Monday, 21 January 2013

Day 266 – Pilgrims and Avalanches. (Montenegro)

We decided to skip Podgorica all together given our imminent time limit (now 8 days to see Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia and get to Budapest in time for Christmas), and instead headed towards the impressive sounding Ostrog Monastery. As a general rule we try and avoid visiting monasteries and cathedrals just for the sake of it, in the same way as we avoided going to every mosque and temple earlier on in the trip. Too many people get “templed out” or “cathedraled out” and we have long enough and are covering enough distance that we can afford to pick and choose the special ones. It’s very tempting just to stop at every monastery that we pass: “Well we’re passing anyway, we may as well just stop and have a squiz – it looks nice.” But we have made a concerted effort not to get “place of worshipped out” and so far have done quite well at visiting just the right amount to keep us interested.
Ostrog Monastery, carved into the rocky side of a mountain 900m above the Zeta Valley, seemed to fit the category of being worth a visit. Deemed the most important site for Orthodox Christians in all of Montenegro, which considering the size of the country may not be such a huge claim to fame, but never the less is certainly a spectacular site. The lower monastery isn’t carved into the cliff face, but was built using the more traditional method of bricks on bricks on top of the ground. From there a 2 m wide un-made track, covered in ice and sludge during our visit, literally zig-zags up the remainder of the hillside to the upper monastery. In summer the place is apparently swarmed by inappropriately dressed snap-happy tourists and bare-footed pilgrims, so despite the fact that it’s cold and a lot of attractions are closed for winter, this is one example of when it is delightful to miss peak season. A hand full of visitors arrived while we were there, not pilgrims as such, but obviously there for religious purposes. They crossed themselves, lit candles, and quietly prayed to the appropriate pictures and statues, before respectfully retreating back to their cars to make the dangerous descent to the lower monastery.
The gleaming white stone structure that fronts the carved out rooms and caves is truly magnificent, majestically towering over the beautiful Zeta Valley and gloriously housing a selection of impressive shrines and monuments. Unfortunately it was incredibly foggy while we were there, but based on the drive up to the monastery, we can safely say that the view from the top would have been breath-taking.
The other place that grabbed our fancy was Tara Canyon in Durmitor National Park, an area that is littered with dramatic mountains, glacial lakes and a stupendous variety of birds and mammals. There is a €2 entry fee to the park, which we avoided by skirting the edge instead of actually entering. From here you can still get a great view of the Tara Canyon, but in order to see more of the area you would have to pay the fee.
With a maximum depth of 1,300 m (to put this in context, Colorado’s Grand Canyon reaches 1,500 m), the Tara Canyon is a magnificent amalgamation of water streaked cliff faces and the dazzling sapphire coloured river that has sliced through the limestone. In summer an 82 km stretch of Tara River is a popular rafting destination, amongst an assortment of other outdoor activities in the national park, but of course none of this was available for us during winter. The only activity we had to keep us entertained was throwing rocks down the side of the cliff and watching them roll down the rugged slope before splashing into the deep river, hoping not to cause an avalanche.
We followed the road around the canyon, intending to drive towards Bosnia Herzegovina and find somewhere to stay on the way. In many places the road was crudely tunnelled through the rock, not concreted or reinforced, but left naked so it’s just you and the rock. Some partial tunnels were scattered between the real tunnels; the type of ones that are popular in Austria and Switzerland where there’s a roof over the road, it’s enclosed on the mountain side, and columns suspend the roof on the valley side. The most notable thing on that drive though was the regularity of snow avalanches evident on the road. Some were obviously reasonably fresh and had to be carefully manoeuvred around, but for the most part the pile of snow that had landed on the road was neatly sliced, leaving a gap wide enough to drive through, a wall of snow on either side.
What we’d failed to realise in our planning of the evening was just how tiny Montenegro is, and the extent to which there would be literally nothing between Tara Canyon, or even Ostrog Monastery for that matter, and Bosnia Herzegovina. We took a small detour down an obscenely muddy and icy track, following signs for an eco-lodge, but all we found was a burnt-out hut and a hand-full of tractors. Before we knew it we had reached the border village of Šćepan Polje and it became apparent that our only option was to cross the border then and look for somewhere to stay on the other side.
We certainly hadn’t planned on spending only one day in Montenegro, but the sheer minisculinity of the country got the better of us and before we knew it we had accidentally left the country.

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