06.07.2011 - 15.07.2011 29 °C
Does anyone actually live in Montenegro? Is the Balkans the best place in the world for cycle touring? How did we end up staying on a boat along side super-yachts with Jeffrey Sweetbaum, an New York born, Moscow based entreprenuer? And what happens when things fall apart with a 1,100m descent over the horizon? Will this blog post actually ever say anything or will it just be a series of meandering convoluted questions? Perhaps...
We stood at the top of an 1,100 metre pass and looked down all the way to Kotor, a beautifully preserved historic town, nestled at the foot of a sunken canyon in Montenegro. We were all set for one of the most spectacular descents of the entire trip, except for one problem. Three spokes on my back wheel had broken and the the wheel was in perilous danger of falling apart. It had been an eventful week to say the least. Cycling through the lakes of Macedonia before crossing into Albania had offered spectacular views and fascinating encounters. Albania has only been open to tourists for a few years now and arriving there was like entering another world. There is a feeling of the wild west here, soaked with adventure and lawlessness. The roads ranged from perfect newly laid tarmac to dirt tracks (on the same road!) indicating that money is now beginning to be spent on infrastructure. A booming tourist industry will no doubt follow due to the incredible mountains and beaches but for now this place is still untainted by mass tourism and provides an awesome experience for travellers looking for something different. bizzarely almost everyone drives around in clapped out old Mercedes, apparently the only cars which can endure the awful roads.
On our second day there, we began looking for somewhere to camp and spotted a lake on our map. However, when we arrived we were unable to access the lake except via someones property. We wheeled our bikes down their driveway where we were greeted by a squat Albanian man by the name of Nico. No we could not camp down at the lake he said in Italian. We must stay with him and his family in their house. This was typical of the amazing hospitality we received here and at dinner time we were constantly told to eat more food and drink more of their home made grappa.
The next day we set off descending down through deep canyons and gorges until we reached the main coastal road which took us through to Shkoder, the centre of which contained very pretty streets and houses which bustled with life as day turned to night and people spilled out from their homes and offices. We stayed in a former communist hotel, a big brutish concrete structure that was the cheapest place in town. However, our stay became slightly more expensive when 2 days later i realised i had left half my cycling clothes in the room, never to be seen again. All the way through Albania we were greeted with toots from cars and enthusiastic greetings by people genuinely happy that we were visitng their country and we were sad to leave but know we will return.
We crossed the border into Montenegro, a country we had greatly been looking forward to visiting after hearing of its spectacular natural beauty. Without doubt this was another wonderful country for cycling with very quiet roads and stunning landscapes. However, we hardly encoutered any Montenegrans other than those working in the tourism industry and the place laked the exciting vibe of Albania. The ride along Lake Shkoder was truly breathtaking and we camped that evening at a small beach on the lake shore after enjoying fish caught from the lake (actually Mariana had a tomato salad). Our decision to camp at the lake meant we started the next day with a 250m steep ascent back to the road. Already soaked in sweat we continued on to Virpazar another beautiful town located where the river meets lake Schkoder, surrounded by a lush green nature reserve. The next day we cycled on to the former capital of Montenegro, Cetijne, a beautiful old city though sadly lacking in the buzz of a thriving city.
The following days cycle to Kotor was all set to be one of our most spectacular yet; a wonderful climb through pine forest and craggy mountains up to 1200m before traversing across a high plateau and then a descent to sea level involving 25 hairpin turns. As we set off my bike was making a strange sound and I looked down to see one of my spokes broken. Further examination revealed that actually 3 had broken. Usually this would not be too difficult to fix but 2 things prevented this. First, the broken spokes were all on the rear wheel cassette (the gears) side meaning i would have to remove the cassette to replace them, and secondly, the spare spokes seemed to have dissappeared from Mariana's bag. We managed to find the cities only bike mechanic, an eccentric old Montenegran who ranted at us for several minutes before indicating we could return at 2pm. When we did return the wheel was still in a sorry state and the mechanic seemed angry - he was unable to remove the cassette. We asked if he thought it was safe to continue to Kotor. He shrugged his shoulders. What choice did we have. So on we went.
What a ride. Even going slow so as to ensure i got down in one piece the cycling was one of the highlights of the trip so far. So breathtaking that i kept having to stop to take in the view in an attempt to imprint it on my mind.
When we finally reached sea level and the old town of Kotor we phoned our couch surfing contact; Jeffrey Sweetbaum. Now Jeffrey is definitely not your average couch surf host. First of all he owns a large boat which he spends most of his summers on, sailing around various parts of the world. He is also an eccentric New Yorker who decided to go to Moscow after the fall of the Communist regime, in his words "to see what was going on". It turns out plywood was going on so he set up a business in it. Anyway, we spend a lovely couple of days hanging out on his boat, riding his dingy around the lake, and swimming in various coves.
Feeling refreshed after some rest, we cycled the last leg of our Balkans adventure, an 90km ride to Dubrovnik (still with 3 spokes missing). After 80km we decided to stop at a lovely beach just outside Dubrovnik, a place Mariana had stayed 10 years earlier, with a lovely campsite and beach. The next morning we rose early and arrived in the city for breakfast. Although Dubrovnik is undoubtedly beautiful and incredibly preserved, the place has become a tourst circus, heaving with English and Americans following guides holding colourful sticks so that they dont get lost. No Croats actually live in the old city and after 1 day we had definitely had enough. "Lets get out of Croatia" i said "the place is heaving. Lets go to Italy!"