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SECRET BALKANS:

SERBIA, MONTENEGRO & ALBANIA

My October 2019 holiday

Contents

  • Arrival: Belgrade
  • More Belgrade
  • Belgrade To Kolasin
  • Kolasin To Petrovac
  • Ulcinj And Shkodra
  • Cetinje And Njegusi
  • Bay Of Kotor
  • Stari Bar And Lake Skadar
  • Conclusion

  • ARRIVAL: BELGRADE

    What we knew as Yugoslavia from 1918 to 1992 broke up into what are now seven separate nations. I have previously visited two of them – Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia – and on this holiday I visited two more – Serbia and Montenegro – with a quick look inside next-door Albania. This brought the total number of countries that I have visited to 77.

    This holiday was organised by Voyages Jules Verne [click here] and is called Secret Balkans and I travelled with my friend Kathleen. We flew from London Heathrow airport to Belgrade Nikola Tesla airport on the airline Air Serbia which was a flight of two hours and, since Serbia is one hour ahead of UK time, effectively this occupied the first day of our trip. We were met at the airport by our Serbian guide Dana.

    Serbia has a population of 7 million (almost all of Serbian ethnicity) and its capital is Belgrade (1.2 million) located at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. We stayed for the first two nights at the Belgrade Art Hotel [click here].

    The travel company itself admitted in its briefing: “As capitals go, Belgrade wouldn’t rank among the beauties but it isn’t all soulless Soviet-era severity”. Let’s put it this way: it beats Bucharest but does not compare with Prague or Budapest.

    On our first evening (Saturday) in Belgrade, there were loud demonstrations against the government of President Aleksandar Vucic. These demos – called “one in five million” – have been taking place every Saturday for six months.

    We wandered down the long, cobbled street of Skadarlija which is very popular for all the restaurants and cafes which line both sides and side streets and where Kathleen and I had dinner outside.

    MORE BELGRADE

    On the first full day of our Balkans holiday (Sunday), the Voyages Jules Verne group – 18 of us in all – were taken on a four-hour (9 am – 1 pm) tour of a few major Belgrade sights by local guide Dana.

    First stop was the ruins of the Belgrade (or Kalemegdan) Fortress overlooking the junction of the Sava and Danube rivers. The remaining structures of the fortress date from the 16th & 17th centuries. Later, we passed the remains of the Serbian Ministry of Defence which was bombed by NATO in 1989 to prevent the Serbs from taking over Kosovo. Second stop was the section of the Bulevar Kralija Aleksandra housing the Serbian Parliament and the Belgrade City Hall.

    Next we drove to the Cathedral of Saint Seva which is an enormous marble icon that can hold 10,000 worshippers. This edifice has been over 80 years in the making and is still under construction, but the crypt has been completed and is very colourful and very grandiose.

    The last stop was the so-called Museum of Yugoslav History which in fact is a set of buildings dedicated to the life of Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980). We viewed one long building housing lots of foreign gifts and relay batons presented to Tito and the House of Flowers which contains the mausoleum of Tito and his (third) wife.

    We were free to do our own thing in the afternoon. I suggested to Kathleen that we visit the so-called National Museum which in fact has a major art collection that is surprisingly impressive. For her part, Kathleen was keen that we should find the actual point of confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers so we crossed the Brankov Bridge, walked past endless floating night clubs, and found the point of confluence where we had a drink in a little place called “Stara Koliba na Uscu”.

    BELGRADE TO KOLASIN

    Day three (Monday) of our Balkans trip was totally a travelling day – a train journey of almost nine hours (9 am till 5.40 pm) from Belgrade in Serbia to Kolasin in Montenegro with a short passage through a bit of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was not that the distance travelled was so great, but that the speed was so slow with some inexplicable stops. We were picked up from our hotel in Belgrade by our guide for the remainder of the trip, Elizbieta from Montenegro, who accompanied us on the train.

    Although the train was modern enough to have charging points for smartphones, the three carriages were covered in graffiti on the outside and pretty basic on the inside with no refreshment facilities at all and unappealing toilets. Our hotel gave us a packed lunch, but a roll, an apple and a bottle of water was not exactly luxury.

    Our arrival at Kolasin was exciting. Somehow the train moved away from the station before any of the group managed to get off, so our guide had to contrive very quickly for the train to stop outside the station and we all had to trundle our cases down the railway tracks back to the station where outside a coach awaited us.

    It was a very short drive to the Bianca Hotel & Spa [click here] in this little town located at a height of 960 metres (3,150 feet) between the Bjelasica and Sinjajevina mountains. It was only one of two evenings on the tour when dinner was included and the hotel buffet provided plenty of choice for the hungry British.

