Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lovćen National Park and the rest of Montenegro

Lovćen National Park is beautiful. It is also a very big climb. I wasn't sure if Davida and I would be sticking together through that part. Neither was he. He was worried about how much climbing there was. I was worried about how far I needed to go. It all ended up working out.

Lovćen National Park

We left Kotor quicker than expected because it just didn't offer us what we were looking for. As we left town, we quickly found ourselves climbing. There were supposed to be only 25 switchbacks over 17km, but that depends where you start counting from. At the beginning, each one provided a better view than the last. In the middle, they offered another chance to found blackberries. At the end, each one offered another chance to keep on hurting as we climbed to the top. When we got up there we sat down on the padio of an abandoned inn to have a great lunch and look out over the bays.

A statue at Njegos Mausoleum.

Two giantesses guard the Njegos Mausoleum.

Afterward, I wanted to head into the the national park. I don't think I communicated this to Davida earlier because he gave me a surprised look and asked if I really intended to bike all the way to the top. I did. Though, I didn't realize what all the way to the top meant. Davida and I decided to split up. I would leave immediatley and climb up to the mausoleum and then come back down the hill to meet him at the T. He would have a cafe break and start for the T later. Unfortunately for Davida, the biggest part of the climbing was getting to the T. I almost turned around to tell him we were splitting up for good because I knew he was over the climbing. Instead, I just pressed on to the Njegos Mausoleum at 1749m. We had started at sea level that day and there weren't really any extended flat sections. I have climbed more in one day, but never so much without a flat stretch. I was tuckered out, but the views were worth it.

The tomb at the Njegos Mausoleum.

The amazing view from the Njegos Mausoleum.

The mausoleum was finished in the 1970s and the remains of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš were moved there. He turned Montenegro from a theocracy into a secular state and is the country's most famous poet. This moved created a lot of controversy because his last will asked that he be buried in a small chapel that he built in nearby Cetinje. The communist propoganda machine wanted to move him and create the highest mausoleum in the world, so they did. I don't know if there is much controversy about it anymore. I do know it is a very peaceful place. After climbing forever on the road, you continue to ascend on the 461 steps to the mausoleum entrance. The tomb is guarded by two lady giants. I expected to amazed by the views, but the mausoleum was also great.

Mausoleum of Njegoš, Lovcen National Park, Montenegro

After a long visit, I descended the mountain to meet Davida. Surpisingly, he had rolled up just about two minutes before I got there. He had considered turning back and taking the easy way down to Cetinje. He had even considered just telling me to move on, but we hung together for one more night.

Descending through Lovćen National Park.

This road repair in Lovćen National Park might be one of my favorite memories in Montenegro.

We barreled down the mountains to Cetinje, the old royal capital. It was a cute little town that we both had wanted to spend a little more time in. I am not sure why we didn't. I know I had my schedule. I think Davida wanted to catch a train from the Podogorica to the north. After stocking up for dinner, we pressed on. The shortest way was on a very busy highway. It did not make for good riding even if we were making great time. During this stretch, we encountered Montenegro's big danger for bikers, unlit tunnels. There are a lot of tunnels in mountainous Montenegro. They are not a problem for cars, but makes things interesting for bikers. Some are so long that you should wait for a car's headlights to guide you through. Luckily, ours was pretty short.

Montengro's biggest danger to bikers, unlit tunnels.

Guerilla advertising for towing. I love that they use the word slep (think schlep) for towing.

The main highway makes for bad riding and even worse camping. We found some terraced land about 20m off the road, but took a pass on in. Eventually, we found two side roads. One descended into a valley that looked like it was cultivated by one farmer. We were hesitant to go down because it was very steep and if the farmer said no, that would be a lot of work to get back up. We settled with the other side road, which turned out to be a big hill. We could not find anything in the brush ridden rocky terrain. Just as we were about to give up, Davida found a decent where they had been clearing the land. Near that spot, he then found an even better spot that was grass covered. I was happy for softer ground, but didn't care too much. I was tired. When I am getting in late and leaving early, I usually don't care. I just want sleep. He believes that since he spends most of his time each day there (even if asleep) that it should be a good one. I admire Davida's committment to finding great campsites.

The concrete apartment blocks of Podogorica, Montenegro.

