Adventures Abroad is an occasional feature chronicling my weeks-long solo backpacking trip through the Balkans and Eastern Europe in the fall of 2012. Read about my past adventures here.
The Tara River gorge in Northern Montenegro. This photo was taken from the Đurđevića Tara Bridge.
While staying at the Old Town Hostel in Kotor, Montenegro, I had begun to worry about how to fill my second full day in the tiny town. I had already explored the city, walked its ancient walls and met quite a few of the resident cats. Luckily, the hostel organizes a rafting tour and it was leaving that very morning!
There were six of us—myself and the rest Aussies, who also happened to make up the majority of the hostel guests. Two British girls hitched a ride with us as far as Žabljak, a popular ski town in the Durmitor mountain region. Our fearless leader, guide and driver was native Montenegrin Slavko. We gathered in the dim chill outside the hostel for a brutal 7 a.m. departure, and Slavko led us to the van that would take us deep into the mysterious country’s interior.
Our first stop just outside the city was a small coffee shop for breakfast. Not much inside was familiar, and it was filled entirely with old men (the women were at home, of course!). Espresso is the safest thing to order in these situations—it always comes the way you’d expect. Unfortunately, I don’t drink that, so I went with my old standby, the cappuccino—not nearly as consistent a request. This one came with whipped topping and chocolate drizzle, but proved somewhat drinkable. I also ordered a thick slice of Serbian burek for the first time—a type of pastry pie made with phyllo dough and filled with a choice of ingredients, this one with potato and cheese. Yum!
As our van continued up into the mountainous terrain, we passed through Nikšić (pronounced Nick-sheesh-k), where Slavko showed us the small house his father grew up in. The city is also home to Trebjesa Brewery, the country’s only brewery, where they make Nikšićko Pivo using fresh mountain water. (The -ko in Nikšićko means “of” or “from” and pivo means “beer.”) Slavko worked in the brewery for two years before one of the young men who opened Old Town Hostel asked him to start running these tours.
On our morning journey north, we stopped to look out over the Salt Lakes. Gorgeous.
The view of the Tara River gorge from the small home where we suited up for our rafting trip. It was so peaceful and fresh up there!
The second van—the one that would take us to the launch point for our rafting tour—and one of the two buildings on this remote piece of property.
Our group of adventurers: ready for rapids but finding none.
Row, row, row your boat
We finally arrived at our destination—a small plot of land above a gorge where our rafting guide lived with his family. There, we were given wet suits and water shoes before transferring to another van that would carry us and our raft down to the launch point on the River Tara. Those wet suits were not sexy!
The rafting was honestly more of a gentle glide down the river due to the season. The water level was low and the rapids mellow. In fact, we were the last tour of the year until the following spring (so lucky!) Nonetheless, it allowed us to see parts of the beautiful, rugged country we never would have otherwise. The river’s water was cold, but it was an icy blue-green I’d never seen before. The river was surrounded by woods and fed by multiple mountain springs. We stopped at one particular spring that emerged just below a small monastery—they called it “holy water.” We were encouraged to drink from it, and you only live once so of course I went for it. It was the most pure, delicious water you can imagine, and icy cold!
After our raft reached the end of our journey, we waited for Slavko to bring the van to pick us up….and waited, and waited….and waited. It turns out, there was a tree down in the road and he couldn’t reach us until it was cleared!
We were able to stop and look around at several points along the river. What’s the fun of being in the wilderness if you can’t go exploring (in very tight pants)?
Here I am, all excited to be out of the walled city of Kotor and out into the wild.
In this photo, you can see what the water really looked like—a bright, icy blue-green—surrounded by colorful fall foliage. Breathtaking!
We conquered this waterfall, but didn’t raft down it. What a shame.
Montenegro is known for its fresh mountain water. We were eager to drink the “holy water” that flowed from this fresh mountain spring below a small monastery. I am standing behind this gentleman, drinking my fill.
