Montenegro

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I want to say flying into Podgorica from Istanbul’s Ataturk airport (departing from gate 307 no less) felt just like flying into somewhere like Blenheim airport back home. But actually it didn’t just feel that way, that’s exactly what it was like – and what a contrast! With a tiny passport control (consisting basically of a man and a small table), one small luggage belt and an arrivals hall that had a couple of hire car companies and one out of order ATM, in an hour and a half we had landed in quite a different world, and I loved it!!!
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A third of the size of Wales, Montenegro’s population is around 6 hundred thousand (compared to Turkey’s almost 75 million), and we could feel the space around us as soon as we hit the road in our wee rental car. Almost instantly we were hit with the mesmerising beauty of the country’s famous mountains, even arriving on an overcast day they still took my breath away.
With the freedom of a rental car allowing us to go wherever, whenever we wanted, we decided to base ourselves in Budva. While it’s the biggest of the ‘resort’ type towns in Montenegro, basing ourselves there meant we had all the convenience of a tourist hot spot, (including beautiful beaches, numerous delicious food stalls, restaurants and supermarkerts) but also the ability to escape into our majestic surroundings whenever we so wished. Given we were visiting after the busiest of the summer months it also meant things were relatively quiet and not as crowded as they get in the height of summer.
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 Montenegro had never originally been on our to do list, in fact we had planned to spend the time traversing Croatia’s spellbinding coastline. But in need of a little R&R, and on the advice of my sister and Serbian sister in law, we changed course to base ourselves in the smaller of the two options, and I’m so glad we did.
Almost instantly I was struck with how stuck in a time warp this little slice of paradise is, from the fantastic two piece track suits being rocked left right and centre, to the 80’s music blaring from every pub and beach front establishment. Every which way you looked there were high pony tails galore, and prices so low it left us wondering if we were actually still in Europe. Add into this mix the kindness of the local Montenegrin people and it was a recipe for a fabulous week.
After a day hitting the beach in Budva and exploring the charm of its quaint old town, we hit the road to explore the Bay of Kotor. Now a lot of things have blown my mind throughout my travels so far, but I had to blink and pinch myself A LOT staring at the mountainous surroundings of this part of the world,  to ensure what I was looking at was actually real. It was as it I was looking at the canvas of the most exquisite painting, a landscape so perfect it could only exist in a creative mind. But every last inch of it was real, and I didn’t want to leave, fearing, even with photos, I could never conjure the true amazing-ness in my mind again if I did.
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After numerous photo stops, we eventually found ourselves at the old town of Perast, where we simply strolled taking in our incredible surroundings, ate the most delicious Montenegrin feast, drunk local beer, and took a boat ride out to Our Lady of the Rocks. Built on an artificial island created by rocks and sinking old ships loaded with rocks, according to the legend it was created over centuries by local seamen who stuck to an ancient oath after finding a Madonna and Child icon on the rock in the sea. Apparently the custom of throwing rocks into the sea remains alive today, with local people taking their boats out and throwing rocks into the sea to widen the surface of the island on a special day each year. If I had to try and conjure up perfection in the form of a day, I would say the day we spent exploring this place would have to be it.
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With a belly full of food, we decided to leave checking out the Fortress of Kotor until the next day, a wise idea given it required climbing several hundred steps up the rock face to get there. But it was a climb that was well worth the effort, as the views, and surrounding old town, once again were simply spectacular.
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The next morning we hit the road bound for Croatia. After about two and a half hours of driving, and a fairly lengthy border crossing, we were in Dubrovnik. Having seen plenty of photos of friends who’ve set off on med sailors or sail Croatia adventures from the sea side city, I knew we were in for another sensational experience, but there’s nothing quite like coming round the coast to see the expanse of the beautifully walled old town glistening against the water, it truly was beautiful. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget what crowds feel like though, and once we ditched the car and ventured by foot into the city walls I was blown away by just how many tourists were swarming around compared with across a very close border. And while I loved soaking up all Dubrovnik had to offer, a little part of me felt quite relieved to cross back into the world that while may seem a few decades behind it’s Croatian neighbour, offered us the kind escape we were after.
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The next day we headed inland from Budva, again on the advice of my sister in law, to a small settlement called Rijeka Crnojevica. While the winding narrow roads through the mountains hand me questioning where exactly she had sent us, we eventually arrived and embarked on an idyllic river ride full of stalks, pelicans and all kinds of other beautiful birds. The natural beauty of Montenegro and the absolute crispness of its air quality reminded me so much of home. Even so soon after the height of summer, we somehow managed to time our arrival so we pretty much had the entire river to ourselves. Feeling so removed from everything, it was amazing to be able to experience a place that felt so untouched. The only downside was not dressing warmly enough for the excursion (something I’m often guilty of), but luckily we were blessed with a little more of that Montenegrin kindness, with our guide giving up his jacket for me.
