Just a few short months ago I would have been completely unable to tell you where Montenegro was on a map. But after having spent 43 days in this small Adriatic country south of Croatia and north of Albania on the Adriatic coast, I’ve a raving fan.
I cycled into Montenegro from Croatia on the 13th of May, 2009. After no more than an hour’s worth of riding, I found myself in the small coastal town of Herceg Novi, perched on a hillside near the entrance to the Gulf of Kotor.
After finding a small apartment to rent for the night, I spent the evening walking around town, strolling the local shops, eating pizza, and mixing with the locals. “This place is nice” I thought to myself. “Maybe I should stay here for a while?”
But I could do no such thing! I had already made a 40-night reservation for an apartment in the town of Tivat, a small coastal city of approximately 15,000 located across the Gulf, about 20 kilometers away.
I had arranged to meet the owner of my Tivat apartment at 5 PM at the ferry landing three miles north of the city. But it wasn’t even noon yet, so I spent the day cycling around the Bay of Kotor, one of Montenegro’s most famous landmarks and most notable geographic features.
In the middle of the Bay sat the islands I had, up to this point in my life, only seen in photographs. Our Lady of the Rocks, the floating church in the middle of the Bay built in Roman Catholic architecture, remained a prominent fixture throughout the day as I slowly made my way around to Kotor and back to the Lepetane ferry landing where I was to meet the apartment owner.
At 5 PM, there he was. Ratko was his name and he wore a bright orange polo shirt made up of red and yellow horizontal stripes. He seemed to be in a rush as we frantically loaded my bike into his car and took off toward town.
Ratko spoke little English, but more than I expected any resident of this tiny seaside country to speak or understand. As he showed me into my apartment I asked him, “How did you learn so much English? Did you learn it in school? Or simply from talking with tourists?”
“Yes!” he replied. But I was left wondering exactly which question he was responding to.
My apartment was nice. It was located in the center of a three story home, just off the main street that runs through town and directly across from the local city park where goats run wild and women sometime tan in the nude.
I had a small living room with a widescreen TV (which didn’t work), a computer (which I never used because I brought my own laptop) and two large red leather couches. In addition, there was a small kitchenette, a bathroom, and a luxurious bedroom with a gigantic dresser and a plush queen-size bed.
The only thing my temporary home lacked was a view. Two large windows were located on either side of the unit, but the only thing I could see out of them were the walls of the neighbors’ homes.
After I was shown around, Ratko said goodbye, closed the door and I was left to myself. I was alone yet again… and for the next month at least, I would remain that way, speaking to only a handful of people for the remainder of my time in Montenegro.
Unfortunately, my second day in Tivat left me with a negative impression from the get-go.
A kitten had been hit by a car right outside my hillside apartment building. Blood was leaking from it’ head and as I approached the baby cat on foot, I thought it might still be alive. It wasn’t however, and the thought of someone running it over and then leaving it in the street to be run over again and again left me with a negative image of the people I might meet in this tiny coastal town.
Further sadness crept in when I discovered five puppies that had been abandoned by some irresponsible owner in a nearby park.
And time and time again, I saw dead animals along the roadside, kicked into the gutter or thrown into the bushes and simply forgotten about.
My happy go-lucky mood had shifted to a state of depression and regret. I was wishing I hadn’t come to this place. I was regretting having to stay for so long. And in many ways, I wanted to just come home.
But a few days passed and my dark mood lifted.
My first week in Tivat was spent doing what I always do when I find myself in a new place – I walked around aimlessly. Getting lost can be a good thing when traveling to a new locale, because it forces you to find places and experience things you might not have ever found or experienced otherwise. And it was these random walks around the city that changed my overall impression of Montenegro and the people that live there.
One of my favorite places to walk to in Tivat was the soccer field on the north side of town. It was about a 30-minute walk to get there from my apartment, but it was worth it because I loved watching the games take place. Men of all ages were on the field. Some were wearing athletic shorts and shirts, while others were dressed in jeans and polos – even in the 100+ degree weather.
I tried to get in on a few games myself, but with no such luck. I later learned that the players were paying to join these scrimmages and that I would be unable to play with the locals unless I joined a team and paid up like the rest of them. Had I been staying longer, I gladly would have.
