Sunday, 23 July 2017

Back In Black Mountain: Part 3

Day 4 – No Mountains, but a Canyon and a Meeting


As though the weather this weekend is in two minds whether to be nice or nasty, it was stormy overnight, with strong winds and driving rain. But we woke to a promising morning, and with breakfast taken and goodbyes said, it was time to leave the Eco Katun Štavna and head for our final hike on this all-too-brief tour.

Once again, the drive we took could be considered spectacular. As we descended around 1500m on winding roads between soaring peaks, the mountains seemed almost Himalayan in stature, such was the imposing nature of the summits and steep-sided valleys.

Of course, we know that Montenegro is blessed with an almost incalculable number of mountain peaks, but it is also home to an abundance of canyons too, and our plan for today was to walk into one of them – Mrtvica Canyon. 

Narrow path near the beginning of the walk

Down at lower altitude, the weather was much warmer and lacked the mitigating fresh breeze of higher levels, and as we arrived the thermometer was hovering around the 30°C mark.

The start of the hike is not at first obvious, an apologetically small path leading off into the bushes. But as soon as we were underway the route became generally clear, and we made swift progress.

Bridge built by Duke Danilo Petrovic Njegos in 1858

For the first couple of kilometres the canyon is quite wide, but beyond the stone bridge built by Duke Danilo Petrović Njegoš in 1858 the gorge narrows and the sides steepen, and the tumbling river-course is close by to our left.

Farm on the valley floor before the canyon narrows

A little further on we came to the Kapija želja – the “Gate of Wishes” – where we rested for a while and, as tradition has it, threw in a pebble and made a wish. I can’t tell you what I wished for, but if it comes true we might be seeing more of this amazing country in the not-too-distant future.

And, in such a magical place, why shouldn’t wishes come true?

Take a pebble, make a wish .... but don't tell

The ravine became increasingly narrow ....

.... and the path clung to the side of the cliff

The path we were on followed the route of an old foot way between two villages. In some places, it was not so obvious that once-upon-a-time this was quite a major route, but a few minutes further on we came to the Mrtvičke Grede, a semi-tunnel carved into the rock (by the Yugoslav Army) that clearly demonstrated the hand of human intervention.

The Mrtvicke Grede, carved into the cliff-face

It’s plenty high and wide enough for safe passage, but with a significant drop to the left it’s worth staying as close to the inside as possible, just to be on the safe side!

Keeping to the inside to be on the safe side

Shortly afterwards, we reached a series of pools where we were to have lunch. The only slight snag was that because of low water levels, the pools were actually empty. No matter, we were happy to forego a chilly swim for the chance to enjoy the quiet magnificence of the canyon as we sat and ate our lunch.

No water in the pools

Our return was by the same route – Mrtvičke Grede, the Gate of Wishes, Duke Danilo’s stone bridge – and although we set off at a modest pace, we made good time, only breaking our trek to top up on cool water from the spring along the way.

A last look along the valley

Cooling down on the way back

Back at the car, we performed a quick-change routine, and managed to get ourselves tidied up a little bit. We were heading for Podgorica and a meeting with Brit and Astrid from Meanderbug, the adventure, travel and farm-stay experts who offer authentic eco-friendly and off-the-beaten-track travel and cultural experiences that give real benefit to local communities.

If you are thinking of visiting Montenegro, planning a trip or wondering about farm-stay opportunities, their website is well worth a look:

It was great to chat, to discuss the multitude of possibilities Montenegro has to offer for outdoor activities, cultural interactions, great food and stunning scenery, and to share the enthusiasm that we all have for this wonderful country.
Finally, the time came for us to leave. We headed over to our hotel, heads spinning with possibilities for future trips, and said goodbye to Dimitrije, for tomorrow we would be going home. We’d had a great time, and as well as spending time with a good friend, it was refreshing to be with someone with so much obvious passion for adventure travel and the positive benefits tourism can have on his country and its future.

