Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tara River canyon and Durmitor National Park

In front of Black Lake in Durmitor National Park.

 Several cruising friends who had earlier visited Montenegro advised us to not miss a day trip to see the beautiful Tara River canyon.  This was on our very short list of things to do before heading next to Croatia.
As always, click on any image below for larger view. When we cleared into Montenegro at Bar I had checked with a travel agency to see what type day trips might be available.  A bus trip called the Canyon Tour was offered from Bar only on Thursdays.  We did not want to hang around that industrial/commercial port for another 5 days so that tour was not meant to be for us.  Later I searched online and could not find any tours of the canyons except white water rafting tours.  Oh no; not for us.  Those days are over.  

Looking down on island of St. Stefan near Budva
Finally I found a bus day tour to the Durmitor National Park which included the Tara River canyon.  This trip was offered by the Montenegro Hostel located in the Old Town walled city section of Kotor.  We had a few minutes phone time left on our Greek SIM so I called and learned that this tour was available any day of the week if booked for 4 persons or more.  Note that the 35 Euro price posted online is only available to hostel guests; non-guests pay 40 Euro. Same price as the tour from Bar but operated by a different company.  

The day we arrived in Kotor the kids and I walked through the Old Town and booked this tour for the following day.  

We were told to arrive at the hostel promptly at 07:30 the following morning and someone would walk with us to the meeting point to board the small bus.  We got a laugh out of the fact that the meeting point turned out to be right at the end of the dock where our boat is berthed.  So we walked to the hostel and then walked right back to the boat.  We could have slept an extra half hour had we known the location of the meeting point.

Kidding around during a short stop from driving.
Turned out that the tour would not be just the 4 of us after all.  Three of the hostel guests also had signed up after we booked the previous afternoon.  Two guys were from Australia and one was from Mexico City.  All were 21-yr-old college students traveling Europe for the summer.  Nice guys who could participate in intelligent conversation.  I think their presence made the trip much more enjoyable than it would have been with just Zachary, Elisabeth, Bill and me.  Elisabeth later said she really enjoyed this day and especially enjoyed talking with and listening to these college guys.  

The circuitous route through the mountainous terrain took us first through Budva, a city we had skipped on our way north up the coast because the southerly swell was so bad that day.  A pretty beach side town that is known for its younger aged population.  Can we say party town.  I think the guide said Budva was the second largest city in Montenegro.  This country has a population of only ~500,000.  It is hard for me to believe that any country could have a population of only a half-million people.  The guide kind of put that into perspective as he talked as he drove for hours.  He said that as a child he was proud that Montenegro had never once in history been defeated by another country in any war.  Later, as an adult, he came to realize that the reason that no other country had defeated Montenegro in a war is that no other country felt that this land was worth the effort or expense of a war.  He said there are no natural resources in Montenegro except a small amount of minerals for aluminum...and that can be obtained elsewhere.  Tourism was 2 million visitors annually in 1979, prior to the Bosnian War when it went to zero.  Today tourism is 1.5 million visitors annually.  They still have a way to go to get back to the rate of 1979.  Thirty-five years later and the country is only 75% of its primary source of economy.  The Bosnian War or Serbian War was very hard on this country.  Actually worse than the dictatorship of Tito and the hardships of communism for all those decades Yugoslavia existed.  I remember being taught how bad and oppressive Tito was.  Some of the people who live here feel differently.  Not that they loved the dictator.

There were stands like this all along the walkway at
Durmitor National Park.  Fresh raspberries.  No idea
what the other berries were.  Or the liquids.

After an hour or 2 of driving we stopped for a quick food break as a sort of fast-food vendor where we all bought burek and yogurt drink recommended by the guide.  Burek turned out to be a pastry that is filled with either minced meat or cheese.  Shaped like a coiled rope.  And the yogurt was a salty drink.  Oh boy!  This is the same as the ayran drink in Turkey and the same kind of rope-shaped filled pastry dough.  Difference is that here in Montenegro those coiled rope shapes are only about 1/4 the size of the same thing sold in Turkey.  Taste exactly the same.  We opted not to accept the salty yogurt drink; water for us, please.

Next stop was a monastery.  I did not catch the name of this monastery but did learn that it was built in 1250 and has been occupied and used continuously since then.   It was well up on the side of a steep mountain overlooking a river many hundreds of feet below.  Without the current-day road in place, this monastery would have been very difficult to access.  According to the guide, this part of Montenegro was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for 500 years.  The Turks attacked this particular monastery several times but never conquered it.  The final time the Turks attacked in 1877 the people who lived anywhere nearby rushed inside the walls of the monastery and fought to protect it.  Many people died during that battle but they held off the Turks once again.  As chance would have it, the following year Montenegro gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, recognized by the Treaty of Berlin on January 13, 1878.

 Old fresco on exterior of church.
No photos allowed inside where the good
frescoes were located.

Inside the chapel of the monastery was completely covered in frescoes supposedly painted during the 13th century.  I am not so sure this information was correct because those frescoes looked like they had been painted at the most 10 years ago.   Colors were very dark, typical of the 13th through 15th centuries.  The frescoes were in excellent condition.  Sorry; no photos were allowed even without flash.  Near the living quarters stood a monument to the people who died protecting the monastery during that final battle with the Turks in 1877.  The surname of each person was carved into the granite.

