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OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 21 - 26

OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 21 - 26

DAY 21 – Kotor – Lovćen – Cetinje – Budvar – Kotor 75 Miles

The Lovćen National Park sits at about 5000 feet above sea level and is the site of the world’s highest mausoleum. World’s Highest Mausoleum? We couldn’t resist. What a day out this promised to be. The excitement. What could possibly go wrong?

Rule 1 of long distance motorcycling, when you have limited clothing and are living out of a bag in very uncertain and inconsistent facilities, is don’t get wet – don’t get your clothes wet, don’t get the gear wet and, above all, do not get your boots and feet wet. You know where this going already. No big set up and pay off on today’s experiences. We got colossally, comprehensively, utterly drenched – so much so that the water was running out of our boots in torrents and even my eyes were watering because we’d taken on so much water.

All started out peacefully enough – the map showed us the route which took us up The Serpent – a series of 17 hairpin bends that rise above Kotor and lift you around 3000 feet over the course of 2km as the crow flies (I want to talk about that) but road distance of around 18km. Each hairpin as tight as the last and carrying you ever higher with degrees of exposure that weren’t always comfortable, let’s leave it there.

This is made worse by local drivers, with intimate knowledge of the road, take no prisoners: a battered VW Passat Estate passed me at a fair lick approaching a slower car just about to enter a hairpin - overtook on the hairpin going up, whilst holding a phone in one hand and a coffee in the other steering with his knees – I kid you not.

Still, the views were to die for and, if you weren’t careful, that was an extremely likely outcome if you paid too much attention to them.

As we climbed, the clouds began to descend and shroud the top of the peak we were headed for.  By now we had passed the 3,500ft mark and entered the National Park of Lovćen.  The cheerful Ranger relieved us of the €6.00 Entry fee and we began to climb again. Passing 4,000 feet all was well and the clouds we had been concerned about seemed to have lifted and gone to bother someone else so we felt good.  We were passed by an Italian biker going down the other way who seemed in something of a hurry – no wave from him. We rounded a bend at 5,000 feet heading for the top at around 5,750 feet when we felt a spot of sleet. Within 100m this had turned to light hail which precisely 1 metre later had turned to torrential hail. Big hail. Not the little piddly things you get at sea level – these were malevolent buggers the size of a decent pea pretending to be a watermelon. So thick they covered the road completely within less than 10 seconds rendering what had been smooth, dry tarmac into totally haily marble covered tarmac that began to slide down the road in lava like white waves.

At this point there was no way our bikes could have any traction at all and we found ourselves stationary, facing upwards on an ice strewn road in zero visibility and soaked to the skin in less than 1 minute. All we could do was put both feet down and paddle ourselves round so we pointed down the hill and let momentum take its course. Both feet on the marbles, first gear, clutch out and hope for the best – ride, rest, go again, stay upright.  It was the last bit we were struggling with but after around a mile or so of this we descended out of the hail and the roads were miraculously dry again. Unlike us, our gear, clothes, feet, boots and socks – sodden. No wonder the Italian had been in a hurry – he could have warned us. And, what’s more, we never got to see the World’s Highest Mausoleum.

Returning down past the cheery ranger, we headed towards sea level and the relative safety of normal rain which enveloped us as we descended into the town of Cetinje which was being given a make over so every single road had been dug up and left as gravelly potholes which, in the rain, had filled to the extent you couldn’t see how deep they were.  We found that out by plunging into them and wading our way across which our boots and feet loved. The Nav showed us a detour along some tarmac – took it, followed it round one bend, two bends, three and directly into someone’s front yard. Dead end with a puzzled looking Montenegrin not doing much grinning peering at us from the other side of his front door wondering why there were two steaming OAPs on large motorbikes dripping all over his paving stones. We told him we were Italian and made our getaway back to the swimming pool sized potholes.

The team at the hotel were really delighted to see us return. We could tell that by the way they fetched mops and buckets and followed us, swabbing, as we made our way to our room. Stripped off and improvised a drying rack by hanging everything on the air conditioning grid in the ceiling, turning it onto 24C and going for an early supper.

