Friday, October 26, 2012

holidays 2012 - day 13: a short swim & a long drive

it's sunny but very windy on our last morning. we have breakfast in front of our tent ...

michi honey

... listening to the waves, wondering if it will get warm enough to go for a swim before we hit the road back to austria.

after we have taken the tent down and put most things away, we go down to the beach, soak up some sun, play a few games ...

happy feet

... and eventually decide to take a dip. the water is rather on the cool side ... nothing like the previous year. but as the wind dies down and the sun grows stronger, we are fine and actually take another swim before heading for the showers.

we're off at 1 pm, have a quick lunch and an ice cream in tisno proper.

heinrich hearts ice cream

then we are off towards the highway. familiar sights along the road. the last glimpses of the sea make me a little sad ... but we've had such a great holiday, and croatia isn't all that far, it is very likely we will be back some time.

we leave croatia around 5.30 - hello slovenia! onward ... and hello again, austria! we stop at heinz's mom's for the night - 500 km from tisno. and this is where our 2012 holiday ends.

it did me a world of good - not being connected to most of the rest of the world for a while ... no phone calls, no facebook, no emails. much as i am online at home, i really don't miss all that when i am travelling for a couple of weeks. it's part of recreation for me. :)

photos of day 13

holidays 2012 - day 12: three countries in one day

so it's goodbye to žabljak and durmitor - in the rain. grey curtains drawn before the stunning panorama. jelena is the only one home, and she doesn't charge us for breakfast nor the countless teas and coffees! i'm really sorry to have to leave - what a nice time we've had here, and what a beautiful area it is! of course we stock up on some more pastry in town ...

durmitor in the rain

so we drive towards rastovac in quite heavy rain, stop for a hot drink in an umbrella-friendly place ...

the parasol protectorate? (for alexia tarabotti fans)

... and then look for the road towards the bosnian border near krstac. we drive back and forth a few times and cannot find the turnoff. that should tell us something. or it might have been better to just give up and take a different road. but - just then we find the turnoff. the rain lets up eventually. beautiful scenery: hills, mountains, red and yellow and green foliage, burnt trees, barely any settlements, entertaining traffic signs ...

zorro was here!

cow with square udder

greased lightning

... relaxed cattle ...

your road? my arse!

... and the occasional garbage dump:

another road, another sofa

and so we leave montenegro. drive down the street to the bosnian border post. hand over our passports. the guard disappears in the house. comes back. says "there's a problem for you." that isn't quite what we want to hear. "this crossing is only for local people, people who live here." argh. why on earth? not a chance? no, sorry. we are not experienced in bribery, so ... we turn around and enter montenegro once again. the border guard doesn't even stop us, he just raises the barrier. sigh. we lose about two hours driving to krstac and back, the only good thing is that i get to spend more time in montenegro! :)

we take the road to trebinje, and this time they let us leave montenegro AND enter bosnia and hercegovina. doviđenja!

not a hint of rain here, instead blue sky and a few fluffy clouds. the scenery is gorgeous - mountains, a lovely river, rusty bridges, and then, when we come around a bend - a view of the sea, dark blue and dazzling in the sunlight!

the sea! the sea!

another border crossing, this time into croatia. we stop for a drink and some fresh mandarins in opuzen at the beginning of the neretva delta, where the fruit vendor immediately cries out "falco!" when he sees our austrian number plate.

we make our way to the highway and on to split and šibenik. our destination is tisno on the island of murter, where we spent a few days last year. we know we'll be arriving late, therefore it will be nice to be in a familiar place. it's 7:30 and nearly dark by the time we get there. we set up the tent one last time and head into the little town's centre for some delicious dinner. yummy calamari! the night is actually quite cool - what a difference to last year, when we barely needed a blanket in the tent! still, we don't quite feel this way:

grim face

photos of day 12

holidays 2012 - day 11: in the montenegrin mountains

being as exhausted as we are from our tara canyon adventure, we sleep well and are ready to tackle at least some of the montenegrin mountains. several hiking trails start practically on our doorstep, and we decide to walk towards crepulj poljana. the landscape here is actually not all that different from back home. for the first one and a half hours it's barely more than a walk through the woods. we meet only a couple of locals and their cattle dragging timber to the forest road.

