Backpacking Montenegro | Our first national park and a traditional train ride

Now that the world is opening up again after covid it’s time for us to explore some new countries. With heavy hearts we decided to sell Helga our campervan after a year long roadtrip around the UK, Ireland and Spain so we could travel further afield and embrace backpacker life again. Helga sold in less than 24 hours which is no surprise as she was a gem and then we began planning our next trip. One goal for us is to explore Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan but due to the high mountains many hikes aren’t accessible until mid June so we were left with 4-6 weeks spare before we venture there. In the end we decided to head to the Balkan’s first, we’ve wanted to visit since 2014 but our van insurance didn’t cover that region so we ended up taking a ferry to Italy and back over to Croatia.

We found a cheap flight for £18 plus baggage to Montenegro so that was our first stop. We had a long day ahead of us with a wake up at 6am, a drive to the train station, a train to the airport and a 2 hour wait for our flight. We didn’t actually know where we were going once we arrived so we literally booked a room as the flight was boarding. It was only 3 hours to reach the tiny country of Montenegro which is home to just 600,000 people. We flew over the Bay of Kotor which resembled a Norwegian fjord with mountains all around and then the plane did a big loop above the huge Lake Skadar with snowy peaks in the distance.

We knew Montenegro was a small country but didn’t realise quite how small it was until we arrived at Podgorica airport. It’s the capital city yet the airport was tiny, security took 5 minutes and our bags were already on the small conveyor belt. We tried to get cash out from an ATM but they were charging an extortionate 10% so a €300 withdrawal would charge us an additional €30 which was outrageous. Luckily I had €5 in my wallet from Spain so we were able to use that to get public transport to the main bus terminal. There were only taxis available from the airport so we had to walk one kilometre along a grassy track beside the road to reach a ramshackle hut with a potent stench of piss emitting from it. That was the train station, just sitting beside the tracks without any information or timetable stuck on the wall. We had a 45 minute wait and another traveller soon joined us. After a little while a taxi pulled up and tried to encourage us to take a ride with him. We were happy waiting but he offered us a ride for €2.50 per person (the train would of cost us €1.50 per person). So we decided to go for it. The driver pumped the music up and spent most of his time browsing on his phone instead of looking at the road.

We needed to get to Kolasin, a village in the mountains which once had the most cafes per capita in former Yugoslavia and each citizen was said to have their own chair. It’s near the Biogradska Gora National Park which was the reason for our visit and the town seemed like an easy journey to make on our first day. We managed to find a better ATM and headed to the ticket booth for our bus. I could barely hear the lady behind the counter and noticed Craig was just staring around the room when I really needed two sets of ears to figure out what she was saying so I gave him a kick and shoved my head closer to the window, at which point the lady must’ve realised we were struggling to hear and turned her microphone on, causing me to jump out my skin when she spoke. The bus only took an hour and a half and it followed an extremely scenic route through a deep gorge with a clear blue river below us. The road clung to the cliff edge and the drivers were reckless, overtaking and speeding around bends.

Kolasin is a ski town but now that it’s May most of the snow has melted which meant it was very quiet. We had a kilometre walk to the little studio we’d booked which was basically a room in a pensioners house. An old man greeted us with a ‘Doba Dan’ which we’re familiar with from our time in Slovenia. His eyebrows were so big they protruded across the side of his face like wings on a bird.

The studio was a very simply affair but the bed sheets were clean and the bed felt comfy so that’s the most important thing to me. Shame they didn’t clean the toilet though, there’s nothing I love more than having to do that job myself. A very sweet old lady knocked on our door and said “cake”. She was holding a plate with biscuits sprinkled with icing sugar so we took a seat outside to enjoy them. Then she came back with a bottle of Rakija, a homemade brandy made from fruit. I asked for just a little bit and she proceeded to fill my shot glass to the top. She didn’t speak much English but she was able to explain her husband made it with apples from their garden and it’s 50% alcohol!! My goodness it was horrible. Our faces instantly screwed up and I began coughing and spluttering. I’ve since read the 40% ones are much nicer as you can actually taste the fruit. Our first experience was like taking a shot of methylated spirits.

We headed out into the town for dinner as we figured we should try some traditional Montenegrin food. There was a very cute wooden restaurant in the main square which we opted for. Craig ordered the ‘pork meat in peasant manner’ and I ordered ‘layered cheese’ and a little side salad. A pint of beer was €2.50 so Craig was very happy about that! The food was rather disappointing though. I don’t know what I was expecting but layered cheese turned out to literally just be layers of local cheese. It was nice to begin with, similar to a firm mozzarella but after a couple of slices I was fed up with the same flavour. The salad was a partial pallet-cleanser at least, but it had the same cheese grated all over the top. Craig wasn’t very fond of his stew either so he got the menu out and I thought it was to look for a different meal to order but he said “oh I’m just looking for the Montenegrin word for my meal so I know not to order it again” which we both laughed a lot about. It ended up costing €17 for the meal so very cheap by British standards but we can’t afford to keep eating out at those prices for meals we don’t even enjoy so we’ll be mostly cooking in our apartments from now on. We were both feeling absolutely shattered so after a little stop in the supermarket to buy some food for breakfast we headed back for a nice hot shower and an early night.

