For the past two nights, I laid my head to rest in the town of Becici, south of Budva on the southern coast of Montenegro. It’s been fun sharing stories, beer, and good Montenegrin wine with my new friends at the Hotel Swiss Holiday—they went out of the way to find me secure parking—even moving one of their cars to make room.
I’ve enjoyed Montenegro; however today I must crash the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina. With the great connections I’ve made along this journey, I spend more time in each country or city than I thought. That’s okay. This isn’t checklist tourism. No, it’s important to take the time to learn, understanding and connect.
There’s one last stop I must make, however, in Montenegro: The Ostrog Monastery. This is the most important Christian site in the Balkans. It attracts over one million pilgrims every year. Locals tell me it’s just a few kilometers off the main road to Niksic and the Bosnian border.
That’s an understatement.
Perhaps I should have researched the route before taking off. However, I remember seeing signs for it when I took the long way around to meet Goran Redevic at the Redevic Estate Winery.
I pull off the main road and follow the signs, it’s confusing, and the road is narrow, one lane wide in parts, and it twists and turns up the side of the mountain. After 20 minutes, I wonder if I made a wrong turn. If this place attracts so many visitors, where are the busses and cars? I’m alone, and when I see a car, it’s a tight squeeze.
There are few roads around here. So I keep climbing. Soon I’m winding through hairpin switchbacks, often cards make wide sweeping turns coming downhill. They breach my lane, causing me to correct my turn. It’s maddening, but I putt, go slow, up the bill.
I come to a large parking lot next to what is the lower monastery, but I do not stop as the real jewel is still a dozen or more switchbacks up the road. After another two kilometers, I come to a gate and a guard. I idle and look at him. He lifts the gate and waves me in. So I park just 30 meters from the upper monastery.
The sun blazes down, it’s hot.
The upper monastery clings to the near vertical mountainside. It glows bright white in the midday sun. It seems to defy gravity and construction engineering as it is set on the sheer face of a massive rock.
In the early 17th century, as the Ottoman’s were wreaking havoc in the Balkans, Christians fled to the mountains to seek solace and hide. Built by Vasilije, Bishop of Herzegovina and later the St. Vasilije of Ostrog—or St. Basil of Ostrog. They enshrined his body in a tomb and set it within the walls of the cavelike church.
As with many of these important Christian shrines, stories of miracles spread throughout the Balkans and beyond. Since not only Orthodox Christian pilgrims come here, but Catholics, and Muslims too. Traditionally, many pilgrims climb the steps in bare feet, or even on their knees.
There’s a long line waiting to climb steps to go inside. I’m in my boots, riding pants, and jacket. In the sun, I feel like I’m in a sauna.
So I step into a tiny cave-like room next to the ticket window. It’s hotter in here because of the one hundred candles burning in tubs of water on both sides of the room. It’s a Serbian Orthodox tradition to choose a candle, kiss it, light and place it on either side—one side is to honor the living, the other side for the dead. One man does neither. He sifts the melted wax floating on water, collecting it in large plastic bags outside.
I wait in line, but after 45 minutes I moved only 3 meters. The line stretches up over 100 meters. I notice a shortcut, women with infant children may bypass most of the line. That will not work for me.
This is the wrong day to explore the Ostrog Monastery, the most important in the Balkans,
I struggle with the decision I must make. Stay and wait, or move on. I want to be in Sarajevo by nightfall—preferably earlier. I play a game with the line. A guy is wearing a red hat 25 meters ahead of me. If he makes it to the second set of steps in 20 minutes, then I stay. If he does, I figure I will be at the entrance in just over an hour.
After twenty minutes the red hat moved only five feet.
I cannot wait. I wind down another long stretch of hairpin switchbacks to the north, as I head to the border. After Niksic, the road gets narrower and the hills greener. I’m now heading into the mountains. After an hour, nature calls and I pull over to take care of business and examine the map.
In the distance, I hear the distinctive roar of a two-stroke engine. Soon two motorcycles and a car pull over and greet me. The three kids are all from the Czech Republic. On is riding a 1960 Jawa, a Czech built motorcycle from the days of U.S.S.R. The other is a 1970 CZ, also Czech. Their body is driving a car, a 1972 Skoda—also Czech. The Skoda has been overheating they tell me. So they must stop now and again to cool down. The CZ and Jawa are struggling on the modest inclines of these mountains. So they must run full throttle or be bogged down.
The guys are all twenty-one and twenty-two years old. They have been on the road for eight days and got as far south as Albania after exploring the Croatian coast. The Czechs tell me Croatia is no fun—just filled with tourists and too many cars. I agree when they tell me they loved Albania. It is their first road trip—first every trip—outside their country. I can sense the energy and glow of new discoveries and adventures. They will do this often, I’m sure.
We joke about racing up the next hill. The guy on the Jawa, with its torquey two-stroke, roars up the road. I stick with him, but roll off the throttle and let him ahead. The CZ struggles behind me, so I let him catch up. Just then the Skoda rounds a corner and pulls over. More overheating.
After some cooling, we all move on again—toward the Bosnia Herzegovina border. When we come to a gas station, the honk, wave, and pull in to work on their old vehicles. Classic.
In about twenty minutes I’m winding around the beautiful aquamarine colored Piva Lake—which is a reservoir created by. I pass through about twenty tunnels, carved in the rock around the lake, and through Piva Canyon. It’s the highest artificial lake in the world—created by Mratinje Dam, built in the 1970s.
When I get to the Border of Bosnia, the border guard refuses to let me pass. He sees that my EU Green Card insurance papers exclude Bosnia and Herzegovina. I ask him if I can buy insurance.
“No, you go back to Podgorica,” he suggests that I ride back three hours to get insurance.
Yeah, right! Stingy with much more than handing me back my documents and holding traffic up so I can turn around. I ask him again, pointing to all my flags. “Are you sure you don’t want me to visit your country?”
“Go to Corridor Ex, in Montenegro,” he says. “At border, you find.”
So you CAN buy the insurance. I feel this is all a scam, but I go to the Montenegro border control, park my bike because I don’t want to go through Montenegro immigration again. Then look for a corridor marked X, and wander into a room with two men staring at computers. I thought this was the corridor. I’m wrong. It’s up the road 100 meters.
So I hike up the 100 meters in my jacket, sweating when I wander into a small restaurant and campground. It’s called “Coridor X” and is also a camp for rafters taking trips down the Piva River.
It’s here I run into another group of six Czech travelers, the youngest is about 15 and the oldest in his sixties—all guys. They are riding a wacky collection of home-modified vehicles, including a three-wheel CZ. I tell them about the group of three Czechs I saw an hour before and suggested they connect. They take pictures of me and my bike.
I’m in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the road from the border sucks. Hours later, after finding a better road and winding through another canyon and around beautiful mountains, I arrive in Sarajevo.
Now I need a room and a beer.