Montenegro: stray dogs, deep canyons, and biking without brakes

If you like hiking, consider yourself pretty adventurous, and like getting off the beaten track, you have to make it to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro. Formed by glaciers, the Tara River Canyon is the deepest in Europe, and makes for some gorgeous views.

I started out my trip to Montenegro mostly unplanned. At 1am, in typical non-planning-backpacker fashion, I was sitting around my hostel in Mostar, Bosnia, with one other Australian backpacker, curled up on the couch writing down all my bus times to get to Sarajevo the next morning. I had “planned” (because any sort of planning when you’re mostly just deciding on a whim which place to go next is always up for change) to go on to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro after Sarajevo for 1 quick day of hiking. I knew it wouldn’t be enough, but at this point in the trip, I was really trying to squeeze everything in. After a last minute move to check the weather, though, I realized the one day I had marked off for Montenegro hiking was expected to be a fully wet one with 90% chance of rain. Back to the drawing board – made a whole new page of bus times and routes to go to Zabljak, Montenegro at 7am instead of Sarajevo, and with that, snuck back into my dark hostel room, packed up last minute things, and crept into bed.

One mistake I did make (not even sure why because this is the first time I decided to do it) was purchasing my bus ticket online. Note: especially in these areas, it’s much easier to just buy your ticket at the station. Buses and trains were never full, and showing up with an online reservation and no printed ticket usually just causes more hassle. Sure enough, at my stopover in Nikšić, I had to buy a new ticket (only 5€ luckily) since the attendant wouldn’t accept my email confirmation. Luckily, the bus driver at the station in Mostar was extremely helpful, and even walked with me over to a tourist office near the station to ask them to print my ticket for me, reassuring me in broken English “Is OK. Is OK. Don’t worry” the whole time, as if caring for a lost, injured songbird. That’s about how I looked I’m sure.

I was the only one on the bus for a while, until we stopped in Trebinje, a little city in Republika Srpska, or Serb Republic. It’s interesting to pass into this area and see the signs instantly change into Cyrillic as the primary written word with the translation below. There I found an Asian guy buying a ticket to Zabljak, where I was headed. We got talking and turns out he’s also traveling solo – originally from Canada and Hong Kong but now working and traveling. Pretty nice deal. Like he said (since he’s getting paid to work as a computer programmer while traveling), his traveling costs are still significantly cheaper than his rent would be in Boston, where he was living most recently. Yup. And there you have it, folks, if you can keep your job while traveling, traveling can be cheaper than living in the U.S.

Along the drive from Mostar to Nikšić… 

Stopover in Nikšić…

Appropriate choice in beer given the city…
Orthodox Church in Nikšić

Hostel Hiker’s Den

Appropriate graphic
The rainy patio outside the hostel

That next morning, I went hiking out to a lake. One thing you’ll quickly notice about Montenegro (and that I thought was just one person’s experience until I saw it up close) is the number of stray dogs there. The hostel owners owned 2, and they let anyone who hoped to go hiking solo know that they would send the dogs with you just in case. Not complaining. So, with those 2 dogs, I set off, and 2 quickly turned into 7, so before I knew it I had rat pack following me for 3 hours to the lakes and up the mountain. A group of high schoolers on a school trip gave me funny looks, and all asked me the same question: “Are they all yours??” I felt like a very odd local… One of the girls who stopped me got to asking in very broken English where I was from, checking with her friend on the right wording along the way. But every interaction I’ve had in the Balkans has been so friendly, and she seemed genuinely surprised anyone from the States would be spending time in Montenegro. Compared to Western Europe (which is where I’d spent most of my traveling time before this trip), where people see too many tourists, it’s a change of pace to see people excited and surprised at any tourism from so far away. I imagine that will change quickly though.

Tickets to the National Park are 3€ for 1 day or 6€ for 3 days. I opted for the package.

The Rat Pack at the beginning of our walk to the lake


An outdoor adventure park that, had it been open, I would absolutely be on
Walk to the lake (inside the park)
Crno Jezero (Black Lake)



  
  

The bike ride later that day was also quite something. Since we were all dying to see the Tara River Canyon (at its deepest it’s 1300m, or 4,600ft), the hostel owners Alex and Gina recommended we find some bikes and take an uphill path to an overlook.

So, the five of us (including a Polish guy who showed up just before we left) went down the street to a rental shop, which looked closed when we arrived. But like anything in Montenegro, which doesn’t necessarily operate the same way things back home do, all was taken care of when a man across the street saw us trying to get in and helped us out by calling the shop owner, who came within 10 minutes. We rented some bikes for 5€ each. My bike had non-working brakes and gears, which made for quite an interesting trek uphill. Luckily the Polish guy switched with me, and we found our way up the hill. Sarah, the woman from New Zealand, had brought written instructions from the hostel, and Alex did warn us not to trust Google Maps. Well, we messed up and followed Google Maps, which led us down 3 different wrong paths, including into a wide-open field, which sparked the interest of a park ranger who monitored us, probably both amused and irritated. 

One way to make a ride easier…


When we finally made it to the top, though, the views were unbeatable. Who knew the second deepest canyon in the world is in Montenegro? The colors and view looked just like in pictures, which is rare. We couldn’t see the Tara Bridge too much, but frankly, with that view, I didn’t really care. We hiked further up with our beer and the dogs to an even better spot, and then came back down for our bikes.


  

 

  


  

Dinner that night was a cozy affair in the hostel. There’s definitely something special about being in a hiker’s den-type place in the mountains, where everyone comes home after a long day out in the mountains to warm up and cook together, boots drying by the heaters and tea all around. We took shots of raki and a big group cooked together while I decided to splurge and walk down the road to pick up some roasted lamb, popular for the area. While waiting, I got a shot of plum brandy, also popular in the area. If you’re in Montenegro, go for the lamb. This place was called Luna, and I can attest my 400g of lamb and potatoes was well worth it. We all drank wine and played cards and chess late into the night – a perfect end to an active day.

 


Where I stayed

At the Hostel Hiker’s Den. Highly recommend it. Alex and Gina were great hosts, and provided just the right amount of both suggestions and privacy.

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