January 14, 2020

Let’s Twist Again: Montenegro’s tight and tantalising Serpentine Road.

Roderick Eime

You’ve all seen those ridiculous hairpin roads in Europe like the famous road from La Turbie to Monaco where Princess Grace drove her Rover P6 over the edge into oblivion.

These tortuous thoroughfares, so beloved by daring Mini Cooper drivers and mad motorcyclists are all over the mountainous midriff of Europe right down to the Mediterranean naval. But one such road, once hidden behind the communist curtain of the former Yugoslavia, is reemerging as a riding ritual.

The Cetinje-Kotor Road or just R-1 (Regional Road 1) is a 38km length of road between the town of Cetinje and the historic port of Kotor. The most challenging part of the road is the short 8.3km stretch with 16 hairpins dubbed Kotor Serpentine, while the whole length of the road itself has almost 30.

[Google map https://goo.gl/maps/4D6rSNA22MTD5RSx6]

The road was built in the late 19th century when Montenegro was just a fledgeling nation and motor vehicles were the stuff of fantasy. The country was later subsumed into Yugoslavia in the early 20th century and is tucked into a cosy little geographic alcove surrounded by Albania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

When the Serbs and Montenegrins stopped shooting at everyone in 1995, the region slowly began attracting tourists. Montenegro gave Serbia the cold shoulder in 2006 and went their own way, signalling an influx of foreign investment from mainly Russia and Saudi Arabia. The sheikh loves to tie up his squillion dollar superyacht in the nearby harbour while his many wives spend small fortunes at the designer shopping strip he built adjoining his five-star hotel.

When I visited last year on the ebb of the peak tourist season, cruise ships were still disgorged their sandalled hordes on the dock at Kotor to wander and rubberneck through the old town, a streetscape that would befit any episode of Game of Thrones. But then, Dubrovnik (aka Kings Landing) is just around the corner.

This pair of Spanish Triumph Tiger riders are ready for action (RE)

Our little gang of novice yachties commandeered a minivan (and driver) and took it to the peak of the highest mountain, Lovcen, where the Mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegos, the great saviour of the Montenegrins rests in peace. It’s a magnificent drive and it broke my heart that I wasn’t able to make the ascent on a Moto Guzzi. Probably a good idea though, as I may well have broken several of something else.

The ride is definitely not for the faint-hearted and it’s curtailed numerous overambitious egos over the years. Fortunately, the road has been widened in many places, from four metres to six, but that is of little consequence when you come face-to-face with a 50-seat tour bus. Bewildered tourists in tiny hire cars and clearly out of their motoring depth are also frequently encountered. Such standoffs inevitably require one party to capitulate and reverse. Downhill traffic claims the right of way, but often the bigger you are, the more ‘way’ you get.

For a crazy video, see Kotor Serpentine - R1 road (Cetinje-Kotor)

Considering the width of the road, the very short straight sections, the often-absent safety barriers and the type of traffic you are likely to encounter, it must be stated that caution is paramount. A misjudge or snap avoidance could see you over the edge and down a very long way (think: opening scene from Italian Job) leaving your colleagues with lots of unwelcome paperwork.

There are several viewpoints to stop for obligatory photos and it was here that we met many of the motorcyclists. Germans, Spanish and Austrians seemed to dominate our survey, riding everything from the predictable BMW GS’s, Ducati Multistradas, Triumph Tigers and even some Japanese machines such as Yamaha Tenere and Suzuki V-Stroms, all of which seemed perfectly capable.

View from Restaurant “Nevjesta Jadrana” (RE)

As for dossing down en route, there is not much in the way of Hiltons or Marriotts, so “when in Rome” seek out a homestay or village inn where you can enjoy some local hospitality and home cooking. The prosciutto is to die for, even if the wine takes a bit of getting used to. Several restaurants are strategically placed along the route for great views and tucker - or go all the way to Pete Petrovic’s for the lookout restaurant.

Avoid the summer (June through August) peak season, the traffic is crazy and it’s very hot.

January 12, 2020

Slovenia: Walking the way to go

Predjama Castle, the largest cave castle in the world

“And where exactly is Slovenia?” my 60-something friend asked when I suggested she join me on a hike through this small central European nation.

While the experience-hungry hordes have been flocking to Croatia, its little northern neighbour is still largely untouched by tourists, although the call of its countryside is growing ever louder.