DAY 22 – Kotor – Perast – Kotor 10 Miles

Went to Perast. It rained. So, we had lunch and waited for it to stop. Hah.

DAY 23 – Kotor – Ulcinj 59 Miles

Montenegro is a beautiful country of mountains, valleys and olives (and massive hail stones) – which is a description that in no way does justice, but we don’t want to wax too lyrical in case the secret gets out.

The northern part of Montenegro is not where the majority of the country’s olive trees are but, as were headed south, we’d been looking for olive producers we could go and speak to and, finding the website of The Olive Oil Association of Montenegro,  made contact with a couple who we knew we’d be passing by. Senad Arabelovic and Fatmir Sadiku.  (Standing: Senad 6 from Left, Fatmir 3 from Left)

Turned out to be two of the most wonderfully hospitable, kind and gentle folk you could ever wish to meet and spend time with. We’d emailed them both and had some basic directions to find them. Arriving in Utjehe we went first to the Istanbul Grill on the otherwise deserted sea front and got glared at by a tall muscular gent who we assumed was the owner. Turned out he was. And he was Turkish. From Istanbul. Told him the bikes had been to Istanbul. He turned into a sweetie and showed us where we could find Senad, our first stop.

Senad has the most pale and twinkly blue eyes it’s possible to have in just one head. Greeting us he told us he didn’t speak much English but, he would try to help us. After some small talk and offers of coffee he insisted on producing a bottle of Raki and communication improved no end. We had a tiny glass and, my goodness, our ability to communicate also improved and, if so minded, I’m quite sure we could have sat there all day with ever improving communications. We chatted to him and his wife, Minka, and heard how the trees we were surrounded by had been handed down for at least 7 generations they knew about and a further 5 they didn’t but knew the trees had been in the same family for at least 12 generations even though they thought they were much older even than that.

The variety here is Zutica (Ju-Tit-Za) which is related to some of the varieties in Istria, Croatia but which yields a completely different style of oil.  We asked them both about climate change and how they see the future and you can read their responses elsewhere. In keeping and in common with almost every response so far, the changes are felt and seen – year on year, the seasons are varied and the future uncertain. We left them, waving after us, arm in arm and standing under the majestic olive tree, well over 1000 years old, that we had spent the last couple of hours in the shade of in the company of these two gentle souls – we want to go back for the harvest and, I have a feeling we’d be made very welcome.

We had booked a small stone hotel right in the midst of olive groves near the coast just outside the city of Ulcinj so that we could meet Fatmir Sadiku – a man famous in the Montenegrin Olive world for presenting olive oil made from 2000 year old trees to the then Prince Charles and Queen Consort, Camilla, in 2016 whereupon, Camilla declared it her favourite olive oil ever.

Ever keen to make sure we don’t get too lost, I’d done a google street view to see where the hotel was, precisely. I found it. The Street View Image dated back to 2016. It showed not a small stone hotel but an olive grove full of ancient trees with construction workers beginning to dig them up. I thought it must be mistaken as no one would cut down ancient trees to put up a hotel.

Arriving at the small stone hotel located exactly on the site of the old trees we were greeted by a charming lady and we explained we were hoping to meet with Fatmir and could she tell us if she knew him, “Of course. He is my cousin. I will ring him for you.” Well, that’s a stroke of luck, we thought and an arrangement to meet Fatmir in exactly one hour was made.

Freshened up, we headed off to meet Fatmir – 400m down the road, as it turned out. From the moment we met, it was clear that his affinity with the trees and the olives was deeply ingrained and ancestral. He is the steward of almost 85,000 trees locally and his family before him have been producing oil for centuries and possibly all the way back to Roman times.  Some of the trees under his care were dated to 1762 years old in 2016 so are now 1771 and still going strong. They prune them very differently to the way more intensive and modern trees are shaped. They are left much more to fill out between the trunks and are allowed to grow taller so that they almost form a canopy.

