I don’t know how long-term travelers can hop from one place to another every few days, always on the move and never settling anywhere for long enough to catch their breath. It seems more like torture than fun to me! We prefer to travel by settling in one place for at least three weeks at a time – it allows us to get a feel for the local life, create a routine for ourselves, and of course sink our teeth into some climbing.
So after nearly six weeks in Greece, all of this within a 100km radius of Leonidio, a week on the move through three new countries was a bit of a shock to our systems. Not only did this entail perpetually looking for new places to stay overnight, shop for food, etc, we also decided it was time to be tourists and see some stuff. And as it happens, this can be pretty stressful and expensive. First world problems!
When we were in Albania, our first new country in a while, the novelty still felt exhilarating. Luckily, once we figured out the local money (500 Lek is approx. 4 euros), it was also pretty cheap to be a tourist here (see recent post on this). But by the time we got to Montenegro, our next destination, the novelty was beginning to wear off.
On the way across the border, we had a brief scare when it turned out our van insurance does not in fact cover Montenegro (or Albania, for that matter, but luckily they didn’t check). The guard at the border control didn’t look much pleased with us, and for a few short minutes we were sure we would be turned away and have to find an alternative route. In the end, though, we just had to pay €15 for an insurance note from the police.
After visiting the country for just a day a few years ago, I have wanted to pay it a proper visit ever since. Montenegro is small and beautiful. It has it all – mountains (the tallest one, Bobotov Kuk, hitting 2,523m), beaches, pretty little towns and a huge national park (which we didn’t make it to in the end, because it was quite out of our way).
I was originally far more excited about visiting Montenegro than Albania, but ended up a little disappointed. Not by the lack of beauty; that’s all there. But so are the monstrous hotel complexes littering the seaside to accommodate throngs of lazy beach goers, and the coaches and cruise ships full of tourists, and the restaurants and bars with inflated prices.
I realise it is very hypocritical of me to complain about tourists when I am myself one of them, but unfortunately the more successful a country’s tourism industry becomes, the less pleasant it often is to visit.
Our plan was to drive along the coast, visiting Bar, Budva, and Sveti Stefan on the first day, before heading up to the old capital, Cetinje, to see the National Museum of Montenegro, and then onwards to Kotor and Perast. However, we quickly realized that the first two towns – Bar and Budva – were neither good for parking, nor of any interest to us.
What we saw were loud beachside bars pumping out party-pop and ballooning lobster-red bellies of people way too young to have ballooning bellies, swigging their fifth beer of the day at 1pm. This wasn’t for us, so we decided to drive straight to Cetinje, and it was the right choice. Unexpectedly, this was out favourite place in Montenegro.
Old Royal Capital
Sitting at the base of the Lovcen mountain and the vast national park surrounding it, this old royal capital of Montenegro turned out to be far quieter and more welcoming than the heaving beachside towns. It only really has one main street, which is littered with bars and souvenir shops, but isn’t nearly as inundated with tourists, or perhaps they were all just far less obnoxious.
We visited the National Museum, which covered pretty much the entire history of Montenegro. Man, that poor country has been invaded a ridiculous number of times! A very helpful and enthusiastic guide gave us a short rundown of what we were going to see and then let us wander around by ourselves. I didn’t know Montenegro only officially gained its independence in 2006, after a divisive referendum. We also spent half a day exploring the national park, which was free apart from the road that leads to the very top of the mountain, for which we had to pay €2 each. It was a very pleasant experience, only spoiled by the temperamental weather, with low clouds obscuring much of the view from the top and the threat of rain hanging heavy in the air.
The thunderstorms followed us all the way to the border with Croatia, staging a vicious attack on the streets of Kotor which made us hide in a bar and drink heavily overpriced beer while chatting to an elderly British couple, and pounding on our roof all night when we parked by the seaside. We woke to a stunning view the next morning, but decided we were ready to cross the border back to the European Union. We’d had enough of the seaside and the national park was a little too far.
Game of Thrones
But if Kotor was busy, then Dubrovnik is the human equivalent of a beehive. It was absolutely swarming with tourists, even more so than on my last visit a few years ago, and we soon discovered why. How could we forget that this is where the Kings Landing scenes were filmed for Game of Thrones? The tourist shops were overflowing with the TV show-themed paraphernalia, and we saw a tourist guide showing off still shots of various scenes from the series as she pointed out shooting locations to a gawping crowd. Who cares about the rest of the town’s history? Game of Thrones is all the rage there at the moment.
So despite its beauty, we soon tired of Dubrovnik and headed up to the top of Mount Srd, which overlooks the entire bay. Tourists are encouraged to take a cable car up to the top of the hill to enjoy the view, but this four-minute ride costs 150 kuna return (€20!) per person, so we thought better of it. A drive up the hill takes you to pretty much the exact same spot. We stayed the night near the top of the hill and woke up to an exceptional view, all for the price of a couple of litres of diesel.
Overall, we have found the tourism industry much harder to escape in Croatia and Montenegro than in Greece and Albania. Nice camping spots are a little harder to come by, because all the beautiful spots are inundated with tourists. In Croatia in particular, wild camping is also technically illegal. As a result, the campsites are extortionate.
That’s not to say we have had to fork out for a stay at one of them yet, and we’ve actually been pretty lucky with finding really nice spots to spend the night. Like the lovely patch by the river in Omis pictured below. But then again, we got told off for staying there after a few days. Apparently, it’s private property used for white water rafting drop offs. The parking around the popular tourist towns was generally even worse.
This has taken away somewhat from the overall enjoyment during our “tourist” week. If nothing else, it taught me something I already knew – tourism spoils places.
All photos courtesy of @clayclaydon – follow him on Instagram for more! Or follow me @girlclimber for much more mediocre photos 😀