Day 17 – Stairway to Heaven

Today we were up early as we were going on an excursion!

When we were planning this trip we used a website called Montenegro Pulse a lot. When it was time to book a boat tour of Lake Skadar, we turned to the website which recommended a bunch of different options. We booked a 3 hour one that stops at Kom Monastery through the website. We received an email confirming our booking, saying the tour starts at the town of Virpazar at 1030hrs “or later”. It takes an hour to drive from Ulcinj to Virpazar so we hired a taxi to pick us up at 0930hrs, then drive us back at 1430hrs.

The drive there was vaguely nightmarish. Our driver, whose name we never found out spoke almost zero English so we drove the hour in almost total silence. He dropped us off at the lakeside town a Virpazar, a tiny but bustling village of bars, trinket shops and boat rental stalls. We found our boat rental stand, where a woman showed us a map and explained where we would be going and what we would be seeing, as the boat captain/driver, her dad, spoke very little English and therefore would not be able to explain much. We were then led down to the dock and into the cun (pronounces “choon”), a slightly narrow, long, open roofed aluminium boat with seats along the sides and an elevated prow. The captain (as he will he know as henceforth) pointed to a cooler and said “juice. Water.” And we were off, surprised that we were he only three tourists on the boat. Our own private excursion.

Lake Skadar is ecologically important, home to all sorts of bird life (rare Dalmatian pelicans!), wildlife (foxes!) and marine life (carp!). It also features an old fort, monasteries, and the Montenegrin Alcatraz. We started out on the lake, lined with reeds, rushes and grasses, tons of lily pads and little black ducks with white faces.

Because we were the only ones in the boat, we weren’t beholden to anyone else, so every time I would raise my camera to take a shot, the captain would kill the engine and slow down to allow me time.

There are veritable “fields” of lily pads everywhere, and narrow passageways of clear water that the boats could navigate through. The captain started pointing out “heron!” and then to a page in an ornithological book about the lake that he had with him, then to a heron perched on the lily pads or wooden flotsam.

We passed lines of fishermen, sitting on the banks, some under ramshackle wooden shelters they had set up for themselves. The most popular catch from the lake is carp and eel.

We passed more herons, ducks, little brown mini-heron looking birds, through the lily pad passageways to a tree lined shore. We passed along the shore, spotted with moored boats and what looked like summer cottages.

At one point the captain stopped the boat, pointed to his bird book, then to a bush and exclaimed “kingfisher!” He even backed up the boat so I could get a shot of the little red and blue fella before he flew away.

Then we noticed a cow getting out of the water on a shady island. Then more cows. These cows just seem to hang out on the island and swim and eat the grass.

We rounded a corner and headed towards more open water and another blanket of lily pads.

We pulled up beside a dense bit of greenery in the water. The captain cut the engine and told us “water chestnuts”. He then leaned over and plucked a few green pods from the water, split them open reveal pink edges and a white “nut” in the centre, and handed them to us to eat.

The water chestnut was sweet, like a sugar snap pea with a nutty after taste. They were quite good!

We headed again for open waters, passing more birds, islands and other boats, until we spotted it- Kom Monastery, perched high on a hill on an isolated island.

We moored the boat at a tiny stone dock and hiked the questionable stone stairs up to the monastery gates.

The monastery is Serbian Orthodox, built in the 15th century and never sacked by the Turks or the communists (like many religious establishments were during Tito’s reign) – everything is original.

We went into the small chapel (no photos allowed) decorated the typical orthodox style – painted frescoes on the walls and a wooden iconostasis. We exited the small stone building and looked around the grounds – bee hives, olive trees, orange trees and pomegranate trees were all about. The captain pointed to two small mountains in the distance and said “Sophia Loren” and grabbed his own boob. We understood.

We were led into some sort of outdoor banquet hall where we were treated with wine, homemade ginger cookies and homemade rakia by a few contemporarily dresses monk. The rakia smelled fruity and burned the whole way down.

Eventually we said our “thank yous” and “goodbyes” to the monks and piled back in the boat, our three hours almost up.

On the boat ride back, the captain pulled up to some lily pads, picked three lilies from the water and made us each a necklace out of them.

When we docked we thanked the captain and his family profusely – they had truly given us a magical day.