men & cattle at work

then it's uphill for half an hour or so, and another 10 minutes until the forest gives way to alpine meadows featuring a few small barns, at the foot of some very rocky mountains: crepulj poljana (1648 m above sea level). we find a nice picnic spot under the blue sky and enjoy the stillness and scenery. it feels so good to be outdoors! it's a tad windy, but apart from that pretty perfect.

crepulj poljana, mountains & sky

we contemplate going further, but it would be another 2 hours to the nearest peak, and so we turn around and take the turnoff to zminje jezero (snake lake). lovely little lake with cooling water for my feet!

heinrich & michi testing the waters at snake lake

from there we follow mlinski potok (mill creek) to crno jezero, which we already saw on the evening of our arrival. the lake is picture book blue this time, completely different from that evening, and the grass around it is almost unreal, a kind of bright, slightly yellowish green. we sit and enjoy the sunshine, test the waters, watch the ripples on the lake, and have some more delicious montenegrin pastry.

jewel of durmitor: the black lake in blue

we arrive back at our guest house well after 3 in the afternoon and sit outside chatting with 16 year old novica, whose english is really good, and whose passive german skills aren't so bad either. he's such a funny guy. his mom jelena serves us pasta - just for us to "try". three portions later we're actually quite full ...

post-pasta picture

after a very welcome shower, we have a quiet evening - many of the people we met on arrival are now gone. it's our last night in montenegro, too.

photos of day 11

Monday, October 15, 2012

holidays 2012 - day 10: nature at its best: tara canyon

after a good night's sleep we wake up to picture-book blue skies and fabulous views from our window. we spend an hour or so writing postcards, chatting with other guests and enjoying the sunshine as well as jelena's coffee/tea/breakfast.

bright september morning in the mountains

then it's off to my first ever rafting tour (heinz's second) - and one in such spectacular setting, too: the tara canyon, which the tara river has formed over many hundreds of years. and it's not just any canyon - it is the deepest in all of europe, about 1300 m deep at its peak. that's a mere 200 m less than the grand canyon.

we are picked up in town - a small group of an israeli father & son, an american mother & daughter, heinz & me - and driven to some place near the impressive tara bridge, where we are served schnaps (supposedly to calm the nerves) and plums fresh off the trees, where we meet a crazy little dog named after barack obama, and - more importantly - where we change into wetsuits, boots, life vests, and hard hats. we end up looking like particularly bright chanterelles!

rafting team h & m

we're off to splavište, where the six of us are told where to sit and are briefly instructed by our tour guide, whose english is very basic. cameras go into waterproof bags, which are attached to life vests. feet slip into foot straps, oars are gripped, and then we're off.

gorgeous tara canyon

the river at this time of year is anything but wild. in fact, prior to recent rains, it was so shallow they nearly couldn't take the rafts to water! we have to use our oars frequently, otherwise we'd be floating downriver so slowly we'd never get to our destination in a day. the word of the day is most definitely "everybody" - tour guide commanding the crew to paddle. :) there are some rapids, but they are barely a challenge. it's a very different story in april or may, when the river swells with snowmelt water. several times along the way, the guide points out the water level this past spring, there are marks here and there - and they are impressive, several metres above our heads! so the tara might be tame at the moment, but it is still very beautiful: the colour keeps changing, depending on the play of sunlight and clouds, on the surroundings (bushes, trees, rocks), on the depth: bluish to almost black, bright green to an almost unreal turquoise, emerald to transparent. but it's crystal clear and it's rather on the chilly side. i'm actually quite happy the river is not quite so wild, because it's perfect for a first attempt at rafting, and there is more time to lean back and enjoy the scenery, to take photos.

black beach, massive rocks, stunning water

unfortunately, the sun is only out at the beginning. clouds begin to move in, the fluffier white variety at first, but eventually grey ones, and i occasionally wonder whether they are bringing rain.