Montenegrin coffee at the monastery
Names of the people who
died defending the monsastery
The grounds were nicely landscaped with lots of flowering plants.  Just outside the wall surrounding the monastery was an elderly woman selling Montenegrin coffee -- which is exactly like Turkish coffee.  Since Zachary kept falling asleep in the bus and resting his heavy head on my shoulder, I insisted that he drink a cup of this coffee with me.  It was an experience that he said he does not wish to repeat.  Espresso = okay; Turkish or Montenegrin coffee = much too strong and powdery for his tastes.
Zip lines at upper level across canyon.  About 5,500 meters high.
Mountain spring/waterfall

The drive continued through a canyon; I do not remember the name of that one.  Then farther onward to the Tara River canyon.  This canyon is supposed to be the Grand Canyon of Europe.  It is the second deepest canyon in the world, surpassed only by the Grand Canyon.  But to compare this canyon to the Grand Canyon is like comparing apples to chopped liver...cannot even say that it is like comparing apples to oranges as those are at least both fruits.  These might both be canyons but their similarity ends with that word.  Major differences between the 2.  Anyone who considers this a valid comparison has not personally seen the Grand Canyon.
Filling our water bottles at mountain fed spring

Very narrow canyon for long way.  Note
the tunnel entrance on road on far side.
Very narrow road; very deep canyon.
And very, very narrow.

The driving route started at the bottom of the canyon and quickly went up to 1700 meters.  We stopped at a bridge that is famous in this part of the world.  It crosses the Tara River and is hundreds of feet higher than the river.  

The famous (?) bridge over Tara River.  The river is very
low this year due to lack of rain.

The guide told us a story about how Tito had ordered the bridge to be blown up to prevent the Germans from crossing during WWII.  But the man who was supposed to blow it up refused to carry out that order from Tito.  He was shot; the Germans never arrived; and the bridge still stands.  That man is considered a hero and a popular (?) movie was made about him many years ago.  It is called simply 'Bridge' and I doubt it is available anywhere outside of this region.

Almost dry Tara River way down there

Another view of the almost dry Tara River and canyon.

The views here are spectacular in all directions.  Not Grand Canyon spectacular, but spectacular in a different way.  This canyon is much narrower than the Grand Canyon and the mountains are much higher.  On either end of the bridge were cafes where one could sit in the shade and enjoy a beer or whatever.  Bill bought the kids ice cream and they were happy with that.

Elisabeth on the bridge

Zachary on the bridge

End of the upper level zip line across canyon

There were a couple of zip lines nearby, one higher up and one below the bridge level.  Each went across the canyon and both were in use while we were visiting the bridge.  Zachary would have ridden the lower level zip line if we would have let him.  Sorry; not time for that.  Moving on.

Our guide.  Embarrassed to acknowledge that we
never learned his name.
Refreshed and relaxed and very hot, we all climbed back into the mini-bus once again.  Driving yet father on towards our final destination before turning back towards Kotor via a different route.  This destination was the Black Lake in Durmitor National Park.  This was only a few miles from the Bosnian border, which our guide repeatedly called the Serbian border.  There are actually 2 lakes side-by-side.  During spring flood when the snows melt it appears to be one larger lake, but as the drier summer months cause the water level to recede then it becomes 2 lakes.  The local people call this lake(s) the 'Mountain Eyes' and the reason for that name is obvious.

At Black Lake

This day there were 2 lakes.  Our guide said that last winter was extremely dry. (Just like it was in Turkey.)  Normally there would be 2 meters of snow on the roads on which we had driven up here, but last winter there was almost no snow at all.   This is a very popular ski area but not last winter due to lack of snow. 

They spent a long time finding the right stones to
skip across Black Lake.
Durmitor is an enormous park.  It took us about 25 minutes just to walk from the entrance to the lake.  The guide said it should take a reasonably fast walker about 1 hour 50 minutes to walk around the lake(s).  Okay; not for me; not on this day.  Just walking from the entrance to the lake had put blisters on my toes.   We toyed around and took a few photos while watching Russian tourists doing silly poses for their own holiday photos.  Most of the tourists to Montenegro are Russian.  This likely is because Montenegro is not part of the EU and the Russians do not have the visa limitations that apply when visiting the EU.  

Simply put; it is much easier for Russians to visit here than it is for them to visit the EU.

Our meal of 'local peasant food.'  It was good.  The
roasted lamb and potatoes was the best.  The unusual salted
clotted cream served with the smoked ham was like butter.
A couple of hours at Durmitor and we headed back to Kotor via a more northern route.  About halfway back we stopped at a restaurant to sample what our guide called typical regional peasant food.  I did not catch the name of this restaurant but it translated to Our Village.  Meals were very reasonably priced; much less expensive than in Kotor or Tivat.  The kids chose the roasted lamb with potatoes; Bill and I chose to share a plate of 'smoked meats' and a basket of various local breads.  All were good.  Even sharing our plate it was too much food for Bill and me.  The smoked meats turned out to be some form of smoked ham but nothing like anything we had eaten previously.  

Throwing pebbles off the mountain while stopped
near Risan.

Another 2 hours of driving placed us back at the northern tip of the easternmost bay of the Gulf of Kotor.  We stopped for a view of the 2 tiny islands with the churches near Perast.  Looked very different from up here than they did from sea level on the deck of our boat.  Twenty minutes later we were dropped off at the end of our dock once more.  Our almost 13 hour day tour was at an end.  

Pooped?  Oh yeah!

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