And will we be back again? Well “Trip 5” got a lot of mentions during the last few days, so if we have anything to do with it then we most certainly will. After all, wishes do sometimes come true.

Back In Black Mountain: Part 2

Day 3: A Mountain and a Katun


We made another early start as we left Žabljak on the way to our next destination. Komovi mountain was around a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, following a route that would take us via the Tara Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world at 1300m.

The Djurdjevica Bridge over the Tara Canyon is impressive, but
it is hard to convey the scale of the scenery on a small photo

Having stopped briefly for photos at the Djurdjevića Bridge, we drove along the canyon towards Mojkovac, more often than not in the shade as the early morning sun had yet to penetrate the depths of the gorge – one of the many impressive drives to be had in Montenegro.

After breakfast in Mojkovac, we took a route via Biogradska Gora and Kolašin and picked up a back road towards Andrijevica, finally winding our way up from the pass Trešnjevik to reach the Eco Katun Štavna at the foot of Komovi.

Eco Katun Stavna at 1700m - a superb setting

It’s a wonderful setting at about 1700m. All the way up we had had tantalising glimpses of the mountain, but the full glory was saved until reaching Štavna.

Majestic Kom Vasojevicki 2461m

After checking in, we began our hike. Komovi has three main peaks, and we were tackling the first of the three, Kom Vasojevićki (2461m) today. Setting off across the grassy pastures and summer dwellings of the katun, we soon picked up signs for the summit and joined a rising traverse across scree slopes on the western flank of the mountain.

Crossing the scree slope on Kom Vasojevicki, with
Kom Kucki and Kom Ljevorijecki beyond

Pausing for breath on the steeper
mid-section of the climb

Presently, the path steepened in gradient to zig zag up to a grassy saddle a short way below the summit. From here, the top looks difficult to attain, but cunningly the path approaches the summit via the safer grassy slopes behind, and with a little scrambling and appropriate care, it is not as impossible as it at first seems. 

Preparing for the tricky-looking approach to the summit

Arriving at the top, we signed the visitor book and made first use of the brand-new stamp that Dimitrije had been asked to bring. Limbs were rested and photos were taken, and we enjoyed the amazing 360° views – to Bjelasica, Sinjajevina, the Prokletije, into Albania and Kosovo, and even to Hajla Peak that the three of us had summited together some four years ago.

Amazing views in all directions

However, it was a glorious day, and we were not alone on the top. A group of Bulgarians were also climbing the mountain today, and we got chatting to one who was thrilled to hear we would be visiting his country later this year.

Best friends, Bulgarians and backpacks: topping
out on the summit of Kom Vasojevicki

We took lunch on a sheltered bluff just down from the summit, then made our descent by the same route. Like many mountain paths, loose rock and steep ground means it takes almost as long to descend as it does to ascend in the first place.

It's a hard life ..... apparently

On the way down, we met a man who was worried about his hiking partner who hadn’t reached the summit. We kept our eyes and ears open as we went, but didn’t see anyone in trouble (he was later found safe and reasonably well after a slight fall, but it acts as a reminder to observe good practice and stay safe in the mountains).

Beautiful hardship: Hospitable companionship

Crossing the pastures back to the Eco Katun, we were invited in to one of the cabins for something to eat and drink. These dwellings are only inhabited during the three-or-so months of the summer, when small-holders bring their livestock up to the high pastures for grazing and to make cheese and jam and dry herbs for the winter.

For the rest of the year, our host was a teacher, and although it is beautiful here, it can at times be a lonely place. Hospitality is a tradition in these parts, and invites are regularly made to passers-by in exchange for company. We were happy to chat for a while, drinking juice and eating delicious bread and fresh cheese made that morning.

What a feast! Homemade corn bread, black bread and cheese

Back at the Eco Katun Štavna, we settled in for the evening. Dimitrije had to pop home to celebrate his son’s first birthday, but we were extremely well looked after by hosts Branko and Nemanja. We had dinner on the terrace – delicious stuffed peppers, corn bread with cheese and cream, salad and a couple of beers to wash it all down.

