The Sveti Stefan sailed through morning sea mists along the dark mountainous coastline of Albania.
Hanging over the side of the ship we saw calm azure water drifting like aqueous gel and full of shoals of fish. We heard the call to prayer and glimpsed dainty minarets amongst the rooflines of small fishing villages. It was a mesmerising first glimpse of East Europe.
Our sailing had been delayed by two hours as an HGV driver, angry at being turned away from the full boat, parked his lorry across the two ship planks that we had reversed across. Loud, angry and protracted negotiations were shouted between the driver and the ship’s captain.
Consequently, our arrival into Bar was late at 9am but it meant the sun was climbing high in the skies and revealing the forests of the coast at Montenegro. Bar spilled down a mountain into a pretty harbour of fishing and pleasure boats setting out for the day. Sveti Stefan cruised in amongst them to berth at the single tarmacked causeway.
Immediately the bow doors opened, the tailgate was put down and we were disembarking onto the Eastern European landmass.
Armed with passports, drivers’ licences, registration, insurance documents and a ‘green card’ we were warmly welcomed at the border post which looked like a small garage forecourt.
A government officer greeted us with an eco-tax certificate for payment and a police officer registered then directed us to a local insurer for additional road insurance, and he in turn directed us to the coffee shop come tourist office just within the harbour.
As we pored over information brochures offered to us by a welcoming young girl speaking good English, we were amused to see Bertha attracting the attention of children excitedly calling: ‘Britisher Britisher’ and a group of fishermen puzzling over her shape and size. They all waited to wave us off as we headed out and up the mountain to the site of the old town, Stari Bar.
2,000 years old, the walled stone city was home to Romans, Balkan tribes, Turks and now wild herbs, dog roses and ivy. We had the site to ourselves and wandered along cobbled streets to ruined castles, a citadel and several churches. Cool and misty air streamed down from the mountain, springs and wells of fresh water bubbled and a Roman aqueduct still stood. It was a very moving place and a wonderful introduction to this side of our continent.
Turkish village inns lined the route out of the site, but it was early, although tempting, for a lunch of roasted meats and kebab. Instead we pushed on south moving slowly along a main road under construction in light traffic to find camping directly on the beach at southern-most Ulcinj.
The blue flag Velika (or Long) Beach was busily being set up for the summer season, but we were welcomed to it as our home for a few days.
Around us an army of young men toiled daily at building wooden framed restaurants, bars and barbecue pits and assembling VIP areas of four poster beach beds and canopied lounges. All of which would soon welcome an exclusive clientele of Kosovans.
We were told this part of the coast was the only area where Kosovans would holiday and spend small fortunes, in safety away from still fractious Bosnians and Serbs. It was a first reminder of the terrible wars of the 1990s that Europe suffered. Looking it up on Trip Advisor in 2020 the golden sandy stretch has grown into a metropolis of high-rise all-inclusive hotels and now welcomes visitors from around the world.
When we were there it was basic but beautiful and the pop-up businesses were optimistic about the expected boomtime holiday season, which would last for just one precious month.
Ulcinj was a hillside town of colourful and crazy chaos. Its steep streets were constantly full of honking cars, speeding mopeds, donkeys pulling carts, prowling packs of kids, veiled women carrying heavy hessian bags and shopping at the food stalls and prayer goers heading to and coming from the mosque. It was altogether more relaxed down in Stari Ulcinj, a lovely cove of old fishing cottages.
Enterprising youngsters were now running music, beer and cevapi bars which had a distinct feel of Hastings Old Town’s Dragon bar to them, and we felt quickly at home!
The roads were heavily pot-holed and crumbling away at the edges. We realised that we would not be able to drive into Albania as we had hoped. Asking locally about road conditions, we were strongly advised against travelling in anything other than a Land Rover-type vehicle.
Having clocked up 1500 miles so far, we were keen not to willingly walk into problems on the road. Instead we cycled to the small island of Ada on the two countries’ border.
The ride revealed much; quiet and dusty rural tracks, elderly folk cultivating small vegetable patches often with a tethered goat or cow nearby, scrabbling chickens, ramshackle shops preparing to open up and all advertising cheap and strong booze.
