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.

Day 11 – If I Had A Boat

Yesterday morning we got up at a decent time as we had a boat to catch. At 1000hrs we headed down to the pier and climbed aboard a disheveled old tour boat that would take us past Sveti Stefan, then dock in Budva for 2 1/2 hours, then past a few other sights.

As mentioned, the boat was in rough shape – carpet pulling up, steering wheel held together with duct tape, garbage crammed under the skipper’s chair. We boarded with mostly Russians, a Scottish couple and a few German ladies, and were off, northbound towards Sveti Stefan.

Sveti Stefan is a peninsula at the end of a long sand spit. It’s a walled city that was originally a Venetian protectorate in the 15th century, was turned into a villa in the 1930s, a resort and casino by the communists in the 1970s, and is now a 5-star resort that can only be entered by guests of the resort. A one night stay starts at $1,500 per night.

Motoring further north we entered the Bay of Budva. Budva is not only the name of the town, but also the municipality that Petrovac was a part of. Budva City is a party town, like a post-communist Ibiza, but does have an old town that we were interested in seeing. However, the boat dropped us off in the middle of the beach, packed with sunbathers and far from the old town. We shrugged our shoulders, found a table at a beach side bar and enjoyed a pint. The beaches were absolutely packed, much more of a young people night club atmosphere, and apparently the party continues well into the night. We continued along the promenade, made friends with a few cats, watched parasailers and then back to the boat.

Our next stop was a little island off of Budva called Sveti Nikola Island (Saint Nicholas). The island houses a few pebble beaches, bars, a little church, and apparently, deer. We stomped around the beaches a bit, but mostly tried to stay out of the sun, as it was getting quite hot. Again, the water against the white pebbles was impossibly blue.

After seeing a total of zero deer, we were back on the boat and heading south towards Petrovac. The heat and rocking of the boat lulled me to sleep, only to be woken up by a rush of people to one side of the boat to get photos of Sveta Nedelja – a church perched on top of a rock on a small island.

We went past the church and to a beach farther south than the Petrovac one. The boat got closer and closer to shore, and soon we ran aground, which made Ma cringe. Two tourists hopped off, and back we headed to Petrovac, where we dined and headed to bed.

Day 10 – I’m Gonna Soak Up the Sun

This morning we woke up with not a lot of plans in mind – just head to the beach and lay there. We had a decent breakfast, walked to the far end of the promenade and back, changed into our bathing suits, bought some beach towels and a shitty little beach umbrella and found a square of sand.

The shitty umbrella was almost predictably an instant fail, so we decided to pay the Euros and use the lounge chairs and cemented-in umbrellas instead. Pa and I had bought a few cans of beer from a nearby kiosk, and the conversation went like this:

Me: are we allowed to drink beer on the beach?

Cashier on the phone: YES.

I cracked open a grapefruit radler, laid back with my big bitch hat and 2 piece on and just revelled in how relaxed I was. It’s been a long time since I felt that calm.

The sand at the beach is coarse and red, and the water is clear and only slightly chilly. I went in for a dip, the small rocks shredding my feet in the shallow water, but finally got to some large smooth ones where I could stand and float about.

After about a half hour I got out of the water and plopped myself down in my lounger and promptly fell asleep in the sun.

Now allow me a moment to pontificate. I haven’t worn a bathing suit in public in many many years. This year through the help and support of some pretty special people I worked up the courage and bought not one but TWO two piece (high waisted) bathing suits. It was the first time today that I’ve ever worn a two-piece in public, and I actually felt pretty great about it. Part of the reason is that here, every woman and man of every shape, size and age are wearing bathing suits of every shape, size and colour. Women who would be body shamed in North America are wearing whatever they please and not giving one single fuck. I saw an older man standing by the beach, back to the sun, reading his book with one hand, cigarette in the other, teeny tiny speedo. I saw a woman literally slathering butter on her husband. I felt confident to not only be seen in a two piece, but felt like I looked good in my two piece.

After beach time we changed back into our civvies and hit the promenade for dinner and tres leches cake for dessert.

Day 9 – Good Day Sunshine

This morning we ate our last breakfast at the Conte Hotel, perched over the languid blue that is the Bay of Kotor, packed our bags and were picked up by a man named Padrag and his black Mercedes. We hired Padrag through a car service to drive us from Perast to our next destination, an hour and a bit south on the coast and out of the bay to a town called Petrovac in the Municipality of Budva. The city of Budva itself is a party town, so we decided to stay at her sleepy neighbour.

The car ride was uneventful, but the beautiful scenery kept it interesting. Montenegro is definitely one of the more naturally beautiful spots on Earth that I’ve visited so far.

We drove through Budva city, past Sveti Stefan and arrived in Petrovac. We were met there by a whirlwind of a man named Djordje whose English is just as good as our Serbo-Croatian. He called a friend to translate and took us up to our beautiful apartment, took us on the tour of the apartment, and as mysteriously as he appeared, he was gone.

Petrovac is a beautiful little bay surrounded by red sand beach and and a promenade filled with restaurants and beachy shops. We walked along some of the promenade, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the beautiful sea

Pa went to the little kiosk by our apartment and picked up some beers, so we drank a few Leffe and relaxed in our new place.

We had skipped lunch, so headed next door to the pizzeria for an early dinner and more relaxing time. We had been told by our driver that most of the visitors were Russians and Serbs, and this was obvious by the amount of signage in Cyrillic.

We went back to our apartment where we listened to the ocean outside our windows and fell asleep, excited for our time ahead in another utopian Montenegrin town.