Saturday, 15 August. As we cranked our way up the cardiac hill leading from Cavtat to Highway 8, I saw the sun shining like a halo around the 1400-m peaks beyond the Dubrovnik Airport. We rode a ridge road on the western edge of a broad plateau at about 200 meters. No wonder that the airport occupied the plateau: it had to be the only piece of flat real estate in the whole country big enough for an airport. As it is, someone had chopped off a small hilltop to complete the site work.
About 30 km down the road, I entered Montenegro alone; Cheryl had gotten ahead of me climbing the ridge. She saw me leave the Montenegro border post, and head down the long, steep hill that led to the city of Herceg Novi. I thought she was ahead of me until I stopped at a fruit stand, and she caught up with me. Whether for photography or food, lucky for us someone has to stop now and again.
The industrial suburbs into Kerceg Novi would not win awards for the most beautiful approach to a city, but they did have what we needed: SIM cards for our cell phones. It took us two hours to find a phone carrier that would take care of us. As the staff at the desk of the Montenegro Telecom store filled out interminable forms by hand and carefully examined our passports, I realized just how recently the Iron Curtain had rusted away, and how seventy years of Soviet and Serbian domination had affected society. I would have more reminders that we had entered a police state, though it was trying hard to grow its tourism sector, and the people were genuinely friendly. Clearly, though, the employees worried more about getting the details right for the police report than making sure that our phones worked. In fact, it would take us a couple of days to learn why our phones would quit and what the many notices from the phone company were trying to tell us.
The experience with the phone stores cut into our time, so we did not get a chance to wander through the historic center. It looked attractive, but we rolled down to the coast road and made our way out of town to the south. Cheryl knew where she was going, and it would be far prettier than Herceg Novi.
The Bay of Kotor (Cattaro, when the Venetians owned it) did not disappoint. The major part of the bay features pleasant beaches, but Cheryl pressed on past a small ferry crossing into an inner bay, invisible from the sea. As we rode far around that secret body of water, I marveled at the changing colors in the hills and the ominous size of the mountain rising from the south side of the bay. Later I would learn that this was the Black Mountain that gave the country its name.
We stopped after 65.62 km in the ancient town of Perast, which sits directly across from the seaward entrance to the bay. The town was so pleasant, and the setting so beautiful, that even the uncivil and rude treatment of the hotel owner could not spoil it for us. We simply did not eat dinner in his restaurant, and I wrote the only bad review that I have ever posted online (booking.com).
The next day, we rode around the rest of the bay to the town of Kotor itself. From the Lion of St. Mark on the walls to the layout in the town, you could tell that this was a Venetian outpost for a long time. Montenegro’s history is a patchwork of shifting rulers, wars and cultures: Greek, Roman, Venetian, Ottoman, Austrian, Italian, German, Serbian and Montenegrin. It is the only republic I know of that has rehabilitated its old monarchy and restored some of their traditional roles.
The Black Mountain dominates Kotor, so much so that it is in shade more of the day than most cities. The Fortress of Saint John sits about halfway up the mountain (1300 meters). Cheryl always checks out the highest point of any place, so we headed to the Fortress. The ticket collector sat in a booth surrounded by warning signs and an AED box. He said that a fit person can make the climb in 45 minutes. We did it in 30 minutes, because there was nothing we could do but keep putting our feet on the next step.
The view made up for the climb. We watched a melodrama unfold below us as successive firehouses in and around Kotor discharged their engines to race around the Black Mountain on the coast road out of sight (where we were going to ride soon). After it became an eight-alarm fire, we started back down the hill.
Back in town, the gelato may not have matched Italian standards, but it did its job on our thirsty, hot mouths. We found our bicycles and headed back to the coast, wondering if we would be blocked by an army of fire engines. The fire was in the brush on the side of the mountain, and although cars were getting by the fire trucks carefully, we did not have to slow down. Soon we were back in the sunshine riding down the coast to Budva.
Cheryl found us an apartment in the heart of Stari Grad (Old City) Budva, but we had to climb from sea level to 220 meters a couple of times before we dropped down to the waterfront outside the Old City. We checked in after dark. After locking our bikes inside the courtyard of the inn, we showered, changed, and got some dinner. Budva parties hard every night, and we enjoyed watching the crowds frolic and laugh. After 55 km on the road and the climb to St. John’s Fortress, the loud bar outside our window could not keep us awake.
The next day, we explored the old town. A single ticket admits one to the citadel, which contains battlements, museums and interesting exhibits. We walked the waterfront, tested the ATM machines after frustrating waits in line at banks (no one else is allowed to exchange money, and we still had some Croatian kuna). I finally bought a pair of flip-flops for each of us, after all the rocky beaches that we had endured. We treated ourselves that night, feeling much recovered, and enjoyed our frolicking neighbors.
Cheryl knew the way to Albania, having crossed it on her way to Greece, but we were not going quite that far. Instead, another surprise awaited me after we left Budva and continued south.
Until next week,
Smooth roads and tailwinds.