After Dubrovnik, our next destination of Montenegro was an easy choice. The country, as you would imagine, is very mountainous and we like mountains. We based ourselves on the bay, in the town of Kotor for 3 nights, and arrived early to our Airbnb that first morning. Our room wasn't ready yet, so the host family invited us onto their patio and served us Turkish coffee and shots of the local brandy known as Rakija. We were feeling good as we strolled down to the walled old town. Thanks to Facebook, we met up with a former teacher of mine (Donn Maier) and his wife who have lived and worked there for the past 2 years. They treated us to lunch and drinks, but more importantly gave us some good advice about hiking and exploring the area. We ate in one of the quaint old town squares and tried to talk over the band that occasionally marched by. Later, a bride and groom slowly walked arm-in-arm toward the church as the bells rang. All together, a great first impression of Montenegro.
That afternoon, we used a local path that we had been told about, known as the Ladder of Cattaro, to walk up to the Castle Of San Giovanni on a hill above the town for sunset views. The local route took us up switchbacks that were reportedly built long ago so that some important family could move a piano across the mountains. It is now lined with pomegranate trees that weren't quite ripe enough, and took us through an unprotected ruined village with a small church. From there you enter the castle through a window and join all the other tourists who paid an entry fee and walked up the stairs from Old Town. At the top, tourists climb all over the ruins that are barely held together with metal joints, trying for that perfect selfie. We didn't linger long and slowly made our way down the main stairs, stopping often for Julia to pet the local cats.
Down in the Old Town, we strolled the maze of alleys, then picked up some bureks from a bakery and burek toppings from a market to be enjoyed back at the apartment.
We don't really like waking up early, so we got a late start the next day. Hiking Mrtvica Canyon was our goal, with the bonus of driving there along some scenic roads. We took the switchbacks up to Lovćen National Park, letting our Maps.me app lead us up a dirt road, adding some time to the already long trip. Other highlights of the 3hr drive were weaving the road through the Morača river canyon and seeing the massive concrete pillars for the new highway being built through the mountains, dubbed the "highway to nowhere" as they will soon run out of money.
When we finally arrived to Medjurecje for the start of the hike, we followed the signs to the private field where we expected to pay a few Euro to park, but never encountered anyone asking for money. From there we followed red markings that I assumed were leading us to the canyon but we discovered they were put there by a local leading people to his campground. He gave us directions from there but the rarely used small trail was washed out and not safe to pass. We backtracked to the parking lot, used our GPS map, and found the correct trail. This setback, along with our late start and long drive, put us in a race with the setting sun. We set a turn around time and made it a good ways into the impressive canyon before hustling back to the car. We stuck to the main roads for the drive home and had another burek dinner at the apartment.
Regular readers of H3J2Wander may remember that one of our fondest memories from our Central America trip was the day we spent at the Xocomil Waterpark in Guatemala. We have driven by a few parks here in Europe but never had the time. So, for our final day in Montenegro, we took advantage of our flexible schedule and enjoyed an afternoon at Aquapark Budva, about 25 min away from Kotor, on a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea. We went on a Monday in the offseason and the wave pool was closed, so the place was almost empty and we never had to wait in line. The views were amazing, the slides were okay, the staff was friendly, the stairs were tiring, and the rash pain was minimal. There were only 6 different adult slides open, which didn't bother us too much, but one more would have been nice. The biggest thrill was the ride called the Big Kamikaze, with a descent of 26 meters. That night, we treated ourselves to local seafood in a square we stumbled upon in the Old Town.
We could have spent more than 3 nights in Montenegro, but alas, this honeymoon is running out of days. Based on the most efficient routing, we departed Kotor hugging the coast and covered a lot of ground south to get to Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. The drive took us through much of Albania and we saw why we were warned about driving there. Skirting the capitol of Tirana, the traffic was thick and unapologetic. It reminded us of Central America, where drivers just try to get a nose in and assume you won't hit them as they merge suddenly. It was stressful but I must admit a little fun.