The Foodie in Me Rejoices
Our ride back to the small house where we began was a bit surreal, as the two Montenegrin men blasted techno dance beats and we swerved about on the mountain roads. After changing into dry clothes, we gathered to eat lunch. We were starving!
Our rafting guide’s wife had prepared a huge meal for us using only what her family grew and raised on their land: roast chicken, soup, boiled potatoes, shredded cabbage, homemade bread, marinated red peppers. The foodie in me rejoiced—I wished I had more room in my stomach for the incredible food! Of course, no meal would be complete without being pressured to drink more rakia, the infamous homemade liquor so beloved in the Balkan region.
Rakia can be made from a variety of different fruits—plums, grapes, apricots, cherries—basically, whatever is available. People make it themselves in recycled jars and let the fruit ferment in the sun. And they drink a lot of it.
Personally, I tried one shot upon my arrival at the hostel and could stomach no more. But that didn’t stop Slavko from offering us more at every opportunity. I gave mine away.
During our al fresco lunch beneath a wooden pavilion, we had a brilliant view of the river gorge and the famous Đurđevića Tara Bridge, the largest vehicular concrete arch bridge in Europe at the time of its completion in 1940. We also had guests. Several cats and a stray dog came begging and found quite a few friends at the table, myself included. But the guide who lived there wasn’t a fan and eventually chased them off.
Slavko explained that this would be his only meal of the day and ate accordingly. He was in the army when Yugoslavia still contained Montenegro and Serbia, and while he was a soldier, he ate only once a day. He told us he had kept up the practice and that it worked well for him.
“Montenegrin men, we are strong as bears,” he said, and I’m pretty sure he was right.
When we finished our meal, it was close on five o’clock in the evening and we still had one more stop on our itinerary. A few people were adamant about seeing the Black Lake (Crno Jezero) before dark, so they pushed our guide to get a move on. We piled back into the van and headed to Durmitor National Park, where the glacial lake lies at an elevation of some 1,700 meters!
The spread that awaited us after our rafting trip—all homemade and produced on the family’s own land.
Our new friend during lunch. This poor stray pup came begging and was not disappointed. How can you say no to a face like that?
Slavko dishes up some soup as we dig into this amazing feast, served al fresco under a wooden pavilion overlooking the Tara River gorge.
Another view of the gorge from our lunch spot, as the sun sinks lower in the sky, casting a gorgeous glow over the landscape. You can also see the family’s small garden and clothes line.
A couple of us pose on the Đurđevića Tara Bridge with our guide, Slavko.
The Tara River gorge—such a pristine sight.
Don’t drive in Montenegro. Just don’t.
This may be a good time to say a few words about the experience of driving in Montenegro. Don’t do it.
Montenegrins are crazy—I mean, crazy—drivers, and they have been driving the mountain roads all their lives, unlike you and me. The roads are bad, especially in the mountains, which are nothing but switchbacks. Not only that, but Montenegrin drivers pass one another on two lane roads frequently. They also pass one another on two lane mountain roads while quickly approaching a blind turn ahead. They also do this in the winter when the mountains are covered with ice and snow. So really, they are much better at driving in this country than you are.
Furthermore, Slavko explained to us that the police in the country are corrupt and fine people according to their fancy. You can bet they would love to pull over a car full of tourists and accept a large bribe, since those poor people are scared and don’t speak the language and don’t want to end up in a Balkan jail. (I’ve had this happen to me in Mexico, so I can imagine it works much the same way.)
Consider yourself warned. Hire a driver.
While inside the Durmitor National Park, Slavko shows us on this map where we’ve traveled during the tour. I couldn’t believe we had practically spanned the country in the course of one day!
A random visitor to Durmitor National Park. I don’t believe this cow lives here—he just happened to wander over.
On the shores of the Black Lake in Durmitor National Park. Can you see where it gets its name? Check out the color of the water on the far side of the lake.
A few of my Aussie travel buddies. At an elevation of 1,700 meters and the sun quickly sinking, the temperature fell dramatically while we were here at the Black Lake. I had thought I was smart by wearing jeans and a sweater, but it wasn’t near enough. We were all freezing.