The Biograd Gora national park was only about 15km from Kolašin where we were staying but I read it was possible to visit without a car so we set off for the bus station. Our host quickly ran out when she saw us leaving and insisted we took some cake. We didn’t know what time the buses left but we were the only people waiting which made us think we’d just missed one. A drunk looking taxi driver pulled up and tried to persuade us to get a taxi by saying “bus maybe yes maybe no……bus crashed”. What the fuck, who says something that morbid for business!! Out of resentment we persevered and waited 45 minutes for that damn bus. It dropped us off in a pullout and from there we had a 4km walk up a winding road through the forest.

It was a rather dull walk but we eventually arrived at Biogradsko Jezero Lake. The water was as flat as a pancake so the forested hills encircling the lake were all perfectly reflected on the surface. In the far distance we could see the spiky tops of snow capped mountains. A jetty with wooden boats tied up to it offered the best view of the lake and we could see lots of big toads swimming below us. We followed a forested loop trail around the lake, stopping halfway for a picnic lunch on a wooden boardwalk surrounded by trickling streams and wild garlic. Halfway through our lunch it began raining which put a dampener on things, excuse the pun. Luckily the trees gave us good cover as we walked back to the jetty and down the long winding road.

When it came to getting a bus back we realised there wasn’t a pullout on the other side of the road so we didn’t know where the bus would be able to stop on such a busy route. We decided to wait on the opposite side, hoping he’d turn into the pullout but after waiting 10 minutes the bus saw us, shrugged his shoulders and kept driving. Oh my god, why didn’t he stop?! We realised the next bus wasn’t for another 45 minutes or more and he may just drive past us as well. So we had no choice but to try and hitchhike. We didn’t know if hitching was common practice in Montenegro but judging by how many cars drove past us I’d say it’s not! We decided we should walk further down the road and see if there were any pullouts on our side of the road for a bus or car to pull in but it wasn’t easy as the road was narrow and trucks were zooming past us. We kept walking until we eventually found a section of road with a couple feet of gravel to the side and thankfully after 40 minutes of hitchhiking a car pulled over, hooray! We were very relieved as Craig had awful hay fever all day so he was feeling exhausted and just wanted to get back as soon as possible.

We made a quick dinner when we got back but it wasn’t an easy task with the utensils provided and we had to cook our pasta sauce in a coffee pan and sieve our peas in the miniature coffee strainer. The next morning we checked out and had a steep uphill walk with our backpacks to the train station. Our host really recommended the train, she said the route featured in James Bond but the locals all laughed when they watched the film because the actual train they used was clearly not Montenegrin.

When we arrived at the station we stepped inside a room that we thought was the ticket office but it turned out to be the station masters office. He was on the phone and we looked around the room trying to figure out if it was the right room to buy a ticket but before we did the man shouted at us in Montenegrin and we awkwardly giggled like kids and ran out. A nice young guy on the platform saw what happened and politely told us we could buy tickets on the train.

The train was an old fashioned affair, with a boxy front and just two carriages. Getting on was a bit of a challenge with our backpacks as there was a steep step up and rustic slam doors. It was a strange layout inside with a narrow walkway on the right and the whole left side made up of compartments with 6 red velvet seats. We walked all the way down the train and couldn’t find any spare seats so we had to do an awkward u-turn which was barely possible in the aisle with our big bags. We found two spare seats in one compartment with a bunch of bags on the floor but when I asked the people if we could sit there they said no because their bags were there. What the fuck?! There are racks above the seats to put bags and space below the seats but these rude fuckers just put them on the floor and were too lazy to move them.

So we realised we just had to stand by one of the doorways, right next to the toilet. As we stepped from one carriage into the next a big gust of wind hit me. I peered through and saw the conductor was on the verge of being sucked out the bloody train. A door had flung open and he was attempting to pull it closed as we went through a tunnel. He saw us waiting and put a hand up for us to wait while he battled with the door and then he used his large body to guard us as we slipped behind him and made ourselves as comfortable as we could by the toilet. We looked at each other and laughed “well, it’s going to be a long hour and a half journey!”

Five minutes later the conductor, who luckily didn’t get blown out the train, ushered for us to follow him. He led us to a compartment that had previously been locked and had a couple spare seats which was a relief. Annoyingly the locals who do this journey regularly had the window seats so we couldn’t really see the nice views. But to be honest the train was passing through tunnels so often that we were seeing more darkness than nice views. It was a funny experience if nothing else.

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