Two days in a row with our day’s activity planned. We are shooting for the record.
Our planned destination, Ostrog Monastery which is vertically recessed into the rock of the Ostrog Cliffs 900 meters above the Zeta valley.
According to the lonely planet website Ostrog Monastery is one of the three most visited Christian destinations in the world with more than a million people a year coursing through its gates.
Lets hope they don’t all show up today.
Our gracious landlords offer services driving to various Montenegrin landmarks and we have booked a day with Mihaela and Igor.
Breakfast for days to come has been sorted with the bag full of oranges delivered to us last night on our return from the day hiking with Rino.
Fruit picked fresh from your front yard tastes triple sweet.
Come ten am we pile into the Skoda. Igor is driving, I am granted the bounty of the leg room of the front passenger seat, Pam and Mihaela are in the rear.
We wind our way along the edge of Kotor Bay retracing the bus ride from a few days before.
Igor speaks very little English, waving one hand expansively he tells us the names of each town we pass through. Mihaela speaks a little English, she explains that they have paid for private tuition to ensure their daughter grows up speaking fluent English and she is teaching her parents in turn.
We both compliment Mihaela on how completely fluent their daughter has been in our short conversations and are rewarded with a beaming smile.
Money well spent obviously.
Our heads are doing the swivel on a stick trick as we drive along the beautiful bayside road. We pass the two islands that lie in Kotor Bay near Perast. Yesterday Rino had told us that one of these islands is natural and the other man made (constructed in the 15th century).
Mihaela translates to Igor that I would like to stop and get some photos of this beautiful sight on our return.
Between Perast and Risan we drive over a slight rise that takes us up above the bay waters. On our bus ride to Kotor when we passed this section of road there was water arcing from the mountainside into the bay in furious frothing display that could be seen from miles away.
Today as we pass the hole in the mountain appears bone dry. Our communication gap with Mihaela and Igor is too wide to get an explanation for what happens at this intermittent site. I do some research online.
The mountainous topography of the Kotor Bay Area makes it one of the wettest places in Europe. Sopot Spring is a remarkable indicator of seasonal variability. After heavy rains up to 200 m³/s of water burst from this massive karst spring and jet into the bay below in a remarkable waterfall.
It would be a splendid sight to stand in heavy rain after a dry period and watch the surge build from nothing.
Maybe next time.
At the town Risan we turn right and make our way up the mountain sides via a smooth modern road. Several short tunnels cut through ridges. Igor hands Mihaela his sunglasses each time we enter a tunnel and regathers them as we exit.
Kotor Bay frames the sky and mountains in reflection as we twist and turn upwards.
From the mountain peak the road ahead undulates as roads tend to do. I wonder will there ever be a time again in my life when the black ribbon has me once more inured to gradient.
May I never again become so far removed from the natural world.
Outside the car the world rushing by is harsh and unforgiving. Leafless trees dream in winter’s brown stasis between outcrops of white stone. Gradients vary from steep to precipitous.
Like stubble covering an ancient giant’s wrinkly chin.
We charge on into a broad river valley that plateaus below one mountain peak to another. Igor, who has been silent for a long time suddenly chimes some communique to Mihaela who relays to us that we are coming up to Igor’s old family home.
Igor’s family no longer lives in the two story building that lies on the far edge of the loosely gathered homes of the village we drive through however his eyes turn in memory as we pass.
We drive on, Igor seems surprised that I find the stark empty vista fascinating. ‘There is nothing like this where we live’ I rely via Mihaela.
Perhaps there is something areas of Australia and Montenegro share. Places I have been at home where time’s endless flow is so palpable it is like dipping a hand in a cold stream. Montenegro has the same pressure of antiquity.
Descent from the high mountain roads to the city of Niksic is blocked by a large fall of rocks and earth from the hillsides above. Roadworks beyond a slow changing traffic light circumvent this event and we pass an expansive artificial salt lake to the outskirts of Niksic.
We turn right prior to entering the city proper.
Smog from vehicles and the ubiquitous hearth wood fires lie trapped in a thermal inversion. Smoky tendrils snake their way along the Zeta valley.
Diverting from the main road we begin winding our way up the vertiginous mountain side where the Ostrog Monastery is embedded in the cliff face above.
A couple of small villages flash by, we pass under massive pipes feeding a hydroelectric turbine from the waters above.
The road narrows and becomes strictly one lane with hairpins so tight Igor has to occasionally stop and reverse to make it round.
Cars coming from the other direction wait in tiny widened sections, side mirrors nearly touch as we pass.
