Another mountain, another country

July 3, 2013

Distance: 45.7 miles           Climbing: 4596.5 ft

After our pleasant day exploring Kotor we had to hit the road again. Our original plan was to cross into Croatia and spend a day at Dubrovnik, which by all accounts is an awesome place. However, after a considerable amount of research we discovered that getting in and out of the city on a bike was a dangerous and stressful undertaking, as the highway was the only way in and out. We were also a little sick of sharing space with tourist hoards. Even though we’d only been in Kotor for one day, we were ready to get off the beaten path again. So our only other logical destination was Trebinje, Bosnia. We didn’t find a lot of info about the place online, but there was a cheap place to stay and the little we did find to read was positive.

Road out of Kotor

Road out of Kotor

Kotor Bay has a main road which winds along the shore headed west , or an alternative route that runs on the opposite side of the bay which links up to the main road with a short ferry, cutting out a few miles. We usually wouldn’t “cheat” by taking the ferry to cut out distance, but the main road was busy and the far shore looked pretty quiet so it was an easy choice. Things went fine until we got off the 1€ ferry and were dumped on the main road. We tried to escape the traffic by following the local road along the coast, but instead of being jammed with cars it was loaded with sunburned tourists wandering all over the place. Chandler’s bell was almost constantly ringing as we swerved around the oblivious holiday-makers.

Our ferry

Our ferry

Eventually, we got funneled the wrong way onto a one way street that ran at the bottom of a big hill. The highway was the only road that ran in our direction, at the top of the hill, so we blissfully rode against traffic which infuriated the other drivers. It was a small local road, so traffic was slow and there wasn’t any danger, but it did require oncoming traffic to give us some room and slow down a little. One man rolled down his window yelling something and pointing at us then screamed “police, police!!”. Sure enough we rounded the corner and there were two police officers standing watching traffic. Chandler gave one of them a nod, he nodded back and continued to watch traffic- they could not have cared less. This all may seem insignificant, but after the past few days of dealing with ridiculously inconsiderate drivers we reveled in our ability to return the favor in such a satisfying way.

Our moods buoyed by our immature act of traffic safety rebellion, we turned north towards Bosnia and started to climb. And climb. And climb. We ended up on another of Chandler’s shortcuts which started out as a paved road, which deteriorated into a pair of concrete strips in the grass at what we estimated to be about 15% grade and then to completely washed out gravel at the same grade. We did a lot of walking.

Even Chan has to walk his bike up sometimes

Even Chan has to walk his bike up sometimes

Don't know what that mean, but doesn't look good

Don’t know what that mean, but it doesn’t look good

It was so ridiculous it didn’t really spoil our moods much. When we got the top we had a snack of chocolate cookies and then finally met up with the main highway. It was a brand new road with perfect asphalt that continued to climb, but at a manageable grade. It was really hot though and we didn’t have much water. The climbing was relentless and our moods started to tailspin. Right as I was feeling really low, I came around a corner and spotted Chandler talking to three other bike tourists. They were a group of two guys and a girl in their early 20’s from Montreal riding from Spain to Greece for a music festival. We traded travel stories for a while and had a nice chat. They really enjoyed Bosnia and we told them about our favorite places in Albania. They let us know we were almost to the top of the hill and the rest of the ride to Trebinje should be pretty easy. We parted ways and felt emotionally reset.

After a quick 20 minutes of climbing we hit the Montenegrin border and were stamped out into no man’s land. It was a little confusing because we rode along for several miles thinking we should have been stamped into Bosnia by now, and just when we thought maybe the border we crossed was some sort of a combo thing we rounded the corner and saw the Bosnian border station. Again, no problem getting our stamp, and we rolled down a huge hill into an extremely flat valley. We breezed into Trebinje, but we feeling pretty shot after all the climbing.

The valley after the climb

The valley after the climb

At the outskirts of town I spotted a motel, so we swung in to check out the prices but were turned away, which was weird since the place looked empty. Chandler remembered that he saw on the internet a place way up on the hill on the other side of town for 25 Euros so we rode over there. When we got to where he thought the place should be there was no sign of it. Our moods were starting to sink again. Chandler turned around and was waiting for me to catch up before turning to ride downhill back to town. I was taking my time when a woman came out of a house and started speaking to me in Bosnian. I was able to communicate that we needed a place to sleep and she indicated I should wait for a minute. Out came her husband who spoke pretty good English and I secured us a room at their house for 20 Euros!

