!

When we approached the walls, we had to take a sharp turn left and the path became rather narrow, but this was the only way to enter the main gate (photo 4). It was clear that this fortification once represented an architectural masterpiece, as it was perfectly adapted to the configuration of the steep and rocky hill. And thus the oval main gate (photo 5) was located on the southwestern side, which made it very difficult for the enemy to attack. The fortress could easily be defended, as “visitors” found themselves in an extremely vulnerable position: if they wanted to enter the fort, they had to pass the narrow path around the main tower.

Spuz5We admired the remnants of the old stone walls and even discovered stairs to some underground rooms. The first corridor was still intact (photo 6) and even disposed of natural light – there was an opening from above.

From the fortress – at an altitude of around 100 meters – we had amazing views of Spuž (photo 7), the valley and the surrounding hills. It is not surprising that the Ottomans built such an important stronghold here! It enabled them to control the fertile and strategically significant Bjelopavlići plain and the road between Podgorica and Nikšić.

Spuz6So let me tell you something more about the history of this interesting place: Spuž was conquered by the Turks in the second half of the 15th century. They started to fortify it at the end of the 17th century and the fortress was finished by Hodaverdi Pasha in 1704. At that time the fort had 24 towers, some of which can still be seen today (photo 8). Soon Spuž became an infamous Turkish stronghold, from which numerous punitive expeditions to Montenegro have been undertaken during the next 150 years. The fortress has been a symbol of Turkish power for a long time, but everything broke down in 1878, when the Montenegrins conquered Spuž and the Ottomans disappeared.

Spuz7And then… what has happened since then? I don’t know, but it is clear that this once so powerful fortification has been left to the ravages of time. What a pity! Maybe it is too late for restoration, but it might be possible to put some signposts and to mark the path, to clean the environment and to put some information boards for tourists and visitors. Who would be responsible for such an initiative? Maybe the Municipality of Danilovgrad or the Ministry of Tourism could take into consideration this possibility, as it would also be an economic chance for the population of Spuž!

Spuž8

PODGORICA: MEMORIES OF HOTEL CRNA GORA

hilton hotel3hotel crna gora2Hotel Crna Gora has finally disappeared. The reconstruction works are in progress (photo 1) and it is hardly possible to recognize the old hotel – designed by Vujadin Popović and built in 1953 – that was once a symbol of post-war development and modern architecture. The new five-star Hilton Hotel will soon open its doors for foreign tourists and businessmen – but, unfortunately, not for all the citizens of Podgorica, who liked to gather there and have a cheap “Turkish” coffee or a “rakija” on the beautiful terrace. In the luxurious lounge bar of the new Hilton Hotel, most of them will not feel themselves “at home” any more…

hotel crna gora terraceHotel Crna Gora, and especially its stone terrace facing the park, was the landmark of Titograd, later Podgorica (photo 2). It was located in the very center of the town, between two beautiful parks. No wonder that the bohemians of Podgorica immortalized the hotel in their paintings and poems. By the way, did you know that Tito, Queen Elisabeth and Sofia Loren have stayed her?

I remember the Crna Gora Hotel from 1963, when I visited Titograd as a young girl, together with my parents. As real globetrotters, we were traveling the unknown Balkans by car and we were astonished by the relaxed atmosphere, the friendly people and the sunny climate of Yugoslavia. One evening, we had dinner in the garden behind the hotel. Live music was playing and I remember that everybody stared at us. Not many foreigners visited Titograd at that time!

Hotel-Crna-Gora,-snimio,-N-(2)The second time I stayed in the hotel was a few years later. After my tourism study, I had found a job in Budva and during my trip I had to make a stop in Titograd, from where I took the bus to the coast next morning. As a young woman alone I was a subject of curiosity, when I had my coffee on the terrace that morning – 99% of the guests were men (photo 3)!

