Far from the Madding Crowd

Friday, May 04, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Balkans & Beyond, Days 38-40:  Dubrovnik, Croatia to Podgorica, Montenegro.  As we left Dubrovnik and Croatia behind, we breathed a sigh of relief, confident we about to escape the crush of overcrowding caused by supersized hordes of tourists.  We should not have been so optimistic.  Though we didn't jump into the fire, the heat under the frying pan was only slightly reduced.

On our way out of Croatia, we did find a road less traveled.  In our journeys, we have learned that a sign with white lettering on a brown background is a universal indicator of information for tourists.  More often than not, we find that they point us toward interesting places, many of which had not made it onto our radar.  As we were covering the last few miles in Croatia, we were lured off track by signs for Sokol Tower, an old defensive fort dating back to the 1400s.
Sokol Tower
Sited in an easily protected location just below a crag of vertical cliffs and overlooking the valley and road  below, the medieval fortification dominated the fertile plains of the area.  It has recently been refurbished as a tourist attraction but is in such an out-of-the-way location, it doesn't attract big crowds.  Several museum style exhibit areas within the fort were brilliantly curated and displayed artifacts found in the area.

Since we're still out of Europe's open-border Schengen Zone, every transition to another country involves passport control and at least a nominal customs screening.  At our first checkpoint on the journey from Croatia to Montenegro, our exit from Croatia was stamped in our passports and we were waved through about five minutes after stopping behind a couple of cars in line ahead of us.

A few miles and minutes later, we screeched to a halt at the border of Montenegro.  Presumably, the Montenegrin checkpoint was processing the exact same cars that the Croatian agents had examined.  However, we sat in line for an hour before clearing passport control into Montenegro.  Admittedly, our progress was slowed somewhat by the motorcyclists and bicyclists (and even a pedestrian!) who boldly rode right around the long line of cars waiting and took their rightful spots at the head of the queue.
Some lengthy welcome ceremony
When we finally reached the immigration agent, he examined our car rental papers and proof of insurance, stamped our passports, and sent us on our way.  Why some of the vehicles in front of us had taken upwards of 15 minutes, we never figured out.
Slightly larger than Connecticut, Montenegro's landscape ranges from high mountain peaks to a narrow coastal plain.  The country's mountains include some of the most rugged terrain in Europe, averaging more than 6,600 feet.  Like Dubrovnik, the coastal city of Kotor has its roots in the ancient world, and its well-preserved Old Town has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.  We hoped that would be where the similarities ended.
Kotor Old Town
Unfortunately, it was not.  The predatory cruise ships and tour buses have discovered Kotor and overrun it in a manner that also has UNESCO threatening to withdraw its endorsement due to the damage inflicted on historical sites by so many large groups of visitors.  Like in Dubrovnik, we took it as a challenge to find quieter spots within the crowded old city.  Apparently the entrance fee was a deterrent because we found ourselves alone in St. Tryphon's Cathedral.
St. Tryphon's Cathedral, Kotor
Consecrated in 1166, the Roman Catholic cathedral was named for Saint Tryphon, the patron and protector of the city.  The church has been repeatedly reconstructed after heavy damage by several earthquakes.  When the entire frontage was destroyed in 1667, the baroque bell towers were added.  The left one was not completed due to lack of funding.
St. Tryphon's interior
The Romanesque interior preserves a few remnants of 14th century frescoes and, on upper floors, houses an excellent museum and a sizable treasury of relics.  I must confess a fascination with the religious custom of displaying body parts of saints or venerated persons, even though it is not part of my particular religious beliefs.  It reminds me of the locks of hair saved from first haircuts and other such memorabilia, but this is on another scale and I rather like the idea of preserving some physical remnant of a person who has departed this life.  Especially impressive are the ornate containers, often designed to depict the body part from which the bone or organ is preserved.
Relics in St. Tryphon's treasury
By far, the most impressive display of this sort we have seen was in the Church of St. Blaise in Dubrovnik.  On exhibit in a glass case in a side chapel is the incorruptible body of Saint Silvan, a Christian martyr who died between 300 and 350 A.D.
St. Silvan on display at Church of St. Blaise in Dubrovnik
Seventeen centuries after his death, his body apparently has not decayed due to his purity and incorruptibility.  With his head leaned back on a pillow, a brutal gash across his neck suggests how he may have died.
View from our hotel in Tivat
But back to Montenegro.  We did stay in Kotor long enough to grab a quick lunch before retreating to the smaller, less touristed town of Tivat, where we had booked a room in a quaint inn on the bay.  By the time we checked in, we knew we had no desire to return to Kotor, and the vibe in Tivat was too beach town for us, so—against all advice we had read—we decided to move on after one night and bump our visit to Montenegro's capital city to two nights.
Church of Ciphur, Cetinje
Though the distance from Tivat to Podgorica is only 55 miles, the roads were winding and, as we discovered, there was much to see.  We stopped on a whim in the town of Cetinje and found that we had stumbled upon Montenegro's old royal capital, where only a handful of small tourist groups were visiting.  Even today the country's president resides in the Blue Palace, a former royal residence, in Cetinje, just a 40-minute drive from the capital.  (No, not the Montenegrin leader that President Trump famously and rudely shoved out of the way to claim a place in the front row of a photo at a NATO summit.  That was the prime minister.)
Cetinje Monastery
Another important site in Cetinje is the eponymous Montenegrin Orthodox monastery established in 1704 by Prince-Bishop Danilo I on the site of a medieval monastery destroyed ten years earlier.  In 1692, Venice was in control of Cetinje, its troops using the old monastery as a garrison.  When Turkish forces threatened to attack, the Venetians surrendered and abandoned the monastery, leaving behind explosives which were timed to go off just as the Ottoman troops arrived.

