28th AUGUST 2018
My day off in Plužine begins with breakfast being served in the quirky guesthouse restaurant. The owners have chosen an odd combination of themes, as it seems they’re trying hard to fuse together jazz music with images of old Yugoslav revolutionaries. My favourite feature though is the vine trellis ceiling, which means there are numerous bunches of fat, purple grapes hanging down into the restaurant. I have a basic cooked breakfast of bacon and eggs, but here it’s accompanied by red peppers, cucumber, soft cheese and a glass of plain black tea. After cycling for so many weeks in Europe, I’ve now given up asking for milk in my tea.
As usual, one of my first tasks in a new country is to get my hands on some local currency. Montenegro uses the Euro, even though the country is not part of the EU, and even though the EU has told them that they’re not allowed to use it. Montenegro has essentially turned round and said ‘Screw you, we’re just gonna use it anyway !’ The European Union have turned a bit of a blind eye, as Montenegro have applied to join the EU and should still end up with the Euro as their currency eventually. It would seem a bit pointless forcing them to change currencies, only for Montenegro to become EU members and have to change back to the Euro again. Personally, I’m glad they’ve hijacked the Euro as it’s an easy currency to work with regarding prices and exchange rates.
Back at the guesthouse I do a long-overdue clothes wash and hang them out to dry between a couple of pear trees in the orchard. Then I walk down to Piva Lake, where the low water level has exposed a large band of tan-coloured rock all around the shoreline. This band looks a little ugly when I’m close up, but the sandy colour creates a great contrast, wedged between the turquoise blue lake and the surrounding green mountains. In the late afternoon I brave another irritating jazz sountrack and visit the restaurant for a beer and a sandwich. The girl who serves me pronounces it as ‘Sendvich’ with her accent, which is quite cute. Then, when I go to pay she gives me a handwritten receipt that says I ordered one Beer and one Sendvić.
The next morning I discover that I have enough left-over snack food to last me for days, so I don’t need a restaurant breakfast to send me on my way. Getting out of Plužine is a slow trudge up a hill that winds its way above the settlement, but then gives me some amazing views back down over the town and Piva Lake. I’m sweating like a pig already, even though I’ve only been cycling for half an hour. It’s already shaping up to be a hot, cloudless day. The road continues in a generally uphill fashion for the next 30km, which takes me from an altitude of 750 metres in Plužine, right up to 1,200 metres at the summit. (That’s almost 4,000 feet in UK-speak)
I’m nearing the end of a high plateau when I meet a group of guys working on the road. One bloke attempts a mime to tell me what to expect up ahead. First he motions a downhill, then an uphill, before he spreads his arms out wide and shouts ‘Montenegro !’ I think he’s saying that it’s all downhill after the next climb, and then I’ll have all of Montenegro within my reach below me. He’s right too, as the next 30km are a cracking descent through spectacular landscapes of dry, jaggy mountains, fertile farmland and terracotta tiled houses. I’m loving these downhills, although I’m still being a bit careful with my speed after my rear tyre issues. I’ve also just noticed that my back wheel is buckled quite badly after carrying all my heavy gear for weeks. I have nightmarish visions of it buckling completely and just collapsing under all the weight.
The downhill carries on until I reach a by-pass, which speeds me past Montenegro’s second largest city of Nikšić. There are a few long tunnels on this road, but at least I’m not gliding through them blindly in the dark again today. I’ve had the foresight to look out my front torch this morning. After Nikšić I’m then treated to another 30km of fast downhill. Cycling down these slopes is an absolute joy. As I descend through mountains and head towards the coast, I can see the scenery is starting to become more dry and scrubby. More Mediterranean. For the first time on the trip it feels like I’m nearing the sea and reaching my target.
The final 20km into Podgorica are along a flat plain and against a headwind, but I can’t really complain after 60km of effortless downhills. My first impression once I get to Podgorica is how quiet it is for a capital city. I find out later that it has a population of only 150,000, which makes it about the same size as Oxford or Dundee. My accommodation for tonight is a private house, which I’ve been told is on a road that is ‘under the reconstruction.’ I’m staying with a woman in her thirties called Irena, who lives with her mother and ten year old son. Her English is really good, but occasionally she still has to call on her son as a translator. His English is flawless, as he’s been learning the language since his first year in primary school. We sit outside on her verandah and have a chat over cups of strong home-made coffee. She tells me how much of a struggle it is living in Montenegro, as she earns 300 Euros per month, and her winter electricity bill is 150 Euros per month. To help make ends meet she rents out her son’s bedroom to people like me.
Irena’s sister and brother-in-law visit to drop off their puppy as they’re going on holiday for a few days. When the bloke discovers that my next stop is Albania he warns me by saying ‘I would not advise you go to Albania. They are savages ! They sell meat at the side of the road in the heat and the flies !’ However, Irena tells me that a lot of her previous guests had arrived from Albania, so it can’t be all that bad. Mind you, people telling me not to visit the next country has been a recurring theme on this trip. Norwegians saying not to bother with Finland, Polish saying don’t go to Slovakia, and now Montenegrans warning me about Albania. I generally take all this advice with a pinch of salt, as I would have missed out on so many great experiences had I paid attention to these people.
Podgorica has felt like an oven today. The city lies on a hot, flat plain surrounded by mountains, and this geography seems to act like a heat trap during the summer. By nightfall it still feels so uncomfortably warm and sticky that I can’t get to sleep. Eventually I resort to opening all my windows, despite this being an invitation for the local mosquito population. I lie under a pedestal fan, hoping that the airflow will stop them from landing on me.
Despite the road outside my bedroom being ‘under the reconstruction,’ I don’t wake till 10.00am for a lazy day in Podgorica. I go downstairs, where Irena has made a breakfast of fried egg, sausage and two slices of cheese. As she happily admits, she isn’t a great cook. While I’m eating, her son lies on a couch gaming. At least I thought he was playing games. It transpires that he’s on YouTube watching other gamers playing games.
I go for a walk into the city around noon, which probably wasn’t the smartest move as today is another scorcher. It’s a pleasant enough place for a wander but there isn’t really much of interest, apart from a tall Turkish clock tower and a tiny Old Town. It’s a bit like a poor man’s Sarajevo. By this time I’m hot, bothered and decide that relaxing at Irena’s would be a much better plan. I get back to find she has cooked up a huge carbonara for her and a friend, and there’s plenty left over. It’s creamy, tasty and it turns out that she is a good cook after all. I’ve no idea what happened at breakfast.
Tomorrow I’ll leave Montenegro and cross into Albania, the final country of this trip. I feel like I’m almost limping towards the finish line now, and for the next few days I’m not planning on cycling much more than 50km to 70km per day. These short distances should see me finishing comfortably, assuming my back wheel doesn’t crumple into a heap beneath me. As long as I’m able to gently nurse my bike to the coast and the Mediterranean Sea, then I’ll be happy.