36 hours in Montenegro

Exactly two months ago today, on 23 October, Anton and I were leaving Montenegro after a short visit. Oh, but what visit it was.

In just 36 hours, we managed to fit in:

  • A whistle-stop tour of nearly all of its major cities: Kotor, Podgorica, and Bar
  • 2 run-ins with the police
  • 1 EUR 34.18 speeding fine
  • 1 stomach virus
  • A nearly missed ferry
  • Virtually zero climbing

Truth be told, we didn’t really know what to expect from Montenegro. I had heard lovely things about Kotor and some of the other parts of the coastline but the rest of the Black Mountain was a bit of a black hole. We did know some facts: although not part of the EU, the country has unilaterally adopted the Euro as its currency; the population is diverse and speaks a variety of languages, including Russian; there are lots of rocks. And as we were already heading down the Adriatic coast from Croatia - in the neighbourhood, really - we thought, what’s another few (hundred) kilometres?

The first unpleasantness occurred as we were crossing the border. We were asked to show our car registration documents and buy some sort of domestic vehicle insurance. Having dutifully followed the DVLA recommendation not to travel with our original car registration, we simply couldn’t produce the papers. After some unsuccessful efforts trying to explain our predicament in pidgeon English, Anton switched to Russian and the insurance bot’s countenance softened. But only slightly. We were still sent to see the border police. This guy, fortunately, spoke English, so we were able to explain that while didn’t have a paper copy of the required document, we could produce an electronic version.

He laughed. “This is not EU. Montenegro is not electronic.”

Eventually he let Anton connect to the border police wifi, download the document from Google Drive, and email it to him. The document was then printed, inspected, and stamped. Insurance was bought, money was exchanged, passports were returned, and we were finally on our way.

Whatever relief we felt after that encounter was short lived. Five minutes after leaving the border, we were pulled over by the police again. The offence this time? Speeding. Apparently we were going over 70 km/h in a 50 km/h zone. We made a pathetic attempt to blame the satnav (well, it WAS showing 70 km/h as the limit. We were just following orders, sir…) but the guy wasn’t having any of it. Instead he took Anton’s driver’s licence and gave us instructions on how to pay the EUR 34.18 fine.

This was also not simple. It required driving to the nearest town, queueing up at the post office - which was only open until about 15:30 that day - paying the fine and getting some papers stamped, and then returning said papers to the police in exchange for Anton’s licence. So this is what we did, the entire time questioning our decision-making skills and marvelling at our unprecedented streak of bad luck.

Then followed a three-hour drive to Kotor, where I, as the non-driver, was on high alert for every possible traffic and speed sign, having lost all confidence in TomTom Eastern Europe.

We spent the night parked at a petrol station with a cafe and free wifi, and made plans to visit the old town in Kotor the following day, which did in fact live up to the hype.

The day after we drove down to the capital, Podgorica, to sample the biggest climbing area in Montenegro: Smokovac. Unfortunately the main sector was seeping quite badly after heavy rains making it impossible to climb. Just as we were about to give up and head back to the van, we bumped into one of the founders of the Outdoor Club Podgorica (the main climbing club in Montenegro), who recommended a smaller crag across the road, which was, importantly, in the sun. I did a couple of routes but Anton wasn't feeling great after a weird stomach bug so just belayed. We didn’t stay long after that, as we still had a 90-minute drive to Bar to catch our ferry later that night.

We arrived in Bar just in time to watch the sunset from one the seaside, erm, bars. Our sailing wasn’t until 22:00 so after our aperitifs we leisurely checked in at the port, found some free wifi, and made dinner in the van. Then we queued up with all the other cars and waited patiently for our inspection. When it was our turn, we smugly presented a copy of our car registration documents, along with our passports, to the border guard (we knew the drill by this point). He looked at the papers and showed them to a colleague. After a minute he came back to the van.

THEY WERE THE WRONG DOCUMENTS.

Well, technically, they were the right documents but for the wrong car. In our haste a couple of days earlier at the border, we had accidentally downloaded the documents for our old car: a 2003 Audi Quattro A4, which we no longer owned. Not that the border police even noticed the completely different plates. Unfortunately for us this guy was somewhat more thorough than his colleague.

Again, Anton switched to Russian to defuse the situation but the guard was not impressed.

“You sleep in Montenegro tonight,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

Anton sprung into action and ran inside the port terminal building. About 20 minutes later, he emerged, victoriously holding a fresh set of papers. He presented them to the guard and from what I could see in the wing mirror, the latter appeared mollified. Maybe we wouldn’t be sleeping in Montenegro tonight after all.

Correct documents checked and stamped, it was now time for the van to be searched. Another slightly kinder looking man in plain clothes got in the van and asked to see inside the cupboards, one by one.

“Bringing any alcohol back with you?” he asked. I pointed to the two bottles of wine we purchased in Kotor after our hike to the top of the fortress. He nodded.

He peered inside one of the overhead compartments filled with pasta, couscous, flour, and other ingredients.

“Mmm. Organic!”

A quick look under the bed and the clothes cupboard and the man seemed satisfied that we weren’t smuggling gallons of cheap booze - or people - in our camper back to the EU.

Nearly two hours later, we were finally on board the Sveti Stefan II, our vessel from Montenegro Lines, which would deliver us safely back to the sanitised West. Although not without delivering one more delightful surprise: a hideous night’s sleep in a ship permanently stuck in 1975.

If the state of the fit out was anything to go by, the Sveti Stefan II was an unseaworthy relic. He came complete with stained carpets and cigarette burns in the upholstery, broken toilet seats in the loos, and a decades-old stench of nicotine throughout. Oh, and a God awful radio blaring Modern Talking in the deck seating area, which was our sleeping quarters for the night.

Anna Belodedenko

I used to be another Polish Canadian in England but since swearing allegiance to Her Maj three years ago, I'm now a Polish Canadian Briton in Europe.

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