The current monastery is said to house some of Christianity's most valuable relics in its treasury, including the right hand of John the Baptist and a piece of the original crucifixion cross.  When we asked, we were told that the treasury was closed.  A language barrier prevented our learning more.
King Nikola I monument in Podgorica
From its inception in the late 1600s, Montenegro was ruled by a series of prince-bishops of the Petrović-Njegoš family.  Since Orthodox bishops must remain celibate, the hereditary succession passed from uncle to nephew.  For this to work, each generation of the family needed to have two sons.  The elder would become prince-bishop, while the younger would marry and, of necessity to make the system work, sire two sons.  Incredibly, this worked out for 150 years until Prince-Bishop Danilo II decided he wanted to marry and changed his title to Prince.  His successor, Nikola I, took things a step further and promoted himself from prince to king.  Even today, his descendants have a ceremonial role under Montenegrin law.
Tomb of Petar II
From Cetinje, we headed off to Lovćen National Park and the mausoleum housing another member of the Petrović-Njegoš dynasty, Petar II.  A beloved political and cultural leader, Petar was a popular poet and philosopher in addition to his role as leader of the country and the church.  After the small chapel built under his direction for his remains was destroyed in war, his body was moved to the top of this mountain in another small chapel.  A century later, the humble resting place was replaced by a dramatic building suitable for such a national hero.
A 20-ft granite statue of Petar II in the room which holds his remains
Visitors to the mausoleum must climb a set of 461 steps through a tunnel from the 15-car parking area to the top of the mountain.  From the mausoleum, a path leads to a 360° stone viewing circle.  At this summit, visitors can see more than half of the tiny country.  On a clear day, it is said, even Croatia and Albania are visible.
Viewing circle from the mausoleum
Everything we had read or heard about Montenegro's capital city of Podgorica suggested it was not a place to spend much time.  In fact, we saw more than one reference to "the most boring capital city in Europe" (even though others had awarded that title to Moldova's Chișinău).  When we arrived at our Podgorica hotel, we asked the reception staff to tell us the top places we must see in the city.  Initially they appeared to be stumped, as if we had asked them to recite the periodic table.

Eventually they came up with a short list, which we later added to with a bit of help from our favorite tour guide, Google.  After a full day spent exploring the city, we would definitely vote to have it stripped of its "most boring" title—unless that might attract tour companies.  We really liked the slower vibe and lack of large tourist groups.