Driving Side Note: For the past few weeks, as we have moved further south and the roads have become less 4-lane highway, we have seen many police checkpoints. They stand on the side of the road, sometimes with a radar gun, and have a tiny stop sign they hold up if they want you to pull over. Oncoming cars will always warn you with a flash of the headlights, so we have never been pulled over, but they do seem to randomly target vans and trucks for inspection. Once, while slowly cruising through a small town, we were passed by an anxious local, and sure enough there was a police officer just ahead who waved the driver over. We were allowed to pass through, but the car behind was waved over as well. We have no idea what would happen if we did get pulled over and we don't care to find out.
Once in Ohrid, our host offered us Turkish coffee and chai tea served on an elegant tray out on our patio. We strolled the lakefront as the sun went down and enjoyed seeing the locals out in their public living room. Dinner was eaten at a recommended restaurant where live traditional music was played and a few of the boisterous tables sang and danced. The service was slow (as is the custom in Europe) but the meals were $4 and $6 and my 1/2 Liter of beer cost $1.70. We immediately liked Macedonia.
Just one night in Ohrid was all we could spare, so the next day, after more Turkish coffee and chai tea, we used the morning to wander the city market streets and visit a church on the lake. Then we hit the road to make our way down to the recent addition to our itinerary, Meteora in Greece.
At this point, our first car issue presented itself. A warning light had come on during the long drive the previous day. We did research before leaving Ohrid and realized it was telling us we had a tire issue. After close examination, I found what appeared to be a nail in our right rear tire, but little to no air was escaping. We planned to drive on it to the last gas station in Macedonia (gas is very expensive in Greece), where we would check the pressure in all tires and make a decision from there. Upon inquiring with the gas attendant about our issue, he referred us to another man who told us a tire shop was just down the road and they were good people. We like good people, so decided this would be the safest thing to do before driving for 3 more hours.
After rolling up to the shop, a lady translated a mechanic who said it would cost about 2€ to fix and take maybe 10 minutes. Yada yada yada, the suspected nail turned out to be just an imbedded rock and no leak was found in any tire. They told us we were safe to go, that the warning light was false, didn't accept any payment, and wished us safe travels. More points for Macedonia.
We arrived to the town of Kalambaka in the early evening, and it felt good to be back in Greece. Gyros were an obvious choice for the first dinner and we made a plan for our visit to Meteora. Brief history; during the 11th century, hermet monks lived in small caves along the rock walls in the area. In the 14th century, Turkish incursion started happening, so more monks sought refuge in the area. They built monasteries on top of rock pillars that were only accessible via removable rope ladders, or for those whose couldn't climb, large nets that were hoisted up. The story goes that whenever a visitor would ask how often the ropes were changed, the monks stock reply was "When the lord let them break". At one point there were 24 monasteries but now only 6 remain fully intact (2 of which are nunneries). A paved road and stone bridges now provide access for us sinners to view and explore theses impressive structures.
After filling ourselves with free breakfast at the hotel, we drove to the closest monastery (Agios Stefanos) and worked our way down the road, stopping at viewpoints and jostling with tour buses to find parking. We ended up visiting 3 monasteries (Stefanos, Varlaam, and Nikolaos Anapafsas), each costing 3€ a person to enter. They all had elaboratly decorated chapels (no pictures allowed) and spectacular views down the valley below. We started the walk up the stairs to visit the oldest and largest monastery (Grand Meteora), but were stuck behind a large tour group in a line that wasn't moving, and decided to turn around. The smallest and least visited (Nikolaos) was the most peaceful, and gave us the best idea of what life was like for the monks.
Back in town, we ate a good local dinner with the friendliest and most efficient wait staff we have seen all trip. They all wore ear buds to communicate and were quick. The only negative was the reemergence of the traditional Greek post-dinner watermelon. Luckily the bakery next door had baklava.
We overindulged in the free hotel breakfast one last time, paid a few highway tolls, and departed Greece for Macedonia. The end seems very close now as we are moving north toward Sarajevo, with just 4 short stops along the way. Умот не е во џебот, туку во главата.