Cabbage Rolls and Coffee, Can’t be Beat: Tales of Happy Wandering in Montenegro (Title credit: Eugene Levy and John Candy)

Nestled between Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, Montenegro is one of six countries which made up the former Yugoslavia. While small in size at roughly 14,000 square km and a population of approximately 620,000, Montenegro makes up for its small land mass with unsurpassed beauty and miles of unexplored lakes, mountains and rivers.  An outdoor adventure mecca teetering on the brink of discovery, we had to check it out.Balkan-Karte-Fotolia_Kartoxjm_78480771_L-1024x1024If you thought this blog was about the home of Yosh and his brother Stan Shmenge from Leutonia, I am sorry to disappoint you.  Go ahead and hit “escape” immediately. Don’t feel bad, I’ll never know you left. But if I’ve caught your interest, my thanks to SCTV and the infamous Shmenge brothers!

I have to give credit for visiting Montenegro to our awesome daughter, Hannah.  Living in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a student at UWC Mostar, our primary reason for visiting the Balkans was to spend time with this cool kid of ours. After leaving Carriacou Island in Grenada, we needed a plan and some adventure, while she finished up classes and exams.  Hannah loves the Balkans and listed off the attributes of several countries but qualified her recommendations with “I think you guys would really love Montenegro, its beautiful with lots of mountains and outdoor activities”.  After our conversation, I logged onto google and entered various combinations of “mountain biking+adventure+off the beaten path+Montenegro+bike rental” into the search bar. Each search eventually lead me back to a little website meanderbug.com. With enough pictures and blog posts to get us excited, I fired off the first email to this “Meanderbug” not realizing where it would lead. Within hours, Brit, the owner of Meanderbug responded with a warm and informative email. We corresponded over the next few weeks and it became obvious Meanderbug wanted to do more than just sell us a tour. Brit wanted to get to know us, to find out how we like to travel and to make sure that our time in Montenegro was unique and special. Our goal of finding mountain bike rentals in Montenegro suddenly morphed into a 19 day cycling adventure and cultural experience in the rural villages, katuns and mountains of Montenegro. An experience we would have never found on our own, without the help of Brit and Zana, the team at Meanderbug. To our delight, we discovered we were the first tourists to do a hut to hut trip via bicycles in Montenegro and we would be the “guinea pigs” for this type of trip. Luck for us, no “guinea pigs” were harmed in the making of this adventure! Check out this link https://meanderbug.com/mtb-adventure-cycle-touring-in-montenegro-trailblazers-q-a/ for a video about our experience and Q and A’s about being the first people to do a hut to hut cycling adventure with Meanderbug.com

As the details of our trip, across the globe in the Balkans, started to come together, the reality of getting ourselves from a small island in the Caribbean to Montenegro set in.  Following many hours of research on Google flights and Momondo (my travel planning go-tos), we found ourselves on a 2 day journey from Carriacou Island, to Grenada, Miami, Los Angeles, Moscow and finally Tivat, Montenegro. 

 

Thankfully I have a very relaxed travel partner, who happily agreed to my crazy itinerary in order to save a few bucks. However, after having to pay extra for luggage with American Airlines (my new least favourite airline) and then spending an uncomfortable night on the floor at LAX waiting for Aeroflot’s ticket desk to open (I couldn’t download our boarding passes for some reason), he was starting to question his choice of “travel agent”! We arrived in Tivat, tired and smelly but were greeted by perfect weather, the beautiful coastline of Montenegro and the friendly and informative  Jovan, our first host.

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Sleeping (not!) on the floor at LAX

Our first 2 days in Montenegro were spent at the Old Mill Farm stay with Jovan and his family.  Located on the Lustica peninsula near Kotor, we enjoyed beautiful views of Kotor Bay and private sunsets over the Adriatic while enjoying a glass of homemade wine each evening.