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Our final two days were spent relaxing and exploring the beaches and inlets surrounding Budva. Sitting on the beach enjoying yet another beer in the sun I couldn’t help but marvel again at being in a place that felt like it was from such a different time.  Just like every other aspect of this time warped treasure, the beach was no exception, while there was not one sunblock bottle in sight (aside from ours of course) locals wandered daily up as down the beach selling bottles of oil! One lady I witnessed even dousing herself in a bottle of olive oil she’d probably grabbed from the kitchen on her way out of the house! Turns out the slip, slop, slap and wrap message hasn’t quite arrived here yet!
It was a feeling that spilled through to the road rules as well, with driving quite the experience. I had definitely become accustomed to some crazy driving on the roads of Morocco and Turkey, where locals over took on blind corners, five cars at a time, before slipping back into gaps narrowly missing the on coming traffic. But with those experiences in Minivans and huge buses, it certainly became all the more terrifying when having our own car and being able to see very clearly out of the front windscreen what was going on. We learned pretty quickly that Montenegrins don’t really think much about good ‘gap selection’ and passing on blind corners up narrow winding mountainous roads is apparently just the norm. Pulling over and parking on the side of said narrow windy mountainous roads also seems quite a popular activity, as is parking just about anywhere one wants (footpaths outside of supermarkets are particularly popular). If I didn’t find it all quite so hilarious, I might’ve actually seriously feared for our lives!
Montenegro really was the most amazingly chilled out place to visit, where the locals were just so happy to help in whatever way they could. Even up to our last few hours in the country we were treated to the benefits of this casual laid back attitude. When we wanted to keep our hire car an extra half day, the guy running the local company told us to keep it for as long as we liked, at no extra cost. Dropping the car off in Bar, where we were booked to travel by ferry to Italy, we took the opportunity to head towards the border of Montenegro and Albania, stopping in a town called Ulcinj. Despite not actually crossing the border, it very much felt like we had. With a population of about ten thousand, Ulcinj is the centre of the Albanian community in Montenegro, as the majority of people there are Albanian and Islam is the major religion.
After exploring a little more of the area, we headed back to Bar, stopping at what remains of the Old Town. A fascinating absolutely beautiful place, its heritage includes Turkish baths, Roman aqueducts and a citadel with an origin dating back over a thousand years. It’s so integral and important to the country’s history that the Montenegrin government is currently pursuing a huge project to completely restore it into a living museum.  Located on the outskirts of town, had we not been able to keep our car we probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to this ancient place, which ended up becoming one of the major highlights of our time in this beautiful country.
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With the most perfect of sunsets to sail off into, we said goodbye to what really is an enchanting wee country. I’m so glad we decided to spend our time exploring this coastal gem, and the incredible culture and phenomenal scenery it has to offer.
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Spain

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Spain was always set to be a pretty epic adventure, food, sangria, sunshine AND I was seeing my other half Mike again for the first time in four months.
Arriving in Barcelona the day before Mike, I’d booked myself a very cheap hostel in the part of town closest to La Rambla, the famous shopping street. Famous it may be, but for me personally it was my least favourite thing about the city. The crowds of people were insane, and it felt like a ture pick pocketers paradise. Although the La Boqueria market was a delight for the senses, it was hard to enjoy, let alone actually get close enough to any of the stalls to buy anything, with the hordes of tourists packed in like sardines.
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It was hard to escape the droves of tourists, especially in that part of town, but my first sunset in Barcelona had me excited for all that Spain had to offer.
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Leaving the craziness of La Rambla behind, I set off first thing the next morning to the accommodation Mike had booked for us (a special treat as it was well above my backpacker budget!) and it was beautiful. An apartment right in the middle of all the Gaudi buildings, in an absolutely beautiful part of town. With a sunny courtyard that included hammocks, it was bliss!
Our first day reunited we decided to wander the city by foot, checking out Guadi’s Casa Batllo (probably my favourite of his buildings) and strolled the winding streets and alley ways of Le Ribera and the Gothic area. I was reminded immediately of our travels through Cuba with the streets and buildings, just perhaps a little more up-kept in this part of the world.
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After an evening of some serious sangria, and enough tapas to make me feel like I was ready to burst, the next day was all about Guadi. Unfortunately we had left our run a little late to get tickets to get inside the Sagrada Familia, but it was still an impressive sight to behold from the outside.