In the following years, I have been a frequent guest of the Crna Gora Hotel. I enjoyed the first sunny days in spring, sitting on the terrace with my family or friends and admiring the beautiful purple flowers covering the stone pillars (was it Wisteria?). But I also attended business meetings there, worked as interpreter at workshops, conferences, seminars. Or participated in business lunches with foreign partners of Industriaimport, the large company where I worked in the seventies and eighties of the last century (photo 4). And I remember that the traditional cuisine of the hotel was famous all over Yugoslavia!

hotel-crna-gora demolishedIt’s all gone now. I know that the moment, when the famous restaurant and terrace were demolished sixty years after their construction, was difficult for all inhabitants of Podgorica. And thus also for me. Although the building company had promised that the old building would be “renovated” only, and not demolished – it did not survive (photo 5).

I have traveled a lot and I must admit that other countries do not show the tendency to build Hilton, Hyatt or Holiday Inn hotels in city centers. Famous old hotels are not demolished, they are renovated in the real sense of the word, keeping their name, image, traditions and authenticity. Examples? Hotel Krasnapolsky in Amsterdam, Kurhaus in The Hague, Hotel Moskva in Belgrade … and many, many others in the whole world. I know, the new owner had promised – when he placed the first cornerstone for the new hotel in 2011 – that the Crna Gora Hotel would remain “recognizable” and that its spirit would be preserved, but nowadays it is not easy to recognize anything of the old cozy hotel, let alone its “spirit” and atmosphere! But I must admit that no efforts are spared to give the Hilton Hotel a kind of “Montenegrin image”. Just look how the workers are placing big stone slabs on the wall and pillars of the former restaurant (photo 6)!

hilton hotel4I am sure that the new Hilton Hotel will be fabulous (photo 7 – normalcompany.me). It will have around 200 rooms and 23 apartments, restaurant, bar, modern multifunctional meeting rooms, congress facilities, a wellness center with an indoor swimming-pool, VIP spa center, fitness center…

But will it ever have the same emotional value for the inhabitants of Podgorica as the former Hotel Crna Gora, a cult place for many ordinary and extraordinary people and one of the few real cultural-historical monuments of Podgorica? The new owners are doing the best they can – and it is up to us, citizens of Podgorica, to accept the new Hilton Hotel as a new landmark of the capital city of Montenegro!

Hilton_hotel_Podgorica2]

SKADAR LAKE: BETWEEN GODINJE AND RADUS

Godinje1Godinje3Skadar Lake has so much to offer, especially the western and southern shores with their hidden hamlets, islets and monasteries. One of the most interesting villages in this area is, no doubt, Godinje, situated on the fourth kilometer of the road from Virpazar to Ostros. This rural settlement, with 60 inhabitants only, is situated on the hillside and has an interesting chain-like system of fortified houses, connected by passageways and tunnels in between them (photo 1). The architecture is really unique, also due to the arched wine cellars and spacious terraces looking out over the Lake.

Godinje2As I knew that, many years ago, plans had been made to preserve and renovate this authentic village with the aim to make it attractive for tourists, I was very curious to see how it looks like today. And so we made a hiking tour around Godinje and further through Nikači, starting from the parking lot beside the road.

Climbing the narrow and steep road to the village center, the first structure we saw was a large threshing floor. The village itself looked like a kind of fortress. Of course, this was easy to understand. In the old times, the villagers had to defend themselves from attacks by the Ottomans and that is the reason why they built their houses in this way (photo 2).

Nikac Sv. Nikola churchAccording to the legend, the history of Godinje dates back to the 10th century. Prince Jovan Vladimir liked this area (the word “goditi” means give pleasure”) and that is why the village got this name.

The summer residence of the Balšića Dynasty from the14th century is the oldest and most representative complex in Godinje. It was impressive to see the remnants of the main gate with spiral stone decorations and the family emblem (photo 3). The wall looked as if it could break down any minute and we asked a passer-by why such a historical monument is not maintained or even restored. He shrugged his shoulders and did not seem to be interested in such trivial issues. I really think that it is a shame to leave such an important historical corner to the ravages of time! And this also applies to many other houses in the village, which are obviously uninhabited, so that they will become dilapidated very rapidly. What a pity that the authorities have not taken any measures so far to maintain this settlement in its authentic form! Or even more: to revitalize it!

