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thebicyclediaries | 10: Problems in paradise (Montenegro & Albania)

10: Problems in paradise (Montenegro & Albania)

Podgorica, Montenegro to Serbia/Kosovo border (26 Sep – 14 Oct)
Total miles cycled: 1,340 (2,157km)
Thigh status: pygmy hippopotamus

‘Politics, problem!’ says the man, handing me a spoon of home-made honey. ‘Corrupt-zion, problem! Arsenal, problem! Arsene Wenger, catastroph!’

P and I are at Lake Skadar, Montenegro, sampling a few of the local grapes during a week-long, bike-free holiday that my buttocks are already embracing wholeheartedly. Our host invited us in on our way past his winery and is now plying us generously with his wares. He doesn’t seem entirely happy, however, either with his country or the plight of Premiership football.

‘Mourinho, problem!’ he cries, throwing up his hands. ‘Money, big problem!’

Winemaker near Virpazar. Both his red and white are delicious: fruity, fresh and smooth. He seems to have problems, though.

Lake Skadar near Virpazar, en route to Murici beach.

To avoid adding thankless tourists to his problems, we buy a bottle of strong, creamy Vranac – a dry red unique to Montenegro – and extricate ourselves before the third round of rakija. We are on our way back to Virpazar from a lakeside beach in Murici, 25 km to the south. The road there was breathtaking, snaking high through the lush, luminescent hills. When we arrived we found the place almost deserted, save for a Russian in a provocative pair of speedos, some frisky goats and a tortoise.

We could have stayed longer, but sunshine and Slavic tackle is no match for our baser British instincts and we return to watch the England vs Wales rugby World Cup match. After setting up my laptop in a bar, we are joined by a couple from Leeds – and, later, by some locals intrigued by P’s unpatriotic roars of support for Wales. ‘If it was Serbia vs Montenegro, you’d never get two men at the same table supporting different teams,’ one of them says. ‘They’d kill each other!’

Murici beach at Lake Skadar, with its silky, cerulean water.

My favourite goat.

One of the men tells me he’s an investigative journalist. He used to work for one of the private TV channels, he says, but lost his job after producing a series exposing corruption in government. ‘This place is a disaster zone,’ he slurs tipsily. ‘Everyone leaves if they can.’

What a shame to be forced out of such a place, I think to myself. The country is tiny, with a population similar to Glasgow (620,000). Yet packed inside is a greedy abundance of natural treasures, including lakes, mountains, gorges, forests and a coastline described by Lord Byron (with just a hint of hyperbole) as the earth’s ‘most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea’.

P is equally enraptured, it seems. ‘Bloody hell,’ he says as we work our way through the vigorous greenery en route to the coast. ‘Blood-dee hell.’

Sveti Stefan, an elegant islet acquired by the Yugoslav government and turned into an upscale hotel during the Tito regime. Now a 5* hotel resort where rooms go for thousands of euros. A big shame.

The picturesque old town of Perast on the Bay of Kotor, with 17 Baroque palazzos and only one road (where visitor cars are banned).

The problem with having such riches at your disposal, however, is the temptation to dispose of them. And the government’s intentions are clear: turn the country into a luxury mecca for the super-rich. Porto Montenegro, an extravagant marina development part-owned by Oleg Deripaska and the Rothschilds, benefits from generous tax breaks, while the country’s show-piece hunk of real estate, Sveti Stefan, is now a five-star resort boasting rooms that would set the average Montenegrin back several months’ salary.

P and I consider staying at Sveti Stefan, but empty our pockets and realise we only have £15, some Halls mint Soothers and a puncture repair kit between us. So we go instead to Perast in the Bay of Kotor – an achingly charming town deeply influenced by its 380 years under Venetian rule – and from there move onto Tara Canyon, in Durmitor National Park.

View of the Tara River Canyon from Đurđevića Tara Bridge. At the time of its construction in 1937, it was the biggest vehicular concrete arch bridge in Europe.

Exploring Tara Canyon from the depths. Fantastic fun.

