XPDTN3: A few gems of the Balkans

XPDTN3: A few gems of the Balkans

I enjoy planning my bikepacking trips nearly as much as actually taking them and this one has been no exception. The Balkans have always been attractive to me and there is a place I have wanted to check off of my Bucket List: The Bay of Kotor. This Bay, also known simply as Boka, is the winding bay of the Adriatic Sea in southwestern Montenegro that includes towering peaks and a rocky coastline dotted with beautiful waterside towns.

When I write about adventures, I like to think that what I write is what I would like to read when looking for trip advice– a bit of adventure combined with practical advice and highlights of the visit. In fact, I just try to inspire others to travel by bike because I think that it’s one of the most rewarding things one can do. Life on a bike is very simple. It forces you to minimize and focus on the essentials, and it comes down to the necessities. I particularly get a sense of freedom and happiness from this. I carry my house with me, and I am flexible and independent.

So, dear reader, if I may give you one piece of advice: travel -ideally by bike- as much as possible because money will return, but time won’t.

 

DAY 0

Getting there in one piece

The afternoon before our first stage, we left Barcelona headed towards Podgorica with an intermediate stop in Milan. We were afraid our bikes would get lost, so I checked for them from the window just after landing in Milan and again in the Podgorica airport. While they arrived safely at our destination, I saw one of the boxes fall 2 meters from the baggage conveyor belt. OMG!

The day before leaving I had contacted the owner of the apartment to ask her to pick us up at the airport, and there she was with a mini car waiting for us expecting to fit both of us and bikes inside. Well, she had to make two trips. Oriol was the first one to go to the apartment, and I waited for her to return. After she picked me up, she told me that winters in Montenegro are cold. Here we were, ready to face the cold winter on our bikes.

The first night we had dinner in a restaurant that the owner of the apartment recommended to us. We let the waiter choose what we ate, and what a good decision it was, especially since we didn’t understand anything printed on the menu. They served us “teletina ispod Saca” — a delicious local favorite with tasty meat and potatoes.

Before going to sleep we assembled the bikes and let them charge to be ready to rock for tomorrow’s first stage. To our surprise, nothing was damaged from the bike box fall at the airport!

DAY 1 (116km, +1.740m)

Almost too perfect to be real

Bicycle touring / bikepacking means self-contained cycling trips for pleasure, adventure and autonomy. It includes many stops to appreciate the landscapes and enjoy every bit of what the surroundings have to offer rather than going fast and counting the kilometers. Time flies when you are doing that.

Knowing that and keeping in mind that at this time of the year the daylight hours are limited, we started our day at 6 in the morning to get underway at 7 to arrive at the hotel in time (i.e. before it’s dark). The first kilometers of the day were quite nasty: a paved 10km straight line into the wind and full of traffic that took us to the lively Montenegrin capital, Podgorica. Drivers in this country don’t seem to be sensible people when it comes to passing us, maybe one out of twenty cars did not compromise our safety.

After a quick visit to Podgorica we turned around 170º and headed to our first climb, but with a tailwind and less traffic! The fun was starting now. The first climb of the day was a side street from which we could see the first nice landscapes that would lead us to the first mountain pass leaving Podgorica. To our left we caught our first glimpse of some rural houses.

The road to Skadar Lake is a rollercoaster with stunning viewpoints all along the way. It is the largest lake in the Balkan Peninsula and of Southern Europe, and the Montenegrin section of the lake and surrounding land has been designated as a national park. The lake is, in fact, a former sea bay that was cut off from the Adriatic when the sea levels dropped, thousands of years ago. It is a natural paradise.

From here, being at just 40m above sea level, we had a 30 kilometers uphill route ahead that would lead us to reach the highest point of the adventure at an altitude of almost 1200 meters. After a few kilometers of semi-paved road, we got onto an off-road path that gently ascends. We took it easy. After climbing for 15 kilometers, we took a little break in Cetinje, and we took a detour to get onto Panoramic Road 3. This route led us to the last kilometers of the car-free climb with stunning views. At the summit, we took a quick photo and put on our jackets on because it was really cold. The temperature was around 3.0ºC, but the wind-chill factor was well below 0º C.

We started the descent crossing some pretty, small towns (Bukovica, Dugi Do and Erakovici) followed by a mostly narrow one-lane road offering stunning views of Kotor from above. The road required strong nerves to negotiate it. We finally arrived at the highlight of the day and a must for every cyclist traveling to Montenegro: the 25-hairpin-turn road that goes down to Kotor from the Lovćen National Park.