we flow downstream past fairly untouched forest, past a few waterfalls, past black miniature beaches, past rocks in the strangest shapes. it's so hard to find the right words, describing the beauty of the tara canyon is definitely not easy. i love the fact that it is so quiet around us, that we are all happily observing little birds flitting across the surface of the clear water, that we are taking in the gorgeous surroundings without the need to constantly comment on it. the walls of the canyon rise ever higher, and i think we all marvel at the ability of plants to take hold in the most amazing and unlikely places.

we stop for about 20 minutes to get off and take a look at one of the bigger waterfalls. such things are rare here in this karst landscape, where water usually disappears in caves and cavities the moment it reaches the ground.

and then we approach the bridge, this miraculous construction (about 360 m long, with a largest span of about 116 m, approx 170 m above the river) ...

spanning a canyon

... with its sad history: it was first built between 1937 and 1940, shortly before the italian and german troupes invaded the area. the partisans demanded the bridge be destroyed - and asked lazar jauković, the young engineer who had designed and overseen the construction of the bridge, to blow up "his" bridge! he blasted away the longest span, but did this so cleverly that the rest of the bridge remained intact. however, shortly thereafter he was captured by the invaders and shot on the bridge. in 1946 the tara bridge was completed once again - thanks to jauković's diligence a rather easy task, too. we're all adequately awestruck as our raft silently makes its way under the bridge far, far above:

tara most - connecting rocks

we stop for drinks/coffee soon and say goodbye to the americans, who are only doing the half-day tour. the sun's out again, it's actually hot! how refreshing the tara waters are!

the raft

here, a friend of the guide's joins us for the rest of the day. pretty soon we have a lunch break on a tiny little beach, where we munch our massive pršut and cheese sandwiches in companionable silence. on we go then, once again passing bizarre rocks (e.g. one that looks like to bear heads touching noses), sunken or half-sunken trees, untouched forest, playful birds.

half-buried giant lobster?

eddies and ripples carry us along. rapids make us work together. sometimes there is total silence, even the guide's friend shuts up for a while. there's this one quiet spot where we just drift for a while, nobody even whispers, nobody actually moves much. it's just the sounds of the water itself, little bird noises, a little wind. such moments have become so rare in our world, in our hectic lives.

palpable silence

unfortunately it's completely overcast now, and i am actually a little cold for the last hour or so. but i certainly don't regret doing the full-day tour. there's so much beauty there, and this is the only way to see it. approaching our final destination, there's mist gathering just above the surface of the dark green water. one expects elves and faeries to come out to play any moment!

mist on the water

hours after taking to the water, we reach radovan luka camp. even after being on solid ground for a while, i feel as if i were walking on wavelets! i must say it's good to get out of the wetsuit and into dry clothes now. what we don't know at that point, of course, is that the greatest adventure of the day still lies before us: the drive out of this remote wilderness, over an hour in an old VW bus on something that only vaguely resembles a road (a gravelly, rocky track washed out from recent rain). clearly, the driver is enjoying himself, while some of the passengers are probably fervently praying to whatever gods are in residence in the neighbourhoood.

there is a photo stop along the way, gorgeous views of the nearby serbian mountains. we are back in žabljak around 5.30, tired, happy, and full of beautiful impressions to take home with us.

after dinner - once more at "luna" - we head back to our guesthouse. mina, the owner, has arrived and greets us like long lost friends. we stay and chat with his 16 year old son novica, and exchange rafting stories with other travellers. and we're pretty sure we'll fall asleep mumbling "everybody!" and trying to paddle ourselves deeper and deeper into sleep.

photos of day 10

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

holidays 2012 - day 09: religious cult, dangerous driving, and more mountains

more adventures after a cool, bright night on a mattress that is most definitely leaking. leftover pastry for breakfast, and another chat with the nice employee over coffee and a hot chocolate.

then we're off towards ostrog monastery. you'd expect that the road to such an important place of worship would be in top condition and nicely signposted - not so on both points. it's another drive through the wilderness on roads that are narrow, occasionally little better than dirt roads, first winding their way down and then up again towards the tucked-away monastery. once we miss a turnoff, because there are no signposts whatsoever. an old man - the only person we actually come across in this montenegrin backwater - points us in the right direction. what signs we see from then on, are written in cyrillic. good thing i brushed up on that before our journey!

