Mountain passes, heatwave, springs, tunnels, friendly locals and turtles
Over the past week, we have cycled from the southern coast in Bar to northern mountains in Danilovgrad and now in Nikšić. We have covered over 140 km in 5 days with over 2800 metres of climbing. Till date in Montenegro, we have cycled over 300 km and covered nearly 5000 metres of climbing in comparison. This blog post will cover our epic climbing from sea to summit which combined with heatwave and touring gear qualifies as my toughest riding week yet. The rewards are in the sense of achievement, the lush landscape, tranquility, undisturbed wildlife and heartwarming local hospitality.
After a lovely break in Bar, we set off for the mountains with fresh legs and optimism last Thursday. We chose to follow the recommended top biking trail (TT5) called “Stories by the Water”. It is an initiative by local cycling enthusiasts and supported by the Centre for Active Tourism Development. The first 20 km of this day involved steady climb over 700 km. But reasonable grade, gradual bends, minimal traffic and beautiful rural landscape made it enjoyable. A feature we particularly loved in this section were frequent natural springs offering fresh cold drinking water from the mountains. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a cool shaded pine forest and decided to skip over 150 m of climbing by pushing through a tunnel. The detailed description of the trail hinted at local wildlife resting in these cold shelters and we couldn’t blame them. A wet smelly entrance sidestepping through fresh cow manure was just the beginning. We encountered over half a dozen cows who luckily didn’t mind our intrusion. We walked out with lots of giggles and smelling of cow poop Ano’s wheels were covered in cow manure but he didn’t complain. It was only recently that I shared with a friend how that smell makes me nostalgic from rural Bengal times. And here I was savouring it greedily miles away in rural Montenegro
Once we started our descent, we cruised through slowly keeping an eye out for water refill opportunities before camping around Boljevici. We spotted a mule tied outside an old house and got greeted with a loud hello by the owner. We were invited in as guests and offered the spare storage room upstairs to camp should we choose to. Even though we only cycled 26 km on this day, it was demanding for us. And this house was only 4 km from Virpazar which would be great for food restock the next morning. So we took up Sale (Serbian host with reasonable English) on his offer and joined their table. This house is their ancestral home going back over 12 generations and used as holiday base to enjoy the black mountains. Sale was visiting from Serbia with cousin Buce who spoke no English but made up for it with his smiles. We spent the evening enjoying our separate meal while they enjoyed their beer and light finger food in the same space. We were joined by another cousin from neighbourhood and witnessed some arguments which seems an amicable element of this relationship oriented culture. We excused ourselves after sundown and went to bed to the sounds of local radio.
The following morning we woke up to a spectacular sunrise just after 5 am and the light on the mountains was magical. We then enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with our hosts and made most of access to hot tap water. Though the house wouldn’t tick your everyday guest needs, it was more than plenty for us wild campers. We reassured our host of this who kept apologising for the “mess” all along. We left waving grateful goodbyes and promised to visit if cycling through Serbia along the Danube. Sale mentioned to us about his mule missing company and so was the case for them. We are pleased to have offered the distraction (entertainment?!) with our company. And in return for a hassle free camping base during a demanding phase of our ride made it a fair exchange. It certainly was an insight into the local culture and history between the 2 nations which we wouldn’t get otherwise.
We rode on to Virpazar, topped up on supplies and started our next climb in the midday heat towards Gradani. Having no trees for breeze and shelter made this section very challenging for both of us. We decided to take a lunch break to re-energise but our disused bus stop choice wasn’t ideal. It was a roasting metal box and felt like being in an oven. We rode on and luckily joined some lush green country road shortly after. We rolled down happily to a spring and decided to skip the afternoon heat with a longer break. We would only have final 2.5 km climb to Gradani later to give us a head start for the next day. This spring not only offered fresh drinking water and shade but also had a swimming hole tucked behind. Guy tested it out for us and called it “refreshing” before I went in. Think it’s more than refreshing when it comes to a dip in freezing cold water after all that sweating. I was numb for a bit followed by that out of the world sensation. It was just what we needed to battle the final climb.
