A cycling tour of the Balkans: two wheels, three countries, four days

A challenging trip taking in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro

Maritime Museum in Kotor, Montenegro

If you are in Kotor and love model galleons, ship paraphernalia, and examples of the material benefits of trade then this is the place for you.

Models of galleons, xebecs, tartanes, and container ships such as the MV Pomorac, built in Sunderland by Austin & Pickersgill, fill some rooms. Paintings of Montenegrin sea captains with individually distinctive beards adorn some walls. There are some fine individual discoveries. There is a painting of Captain Ivo Visin, who was the first Slav to circumnavigate the globe between 1852 and 1859. He did so in the brig Splendido. There was a commemoration by the city of Erie to Captain Nicholi Zec, awarding him an honorary citizenship of Erie, for his contribution to the advancement of foreign trade at the port of Erie. There are the steps to one of the local sailor’s dances and a gilt medal awarded to Tito in 1973, when he was awarded an honorary admiral rank in the local navy, called the Boka Navy.

There’s a room full of items brought back from overseas by local sea captains, such as china from Cardiff, vases from Shanghai, and a monstrous French clock, surmounted by a Tartar horseman. There’s also a room full of armaments, mainly rifles and long, sharp-looking knives.

What is also interesting are the visitors to the museum: some faithfully stop at each of the appointed places and press the right number for that place into their hand-held guides; others march into a room, look at one piece, and then exit the room, without casting a glance at anything else; yet others photograph each of the multi-language explanation cards with their digital camera and then take another image of the piece the card refers to.

One of the books on display has the following snappy title:

The Chronometers Companion or A Compendium of Nautical Astronomy comprising Methods For Finding The Latitude By Meridian Altitudes By Reduction To The Meridian And By The changes of the Sun’s Altitude in one Minute of time; Together With The Method Of Finding The Time By The Sun And Stars And The Longitude By Chronometer And By The Sun’s Depression Below The Horizon

Virpasar, Montenegro – Besac Fort

Virpasar is a village by Skadar Lake. The favourite pastime here is a boat trip to see some of the 270 species of bird who live on and around the lake. My recommendation is to walk over the bridge and take the road that runs behind the Hotel Vir. After about five minutes of uphill there’s a sign to the right saying ‘Besac’ indicating the 15th Century fortification being restored with the help of EU funding. The 1 Euro entrance fee helps the restoration too. For this amount, the visitor will see the lake with the mountains of Albania in the background. The fortification is small with one central watchtower situated within the walls. There’s a circular staircase which leads to the top of the tower. The gatekeeper owns a small dog, which is the same colour as the fort. The fort dog runs around enthusiastically and wags its tail at visitors.

Sveti Stefan – Montenegro

Sveti Stefan is a beautiful sight on the Adriatic Coast of Montenegro, 5 kilometres south of Budva. Unlike Budva, with its seal colonies of tourists, some of Sveti Stefan’s beaches are quiet. The main reason for this is that people have to pay 75 Euros to use some of them for the day. For this price, people receive a welcome drink and the use of a beach umbrella. In the interests of balance, I should report the public beach, 30 yards away, is free and was fairly crowded, but people have to take their own drinks.

Sveti Stefan is picturesque from afar and has to be admired from afar, because the island was nationalised in the 1950s and is now a luxurious resort, which only residents may enter. The resort is connected to the mainland by a causeway, whose entrance is rigorously patrolled by a concierge. He stops any non-residents from entering the causeway. I couldn’t help noticing the public beach does stretch alongside the causeway to the island. There are a couple of sets of steps up to the causeway where a gate, presumably locked, prevents entry. The gate is only about four feet high, so it could be jumped over if you were feeling athletic. I am just mentioning this in case you’re interested…

Sveti Stefan’s dwellings date from the 15th Century, although they do look like 21st Century two-storey houses on an exclusive estate with their terracotta roof tiles and perfectly symmetrical windows. Some are ivy-clad, which breaks the monotony somewhat. The church in the centre is still in use, apparently.

What became of the original residents of Sveti Stefan? Well, they were generously relocated by the government from their homes, with views over the Adriatic Sea and the curvy coastline, to another village on a hill overlooking the island. This village was also called Sveti Stefan (“St Stephen”), so I presume the government felt this made things OK. Same people, same village name, just a different location.