Fatmir points to two groups of trunks near each other – one has four trunks spaced a little way apart from each other as if forming the corners of a square, the other two trunks a little further apart.

“The way to calculate if the trunks belong to the same tree is simple,” he says, “If a donkey with two sacks of olives can pass between the trunks – it is two trees. If the donkey cannot pass – it is one tree.”

That was a new one on me but seems to make sense.  We walk past a spring that has had a simple wall and trough constructed around it. This he explained, never used to dry up. Now it was dry in December in both of the last two years. This he said is a sure sign of the change in water tables and overall climate.

We asked him the questions, of course, and these are recorded elsewhere. However, his outlook was one of overall positivity in that he feels the older trees understand what is happening to them and, with their age and longevity on their side, will adapt to the new conditions and develop coping mechanisms of their own. We talk about the language of trees and how they are able to communicate with each other through a vast root system and symbiotic fungi – the name of which we can’t recall, but looking it up later, it’s ‘mycorrhizae’. By the by, if you are interested to find out more – there is a TED Talk here: How Trees Talk To Each Other. It’s worth the watch.

We go on to mention the hotel we are in. “I wish you weren’t staying there.” He tells us. “He used to be a friend – we served in the Army together but now he has done that to the trees for easy money from a hotel, I can’t talk to him.”

“What happened to the trees? Where did they go?” We asked.
“Good question – ask him.”

Some years ago, we were instrumental in sourcing some ancient trees for the Med Biome of the Eden Project. They enlisted us to help ensure that the trees were genuinely sourced with provenance and only being uprooted for genuine and legitimate reasons (also because they wanted us to pay for them – that’s another story). So many old olive trees are uprooted and sold to Garden Centres or wealthy individuals for vanity or a design motive but, in all honesty, a tree that has grown from a twig, to a sapling, to a tree that has been nurtured and tended to for countless generations deserves to be in the place where it grew, amongst its peers and neighbours in the environment it knows.

We left Fatmir who gave us the most perfectly crafted Olive Wood Box containing a bottle of his olive oil. This we need to care for and make sure it makes it back with us – it is a very precious gift from a very olivey individual. Something to be treasured.

Back at the hotel, we ask the charming lady about what had happened to the olive trees. She told us that the hotel used to be a mill and there had been no olive trees on the site where the hotel now stood. Of course. Fatmir must have been mistaken. So must Google.

DAY 24 - 26 – Ulcinj – Berat – Himare – Butrint (Albania) 284 Miles

And with that, Montenegro was almost behind us. With some trepidation we approached he border into Albania and, as we approached the barrier saw a group of 10-12 motorbikes – all modern and ridden by some very large looking chaps – all from Slovenia. The largest of the large had a head like a shiny boiled egg and his helmet was perched on top of it like a half-off egg cosy. He was not what one might call a smiley person. Looking both of us up and down on our rather weather-beaten steeds and us looking even more weather-beaten he slowly, but with great purpose, stepped towards me, held out a fist that you could have hidden a joint or two of ham in, and fist bumped me ever so, ever so gently. Smiled (which made the tea cosy ride up a bit with the muscles exerted to make the smile), nodded and with a, “Round Up The Wagons” gesture, commanded his posse to fire up and move out.

Watching them stream off we rather wished we had shinier and more modern steeds but then I think, perhaps, that fist bump might not have been so gentle.

The border itself could not have been more straightforward – glance at the passport and words I never thought I’d hear came from the Border Guard, “Welcome to Albania”. We were in.

If Montenegro required our hazard awareness sensors to be set to Maximum: Everything Everywhere All At Once Aiming For You, in Albania you simply need to add: And Is Trying To Kill You. The countryside is devastatingly beautiful but we had made the mistake of entering Albania on a Sunday.