Trebinje

Trebinje

There were three apartments in the building and since no one else was staying there we got our own floor which had three bedrooms, a bathroom, a full kitchen and living room with a huge TV. The owner pulled out a bottle of prune whiskey made by his son in-law and we enjoyed a drink with him before taking showers. The apartment had a balcony that looked out over the whole valley and the town below. We cooked up a nice dinner of vegetables and relaxed by watching some stupid American television. What a day!

Kotor

July 2, 2013

With a giant fortress looming over the city, we had to take the day off to explore. We were also excited about doing a little hike and using some different muscles. While we are in great shape for bicycling, I have noticed that I easily tire when walking long distances or climbing lots of stairs. I have been looking forward to alternative forms of exercise.

Enjoying the shade

Enjoying the shade

The city walls extended right up the steep side of the mountain. A stone staircase followed the walls and led to a small chapel mid way up. It would have been very picturesque, but someone had turned it into a shop selling cheap souvenirs. From there, the steps led up further through the ruins. There were a number of small dirt paths leading into small rooms or to windows in through wall. We were really able to walk wherever we wanted, even though some of the paths led along narrow parts of the walls with precipitous drops on the outside.

Chandler

Chandler

Fortress wall

Fortress wall

We ended up leaving the main path through a little window in the ramparts to explore another small chapel behind the fortress. The chapel was clearly not being used except by goats as a bathroom. As we made our way back to the trail, I noticed a sign advertising homemade goat and cow cheese. There was no discussion as to what we would be doing next.

Mountain chapel

Mountain chapel

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A look inside

 

About 100 meters up the path, we came to a little house with an incredible view of Kotor. A little granny and her granddaughter, who spoke English, came out to help us. There was a small spring they had diverted into a faucet and we were encouraged to wash up and enjoy a drink. As we talked with the young girl about quantity and prices, the granny disappeared into the house. When she returned, she was carrying to glass with what appeared to be white wine. We were not really interested in drinking but didn’t want to be rude either, so we took the glasses.

Guard dog

Guard dog

Tiled roof

Tiled roof

Our drinks turned out to be some sort of juice. It wasn’t anything either of us had ever had before. It was sweet and tangy, and very refreshing. The girl didn’t know the English words nor understand the process used to make it, so her granny finally went to the garden and pulled off a sample of the plant she used to make it. Turned out to be stinging nettles! We were amazed and never would have guessed it. She made a syrup by reducing the nettles, lemon, sugar and water.

Stinging nettles

Stinging nettles

Nettle juice

Nettle juice

 

After another glass of juice, we headed back up to the fortress. The top ended up being anticlimactic as there wasn’t much to see. A few stone rooms, mostly repaired in the 1950’s. The view of Kotor was stunning though.

View from the top

View from the top

The hike down was quick as we basically ran down the stone steps. We washed up and relaxed for a pizza dinner. Then it was off to bed early as we had a big ride planned for the next day out of Montenegro.

Shortcuts

July 1, 2013

Distance:  28.2 miles       Climbing: 2506.6 ft        Descending: 5036.1 ft

We woke up pretty early today and enjoyed the view we had overlooking the red tile roofs of Cetinje as we ate breakfast. We continued climbing and eventually made it to a park rangers gate. We didn’t realize we were on a route through a park and were a little worried we’d have to pay a fee. The casually dressed ranger just waved us on. We did stop to ask where to find water and he told us there was a very good spring in 4km or so up the road.

Nice start to the day

Nice start to the day

Up we went passing a few out of business restaurants and small holiday rental cabins. There wasn’t much traffic or signs of current human existence which was becoming a theme. Eventually we came upon the spring, which was cold and delicious. A woman and her daughter also stopped for a drink and told us the spring was famous. Apparently, there is a song about a girl who seduced a young man with water from that very spring. The water was good, but not as sexy as advertised.

As we approached the intersection of the paved road and a gravel lane, I knew we were in for trouble. There was a small sign indicating the route to Kotor was, of course, on the gravel road. Chandler checked the GPS and discovered we had 6 miles in this direction or we could go all the way back to the town we had been in last night to take the highway. Of course, we chose not to turn around and proceeded on another one of Chandler’s infamous “shortcuts”.

The road started out badly with a bed of loose of angular gravel, making it difficult to ride the bikes uphill. We ended pushing our bikes through the trickiest part for the first mile or so. The gravel path eventually turned into an extremely rocky road, which Chandler reminded us of a gentle mountain bike trail. We tried to pick relatively smooth lines, but it was still slow going and jarring on our heavily loaded frames.

I love pushing my bike

I love pushing my bike

After about 3 miles, assuming we had another 3 miles of unpaved road, we suddenly popped out onto asphalt. As a huge tour bus rumbled past us, we knew if we had just stayed on our original road, we wouldn’t have had such an adventure. Oh well. The shortcut took out a few miles and was certainly more memorable than a regular paved road.