The next morning, we were off to the capital of Montenegro, Podogorica. Davida was considering joining me all the way to Greece, but he decided to stick with his original plans so we split up once we got there. I really wanted to join him in northern Montenegro at the Tara Canyon (deepest in Europe, second in the world only to the Grand Canyon by 200m), but just didn't have the time. I was really bummed out about it. One day, I will go back.

Just off the main square in Podogorica, Montenegro.

The captial didn't have much to offer. It wasn't terribly eye pleasing and the tourist information folks were the rudest peope we encountered in the entire country. However, the random locals were brilliant. One woman took us under her wing, found us a bike shop, Internet, and anything else we needed. She was over the top friendly and is just the kind of person that makes me want to head back to Montenegro. It is small, but deserves a longer visit.

The main square in Podogorica, Montenegro.

Davida strikes his favorite pose as we part ways. He will be missed.

After we split up, I was off to Albania. Getting directions to Albania was a bit challenging. The woman at the tourist office wasn't a help and a few other people seemed just weren't sure even though it is only 50km away. When I started asking for a town on the way to Albania, they were spot on and got me there easily. As I got closer to the border, I was riding beside Lake Shkodër National Park. A few guide books had said to visit, but I had decided to skip it and that decision was reinforced as I saw that it was a giant wetland. Yes, wetlands can be beautiful, but I find them a muggy, mosquito filled, and unpleasant more often that not. I was happy to see it from my bike, but not be stopping there.

Lake Shkodër National Park

Montenegran countryside.

One other curious thing was that when I was riding closer to the border, the road got worse. It suggested something about how little these two countries have people crossing back and forth. It wasn't the worst road (that is in Albania), but it definitely wasn't a good one. One last tidbit, the cars in Montenegro have license plates designed after the EU license plate. If they had the ring of stars, it would be the exact same. They are also using the Euro. I assume they are just getting themselves ready for a successful bid into the EU. Anyway, on to Albania, a very, very different ball of wax.

A police vehicle on the way to Albania with the almost EU license plate.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

Welcome to Montenegro

I tried to jam all of my Montenegro visit into one blog entry so I could write less, but the photos would not have it. There were too many good ones. I did not get to experience virtually any culture in Montenegro. I was restricted to seeing the unbelievable sights in nature. Davida's and my first big destination was the Bay of Kotor.

The Bay of Tivat leading into the Bay of Kotor.

A sign for kid's crossing, maybe marching, the road.

Thanks to Davida's map, we found a side road and smaller border crossing to use. There was almost no traffic. We stopped at one cafe that seemed stuck in the 1970s. As usual, Davida had coffee. I had ice cream. We were the only customers and wondered if any others came by. We couldn't believe that such an out of the way place was in business. As we were leaving, a fire truck came by with one person.

I don't think I have ever seen industrial ships so close to where people swim. In a small country, I guess you make do with limited waterfront.

One of the amazing views on the way to the Bay of Kotor.

Somewhere along the way and while admiring the scenery, a bug flew into my shirt. I gave the shirt a quick yank to let it out and did not think any more of it . . . . until it stung me. Freakin' bee. I wasn't sure if it was the kind that left its stinger in you and died or would keep stinging, so I came to a screeching halt on a steep descent, fumbled for my helmet strap, yanked it off, and finally got my shirt off to let the bee out. Oh silliness. I am sure it was ridiculous to watch.

Me in front of the Bay of Kotor.

Our Lady of the Rock on the man made island near Perast, Montenegro. The island was built by generations of mariners who would take rocks there.

We rolled into Montenegro without much ado. However, as we got closer and closer to Kotor, my eyes had a lot to ado about. While we were definitely on the right road, we were never quite sure what part of the bay we were looking at. The bay has two narrows, but I guess the Bay of Kotor is only past the second one. It was confusing, but more excitingly, it was amazing. We rolled in as the sun was setting and just kept being more and more awed with each turn.

A small town on the Bay of Kotor.

Perast, Montenegro.

We opted to take a dinner break in Perast. It was a great meal, but also bad timing. By the time we finished, it was dark. We found a workable campsite at the end of town, but a women was fishing on it. We opted to push on and found a beach that you can rent space on during the day. It was pretty quiet and a great spot considering how late it was. In the morning, when we were able to have a proper look around we saw that we could have camped on the other side of the beach in the grass and had a shower. Oh well. That is why you are supposed to get to your campsite in day light!!!!