It is one of the most unique roads in Europe (and probably the most dangerous too). The views are stunning, and the road is an adventure by itself, especially the most famous part called Kotor Serpentine: a stretch of 8.3 kilometers long with 16 hairpin turns and an elevation loss of 423 meters. It is one of the most famous roads in the world. We were quite cold and hungry, but there was no way that we would not stop to take pictures at almost every turn.

The road ends at Kotor, a city of traders and famous sailors built between the 12th and 14th century at the far end of the Boka Kotorska Bay. We got lost in a jumble of narrow streets inside the city walls, and we sat in the first restaurant where the waiter was willing to serve us lunch at 4pm. After 100km we were starving. Ideally, at this time, we should have been arriving at the hotel instead of having lunch, but there we were, having lunch in the middle of Kotor close to a stove to heat up. After a quick fresh fish-based meal, we visited the old town which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The circumference of the outer wall is 4.5 kilometers. It represents one of the most important examples of defensive Venetian military architecture. From whichever door that you go into the town, the road will bring you to the most famous edifice – cathedral Sveti Tripun from the 12th century, which is dedicated to the protector of the town – Sveti Tripun.

To close the day, we rode the last 15 kms into the setting sun and arrived in the town of Perast. This picturesque, well-preserved, medieval small town is also called “Mini Venice.” These final kilometers were magical with the last sun rays reflecting the rocky coastline and the sun setting in a strikingly colorful orange sea. It was like being in a fjord.

 

The hotel where we settled down for the night offered sea views 10 meters from Perast Beach. What else could we ask for to end this day? An amazing dinner in the restaurant of the hotel. Yummy!

Filled with awe, we couldn’t help but sneak one last look at the natural surroundings of the area before going to sleep. We felt as if we had discovered a secret jewel that few others know.

DAY 2 (136km, +2.040m)

Towards Dubrovnik

We decided to wake up even earlier today to have as many daylight hours as possible. The hotel owners prepared a takeaway breakfast, so we did not lose any time sitting and eating in the hotel. However, once we were ready to go, my sunglasses fell into the sea right in front of the hotel, and we lost about 20 minutes fishing them out.

The first kilometers were along the seaside road that goes around the Bay. The views are spectacular, and the morning light gave this landscape an indescribable touch. The scenery is certainly stunning with the dramatic mountains plunging into the deep, tranquil waters of the bay. This is no fjord, but rather a valley made up of four connected bays shaped like a butterfly shape stretching inland from the coast.

The road offered a view of two small twin islands near Perast: one is called Sveti Djordje (St. George) Island, and the other one is Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rock). Each of them has a picturesque chapel. In fact, we could have seen them yesterday if it wasn’t already dark when we arrived.

A local explained to us that one of the two islands, Our Lady of the Rocks, was built over 500 years ago and that there is a legend that says that sailors spotted an image of the Virgin Mary on a rock here. So, each time they had a successful voyage they added another rock as an offering as they passed. Eventually so many were added that an island emerged, and the chapel was built on top of it. People here still add rocks once a year as part of a festival called Fašinada.

After this pleasant and easy first kilometers around the bay, we started a long and grueling climb:  630 meters of elevation over 6 kilometers on a trail with some 20% grades over several meters. I asked myself: “How steep is too steep when bikepacking uphill?” I THOUGHT that if you don’t care about speed you can go up any incline with very little power as long as there is enough friction, but that is not true! At some point we had to hike-a-bike, a technique that we already mastered in our last bikepacking trip in the Pyrenees.  The steep route is beautifully surrounded by big trees which makes the ride more pleasant. Once we reached the top (700 meters -ish of altitude) we had a downhill gravel road on the other side of the mountain that crosses charming villages with some rural houses and beautiful panoramic views of the sea.

We arrived at the Bay of Kotor’s largest town, Herceg Novi, where we planned to sleep that night. We decided, however, to continue our trip towards the border of Croatia with the idea to visit Dubrovnik. This added 35 kilometers to get there plus 35 kilometers more to return. But we were determined, so we continued towards the border. After six kilometers of a draggy false flat, we reached the border where we had to go to the queue with all the cars. When it was our turn we were asked for our passports. We didn’t have to show our luggage like the rest of the vehicles, so the minimalist lifestyle paid off! We travel light, just some food, clothes and a lot of enthusiasm.