Radus pathWe were invited by the friendly villager to drink a glass of wine. Although we knew that the village has a rich tradition in cultivating the famous Vranac wine, we did not accept, as we still had a long way to go. And so we continued our hike through the village, uphill, looking for signposts or red-white marks, which were difficult to find. Due to the recent rainfall, the stone path was slippery and wet. It was nice to see the traditional architecture, with its cellars, water springs and the ruins of old mills. Leaving the village, we had to pass a turbulent brook. There was no bridge, just a few stones… and as I am not exactly an athlete, I could not avoid wetting my feet…

Radus path2Never mind! Finally the path joined the asphalt road behind the Sveti Nikola church in the hamlet of Nikači (photo 4). This church, built in 1715, is the only active church of the village, out of four that existed in Godinje. We climbed the stairs behind the exterior of the altar and entered a small terrace on a natural rock, enclosed by a stone wall. From here, the view on Godinje and the Lake was magnificent. We had the strange feeling that the back part of the church was much higher than the front part – but I could not find any information about that. Was it a consequence of the 1979 earthquake that had damaged many buildings in the village? The road back to the parking lot led us through a rural area with beautiful vineyards. Obviously, many inhabitants of this area have built new houses in the valley, where they produce grapes and excellent wine, but also grape brandy.

RadusBy car we continued our tour along the coastline until the signposts for the fishermen’s villages of Radus and Pristan, where we turned left. It is interesting to know that the western shore is so steep and mountainous that several villages, bays and peninsulas cannot be reached by car. And so we stopped near the church where a road sign showed the direction of Radus – a narrow footpath behind the graveyard (photo 5). What a beautiful path, even now, without green vegetation!

The trail was well-maintained and cleared, as it is the only way to reach the village by land. It leads through forests uphill to the steep karst slopes of the Strbina mountain. This was an ideal place for a rest (photo 6). Sitting on the barren rocks, we admired the view and then descended down again to the bay of Radus, in front of which – deep in the Lake – the so-called “eye” of Radus is located (photo 7). Although the average depth of Skadar Lake is around 6 meters, this “eye” is the deepest place in the Lake: even 60 meters (and maybe even deeper)! That means that this area is very rich with fish and, of course, birds. That is also the reason why an observation tower is located near the village. However, access to Radus by boat from the water is much easier and the picturesque hamlet (photo 8) is a favourite resting spot of boat excursions, there is even a small restaurant with a nice terrace during the season!

I am always eager to find something new in Montenegro – the walk to Radus is one of these things. It would be a good idea to promote this easy hike (first of all off-season, as I suppose that it is very hot during the summer months)!

Radus2

EXPLORING THE WESTERN SHORE OF SKADAR LAKE

Skadar Lake western shore1Grmozur7Have you ever made a trip along the western shore of Skadar Lake? I believe that it is one of its most fascinating sections. Indeed, the road between Virpazar and Murići, which turns further inland to Ostros and then descends to Ulcinj, is narrow, winding and often steep. There is no public transport, so you will need your own car. But you will be awarded with spectacular panoramas, picturesque monasteries and churches, solitary islands and authentic little villages (photo 1).

Karanikici6The first warm and sunny day in March was an ideal opportunity for us to explore this magnificent and still unknown part of Montenegro. Leaving Virpazar, we kept left and climbed steadily along the shore. After a while, we passed the historic settlement of Godinje (this authentic village will be the topic of my next blog post!) and the road became narrower and steeper, offering us magnificent views of the Lake and its little islets.

Grmožur, the stony island in the bay of Godinje that was once infamous as a prison during King Nikola’s reign, looked like a fairy tale castle (photo 2). The story goes that no one who was able to swim could be locked up here. And if somebody did succeed in escaping, his custodian was condemned to serve out the prisoner’s sentence. It is told that only two prisoners made it, using a prison door as a raft.

Djuravci5Several villages on the western and southern shores of Skadar Lake have a strong Albanian character; their inhabitants are Muslim or catholic. In the village of Šestan we found a beautiful old bell tower (photo 3) and a simple catholic church, built instead of the old ruined one. Just follow the signpost to Karanikići, downhill on the left side of the road: it is a wonderful place!

The Starčevo monastery, founded in 1377, is located on the island of Starčevo, lying just off the shore opposite to the village of Djuravci. From the road we had a great view of a small church in the shade of beautiful cypresses, surrounded by an old stone wall (photo 3).