Our restaurant seating. That kitty owned the place. Grapes were growing from the ceiling.

Our campsite near Drazin, Montenegro.

The Bay of Kotor continued to amaze the next morning. Is is commonly called a fjord, but is apparently just a submgerged river canyon. I can only imagine what it used to look like. In northern Montenegro they have the Tara Canyon which is only 200m shallower than the Grand Canyon. I was disappointed that I didn't have time to make it up there.

A view from sea level of the Bay of Kotor.

The next morning, we kept rounding the bay until we got to the bay's namesake, Kotor. We got there early and were able to poke around the town, but it seemed to just be a tourist town. When the cruise ships rolled in, we were very ready to go. The town just isn't big enough to hold that many people.

Saint Nikolas' church in Kotor.

There were a number of well fed stray cats in Kotor, but this one was boss. None of the others went near while it was eating.

The river on the outer walls of Kotor.

We ducked out and started heading up, up, and farther up. I believe we had an 1100m climb directly above Kotor which gave better and better views of the bay. Eventually, you could see all the way out to the Adriatic Sea. This was a big day for me. I was hoping to get all the way to Theth. Davida and I talked about it and found a compromise that didn't include us talking about him stopping to pick raspberries every five minutes. That man can spot free fruit anywhere.

The Bay of Kotor.

A not so friendly looking roadside attraction.

Davida made it up the hill!

While the climb was tough, it was worth it and we made it together. I can't recommend it enough instead of taking the main road around to Celije. We stopped near the summit at a inn that was still being built or had just closed. Either way, they had all the chairs and tables out for us to enjoy a nice sit down lunch. Then, we are on our way to Lovćen National Park.


A look at the road we had switchbacked up.

A view of the Bay of Kotor from the mountain pass.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik used to be known as the Republic of Ragusa and rivaled Venice in its influence along the sea. However, in the early 1800s it fell to Napolean and is now part of Croatia. Some people say it was the first country to acknowledge the US. Others say that it was really Morocco because Ragusa feared a backlash from England. I am not going to look it up.

My first look at Dubrovnik's city walls.

Dubrovnik treated me very well. I loved it and ended up staying two nights instead of one. I thought I might not like it because cafe culture was wearing thin on me. However, Dubrovnik had a ton of cafes and still worked for me. I am not sure what the difference was. There was essentially no cars. That helped. Also, someone suggested I liked the city so much because it is a used city and not just a tourist destination. I don't know how accurate that is, but I like it.

Dubrovnik's main street, called the Stradun, and Bell tower.

The view from the Spanish Steps.

I rolled into Dubrovnik just before sunset and was immediately taken in with how everything was lit up. However, some of that awe faded because I did not realize Dubrovnik was built on a hill. When I chose a hostel (since I couldn't camp), it was one that Lonely Planet had written up well. When I rode my way into the city and towards the hostel, I was pretty much the only bicycle around. When I got directions, I found out why. Steps. Lots of steps. The Fresh Sheets hostel was along the back wall of the city and I am guessing I had to carry my bike up a hundred steps to get there. The hostel was full. However, I told a story of woe about my sleeping bag and hauling my bike up the steps and they arranged it so I could sleep on the couch in the lobby after reception closed for the night. It meant I would be up longer than I like, but I would also get to stay for cheaper.

I love how they use all their space. This restaurant puts pillows on the steps for sitting.

Stradun at night.

The next morning I helped the one hostel employee set up for breakfast. She was sleeping on the other couch in the lobby and was over the top helpful. She was only in town for a couple weeks, but had been with the hostel during its opening year. She took me under her wing, gave me good stuff to do, and even guided me to a smoothie place where I had my first smoothie with maple syrup!! I have stopped putting extra sugar in my smoothies, but I might make an exception for maple syrup when I get home.

Looking up toward the final destination of the cable car.

Inner Harbor.

After exploring the city a little bit in the morning, I set out to get my sleeping bag. The Intersport store was closed which made my decision to stay an extra day really easy. Also, I was supposed to meet Davida under the clock tower. We said to meet at 9am, 10am, and 11am. Based on what I knew about his riding and what I knew about the ride, I did not think he was going to make it. I showed up for 9am and 11am, but he wasn't there. I was bummed, but wondered if it wasn't for the better because I had my crazy schedule to keep and don't like imposing that on others.

Fortress Lovrjenac, one of the two forts protecting Dubrovnik that are outside of the city walls.

