Black Mountain #1

The Locals: standard Montenegrin street attire

Cattaro is a tiny, greatly coveted, much-fought-for town. The natural port for Montenegro but the property of Austria, it swelters, breathless, on a strip of shore, with the waters in front of it, and the the great wall of the Black Mountain rising sheer up behind.

Behind the town starts the rough zig-zag track, the celebrated ‘ladder of Catarro’ which until 1879 was the only path into Montenegro, and is the one the peasants still use. The making of the road was for a long while dreaded by the Montenegrins, who argued that a road that will serve for a cart will serve for artillery. The road that can let in artillery can let in something more subtle, irresistible and change working. The road was made, [by the Austrians] and there is now no barrier to prevent the twentieth century creeping up silently and sweeping over this old world land almost before its force is recognised. Whether the hardy mountain race which has successfully withstood the gory onslaught of the Turk for five hundred years, will come out unscathed from a bloodless encounter with Western civilisation time alone will tell.

Crnagora [in Montenegrin ‘crna’=black, ‘gora’, mountain], gaunt, grey, drear, a chaos of limestone crags piled one on the other in inextricable confusion, the bare wind-swept bones of a dead world. The first view of the land comes as a shock. The endless series of bare mountain tops, the arid wilderness of bare rock majestic in its rugged loneliness, tell with one blow the suffering of centuries. The next instant fills one with respect and admiration for the people who have preferred liberty in this wilderness to slavery in fat lands.

— Through the Lands of the Serb (1904) Mary Durham, yet another of those astonishingly intrepid English women travellers


‘Cattaro ‘is called Kotor now. The old walled city where tourists of Dalmatia still swarm is at the bottom of the picture. The ‘Ladder’ is the zig-zags going up the hill, seemingly endless when you’re walking up them on a hot day. But this is what you see from the top.


Quite something. Enough to attract 30 cruise ships a day in the high season. The passengers rush onto shore in crocs led by an umbrella lady or gent, wander through a few squares, look in the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, wonder who St Tryphon was, buy an ice cream and a souvenir and tear off again. They generally leave by 6 at night and I can’t remember if that’s by choice or required by ordinance.

This is meant to be a story of a walk and to some degree it is. Walking occurred. The intention was to do a self-guided walk from Perast (one of the villages close to Kotor on the coast of the Bay) to arrive 160kms later at Stari Bar via, among other places, Cetinje, the old capital, and Virpazar.

I had chosen ZalaZ as our support company, partly because ‘Acquainting local people is a natural consequence of any ZalaZ tour’, partly because ‘walking by rare explored trail, observing all on historical Montengrin sites’, and partly because of the direction and length of the route.

Before our arrival I had had an extensive, cheerful and confidence-inspiring correspondence with Vlatko of ZalaZ and Jadranka his do-everything sidekick. The only issue was his warning about how hot it might be. 30s. Didn’t sound too bad. We had walked in heat before.

We left Tel Aviv at some ungodly hour (2.30am on checking) and shared a jammed plane with a barely semi-godly throng of Jewish holiday-makers who until expiring with exhaustion were happy to begin the holiday on the plane. At Tivat, one of the postage stamp size bits of flat land in Montenegro, the transfer car wasn’t waiting. And that was sort of it really. After the hustle of Jerusalem, Montenegro was going to be a study in patience. Things, good things, excellent things, would happen but perhaps not as you might have arranged. And anyway it was hot, glaring white calcium rock hot. Exasperating hot.

The soccer World Cup was on, and that will become evident as the story unfolds. The finals ran through this ten days with lots of upsets, and the excitement machine that was Luka Modric and Croatia doing its business. Huge.

Why Montenegro? We had tried to get there once before and were thwarted by illness. I had looked at the vast limestone scarp along the Dalmatian Coast and thought that would be good walking, … once you got up it would be anyway. The Bay of Kotor is sometimes considered the southern-most fjord in Europe, and therefore an oddity. The fact that it’s actually a drowned river valley doesn’t make it any less impressive up close. It’s a marvel. And so Montenegro … well, why not?

Mary Durham would add, at some length, the resilience and nobility of the stoic Montenegrin people, their honour, their decency, their patience, their individuality and yet their cohesion as a nation, a nation that over 500 years remained unconquered by the Ottomans no matter how hard they tried. (See also below in Black Mountain #2.)

