During the hiatus in travel and holidays forced upon us by the pandemic Ffestiniog Travel Director Alan Heywood decided to take a retrospective look at his many travels and has written a blog based on his 2018 research trip to Montenegro which formed the basis of our Small & Traditional escorted tour of the Mountains and Coast in Montenegro, a 13-day tour that we will be running in September 2022.
Remember the Beast from the East, that nasty spell of bitterly cold weather and snow that hit the UK in March 2018? That was a time for heading indoors and turning up the heating except that, at Ffestiniog Travel, there was work to be done if the deadline for the 2019 brochure was to be met. There were new tours to be planned, hotels to be checked and all the things that make for an enjoyable holiday to be sorted out. Eastern Europe didn't sound like a good idea under the circumstances but Eastern Europe it had to be.
So it was that, on a dull grey morning in the middle of the month, I left the relative comfort of North West Wales and set off for Luton Airport. Here I should point out that budgets for research trips have to be kept as tight as possible so Luton Airport and a Blue Air flight to Bacău, Romania, was the preferred route. Actually, to be fair, I've always found Blue Air to be OK although, by the time you have paid extra for the suitcase, extra for paying by card when there doesn't seem any other way to pay, extra for the wide seat when all the seats are the same size and extra to your credit card company because your payment has gone abroad, it's not actually much cheaper than TAROM or BA.
The plan was to meet up with my colleague Ramona and husband Dan (they live on the eastern side of Romania about an hour from Bacău), drive across to the west of the country to check hotels in Arad and Oradea in preparation for one of Ray Smith's tramway tours, then drive through Serbia to Montenegro where we were due to meet up with Sabina, owner of a local agency, who would help us with the local details, accommodation and so on.
The journey to Luton was uneventful apart from the fact that it had started snowing by the time I reached the M1. I had pre-booked the car into Airparks at Slip End just off the motorway and there is a bus from there to the airport via the Ibis Hotel where I was staying. This runs every 20 minutes. Roadworks were blocking the usual route and so I had a grand tour of Luton in the dark and I was the only passenger. See the World with Ffestiniog Travel!
It snowed all night and I had to leave the hotel before breakfast to be able to make the check-in on time. It's quite a trek from the Ibis to the terminal and the boots came in handy as, by now, the snow was several inches deep. I did wonder whether the flight would be delayed but everything was OK.
There's a two hours time difference between the UK and Romania so, after a three hour flight, it was already lunchtime by the time we touched down in a wintry looking Bacău and Ramona and Dan were there to meet me. They are used to wintry weather in Romania of course and winter tyres are compulsory from November so the drive to their village was easy. It was nice to see their children again.
It's a full day drive across Romania and so we left after an early breakfast. As is usual on these trips, Dan had the hardest job – he was the driver and the journeys were long and not always straightforward. Ramona looks after accommodation, restaurants and “cultural” sightseeing whilst I do the logistics of how long it takes to get from A to B (particularly where public transport is involved) and matters of general transport interest.
Although the weather was cold, there was only a light scattering of snow and, by lunchtime, we had crossed the Carpathians and stopped at a restaurant near Praid (Rural Romania tour) for a break. By-passing Cluj Napoca in mid-afternoon we reached Oradea, close to the Hungarian border, by early evening. Ramona had already chosen a possible hotel but it needed checking so that we could use it for Ray's tour. Not only did it have to come up to the required standard but, for that particular tour, it had to be convenient for the tram routes. Fortunately it passed on both counts. That was easier than it could have been and we had a relaxing evening meal.
Next morning there was a little research on trams to be done, specifically do they have such things as day tickets and how much do they cost. There's never time on these research trips to really get to grips with what the cities have to offer so, whilst Oradea looked a pleasant enough place, it would have to wait for another time. We now headed south towards Arad but, before reaching the city, deviated to the village of Ghioroc. This was at the outer end of a long tram route from Arad and also had a small tramway museum. I had been here before though not into the museum and felt that Ray's group would be interested. It would normally be closed in March but Ramona had arranged to meet somebody from the Arad city council who would show us around. It was very small – more a collection of old vehicles, mostly unrestored – but definitely a “must see” for Ray's tramway enthusiasts.