We met back up with our anonymous cab driver and had one of the diciest drives ever back to Ulcinj. The sped, ran stop signs (which I’ve learned is pretty normal here), tailgates a poor Audi for kilometres and ended up getting pulled over and ticketed by police. I was thankful to get my two feet back on solid ground.

We finished the night off our typical way here – dinner, Turkish coffee, bed.

Day 16 – My Life, My Love and My Lady is the Sea

This morning we slept in a little bit, had our hotel’s delicious breakfast, called a cab and headed to the beach. We hadn’t seen Ulcinj’s beach yet, so we were excited to see it and how different it was from Petrovac.

Our hotel owns its own slice of the 13kms of sandy beach called MCM Beach. They have lounge chairs, umbrellas, a playground and a restaurant. As it’s late in the season, we had our pick of lounge chairs, so we grabbed some, lotioned up and laid in the sun…

…all day.

Day 15 – Shut Up and Drive

Today we sadly packed up our gear, said goodbye to Djordje and piled in our hired car to head to our last home base of the trip, Ulcinj. Ulcinj is on the very south tip of the Montenegrin coast and has 13km of sandy beach. Because of how close it is to Albania, Ulcinj has a significantly more Ottoman feeling that previous Venetian style.

Our driver Mickey was a character who spun tales of being a former police officer, maybe being on special forces, and would point out every beach that he likes to swim at. He graciously agreed to make a quick pit stop in the old town of Bar so that we could take a quick snap of Stara Maslina – an olive tree purportedly over 2000 years old.

After visiting the old tree we were back in the car cruising down the coast, the mountains getting smaller, but omnipresent. Soon we were in Ulcinj, the both sides of the streets gleaming with boutique hotels, apartments and cottages. We pulled into our hotel Perla luxury, and shining white building of marble, concrete and glass. We said goodbye to Mickey and met one of the hotel caretakers Dina, who checked us in and showed us to our rooms. The hotel is beautiful and modern and the staff is lovely and generous.

We got settled and headed up to the hotel roof (3rd floor) and read, watching dark grey-blue clouds approach from over the mountains, knowing what they brought with them. We walked to a nearby restaurant for a delicious lunch of pizza cooked in the wood oven and hurried back to Perla as the rain started to fall.

We gathered in the lounge, furnished with modern Scandinavian chairs and couches and featuring floor to ceiling windows where we could watch the storm. We read our books and drank the delicious Turkish coffee that Dina made for us.

We read and dawdled away the stormy afternoon and when there was a break in the weather, we headed out for dinner, and beat the rain coming back for the night, walking past hoards of beautiful women, adorned with glittering dresses and jewels, all heading to a nearby banquet hall.

Day 14 – Was a Sunny Day

Today was another day where we planted our butts at the beach for the majority of the day, so there’s not too much to tell. I would definitely come back to Petrovac just to relax on the beach and drink grapefruit radler.

A note of what we have decided is the theme song of Petrovac – screaming crying children. It’s everywhere. And it’s almost constant.

Day 13 – Spirit in the Sky

This morning we were up early to catch our tour to one of the holiest sites in Christian Orthodoxy – Ostrog Monastery. We booked our tour through Viator, which we had done many times before generally with a lot of success. We were used to a personable guide loading is into a comfortable van or small bus with 6 – 20 other people, everything we were doing clearly communicated and us well aware of what was expected of us. This was not the case today.

Today we waited roadside with a surly Russian couple, our transportation coming from Budva to pick us up. The bus that arrived was an enormous tour bus, already pretty much full. The surly Russians got on first, then promptly got off. Then Ma, Pa and myself were escorted on and lead to the very back of the bus where there were three seats. Surly Russian dude was yelling something at the tour operator, I would imagine about there being no seats. The operator asked a lady if she would be willing to move seats so surly Russian and his wife could sit together (god knows why his wife would want to sit with him). With that all settled, we were on our way.

From the description of their website, we were under the impression that we would be driving to the monastery, free time at said monastery, back on the bus, lunch, home. When we looked up how long it takes to drive from Petrovac to Ostrog, the internet told us two hours.

Driving up out of the bay was a sight to behold – you could see the whole bay, the beach, difficult to discern where the blue sea met the blue sky. We drove more into the mountains, roads spotted with stone houses, monuments, roadside watermelon and honey stands. We even had to briefly stop at one point as a man was trying to corral his herd of goats off the road.