With our hotel centrally located in the compact city, we began with a self-guided walking tour.  First on our list was the old Roman Bridge, the oldest span in Podgorica.  Built in the days when the area was ruled by Rome, the bridge underwent a major reconstruction in the 1700s.
Old Roman Bridge
The bridge spans the Ribnica River near the spot where it flows into the larger Morača River, the main water artery through the city.  Nearby are the ruins of a fortification dating back to Roman times and later rebuilt by the Ottomans.
Podgorica Town Hall
On our way to check out the city's Millennium Bridge, we passed the stately town hall and national theater.  As the country's capital and largest city, Podgorica is home to numerous cultural and government institutions.
Millennium Bridge
To alleviate congestion on the city's other bridges, Montenegro commissioned the Millennium Bridge in 2005.  Designed and built by a Slovenian firm, the bridge opened just a year before Montenegro declared its independence from Serbia in 2006.  With its striking design, the structure was quickly established as a symbol of the city.
Podgorica's Clock Tower
Though we knew from our research that much of the city had been destroyed by both Axis and Allied bombing in World War II, we nonetheless wandered south along the river in search of what some had described as Old Town.  Only after wandering the area for some 40 minutes did we come to realize that Podgorica's version is primarily residential, not the warren of cramped lanes lined with shops and cafes we've found in other Old Towns.  The freestanding clock tower from the Ottoman period is really all that remains of its old commercial area.
Narrow residential street in Podgorica's old town
Back near our hotel, in the heart of the city, we checked out King's Park, established in 1910 to commemorate Nikola's self-promotion to king.  In 2013, the park underwent a major renovation financed by the Azerbaijan government.  The park now includes a bust of a famous Azeri poet and a statue of a former Azerbaijan president, one of several erected in friendly countries at the Azeri government's expense.
The reconstructed fountain in King's Park now includes colorful evening lights.
After completing our walking tour at the hotel where our rental car was waiting, we were off for the driving part of our Podgorica circuit.   Our first stop was Cijevna River Waterfall, a ten-minute drive from the city center.  The river is a narrow strip that has cut deeply through the soft limestone karst landscape.  At this point, the river drops dramatically, forming an impressive waterfall.  On the riverbank, an enterprising entrepreneur opened a restaurant and named it Niagara.  The moniker has come to be associated with the cascade, now often called Niagara Falls.
Cijevna River Falls
From the falls, we drove to the city's oldest church, a tiny Orthodox structure named for St. George.  Sitting behind fortified walls on the lower slopes of the city's Gorica Hill, the church shelters the faded remains of frescoes painted centuries ago.  Though the church itself is well cared for, the neglected cemetery behind has been retaken by nature.
St. George Church
Ancient frescoes with new iconostasis
Only the graves closest to the church can be reached without bushwhacking. 
For a city with nothing to see, we were finding quite a bit to look at.  At each of our stops, we were either the only visitors or among a handful.  Just a few minutes away from the city we checked out the ruins of Doclea, a Roman town founded in the first decade of the first century A.D.  
2,000-year-old artifacts in a field at the town site
Doclea site had just two visitors when we were there.
The town grew to a population of 40,000 before it was attacked repeatedly by barbarian tribes and finally destroyed in a severe earthquake in the year 518.  Today the ruins are unprotected but an application has been submitted to UNESCO to obtain World Heritage status for Doclea.
Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ
Our final stop was the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, consecrated in 2013 after twenty years of construction.  We were not surprised to see a couple of tour buses parked at this magnificent edifice, but with a bit of patience, the small French tour groups soon left and we had the cathedral almost to ourselves.
Unlike its Belgrade counterpart, this cathedral's interior is as complete as its exterior.  In typical Orthodox fashion, its walls and ceilings are covered with elaborate iconography and murals of scenes both biblical and modern.  In one mural, former Yugoslav leader Tito is depicted burning in the fires of hell along with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. 
Tito, Marx and Engels (center)
Cathedral's dome interior
Every surface is covered with detailed graphics.
As we walked out of the cathedral with its breathtaking decor, rain began to fall, signaling the end of our self-designed city tour.  Is Podgorica worth visiting?  We'd say definitely yes, but don't tell the tour companies.

Tomorrow we'll leave the beautiful Montenegro and drive to Albania.

3-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Dubrovnik, Croatia
    •  Ended in:  Podgorica, Montenegro
    •  Miles driven: 178
    •  Miles walked:  17.54
    •  Weather:  62° to 88°, sunny, partly cloudy, thunderstorms
    •  Queue jumpers at Montenegro border:  16  (13 motorcyclists, 2 bicyclists, 1 pedestrian)
    •  Mountains in Montenegro:  2,691
    •  Slowest border crossing prize:  Montenegro
    •  Tour buses in Podgorica:  2
    •  Tortoises at Doclea site:  2

Loved:  No question, we were thrilled to get away from the crowds we've seen in the last few stops.  We certainly understand that we can't expect to be the only visitors to any location, but it's the busloads and shiploads of people that tromp and trample and push and shove with no consideration of others that grate.

  Tourists in Podgorica (tee hee!)

Learned:  Though we should already know this well, we were reminded yet again that we should not rely completely on the opinions of others.  After all, if we did, we wouldn't be visiting these countries at all.

More Photos from Montenegro (and a few from Croatia)
Great views as we drove down the Adriatic coast
Sokol Tower
Imposing view from Sokol Tower
Cliffs above the tower
Cemetery at the foot of the tower 
Even a pedestrian broke in line ahead of us at the border crossing!
Kotor's Church of St. Nicholas (Serbian Orthodox) 
A quiet corner captured just before a tour group tromped through in Kotor.
We planted a letterbox at the bottom with a view of the tunnel leading to the mausoleum.
And the Sparkling Clean Parking Garage Award goes to the Hilton Hotel in Podgorica.
Puppies and bunnies, an odd but harmonious pairing, in a petting pen at the Niagara restaurant.
Old fortification near the Roman Bridge
Russian government donated this monument to a Russian rock star who loved Montenegro.
The cathedral is set in a large field, and even the back is lovely, the stone surfaces rough-hewn at the bottom and increasingly refined toward the top. 
An example of the cathedral's floor mosaics