Lured by its rugged peaks, deep, lush, blue-watered canyons, Orthodox monasteries, and walled fortress towns along the coast, my husband, Tom, and I chose to visit Montenegro as part of a larger trip to Slovenia, Croatia and Albania.
Montenegro lies on the Adriatic Sea, touching Croatia on its northwest coast and bordered by Bosnia & Herzegovina on the north, Serbia and Kosovo on the east, and Albania on the South. A Balkan country, Montenegro was part of the former Yugoslavia before its gradual dissolution in the 1980s with the death of Marshal Tito. In 2006, Montenegro declared its independence from Serbia and became a member of the EU.
Dramatic Peaks, Deep Canyons and Ancient Forests
Leaving Dubrovnik, we cross the border into Bosnia & Herzegovina before entering Montenegro. From the dry coast, we twist and turn through the mountains to Durmitor National Park, and our home base, Hotel SOA in Žabljak. Montenegro’s National Parks are what Tom and I call “self-service.” There is usually only a hand-painted sign, no one to pay, and rarely a printed map. Our hotel receptionist, however, is amazing, helping us with trails, a map, and arranging our rafting trip down the Tara Canyon for tomorrow. Within walking distance of the hotel is a “park entrance,” and a trail around Black Lake, a glacial lake so named for the encircling black pines and the dark shadows they cast.
The morning is blessed with sun. Our driver and river guide, Veselin Kliajević, picks us up at the
hotel for the drive to Tara Bridge and the start of our rafting trip. We have chosen the full day trip which will take us into the deepest part of the canyon. Tara Canyon is Europe’s deepest, with our Grand Canyon being only six-hundred feet deeper. Tara, however, is lush green all the way down to the blue water; its evergreens precariously holding on to their rocky ledges above.
Veselin speaks very little English, but our paddling instructions are clear — “Everybody in, OK.”
Waterfalls, thundering torrents to broad gentle cascades, enter the river from both sides, while around every bend we are met with another stunning view. How many times can you say beautiful, magnificent and incredible? Shots of homemade schnapps celebrate the end of our adventure and brace us for the wild ride out of it, Tom is thankful he will not be at the wheel!
The next day, in the morning rain, with no GPS or sign to guide us, we set out to find an ancient graveyard filled with stećci – monumental, distinctive medieval tombstones – that lies in the
Zabljak countryside. It is a challenge finding the graveyard, one of twenty-eight in southeastern Europe that, together, are designated a World Heritage Site, but well worth the effort. The stećci are fascinating: Carved from limestone, they feature decorative motifs and inscriptions that represent iconographic continuities within medieval Europe as well as local traditions. Engulfed in the cold mist of time, I feel an eerie, mystical reverence here.
The weather lifting, we take the Durmitor mountain road from Žabljak toward Plužine, not knowing what we might encounter in these snow-studded peaks. I have never seen clouds move so quickly across mountain tops or felt the power of such wind rushing through the passes. We are treated to
stunning vistas, wildflower drenched meadows, sunshine and the cold alpine wind. It is exhilarating! The asphalt road, about a car and a half in width, would be an amazing bike ride. It is complete with benches to enjoy the views.
Almost missing the Biogradska Gora National Park sign, we are able to catch the afternoon light while hiking around Lake Biograd. This is a park where wood nymphs and fairies surely reside … one of the few remaining primordial forests in Europe. Many of the hardwoods here are over three-hundred years old and it is forbidden to remove dead ones. Moss thrives in the moist cool air, and wild garlic blankets the forest floor. The river feeding the lake enters through a long braid of lush growth crossed on a boardwalk. Magical and surreal, I really want to linger here.
We find Hotel Ravnjak nestled next to a beautiful waterfall near the park. This is our glamping experience – a wooden bungalow right by the river. We fall asleep to the rushing waterfall sounds.