Cue the horror movie music
After leaving the Black Lake, we thought our adventure was over. How very, very wrong we were.
The sun had gone down and the light was growing dimmer by the minute. We pulled to the side of a mountain road where Slavko told us there was a fresh water spring where we could fill our water bottles. We climbed down the steep, wooded bank along a small path. We weren’t the only visitors either; this was a popular stop for locals, too. They brought large, assorted containers—as many as they could carry—to fill with the fresh mountain water, which is delicious, plentiful and absolutely free.
A small stone structure had been built around the spring and the water flowed out of a tap that had been installed there, making it easy and sanitary to collect. Realizing the tap never stopped flowing, I was amazed by the seemingly bizarre sight, here in the darkening forest. I filled my bottle and soon wished I had multiple containers like the locals, it was so good.
As we piled back into the van, Slavko turned the key and—CRACK!—the engine wouldn’t start. From the back of the vehicle, it was at first difficult to assert what was wrong, but after a while we had our answer: the key had broken off inside the ignition!
By this time night had fallen, our van was parked on the side of a two lane mountain road, we were all exhausted and our hostel beds were still hours away. I knew we would be taken care of one way or another, but seriously, we were in the middle of nowhere. And it was scary.
Slavko continued trying to extract the key. As we grew more and more anxious, he at last declared that he always carried a spare, which was some relief. Now he just needed to remove the broken piece, but we didn’t have a tool in the van that was up to the task.
There was a small house up ahead, maybe a quarter mile away. We could see the faint, distant window light further up the road, and Slavko proposed he go and ask them for a tool that would help us. With that, he was gone, and we were six English-speaking foreigners sitting alone in a van, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere in a strange country.
Cue the horror movie music.
After twenty minutes that felt like an eternity, Slavko returned with a pair of pliers, and we were soon off again (after stopping at the house to return the tool). After the delay, Slavko decided it would be good to make a pitt stop on our way back to Kotor. He offered to take us to his home in Nikšić, meet his family and have some tea. We agreed that was a fantastic idea (while we continued sending up grateful prayers to be moving again).
A humble visit, filled with joy (and soap operas)
When we arrived at Slavko’s home, we entered an apartment-like building and went up several flights of wide, dark stairs. Inside, we met his wife and two children, a boy and a small girl. They were very shy, so we were left in the living room with Croatian soap operas on the television. I can’t say how entertaining it was to provide “translation” for these soaps that we couldn’t understand!
It was a simple but comfortable home. Several small sofas surrounded a coffee table. A few, mostly religious-themed (Eastern Orthodox) decorations covered the walls. Slavko offered us tea, and even his father’s own special rakia, stored in an ornate container carved from wood. He explained that it was customary for Montenegrins to offer guests in their home rakia they themselves (or their families) had made. But I stuck with tea.
It wasn’t until I entered the bathroom before hitting the road again that I realized how very different this family’s life was from most of the American families I know. The family shared one bathroom with very little storage space. You could hardly say it was “finished”—pipes were exposed and in places, the inside of the wall. There was a half-filled bucket near the tub, which meant they didn’t waste water. It’s difficult for me to describe, but I knew most people back home would be horrified to live in a place like this one.
And yet…this family was filled with joy! They made jokes and laughed and were thrilled to entertain us in their humble home. They knew that they had one another, were healthy and whole, and had a roof over their heads. They had made a good life for themselves.
Visiting Slavko’s home was one of the highlights of my day because seeing how real people live isn’t part of the hostel experience. Plenty of people are dropped in Old Town Kotor from the cruise ships that pass by each year, and they don’t experience it either. When I travel, I don’t just want to see beautiful sights—I want to see what other people in the world live like: what they care about, what they eat, how they view the world. I want to be inspired by their strength, resourcefulness, humility, kindness and senses of humor.
If you visit Montenegro, I encourage you to look beyond the coast, beyond the tourist destinations. The interior landscape is beautiful, and the people are warm and welcoming. You won’t regret it!