On our way to the canyon, we are flagged down by police for speeding and hit with a €50 fine. They clocked us doing 78km/h in a 60-zone, the officer says. No arguments. To pay we have to go to the nearest big town, 20km back the way we came.

It’s clear the guy’s a maverick. There’s no way we were doing 78km/h, for a start; we were doing at least 100. But what to do? Before starting my trip, I’d made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t contribute to the crooked dealings of any country I passed through. I’m a moral person, after all, and much of my journalism has focused on corruption and fraud. I know the terrible impact it can have.

‘Can we just pay here?’ I say, handing over two €10 notes. ‘We’re in a bit of a rush.’

Taking the plunge!

Taking the plunge! (click on pic to see video)

Minutes later we’re zooming along the road again, back on track. I watch the policemen recede in the rear-view mirror, along with the tattered remains of my integrity. Hypothetical ethics are so much easier than real ones, I mull to myself. What strength it must require to keep your hands clean. Or at least a degree of tolerance for moderate inconvenience.

At Tara Canyon – the deepest gorge in Europe (1,300m), running for 82km along the Tara River – P and I hit the canyoning trail and spend a fantastic day scrabbling our way through a magical, craggy underworld of cerulean pools, rivulets and rocks. Our guide is a PE teacher, but tells us he’s trying to get a visa for Australia. He’s desperate to leave, he says. ‘Everyone hates the government, but there’s nothing you can do. They control the jobs. You speak out, you lose everything.’

En route to the Albanian border from Podgorica (crossing attempt #1).

After P returns to the UK, I rekindle my strained relationship with Maud, who was cruelly abandoned in the boot of the hire car for the duration of the break (P is not an enthusiastic cyclist). Then I hit the road again towards Albania. As I leave Podgorica, I pass protesters calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic – curiously one of the richest leaders in the world, despite his £1,000 monthly salary. I then follow the Civjevna river through the mountains, beside moss, spruce and fir, while the sky burns electric blue overhead. It’s a beautiful ride and I feel the lethargy seeping slowly out of my pores.

Then, after about 28km, the road suddenly stops (see pic). I look around in panic. Where the hell has it gone? Has a mountain been built on top of it? Has Donald Trump taken over border control? I storm into a nearby house to demand answers. ‘Ah,’ a woman says, looking apologetic. ‘It hasn’t been finished yet. The only crossing is down south, by Lake Skadar.’

Oh crap, I think. Lake Skadar? That involves going almost all the way back the way I came. I look around frantically for some hapless soul I can bribe or cajole to take me through. It’s not like I have any awkward scruples left to worry about, after all. But it’s futile. The route is completely, irredeemably blocked. And I’m completely, irredeemably buggered.

Note to self: best check border crossing has been built before cycling 18 miles to get there. No way back except the way I came. A bad day.

So, with a heavy heart, I turn around and go back. I should probably have checked first, I think to myself. That probably would have been the sensible thing to do. Hoping I’ve learnt my lesson but knowing I almost certainly haven’t, I finally make it to Tuzi, near Lake Skadar, where I get chatting to a man in a cafe. I shouldn’t attempt to cross today, he tells me, because there’s nowhere to stay on the other side and it’s inadvisable to camp. ‘The place is full of thieves,’ he says. ‘Even locals don’t go out after 10pm.’

I’m sceptical – few prejudices are more overblown than those between neighbouring countries – but he offers to buy me lunch and I’m starving. It’s clear his motives are not entirely pure, but that’s one of the great advantages of being a woman: the exploitation of randy men. If they want to throw in their chips on the faint off-chance there’ll be a payout, that’s their gamble. They should really examine the odds more carefully.

‘The protests in Podgorica won’t come to anything,’ the man, L, says over lunch. ‘It’s just a few thousand people with nothing to lose. But most people have everything to lose. If you don’t vote for the government, you’re spent.’

It’s a strategy that seems to be working; the Democratic Party of Socialists has won every vote since the first multi-party elections of 1990. They control the politics and the courts. They control the money. ‘It’s better not to have kids at all then bring them up here,’ L says, a little fiercely.

Finally discover the correct route to the border, near Lake Skadar, and try again. After the crossing there seems to be an awful big hill on the horizon, however.