We rolled into Gradani eventually and were charmed by the place even though deserted. We tested out camping possibilities with a lady with well maintained garden. But it didn’t work out even though friendly enough. We also inquired with a young Serbian couple visiting the cemetery but they suggested checking in with Panje (local who knows it all?!). Unfortunately he wasn’t in either and so wild camping it was which worked out well. We refilled our bottles from the local war memorial and rode a bit further to camp on grass just off the road. It looked more like being maintained by animals feeding on the grass rather than human scything. After our last experience, we decided to play safe and cook dinner out of sight. In this case, it meant cliffs with epic views and no phone signals. After dinner, we pitched our tent and did our stretches while battling bugs and greedy mosquitoes. It made for a funny dance routine but luckily once in, Olive kept them away and we slept well peacefully in unkempt nature.
We woke up early the following morning and packed up our tent just after 6 am. We then cycled back to the village to refill our water and enjoyed our breakfast at a super cute picnic table with the best views ever. We hit the road by 8 am to beat the heat and make the climb up to Cetinje less painful. The first 12 km was lovely and couple of small tunnels along the mountain passes made it interesting. Instead of cows, we had turtles for company who were in no rush. Guy relocated one from middle of the road to the grass where it disappeared after. Apparently it was heavier than it looked and at one point popped it’s head out to thank him for the lift We eventually joined the panoramic road 3C and got numerous toots and waves from the drivers. For the final section, we detoured to an old road with potholes and gravel which ran parallel to the EV8 recommended main road.
This road was traffic free and we were the only 2 humans throughout that long dragging 7 km uphill ride. The scenery was stunning but midday heat with limited tree cover made it tough. Riding a pedal bike uphill is never easy (for me!). That combined with touring gear and temperatures hitting 30s makes it even harder. Of course fast moving traffic would definitely make it worse. But on this day I realised my biggest challenge is the heat This was the first day we both drank the entire 8 litres of water we carried between us over those couple of hours. Guy most helpfully swapped bags with me for the final 5 km. So I rode with both our dry bags with camping gear and he had 2 panniers on each side of Ahoj instead. He has a mountain bike whereas Ano is a hybrid touring bike with skinner tyres. So this terrain was too tricky with gear and would have slowed us down as a team. All we wanted to do was pedal through to Cetinje where we had couple of days rest in a cozy apartment to recover.
Shortly after rejoining the main road, we turned off at the roundabout losing all the fast and furious cars heading off towards Budva. Upon entering Cetinje, we quickly felt very welcome with the friendly locals and pretty leafy cobbled streets. At one point, we stopped to double check our directions for the apartment on a side street. Within minutes we had 2 friendly locals and eventually the community cops offering help. We declined and rode on to then be greeted and invited for beer by locals at the pub. By this point in the day, we were too wrecked to enjoy a chat over beer. So we declined again and checked into our apartment by 2 pm. It was Saturday and so we had to do big food shop before Sunday closures. We enjoyed some treats in the park while people watching, a lavish carb heavy homemade dinner and slept well in our cozy bed. We also made most of the washing machine to clean all our gear. We spent 2 days and 3 nights in the beautiful old royal capital. 0 cycling replaced by local walks to check out heritage and pub vibe was a welcome treat to celebrate making it here. Amongst the highlights remain watching the French Grand Prix in a pub and live music evening in town centre on summer solstice.
On Tuesday, we left for our next section of the ride towards Niksic. The heatwave with temperatures now hitting up to mid 30s meant we had to plan our route very carefully. After all, our cycle touring is still about enjoying the journey rather than rushing to the destination. So we broke up the route and aimed to reach Danilovgrad over 2 days before deciding on next steps. A bail out option to Nikšić would be a local train from there depending on how we get on. We packed up and left our lovely apartment in Cetinje by 9 am. Cycling into town to refill our bottles from the fountain was the perfect end of our time in Cetinje. I also topped up my Telenor sim and enjoyed a very insightful chat with the staff (Luka). He shared anecdotes about corruption and how that forms part of everyday life. He has studied in London but remains a proud Montenegrin now settled in Cetinje and embracing the historical city for what it is.