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We did however experience the interior and amazing rooftop of La Pedrera, which was really quite incredible. It’s amazing to see in the flesh just how forward thinking Guadi was for his time, and makes you wonder where in the world he conjured these creations from. It was from the roof top of La Pedrera that I could also grasp the sheer size of the Sagrada Familia, which I didn’t get a real sense of from simply standing next to it. Given La Pedrera isn’t the top Guadi tourist draw card, it was also nice to get to experience the environment with an ever so slightly smaller crowd of people.
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From there we packed a lunch of bread, jamon, queso and olives to take out to Guadi Park, somewhere (given the name) I was imagining to be a lush green oasis in which to escape the searing sun. Not however quite the case, the rugged desert like landscape was my first taste of what was the come the further south we headed. The expanse of rugged desert terrain, overlooking Barcelona did provide an escape from the city of a different kind though, and again was a glimpse into the surreal world and mind of a such a fascinating creative.
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With Barcelona definitely not the cheapest of places I’ve visited, we made the most of our beautiful sunny terrace, and the delicious fresh produce (and cheap beer!) on offer at the supermarket for the remainder of our stay in the city. A wise option not just for the wallet, by for the taste buds as well!
After filling ourselves to the brim I had asked Mike to take me to a huge fountain show that I had seen advertised, which took place in front of the National Museum, as it was a part of the city we were yet to explore. With the show starting at 9, by 7 there were already thousands of people claiming their spots in the huge outdoor area.
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With Mike strangely preoccupied with finding somewhere quiet I followed him through a park on the hillside looking over the city, and as if by magic the crowds melted away until we found ourselves completely alone in a tiny garden, right as the sun was setting over Barcelona. Looking a little nervous and shaky, Mike said he wanted to tell me something, and right at that moment pulled a ring from his pocket and proposed. I was so caught off guard, and even now looking back I can’t find the words to express how that complete feeling of surprise, or being swept off your feet actually feels. And so we watched the fountains in a bubble of bliss and I wondered whether anything would ever be able to top that night again in the rest of my life.
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Still buzzing the next day, we decided we had to sample one more thing that the city of Barcelona has to offer, and that’s its beaches! Taking the metro a little further out to escape the craziness of Barceletta beach (the closest to the city), we landed at playa del bogatell, for sun, sand, sea and of course a bunch of boobs. It definitely was strange at first to be amongst something so different to our culture, and I was reminded of how reserved and private we are are as a nation. Yet interestingly given how totally normal this all was, and the huge variety of people getting their gear off, any sexual aspect of the situation completely disappeared, and it just felt completely normal. Watching all the ladies strip off around me, I actually couldn’t help but be a little jealous of that one element of freedom that we haven’t quite taken up back home.
From Barcelona an 8 hour bus ride landed us in Madrid, and for the first time I got a taste of the desert countryside of Spain. I was actually a little (pleasantly) surprised by the expanse of the rugged dry open spaces and for some reason hadn’t quite expected what I was seeing.
Once in Madrid I was instantly in love, it really had a lovely more relaxed pace to it than Barcelona, and there also seemed to be a dramatic drop in tourist numbers. We found a market with the most divine tapas and food I have ever seen or tasted, and spent both our evenings there watching the sun set over an ice cold San Miguel beer, it was bliss. Making the most of the beautiful Spanish weather we hired a row boat, ate ice cream, strolled the parque del buen retiro, and in a bubble of seemingly never ending bliss, did all the things a disgustingly in love newly engaged couple should do.
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With our two nights in Madrid over in what felt like a heartbeat, it was onto Granada, the only region in Spain where tapas are still completley free with every drink you buy, everywhere. We only spent two nights in the Southern Spanish city, but didn’t spend a cent on food. In saying that however it’s probably worth noting we did drink A LOT at all hours of the day …..
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I didn’t have a lot of expectations for Granada, it had really only become a destination as it was an easy place to get to where we needed to be in the Spanish mountains to meet my brother and his family. But in my experience I’ve found it’s the places you expect the least from that seem to really wow you, and Granada was no exception – becoming one of my absolute favourite places that I’ve visited so far.
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I just loved everything about the city, its small town feel, the kind people, the beautiful buildings, the maze of tiny streets winding up the hillside, local musicians filling the warm evening air, and the mix of Arab and Spanish culture, history and heritage. And of course the jewel of the city the Islamic palace fortress Alhambra, which was an absolute joy, and quite the trek to explore.
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The architectural beauty, a symbol of 800 years of moorish rule, sits atop a hill filling the skyline of Granada, a turly phenomenal sight by day, and an even more exquisite beauty by night. There are only 6000 tickets available for visitors each day and they sell out FAST, I’m so glad we made it our mission to get one.