Old Kotor is a walled city jammed up against the base of Black Mountain and consists of a higgledy-piggledy aggregation of lanes and squares. That’s what the tourists come for.

That said, it’s quite small and it didn’t take long for us to get the hang of it. But when we arrived we simply could not find our accommodation. We had risen very early and were keen for a snooze. Eventually someone told us to go to the camera shop near the Sea Gate square and see if we could find Mr Porteli. We did, and he was charming and very relaxed, including about the absence of the promised and paid for transfer. But you must move on quickly.

Our rooms wouldn’t be ready till later and we hadn’t had breakfast. So we slumped into a couple of the very comfortable wicker chairs above and counted the number of tours going past (17 in the first hour). As I drank my third cup of very good coffee I thought hmm that must be what Kotor is, a large-ish playpen for (as it turns out predominantly English and Russian) tourists. They were out sunning themselves in what felt like 40 unmediated degrees of radiant heat. When we found the pool it was just a bit of the coastline fenced off in concrete, albeit decoratively, water in water out with the tide, but entirely swimmable. After nightfall we watched a crowd of athletic young men practising water polo there (a pic appears below) but I fancy no members of Primorac Kotor, occasional superstars of the Montenegrin version of the sport who train in an indoor pool in another part of the valley to which newer Kotor has expanded.

To pass the day we walked, we swam, we snoozed in our very comfortable quarters. In that time Brazil had beaten Mexico 2-0 and Neymar had proven himself to be one of the genuinely great divers of all time. Not just a bit of diving, but powerhouse diving, straight into the turf howling with pain, possibly without an opposition player even being on the field.

At night we had dinner in the Tryphon Square with hundreds of others. And then the orchestra played. Just how delightful is that. One night only: 10-14 year olds from a Slovenian music school. The two soloists played cello and accordian, and that alone was just about worth going to Montenegro for. Their version of ‘Hallelujah’ left not a dry eye in the house. So good. There were two momentary interruptions as Spain came back from 2 nil down against Japan. But then Spain’s extra-time winner coincided exactly, precisely, with the last note of the encore which led to an enhanced and prolonged roar. It was all glorious. Everyone and everything was forgiven.

We had set ourselves for collection at 10am at the Sea Gate — no cars in the Old City, decidedly one of its attractions — and duly Vlatko appeared. Only one or two readers of this blog will understand this, but a sort of Montenegrin Chris Dewhurst.

I can see him running up these cliffs, strong, fit, a giant with a particular sort of masculine invulnerability and a great willingness but only a modest capacity to understand the frailty of others.

His mind was elsewhere. He had just bought a new property, a small farm out of Sremski Karlovci in Serbia where, strangely enough, we had been and where his family was waiting for him.

He had all the gear for us, and all the gear wasn’t much. You’re looking at it. Three laminated army ordinance maps on a some huge scale — I think Los Angeles might have been on one of them — an envelope of accommodation vouchers, and a laminated booklet of notes. The latter unfortunately was written in Montenegrin English, something you don’t think will matter till it does. Lamination was so they could be re-usable and yes they had. Oh and a phone, yes a phone, which I just could not figure how to work. I lucked in a few times, but the antediluvian combo of buttons was beyond me.

I liked him, found him plausible and interesting, but he was thinking how long it was going to take him (ages, a complicated and tiring drive) to drive over the mountains to northern Serbia more than 700 kms away.

He left us in Perast to stay with some friends of his, the first night’s accommodation in a room so small our cases had to be left outside in the hall in a household with a three year-old and a whopping but fairly new baby with a great set of lungs. Dad had a quite high-powered government job in Podgorica; when she was working, mum was an English teacher. And, besides accommodating Vlatko’s customers, they were renovating this their holiday house. It was an experience, and that’s what you go for. ‘Acquainting’.

Perast (above) is one of the many towns besides Kotor that cling to the side of the bay. Our Lady of the Rocks in the middle of the Bay (at right) is its principle attraction although it is a most picturesque hamlet with options for very good eating. Fish, straight out of the Bay. That’s what they say anyway.