 Europe’s Highway A1

And the walk?

“What better way to see a country,” I say to my friend, before whispering, “It’s about 100km.”

Fully organised by the UK tour company On Foot Holidays, all we have to do is pull on sturdy walking boots, shrug on a backpack, grip a pair of walking poles and we’re off.

Officially the walk is from the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, to Trieste in Italy, although local driver Gregor drops us off at our starting point in Landol, about 60km down the highway.

Armed with lots of innocent enthusiasm, comprehensive maps and blow-by-blow instructions as well as On Foot’s valuable “Blue Book” guide to everything, we set out into the wilds of Slovenia.

The first day is described as a 3½ hour easy to medium walk, although we somehow manage to turn 15km into five hours.

First stop is the magnificent Predjama Castle, the largest cave castle in the world that looks like to has dropped straight from a Harry Potter films. As it turns out, it was used in one film, the 1986 movie, Armour of God, by starring Jackie Chan
From there, it’s on through woods and meadows ablaze with wildflowers, a stop for lunch under an ancient elm in Strane, and on to the first night’s stop at a mountain-backed tourist farm in Hudivec.

And what a joy it is to see it come into view. I’d survived day one.

Hosts Emilijan and Katya introduce us to the local soup, jota, a delicious mix of sauerkraut, garlic, beans, garlic and ham, followed by the biggest slab of meat I’ve ever seen served with vegetables, and then cream cake.

Next morning our hosts hand us a picnic lunch before we depart for a 16km trek across the lower slopes of Mt Nanos to Vipava.

Even though we decided against taking the high route, it proved to be a strenuous walk through woodland and forest, across scree, and down rocky trails, all the while delivering spectacular views across the valley under the shadow of Nanos.

The last few kilometres, all downhill, are the hardest so it is sheer bliss to cross a pretty little bridge and enter the clean and postcard-perfect town of Vipava.

Meadows of wildflowers for the walker

Following the instructions provided, we soon arrive at the arched entry to a courtyard and the day’s reward.

Host Nevenka makes us welcome with a drop of her pear firewater and then, as we sit in her shady courtyard under a big old tree dripping with figs, her son delivers a bottle of riesling from his boutique Wipach winery. The region’s grapes and sweet water make it an excellent drop.

Next morning, breakfast is huge and the table open to pack lunch.

Before setting out on another 16km walk, mostly uphill to Stanjel, we wander around Vipava, which has 25 bridges, flowers blooming from every balcony and path, and streets so clean they appear to have been mopped that morning.

The route is meadows and woodland dotted with villages.

Stanjel, once called St Angel, is a walled hilltop village with quaint narrow streets. Host Marija directs us to the nearby Ferrari Garden, a peaceful place of terraced lawns, a pond, and panoramic views of forest-coated hillsides, mountains and vineyards.

Dinner is in Goce, a tiny village on the next hill where the Mesesnel family delivers a full degustation experience with wines from their own cellar.  Despite being off the beaten track, it’s a winner. So far, visitors from 140 countries have been wined and dined in style.

Fortunately, the next day’s walk is an easier 11km to Tomaj and with picnic lunch on board, we head out across the wooded Karst to the home of the Teran wines, and local prosciutto and pancetta.

Signpost on the trail under Mt Nanos
By now, the walking is easy – past vineyards, cherry trees loaded with fruit for snacking, and through meadows of wildflowers.  It’s a cruise into Nassa Desella, the Tomaj accommodation where, as always, the luggage is waiting.

We will spend two nights here to take time out to see the famous Lipizzaner horses at Lipica, the town which gave them their name.

And then it’s the final leg. As always there are shortening options for walkers, so with the heat bearing down as we trudge across the border into Opicina in Italy, we decide to take the recommended bus and cut the walk from 21km to 15km.

We celebrate with a spritz on the Trieste canal front and congratulate ourselves.  For two non-walkers without any training or preparation we had succeeded.

Did I say a stroll? No, it was much tougher than that but if someone who had only walked a block to the shops in the months preceding can do it, anyone can.

The Karst Culture and Landscape walk is one of 32 inn-to-inn self-guided walks offered by On Foot Holidays. This one was easy to medium but there are all ability levels available and a choice of 12 European countries.


Words and images: Dot Whittington