It was snowing as we made our way towards Arad itself. The countryside here is flat and given over to agriculture. The tramway runs alongside the road for the whole way into the city and we saw the occasional second hand West German tram making its way towards Ghioroc. I had ridden one on a previous trip and there was still a notice inside warning me that I would be fined 40 Deutschmarks if I was caught travelling without a ticket. Another told me what I could buy if I visited a certain shop in Mannheim.
There was another hotel to check in the centre of Arad but we didn't stay here as Dan was keen to be on the right road out of town ready for our journey tomorrow. Ramona earmarked a modern chain hotel right on the edge of the city which was ideal for our purpose but would have been no good for groups. It looked unfinished but that's because the architect had obviously made a feature of it looking this way. We checked in at a pile of bricks and settled in for the evening. The quality of the evening meal was excellent although we noted that, like so many well run restaurants, the portion control was spot on which meant that there wasn't enough of it.
We crossed the border into Serbia and arrived in Novi Sad on the Danube by mid-afternoon. None of us had been here before and, although it was simply an overnight stop on this trip, we found it to be a lovely old city with cathedral and hilltop fortress which we visited. As dusk fell it started snowing again but we were happy to venture out for an evening meal in a small restaurant in the old town.
It snowed heavily all night and it became clear by breakfast time that we were going nowhere until Dan had done a lot of work digging out the car. Poor Dan. Ramona and I took the opportunity to don boots and explore a bit more of the city. I felt very guilty but there was only one shovel!
By 1000 we were on our way again. We by-passed Belgrade (already been there and done that) and then took the direct road towards Montenegro. The snow was deep on either side of the road but the road itself was OK. It must have been late afternoon when we crossed the border into Montenegro and reached Bijelo Polje, just beyond. Here we met up with Sabina who was going to look after the details of the trip. She would be our guide and interpreter for most of our stay in Montenegro.
The first job today was a “business” meeting at the office where Sabina outlined what she had in mind for both our research trip and the eventual tour. Due to the depth of snow and the fact that some roads hadn't yet reopened after the winter, it wouldn't be possible to do everything but she would do her best to showcase Montenegro and especially those parts which are not usually visited by tourists from the UK. Good – that's what we wanted to hear.
A short walking tour of Bijelo Polje was followed by a trip out of town to a village where a nice lunch was served in a family home. Sabina had obviously figured out what we like on our S&T holidays.
Back into town for a short break before it was time to head out in the opposite direction following the route of the famous Belgrade to Bar railway as it heads toward the coast. Would we see any trains? Probably not as the service is infrequent but we did drive under one of the spectacular bridges for which the line is famous. After about half an hour we turned off the main road and Sabina explained that we were going to see the “cheese man” who she wanted to include in the following year's tour. Of course that tour would take place after the snow when the cheese man's farm would be rather more accessible than it was today. For our part we parked on the road, clambered over a gate which was far too well buried to open and set off through snow drifts to the farmhouse on the other side of the valley. I mistook a ditch full of snow for a flat piece of land at one point and had to be rescued by Dan. Eventually we reached the farm and were greeted by the very jovial farmer and his wife who had laid out a lovely evening meal consisting mainly of, you've guessed it, cheese. Sabina explained that, on the tour, she would also arrange for a group of musicians to be here to play folk music to add to the atmosphere.
A trip into the mountains close to the Albanian border was on today's schedule and, if successful would be part of the new tour. Of course we knew it would be successful because Sabina had planned it and knew the area like the back of her hand. All we needed was the weather and we were lucky with that too.
I confess I had never heard of the places we visited and, although I should have been prepared for the amazing scenery, having been to the other side of the same mountain range in the Valbonë Valley (Albanian Odyssey tour), I was still totally taken aback by it all. Plav Lake and the Ali Pasha Springs were wonderful as were the tiny villages we passed through and occasionally stopped at to look around. The only thing we didn't see was the Grlja waterfall as the footpath access was completely blocked with snow.