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Rob checking sitting in old guvo or grain threshing area at Old Mill farm stay
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Sunset on Lustica Bay

Jovan’s family has lived here not just for generations, but for centuries, and the family was proud to show us their 300 year old olive press and guvno (threshing area). Meals prepared by Jovans mother were delicious and our first opportunity to sample farm fresh Montenegro cuisine and olive oil from the farms’ own orchard. 

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Breakfast at Old Mill Farm

We spent these first days recovering from our jet lag while doing some hikes and exploring the old town of Kotor.

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Kotor Bay Montenegro
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1300 steps to Sveti Ivan’s Fortress (also known as St. John’s)

 After spending time along the coast of Montenegro we were excited to start our journey north towards the first mountain biking destination Berrane. We headed to Podgorica by bus, spending a night near Skadar Lake before continuing by train towards Berrane and Bijelo Polje. The train from Podgorica north to Berrane is the part of the Montenegro Express, traveling from Bar, Montenegro to Belgrade, Serbia. Brit arranged for a fellow traveler to alert us to our stop just outside Bijelo Polje. Lucky for us, as we would never have noticed the stop, a small, nondescript cinderblock building in the countryside which marked our stop. 

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We starting walking along the train tracks wondering if we were at the right spot. Within moments we saw someone in the distance waving vigorously and jogging towards us.  We were soon taken underwing by Dimitrije, our host for the night and a man with so much positive energy about his community and neighbors, that you couldn’t help but be infected. Dimitrije grew up in the area and loves the mountains and outdoors. For many young people in Montenegro, finding work in the rural towns and villages is difficult, resulting in a migration of young people to the cities, looking for work and a more modern way of life. Raising his own young children in Bijelo Polje, Dimitrije wants to find ways to help his community remain viable by supporting tourism and developing the infrastructure needed to find new ways to make rural Montenegro vibrant and attractive to the next generation.

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Dimitrije on right with his neighbors and Nedjo, Svetlana and twin sons

The next day we were excited to pick up our bikes and start riding. Our early 90’s Polar hardtail rental bikes, while far from the latest technology, got the job done and as we wound our way up towards Biogradska Gora National Park, we had our first taste of what mountain biking in Montenegro was going to look like. The day started on a quiet paved highway but quickly turned into a small paved country lane and then a gravel road or path. These gravel mountain roads, similar to what we would call forest service roads in British Columbia, made up the majority of our riding in Montenegro.  The quality of the road would vary from broken pavement to rough and rutted gravel, to our favorite, a hard packed two-lane path through mountain meadows. If you are expecting well maintained, buff single track you’ll be disappointed, as this just does not exist in any large quantity in Montenegro. The funding and infrastructure to build this type of trail system are not there yet. However, if you love to travel on two wheels, where the journey is often more important than the destination, you’ll love Montenegro.

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Riding to Biogradska Gora National Park

The next 3 days at Rakovic Katun in Biogradska Gora National Park were our introduction to Montenegro hospitality. In rural Montenegro, the traditional farming way of life involves moving families and their livestock into the mountain villages, called katuns, during the warm summer months. Livestock can graze on the abundant mountain meadows, saving stored hay and feed for the winter months. Here the way of life takes a step back in time. Katuns are simple buildings, with no electricity and no running water. Cooking is done on a wood stove and water is most often collected from the abundant mountain springs. The whole way of life is dedicated to caring for sheep and cattle, making cheese, tending a garden and preparing for the winter to come. It is a simple but harsh existence and much like the family farm in many parts of the world, this way of life is slowly disappearing. Staying in the Katuns, with the local farm families, is an effort to keep this part of Montenegro’s heritage alive. Companies like Meanderbug are dedicated to sustainable tourism that not only benefits local people and supports their way of life, but also gives tourists more than just a fun biking holiday. This type of travel forces you to slowing down, engaging with locals and gives you a deeper understanding of the culture and people of Montenegro.