After a brief stroll along the road to let dinner settle and reflect on one of the best mountain days we have had, we turned in for the night, our only sadness being that one night here may not be enough.

For anyone interested in the Eco Katun Štavna, you can find further details HERE

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Back In Black Mountain: Part 1

Day 1: Two Lakes and a Transfer


Although only a short 5-day jaunt, this trip – our fourth visit to Montenegro – had been some 3 years in the making. We had been hoping to visit our good friend Dimitrije and do some hiking together for some while, but time, circumstance and other commitments had meant it had taken a little longer than expected to arrange.

After all this time, we were justifiably excited to be heading back to Montenegro – it’s such a wonderful destination for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts! Thankfully, our flights ran smoothly, and with customs cleared we met Dimitrije in the arrivals foyer. It was so good to see him again after all this time.

Approaching Black Lake 
Our first objective was to transfer to the small mountain resort of Žabljak, the main base for exploring Durmitor National Park. Located in the northeast of the country, Durmitor NP is probably the premier outdoor location in Montenegro, containing the Tara Canyon, numerous glacial lakes and cirques, and almost 50 peaks topping out at over 2000m, so there are huge opportunities for hiking, biking, canyoning, rafting and other outdoor pursuits.

Looking across both lakes

Having dropped by our lodgings (the Lalovic Apartments) to drop off our kit and taken lunch at a nearby restaurant, we decided to walk round the twin pools of Black Lake by way of a warm-up. Being both beautiful and close to Žabljak, Black Lake is a popular destination for tourists and day-trippers. 

And it’s easy to see why, with it’s clear waters set in an amphitheatre of wooded slopes beneath impressive peaks, it makes for a picture-postcard setting. But walk a little way round the perimeter and the crowds disappear, leaving scope for quiet reflection.

Quietly exploring the lakeside

That evening we ate, as at lunchtime, at the Kotoba Luna, a simple, inexpensive mountain-type restaurant with large portions of traditional fare. The local diet based around ample helpings of meat, potatoes, grilled vegetables and salad may not be to everyone’s taste, but it suited us just fine.  

Zabljak at sundown

Day 2: Three Lakes and Half a Mountain


Having taken an early breakfast in town and stocked up with sandwiches and snacks for lunch, we were ready for the day’s objective – an ascent of 2522m Bobotov Kuk, which is usually regarded as the highest peak in Montenegro (although there are some slightly higher summits in the Prokletije sharing the border with Albania).

We met up with two of Dimitrije’s friends from their outdoor club, Slavko and Veljko, and headed off towards our starting point at the 1907m pass on the south edge of the massif.

The road up to the pass where we started our hike

But despite all our plans and preparations, one thing beyond our control was the weather. Usually, ascents of Bobotov Kuk are accompanied by photographs of far-reaching views from a summit bathed in sunshine, but today the sky was having other ideas. A strong wind was gusting and low cloud scudded across the mountain tops, and we all paused to don extra layers before setting off.

On the right track for Bobotov Kuk

The walk to the base of the peak follows a typically undulating mountain path, clear enough on the ground and mostly straightforward but with one or two tricky sections requiring a hands-on approach. 

Patches of old snow still lying at the end of June

What was quite a surprise (although maybe not, given the weather conditions today) was the sight of patches of old snow, still lying in places even though it is almost July – a reminder, if one were needed, that winters in these parts are tough and cold.

Hiking in beneath the rock formation Zupci, which means "teeth"

After a little over an hour’s walking, we descended steeply towards a small lake, ready for a short break. From here on the route would get steeper, with loose rocks and protected sections to negotiate, so we took the chance to rest briefly and gather our thoughts before tackling the next section.

Lake at the base of the peak 

The trouble was that since we had set off the skies had got darker, the low cloud much lower and the winds even stronger. To reach the summit from here takes two stages – firstly climbing to a saddle at around 2350m, then on to the 2522m summit itself after a rocky scramble – and we were conscious that the saddle was now only intermittently visible through the mist, and the peak itself completely hidden.