Making a beach where there is none.

In Dubrovnik, I loved strolling the city streets. There was an inner harbor for the local boats. There were winding streets which I did my best to get lost in, but failed. There was the confusing Spanish Steps. In Rome, they were paid for by a Frenchman, but earned their name because they are connected to the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Embassy. In Dubrovnik, they have neither of those. I think the name is because the steps were modeled on the ones in Rome. Does Spain have any of these Spanish Steps?

A small family cemetery.

Dubrovnik from the cable car.

View from the Dubrovnik cable car.

There is a cable car to get a view above the city. There was also a path, but I couldn't find it. The cable car's best view was about one-fifth of the way up. There is no need to go to the very top where the cables block the best view. There is an unobstructed view from the top in a nearby building that is part of a museum. The trick is that you have to pay to get into that museum. As seems typical for these second tier museums in Europe, there isn't a clear ticket price posted or reception. It is often tucked just out of view so right when you are about to walk in and start enjoying, you hear, 'Ahem,' and turn to see someone wanting money. I don't like it.

Dubrovnik inner harbor from the city walls.

Another view of the harbor from the Dominican Monastery.

City walls tour (17mins?)

Some things I did like were the city walls and the fish dishes. As you walked past the cafes, you saw a ton of fish dishes being served up. The smell was everywhere. I think some people just had a giant plate of sardines (or some other small fish)! However, my favorite part of the city would have to be my city wall tour. They are 2km and surround the entire city. It takes between a half hour to as long as you can stroll to finish. You get great views into every part of the city. You get to see every attraction from a different angle and get a view into people's backyards. I was even able to score a free fig off a tree. It was amazing. As I understand it, they are the best maintained city walls from ancient times. They are a large part why Ragusa stayed independent for so long. Many tried to take it and it was only a one-month siege that made it fall.

I love that someone found a way to get a basketball court within the city walls.

The rooftops of Dubrovnik.

The upload speed in Dubrovnik, at the two places I tried, was painful. When the cruise ships sail into to town, the city is swarming. I loved my early morning strolls but the afternoons were a bit overwhelming. I was told that I was not experiencing anything. There was a maximum of two cruise ships when I was there. In the peak of summer, there can be five or six!! Eeek!

Stradun from the city walls.

Catching breakfast (for himself, maybe for the cats).

I had one of my biggest laughs when a good looking kid from Melbourne asked a hostel employee what there was to do around there because he had been there for four days, but had not seen a thing other than the clubs and hostel. Different strokes for different folks. European night life is an important part of the experience, but I just can't imagine paying so much money to go somewhere else to drink heavily and not remember things.

Inner harbor in the morning light.

The daily market.

On my final morning, I finally got a new sleeping bag. It isn't quite as warm, but is half the size of my old one and has labels about how much it weighs and what temperatures it is good for. My last one did not have it and I could never remember. Oddly enough, it is made by McKinley, named after the American peak, but sold by a Swiss company. I tried to get another smoothie, but they didn't have any to go cups left and I was in a hurry. Tear.

Orlando's Column.

A rarely deserted Stradun.

When I was getting ready to leave the hostel, I had a stroke of good luck. The one hostel employee remembered that someone had left behind a sleeping pad and told them to give it away. I have not used a sleeping pad since a friend borrowed it and didn't return it four years ago, but I figured I could give it another shot for free. Combined with my new sleeping bag, it was about the same size as my old sleeping bag, but still lighter.

Me on the Spanish Steps.

Perhaps someone couldn't spell it right and got sick of letting the wookie win.

After I got my gear together, I wanted to make one quick phone call before hitting the road. Then, I waited for the one hostel employee to join me on the walk out. There were a couple other things that slowed me up, which was really important, because as I ascended the road south and out of Dubrovnik, Davida a road above Dubrovnik. He saw someone that looked like me, but some of the colors were off because of the new sleeping bag and pad. When I stopped to take a picture, he caught up. I can't believe we met up again. We celebrated, and set off biking to Montenegro.

A cyprus tree cone.

An extinct volcano in southern Croatia/northern Montenegro.

Croatian tidibts before I go:
  • Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia.
  • A Croat invented the mechanical pencil and fountain pen in 1906.
  • The White House in Washington, DC uses stone from the island of Brac.

Walk to my hostel, part one

Walk to my hostel, part two