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As the sun set on our final night in Granada we bar hopped from the busy central bars, up the hill through the local neighbourhoods until eventually we had left all the tourists behind and were enjoying our beer with a phenomenal view of the city, surrounded by local people and of course the many stray cats that are an integral part of these places. Simply put it was lovely, and reminded me so much of the long summer evenings we spent in Cuba, where neighbours sat yacking on front stoops well into the night, and children could evade the stern looks of their mothers and fathers to stay up much later than normal playing. There’s such a feeling of simplicity and contentment in those moments that I wish I could bottle up and carry around with me forever.
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Although a little hard to say goodbye so soon, I was consumed with an absolute insane excitement to move on to our next destination, a villa tucked into the Spanish mountains in the Sierra Nevada, where my brother his lovely partner, beautiful daughter, and a weeks worth of R&R, were waiting for us. A winding mountainous bus ride through remote towns and villages finally had us at our destination and it was just perfect. Days spent lounging by the pool, consuming bucket loads of local jamon, bbq’s overlooking the mountains, sangria, beer, siestas. I loved every second and spent my 28th birthday feeling like I was the luckiest person in the world.
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Of course being in the Spanish mountains came with its own challenges, there was very little English spoken, the place actually became more deserted than a ghost town during siesta time, and food tended to attract A LOT of wasps, but for the most part these things just added to the experience.
Trying to order chorizo at the butchers went from a 5 min job to one that seemed to lasted an eternity, as the Spanish lady running the shop seemed to require some sort of life update from every customer who came through her door (well at least I think that’s what the conversations were about, I couldn’t understand a word of the very many that were being said in insanely fast succession). This was also my first lesson in the Spanish line etiquette, if you’re not up for chaos, carnage and pushing in, you’re probably going to miss out. Luckily the locals finally took pity on me and asked what it was I was after, with my superior Spanish language skills (haha) of course failing me as I tried to place my order in front of a shop full of non English speakers. But after what seemed like forever, with the most delicious chorizo in hand, I left the shop feeling completely triumphant.
Language barriers caused a few more minor hiccups along the way, when asking for a jug of water to go with our jug of sangria, we ended up with another jug of watered down sangria instead. But for the most part the failure in cross cultural communication simply inspired plenty of laughs.DSCN4693
Our week in the Spanish mountains came and went far too fast, and my heart was literally breaking at the thought of leaving and saying goodbye to my family.
Driving together south to Malaga, we stopped at one of the coastal resort areas for lunch, and wow am I happy we decided to travel inland on our Spanish adventure. While the beaches look beautiful and the sea breeze was a welcome relief, like many of these resort areas, the place felt completely soulless and void of any culture at all. It was a strange feeling given the richness of the past two weeks that we had just experienced.
As my brother and his family flew out of Malaga, we moved further South to Algeciras, our base for a couple of nights to plot our next move across the water to Morocco. While not the most inspiring of destinations (or accommodation for that matter) I do always enjoy being in a place that’s not at all tailored for tourists, where you can experience real people going about their real lives, and Algeciras was about as authentic as you can get in that regard.
However it was here that we once again got to experience more of the wondrous challenges that can come with travelling. Booking ferry tickets from a port 25 mins south of where we were (for a more direct route), we were told to be waiting for shuttle bus to get us to the destination at 2pm the next day (just an hour before the ferry was due to depart). Arriving well ahead of schedule panic started to arise when there was no shuttle to be seen anywhere. Traipsing back to the ferry terminal we were informed that the road was closed and there was no way to get there. Offering us no alternative, and working to the ultimate in laid back Spanish time, it was only when we pushed that we found out we could change our ticket to depart from the port we were at.
Establishing all of this across language barriers and then dealing with extensive delays, and of course more of the chaotic Spanish lines, left me feeling more than frazzled. But of course when travelling it’s hitting the lows that make the highs taste even better. Whilst sitting in the terminal feeling quite deflated Mike and I noticed the distinct kiwi art of Bill Hammond’s bird man on the t shirt of a fellow traveller, I noticed his black and silver passport and when he smiled I said ‘hello’, his grin instantly widening as he said ‘now that accent sounds familiar’. Turns out we had met Sandy McCutcheon, a fascinating kiwi novelist and former broadcaster, now living in the Fez Medina in Morocco. Running an English blog site of news and events in Fez with his writer/photographer/journalist wife, we had a great conversation, took the opportunity to pick his brain, and finished with the promise of a catch up and a coffee as soon as we arrived in Fez, and a lingering feeling of what a small and crazy world this place really is.
And with that it was finally time to board the ferry and set sail for Morocco.