ONE MONTH THRU-HIKING IN MONTENEGRO
A glass of rakija (or syrup if you have the courage to refuse their homemade alcohol), cheese, dried meat, fruits from the garden and, if you are lucky, some biscuits (yes because according to the time, you may prefer biscuits and syrup rather than dried lamb and booze...). This is what most Montenegrins will put on their table as you approach. At least, this is how we were welcomed almost systematically.
To welcome travelers coming to discover their country, seems to be part of the DNA of the Montenegrins. Throughout the villages we have found open doors and curious people on the other. Until now, it was only in Portugal that we had met such warmth!
We spent our first four days in Montenegro surrounded by nature and almost alone, between the canyons and the highlands of the Durmitor National Park. On the fourth day, we reached the village of Mala Crna Gora (Crna Gora, that is how the Montenegrins call their country, literally black mountain, Mala Crna Gora means little black mountain). Located at 1,800m above sea level, it is considered the highest village in the Balkans. We knew, for having walked on it, that the only road leading to the village was covered with snow and totally inaccessible to cars. We were sure we could not find anyone up there, but we hoped to spend the night in a barn. Arriving there, a small yellow house jumped to our eyes, already because it was yellow then because a window was open. Marie pushed her most beautiful "Dober daaaaaan" (Hellooooo). Milan came out of his house, we exchanged a few words and some gestures and he invited us to spend the night at his place. He prepared us a room, put three logs in the stove, brought out a bottle of rakija, bread, cheese, dried meat on the table, all made home, Milan treated us like kings, or like friends rather, it's even better.
During our crossing of Montenegro on foot, this situation occured many times, without always leading to a homestay, either because we were not invited, or because we still had some way to go. Often, language was a brake on our communication. In the countryside, very few people speak English, when they speak a second language, it is rather Russian. Our mastery of Montenegrin, or Serbo-Croat, allows us only very basic discussions. Officially, Serbo-Croat no longer exists to describe the spoken language in Montenegro, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, each country has named its Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin or Bosnian language.
After having tried for a long time to unravel the tortuous situation of Bosnia, we expected to find more simplicity in Montenegro. In truth, it was a little less complex but not of an incredible clarity either. Most of the Montenegrins we met think of themselves as Serbs and that is also the name they give to the language they speak. Historically, and especially in very recent history, Montenegro and Serbia are friend countries. During the wars in Yugoslavia, after Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia gained independence, the two countries remained united for a few more years by forming the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo).
Currently, during the census, the percentage of Serbs varies from 32 to 63.5% and that of Montenegrins from 21.5% to 43% according to the polls (the same people can declare themselves one or the other from a survey to another). This shows how much differentiation is psychological and political rather than linguistic or cultural.
From canyon to canyon
Beyond the demographic complexities and dried lamb meat, Montenegro has a lot to offer. It seems that the coast is beautiful, but we will have to come back to check it. For us, Montenegro will remain the country of canyons.
We took our first steps in Montenegro at the bottom of Tara Canyon. Most people will tell you that the best way to discover it is doing rafting but looking, we ended up discovering on the maps of the former Yugoslavia, a snaking trail at the bottom of the canyon and back on the plateau a few kilometers further. At the end of the canyon, we had two surprises, a good one and a bad one. We began with the good one: these incredible and sublime waterfalls, then the bad: the path stopped there, no way to reach the plateau, except by going back.
A day's walk further, we crossed the Sušica canyon, this time in transverse, from one "bank" to the other, through the bottom of the canyon. Sušica also marked our entry into the Durmitor National Park.
We only touched the Nevidio canyon, we went for half a day to its surroundings but thanks to the drone, we discovered it differently and bathed in a soft light.
Cherry on the canyon: Mrtvica. Once again, the maps made us decide to go through it. It was without a doubt the most beautiful discovery of the country and one of the most beautiful days of the trip. It is incomprehensible (and very happy) that tourist activities have not yet taken hold of this place. We did not meet anyone for two days and probably saw the canyon at one of the best times of the year, when the snow melts and feeds it abundantly with water.
We entered Montenegro on the first day of spring. However, the snow and the cold were still there and most of the mountain lakes were frozen.
The Crno Jezero, the "black lake" was quite white when we discovered it around Žabljak.
Kapetanovo Jezero, Captain's Lake, marked a turning point in our adventure. He probably welcomed on its bank our last night in the snow, probably until the end of the trip.
Just after leaving Lake Kapetanovo we had the impression that spring was coming, finally. The rivers were full of water, the fauna began to resurface. We had the chance to observe in many places toads and frogs, as well as their eggs since it is the period of their reproduction as well as some snakes including a horned viper. This last meeting reminded us that we were now in territories where nature could be dangerous.
3 national parks
No doubt the most known of the country, the Durmitor National Park. Its name means "asleep" and refers to a folk legend that the mountain could wake up...
Biogradska Gora, the smallest of the country's five national parks.
Prokletije is the newest in the country since it was proclaimed a national park in 2009.
1KG FOR THE PLANET
We were astonished to learn that Montenegro was the first country in the world to include environmental protection in its constitution in 1992. Honestly, it is not blindingly obvious... The arrival of spring also had the effect of bringing up a lot of things that we had less opportunity to see in Bosnia under all this snow, garbage in profusion. According to the nature of the garbage, they are not left by tourists but by the inhabitants: agricultural and domestic waste ranging from plastic tarps to washing machines...
Discussing with Montenegrins we understood that the problem was twofold: on the one hand education, for still (too) many people, to throw garbage in the nature or by the window of his/her car is something normal; and on the other hand the waste management system itself. Sorting has not been instituted, recycling is virtually non-existent, and for some specific wastes such as pharmaceutical and medical waste, there is no solution either. Medical waste is often exported for lack of solution locally and pharmaceutical waste usually ends up in toilets... (source: Courrier des Balkans, https://www.courrierdesbalkans.fr/Dechets-medicaux). How do you convince people to take care of their garbage when they know they will not be treated properly?
In the context of Montenegro's EU accession procedure, the subject of the environment is considered totally incompatible with EU acquis and is currently the main obstacle even before corruption, organized crime and the situation of ethnic minorities.
The subject is so hot that the first public TV channel interviewed us about our 1KG FOR THE PLANET initiative!
Morgane, yes she can!
Montenegro could have been the first country in which we would not have had guests but it was not counting on Morgane who joined us for a week on horseback between Montenegro and Albania! For 2 years she lives in Singapore, we had not had the opportunity to see her and we thought it impossible for her to join us on the road, but impossible is not part of her vocabulary!
We decided to change our route to cross the north of Albania which seemed to us unavoidable. Between the different testimonies of travelers who explain that Albania has often been the most beautiful surprise of their trip and the inhabitants of the Balkans who have often warned us against the insecurity there, what will we discover?
Talk to you soon!
Marie & Nil