Border attempt #2, by Lake Skadar – success! There seems to be an awful big hill on the horizon, however.

Halfway up the hill, which is part of the Prokletije range on the Montenegro/Albania border. I’m already suffering.

After declining L’s selfless offer to find me a motel, I book a cheap room in town and bed down early. The next day, I leave at 8am and finally make it across the border without a hitch. In Albania, everything suddenly seems poorer; the goats scrawnier, the grass scrubbier. I meet a eight-year-old boy with bare feet who is clutching a packet of Malboro, and a leathery old crone on a bicycle who gives me a toothless grin and a carrot.

And then I see it: my biggest adversary to date. A gruelling humdinger of a hill that marks the beginning of the Prokletije mountains. The road zigzags steeply up the side of the valley for about 5km, before disappearing ominously over the top. I feel apprehensive, and stall for 20 minutes to eat my carrot and listen to a man talk unintelligibly about his chickens. Then, finally, I succumb.

For the next two hours, the hill and I do battle. It’s a true bun-burning thigh-cruncher of a climb and my body is on fire from the start. Every half-mile I stop for a short(ish) rest, but I am determined not to dismount and push. It feels somehow significant, this hill; if I can manage it, I think to myself, I can finally call myself a bummler. I can finally grow some balls and a dram of self-respect. So on I go, slogging, sweating, steaming, swearing, up and up for about 18km. And slowly, very slowly, sometimes almost moving backwards, I manage it.

The summit, hooray! And what a descent is in store.

Maud enjoying a well deserved rest.

At the top it feels good. Very good. And the reward is magnificent. Opening out before me is a broad, verdant gorge, and the most fiendish set of hairpins I’ve ever seen. After a well-earned breather, Maud and I rocket down with joyful abandon, only narrowly avoiding coming to a calamitous end at the bottom among a flock of errant goats. We did it, I crow jubilantly to myself! We bloody well did it!

About an hour later, however, I’m struggling again. The tarmac has run out, along with my food and water, and my wheels keep spinning hopelessly on the gravelly track. Suddenly I decide I’ve had enough, and barge into a nearby fish farm to bribe someone into taking me the final 25km to Vermosh, on the northern Albanian/Montenegrin border.  They don’t understand me at first, but a simple yet sophisticated annotation seems to do the trick (see below), and eventually the man agrees.

Vermosh pic_Fotor

Verbal communication fails in my attempt to bribe a man to take me to Vermosh, so I resort to Pictionary.

A few kilometres after the hill, the road turns into just rubbly track.

A few kilometres after the hill, the road turns into rubbly track.

My hitch-hiking companions: an Albanian man currently working as a chef in Canada (left), a young Israeli couple (centre) and the driver (right).

At the next village, after firmly refusing all payment, my kindly saviour hands me over to another man who is going all the way to Vermosh. He already has three hitch-hikers in the back — an Albanian man and Israeli couple — but happily adds me to the clan. And thank god he does. It’s raining hard now and the road is just rubble, hemmed in tightly by cliffs and plunging ravines. Progress is slow, and we stop regularly to wait for bulldozers to clear the way.

After a nail-biting, two-hour drive, we finally arrive at a remote limestone farmhouse in Vermosh, where our lovely driver bids us goodbye. It’s now pitch-black and pouring, and the owners greet us warmly with a wonderful meal of homemade beef stew, goats cheese, bread and shopska salad. Then they bring out the obligatory bootleg rakija, which briefly gives me the ability to speak fluent Albanian before knocking me out for the best part of eight hours.

A feast of home-made goats cheese, beef stew, bread, chicken soup, chips, rakija and 'boronica' (a type of strong berry schnapps)

A feast of home-made goats cheese, beef stew, bread, chicken soup, chips, rakija and ‘boronica’ (a type of strong berry schnapps), with grandma in the background. Everything is delicious – though the cheese is… challenging.

The century-old charming guest house, with metre-thick limestone walls. Inside it's decked out with colourful, elaborate Catholic paraphernalia (NW Albania is majority Catholic, while most of the country is majority Muslim).