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Rakovic Katun has been in our host’s, Stefan and Sanya’s family for many generations.  Stefan, a park ranger and Sanya, a teacher, live in nearby Berrane but spend their summers in the family Katun, hosting guests in two small cabins located on the property. We spent 3 days with the Rakovic’s and given Sanyas’ excellent English and Stefan’s developing language skills we had a great time getting to know them and learn a little about life in Montenegro.

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Stefan and Sanya Rakovic

Arriving in mid-May, there was still snow at higher elevations and after spending the last 4 months at sea level in the Carribean, the elevation at Biogradska Gora made itself felt.  We cycled to nearby Siska Lake and rested on our first full day and then set out for a 10 km hike on day two to enjoy the dramatic landscapes and beauty of the park.

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Hiking in Biogradska Gora
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Spring wildflowers were in abundance in Biogradska

 

From Biogradska Gora, it was an easy ride back to the village of Lubnice and a luxurious night at Three Springs Cottage before heading to the Konjuhe Village nestled below Mount Komovi and our next farm stay at Old House.

The next morning our hosts at Old House pointed us towards the winding and steep back road leading to Mount Komovi and with the help of maps.me, we found our way to the base of majestic Mount Komovi. 

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Rob poses for a photo with Mount Komovi in the background

   

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Rob riding towards Mount Komovi
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Finally, time for some fun downhill!

After all our altitude gain, we got to enjoy a long, fun ride downhill ride back to Old House and another delicious meal of homemade pita, cabbage roll and pickled peppers.

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Our next day of riding was to take us from Konjuhe Village to Prokletje National Park over a mountain hiking trail which was so overgrown and covered with downed trees, that we decided to turn back and get a transfer to the next Katun. A good decision as on the way back to Old House we were caught in a thunderstorm and were quickly soaked.  Our transfer to took us to the edge of Prokletje National Park and gave us our first view of the so-called “damned or accursed” mountains, the highest peaks in the country. Ditching the bikes, we spent the next day hiking in this beautiful park and were transferred late afternoon to Bajrovica Katun deep within the park.

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Hiking in Prokletje National Park
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Someone’s excited to get to the top (or perhaps just excited for lunch?)

Traditionally, families move into the Katuns during the month of May, depending on the snow melt and ability to access their homes.  Our mid-May timing made us the first visitors to many of the Katuns and meant we ran into virtually no other tourists during most of our trip.  Brit and his daughter Joy joined us for a few days in Prokletje National Park and at Bajrovica Katun and provided the transfers and support when our initial route was impassable. It was great getting to know them and enjoying their friendly, positive vibe and learning how Meanderbug came to be. That is their story to share not mine, but I will say how special it was to work with a company where we started as customers and left feeling like we had become friends.

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Elaine, Brit and Joy in Prokletje National Park

The next 3 days took us into an area known as the Katun Road. Travelling this remote and untouched area was like stepping back in time and was a truly unique experience.  After a long day of wrong turns and backtracking, we finally climbed to Cakor Katun. For me, this was the hardest day. As we made our way on a seemingly unending uphill climb, I said to Rob, “tonight there better be rakja and meat! I need booze and meat”. I was not disappointed as our host Gordana was an amazing cook and prepared perhaps the best meal of our journey. Two tired Canadians were offered not only rakja, but also homemade juice and cherry liqueur.

 

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Homemade rakja – Zivjeli!

Followed shortly by soup, cheese, homemade bread, roast chicken, crispy roast potatoes and grilled peppers.

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Gordana and one of her feasts at Cakor Katun

After our hosts left, we stoked the wood stove, had another glass of rakja and crawled under layers of heavy blankets to fall asleep in absolute silence and darkness, alone in our cozy katun.