eventually we make it to the topmost parking lot - the true believers approach the upper monastery on foot from the lower part, climbing many a step. although this odes not seem to apply to those we assume to be priests or other church officials: they arrive by car, sporting long robes and impressive beards:

montenegrin hippies?

what a spot they picked for this monastery - i wonder how they built the cave church. can't have been an easy undertaking. such an out-of-the-way place, and it actually looks as if they'd cut a hole in the sheer wall of rock and shoved a ready-made white monastery into the gap.

tucked into rock: cave church, manastir ostrog

so this is by far the most important montenegrin pilgrimage place for members of the serbian orthodox church. quite fascinating, not only because of the location, but also as far as the behaviour of the believers is concerned. talk about crazy cult.

as an atheist i find religion of any kind quite intriguing in many ways. you get to observe some decidedly weird behaviour at times. here it's devout people kissing everything from door frames to supposedly ancient cloth (which looks like it's just come from either the shop or the dry cleaner's), from mosaics depicting saints to strange relics. women of all ages, their heads covered with scarves, as well as men (from the big, tanned, muscular variety to the bent elderly one) walk out of the rooms backwards, crossing themselves. what i find particularly funny is how some people's behaviour changes immediately after paying their respects to the holy objects in the cave church and the shows of devoutness: a woman rudely elbows me on her way downstairs. girls, barely two steps from the exit, remove their headscarves and deftly rearrange their often flimsy blouses or t-shirts in order to show more bare shoulder and cleavage. an elderly lady with too much too bright pink lipstick unashamedly jumps the queue at the little kiosk. back to the real world indeed.

we do some more people-watching, buy a few postcards, receive a little flask of holy water, light a candle, and enjoy the stunning views of the lowlands and the distant mountains opposite ostrog,

the long and winding road to ostrog

then drive back down the adventurous road. we stop at lower ostrog for a look at the church, then end up stuck in a little traffic jam due to road work. nobody knows how long it will take, but there is no anger or stress. people get out of their cars to enjoy the views, to watch the slow progress the massive drill makes on the rock, to take photos. no rush.

we drive past nikšić again, towards žabljak. there's barely any traffic, and a frantically waving man next to the road is delighted when we pull over. we may not speak the same language, but it is clear that his car with its heavily laden trailer is stuck in the deep gravel of this passing place. he needs us to help push. we see him safely on the road again.

driving towards durmitor national park turns out to be quite an adventure, because there is a madman on the road in a car plus trailer. and he is right in front of us. this person clearly does not understand the meaning of "my side of the road", or indeed the concept of sharing the road with anybody. we try not to get too close, as he tends to approach dangerous bends driving in the other lane. yes, that's the one for oncoming traffic. and, just occasionally, there is oncoming traffic. i actually want to close my eyes each time we get closer to a bend. it's quite frightening. his car is definitely more powerful than ours though, and the road is winding, so we can't even consider overtaking. which turns out to be just as well: further along the way there is a straight stretch, and a slovak car tries to overtake him. big mistake. when they are level, the montenegrin drifts ever further left, and there really isn't anywhere to go for the slovaks, and the two cars make contact. if you think that slows the insane montenegrin down, you are mistaken. he puts the pedal to the metal and is off. i can't believe it! the problem is that we cannot see the number plate, as it is hidden by the trailer, which does not have its own number plate. when the slovaks pull over, we stop, too, but we can't really help, we just tell them that we haven't actually seen the licence plate either. we should have written down their mobile number or something, just in case, but didn't. in fact, much later, where the road has three lanes, we manage to safely overtake the idiot, and i make a note of the number plate. we stop for a drink and photos of the highlands a while later and wait a while to see if the slovaks drive by, but they don't.

deserted montenegrin highlands

the montenegrin maniac disappears somewhere to piss off (and put to risk) some other people, and we arrive in žabljak, the town at the highest altitude in the balkans and touristic centre of durmitor national park, all in one piece around 3 pm.

while it was quite scorching in ostrog, it is now overcast, and there are even some drops of rain. we make our way to camp mlinski potok, our "friend" mina's place.

montenegrin perception of tourists? welcome to mlinski potok camp!