The century-old guest house, with metre-thick limestone walls. Inside it’s decked out with colourful, elaborate Catholic paraphernalia (NW Albania is majority Catholic, while most of the country is majority Muslim).

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast and a tour of the century-old farmhouse’s charming ‘ethnography museum’, I hit the road again towards Berane, in Montenegro. Or would if I could find one. The grounds seem to comprise one vast, lumpy, crevasse-laden mud-pit and I am forced to half-push, half-carry Maud for most of the way. Eventually we reach a small stream with no way across, and I feel myself perilously close to a tantrum. Sighing deeply and self-pityingly, I bend down and remove my socks and sandals (stop that sniggering, please — fashion is a social construct) and wade miserably across.

I’ve just dried myself off on the other side when it starts to rain, first lightly, then like a sheet. It soaks me so thoroughly that my padded underwear (I said stop that) eventually takes two whole days to dry. In the meantime, I manage to cross into Montenegro and take refuge in a small, grotty cafe in a village called Murino. As I wait by the wood-burning stove for the deluge to abate, a man approaches me with his phone. ‘Rain three days continue,’ he says, via Google Translate. ‘I take you home, protect you?’

Moments before I take the plunge, socks and sandals in hand.

Moments before I take the plunge, socks and sandals in hand.

Post-plunge feet. The water is not warm.

Post-plunge feet. The water is not warm.

A few hours later, I finally slosh my way to Berane. The town seems to have nothing at all to recommend it, so I set off the next morning for a very hilly ride to Rozaje, which seems slightly worse than Berane. In Rozaje, I check into Motel Milenium (sic) for a highly reasonable £10, for which I get a dynamic fuchsia pink colour scheme, dirty carpet, no curtains and a broken toilet, plus a smattering of blood and hair on the wall for no extra cost.

The next day, I tear myself away from this idyll for the final schlepp to Kosovo. It’s a lovely, soul-rejuvenating cycle, punctuated by the occasional pitch-black tunnel of doom, and I reach the Serbian border quickly. Here, for the first time, the police stop me and take me aside for questioning. They go through my passport three times, saying the name of each country slowly and quizzically. ‘Uzbekistan?’ (I nod). ‘Japan?’ (I nod again).

Beautiful views on big 4,600ft hill between Berane and Rozaje.

Beautiful views near the top of the tough 4,600ft hill between Berane and Rozaje.


Then one of them taps his knees invitingly and I freeze. Oh my god, I think. He wants me to sit on his lap! I am weighing up my options  — slap him? scream? oblige, then crush him with my leviathan thighs? — when he reaches over and drapes a coat across my legs. ‘Brrrrr, no?’ he says, mimicking the cold. Yes, I nod eagerly, desperately relieved. So not a sexual deviant at all, it turns out, but a considerate young man. Sometimes it’s so hard to tell them apart.

And my legs are chilly, now he comes to mention it. It’s now 14th October and winter is snapping at my heels. My plan is to keep abreast of it until I hit sunnier climes in the south, like those protagonists in films who successfully outrun tsunami waves or giant fissures in the earth before being whisked off to safety, but I clearly need to up the pace.

With this in mind, I hot-tail it the final few miles across Serbia to the Kosovo border, where I encounter the cheeriest border guard I’ve met so far. ‘Very good!’ he says approvingly, looking at my bike. ‘You will love our beautiful country!’ And seeing his big, beamish grin, I suddenly have the feeling I will.

Next post: Serbia & Kosovo. Follow my journey on Twitter or Facebook.

My luxury apartment in Rozaje, with dirty carpets, no curtains and what looks like blood and hair on the walls. It’s called Motel Milenium, for anyone keen for a stay. Sveti Stefan eat your heart out!

One of the many invitingly pitch black tunnels through the Montenegrin hills.

One of the many invitingly pitch black tunnels through the Montenegrin hills.

  • Wendy Feltham
    Posted at 18:20h, 01 March

    What an amazing journey! I love your humor, determination, and appreciation of humanity.