We had thought it might be a little quieter on the roads but no. Sunday is the day for taking the cars for a spin and showing off your wheels – at speed. Lost count of blacked out Mercedes, Audis, Range Rovers, G Wagons, Porsches in minutes of making it onto the highway. You can kind of spot them in your mirror – a little black spec, glance to the front, glance to the mirror and little black spec has turned into a mighty close up view of a radiator grill which is upon you, past you and leaving you in it’s wake as it thunders into the distance – no such thing as a standard engine it seems – it’s got to be big, loud and muscular.  Albanians, it seems, really love their vehicles almost as much as they love driving them at absolute maximum speed in every circumstance and at all times. We came to the conclusion that Albanians are, in actual fact, excellent drivers – they have to be in order to survive – you need the reactions of a cobra, alertness of a gazelle and the emotions of a steely eyed missile man. Expect no quarter. Give no quarter. Hesitate. You die. Aim for the piece of tarmac someone else is on and do not, under any circumstances whatsoever, stop. Simple when you understand the rules.

Our first stop in Berat was an unexpected pleasure and we could have easily stayed longer but a schedule is a schedule and we need to make passage south. Met a lovely lady, (we’ll call her Pippa but her real name was Jane) from London, who was looking at Byzantine Churches across the Balkans who, whilst chatting with us and waiting for the taxi to come and collect her said, “It’s such a shame they’ve made such a dogs bollocks of the place.” She sent us an email later with a PS: The Byzantine Church was a gem although, sadly, ruined inside.

Dogs bollocks indeed.

We headed south and spent our last night in Albania just outside the World heritage Site of Butrint which I am so pleased we had enough time to visit. If ever you sare passing you really should spend some time there – a walled city dating back to the 5th century BC that has been updated and altered many times over the years. What was most startling was how advanced the Roman layout and facilities were in comparison with the 17th century which reminded me of Pippa’s choice of phrase.  Very apt description for 17th Century Butrint.

Everyone here has olive trees in the family so we engaged with a few folk in the hotel over supper – firstly, Jovi – crew cut, closely cropped hair with eyes of flint who insisted, as he deposited our meal that we, “Enjoy.” Whilst fixing you with a flinty eye or two that sort of belied the enjoy part of the instruction. After a while he softened a bit and, sitting down said,

“Never mind weather. What star sign are you?”

Now that did indeed take me by surprise – Flint Eyed Jovi? The Balkan Astrologer with a shaven head you could scrub the beards off mussels with?

“Aries.” I answered.

“And you?” This to Annie.

“Pisces.” She offered. To which the flinty eyes opened wide and a frown appeared.

“No. No. No. Is not possible. You Ram. You Fish. He Fire. You Water. Make Steam. Put out fire. Fish not cook. Not right.”

“Steam? Well yes, but I think Annie is OK with my overall performance...” I tailed off. Not that sort of steam apparently.

“What is rising sign – you know time of birth?

As strange as this may seem, my mother was the most wonderfully curious lady with an appetite for a really broad church of knowledge that encompassed most of the known religions, the occult, spirituality, crystal healing, palmistry, tea leaves and, of course, astrology. When the rest of my classmates were reading the Beano I was brought up on a publication called Man, Myth and Magic. I was taught to read horoscopes from an early age and, yes. I do know my time of birth. Even more, I know my Sidereal Time, Rising Sign and Moon Sign as well as which houses my other planets are in and I know if my aspects are Trine, Sextile, Semisextile, Semisquare or Sesquiquadrate.

Which all made for an interesting conversation but I have to say we didn’t get much in the way of his climate perspective. Instead, he sashayed off with a slightly different step to the one he had originally employed huffing a bit about Fire and Water not being right.

Next up was Alexander who was a lot more Genghis Khan about the whole thing.

“When planet has 1 Billion people. Planet and species will survive. Have 7 Billion too many. Need to go.”

“Where to?” We gently enquired.

“Underground. Dead.”

This seemed particularly harsh. He went on to explain – his view is that the planet simply has too many people on it and if we there were far fewer of us then the balance between the human species and the rest of nature would be better served.

Travel is such a mind expanding experience and we thoroughly loved Albania and everyone we met.  The landscape is every bit as wonderful as we had read. You should go. Hire a driver. You won’t regret it.



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