mina, as we know, is still away on the coast, but his lovely wife jelena welcomes us with offers of coffee, tea, schnaps or whatever else we fancy. due to our damaged mattress and the expected low temperatures, we decide to ask for a room, and jelena, ever resourceful, offers us her daughter's room, because she has reservations for or guests staying in the other rooms! it's € 10 per person per night, so we don't think twice and are settled in soon after jelena has changed the sheets. quite the room it is, too, with unbelievably kitschy pictures on the walls and tiger-print bedclothes. you don't get that kind of authenticity in your average hotel now, do you?

heinrich (the bear), otto (the croc) & their groupies

at 1455 m above sea level, we are definitely in the mountains here: an area of 390 km2 boasts 48 peaks over 2000 m. wow. it looks genuinely alpine, in fact not so different from certain places in austria. we venture into town for some food. "people here like to eat a lot" is what we have been told repeatedly, and the portions served at "luna" by a friendly bear of a man are certainly tailored to those needs. full and warmed up we pay a visit to summit travel agency for some information and a chat with an elderly german expat. we end up booking a full-day rafting tour on the tara river, supposed to be quite a highlight of every trip to montenegro, and buying a map of walking/hiking trails.

we take a walk from mina and jelena's past a hotel that looks like straight out of "the shining" to nearby crno jezero, the black lake. evening falls, and it is absolutely clear where the gorgeous lake got its name. it lies there, among majestic mountains, like an unblinking black eye, a mirror for the beautiful surroundings, as if ONE breath-taking scene were not enough.

crvena greda & crno jezero at dusk

afterwards we sit in jelena's little lounge room with a few russians, ukrainians and germans, sipping wine, grappa, cherry brandy or tea with local honey. a little while later our two acquaintances from kitzbuehel/stuttgart arrive - i'd actually started looking for their car! it all reminds me so much of my old backpacking days, when chatting with an international crowd of fellow travellers was just the thing to do every night. when we eventually go upstairs, we fall asleep happily, predator bedclothes or not.

photos of day 09

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

holidays 2012 - day 08: coast, lake, riverside

most of the night in our austrian corner (there are three other austrian parties in this part of the campsite) at camp maslina is sleepless for me: it is so windy that my side of the tent is occasionally pushed right into my face, and of course it's noisy, and i am rather cold as well. it isn't until well into the small hours that i actually fall into a deep sleep. it doesn't exactly help that our newly bought mattress seems to have a hole somewhere and therefore it's no longer quite as cosy in the tent ... still, we wake up in montenegro and not oz. unfortunately, we wake up to an overcast and still very windy morning - so much for the "eternal sunshine" promised to us repeatedly after the big rain. therefore, instead of spending a lazy morning at the beach, we decide to pack up and do the highly recommended monastery route along the western shore of lake skadar.

before we leave, we chat with the people at the campsite - the owner used to live in germany. friends of the owners from žabljak are visiting, mina and his son novica, who run a campground and rent out rooms in durmitor national park's main town. mina also used to live in germany, and he's a very talkative, genial guy. he hands us his business card, since we are going to žabljak soon anyway. eventually we say goodbye and drive towards vladimir, which we are, of course, already familiar with. sometimes, however, it is not quite clear where to go ...

road to pretty much nowhere

of course we cannot pass by without another sign enhancement. this time it's the albanian name of vladimir, katerkollë, which reminds us of kater carlo (the german name of disney's black pete):

vladimir aka kater carlo

past vladimir, however, we take a different route. we are once again close to the albanian border, but then turn away from it to follow the road along lake skadar. however, the road is not actually next to the lake, it's (of course, this being montenegro) several hundred metres above the lake. it's definitely a very lonely area, rather poor, too. the road twists and turns, all around us there's macchia and trees, and to the left the mountains tower above us - between lake skadar and the sea, the highest peak nearly 1,600 m above sea level!

at one point we find ourselves driving along an avenue lined with old chestnut trees - kind of unexpected, and very beautiful. there are various moslem graveyards, some of them barely big enough for half a dozen graves - it almost looks as if everybody had a family graveyard out back! we stop at an older, bigger one to take a few pictures. most names are albanian, not surprisingly, as albanians are the majority in this part of montenegro. i've never actually seen headstones quite like these. i love visiting graveyards when i travel, there are such differences between cultures and religions!

