Travel period: May 2021
Hi there! Leaving beautiful Croatia behind we enter a new - as for us - unknown country: Montenegro! Despite traveling during times of COVID restrictions it is not a problem for us to cross the border. Besides the normal procedure of showing our car and insurance documents, the border guard asks for a negative PCR test. But for us it is not needed as we stayed in Croatia for more than 15 days - we profit from an agreement the balkan states have made to make corssing borders during the pandemic easier for locals and people who initially made a test to enter the balkan.
The first town we cross through is the border town of Herceg Novi situated at the entrance of the Bay of Kotor. The bay marks the southernmost point of the Dalmatia region and it´s well-preserved medieval towns of Kotor, Risan or Tivat are listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. We admire the bay from afar while we cross it on a short ferry ride. As we have an upcoming appointment in Albania unfortunately we are not able to have a closer look at the bay which we regret. It is definetely worth a stopover. However, excited about the new environment to explore we drive some gravel roads along the coastline and look out for a camp spot close to the town of Bigova. As it is the weekend locals are out and about aswell and although it might be possible to camp at some places, we don't want to disturb anyone. Therefore we drive on. The coastal road, also signed as a panoramic road, leads us through cities each located in their own big bay, like Budva – cramped with hotels and luxury appartments. Tourism is on the rise in Montenegro. The small country is especially frequented by visitors and holidaymakers from eastern Europe and Russia filling the pristine bays of Montenegros short but uniquely raw coastline. Finally we reach a smaller village: Buljarica. Online we find an official camping spot directly at the beach but when we reach it we notice this info is outdated as it is more a lost place than an actual camp ground. All that is left from the campground is a wrecked caravan with a `reception`sign at the front. Along the big beach there are hardly any people and when the sun sets we decide to stay anyway. We learn the hard way that night that large gravel beaches and oncoming waves make an awfully loud sound and we barely are able to sleep for hours.
First night in Montenegro close to Buljarica
Ulcinj Beach, lots of sand but no wind
After a rather short night we wake up early the next morning and head towards Ulcinj located in the south of Montenegro close to the border with Albania. The beach is impressively long and wide, has soft sand which makes for a perfect spot well-known among kitesurfers along the otherwise rocky coast. But aside a beach you need wind for kitesurfing too and we are not lucky this time. Catching up with some locals rebuilding a wooden bar and kite school building they advise us to come back in a few days as there are some rainy, non-windy, days ahead. Our original plan is to come back to Ulcinj Beach in a couple of days to kitesurf. We do not know it yet but we won´t return to the beach anytime soon. On the road you have to accept that the weather determines the pace sometimes and pre-made plans become outdated very fast.
Lake Skadar is the place we go for instead! The dolphin-shaped lake is one of Balkan's biggest, 2/3 located in Montenegro and 1/3 in Albania and it is renowned as one of Europe's top bird habitats. On the Montenegrin side there is a 400m2 national park which has been openend in 1983. We decide to take the mountain road from Bar towards the lake which turns out to be a good decision as we get rewarded with spectacular views of the lake, the surrounding mountains, marshlands and Albania located on the opposite side. Even though our Rosie makes a strange noise all of a sudden - which shouldn't suprise us as Defender owners - we make our way to Virpazar, a good starting point to explore the surrounding of the lake. After checking the vital parts of the drivetrain and suspension to locate the sound we are sure that it can´t be a really serious issue. A quick chat with our trustworthy mechanic back home does not reveal something worrying too and so we have no other choice than to ignore the sound for now – which seem to come and go as it pleases and as it turns out will accompany us for a longer time.
Lake Skadar panoramic road
Lake Skadar, western shore.
There are a few campgrounds surrounding the town and we end up in a place called OK Coral. The place is something like an organic farm and bio campground. The farm combines the `needs of the modern man for healthy food, pure nature and and active approach to leisure time` (for further info visit the camps homepage here). We are impressed by the attention to detail and the mantra of self-sufficiency the owner has created this place around. We do not consider us advocates of a totally organic lifestyle but to learn about how a symbiosis of people, plants and animals can function this is the right place. After a small river crossing (there is a road without getting your car wet as well) we park Rosie on the front lawn of OK Koral, setup camp and are welcomend with great hospitality. As we light up a campfire and prepare the dutch oven for a delicious one-pot dinner we soak in the new impressions already well-aware that we have scheduled way to less time for the tiny state on the balkan.
Tucked away on the front lawn of OK Koral camp
Outdoor dinner heaven
OK Koral campground, main house
A part of the garden at OK Koral
The next day thick cloud bring lots of rain to the lake area and we decide to further explore the farm. We find a photoalbum of the places history and learn that their vehicle of choice was a Defender 110 TDI – at least for some time. Seems like Defender owners get all childishly excited when they see a likewise vehicle – even on pictures! After that we take a walk into Virpazar to get a more closer look at Lake Skadar. We start by visiting the Besac Fortress overlooking the town and head back to the lake as we are in the mood for a little more active things. This turned out to be not as easy as we thought because hiking trails close to the shore are nowhere to be found. We learn that the best mode of transportation to see the lake and its wildlife is by boat. But with the rain still pouring, dark clouds and occasional thunder and lightning we decide that this is not the best time to rent a kayak or jump on a tour boat. Discouraged and with too much energy left we head back to the camp after stocking up on groceries in the local supermarket. As we store our new supplies one of the rails which holds a Really-Useful-Box decides that this is the right time to just cancel its job. We need a drill to re-mount it but after finding nothing in the farms shed the nephew of the owner and ourselves decide that a strong nail and a hammer make for a decent `Makita alternative`! As a surprise it turns out that it doesn´t but finally we get the job done and the rail is back in place. During all these events we fix an appointment with fellow overland friends from back home to meet in Albania on the other side of the lake in just two days.
Yup, most of the parts are still there!
50 Shades of Green
The next morning our newly made plans force us to leave our quiet hideaway and after seeing of the owners nephew we cross the little river again and make our way to the countries capital of Podgorica. On the way we overtake several men riding their wooden carts towed by donkeys while ourselves being overtaken by a roaring Lamborghini Urus speeding down the countryside road. It´s a bit far-fetched but somehow this could be a good metaphor describing our first experiences in the balkan countries south of Croatia: We have entered an area of substantial change and great contrasts. As we pass Podgorica on its eastern side we make a quick stop at a gas station to check for the strange sound again. We try to locate it and are sure it´s coming from the suspension or drivetrain at the front wheel on the passanger side. We decide to jack up the Defender and take off the front wheel but only reveal that everything is in order after a few quick rattles and pushes. As we reassemble the front wheel the gas station attendant is checking on us if we need any help or assistance which we luckily do not need at the moment. He is one of the first people reflecting a welcoming and helpful behaviour towards travellers and stands as a very early example during our trip for a characteristic the balkan people are famous for: hospitality. With these thoughts in mind and a growing desire to explore more places unknown to us Rosie takes us the last few kilometers to the albanian border checkpoint at Hani i Hotit.
Virpazar, starting point for many (boat) tours
Lakes and clouds seem to mix well
Sneakers and rain doesn´t
Still a good preparation for the next obstacle