Back on pavement

Back on pavement

We immediately forgot about the mountain bike path when we headed downhill, turned the corner and saw the view. The fjord is the deepest in Europe and certainly one of the most scenic.

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Chandler looking good

Nice view

Nice view

After a snack and few photos it was time to head down to town. The road down the mountain ended up being a series over over 20 switchbacks. My hands and arms got cramped from maintaining a firm grip on the brakes. We saw quite a few people cycling up the hill for exercise and I was so happy not to be in their shoes.

In Kotor, we went straight for the old town. This area is surrounded by thick stone walls. Our hope was to get a room at the hostel, but it was full. Luckily, the guy working the front desk had a cheap alternative for us. Just around the corner, in a quieter area, a woman rented out rooms in her house for even less than the hostel beds. The ceilings were so comically low in her attic annex that we ended up showering on our knees, but we had WiFi, a nice patio and were right in the center of the old town. We walked around town a little, had a pizza and worked on the blog before heading to bed. We decided we’d take the day off tomorrow for some rest and to explore the area.

Window

Window

Lizard

Lizard

What a difference a border makes

June 30, 2013

Distance: 25.7 miles              Climbing: 3733.6 ft

We started the day off right with a big breakfast and felt really strong as we began the day’s ride. We plowed up the hills and made really good time.

At the bottom of the hill was a small town, obviously fallen on hard times due to the construction of the bigger, faster highway. We stopped for a refreshing ice cream and were overcharged by about double which we realized only after we had already opened the wrappers. We sat on the sidewalk enjoying our treats when the day seemed to restart.

Our last look at Lake Shkodor

Our last look at Lake Shkoder

We finished up and hopped back on the bikes grinding up a long winding mountain. The scenery was fine but a little monotonous, rocky outcroppings and sparse trees. The local drivers were really not friendly, which was odd. There were signs in all the main towns showing routes for cyclists and clearly there was a desire to entice foreign bike tourists, but that sentiment wasn’t shared amongst the Montenegrin masses. Drivers yielded to us basically as little as they possibly could, accelerating past us at ridiculous speeds, passing each other even though we were in the opposing lane, driving us off the road. Chandler had the closest call of the entire trip when two new Mercedes blasted past him so close that their turbulence knocked him off into the bushes.

Theoretically, it should have been cycling paradise up on the mountain roads as there really wasn’t that much traffic and the scenery was pretty cool but it got to the point where we just stopped riding and got completely off the road when we heard a car coming which was annoying since there was plenty of room for everyone. We couldn’t believe the difference between cycling here and in Albania and speculated that the locals here were just jaded on tourists or hated bicycles or something.

Lonely, abandoned building

Lonely, abandoned building

We arrived at an intersection and discovered the map on our GPS was outdated as there was a NASCAR highway we were about to be forced on that wasn’t on our map at all. Instead we followed a sketchy overgrown path that was the main road on our map, and hoped that it went through. We were so fed up with with the aggressive drivers that even if we had to walk the bikes it would have been better than riding on the main road. After a few meters, the pavement wasn’t as broken and the riding became easier and we moved quicker.

Rocky road

Rocky road

Not the best road, but not the worst either

Not the best road, but not the worst either

The road did go through which was a huge relief and we got to the top of a big hill before a descent to the old capital city of Cetinje. However, the last few miles we were forced onto the highway we deliberately avoided earlier in the day, which turned out to be an insane high speed two lane road with zero shoulder which meant traffic behind us had to slow down from highway speed to pass us if there was oncoming traffic. We we finally reached the town, found a bakery and had a snack, our nerves still shattered but we felt better. We still had to find a campsite, which meant climbing another huge hill out of town.

Chandler found a good spot to investigate, which proved successful. He found us a flat area with several trees, perfect for hammocks! The rest of the evening was spent relaxing. We had a little surprise when a goat herder stumbled upon us. We were afraid he would kick us out, but he was just as surprised as us. After a few moments of frantic waving and pointing Chandler walked over to him to smooth things out and he decided it was important to show us the bag of grass or hay or something that he had collected. After a few confused minutes of pantomiming it was clear he didn’t care we were there and he waved goodby before moving on with his herd.

Chandler hungry

Chandler hungry

Time to relax

Time to relax

Along Lake Shkoder

June 29, 2013

Distance:  31.9 miles              Climbing:  4035.4 ft

The weather cooperated all day. Our morning started with a climb up along a ridge in cloudy skies. We were rewarded with a view of the lake and several donkeys.