A whole family rooting about in a rubbish pile, a single pink two-storey house advertising bed and breakfast, lone men wandering along the road and us attempting to avoid snakes, frogs and broken glass bottles.
We discovered the island to be a nudist beach (with signs in German) so opted instead for a strong coffee on board a river boat, one of a few that served as restaurants along the pretty green Ada waterway.
Cycling back the full length of empty, vast Velika Beach, its sands blew around dunes and there was no sign of anyone until we neared our temporary home, now shaping into an impressive complex of luxury lounges and eateries.
It would be a shame to leave, but we campervanners were starting to let the side down!
The whole of the coastline seemed fly-postered with the imminent arrival of Madonna, due to perform on an outdoor stage at Jaz Beach, a marshy cove near Budva. It was also one of only a handful of places we could research to stay.
Campsites were not yet established and locals, although friendly, were not keen to encourage ‘wild camping’. We had understandable safety concerns too, standing out like a sore thumb amongst the battered local traffic of tiny cars, mopeds and Mercedes (the car of choice for visiting Albanians).
Camped officially amongst long-haired long-termers in the marshy grasses – and worrying about how to get off them – we explored the cove. It was pretty at one end and grimy at the other. Restaurants and coffee bars were built up on a stilted walkway. The heavy skies of dark grey clouds suddenly opened and poured more water onto the marshes.
As we settled in for the evening with a plate of stuffed cabbage rolls, a loud vibrating noise started up and did not stop until the early hours of daylight – it was a chorus of thousands of frogs. It didn’t make for much sleep as their tone was so obtrusive. We were grateful to move on quickly after breakfast and wished the Material Girl luck on her being heard above the cacophony.
In 2020 we learned that the concert had been held earlier in 2008, and the posters, undated, were hangovers even back in 2011.
Montenegro’s big draw, then and now, is the bay of Kotor. Hemmed in by dramatic cliffs, the pristine waters are deep enough to welcome gigantic ocean cruisers and we experienced the jostling of crowds that we hadn’t felt since leaving Pisa.
Inside the tall stone walls of the Old Town we elbowed our way amongst Americans and Asian tourists through the narrow alleyways and past the many churches of different denominations, Kotor having changed hands through the ages.
Looking up past the clock tower and ducal palaces we could see the stone walls stretching high up the mountain sides and dotted with ruined watch towers. It was anciently grand and proud.
We circled the pristine and icy waters following directions to a campsite. The narrow roads were beautifully scenic across the water but perilously dangerous as we skirted hair pin bends, dodging tour coaches and heavily laden trucks on the nearside of the shore.
Pretty villages seemed miniature in scale, as low-slung single storey cottages lined the impossibly narrow road. We were glad to find the campsite but disappointed to be turned away as it was for tents only.
We were now on the wrong side of the gigantic lake and heading in the wrong direction, away from Montenegro. We stopped to take in the views whenever we could, in the many laybys along the skinny road, presumably here to allow the tourist buses to squeeze past each other.
It was now getting on for late-afternoon and neither of us dared to remind the other of a rule we had set ourselves before leaving home. We had promised that we would always be at a dedicated camperstop or campsite before 5pm each day. Looking back now, it was very naïve and limiting as we’ve certainly broken that rule countless times since!
In 2011, our mobile phones couldn’t help with internet searches (in fact our contracts meant we couldn’t use them at all outside of the EU) so armed with only a map and printed information from website forums, we took a ferry from Lepetani to the larger village of Kamenari.
There should have been a campsite near the ferry landing but we certainly couldn’t find it and our sat-nav was useless here as Montenegro had ‘yet to be mapped’. We stopped to ask a couple of locals but they only knew about the one we had visited earlier, for tents only.
A quick glance in 2020 reveals almost a dozen campsites on both sides of the bay!
Unplanned and a little disappointed, we found ourselves heading to the border with Croatia and quickly stocked up at an auto stop on some Montenegrin essentials – Jelen beer and fresh sweet scampi.
Just 10kms into Croatia we were welcomed jovially at a pretty cove-side campsite at Molunat. Feeling both deflated and relieved we toasted Montenegro with what we know understood to be contraband and smuggled Jelen beer. Oops and Zivjeli!