That’s Perast. To fill in our afternoon we found a place to swim round the far corner. And I have just noticed that in this photo at right you can see the important part of the next day’s route, the one that caused all the bother.

At night the whole town was watching the soccer at the Montenegrin equivalent of a pub. Round of 16. England dead lucky, 4-3 over Columbia in a penalty shootout. More diving than the Great Barrier Reef.

We were collected by a boatman first thing-ish from this very jetty in fact and taken over to the village on the other side, Donji Stoliv before climbing up to Gornji Stoliv (Lower and Upper Stoliv I’d guess), the roofs about half way up that you can just see in the pic above if you look closely. Then more or less straight up over Vrdola Pass, the saddle you can see, along the top of Vrmac Peninsula, the other side of the Bay, then down down down back to Kotor: 800m up and 800m down.

It all looks so obvious now. Prosaic even. You can see it all in the photo. If you’ve been there before even once, the shape of the walk would be embedded, the way clearly evident, maps not much more than a nuisance. All you’ve got to do is find the entrance, and the boatman did that for us. Tamo, tamo. There. There.

And while it was a bit of a push — quickly passing over the fact that, if there were any left in the scattered houses, this is the way five year-olds would daily get to school and home again — the track was unambiguous. But then we got to Gornji Stoliv.

When you do this walk here are the appropriate instructions from this point. It’ll take you less than five minutes to pass through.

At the T-intersection entrance to Gornji Stoliv you will find a sign post near a large cross. One sign pointing right (west) says to ‘Vlaka Vdrola’. Ignore this sign. After turning left, 100 metres further along the track into the village you will come to a small alcove built into a stone wall. To its right is a narrow flight of stone steps which is the entry to the next phase of your walk.

At the top of the steps the track immediately turns right. You will see waymarking of a white dot in a red ring which continues. The next 3-400 metres is an area covered in goat tracks and locating the waymarks is something of a challenge but essential. After 500 metres or so this problem is resolved. The track becomes very hard to locate but the waymarking is reasonably consistent every 50m or so and will take you to the Pass.

That’s not what happened. Our map at this point sort of dissolved into unintelligibility due to the size of the scale. The notes said ‘walk to centre of town to cistern and pump. You may pump water. You may buy some goat cheeses from the locals.’ Have I mentioned that it was really hot and that we’d been climbing for 90 minutes or so? I think I may also have passed over the fact that there was bitter dispute about the next course of action.

We went into the town, which didn’t actually exist, just a scatter of empty houses, searching for a cistern. What could a ‘cistern’ be? Down into the town via a waymarked track which might eventually have taken us back to the coast, and back again and then back right up to the church this time which you can see in the background in the photo below, quite a climb up steep stone steps, to find someone cleaning up a grave who roared at us when we tried to get directions. Water? No water here! NO water. I became confident that if we followed the sign to Vlaka Vdrola we’d get there for sure. So we did about 30 minutes in a direction 90 degrees wrong which eventually petered out into a goat track of limited interest covered in blackberry vines.

Myrna 50 metres after the problem signpost and 50 metres before the flight of steps we needed to find. Meditating on what idiots men are.

I had started hating the track notes at this stage. ‘Cistern’, pump’, ‘centre of town’. What on earth could they mean? Later Vlatko asked why I didn’t ring him up at this stage. Apart from not really being able to work the phone, I imagine he would have repeated exactly what was in the notes because when you know a track so well how do you explain to someone who is coming to it so raw. And so cross. And so keen to get the promised drink of water from the ‘cistern’.

For the umpteenth time we went back to looking at the stone alcove for a clue. We had presumed this was the cistern somehow, and I noticed there was a narrow, perhaps 30 cms wide, flight of steps going in what I knew to be the right direction but apparently into a house. We climbed them and avoided the house with a sharp right turn. The waymarks which were everywhere started reappearing in an encouragingly systematic way which was just as well because this area was thick with goat tracks, and after another 60 minutes or so we were at top of the Pass (below). Still faintly furious. We had wasted 90 minutes getting through Gornji Stoliv.

Once we climbed the steps we did pass a plastic tank in a wire cage (well out of sight from below). That would be the ‘cistern’ I assume, except that cisterns are either underground water storages or storage tanks for toilets.