We decided to carry on for a while, and review the situation as we went. Half way to the saddle, we met a couple of other hikers who had got that far but turned back because of the inclement conditions. 

Decision time: deciding to head back down

It seems that Bobotov Kuk was determined to hide it's charms from hikers today. Slavko and Veljko decided to carry on towards the saddle (which they eventually reached, filming a short video of themselves clinging to the mountainside and showing just how windy it was), but with the clouds ripping across the sky like time-lapse photography, we three decided it was just a bit too risky and turned back.

A glimpse of what might be visible from the summit on a good day 

After a longer rest stop at the lake, we started to retrace our steps towards the cars. Of course, just at that moment the sun came out! The temperature rose and the mist evaporated a little, all of which made our retreat look over-cautious.

But the cloud was still whizzing past overhead and the wind buffeting and gusting strongly enough to force us into a stagger and knock us off the path, so we were happy we’d made the right choice especially as, moments later, the summit was again immersed in thick cloud.

Confirmation we had made the right decision

By now, Slavko and Veljko had returned from the saddle. Having taken a short cut near the bottom, they’d cut off a chunk of the route and we found them lounging beside the path waiting for us.

Because of our prompt start to the day it was still quite early, and people were heading out to the mountain as we were heading back. On the way, we met a couple of Scots and a group of Norwegians and stopped to discuss conditions.

Descending one of the protected sections
on our way back to the car

Our climb was over, but with plenty of the day left, we had a chance to do something more. So, after a quick stop for drinks in Žabljak, we headed for Ivan Do, near Black Lake, to do the 3-Lakes walk.

Snake Lake!

Our first objective was Zminje Lake (which translates as Snake Lake, and doesn’t refer to the shape) about a 40-minute hike away. We followed the track from Ivan Do, soon cutting up into the woods on a pleasant path between the trees. At this lower altitude, it was a warm, sunny afternoon, a long way from the cool, windy, misty conditions of the morning.

Walking with Natasha & Yasha

As we ambled through the woods, we met up with Natasha and Yasha, a mother and son from St Petersburg. Chatting as we went, we talked about everything from the Russian education system to Premier League football to the fact that their flight from Moscow to Podgorica was quicker than ours from Stansted. It’s always interesting to learn about other cultures, even if only briefly. 

We are on the route of the Via Dinarica, the new Balkans mega-trail

Part way back we said farewell to Natasha and Yasha, and headed off uphill towards Jablan Lake, about 90 minutes away.

After a 40-minute uphill section, the path levelled off, traversing the hillside through grassy pasture and thin woodland before a slight drop down to a small lake beneath tall cliffs. By now, it was around 7.00pm, so we had the lake pretty much to ourselves as we had a quick snack and a drink and soaked up the beauty and quiet.

Low evening sunlight on the mountains

Retracing our steps to the path junction and on to Ivan Do took about an hour-and-a-quarter, but the journey was eased by the wonderful views and gorgeous quality of the low evening light.

Black Lake in the distance

It had been a long day, but an excellent one. Sure, we were slightly disappointed not to have summited Bobotov Kuk (we will have to come back again to do that!) but the opportunity to explore other areas of the park meant we saw more of Durmitor than we had expected, which was a real bonus.

Nearing the end of the hike in fading light

We had dinner at the Kotoba Luna again, with kebabs and chicken, grilled veg, salad and beers on the menu – just the job after a full day on foot. It was almost 10.00pm when we arrived at our digs after a long but fantastic and diverse day, and even the power cut just before bedtime couldn’t take the shine off an excellent day.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Le Puy Route - Part 6

Long Days, Short Days & Rainy Days - Cahors to Moissac

Day 7: Cahors to La Clos de Gamel

30.00k (18.67 miles) / No Ascent or Descent stats

We were up and breakfasted quite early, first setting off back through town to pick up lunch stuff for the next couple of days. Having run low on picnic food, we took the opportunity to stock up.