Our first 10 km uphill ride in the heat was hard going even though it was only 10 am. This was a quieter main road recommended by both Eurovelo 8 and Top Biking Trail 1. We then turned to a quieter country road towards Cevo exclusively recommended by Top Biking trails called “Salty and Sweet”. It was a picturesque kaarst landscape in the katun country. What that meant was also limited water supply which isn’t ideal for someone who drinks as much water as me We cycled to the only spring at 7 km distance to be disappointed and the next one would be at least another 12 km away. What made up for the disappointment was meeting our fellow solo female cycle tourist from France called Isabel. It’s hard to find one word in English vocabulary to describe this bubbly free spirited young woman. But Bollywood would label her “bindass” We waved her goodbye with hope to cross paths again and felt inspired with her attitude.
The next few kilometres of ride involved deserted nature and no settlements. Luckily we spotted one house near Resna where the lady kindly refilled our bottles. It was bottled water from fridge which we were hesitant to deprive her off but she insisted to refill all 5. We then stopped for lunch in a grass patch with shade and breeze until 2 pm. Camping in this region without water access wasn’t an option and so we had to push through to Cevo. It would have been all gradual downhill through woods had it not been for the roadworks. As we found out the hard way, there is a major road being built between Cetinje and Nikšić (third one). And we witnessed good long stretch of cliffs, trucks and cranes in action to complete this 3 year long project. Once again I had to push Ano through the loose gravel but the appreciation from the workers helped get me through. Guy pushed both our bikes up for final climb before rejoining the main road. We rolled into Cevo just after 3 pm and were relieved to finally spot some houses.
Guy left me in the shade with bikes and gear to check out camping and water options. He returned within minutes looking excited to introduce me to our host for the night. We cycled into the local village pub (Kafana) and I got greeted with the warmest and loudest “dobar dan” ever. Once again no English but enough words to tell our story to impress our host, Vuko. He was delighted for us to use any part of the premises for camping and even offered indoor space. Guy had already spotted the perfect spot behind the pub and so we declined. We celebrated our 33 km ride to Cevo over pivo It was also beer o clock for the local workers and villagers alike all of whom seemed pleased to see and welcome us. We enjoyed a lovely dinner, bird bath with bottled water and crawled into our tent by 8 pm. Luckily it wasn’t a noisy pub and we enjoyed the space to ourselves until next morning. With a bright moon shining on Olive and cooler evening temperatures, we had a great sleep.
On Wednesday, we had a leisurely breakfast outside Kafana and greeted various morning coffee visitors. One of the workers from previous day recognised us and treated us to Turkish coffee. We bumped into him again in Niksic today – it’s a small connected country! After another heartfelt goodbye from Vuko (now called my Balkan Father Christmas we set off for our 30 km ride to Danilovgrad. After the first 10 km cruise through lush green woods, we started our long 20 km gradual decent (over 800 m). Since the road was an old one with uneven surface, I had to use my brakes all throughout. It was hard on the body and we took a break at another pub (Katunski Vidikovac) with hope for food but no luck. So instead we had our usual wraps on a lookout shelter and rode into Danilovgrad just before 2 pm. It was 37 C heat and same forecast for next few days which made riding challenging. So after checking into our guest house (Family Tradition), we decided to take the train to Niksic instead of riding the final 35 km (over 900 m climbing). Our hosts kindly verified the conditions for traveling with bicycles on train (4 EUR per bike). So on Thursday morning, we caught the train to Niksic paying more than twice for our bikes to beat the heat and totally worth it! It was already 33 C at 9 am and we were relieved to get off at Niksic station
It certainly has been an eventful week without a single grumpy man to moan about A massive thank you to all those local heroes whose simple welcoming gestures are a reminder of what this journey is really about. We have earned a few days off and hoping to use Niksic (second largest city) as a base to explore the region. With the comfort of stable accommodation (with air conditioning) to return to at end of each day of course. Our adventures in Montenegro aren’t over yet and we still have the deep canyons of Tara and Durmitor region on our bucket list. What will be good is for temperatures to drop to 20s, a wee cloud cover and climbing grades to remain steady to avoid heat strokes But we have a lot to be grateful for if heat is our biggest concern eh?! Onwards and upwards, Ano
“I wonder why the sun wants to set, when this much beauty it has nowhere met.”
Ljubomir Nenadovic (famous Serbian poet on beauty of Montenegro