grave with chimney?

our route offers gorgeous views of lake skadar glittering in the sun that has come out around midday. the guidebooks say there are only two places where you can actually access the lake, and when we spot a godforsaken village somewhere at the foot of the mountains, we think this might be one of the places, and drive down the patched-up road. a few inhabitants curiously ogle us - i'm pretty certain that austrian cars are rather a rarity here. it turns out that it is impossible to access the lake here. strange - to live so close to it and yet to be unable to get to the shore! so back to the main road, and very soon we find the turnoff to murići, which splits into several streets, then unites again further down, only to split once more ... but all these roads seem to lead to the lake.

big lake, big sky, little village

donkeys and mules are parked next to cars, goats block the road, a mosque greets us with a simple minaret, elderly inhabitants nod or wave, and some baby clothes on a line are the only sign of young life in this place in the middle of nowhere. there is no shop, the guidebooks say a van comes a few times a week to sell essential things. the area must be very poor - that is confirmed later in conversations. what kind of work would one do here anyway?


by the lake a few people want to sell us a boat trip to the monastery on a small island just off the coast, but we know that we don't really have time for such a trip this afternoon. and this is about all there is of murići as the monastery route's touristic centre. sitting in the café down by the shore, we bump into our campsite neighbours from camp maslina, two girls from stuttgart, one of whom is based in kitzbuehel, austria. we chat for a while, tell them of the campsite in žabljak we're heading to, then watch some crazy puppies at play, walk along the shore for a bit, and then make our way back up to the main road.

off with its head!

more gorgeous lake views are in store for us along the sunny way to virpazar - whenever we think "this is the last time we're stopping and getting out of the car", we're wrong. and is it any wonder?

blue-greem beauty: lake skadar

wetlands and mountains

my mind's made up to do a lake skadar boat trip next time i'm in the neighbourhood, i would so love to see turtles and pelicans and get views of the surroundings from the lake.

what we do spot, however, is a dog turned to stone :-)

stone dog

we drive north, past the capital podgorica (also something for next time), towards nikšić, home of the local beer. the road cuts across the central lowland plain here - a geographical feature that strikes us as odd in this mountainous country. i also spot monastery ostrog far, far above the plain, a white toy tucked into the sheer face of rock. not quite knowing where to stop for the night, we decide to keep our eyes open for any signs of rooms for rent or a campground, though we don't really expect to find one here. but we do - and it's a chance discovery of a real gem. it's called "riverside", and is located by a quiet little creek just off the main road from nikšić to žabljak, near gornje polje.

it's a tiny little campground - and a dutch couple are the only guests apart from us, there beside the black water, under the apple trees. we spend quite a while talking to the incredibly friendly employee, both this evening and the next morning, as his english is very good and he seems to enjoy a good conversation. he answers a lot of questions about montenegro, its politics and development, and he tells us of the "riverside" project: the restaurant is all wood and rocks and has existed for a little while, but this is the first year the campsite is open. the next step is to make changes to the restaurant building in order to be able to run the restaurant all year. as it is now, the restaurant is open to one side. it is such a cosy place, with sofas and colourful throws, armchairs, mismatched chairs, an old typewriter on the long wooden bar, album covers on a wall, old tools on the walls ...

essential: bar with typewriter

outside there's another little building under weeping willows and a single table on a platform, which reminds me of a tree house. the owners are planning to develop the site, make room for more tents, extend the facilities, step by step. it should be interesting to see what becomes of this gorgeous little place.

"riverside" restoran

we are instant fans - and that is even before we have had our dinner. there is no menu, but we are told there is "fish, beef, veal, lamb, pork" and we can just tell them how we want it done. we both go for the fish with potato salad - and get two delicious trout each, with a generous portion of potato salad and bread. for a mere €8 each! i can't finish my portion, and even heinz is so full that there are leftovers on our table for once. outside, it's clear skies with lots and lots of stars - and no wind.

photos of day 08