Downtown Tivat was where the tourists, if there were any, hung out. Large palm trees lined the street and a long row of restaurants and outdoor eateries ran the entire length of the street. All day long, people sat underneath the restaurant awnings and peered out at the people walking past – something I quickly learned is a favorite undertaking in Montenegro.
The advantage of staying in one place for an extended period of time is that you get to see how things are in these places on a daily basis. You pick up the patterns of daily life and see the same people day after day.
On my walk into town each day, the man at the paint store, who slept in his car at night to guard his paint and building supplies, would nod his head at me as I walked passed.
And the old balding fat man in the alley than ran from the corner bakery to the beach never seemed to move. No matter whether I walked past at 8 in the morning or 10 o’ clock at night, he was always there, sitting in his chair outside his tiny run-down apartment. He never had his shirt on. He was never reading a book or talking with other residents. He was just sitting there, watching people walk past, day… after day… after day.
Then there was the blond haired woman in the tourist agency, whom I had talked to on my first day in Tivat, and whom I seemed to keep running into no matter where I was in town.
Boys on bicycles quickly learned who I was and I too began to recognize the clanking sounds of their bicycle wheels long before I ever saw them coming.
And the bar maidens at the Exit Pizzeria on the south side of town quickly learned that a vegetarian pizza in a box was all I really wanted.
After just a couple weeks in Tivat, I felt like one of the locals and the place that had shocked me so much at first had now surprisingly grown on me.
During my time in Tivat, I would spend my weekdays doing work. I’d write articles forBicycleTouringPro.com, work on marketing for my clients in California, and plan my travels for the coming weeks and months ahead.
On the weekends I would take bus trips to nearby cities. I spent much of my time in Kotor, a large fortified city on the south side of The Bay of Kotor. And trips to Budva, Bar, Sutomore and other coastal towns were made as well.
A typical day would involve sleeping in late, working for a couple hours, going on a bike ride or walk around town, and then returning in the evening for a shower, a warm meal, and a long night of computer work and writing.
Unfortunately, the Internet in Montenegro (or at least in the apartment I was renting) was incredibly unreliable. It seemed as though there was hardly a day where the Internet did not go out at least once. And on some occasions, the Internet would go out three to four times per day.
For someone who does not use the Internet all that often, this may not some like a big deal. But when your livelihood is made via the World Wide Web, like mine is, Internet outages are an incredible nuisance and an substantial drain of both time and money.
Every time the Internet would go out, I had to call Rakto, the apartment owner, or his son, Nino (who spoke better English than his father), to come over and reset the router and/or call the Internet company. I had thought the Internet in Croatia had been bad, but Montenegro was a million times worse.
During the 40 days I spent in Tivat, I would guess that at least half of my days were spent trying to get the Internet back up and running. It was frustrating, depressing, and a waste of time. I had planned to get a lot of work done while staying in Montenegro, but that didn’t really happen. Instead, most of my time was spent walking around town, simply waiting for the Internet to magically turn back on. And even after it did come back on, it would often times go out again just a few hours later.
It was terrible… and it made me realize just how much I love my home in the United States and how much my lifestyle depends on having a good, fast, reliable Internet connection.
Overall, the biking in Montenegro was good, the weather was hot, it rained a lot, the women were beautiful, the clothing was skimpy, men walked around with their shirts lifted high above their bellies, women watered their gardens in bikinis, dead animals were everywhere, I saw more naked people than I have ever seen before in my entire life, and the landscape of the country left me with nothing but positive impressions.
But after 43 days in Montenegro it was time to say goodbye and continue my journey south.
On the 24th of June I left my apartment in Tivat. There was no one to say goodbye to. No one to wave me off. I simply packed up my things, rolled my bike out to the street and took off toward Albania.
My temporary home along the Adriatic sea has quickly become a distant memory. But I am glad that I had the chance to experience the people and place they call Montenegro… and I will forever remember it as one of the most beautiful, friendly, and frustrating places I have ever been.
Darren Alff is a world-renowned authority on bicycle touring and is the founder ofBicycleTouringPro.com – the world’s most popular bicycle touring website and how-to information source. He is the author of “The Bicycle Touring Blueprint” and three additional cycling books. Darren has dedicated his life to helping others conduct the bicycle tour of their dreams. His websites, books, email newsletter, products and public appearances now inspire and assist hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world.