    • reol8
      Posted at 18:47h, 01 March

      Thank you Wendy! Very kind of you. It’s looks from your pic like you’re a cycling enthusiast too? Best, R

  • Wendy Feltham
    Posted at 18:54h, 01 March

    Yes, just short rides these days where I live on the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. But I have loved riding along the California coast, in Vietnam, Tasmania, and France. It’s absolutely the best way to travel! And fun to follow your adventures vicariously.

    • reol8
      Posted at 11:18h, 04 March

      Wow – I would love to ride in Vietnam and Tasmania. Must be amazing. Big fan of the Cal coast too – lived there very briefly and enjoyed some stunning rides on both bike and motorcycle. May have planted the seed for this ride, actually… Do stay in touch – and thank you again for the support! R

  • Katalin Lowe
    Posted at 17:54h, 02 March

    Great stuff darling! I feel I was with you every step. I do remember those half-made roads ending nowhere – we wanted to see a Monastery in Bulgaria and they had to bring the bulldozers out to finish the road for us. They undid it after our visit! Why?

    I am eagerly awaiting the next instalment, – these blogs are such delight. I just hope your enforced stay in Cairo was not too disappointing. I rather hated Cairo! Really interested in Iran though!

    Lots of love

    Your mother

    • reol8
      Posted at 11:31h, 04 March

      Thanks mum! But don’t get me onto Bulgarian roads… I still haven’t forgiven them for what they did to my laptop. Cairo a dirty great cesspit of a city – but fascinating. Glad I got to spend a little time here, even if my blackened lungs aren’t. Bex xx

  • Jagan
    Posted at 19:29h, 03 March

    Hey Bex! Montegnegro is a beautiful country – I completely understand P’s ecstatic outbursts – I had a chuckle picturing him.
    Hugely enjoyable and endearing read as always. I hope you’re very well and eating lots
    Kiss to Maud
    Take care

    • Bex
      Posted at 12:02h, 05 March

      Hey Jags! Great to hear from you. Yes, P is prone to the occasional poetic reverie – he’s very romantic like that.

      After a month in Cairo I am now twice the weight I was when I started, with a body mass comprising about 90% bean stew. Definitely time to hit the road again methinks.

      Can’t wait to catch up properly when I’m back. Much love to you, M, the girls and – of course – Amma.


  • Toby
    Posted at 15:24h, 04 March

    I agree: P often appears as a considerate young man to me. Loving these updates: prose and content, I expect the vicarious version of your trip is a lot more pleasant than the reality – if so we owe you a large debt of thanks. Forza! Tx

    • Bex
      Posted at 12:22h, 05 March

      Thanks TB! Talking of P’s latent deviancy, I hear from my moles (who have also been digging up your garden) that you’ve been leading him astray down the boozer in my absence. How outrageous. Please ensure you save a bit of alcoholism for my return.

      Much love,
      Bex x

  • steven
    Posted at 22:47h, 05 March

    I’m very much enjoying your blog. Keep cycling and writing – you have abundant talent in both!

    • Bex
      Posted at 08:41h, 06 March

      Thank you so much for reading, Steven, you’re extremely kind! Really appreciate the support. Best, R

  • Nick Bowring
    Posted at 08:26h, 09 March

    What an entertaining, well written, amusing blog. Was pointed here by Tom Allen from my FB page (thanks, Tom)..

    • Bex
      Posted at 09:21h, 16 March

      Hi Nick – you are very kind, thank you! So pleased you made it here, on Tom’s directions. Your support is a real boost – please do stay in touch. R

  • Carol McDermott
    Posted at 17:47h, 09 March

    Hi Rebecca

    Have been quietly following your journey. In a world that is now full of packaged adventures and canned adrenaline, it just goes to show that it is still possible to go out and do the extraordinary and discover there is still so much richness in the world. Safe travelling, Carol (Lightwave).

    • Bex
      Posted at 09:33h, 16 March

      Thanks Carol – really chuffed you’re reading. And thank you again for the brilliant tent and sleeping bag! They’ve been perfect for the trip – compact, comfy and easy to use (the last is particularly important for me). I’ll definitely be spreading the word. Best, R

  • J.Kathleen Thompson
    Posted at 19:29h, 12 March

    Thanks Rebecca
    Wonderful to read a blog from someone who can write, and a sense of humour and humility to spare. Admire your courage to do this route (my toughest ride was from Barcelona to Reims via the Italian Alps – paved all the way!), but you clearly have much insight to people and politics to engage you and the reader this way.

