Montenegro: Hikes, Breweries, and more …. that is a simplified explanation of what brought me to the country of Montenegro in the heart of the western Balkans. There is more to be said about that, though. A couple of years ago I had come across a write-up about a long-range hiking route called the Via Dinarica that spans more than 1200 miles through the western Balkans from Slovenia to Macedonia and finding out more about it was added to my to-do list.
[This post is part one (introduction) of a six part story about hiking and beer culture travels in Montenegro. Next installments: breweries of Montenegro and a beer hike at Hajla. Subscribe or follow on Facebook to receive additional installments]
As I read up about it, I realized how little I knew about this area beyond some previous travel in Slovenia and northern Croatia and a vague memory of war reports from this region in the 1990’s. The often violent progression from the communist Yugoslavia of the cold war to the various independent countries that exist there today was pretty complicated to understand. Notably, current-day Montenegro was formed in 2006 by the dissolution of its federation with Serbia. This was somehow accomplished peacefully in a region that seems to have had more than its fair share of ugly wars. The population is less than 700,000. Ethnic divisions between Montenegrins, Serbs, Bosniacs, Albanians, and other groups (no majority group) and religious divisions between Eastern Orthodox Christians (the largest group), Muslims, and Catholics figure strongly into the complexity but are only a part of it. If you are curious about this and want to listen to a perspective about it, listen to an episode of the podcast “Sarajevo Calling” that was recommended to me. I found it interesting to be introduced to concepts like “Yugonostalgia” and “Balkan optimism”.
The physical description of Montenegro was more of what captured my imagination: “Montenegro is a Balkan country with rugged mountains, medieval villages and a narrow strip of beaches along its Adriatic coastline. The Bay of Kotor, resembling a fjord, is dotted with coastal churches and fortified towns such as Kotor and Herceg Novi. Durmitor National Park, home to bears and wolves, encompasses limestone peaks, glacial lakes and 1,300m-deep Tara River Canyon (4300 feet). The mountains of Montenegro include some of the most rugged terrain in Europe, averaging more than 2,000 metres (6,600 feet) in elevation.” Although Montenegro is around the same size as Connecticut, I was told that if all the mountains were flattened out it would be the size of New Mexico. The mountainous North is wild and remote while the coastline is great beach and seafront.
As for the beer culture and breweries, I didn’t know what to expect although my research had identified one large, historic brewery and a number of brewpubs and small breweries. I knew enough to know that beer hiking wasn’t going to be a problem and it appealed to me as a fertile place for exploration off of the beaten track (for an American traveler). Interestingly, my peculiar combination of interests struck some people I encountered as unusual enough to warrant front-page coverage in the national daily newspaper.
My hiking itinerary and logistics were arranged through an agency in Podgorica called Montenegro Eco Adventures, a company that offers both set and tailor-made experiences. I worked with Nikola Radović, their Executive Director who helped me figure out an itinerary that made sense for the time I had to spend. Nikola, in addition to being an interesting guy to share a beer with, also connected me up with an independent guide, Slobodan Doknic who did a great job making connections with, and getting me around to some of the breweries. Nikola told me that based on our experience he is looking into offering a beer/brewery-themed itinerary to his customers.
Following are some notes and images from interesting places I visited along the way. Details of hikes and breweries visited will be in future installments to this story. The constant throughout my Montenegrin adventure was the hospitality and friendliness of the people I encountered along the way — it made me wish I had more time in Montenegro.
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Kotor is an ancient town (pop. 13,000) on the Bay of Kotor dating back to Roman times. To look at it, one might think the Bay is a fjord but it is really a submerged, steep river canyon. The old port features a well preserved, walled, Venetian fortification backed by a towering mountain. Kotor is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I found the narrow alleyways and passages to be irresistible to my camera.
Something you notice right away is that cats are everywhere. You’ll even find cat stores a cat museum, and Cats’ Square. People here love cats and seem to take communal responsibility for them providing food, water, and places for them to curl up and sleep.
While here, I visited breweries in nearby Herceg Novi and Risan.
Cetinje, an inland town of about 16,000 people is the historic capital of Montenegro. It is the home of an important monastery and one historic building after another. My first impression was of a comfortably sleepy place with a multitude of laidback cafes and restaurants lining the streets. It’s many impressive former embassy buildings have been maintained and adapted to other uses (museums, libraries, etc.) While here, I visited with a gypsy brewer in nearby Budva.
I had a wonderful stay in the Skadar Lake region near Virpazar at a working vineyard and winery called Mond (“moon” I think). Skadar Lake is huge (140 sq. miles) and straddles the Albanian border. The lake is both a national park and a big bird sanctuary. The proliferation of lily pads in parts of the lake is unforgettable.
The family that owns and works Mond could not have been more welcoming. Jelena welcomed me right off with homemade cake and a cold beer in the ancient stone farmhouse. They have built comfortable rooms on top of the old stone structure. Dinner was served in a classic outdoor setting that is incredibly scenic. The wine was a very pleasant variety called Vranac. After dinner, her husband Ivo shared many varieties of his own rakijas (rakija is a traditional and ubiquitous drink in Montenegro — a strong brandy made of grapes, plums, apples… everything that’s fruit basically) and stories in his own brand of English.
During my overnight visit, I found Nikšić to be a thoroughly pleasant small city (pop. 60,000). It seems to be usually described as an industrial city, I found the center to be attractive and It had the most vibrant local (as opposed to touristic) street life of anywhere I experienced in Montenegro. On the Sunday evening that I was there, the streets in the center were loaded with people of all ages who were strolling, dining, enjoying street food, or hanging out in cafes. I could have spent more time here.
There are two breweries located in Nikšić.
Podgorica (pop.150,000) is the capital of Montegro and its largest city. It was a pleasant place to be for my short stay there. Like the other places I spent time in towns and cities, there are nice parks with plenty of public art and a walkable cafe district. I visited four breweries in the Podgorica area.
North to the Mountains
There was only one way north into the mountains when it came time to do some hiking there. A two-lane highway called the E45 meandered up into the Morača River canyon. There are no “freeways” in Montenegro although one is under construction by the Chinese that is bridging canyons and tunneling under mountains.
Well into the canyon is the Serbian Orthodox Morača Monastery. Founded in 1252, it is one of the most famous medieval monuments of Montenegro.