I had offered to rewrite Vlatko’s publicity material in more conventional English. He was interested for a minute and then said no. He thought people found it enjoyable. So sure. Ok. Lovely. Loads of Balkan charm. In retrospect I think he might have been referring to the excellence of his style rather than the preponderance of half and three-quarter mistakes, strange vocab and weird constructions that disturbs a pedant like me.

But I was talking about his publicity material. The laminated track notes were considerably worse, in part less directions than ruminations on Montenegrin life and history and in part ‘walk the salamander back downwards’. And track notes matter. They really should be precise and clear. We never found the pump or the centre of the village, but we did find this view.

Perast is hidden to the right of the conical peak in the mid-ground. We are looking north-west out to the Aegean (eventually). Lovcen, a Montenegrin icon, is on the skyline.

And we found a sign and kept at it.

‘All trails in stone area/ solid sole boots recommended.’ There it is in black and white. I had chosen to wear my old walking shoes, very comfortable but the Vibram on the soles was worn thin and had softened in this heat and, as advertised, we were walking on tracks made of broken rock. There was nowhere much to get off and every step hurt.

Just here there was some shade. However for several hours in the middle of the day we had been walking in direct sun with massive glare coming off the grey rock, probably high 30s in the shade and, weak reed that I am, I had a touch of sunstroke. Sunstroke requires the lowering of body temperature. Pouring water over your head works quite well. Lying down in a cool room does as well. Neither were available. One reason was that I’d been counting on refills at the ‘cistern’ which hadn’t eventuated.

Low on water, we got to the end of the ridge and with all the errors we’d made we’d done about 15 or 16 kms, and we had to get down here via a process that wasn’t 100 percent clear.

This is Kotor and environs. The Old City is only the small triangle in the middle; the fancy pool patronised by the super water polo team is under the red roof.
Same thing but on the other side of the Bay.

We had to find the ‘salamander’ amid instructions about a grassy field and restored historic building that could have meant anything. The ‘salamander’ turned out to be one of those endless zig-zags with stone edgings and big drops (no possibility of hoon tracking) that we discovered Montenegro specialised in.

It was SO far down. When we did bottom out it was still a few kms through the suburbs, and shops that sold drinks were nowhere to be found. I had put my head under a garden tap to my great relief. But plenty of time was left for constructing my side of the next conversation with my friends at Zalaz. Even before we got onto the ‘salamander’, I had advanced the idea that I wasn’t going to do any more of this, and Myrna replied, yes, we might be intrepid but we’re not stupid.

I did feel slightly stupid. This was really a domestic walk, hardly out of sight of Kotor, up across down, what could go wrong especially compared to where we were off to next. But far more than stupid I was feeling aggrieved, if that’s a summative adjective for hot, tired and cross.

So, possibly looking like sweaty versions of death, we found Jadranka in her shop. Three things to tell her: 1) it’s too hot for us (our fault), 2) the materials are hopeless (Vlatko’s fault), 3) we’re quitting. Those three matters communicated, we (okay, I) limped off to the accommodation that had been arranged for us where we were welcomed by two stern man looking just a fraction like Serbian mafiosi saying, ‘You pay now. This company never pay.’ We got him to ring Jadranka who persuaded him otherwise and we collapsed onto the broken bed with the air con on high, and that night ate brilliantly almost by ourselves just outside the city walls at Bastion No.1.

It had been a big day.

Could be me pointing to my injured pride, but it is actually the patron saint of walkers St Jacques with coquilles and bubo, looking suitably surprised although I think he would have known. This statue is within whispering distance of the highly visible skull and bones advertised as being those of St Tryphon and a host of other religious art treasures.

I’d like to have a pic of Jadranka to insert here, a tall athletic type who ran a gift shop rather up the back of town as well as someone who tidied up after Vlatko. I’d like to insert a picture in simple gratitude. [I did! There she is at right.] There was the Montenegrin strongperson, but there was also the Montenegrin gracious host. She was both.

We came good after a sleep and a leisurely breakfast and formulated a plan. We would go back to Mr Porteli to see if he had another couple of nights available in one of his most satisfactory units in Kotor. Zalaz still had our money, so we would go back to Jadranka and see what we could negotiate. We agreed that after a couple more nights in Kotor she would arrange a driver to take us to Cetinje and to Virpazar where we would stay in rooms we’d booked and paid for, and then go on to the capital Podgorica from where we’d leave. And that’s what happened.