    • Bex
      Posted at 09:37h, 16 March

      Hi Kathleen – so lovely to hear from you, and thank you very much for your kind words. Bloody impressed by the Alps, I have to admit. My mountain ranges (and I use the word ‘mountain’ loosely) haven’t been half so fiendish. Please stay in touch – be great to swap travellers’ tales one day. Best, R

  • Belinda Lowe
    Posted at 12:04h, 25 March

    Hi Bex – a big belated thank you for my Birthday ‘card’…very sweet of you. Think of you so much and always sending positive vibes – but seeing Dad yesterday (and having Gill’s Arab-speaking, experience of the middle-east brother, Jerry, here) and talking of your imminent arrival in Sudan, we just want to add to your Skype conversation with Dad and Kati last night by saying please take every care possible and use your ultra intelligence to work out who you can truly trust. I know you’re in touch with the Foreign Office but Jerry’s strong advice would be not to enter Sudan at all. ‘Miss Intrepid’ is certainly no understatement! We’re with you and sending lots of love and hugs, Belinda xx

    • Bex
      Posted at 14:15h, 26 March

      Hi Bel – big thanks for the sisterly concern! I know you’re worried, and v touched by it, but I promise it’s all ok. There are parts of Sudan that are unsafe, but not the part I’m planning on cycling through. What specific risks was Jerry talking about?

      Love, hugs n kisses from me and the twins,
      Bex xx

  • Belinda Lowe
    Posted at 12:17h, 25 March

    p.s. Jerry’s just added that the U.S. Department of States’ website ‘’ is very good and gives more warning advice. Bxx

  • Belinda Lowe
    Posted at 18:05h, 26 March

    He feels as a person travelling alone you’re susceptible to, at the very least, being kidnapped…..
    Sending more love and all best wishes, Bel xx

  • Mike Harrop
    Posted at 22:06h, 24 April

    Hi so accurate and fun to read and amusingly confusing coz they changed all the countries’ names since my trip in early 1980s. Just wanted to say that Lake Skadar, is the kick-scooterers sacred lake, so hope you piled up the appropriate pebbles on the beach. Enjoy and keep it flowing…

    • reol8
      Posted at 07:44h, 01 September

      Hi Mike – am so so sorry for the very late reply to your comment. I’m afraid it completely passed me by until today! But so glad you enjoyed it and thank you for taking the time to write. Brilliant you did this in the 80s. Was it the same back then? Kick-scootering… is this the same as pebble-skimming? Did have a dabble, I have to admit, and wasn’t doing badly until being distracted by a herd of randy goats. All best, and please stay in touch! Rx

  • Linda
    Posted at 03:45h, 06 May

    That’s a smart answer to a diffciult question.

  • Anna Jones
    Posted at 02:51h, 26 April

    Hello from Pembrokeshire, West Wales. I have just found you on the BBC website and now reading your blog and travel escapades. I am, like you., a world traveller, not a cyclist (just local rides) but a walker. I am in my 70th year, and still adventuring. How beautifully you write and relay to us your connection to the places and the people that you touch. You are a true Woman of Substance’ and I honour your courage, sensitivity and ability to find beauty.
    With kindness and gratitude for who you are and what you give to the world.
    Anna Jones
    Ps have you cycled in Japan and is there a blog?

    • reol8
      Posted at 10:16h, 09 May

      Thank you so much for your lovely message, Anna, and I’m very sorry for my belated reply – I only just discovered you here. It’s very kind of you to write, and I’d love to hear more about your own adventures. Where have you been? Sadly no Japan cycling yet, though I would love to in the future – in fact, I’d love to do more East Asian cycling in general.

      Plse do stay in touch! Best, Rx

  • IT-Dienstleister
    Posted at 13:10h, 04 November

    You have come around a lot. Thanks for sharing. Great job.