Setting off

Returning to the Louis Philippe bridge, we made our way beside the loop of the river to the Pont Valente, an elaborate fortified bridge that has carried pilgrims out of Cahors for 700 years.

Pont Valente

Since reaching Cahors, there had been a noticeable change of atmosphere about the route, and one which would remain with us for the next few days. Up until now, that feeling of being “on Camino” wasn't necessarily always there, which may have been down to the relative dearth of villages and towns through which the route has passed. The GR65, whilst broadly following the pilgrimage route, was also designed to skirt more civilisation than the more direct Spanish route.

Crossing the bridge out of town

After crossing the bridge (and passing the Three French Ladies – TFL) we hit the steep climb up to the Croix de Magne on the ridge above town. The route then takes a lengthy detour to pass under the busy N20 motorway, before following quiet lanes and paths towards the hamlet of Les Mathiuex, where we stopped at the gite for cokes and a rest. The TFL were there too.

View from the Croix de Magne

We dropped down into the valley, heard planes race by low in the sky and climbed towards Labastide-Marnhac where we stopped for lunch at a handy picnic table. After the rain of the past couple of days, it was nice to have good weather again.

Lunch stop, Labastide-Marnhac

Exiting the village, we again passed TFL and began a lengthy stretch of some 12k towards Lascabanes. The walking here is through woods or open spaces and is much, I imagine, like the South Downs. One section, we were brought to a stop as a cuckoo broke from its normal two-note song to entertain with a rarely-heard three-note version.

Continuing with the woods / heathland mix of countryside, we kept high on the ridge for a while longer, before dropping into the valley towards Lascabanes.

On reaching the village, we began to look for our accommodation, only to find it was actually another 3.5k away. So, we trundled on, through more nice shady woods and along a level tarmacked lane, until we reached the Chapelle St-Jean-le-Froid, where we called in for some cool.

The last kilometre was off route. This place had better be worth it, we thought.

La Clos de Gamel

And it was. La Clos de Gamel is another farmstead, with the out-buildings turned into guest rooms, two swimming pools, and a great setting. We were made very welcome by Chantelle and David, offered complimentary cold drinks and use of the pool (taken – it was glorious on such a hot day) and allowed to settle at our own pace.

Our room

We had a swim, rest, and tidy up, then joined our hosts plus other guests, Patrice and Marie, and neighbours Rene and Anita (originally from Holland) for a lovely meal with wonderful relaxed company. We chatted in a mix of French and English, and all got on so well. It was a fun evening, not least because Rene came in a restored bright yellow Panhard car, which was a great talking point.

This 1952 Panhard has been lovingly restored

Such a beautiful car

It seemed a shame to call it a night, but more walking beckons for us and the others tomorrow, so with some reluctance we headed for bed.

Day 8: La Clos de Gamel to Lauzerte

22.25k (13.80 miles) / Ascent 520m / Descent 668m

After a lovely breakfast outside, with coffee, juice, bread, jam, and yoghurt, it was time to take our leave of La Clos de Gamel – a sad moment, as we had had such a lovely time.

It was already sunny and quite warm as we got underway, taking a slight detour back to the GR65. The walking was superb, some of the best of the week, chalk uplands with views far and wide.

On the way to Montcuq

Our first objective was Montcuq, a hilltop town some 8k away and apparently the half way point of the Route St Jacques. From now on, we would be closer to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port than Le Puy.

If you were thinking of a small town in France, where folks come from round about to do not much in a relaxed and unhurried manner, and where incomers would choose to sit in cafes to acquaint themselves with the locals, this would be the place.

Village centre, Montcuq

We had cold Cokes in a market square café, bought a sandwich for lunch, and whiled away a delightful half hour.

Path climbing out of Montcuq

Moving on, we covered about another 3.5k to the church at Rouillac, where we had a quick look inside, taking refuge from the heat of the day before joining the TFL at the picnic table for lunch.