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Chan climbing

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The view from the top

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Jenny and a jenny

We had a nice long descent which brought us to a little town with a cafe. Naturally, we had to stop for a drink. The coffees were a little more expensive at 1€ each, but still so cheap.

After the break, we got back on the bikes and headed back into the hills. We rolled along up and down, never gaining anything. We passed through a densely shaded area and realized we were in a chestnut forest that we heard about from other cycle tourists. It was way too early in the day to stop, so we just took a break and had a snack.

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Tobacco

As we passed through a small village, we spotted another cycle tourist and decided to stop for a little chat. He was from England headed to Macedonia where he had a flight to catch back home. We discussed routes and free campsites. When talk turned to food, an older woman came up to us and motioned to a table with bottles of oil and wine. I jumped at the opportunity to enjoy some homemade red wine. She gave us a sample and we bought a liter. The wine tastes nice but presentation was lacking as the wine was sold in a recycled water bottle.

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Lake Shkoder

We coasted down into a valley and were able to take in some great views of the west side of Lake Shkoder.  At the bottom of the valley was a small town with a nice park and lots of tourists milling around. We saw a gelato stand and a fountain and immediately put on the brakes. After scoops of chocolate, we did some much needed grocery shopping. As usual, I waited outside with the bikes as Chan got our dinner.

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Crazy bird’s nests

Outside of town, we encountered a series of switchbacks leading straight up the side of a steep hill. Knowing it was the last climb of the day made it easier to handle. There was a lookout point at the top of the hill with a number of tourists appreciating the view. Not knowing how much further we would have to before finding a campsite, we opted to keep biking.

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Always climbing

We couldn’t have gone more than 100 meters before we spotted an overgrown road leading underneath the lookout area. Chandler scoped it out before we dashed down the road hoping cars hasn’t seen us.

The spot was only visible from the road from high up on the hill, so we weren’t concerned about curious visitors. What I weas more worried about were the spiders. There were huge webs strewn between trees with giant spiders waiting in the center of the web. It made trips to the bathroom in the woods a bit more scary.

We had a nice night despite the spiders. Chandler enjoyed a 2 liter bottle of cheap, low alcohol beer with our usual dinner of pasta.

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Our hero

Unexpected events

June 28, 2013

Distance: 27.6 miles Climbing: 1292.7 feet

The morning brought the reality that we had to leave Albania, no matter how much we liked it there. We had 10 miles before the city of Shkoder, where we planned on spending the last of our Albanian currency before heading to Montenegro. We ended up having a lot more money than we wanted to spend in one day, so Chandler went into a bank to exchange some of it. As I waited outside with the bike, a man approached and asked our trip. I noticed his appearance we very similar to my own, sweaty looking, super tan and clearly a foreigner, another biker!

He was travelling in a group of three, all cycling from France to Istanbul. With almost the same route in reverse, we had a lot to talk about. One thing led to another and we found ourselves at a café enjoying coffee and figuring out where to get pizza. We have meet quite a few other cyclists on the road and don’t always end up connecting with others, but that was not the case with this group. We had to keep making progress but considered taking another rest day just to be able to hang out more.

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New cycling friends

After several hours, it was getting on to 330pm, we forced ourselves to say goodbye and get back on the bikes. We had a few miles to travel before reaching the border. The views were beautiful, but we didn’t take time to stop besides to snap a few photos.

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Castle of Razofo

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Lake Shkoder

We experienced another quick and uneventful border crossing. The Albania guard looked at our passport, handed it off to the Montenegrin guard, who stamped it and handed it back. The was a long line of cars waiting, so two bikers didn’t attract much attention.

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Another country added to the books

We pedaled to the nearest gas station to purchase drinks and refill our tires with air. We discovered that we had reached a country which uses the Euro, meaning things would be expensive.

When Chandler finished filling his tires, we headed into the hills. We had been told that the route through the mountains was beautiful and not to be missed. We made it about a miles up the first hill before Chan noticed a camping spot in a pasture hidden by trees.

We made the usual dinner of pasta before setting up the tent and inflating the sleeping mats. As soon as it got too dark to read, I was ready to fall asleep. Chandler was reading with his headlight next to me when I heard a sound. I asked Chan if he was making the noise, when the heard it again, footsteps really close to the tent. Expecting someone coming to tell us to move on, Chan opened the tent. Outside in the grass, only a foot away, was a small and cute little hedgehog staring up at us. We scrambled to get the camera, but were too slow before the hedgehog turned around and walked back into the brush.

We heard a few more of the little guys, but were no longer concerned and I could sleep soundly.