When we travel by boat we take our time, we don't really have a choice, our top speed is only 8 knots. So sometimes when we rent a car to see sights further inland we have a long list of places to visit in a short amount of time and we have been known to become speed tourists. Could there be a market for that? I'm sure we're not the only ones trying to fit in as much as possible in a short amount of time. So with book in hand and a couple days with a rental car we set out on the mountainous, windy roads, through numerous tunnels carved in the stony cliffs to see as much of Montenegro as we could.
Our first stop was the Ostrog Monastery that was built right into the face of a steep cliff, daunting to think how that was accomplished, the rooms inside carved right into the mountain stone. Leaving there in the pouring rain we drove further north to a camp set up on the Tara River, arriving in time for a hearty family dinner with a great play list of tunes in the background. One of the downsides of speed traveling is that you have to deal with the weather you get, so with frigid temperatures outside (unseasonably chilly we were told) we piled on all the layers of clothing we packed, and climbed under four quilts to try to keep warm through the cold night in an unheated cabin. The hand knit hat Tony bought from the woman on the street became priceless. We fell asleep to pounding rain on the metal roof over head but woke in the morning to the sound of rushing water from the falls right outside our door. Our speed tour included a rafting trip through the Tara Canyon, a canyon three times as deep as the Grand Canyon. Donning wet suits to stay warm? Or dry? Neither of which was accomplished, we set off in a raft with six others that also must have been on a speedy tour, because why else would you sign on to do this in such bad weather? The ride through the cold rapids with steep cliffs on either side was exhilarating, and included was a stop at a waterfalls along the way for the craziest among the group (Tony included) to take a dip (did I mention just how cold it was? Air temperature 6 degrees Celsius, water temperature a mere 4 degrees, seriously chilly) Truly an experience of a lifetime, it will take that long to thaw out before we would be willing to think about having the experience again.
Back in the heated car we were off to our next stop at Durmitor National Park for the night. Along the way we learned a valuable lesson, google maps can not be trusted for directions through small mountain roads in snowy conditions, they don't seem to take into consideration road closures due to weather. The calendar said May, but the cold weather outside was reminiscent of Buffalo winters. The impassable roads forced us to turn back, and even though the snowy mountain tops were beautiful to see the detour cut into our valuable time, arriving late to our lodge in the park with just enough time for a hot shower and dinner. We hiked around the Black Lake the next morning, there's a lot to a name, and it didn't quite live up to the blackness we expected, but it was still a scenic hike around a lake surrounded by evergreens and more steep mountains. Then back in the car for a drive south to the Sipnacik Winery which is housed in an old underground airplane hanger once used by Tito. We could feel the influence of the old communist party when we were stopped at the gate by a guard in a small booth, no entrance without an appointment, and the strict, no nonsense sommelier that led us around the massive underground tunnels. The last stop on our magical, mystery tour was Niagara Falls, an even harder name to live up to but the miniature falls did not disappointment, sometimes low expectations are the answer. We put a lot of mileage on the rental car in a short amount of time, and were happy to have a more complete picture of the mountainous, inland Montenegro when we returned to our boat.
And then it was back to our customary slow travel connecting the coastal towns. We walked the cobbled streets of the old towns of Bar and Budva. Climbed the steep town walls and the Ladder of Cattaro to get the best vantage of the view down the enormous bay with mountains rising right from the shore. Stopped at the unassuming town of Risan with it's ancient Roman mosaics, walked to the nearby village of Perast, the Venice of Montenegro despite it's lack of canals, and made the uphill climb to the old town of Hercog Novi. It seems that so much of our time in Montenegro was spent trekking uphill in the rain and cold, but that didn't in any way put a damper on the sights.
In the towns we visited we were surprised to see dogs had replaced the many cats that we usually experienced on the streets. They had their own community, hanging out on street corners, playing chase in the parks, watching over each other. And they also had a hierarchy, with the boss barking when a fellow dog was infringing on his territory and occasionally at a passing car. But they all were surprisingly well behaved, not begging for food like the many cats we've experienced along the way, but just minding their own business. Until one decided to attach themselves to us and follow us home. Tony, who can have a hard time saying no, had no difficulty drawing a line here, as hard as they tried no dogs managed to join us on board. But as we continued our travels along the coast to the town of Kotor we realized cats were still king. There are hundreds of well taken care of strays in that town, on the streets, lounging in cafes, on all the shop shelves and explained in the iconic Cat Museum. They have quite a history, these multi cultural cats brought to town by sailors from all over the world, revered for their good luck and credited for saving the town from an onslaught of mice, rats and snakes.
Before we arrived in Montenegro we thought of it as a stepping stone between Greece and Croatia, we knew so little about this small country. Reading up on it's history was helpful, so much has happened here since I put together a high school project about Yugoslavia and received letters from my pen pal that lived there (this was way before the internet and Facebook). The people we met took so much pride in their country and their jobs, any compliment we would give was taken to heart, it seemed to mean so much that someone appreciated what they were doing. What a contrast to the way compliments are not always taken very seriously in the U.S. We had read that the people here could be tough, they had fought off so many invading forces and were prepared to fight to defend their honor, their country, their bar stool. But what we experienced were big hearted people with large smiles, willing to help us with the language, directions, travel suggestions, offer critiques of their society, occasionally provide pretty amusing impersonations of other cultures, and they always made sure we felt welcome. Montenegro is no longer a stepping stone for us but a destination that we enjoyed visiting at any speed.