The accommodation planned for our group in the Durmitor area is both closed in the winter and totally inaccessible when the snow is down so today's research would need to be an out and back trip from Bijelo Polje. This is the highest part of Montenegro and, like yesterday, is rarely visited by people from the UK. To reach it means driving along the Tara Canyon, 51 miles and the deepest in Europe. To compare it with the Grand Canyon is a bit unfair on the Grand Canyon but it's the best that Europe can offer and pretty impressive. At one point it is spanned by the impressive Tara Bridge, 550 feet above the river, completed in 1940 and blown up in 1942 to stop the advance of the Italian army. It was rebuilt in 1946 and, not surprisingly, a small tourist complex has now built up around it. There's even that most twenty-first century addition to the tourist scene – a zip wire. No zipping in winter of course so, thankfully, I didn't need to decline an invitation.
After a short stop for coffee we pressed on and reached the small town of Zabljak (4732 feet above sea level) at lunchtime. “You must see the place where the group will have lunch”, said Sabina and took us for a short distance outside the town to see the top few inches of a gatepost sticking out of the snow. “It's closed in winter”, she added.
However all wasn't lost because the family that own the gatepost also own a property in town and had invited us to lunch there. It was excellent.
In the afternoon there was time to visit the Black Lake nearby before making out way back to Bijelo Polje in time for a nice evening meal at the hotel.
Time to move on and head down to the coast. This meant following the route of the famous Belgrade to Bar railway on its most scenic section as far as Podgorica (opened as late as 1976). Although this has been included in several previous Ffestiniog Travel tours, it was too good an opportunity to miss and so Dan took the car with the luggage whilst Ramona, Sabina and I caught the morning stopping train. It didn't disappoint with wonderful views of the valley far below from countless bridges and mountain ledges. Finally we dropped down to the valley and entered Podgorica where Dan was patiently waiting.
Although we already have a hotel here, Sabina was keen to show us a couple more and, I must admit, it's always handy to have more than one just in case we want to arrive with a group at a busy period. So we spent an hour or more looking at bedrooms and dining rooms with Ramona taking her usual photos for future reference. All the hotels were good and we particularly liked the “New Star” - that is until, when we first used it for an actual group, we found a dragon on reception who wouldn't hand out any room keys until she had scrupulously examined every passport. It just goes to show that, however carefully you do the preparation, you can't allow for the human element.
It was planned that, for the actual tour, the group would take a boat from near here to Virpazar, a delightful village at the far end of Shkodër Lake. Until 1959 when this section of the Belgrade to Bar main line was opened, the narrow gauge Antivari Railway ran over the mountain range from here to Bar and the quay for the boat is at the old transshipment point.
We went by car but had a look around the village before taking a short detour along a very minor road (the trackbed of the old line) to a small winery where, needless to say, we had a wine tasting – all except poor Dan who was driving.
Also in Virpazar we said goodbye to Sabina as the remainder of the journey is already known to Ffestiniog Travel. In truth it didn't need researching from here but the easiest route back to the UK was to continue to Bar and for me to fly from Tivat airport near Kotor. So, about half an hour later we crossed the summit of the coastal range of mountains and began our descent to the resort and port of Bar on the Adriatic Coast. Here the Princess Hotel was as welcoming as ever, the weather was suddenly mild, there was a palm tree outside my window and the sea looked perfect – well, perhaps not perfect enough for a swim.
Our last day together and, although I had previously explored this coastline on a day trip from Dubrovnik whilst leading a tour to Croatia and Bosnia, Ramona and Dan had never been. It's not exactly “Small and Traditional”, having been developed to compete with Mediterranean resorts but it does have an interesting history. So we took the coast road north towards Budva where I was shocked to see the amount of high rise holiday development since my previous visit ten years earlier. The old town was still attractive though and the planners had obviously taken care to keep this intact.
Then on to Kotor, on the beautiful Bay of Kotor, almost an inland sea. Once again the old town within its walls was unspoiled. We ate al fresco at a small restaurant in the town centre and wondered if it was still snowing back home.
Later that afternoon Dan and Ramona dropped me at the hotel near the airport. They now had a long, long drive back to their home in Eastern Romania. It's a good job that Dan enjoys driving!
As for me it would be Easyjet to Gatwick next morning, then Thameslink to Luton to pick up the car. What an anticlimax!
If you are interested in joining our Montenegro tour in September 2022, details of which will appear in our brochure and on our website in September this year, please contact us to register your interest.