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Enjoying morning coffee at Cakor Katun before the start of our favorite ride to Mokri Do Katun

It’s time for an aside about the food. Really, I should devote an entire blog to the food we enjoyed on our farm stays in Montenegro. Homemade, homegrown, simple, fresh and organic. Every host provided excellent meals. We were never hungry and it was obvious our hosts were thrilled that we enjoyed their food so enthusiastically. For me this was easy, I love to cook, love to try new flavors. Trying new cuisines and food around the world is one of the things I like most about traveling. I fall firmly in the camp of those who “cycle to eat” rather than “eat to cycle”. So you pretty much need to just put a plate in front of me and I will eat whatever is on it (one exception to this is liver and BTW what is with the obsession with goose liver in Hungary? Another story for another blog …). We ate well, we ate a lot and everyone loved watching us eat. Literally, our hosts would watch us eat, then after we were finished, they would eat. It was a little weird but part of the cultural experience. At Mokri Do Katun, it was a special experience when our hosts sat across the simple table and shared many glasses of rakja with us, a simple but tasty dinner and then showed us photos of their 7 daughters and grandchildren.

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Choose your breakfast drink at Mokri Do Katun – Coffee or Rakja?

Riding the Katun Road area was our favorite part of the journey. High mountain landscapes, shepherds with large flocks of sheep and route finding to the next katun made for a fun adventure.

  

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Where are we Rob?
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Oh of course, Vukova Stanina – I can’t say it, but this is where we are!

With no other tourists, it felt like traveling in our mountains at home but instead of a tent and some rehydrated food awaiting the end of a long day, there was a warm katun and a kind host.

 

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For me, the hospitality and warmth of the people Montenegro will stay with me long after the memories of the mountains and beautiful landscapes fades.

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New friends at Mokri Do Katun

Perhaps the best example of this is our experience while traveling between Cakor Katun and Mokri do Katun on the Katun Road. After getting off route and backtracking to find the right trail, we came across a small katun with a man working in his garden. We pulled out our map and stopped to point at it and confirm our location. Speaking little English, he gestured to his house and pretty much took Rob’s arm and pulled him toward the small patio. There he brought out 3 glasses and a bottle of rakja. After a drink, apparently, we could discuss location. Two young children and a baby came out of the house, followed by his wife, to meet the crazy people riding bicycles. I had a small package of cookies for our lunch so I pulled them out to share with the children. He and his wife disappeared into the house for a few minutes and returned with some bread and cheese, followed by pickled peppers, cooked chicken and steak, homemade juice olives and more of their own cookies! We shared lunch together and they pointed us in the right direction after refusing to let us pay for the meal. While they spoke some English, communication was limited, but before leaving I understood the wife’s request, “Facebook?”. If you happen to read this, thank you again, Jugoslav Lekic and family. Your hospitality made a lasting impression on us and exemplifies what makes rural Montenegro so special.

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Amazing hospitality from Jugoslav and family – Note the Canada shirt!

After leaving the Katun road area we made our way back to Berrane and Bijelo Polje ending our journey at Agape House and Community Garden outside Podgorica. Enjoying the company of our young and forward thinking hosts, we had a great conversation about the recent election in Montenegro, the political and economic situation, from their perspective and their successes and frustrations in making a positive change in their community. Warm and kind hosts, a cute, comfortable room and good conversation; we would have enjoyed spending more time at Agape House.

In fact, we were sad we didn’t have more time in Montenegro. Our 19 days were over too fast and we were truly sad to see our trip come to an end. If you like to travel off the beaten path, get hives from crowds of tourists and aren’t afraid of getting dirty or lost, then consider a cycling trip in Montenegro. The coast is beautiful and well worth visiting, but the secrets hidden in the rivers, lakes and mountains of this little Balkan country and the people who live there, are the real reason you should go to Montenegro.  Know you will be among the first to travel this way (if that matters to you) and leave with memories of a country and a people that will exceed your expectations. I know it did ours.

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Morning Fog fills valley below Cakor Katun

 

 

4 thoughts on “Cabbage Rolls and Coffee, Can’t be Beat: Tales of Happy Wandering in Montenegro (Title credit: Eugene Levy and John Candy)”

    1. Thanks Mom! We are enjoying our travels and feel grateful everyday to be able to do this. Miss you and can’t wait to be able to give you a hug once we are home. Love you and glad I got one of the “vagabond” genes!

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