Montenegro itself is a small country, only slightly smaller than the US state of Connecticut, but every single bit of it that we have driven has been full of stunning natural beauty. It is also home to five national parks. Al and I wanted to see them all, but in order to keep our trip moving along within the time frame we needed, we knew we had to narrow it down to just two.
We ended up deciding on Durmitor National Park and Biogradska Gora for the hiking and rainforest exploring opportunities. Both places were completely unique, and our experiences were also heavily shaped by the locations in which we stayed, which I have named The Farm and The Mushroom.
So, here for your reading pleasure, is the tale of two parks.
The Farm and Durmitor National Park
After leaving Kotor, we drove about two hours north through the mountains to a small ski town called Virak, Žabljak. This small mountain town is right at the base of Durmitor National Park, which is also a protected national UNESCO world heritage park in Montenegro. The park itself was formed by glaciers, and also boasts the deepest gorges in Europe along the Tara canyon.
Our Airbnb near Žabljak was located on a family farm right at the foot of Durmitor mountain and was settled at the top of a low hill, overlooking acres of green pristine farmland. Al and I felt giddy when we arrived; it was exactly what we were looking for. Our Airbnb was a small one bedroom lofted home with a warm cottage feel. It even had a small wood burning fire place for us to use at night.
The bedroom was up a set of stairs in the attic and each step creaked as you walked up the old wooden planks. The feel of being here, mixed with the smell, sounds and overall serenity of being on the farm immediately transported me back to staying at my grandma’s farm in Illinois; I was hit with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. It was a comfort just knowing that feeling still existed in the world and within myself.
Right when we walked out of our front door, we were greeted with unbelievably fresh air and the most beautiful, peaceful view. We spent the first 10 minutes simply sitting in silence, breathing in the clean air. From a picnic table next to our place, we could sit with a fresh cup of coffee and watch the roosters, chickens, cows, sheep, and goats graze the land. I watched as a woman slowly walked behind her flock of sheep, as I imagine she does every day, like it was the most natural thing in the world. It was so calming and comforting to watch the world go by this way.
As we were getting settled, the host brought us freshly made cheese from the cows and asked if we would like her to bring over some fresh milk. Obviously, I said yes, never one to pass up anything that is free or fresh, and she responded by saying she would have to wait until the cows came in before making the milk.
I got way too much enjoyment out of knowing that we’d have to ‘wait until the cows come home’ and due to my reaction, I am sure she left wondering why she always got stuck greeting the weird guests.
Al and I had 3 nights at the farm (about 2.5 days), and we both agreed we could have easily stayed an entire week. Here we saw some of the most stunning landscapes of our entire trip so far.
The three main activities we did:
Walked around Crno Jezero (Black Lake)
When we arrived, the first thing we did was drive to Durmitor national park (3 Euro a person for entrance fee) and walk the 2 miles around the famous Black Lake. Black lake is actually made up of two lakes connected by a stream (Big lake and Little lake). The lake is completely surrounded by alpine forest and beautiful mountain peaks.
The lake is popular for its beauty, but it is also the center of Durmitor National Park. Nearly all of the hiking paths in Durmitor begin at Black Lake.
Rafting on the Tara River
We had been talking about doing some rafting the entire trip, so we figured there was no better place to try it than the Tara River. The Tara River Canyon is among the deepest and longest in the world (51 miles long, 4,300 feet deep) crossing both Bosnia – Herzegovina and Montenegro.
Our hosts graciously offered to set us up with our rafting trip the night before, and we decided to go for it without looking up any information on the levels of the river. This bad decision proved to be our rafting downfall. The next day, we were picked up at 9am, and drove about 40 minutes with a group of 9 to the river.
The rapids are the best in the Spring (which we would’ve known had we done any research) and in the late summer/early fall, going rafting is more like a relaxing river ride than an adventure. We slowly drifted through the canyon for about two hours, taking in the beauty of the area. There was little to no paddling involved, and at times, we went through long stretches with non stop mosquitos flying at our faces. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we were expecting it, but since we were hoping for something a little more adventurous and fast paced, it wasn’t what we were looking for.
In the end, we were disappointed for a few reasons (we didn’t have a great experience with the company itself, or the group we were lumped in) but learned an important lesson about booking things last minute with minimal research.
Afterwards, a few people in our group zip-lined the gorge and we got to walk along the beautiful Tara River Bridge, taking in the unbelievable scenery, which made it all worth it.
Hiking the Jabalan Jezero Trail
We spent our 3rd day going on a stunning hike deep in the national park. The hike we chose was the Jabalan Jezero trail, which begins at the Black Lake. We agreed it was the most beautiful, challenging hike we had gone on in the Balkans up until that point.
A few pictures to give you an idea of what it was like:
The Mushroom and Biogradska Gora
After our time in Durmitor, we headed east for two nights in Biogradska Gora, which is a national park containing one of the last remaining European rainforests. It also is full of mountains, lakes, and forests that are over 500 years old.
More importantly though, we were staying in a giant mushroom.
We booked the mushroom several months ago, and we booked it because it is a giant mushroom, and you would have to be crazy not to want to stay in a giant mushroom.