After the climb to the border (who puts a border in a knoll, btw?), we got a short respite before tackling an uncomfortable trail with loose gravel. After a few kilometers we decided to quit the trail and ride a parallel road for the next 10 kms.

Approaching Dubrovnik, we stumbled upon an extremely scenic coastal road from where we could see the emerald green and dark blue crystal-clear sea touching the rocky shore. The road reminded us of Big Sur, California. The last kilometers were a gentle descent into Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is one of the most picturesque cities of the Dalmatian coast and is referred to as the “Pearl of the Adriatic.” We made a quick tour (it was late, we hadn’t had lunch and we only had 2 hours of daylight left) in the surroundings before heading to the old city, which is also designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. In fact, the Old Town is known as one of the world’s finest and most perfectly preserved medieval cities in the world. The town is, indeed, well preserved with its 16th century stone walls. We rode along Renaissance fountains and facades in marble-paved squares and steep cobbled streets and houses that apparently remained unchanged for centuries. The Baroque churches, monasteries and palaces were impressive.

Recently, the city also began to attract many fans of the TV show “Game of Thrones” as it was a prominent filming location. You can even find a “Game of Thrones guided tour”. Oriol didn’t need a guide to spot every location. I followed him. I must have been the only person in Dubrovnik that had not watched this TV show. To make him happy, I looked for a restaurant to have lunch just in front of the Jesuit stairs/ ‘Walk of Shame’ (I don’t know what it was, but Oriol said that any Game of Thrones fan would). Since breakfast (which seemed a long time ago) we hadn’t eaten anything, and it was 4pm.

After a quick lunch, it was time to go back to Herceg Novi. We checked the route and there were still 40 kilometers left with some climbs. We would arrive late at night again. We were not surprised at all. We decided to reroute the return to take the fastest route. But we did make a little mistake that forced us to hike-a-bike for some kilometers.

Then, back on track, we just rode as fast as we could following the route that Komoot suggested to us. We rode on a secondary road that had nothing special, but the sunset lights and the absence of cars made it special. We hit the border again with our bike lights turned on and warm clothes layered to protect us from the wind and low temperatures. It was indeed dark. The police at the border looked at us as if we were aliens. We showed them our passports, and all that remained was a downhill to Herceg Novi.

We arrived late, so we didn’t have time for anything else besides a quick shower before a delicious Montenegrin dinner. We ate like there was no tomorrow. 136 kilometers with 2000 meters of elevation is a nice number of kilometers for a short winter day. We decided that we will visit the town tomorrow morning.

DAY 3 (41km, +520m)

You never know what’s going to happen

Despite the huge dinner the night before, we woke up hungry, and there was no breakfast in the apartment. We decided to start riding on empty stomachs hoping that while visiting the town, we could find a place to have breakfast since Herceg Novi is the largest town of the Bay of Kotor. The old town or Stari Grad has a lot of charm with its ornate churches and historic city walls.

From the sea, the view of Herceg Novi is breathtaking. A tradition of importing seeds, exotic plants, trees and fruits from around the world has transformed the town into a botanical garden. After a few kilometers we spotted the perfect place for breakfast– we had a view of the open sea and the two peninsulas Luštica and Prevlaka.

We reflected upon the fact that one cannot live a full life on an empty stomach.

Refueled and with the sun shining on our faces, we continued towards the East part of Kotor’s bay. To get there we needed to take a ferry from Kamenari to Lepetane. The ferry, known locally as the trajekt, only takes 5 minutes, and it’s a breathtaking ride. While crossing the channel, the two islands of Perast that we saw the morning before came into view.

The road from Lepetane to Kotor is an incredibly beautiful sight of which I have seen little to compare it to. We were riding in the off season, so there were no people around us. Even the locals seemed hunkered down. It was almost as if we had the entire place to ourselves. All along the route we could see the mountains disappear into the water, the endless views of the sea and the animals and nature, undoubtedly a unique and remarkable experience. Oriol always says that I am an extremely enthusiastic person and that I don’t need much to be excited, but this time he was also thrilled with all that we witnessed.

Back on the mapped route, the road arrived at Kotor. We followed the main road until a big intersection where we turned right. After these 32 flat kilometers, the first climb of the day is in front of us. And not a small one. 4 kilometers. At some point there would be a grade of 15%.

