Tuesday, 18 August 2015. Finding our way back to the main road to leave Budva did not pose a problem, but a hot sun awaited us when we cleared the buildings. The highway hugged the rocky coast like a glove, giving us many switchbacks to climb as we snaked our way to Bar, the next major town. We planned to reach Ulcinj, an Albanian town inside Montenegro, 73 km from Budva.
The area south of Bar had been Albania from 1405 until 1878, when the Great Powers moved the border south during the Congress of Berlin. Today, Ulcinj is a founding member of the National Assembly of Albanian Municipalities. The city has a fascinating history, which I recommend reading (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulcinj).
From about 1100, the sun reflected off the granite face of the rock wall to our left as we rode. The coast shimmered in the sun, but we did not pause for many pictures. Cheryl pointed out Sutomore, a popular resort and a suburb of Bar. Bar is an industrial port with a ferry terminal, and, thanks to the railroad, the principal link between Belgrade and the nearest open ocean. She led me straight across town without stopping and back into the country. The hills slowed us down more than we expected, so about an hour before sundown, she booked us into a campground by the beach in Utjeha, 20 km from Ulcinj. We found space among the cars and trailers, and settled in. After a walk on the beach and dinner in a pizzeria next to the campground, we turned in for some much-needed rest.
After climbing the steep grade from the beach back to the highway the next morning, we had only one tall ridge to climb before rolling into Ulcinj. We rode down to the Mali Rana (town beach) and back up the promontory opposite the old city. The Amina Apartments sat at the top of the hill, and we almost could not push our bikes up the steep, slippery stone road. We got them parked below the building, and met our host. We had a well-appointed suite with a commanding view. The restaurant in the hotel attracted plenty of outside customers for a good reason.
For two days we wandered the old city, the beautiful sandy beaches (yes, swimming, too), and the parks and modern neighborhoods. Ulcinj has the longest sand beach in Montenegro, the Velika Plaža, 12 km. We used the closer beaches, where pine woods grew right down to the rocky coast. The town had even put ladders into the rocks, like a salt water swimming pool.
On the second day, Cheryl suggested that we go to Belgrade while we were this close. We had already planned to take the ferry from Bar, so we decided to check our bikes in baggage claim and take the train to Belgrade. Cheryl had cycled there, and was eager to show me the big city on the Danube. Our host pointed to the house across the street, with a sign advertising a taxi service. His neighbor drove a van taxi, so we reserved a run to Bar the next day.
Early on Friday, we loaded our bikes and bodies into the van and headed to the train station in Bar. To our dismay, the staff at the train station refused to put our bicycles in baggage claim, apparently more for spite than any official reason. Discouraged, we went to the bar across the street, where the manager let us park our bikes in her storeroom with the sodas and beer, for only ten euros. We caught the train and headed for Serbia, a country that I had never expected to visit in my life.
It takes 14 hours to cross Montenegro and Serbia from Bar to Belgrade. The great Lake Skadar and the massive mountains topped anything I had ever seen in Europe for sheer unspoiled beauty. I have always preferred old mountains to the jagged new ranges like the Alps, and I marveled at these ancient, granite formations. Cheryl wondered why I did not continue to stare at the succession of stunning vistas, but I could not explain it at the time. I also saw that terrain through my military lens, and I could imagine the unforgiving horror and misery of trying to move through it with enemies all around. Tanks and aircraft have no power here; this is an infantryman’s battlefield. From prehistoric times, these shining mountains have flowed with blood. The irony overcame me.
That night, we arrived in Belgrade. The immigrants camping in the park across from the station seemed to have settled into a routine existence, waiting for visas, tickets, and any other opportunity. We could not appreciate then how the situation would soon evolve.
We walked to the Manga Hostel near Saint Mark’s church. I was immediately struck by how different the staff looked, because the young men had hair. Of course, most of them were not Serbian, it being an international hostel. I had never been to a country where so many men preferred to shave their heads. Serbians are generally taller and bigger than most Europeans. Walking through a crowd in Belgrade felt like walking onto the set for an action movie, surrounded by the tough guys.
Belgrade has a history of magnificence, being the capital of one or another major piece of the Balkans from Byzantine times. We walked to the park and the Belgrade Fortress, the pedestrian district with its glitzy shops. We hunted for Chinese food, and we walked to the central market, where Cheryl took lots of photographs. We also located one of her favourite clothing stores,
Ivko, which she knew was headquartered in Belgrade. What Cheryl was looking for had just been cleared to the outlet store in New Belgrade across the river, so we hopped on a tram, and found the place in the modern ImmoCenter.
We also used a bus to go to Zemun, a fascinating town. For years, it stood at the end of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire, the last outpost at the border with the Ottoman Turkish Empire, later with the Kingdom of Serbia. After World War I, it became part of Serbia. Zemun has a cobblestoned historic center with shops and restaurants, but it is best known for the Gardoš Tower. The tower sits atop remains of human settlements going back to Neolithic times. We climbed the steep hill to the tower, but a wedding prevented us from going in. The view from the outdoor café nearby provided ample pleasure.
Monday night (the 24th), we caught the night train back to Bar. There was no scenery this time. In the morning, we walked to the bar across from the station, worried that new people would be there, and no one would know about the bikes. Fortunately, the woman working the morning shift knew about us, and was happy to take our money after we collected our bikes. Soon we were rolling to the coast.
The ferry for Bari did not leave until late in the day, so we rode north along the coast road to the town beach, and hung out there. It was not as dramatic as the beaches in Ulcinj, but the trees provided shade, and there were places to eat and drink, as well as change.
In the afternoon, we rode back to the ferry terminal. I bought our tickets. We locked our bikes to light poles, and went up to the Marina restaurant for an early supper. We could enjoy a final view of the mountains, and the beach where we had spent the day.
That evening, we boarded the ferry, which had the worst accommodations that we had experienced at sea to date. Nevertheless, even the machinery noise nearby could not keep us awake as we slipped away from our Balkan adventure and returned to the Schengen Area for the rest of Europe 2015.
Until next week,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,