The mushroom was everything we hoped it would be and it even came with the sweetest maine coon kitty. Here are some more pictures for anyone who cares about what it looks like to live inside a giant mushroom (which is everyone. everyone cares).
Mushroom homes aside, we drove about 20 minutes to the park (also 3 euro to get in). Similar to Durmitor, all hikes sprout out of the edges of a central lake, Biogradsko Lake. Our first day, we walked around the lake and through the rainforest before returning to the ‘shroom to rest for our big hike the next day.
Al and I wanted to go on a more challenging hike here, and we paid the price for it. I won’t even bother putting the name of the hike down, because whatever we started off intending to do, it all went completely wrong and we ended up on a non-existent hiking trail.
The trail started off innocently enough, as we began by ascending up a muddy path. The path diverted onto a more steep incline through the forest, and then things started to get a bit more difficult.
For the next two hours we hiked/climbed through the forest at a 45 degree angle. I have never felt more out of shape in my entire life than I did on this part of the hike. It felt as though my heart was physically trying to beat itself out of my chest to escape the hike.
Once we got to the top of the first mountain (that should’ve been a red flag for me, that there even was a first mountain) I thought the hardest part was over. If had known in that moment what was coming ahead of me, I probably would’ve just dropped to my side and tried to barrel roll myself back down to the bottom.
At this point, Al and I could see a mountain peak above us. We wanted to get to that mountain peak to take in the best views of the park, and being the impatient, instant gratification seekers that we are, we wanted to be there as fast as possible. Instead of taking the winding road up to the top of the 2nd mountain, we decided to take the more direct path straight up the side of the mountain.
Here is a pro tip to anyone reading: If you are on a hike and you have two choices, one being a clearly marked walking trail, the other being a very poorly indented foot path surrounded by shrubbery (that may actually not be a foot path at all) and shoots straight up the side of a mountain, always choose the marked path. ALWAYS.
Sometimes it’s okay -even genius- to not take the road less travelled.
As we started going up the mountain, we had to climb at a 60 degree angle while holding on to long blades of grass for grip in order to not fall off the side of the mountain. At first, it was sort of thrilling (in that adrenaline inducing every-step-could-be-your-last way), but I quickly realized that the peak was much much higher than it originally looked.
At this point we had been climbing for about 40 minutes and were about halfway up when we realized that this mountain may not actually be a part of the hikeable portion of the park. From our viewpoint, there were no paths, no roads, nothing. To make things better, a huge storm started rolling in over the surrounding mountains. It was in this moment, stuck on the middle of a mountain hanging on by a thick clump of grass, with thunder exploding in my ears and lightening moving closer each second, that I had the clearest, truest thought of my life:
This is by far the dumbest thing you have ever done.
Al and I had to make a decision, go up or down? Do we keep climbing the mountain in hopes that there is some kind of path or trail on the other side, or do we try and slide back down, risking our lives to get back to our starting point?
As we looked down the sloping mountain, I knew nothing good could come out of us trying to retrace our steps, so we decided to move upwards. Occasionally we were greeted by the loudest rumblings of thunder and the jolting whip of a lightening crack, which would send us scurrying like rats up the mountain as quickly as possible. I tried to look back at the advancing storm as little as possible because each time I did it filled me with a very unique type of helpless fear; the kind you can only feel when being chased by a force of nature.
At one point, Al let out a high pitched scream* from above, and I was sure he was about to slip. He told me he was fine and it wasn’t until hours later, after we were safely back on the ground, that he told me he had stepped on a nest of snakes, but didn’t want to cause me to panic while we were on the mountain.
It took us about two hours to scale up the side of this mountain. Once we got to the top, it was one of the worst feelings I have ever had: there were no roads; only more mountains that we hadn’t been able to see from our previous spot.
We walked around the top of (this) mountain desperately looking as far as we could for the closest road, and finally spotted a small winding trail going down the side. I have never been so happy in my life to see a road. We decided to sit down for a minute take a few pictures and regain our strength before descending. It was probably about 5 minutes of doing this before I heard the unmistakeable sound of hooves behind me.
I turned around to see three bulls staring at us from about 200 feet away. My first thought was how the hell did these bulls get all the way up here? and then my second thought was much more practical, which was Run. RUN RIGHT NOW!
So, we did. We ran/walk/slid down the side of the mountain away from the bulls as quickly as we could. We did not look back and we did not say a word to each other this entire time; both of us separately cursing ourselves for getting each other into this situation.
30 minutes later, we hit road and reveled in the ultimate sense of relief for having survived the mountain. I had a brief urge to kiss the ground, but decided it against it. If I had made it this far, the last thing I was going to do was get some kind of infection from doing something as stupid as accidentally eating parasite infested dirt. Instead, I just mentally thanked the mountain for not eating us alive.
It took us over another hour of walking down the WELL MARKED path to finally get back to our car and get the hell out of there.
We celebrated our day of adventure by retreating to our mushroom, and enjoying cold wine and fresh vegetables.
Even with some unexpected twists, our time exploring the wilder, less travelled side of Montenegro was something that Al and I absolutely loved. For as long as we live, we will always remember our unusual, adventurous, breathtakingly beautiful days spent between the farm and the mushroom.
*Al would like me to clarify his high pitched scream was actually a low masculine shout, and that the wind likely distorted it by the time it reached my ears.