Kotor had at least a day’s worth of interest. We wandered to and fro, thoroughly investigating St Tryphon’s and the many and varied other churches in the Old Town, along with water polo practice at the town pool.

Can you follow the wall up this cliff? It is continuous even when the substrate is almost vertical. Imagine building it. Nah. Can’t. Imagine it being useful? Nah? Me neither. But at its apex is a fort, and if you stay at Kotor for more than half an hour and are in reasonable condition you get yourself on The Ladder and see if you can get as far as The Fort.

As it happens that was the next part of our walk and Myrna thought it would be a good idea. Did I? I am not at liberty to comment. Commercial-in-confidence.

It was furiously hot again. But we got going, perhaps in an effort to recover our dignity, and just as well because otherwise we would have missed this, an American from New York with, what, gosh, a seven-pack I would think. His equally muscular girlfriend could only do upside down. We just stood there. Applauding of course.

The Fort, I said. That’ll do. Hmm just a bit further, she said. We are less than a third of the way up The Ladder. So of course it was just a bit further. A bit further which began by having to find and climb through this window. Montenegro. Different to, say, Japan.

And then we went a bit further again. ‘How about we just go to …’, that type of thing. Before climbing again, this entailed descending through the ruins of an old town — goats and an old and highly picturesque church. How Montenegrin. Unmissable really.

By dint of a light breeze it was getting slightly cooler as we climbed but not much. A good deal of the vegetation on this track was herbs, fragrant with the sun beating down on them. Rosemary, sage and thyme were easily recognisable. Where they came from and how they survived are mysteries.

Our eventual destination is the peak here.

Just a bit further, just a bit further. To that hill. Round that corner. Another 15 minutes. There’s a mast up there. Three more zig-zags. It’s flattened out here … and we surprised ourselves.

Just in time to see one of fancier cruise ships evacuate a long stream of brown effluent into the Bay. The one at right actually.

I guess that’s what they do. But we can’t end on that note.

On the way up we had enjoyed large wonderfully sustaining glasses of pomegranate juice at this hillside establishment.

On the way down we did even better: bread, tomatoes, speck, cheese, pomegranate juice — and beer. Everything they had to offer really. Most gratifying.

This was most of the next day’s walk as per ZalaZ. As it happened we couldn’t have done the next day’s walk because there was a competitive car rally ripping up the tracks in the Lovcen National Park and it was closed — the manly side of Montenegro.

That night we had a pizza watching Belgium defeat Brazil 2-1. Brazil had four gettable chances in the last three minutes, but heck, you just never know how things are going to pan out do you.

There’s much more of interest about Montenegro to be found right here. And what an interesting place it is.

7 thoughts on “Black Mountain #1

  1. Oh, how often I walked up those zig zags from Kotor to the fort and the one behind it.
    It was one of my exercises while living in Kotor for three months, luckily in winter when there were hardly any cruise ships or tourists.
    I found a local hiking group (Vjeverica) and joined them on some weekends. That was a great way to make friends and to discover places that I never would have discovered myself.

  2. I really admire your stamina and fortitude. I could never have done that walk in such heat. However, your experience with maps is universal; I’ve never found a totally accurate one. Track notes also often leave a lot to be desired. I remember using up a couple of hours trying to find our way through a village in France. We eventually found our way but the track notes bore no relation to reality even with the help of an Englishwoman who ran a restaurant in the village.

  3. Oh wow, David and Myrna. I am totally gobsmacked. You have to be the mist intrepid travellers. I have nothing but deep respect. Thanks for the vicarious travel. Loved every minute including the frustrations and overcoming them. If you could do that and stay together Corona must look like a toggle. And the photos… wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Myrna’s face in the final photo tells all; flushed with a combo of heat and health. The virus won’t be welcome there.

  5. Fabulous David! You two redefine intrepid travel. We did a day tour from Dubrovnik down to Montenegro in a mini bus so no time for significant walks but I did make it up to the fort behind Kotor. We also had a Montenegro whilst in Montenegro!

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