Montenegro

We travelled south from Dubrovnik basically across the whole country of Montenegro, to Ulcinj, very near the southern border with Albania.   The bus took us around 6.5 hours and for the last 2 of them we were the only passengers left.   Montenegro is becoming a beach resort destination in Europe and have a myriad of beach clubs, the one “closest” to us …as in a vertical climb of about 750 metres, was very nice and free to use.  No sand or even pebbles, directly from the decking down a ladder and into the water.  We had four days there, so as to leave on a weekday, as we weren’t sure about the bus schedules on a Sunday.  The only time a weekend annoys you is when you are travelling.

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We hired a car for some little day trips and one took us to Skadar Lake and, in search of the best view of Horseshoe Bend, we pulled into what could loosely be called a village – well, there were houses there.   An unknown car in the village had the locals out to check us out.  One gentleman invited us up to his bungalow for some refreshments, in the form of pomegranate cordial, and rakia.   A young man who was home for the holidays was pressed into translating duties.    We contributed some danish pastries to the feast and a congenial time was had by all.     We pressed on until the road took us away from the pretty national park so we turned back in search of lunch.

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Visits into the town of Ulcinj were somewhat uninspiring and the tourist information was a misnomer, being steadfastly closed at any time we passed.    Our last day in the country was spent at the nature beach…getting sunburnt in all the wrong places.

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Departure day, and after delivering the hire car, we had a lazy 2.5 hours to fill in at the palatial bus station.

Bus stations on the whole have a certain  aura about them, used as they are generally by those without money or desire for luxurious travel, and this one was no different.  Luckily for us, a little coffee shop was attached and they had no issue with one coffee at 1 euro and a 2.5 hour wait.      When we collected the hire car from this very spot, they bought us alleged cappuccino and long black coffees, which were actually espresso and an espresso with foam on the top, served in thimble sized cups..  Various groups of men occupied the chairs and I expect talked about us, or other boring subjects like soccer and we waited.  Gypsies tried their luck.  Steve decided we needed more euro so went off to find an atm.    Things looked up after we managed to get a wifi code, until a toilet break was required.  The ladies was locked up tight as a drum, and the gents cubicle was all that was on offer, complete, or rather, incomplete, with no toilet seat, no lock, no paper and a floor covered in urine.  Delightful.    It is at times like these when I KNOW God is a man, as trying to hover over the pan, and hold the door shut with one hand, puts you in a somewhat awkward (and gravitationally unfortunate) position.

Busses in the Montenegro/Albania area operate on a discretionary timetable, which basically means that the driver will leave when he damn well pleases.    No real public transport exists, so private mini bus drivers fill the gap, and the one we boarded was one of these.  They are manufactured for people who do not exceed 5ft 5inches in height.  In order to sit with my knees in front of me I must employ manspreading maneuvers.  It became obvious that the bus was not only full, but overbooked so one of us (me) was crammed against the window with my knees at 60 degrees to my body and Steve hanging out into the aisle.  The overbooked folk were plonked on folding stools in the aisle.    Another bus trip and a guy carrying his beloved brush cutter boarded, with the brush cutter being lovingly laid in the only aisle, and all passengers having to straddle it to embark/disembark. Our bus to Sarande yesterday still had ashtrays in the back of the seats, and I was thankful that no one took the opportunity to light up.

We progressed out of Ulcinj basically going completely in the wrong direction –  Steve was monitoring it on his phone – as he is deeply distrustful of bus drivers, and their directional signs placed on the front of the bus.  He imagines that instead of heading to Shkodra in Albania, we are instead going directly to Poland, thus ruining our plans.    It emerged that the main road was undergoing roadworks, (something you never have to worry about in Albania) and therefore a mountainous detour was required.  Of course.

The border crossing was interesting.  Rather than file off the bus and be processed individually, a nice man in a non-descript white polo shirt entered the bus and relieved us all of our passports.  I wondered if he was actually madly cackling to himself and driving off with them, but after 20 minutes or so, he returned and we hope we still have our original documents and not some elaborate counterfeit.  We got talking to a couple – she was from Sweden and he was from South Africa – who commented that he still has difficulty with a South African passport, and she often experiences issues just by travelling with him.  A love-fest for Steve’s shirt also took place as the guy was in love with the zip pocket in the breast where our passports live.

Into the unknown….into a country completely closed off until 28 years ago…Albania.

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Is it too late to have a gap year in your late 50s? To take back some time from our day to day working life to travel - unplanned, unescorted, unfettered? To take that leap? It was a defining year - liberating, challenging, humbling, scary. It was many things, but it wasn't a holiday.

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