When we ventured out in March, we spent much of the first months hiking and exploring the vast outdoors of Patagonia, Bolivia, and Peru. We obviously love us some quiet, open spaces. Coming to the Balkans, we knew all about the coastal beauty, but Danielle did a great job of finding us some of the mountainous areas to explore. One of her finds, Durmitor National Park, is a gem when it comes to hiking in Montenegro.
We had booked a cute apartment with a wood burning stove in Žabljak, a small sleepy ski town central to the Durmitor region. It is what I imagine many of our great ski towns of America looked like before big money came in to build resorts. Our host was wonderful, checking on us each evening in her broken English and our, mostly non-existent, Montenegrin to make sure we had the fire roaring and were comfortable. From here we went out on three hikes as well as some driving to explore one of the vast canyons that border the park.
Black Lake and hike to (almost) Ledena Pecina
Our first day we headed out to the main attraction of Durmitor, Crno Jezero or Black Lake. Crno Jezero is a glacial lake at the foot of Međed Peak. It’s actually two lakes, Big Lake (Veliko jezero) and Little Lake (Malo jezero), that are separated by a small land bridge when the water is low. I imagine that during the summer the water is low as we often saw trees, bushes, and the the small trail that rings the lakes under two or three feet of water. With the calm water and the Međed Peak towering over the lake, you couldn’t ask for a better view.
From the lake, we headed in the direction of Ledena Pecina or Ice Cave. This is a cave that has stalagmites and stalactites that reach the size of adults. While the whole cave may not stay iced over in the summer, the entrance is usually always icy and, from pictures, looks like you would need crampons to have much success getting out. With this in the back of our minds, we decided to turn back about 45 to 60 minutes away from the cave as the terrain became more and more rocky and harder to navigate. We often needed to grab on to the rocks for balance and these rocks are pointy and very sharp! While the prospect of not getting to see this icy wonder was a bit of a letdown, it didn’t ruin the incredible views we got to experience.
The second day we headed out for some easier hiking. Our first stop was for a “quick” 45 minute hike up to Curovac, an overlook of the Tara Canyon. The trail wound close to the canyon ridge and the views just kept getting better as we got closer to the peak, which provided a beautiful panoramic of the north side of Durmitor Park, the Tara River below, and the mountains beyond. From this view, we could see in to Bosnia to the north and Albania to the east.
Đurđevića Tara Bridge
From Curovac, we continued to drive east along the river. One of the fun things about driving in Montenegro is that, because it’s so mountainous, there aren’t a lot of roads that go straight from city to city. Usually the roads wind along the sides of mountains or the coast. This makes for great views, but it also means you need to go slow. To help drive home this point, the police set up occasional speed traps around the Durmitor area. These are roads that in the US we would normally have speed limits of 30, but more often 45 or 55. In Montenegro, the speed limit often changes quickly based on the road features in the immediate vicinity (straight, curvy, really curvy), so it may go from 40 to 60 to 30 to 40 all within a kilometer. Mind you, this is kilometers per hour, so we’re talking 25 to 37 to 18 to 25 miles per hour. Not speeds as an American driver I am used to. Anyways, where this story goes is that I was 2 for 2 of getting called over to the side of the road by the police. Good news is that they either didn’t seem interested in breaking the language barrier or they didn’t want to ticket a tourist. Either way, both times, they used hand gestures to encourage me to slow down and let us on our way. Needless to say, after two warnings, I was much more careful to stay the speed limit (even as Audi after Audi flew by us).
So back to the Đurđevića Tara Bridge. Since we didn’t have to spend too much time stuck weaseling our way out of tickets, we arrived at the bridge while it was still bathed in sunlight. This bridge was built between 1937 and 1940 when it was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and spans the Tara River Valley. At the time it was the largest vehicular concrete arch bridge. After the German led invasion of Yugoslavia, Italian forces took control of the area in 1942. As retaliation local guerrilla forces, including one of the bridges engineers, blew up the main arch, removing the one feasible river crossing and stopping the Italian advance. The bridge was rebuilt in 1947. We enjoyed some coffee and local homemade cheese at the cafe overlooking the bridge and then headed across to take some pictures from the other side.
Drive to Radio Tower
I can’t remember the name of this, but to finish the second day, we drove up towards the radio tower that sits behind the old ski area near the Momčilov Grad restaurant. The drive up was gorgeous, if not treacherous. The road was often only wide enough for about a car and a half, with no guardrails and occasionally a close to sheer drop off a cliff. Fun times. We had hoped to drive all the way up to the tower, but the turn off was a steep dirt road that was covered with snow and ice. Our car being a little thing, we decided to skip the trip all the way to the top and test the icy-ish road we were already on to a further lookout point. We were well rewarded with an incredible view over the Tara River Valley. I always find it fun to drive our tiny car over the windy roads, sometimes covered with ice, and take us to places that you might often think only a 4×4 should go. Danielle is starting to enjoy these rides as well, at least the terror doesn’t seem to show as much!
Hike to Planinica or Jablan Jezero or neither
For this hike we started at a remote parking area north of Žabljak. I swear the map said there was parking and an info booth, but the road we followed was icy, rocky, and muddy and the supposed parking area was mostly full of logs. And certainly no info booth. I was a little worried about leaving the car kind of in the middle of the all of it, but I doubted anyone was coming to move the snow-covered logs that day.
With overnight temperatures dropping just below freezing and the woods not getting much sunlight, we started out on a frozen path. This hike reminded us so much of our fall hikes in New Hampshire – cold, leaves on the ground, woods making way for gorgeous views of the mountains and valleys and, of course, the beautiful fall foliage.
We arrived in a clearing at the foot of the steep uphill to where the trail splits between the path to Planinica, one of the peaks in Durmitor, and the path through Crvena Greda and it’s sheer cliffs to the lake Jablan Jezero. As we trekked up the steep path to the split in the paths, we again decided to enjoy the views, but not to press on further, since we kept encountering more snow and ice. Trekking in early November has it’s benefits of beautiful cool hiking days, but with the sun low through the day and cold nights, there are many spots that don’t get any sun to melt the snow and ice. Sitting quietly, munching on crackers with salami and cheese, it felt good to just bask in the sun that was on us and enjoy the beauty that lay before us.
We loved Durmitor
As far as national parks go, this one was pretty amazing. While the actual park service was a bit lacking – missing parking areas and info booths – the trails, themselves, were well marked and blazed. I wish we had more energy and more days to do some really long hikes, but we thoroughly enjoyed what we were able to do. Late spring, summer, or early fall might be a better time for long hikes and mountain summits, but the magic of fall gave us trees of red, orange, and gold, homemade pizza by a burning wood stove, and the calm and quiet of the great outdoors we love.