My pulse rate is climbing to match our altitude as I queasily wait for a front wheel to leave the margins of the bitumen and plunge us all into the abyss.
Igor has driven this narrow road many times and seems unfazed. Perhaps he can buff out the fingerprints that by now are surely embedded in the side door grips of his car upholstery.
This blog entry stands as proof that we eventually turn into the car park unscathed.
Ostrog Monastery lies beyond the cross bearing arches of its gates.
As we pass under the arches to our right the mountain ridge of the far side of the valley lifts its head beyond the smog ribbon. To our left white cliffs meet the blue sky we are so fortunate to once again be standing under.
A paved vine curls its way through the forecourt of the monastery area. The building to the left has single accommodation dwellings and a busy gift shop.
Tiled mosaics adorn arches on its third story.
We make our way to the viewing area for a sight of the white walled church that this trip has been all about.
Once again thoughts of the relentless purpose, will and indomitable strength required to fashion such a building in such a place without the aid of modern machinery whirl through my mind.
This church is the resting place of and is dedicated to St Basil of Ostrog. Occupying a large flat cave in the cliff face and seemingly fused with the surrounding rocks the awe inspiring building was completed in 1665 and has attracted religious pilgrims from all over the world.
A meeting place of confessions, Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim. Miracles and good fortune are attributed to praying beside St Basil’s tomb.
Pam and I make our way up the single file each way path to the church. A sign outside requests visitors not to photograph the church interior so the ornate mosaics lining the walls and stairs as we make our way through the low narrow labyrinth within remain in our mind’s eye.
Most doors are so low I have to stoop and narrower than my shoulders.
A building wrought by massively strong willed tiny men?
Prior to entering Montenegro we had read that the country has the tallest average male height of any European country.
Obviously there has been a growth spurt in the last few centuries.
Back under the bright blue sky we saunter into the gift shop. We buy postcards we are yet to send.
The biro is such ancient tech.
Mihaela and Igor have been waiting patiently for us, ‘we will take you to the church down the road’ they tell us when we return.
Crkva Sv Trojice or the Church of the Holy Trinity is part of the lower monastery that lies two kilometers down the winding road from the upper monastery complex.
As we pace the white gravel road lined by evergreen pines towards the church we are befriended by a timid dog.
By the time we make the church door he and Pam are best mates.
Inside the chapel is small. Amazing murals coat every surface entirely. I have not seen any signs forbidding photography and I think we are completely alone.
Out comes the iphone.
As we turn to exit a girl in her twenties greets us, we were not alone after all. She is dressed in colourful traditional costume that has completely camouflaged her quiet presence against the walls.
I ask her if it is OK that we took photos and she laughs that it is fine. She speaks good English. She tells us that she is Montenegrin however she has been living in the USA for a while and has come home to visit her family.
She misses Montenegro.
She asks us about our travels, we give her a brief run through of our exploits and tell her ‘we love your homeland’.
Outside Pam’s new canine friend follows us longingly back to the car.
I try to communicate to Mihaela and Igor that if it would be ok with them I would like to stop somewhere to get some shots of the fierce wildness of the terrain we have driven through.
I am having trouble making what I am looking for clear, indeed it is not really clear to me exactly what I am looking for.
Igor obligingly stops beyond the roadworks we had passed earlier. ‘Beautiful lake’?
We stop beside the road and I ask if Mihaela and Igor would mind me taking a photo of them and posting it online, they gigglingly accept.
The lake beyond them is scenic enough however I am looking for a visual expression of the quiescent fury of this land.
Igor stops again, this time in the middle of the road, where he thinks he sees what I am looking for. I politely take a few random shots out the window and urge him to drive on.
Better we make it home hale and hearty than our tombstones carry the elusive perfect shot I crave.
Unsurprisingly Pam is in complete harmony with my thoughts, ‘no more photos’ she pipes up from the back.
Igor is determined now. We stop again, this time beside a road cutting. I take photos however I am definitely not communicating what I am looking. The combination of Igor’s enthusiasm and my ineptitude is placing us all in peril.
Despite Pam’s pleas for no more photos Igor stops once more as we crest the last hilltop and begin our winding descent back to Risan and Kotor Bay.
The grandeur of this stop is beyond denial. I do my best to force it through the iphone’s lens.
One last stop as we near the two islands beyond Perast. Old Sol puts paid to my morning best laid photographic plans as we are now facing directly into the setting sun as it hovers flaming above the mountains.
Mystery’s islands remain obscured by reflection, contrast, shadow.
Pam and Mick