Bicycle Diaries: Kotor Bay, Montenegro

One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was to cycle in every country I visit. It’s taken a few missteps (our attempts to rent Boris Bikes in London failed miserably), but this is the first of what hopefully is many accounts of cycling through Eastern Europe. I’m currently reading Bicycle Dairies by David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame (which is well worth a read for anyone interested in the confluence of music, art and urban planning all from a two wheeled perspective), so hopefully I can emulate that at least a little bit on this blog.

My journey begins in the old town of Kotor. I hire an over-priced mountain bike and walk it through the winding streets that occasionally open up into festive squares filled with tourists sipping Turkish coffee. There are no bikes or cars allowed in the old town, so asides from the occasional bumbag-wearing American cruise ship tourist, it’s easy enough to imagine its still the 17th century when the old town was one of the most prized fortresses in the Adriatic.

Soon enough though I’m outside the walls and am rewarded with a breathtaking view of Kotor Bay. It’s the largest fjord in Southern Europe, and easily rivals anything in Norway or New Zealand. Dramatic mountains plunge into the crystal turquoise waters, punctured only by a very winding road that is to be my path around the bay. I hope there aren’t too many buses or trucks, because it makes the Great Ocean Road look like a six lane highway (sorry mum).

The great thing about Montenegro is that even though it’s super touristy in the summer, as soon as you’re out of the main hotspots you’re often practically the only non-local. I cycle through villages that are no larger than a row of houses, a church and a restaurant. Each house has direct water access and the locals are making the most of the 34 degree weather, lounging about in the edge of the bay. I almost hit a portly woman crossing the road with a tray of lemonade to her children who are sheltering from the sun under an umbrella. I stop for lunch in Perast, one of the larger villages in the area. I didn’t bring swimmers but the bay looks so inviting that I strip off to my underwear and dip into the waters. I figure with the European penchant for wearing speedos I wouldn’t look too out of place, and I’m right – no one gives me a second glance.

Further on the road begins to cut into the mountain and I find myself pedalling furiously and sweating my ass off up a hill. For a mountain bike this thing doesn’t do mountains very well. At the top I spy some other bikes parked on a nondescript path off the main road, so I follow it down to meet some industrious Slovenians enjoying the spectacular view back across the bay to Kotor. I ask them how they knew about this spot. “A Montenegrin told us that no-one would be here because the locals can’t be bothered riding up the hill”. I smile, thinking that of course the stereotypically hard working Slovenians would be the first to denounce Montenegrins as lazy (which they are famous for around the Balkans).

I catch the ferry across the entrance to the bay, which is literally only about 200m wide. Thankfully the road on this side is much quieter, and I lazily cycle through more quaint little villages. I spy a rocky outcrop with a bar perched on the top and decide to stop for a well earned cider. I lie on a deck chair by the water and fall asleep in the sun until the wake from a speedboat saturates me and all my possessions. I squelch back to my bike.

As I bike back to Kotor I spy a Yugo, the car of choice for communist Yugoslavia (actually, being communism there was very little choice at all). They have the dubious title of officially being the world’s shittiest car, and I’m surprised to see an apparently functioning one in the wild. Ironically enough they’re now becoming a collectors item. I guess the obsession with retro kitsch is now reaching communism too.

I arrive back in the old town and because I’m a masochist and apparently riding 45km isn’t enough to work off the beer belly I’ve developed here, I decide to climb the 1366 steps to the fortress that overlooks the bay. I reach the top a wheezing mess just in time to catch the sunset. I’ve already used breathtaking as an adjective to describe a lot of Montenegro but it has to be applied here. I mentally add Kotor to the growing list of places I’d buy a summer house when I’m a millionaire, once this blog takes off (because that’s how it works, right?).

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