Two hours in we were not at the monastery but at some sort of roadside market, with a restaurant, market, honey stand, and obligatory tchotchke shop. One thing we noticed as the deeper we went into the mountains, the more things were written in Cyrillic. We were told to hop off the bus and grab breakfast, but the combination of bus ride, heat and overwhelming smell of body odour had kicked my motion sickness into high gear, so instead I took a nap. Ma and Pa had attempted to order breakfast, but nothing materialized, so they came back to the bus empty handed.

Finally we were on the road again, driving past Lake Skadar (which we will be visiting later on the trip), through the nation’s capital Podgorica (which we were gonna visit later on the trip but have since decided that we don’t need to), then started up another narrow mountain road, punctuated by switchback after switchback. Eventually we ended up at a parking lot with a few other big tour buses, and thought “well this is it, time to hike up!” Instead, our tour director said to us “now we taxi”. I laughed out loud to Ma and Pa and exclaimed “what the fuck is going on??” We climbed off the big bus and into some sort of soviet era van with dubious seating, curtains, and a fan screwed to the ceiling. Clinging to the seat in front of me for dear life, we zipped up even more switchbacks, honking at other cars trying to come down the mountain.

And finally, at noon, we were there – Ostrog Monastery. Built in the 17th century by the Bishop of Herzegovina to the glory of Saint Basil, it’s carved into the side of the mountain, which frescoes and icons painted on the rock itself.

Our tour guide shepherded us into a line up for what I thought was the entrance to the monastery. We watched devout women in long skirts, their hair covered by scarves, touch the shrines and icons and cross themselves.

The line moved forward slowly, and pretty soon we were in one of the church caves. You had to duck through a little doorway, with a worker ushering people in and out. Soon I noticed there was an end to the line at the end of the church cave, and I thought I saw people kissing a small painting of an icon before turning away. When I got to the front of the line, I watched the woman in front of me kiss the painting, cross herself, turned to the orthodox priest who was standing there and I had failed to notice, who waved a cross at her and she left.

Then it was my turn. I looked at the painting. I noticed it was in front of an open casket holding the skeletal remains of the founder of the monastery covered in a tapestry. I panicked. I’m not at all religious, so I didn’t want to disrespect the priest by kissing the painting when it meant nothing.

I looked at the painting.

Then at the priest.

The back at the painting.

Then again at the priest. He made a motion to me to kiss the painting. I said a quick I’M SORRYYY to the priest before scrambling out of the cave.

Ma came out of the cave not too long after me and said “don’t worry. I wasn’t about to kiss the painting either. Think of the germs”. We then wandered into part of the monastery and honestly there wasn’t a lot to see – the majesty of the place I think comes from the church caves and the stunning sight of the exterior. There was also a huge gift shop (got some obligatory fridge magnets) and soon we sat in the sunny courtyard, laughing about how much of a shit show the day had been.

When it was time, we piled back into the “taxi”, and barrelled down the switchbacks to the lower lot, where instead of getting back on the big bus, we went to another monastery, this one called Ostrog Donji.

We walked around the grounds and climbed on the big bus, which was supposed to leave at 1400hrs, which it was. By 1420hrs the bus still hadn’t left, and the tour director had gone off to find the one unaccounted for tourist. Surly Russian then got off the bus to vape, followed by a bunch of others who smoked. FINALLY the tour operator returned and got into some sort of verbal altercation with surly Russian, and since I know only about 30 words in Russian, I’m not sure what they were fighting about, but from my limited Russian I’m positive it wasn’t about eating cheese pizza.

FINALLY, we were all loaded on the bus, on our way back to Petrovac…

…or so I thought. We went back down the rest of the switchbacks, past Podgorica, past the pelicans of Lake Skadar, and back to restaurant where we attempted breakfast. Ma and I decided to stop by the honey stand, where we were greeted by the delightful shop keep who didn’t speak English, but were able to communicate with thanks to Ma’s basic German. He let us sample some honey, which is made 8km away in the Durmitor Mountains and is part of Montenegro’s “honey trail”. We said our goodbyes to the nice man and headed back to the restaurant to meet with dad for a pint and some time to relax out of the sun.

After the hour we were given, we headed back into the bus, and back towards Petrovac. For real this time.