    Montenegro voted to become independent of Serbia in 2006. It is a tiny country, about two-thirds the size of Wales, with a population of only just over 620,000 (less than half are actually Montenegrins with over a quarter being Serbian ethnically). The language is Serbian, although since independence it is been called Montenegrin locally. Its capital is Podgorica (formerly Titograd) from which we would fly home in a week’s time. Montenegro adopted the Euro in 2002 and it applied for EU membership in 2010.

    KOLASIN TO PETROVAC

    Tuesday in Montenegro started in Kolasin in the mountains in early morning when it was just 4C and ended in Petrovac on the coast where it was a balmy 22C.

    First we visited the National Park of Biogradska Gora which is one of only three primeval forests in Europe. The trees here are around four hundred years old. We had a most enjoyable one hour stroll around Biogradsko Lake but the low water level was yet another indication of climate change. Then we returned to Kolasin for a coffee break and Kathleen and I shared a small pizza.

    Driving past spectacular limestone ravines, next stop close by was Moraca Monastery which was founded in the 13th century by the Serbian prince Stefan Vukanovic Nemanji and centres on a small church with frescoes from the 16th & 17th centuries. Then we travelled by a spectacular limestone ravine down to the Adriatic coast to Petrovic nad Moru which is part of the so-called Budva Riviera where we were staying at Hotel Riva [click here] for five nights.

    This delightful little coastal town has a promenade with hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops plus a beach and remarkable stratified cliffs. Sunset was glorious and later we even saw a shooting star. And, at a local restaurant for dinner, I found a banana split.

    ULCINJ AND SHKODRA

    It was another long but interesting day (Wednesday) with collection from the hotel in Petrovac at 8 am and return towards 6 pm. It was a day of two halves: one in southern Montenegro and one in northern Albania.

    So the morning involved time in the nearby town of Ulcinj. This is the southern-most town of former Yugoslavia with a very long history. It was settled by the Illyrians and Greeks in the 5th century and regularly raided by pirates and used for a slave market. It was an Ottoman possession for over 300 years and today it is 70% Albanian and 70% Muslim.

    We climbed steep, stone steps up to the Old Town to look around the Citadel which includes a slave square, a church-mosque, and two tiny archeological museums.

    After over three hours on the go, the group rebelled and I negotiated with our guide that we would have a stop for drinks and toilets. Then we headed for the border with Albania. Our guide had asked us to bring our passports and warned that she had experienced delays of up to two hours going in and coming out of Albania. In fact, as she put it “We have the luck” because our passports were not examined and we were over the border in 5-10 minutes.

    Albania is a small nation with a population of less than 3 million, over a third of them living in the capital of Tirana. When communism ruled throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Albania had one of the most eccentric and xenophobic of all the communist leaders in Enver Hoxha. Our guide pointed out several of the more than 173,000 bunkers built in the country during Hoxha’s rule to protect against possible invasion from foreign powers. The Albanian language has no relationship to Serbo-Croat and indeed it is a totally distinct language with two regional dialects.

    We joined a local guide called Nemet who took us round the remains of the Rozafa Fortress located on the outskirts of the city of Shkodra on a rocky hill 130 metres (430 ft) above sea level. We were told that there have been fortifications on this site for some 2,500 years but what one can see today is mainly of Venetian origin.

    Afterwards we drove down to Shkodra itself. This is one of the most ancient cities in the Balkans and was founded in the 4th century by Illyrian tribes. Today it is a significant centre in modern Albania with a population of around 110,000.

    At this stage, the group instigated another revolt when we challenged the plan to visit a museum before we had lunch. After all, we had had our breakfast around 7 am and it was now 2.30 pm, so it was agreed that we would eat first and visit the museum – a collection of historic photographs called the Marubi Fototeka Collection – after we had enjoyed the local cuisine.

    Leaving Albania took no more time at the border than entering. Although it was a very short visit, it was enough to see how under-developed the country is, although our guide assured us that “They are in good progress”.

    CETINJE AND NJEGUSI

    Another day (Thursday), another excursion – but shorter this time (9 am – 3.15 pm). We started with our first experience of rain but the weather soon brightened up and then became warm (22C).

    Our first destination was the charming town of Cetinje. This was founded in the 1480s and it was Montenegro’s capital for over four and a half centuries until 1945 (since then, the capital has been Podgorica). We visited the Museum of King Nikola who was the ruler of Montenegro from 1860 to 1918, a period regarded as the country’s ‘golden age’. The building dates from 1871 and is the former residence of the king. All the furnishing is original except for the silk wallpaper.

