Old fears in new places

glacier lake view from above

After spending over a month in Croatia, I was feeling pretty good about the idea of trying somewhere new. I certainly didn’t see all of this magnificent country, but still feel like I know it pretty well and was ready to choose a new adventure.

I’ve had my eye on Montenegro for quite some time now and was already planning to visit as part of my three months in the Balkans, before the passport situation changed things around. Wanting to make sure I can definitely enter Italy, I’ve scaled back the number of Balkan countries to two more after Croatia. I had some trepidation about whether I could spend two months in only two other countries, especially one as small as Montenegro. But I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and just decided to go for it, booking a bus ticket from Dubrovnik to Kotor, Montenegro.

I was also a bit nervous to cross another border with this passport, especially a land border. Adding to that, there is a 5km distance between the border crossings of Croatia and Montenegro. Arriving at the Croatia crossing, the entire bus (70ish people) had to disembark, one by one, to visit the border guard. To say the guard was skeptical of my passport is an understatement, as it took no less than three guards to decide it was legit, as I offered to get the rest of the paperwork. Given this was just to EXIT the country, I was pretty stressed at this point about entering Montenegro. The five minute bus ride to the border crossing felt like five hours, and I was sweating bullets, literally and figuratively. Thankfully for all involved, the guard was none too bothered by it, maybe because he still had 60 other people to process. Either way I was in Montenegro!


Kotor

Fjords are most often associated with Scandinavian countries, Norway in particular, but they are not exclusive to Northern Europe. In fact, one of the most stunning fjords in the world is in Montenegro. The bay of Kotor is Europe’s most southern fjord, and its jaw-droppingly gorgeous and is almost incomprehensible … almost.

Kotor is about as idyllic a location as one can dream up. It sits at the very end of the Bay of Kotor, surrounded by breathtaking mountains. The old town is encased in a fortress wall that scales up the sides of the mountain the town sits beneath, and is as impressive as it sounds.

I spent the first evening wandering the old streets before settling into one of the most inviting little squares, where a guitarist was enchanting the multiple restaurants and bars that circled the square. The anxiety from earlier in the day melted away, helped along by the musical interludes and several tasty Aperol Spritz.

I met quite a few wonderful people in my hostel, including some of the staff. During one conversation, I struck a bond with a couple of intrepid vagabonds like myself, and we headed out for some dinner and a stroll through town, before finding our way to one of the most unlikely cocktail bars on my travels.

The next morning the three of us woke early to hike up the mountain to sneak into the fortress from above. If you take the path from inside the old town, there is a €8 fee, but the owner of the hostel mentioned if you went to the outside of old town there is a path that goes up the mountain, to a hole in the fortress wall, and you could enter for free. Normally, I wouldn’t consider bypassing the fees since they are going to the local economy, but more than one person mentioned it to us and it seemed like a common option. We were also told by several locals it wasn’t worth the €8 either. So anyways, that’s what we did.

We left the hostel at 7:30am, hoping to beat the incoming rainstorm. The path up the mountain, was well marked, clearly maintained, and seemed not to be all that sneaky. Once we reached the fortress, there was even a ladder attached to the wall, for easy entrance inside. Once inside, we spent some time exploring the ruins, which were surprisingly not being maintained, which is a shame given they were charging entrance. This was about the same time it started to rain, so we began our descent, this time, from inside the fortress walls.

Whether or not it was worth the money is a discussion for another day, what I can say is that the views were stunning, and it was easy to see why the fortress was built, as you had views of the entire bay and surrounding landscape.


Dumitor National Park, Žabljak

After a few days in Kotor, I hopped a bus for the remote northern part of the country and one of its crown jewels, Dumitor National Park. As I left the hostel, the skies opened up and a deluge of rain pounded the city. The bus station was a mere five minutes away, but by the time I arrive I was completely soaked from head to toe. While my clothes are quick dry, I spent the entire day in soggy socks and shoes, and was just miserable all day.


I had looked at the weather forecast before booking my stay in Žabljak, and knew there was high chances of rain for several days, so I spend them hunkered down in my cabin, refactoring the code for this blog and watching Star Wars.

In between rain storms, I took the opportunities to do a few smaller walks, including a nice hike around Crno Jezero, meaning Black Lake. It was an easy and pleasant 15km walk with some impressive views of the mountains behind it.

By the time the weekend arrived, the weather had improved and my friend Ramona, whom I met in Kotor, had arrived. We did a moderate 15km hike up to another glacial lake, and attempted to push on up to an overlook, but with the threat of rain still present, we deferred and headed back to town. Back in town, over dinner as we looked at the weather forecast, we both decided to extend our stay, Ramona till Friday and myself until the following Monday.


My first big hike was a couple days later, when I decided to attempt an almost 40km hike to an overlook of the Dumitor range from the backside. I knew it was a challenging hike, but I really had no idea what I was in for. I was both proud and disappointed in what I accomplished. While I didn’t make it to my original goal, I did push myself far outside my comfort zone and was rewarded with some of the most imposing and breathtaking scenery I’ve ever witnessed.

The hike ended up being just over 32km (20 miles), with over a mile in elevation gained! I can be pretty acrophobic, like needing to crawl like a baby afraid, and at multiple moments had to push myself really hard to keep going, especially when the trail went across shear cliffside.

The highlight of the day was without doubt was Ališnica, the alpine valley just below the peak of Planinica. You can look at photos of glacial valleys all you want, but seeing one in person is an amazing experience. Massive boulders strewn about and a valley pockmarked with glacial divots. Walking through this valley I couldn’t think how this place wasn’t used in Lord of the Rings, since I felt like the fellowship crossing the vast landscape.

quick video of the valley

After reaching the far end of Gornja Ališnica and ascending up to the base of Planinica (2330m), I stopped for a rest and some lunch. It was at this point that I realized that my original destination, Prutas, was still over 4km away. It was also necessary to descend 1km and then climb another 1km back up the other side to Prutas. This was the moment, when I knew I couldn’t make it, I was simply too tired already. While disappointed, I had pushed myself so hard already and had been rewarded with this location.

As I made my way back to town, I decided to take it slow in the valley and really enjoy my time. I spent almost two hours just wandering around the valley, scaling various boulders and taking in the surrounding natural beauty.


The next few days were spent alternating between relaxation and easy hikes close to town, mostly to recover from the hike to Planinica and with an eye on another big hike to come.

My finale in Dumitor was a hike up to Jablan Jezero, a glacial lake that was about 7.5km from my cabin in Žabljak. While that distance doesn’t sound like much, it also included a 550m elevation gain, which happens in under 2km and includes some heart pounding ridgeline climbing. At one point my acrophobia was so aggressive I actually turned back, before scolding myself and going for it. I’m so glad I did because the view from above the lake was wondrous, with Stuoc mountain towering above it.


In total I’ve spent 12 days up in these glorious mountains and have barely scratched the surface of what there is to do. Tara Canyon, Europe’s largest canyon, is part of the park and I had hoped to do some whitewater rafting there. Unfortunately the water is still too rough and too cold, so it will have to wait.

Dumitor is the fourth National Park I’ve visited in the Balkans, and is easily my favorite. It’s rugged, wild and still widely unknown outside of the region. It reminds me of both the Colorado Rockies and the Sierra Nevada’s in California in different ways. But honestly, from now on I’m going to say that those places remind me of Dumitor, such is its beauty.

The hikes I embarked on forced me to face my fears and ultimately overcome them. In doing so I reached unimagined heights and leave this rugged land filled with pride, accomplishment and a renewed zest to seek discomfort. This landscape has so deeply captured my imagination and I hoped to return again some day.