taking the long way
12 hours. On two buses.
When you look at Montenegro and Kosovo on a map, you think, "How hard could it be? How could that trip possibly take 9+ hours? It's just not that far."
And it isn't that far. It is, however, a two-lane highway up a series of hairpin turns into the mountains and through the mountains and over the mountains and under the mountains and sometimes through the mountains. So it takes 9 hours.
Montenegro is one of the most spectacular places I've ever seen. It ranks with Switzerland and South Africa in terms of just being out-and-out gorgeous. You cross the Kosovo/Montenegro border way up the mountains, where more than a foot of snow is still standing and the pine trees make the air impossibly fresh. The border post is actually a series of log cabins. It looks like something from a fairy tale.
After crossing the border, you descend for awhile, then end up in a series of gorges and valleys. All I can say is WOW. The rivers in these valleys are the kind of blue you only see in the Caribbean or a mountain lake. Clear, turquoise, and great whitewater. We followed the Tana River canyon for awhile. It's possible to raft the Tana at other times of year (still winter, no wetsuits, blah, blah, blah), and I will definitely be back to try it out. I saw some class II and light class III's from the bus, but apparently it gets more exciting downriver.
The whole ride was one jaw-dropping view after another. Oh, to have two weeks here to check out all the possibilities - apparently this is the place for outdoor adventures in the Balkans. At one point, we were passing through a canyon and moved into a tunnel, where traffic stopped completely. For an hour. And no one turned off their motors. (I seriously thought, "Well, after all the ways I've pushed my luck, go figure that I'm going to die of carbon monoxide poisoning in a tunnel in Montenegro.) Apparently there was a construction issue. We finally got through and into the capital, Podgorica, where, after 9.5 hours on one bus, I had 10 minutes to catch another one down to the coast. Lucky me!
Lucky, indeed. Almost no one speaks English here, but a woman came out of the bus to help. She turns out to be a journalist on the national television station, and she helped me figure out everything from how to get my phone working (apparently, their national code changed) to knowing where to get out. She left and gave me her card with instructions to call the next time I'm in Montenegro (okay!).
And then we got to the Adriatic coast. Wow. Even in the dark, the drop from mountains to the seashore was dramatic. I can't wait to see it tomorrow. For the moment, I'm in Kotor, a fantastic old walled city that sits on the edge of southern Europe's deepest fjord. We're talking narrow little paved stone streets and random piazzas with great little cafes. My hotel has been renovated since last the Lonely Planet people visited, and while it's now 3x the price they quoted, its charm is also worth every single penny. The city sits under a mountain, on which the side of there is an old fort. I'm going to climb the 1500 steps to the top tomorrow to admire the view and enjoy not being in a bus for awhile.
This whole region is just incredible. It feels like a secret that's going to get out soon. For the moment, there are almost no Americans here, but the more people find out about this place, the more it's going to be like Prague. Trust me, get here before them.