Right after a nice 2 kilometers descent, with the last views of the Kotor bay on our back, the route continued up again. While climbing, an angry dog followed Oriol, but he managed to escape from it. I told Oriol that this is because dogs can smell his fear. He said that this is not true and that he is not scared at all. I must say that we have crossed many unleashed dogs in this country. I passed by the dog, and he didn’t seem happy with me either. But he ignored me.

We continued climbing, and we approached the last kilometer of the climb. Up next was supposed to be a nice descent towards Budva, expected to be the second highlight of the day. I say expected because another loose, big dog came from a house and started following Oriol. He accelerated and escaped from it again. However, this time this dog -after missing Oriol- came straight at me, barking like crazy. He chomped down on my ankle and foot with his big teeth.

WTF!?! I am a dog person, and I am not afraid of dogs. In fact, I have had a dog for 15 years. My theory that dogs smell fear just failed. The last thing I was expecting was to be bitten by a dog. Holy cow! That was painful. I sat on the floor and checked to see what I was already expecting: the bite was a large, deep, and jagged open wound in my ankle (my fi’zi:k shoe protected the sole of my foot). I could barely walk, and I ended up in the hospital. Unfortunately, the trip was over for me, and we couldn’t finish the loop as planned. The idea had been to continue until Budva and then back to Podgorica through a nice mountain pass with Skadar Lake views.

Life can be turned upside down in a matter of seconds. And I am not just talking about this accident, I’m talking in general. But I would rather go outside again and be bitten by a shark-dog than stay at home avoiding dangers. Life is to be enjoyed. I am already looking forward to my next bikepacking adventure.

Update: The wounds got infected, and I was on antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and painkillers. We are checking that none of my tendons are damaged. But the party continues, and I’ll be back on the saddle as soon as possible.

Anna

@anna.barrero 

 

Thanks to all our partners for making these trips possible!

 

TRIP INFO

 

Location         Montenegro and Croatia

Stages            3

Distance         116km + 136km + 41km = 293km

Ascent            1740m + 2040m + 520m = 4300m

Best time        Spring and fall if you want to have mild temperatures and avoid the summer tourists. If you want to be there alone like us just go in winter but get winter clothes because temperatures hover around 0ºC and daylight hours are short.

Getting there  Podgorica international airport in the capital of Montenegro. There may not be direct flights from everywhere but there are many different options for transfers.

Currency        You can use Euros in Montenegro and make sure you carry cash as they do not accept credit cards in most of the places. The Croatian Kuna is the currency of Croatia although we could pay with credit card in the only place where we ate.

Language       Montenegrin and Serbian in Montenegro and Croatian and Serbo-Croatian in Croatia. However, you will find many people speaking English in the big towns.

Cell Phones    Remember that Montenegro is not in the European Union so bear in mind that most of the companies will charge you a huge roaming fee while being here, so a prepaid card is highly recommended.

Tires               WTB Venture 47, 650 road plus

Gearing          42T in front, 11-42 cassette in back. Although a 38T in front would have been much appreciated in the grueling climbs.

Gear                The new Pôwerstrap X4 Fizik specific gravel shoes. They are comfy yet stiff enough to protect you from dog bites (if they get your feet). Light and Motion lights: especially if you stop a lot to take pictures (and you tend to lose time like we do) and are at risk of being late.

Others            You will be asked for your passport at the border so keep it handy and check the Ferry’s time schedule in advance before getting there.

If you get bitten by a dog, go to the hospital. Antibiotics are mandatory as 95% of these wounds get infected and vaccinations are also determinant to avoid more serious problems.

FOOD/LODGING

Unless you go in winter it is wise to get your hotels/apartments booked in advance as accommodation can fill quickly.

Apartmani Stijepovic

Cijevna b.b. Cijevna b.b.,

81304 Podgorica, Crna Gora

+382 67 505 309

Apartmani Armonia

Perast, 85336, Montenegro

+382 69 508 555

Athos apartments

Njegoševa 178

Herceg Novi Herceg Novi County, 85340, Montenegro

+382 67 318 282

 Pečenjara Gurman – Aria d.o.o.

Mahala BB, 81000, Montenegro
+382 69 020 165

 Kamenice

Gundulićeva poljana 8, 20000, Dubrovnik, Croàcia
+385 20 323 682

Konoba Kruso

Šetalište 5. Danica, Herceg – Novi 85340, Montenegro
+382 31 323 238

Do-Do Café Herceg Novi

36 Pet Danica Walkway, Herceg Novi, Montenegro
+382 31 339 842

 

 

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