Donji Murici4But the goal of our day trip was Donji Murići. The view from the road, high above the village, was unique. We could see the pebbly beach, the numerous olive groves, the calm blue waters of the Lake and the high mountains on the Albanian side. And close to the shore we discovered the island of Beška with its beautiful 14th century monastery.

We descended the steep road to the shore, as we had the intention to make a hiking tour around the village. A nice 7 km trek was described in the Skadar Lake map, issued by the National Park, but apart from the signpost for the start of the trail near the visitor center (now closed), there were no other red-white marks (or maybe we could not find them).

Donji Murici2Never mind! We found our own way, walking along the beach (photo 4) in front of the tourist settlement “Izletište”. In the season (May-September), this settlement offers accommodation in the form of wooden bungalows, a small camping area and a large restaurant. The view from the lake-side terrace is magnificent!

We continued our hike uphill over stone footpaths through the well-maintained olive groves (photo 5) and then turned left through the center of the sleepy village that is dominated by a white mosque. A friendly old man came our way and greeted us cordially. His donkey was stumbling under the heavy load of a few big logs (photo 6).

Climbing further to the rocky area above the village, we found a perfect picnic place. Sitting in the sun on a big rock with our sandwich, listening to the bleating of sheep and with a spectacular view of the Lake, we felt, once more, the magic of Montenegro…

Donji Murici3

 

 

SKADAR LAKE: COUNTDOWN TO SPRING

 

spring Skadar Lake1 spring Skadar Lake2Skadar Lake is close to Podgorica and it is always waiting to be explored. Historic villages, gastronomic delights (trout and carp!), breath-taking views, islands and monasteries, old stone bridges … but above all, natural beauties. Depending on the weather, the lake can be blue, green, and sometimes dark grey. Its color changes all the time. And its flora and fauna make the area absolutely unique.

In the last weekend of February we made a round trip from Podgorica to Rijeka Crnojevića and Virpazar, following the old caravan road. Spring was in the air! Coming from Podgorica, we enjoyed the magnificent view from “Pavlove strane”, but we were also delighted to discover purple carpets of wild crocuses along the road near Rvaši (photo 1).

spring Skadar Lake2.1The first violets had already appeared and at many places we saw patches of yellow flowering trees: the European cornel or dogwood (Cornus Mas) (photo 2).

Just before reaching Rijeka Crnojevića we turned left and passed the old stone bridge. The panorama was spectacular. The water level was still high and naked trees were mirrored in the Lake, creating a mystic atmosphere. Driving through the dense woodlands, we soon arrived at the village of Čukovići, where we parked the car, as we had the feeling that wild spring flowers would, first of all, grow along the Seljani brook near the footpath to the mills of Poseljani (see my blog post: “The mills and bridges of Poseljani”). So we walked downhill and followed the trail along this small current (photo 3).

spring Skadar Lake3And yes, we were right! Both sides of the path and the stream were decorated with wild flowers: snowdrops, wild crocuses, violets, beautiful primroses (photo 4) and Alpine squills (photo 5). What a treasure! Did you know that many of these wild flowers are on the “Red List” in the Netherlands? Primrose (Primula Vulgaris) is protected and so is two-leaved squill (Scilla Bifolia). And in Montenegro you can see them on each foot step!

We did not have enough time to hike further to Poseljani and so we continued our trip by car. Along the road to Komarno, the views of the Lake are spectacular. There was hardly any traffic on the narrow road and soon we reached the serpentines above Virpazar, with a great view of this charming town.

spring Skadar Lake4We arrived just before sunset. And then we got a surprise… The sky and the water of the Lake had already become deep grey at that moment, but the last sunbeams made the reed appear almost golden in color. It was a surrealistic picture (photo 6)!

So – after the long and rainy Montenegrin winter – this is the time to explore nature. Feel the spring! Enjoy the first wild flowers!

 

spring Skadar Lake6

HIKING THE LADDER OF KOTOR

ladder of kotor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ladder of kotor7

 

HIKING THE CITY WALLS OF KOTOR

kotor city walls1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ALBANIA: FASCINATING KORÇA

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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AMSTERDAM: NEWS FROM THE BIKING AND HIKING FAIR 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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