    Next stop was the sleepy village of Njegusi which was the birthplace of the ruler Petar II. Here we visited a restaurant called “Konoba Kod Radonjica” where we were treated to a light meal of cheese and the local version of prosciutto which is an air-cured ham called “prsut”.

    From here, our coach took a precipitous and winding single-lane road down to the coast with fabulous views of the Bay of Kotor on which we would sail next day. The road has 23 numbered hairpin bends (or “serpentines" as our guide called them), but there are almost 50 in total and all the while there is a huge drop by the side of the narrow road but spectacular views of this World Heritage Site.

    Driving through the coastal town of Budva, we stopped opposite the tiny island of Sveti Stefan which is connected to the mainland by a stone causeway. Today this is Montenegro’s most exclusive resort and the location of some scenes from the James Bond film “Casino Royale”.

    BAY OF KOTOR

    Yesterday we viewed the Bay of Kotor from high up in the surrounding mountains, but today (Friday) we took a boat ride on the Bay and spent some time in Kotor itself. The whole bay area including the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it really is a magnificent location.

    The coach ride from our hotel in Petrovac to the boat in Kotor was around one hour and the weather was glorious. The Bay of Kotor is widely referred to as a fiord, but technically it is not a fiord which is created by glaciers but a ria which is a sunken river basin. Whatever you call it, the views are stunning.

    After half an hour or so on the boat, we called on the tiny artificial islet of Our Lady of the Rocks, almost all of which is taken up with a small Roman Catholic church. Then we sailed the short distance over to the little town of Perast. In spite of being small, its location has given the place a distinguished maritime history including supplying ships for the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

    While we were on the bay, our coach had driven round to pick us up at Perast in order to drive us back to Kotor. This medieval walled city is known as the most fascinating city in Montenegro. Like all towns and cities in the country, it has been occupied many times, but it belonged to the Venetians from 1420 to 1797 and most of current remains were built by them. Indeed it looks a lot like Venice but without the canals and with surrounding high hills. Another difference is the experience of earthquakes, especially in 1667 and 1979.

    Entering by the Sea Gate (or West Gate) of 1555, our guide took us on a walking tour of some of the main squares: the Square of Weapons (with the Clock Tower), the Square of Flour, the Square of St Tryphon (with the cathedral of the same name dating back to 1166), the Square of Circulation (with the Maritime Museum), and the Square of St Luke (with its Romanesque church of that name).

    Like so many locations of this kind around the world, most of Kotor is given over to hotels, cafes, restaurants and gift shops so, when we were given some free time, Kathleen and I had no problem finding a good place for lunch and a shop to buy some jewellery for gifts.

    STARI BAR AND LAKE SKADAR

    Our last day (Saturday) in Montenegro was another long excursion, starting at 9 am and concluding at 7.15 pm. Our first visit was to a local family operation for producing olive oil from their olive trees. Our guide described the “smashing” of the olives to create the oil.

    Then we made a longer visit to the ruins of Stari Bar, the original medieval settlement founded by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 6th century, located five km (3 miles) east of the modern city of Bar. There is still a lot of restoration going on here. It was a rare opportunity for a refreshment break and I had the best baklava of my life outside Athens.

    The next part of the day was a two hour boat trip on Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans sprawling across the border between Montenegro and Albania. In winter the lake swells to over 500 sq km (190 sq miles) and some two-thirds belongs to Montenegro. We boarded our boat at the village of Virpazar and only saw the the most north-western corner of the lake. During the ride, we were served a kind is doughnut which is dipped in honey and eaten with soft, white cheese.

    The final visit of the day and the tour was to a vineyard called “Vinarija Mrkan” at the tiny village of Rvasi. Over a late (4.30 pm) ‘lunch’ of cheese, tomatoes, and other bits, the owner of the vineyard invited us to sample a succession of six different wines and several liqueurs. The group were pretty merry on the ride back to our hotel.

    CONCLUSION

    Montenengro is a small country with a lot to offer tourists. The bay and town of Kotor are simply wondererful and the so-called Budva Riviera has some splendid locations for holidaymakers. Eastern Europeans - especially Russians - have already discovered the magic of the locality and Western Europeans are catching on fast. Prices are very reasonable and helpings of food are large.

    We deliberatley travelled just out of season to avoid the crowds. That means that we took a risk with the weather but in fact it was excellent. Apparently it was the warnest October in the region for 50 years - good for us but bad for the planet.

    I was surprised at how tall both the men and women were in both Montenegro and Serbia, so I did a little research and I found that, in the table of the tallest populations, Montenegro and Serbia are second and fifth respectively.


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