The afternoon was shaping up to be quite hot, and as we continued we were glad of occasional shade to offset the heat, especially on a couple of the climbs. After the rise up to Montlauzan, we opted to miss the village and rested instead in the shade beneath a large tree.

Crossing the valley, we entered the département of Tarn et Garonne for the 7k stretch to Lauzerte. After an initial climb, the walking was level in the main, but the final descent into Lauzerte was very steep and slippery, and would have been treacherous in wet conditions.

Topping up at the spring

Arriving in Lauzerte, we stopped for an ice cream, then followed a busy and dangerous main road for half a mile to the hotel. And what a hotel. On the plus side, the host was nice and there was a swimming pool which we took advantage of. On the other hand, it was a bit run down and there were some odd characters hanging around. The meal was basic but fine, but it was obvious that it was living on faded glory and the whole place had seen better days.

Local football match

We went to watch some local football afterwards, and we were happy enough in the end – when you are tired, you can cope with anything as long as you get food, water and a bed.

Day 9: Lauzerte to the Auberge de L’Aube-Nouvelle

13.75k (8.50 miles) / No ascent or descent stats

Thunder during the night had given us a strong clue as to what to expect this morning – rain. Varying from steady to quite heavy, we set off for the climb up to Lauzerte, had a quick look round the little town, and bought cherries in the market.

Marketplace, Lauzerte

Already a bit behind the clock, we left the town and dropped into the valley. The way was pleasant but unremarkable, and after a sweaty climb the far side the rain had abated and we were able to shed hot waterproofs.

Colourful hedgerow

Eglise St-Sernin-du-Bosc

After a steep descent on a stony track, we reached the restored Eglise St-Sernin-du-Bosc, and popped in for a quick look round. Moving on, we followed a succession of muddy tracks, quiet lanes and busier roads.

Crops in the fields

We had descended into another valley just beyond Mirabel when the darkening skies finally released their contents. Only just in time, we donned waterproofs again. As the rain became heavier, the going became more difficult as already wet ground became awash with water.

As the intensity of the rain reached a crescendo and water ran freely down the hillsides, the tracks became increasingly muddy and slippery. I fell, and with one side covered in mud we splodged along for a bit until we reached the Auberge de L’Aube Nouvelle, which thankfully was open – but only just!

We were invited in and brought hot coffee, dripping water and mud all over the tiled floor as the deluge outside continued, thankful for their kind hospitality even though not properly open.

Another pilgrim was ensconced in the lobby, though he was stopping there for the night.  

Weighing up our options, we came to the unpalatable decision to end our walk there and then, and pick up again from this point next time. It was a bit defeatist, but anything other than walking the roads would have been impossible – or at least very slippery and muddy.

It was a shame, but on the plus side it did give us a bit more time to look round Moissac. We called a cab and were whisked into town in minutes, while the rain fell.

Streets of Moissac

Safely installed in our hotel, we rested up and dried out for a bit. By late afternoon, the rain had stopped, so we went for a look round Moissac and something to eat. As if to endorse our earlier decision, the heavens opened again as we had our meal, and as the water tumbled from the awnings all around, we were glad to have opted for a sheltered spot.


With almost a full day at our disposal, we had chance for a good look round town. Heading for the market and delis to pick up food for lunch, we first walked along the side of the canal before climbing up to a viewpoint where we sat and read our books for a while. Pottering round some of the nearby lanes, we began plotting our next visit.

Walking by the canal

Looking over Moissac from the viewpoint

Back in town, we had final drinks and eats in the main square. A brass band started playing – hilariously, outside the Abbey and on the pilgrimage path of the Route St Jacques, they played a version of Highway to Hell. AC/DC never sounded quite this way before, nor quite as ironic!

Then back to hotel ready for pick up and home. We know we will most likely be back again, although we are not sure quite when as yet. This Camino business gets under your skin, and we have plans afoot to do some more. St Jean-Pied-de-Port awaits, then other routes across Europe - more than enough to keep us busy for the foreseeable future!