Riding across Montenegro to meet in Podgorica, we first encounter signs for a multi-day off-pavement route outside Mojkovac, one of the larger towns on this 300km loop route. The Top Biking Trail 3 is billed as a route of “Eastern Enchantment”, and is offered to riders through an official guide, limited trail signage, and a free GPS download of the route. After meeting Przemek and Saŝka in Podgorica, we loop around Shkodër Lake and into a spectacular valley amongst the Albanian Alps along the northern border of the country, through Tamare, Selca, and Vermosh. Our goal, thereafter, is to spend more time in Albania. To do so, we have the option to turn back the way we have come, ride into Montenegro and make an unofficial (illegal?) crossing over an unmanned mountain pass back into Albania, or ride through Montenegro and Kosovo to reach the next official crossing into Albania. Some friends of the blog had suggested visiting the valley of Valbona. While only a short flight for a bird from Tamare to Valbona, a cyclable route will be much longer, necessarily. No matter, as we reason that this way we get the chance to check out the Top Trail 3 in Montenegro and make a quick visit to Kosovo on our way back to Albania.
The Top Biking Trail 3 is a government project, in a series of other cycling and hiking routes across the mountainous country. The official brochure is available in local touristic offices for 2€; surely, I can verify that it is available in Plav, which is home to a tourist information office and a national park office, which are both stocked with maps. The region also boasts an international hiking trail called the Peaks of the Balkans, connecting the high mountains along the borders of Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania. The full guidebook for the Top Biking Trail 3 is also available online for free, as is the GPS track.
Our overnight ride from Plav to Rožaje covered only a section of the route. From this experience, a GPS device is recommended. The maps in the guidebook are reasonably detailed, although the route notes are purely literary and do little to aid in navigation. In fact, I was missing some of the GPS track information and was forced to navigate via the guidebook entirely. Not that there is much risk of not making it back to a paved road, but at one point I was running laps around an alpine meadow to decipher which faint singledoubletrack was our route, or at least the correct drainage towards town.
The route is comprised mostly of dirt roads which can be traveled with a common high-clearance vehicle or small truck, or in the case of the Montenegrans, like the Romanians, Serbians, and Ukrainians, a small 2WD Yugo, Zastava, Dacia, Lada, or Fiat. Larger sections of quiet paved roads connect highland sections. In two places on our ride, short hikes over steeper grassy ridges are required to connect otherwise unconnected roads. As such, some locals will swear that you can’t reach the city of Rožaje by bike. A proper mountain bike or dirt touring set-up is recommended, and as for the steep climbs, it is recommended to pack light, as always.
Leaving the predominantly Albanian city of Plav, Lael and I decide to climb the first major ridge at dusk, as Przemek and Saŝka hang back for the night. No surprise that within minutes of looking for a campsite they find a host for the night. They leave in the morning with more food than when they arrived–this is the spirit of these mountains. The mountain people along the borderlands of Albania and Montenegro, an historical region known as Malësia, are famously hospitable. Anymore, it seems we can’t ride off-pavement segments without invitations for coffee every time we meet someone near their home. The coffee is brewing, and then comes the offer of homemade rakija. “Oh, and you’ll have a little cheese and bread won’t you”, as fresh yogurt and butter also populate the table, alongside the possibility of sausage or salo, homemade juice, and the offer of some tobacco. And four hours later, stuffed and smiling and a little stupid, there are hugs and handshakes and photos and Facebook names to share; smiling faces in the sun, spinning legs in cycles they know so well, and the knowledge that riding bikes over mountains simply to hear the sound of dirt is not enough. Riding over mountains is not the reason but the invitation, to drink with shepherds in the morning, to eat foods unavailable in local markets, and to play with children and share the language of laughter. These are not one experience, but many. I will come back to this region.
From the border of Albania near Vermosh, you connect with the route at Gusinje and ride to Plav on quiet pavement.
If is possible to cross the borders here unofficially if you plan to return to the same country (as no one will know, and seemingly from all accounts, no one will care). If you plan to exit the country at some point, it seems best to make official border crossings to keep the passport in order. You don’t want the Republic of Kosovo or Albania questioning your route into the country, although the borders seem open and friendly. Technically, there is a rideable dirt route over 6000+ft mountains from Plav to Valbona, through Cerem, over a pass that Wikipedia claims will someday house an official border crossing. The local tourist office says it can arrange a permit to make the crossing official, which should provide documentation of your exit and entry. The cost is 10€ and can be processed within 24hours, although it is possible to apply for the permit without local assistance which may take up to 5 days. The route through Cerem utilizes part of an alpine loop section of the Top Trail 3 route. The descent into the valley of Valbona would be spectacular.
Leaving Plav. Mosques replace churches in most ethnically Albanian communities.
The last sign we will see for the next 56km. No problem, but we were led to believe the route was signed by the official postings. The bikepacker symbol would make a great tattoo, I think.
The end of the summer, same as it looks in Alaska and Poland and many other great places.
Leaving civilization behind by way of a 2000ft climb, we rise above the trees to a world dominated by alpine meadows called planina, active in summer months for grazing.
Near the very top of the ridge, expecting rain for the night, I stake the tent tightly.
By morning the rain has subsided and the color of the sky is promising. We don’t hate rain, but we prefer when it occurs during the night, only.
Clearing skies lead us up to 6300ft, our highest ride in the Balkans so far. In fact, this is our highest ride in Europe. It is no feat, but to us it is notable. We’ve traveled over seven months in Europe over the last two summers from Amsterdam to Ukraine, and south to Montenegro and Albania, on dirt as much as possible.
We remain at elevation on the appropriately named Planina Mokra, or the wet meadow. We’re a stone’s throw from the Kosovo border, but a long way from town it seems. Most of the shepherds have vacated the katun for the season.
Al the third meadow– the third small seasonal alpine community– smoke escapes a chimney. A dog barks, dutifully. Soon, a man exits his cabin. We stop to admire his property, as curious in him, as he in us.
And then, like a magic trick of hospitality we’re seated on the porch drinking homemade blueberry juice, composed of a sweet syrup concentrate and fresh spring water. He shuffles us inside. “Hladno“, he insists, shivering himself to verify that we understand. Back in Montenegro, the Slavic tongue serves some function again.
Inside, his wife shyly smiles and arranges some pillows on the beds, which also serve as seating for the table, which has been rotated longways to maximize seating space. The oven is hot, bread is rising, and a large shallow pot of milk is warming to separate the buttercream from the stuff that soon fills our glass.
Within the hour, or two rounds of rakija as I remember it, the bread is in the oven. Mushrooms are fried on the flattop with butter and salt. We’re dining on a bounty of local treats, each slyly and kindly supplied without possibility of refusal.
Hot milk is poured into cooling pans to separate. The butter will congeal on top, and will be saved in an outdoor shed for the winter.
Kids love selfies, and touch-screen shutter actuation, and previewing images on the camera– the value of digital photography.
Vasiliy the enthusiastic younger brother leads us back into the sun.
He takes me on a typical backwards tour of all the things his dad doesn’t care to show– nothing personal or incriminating– just boring, by adult standards. Good thing he and I don’t live by adult standards. I think a muddy corner of the garden is fascinating.
His sister sets about harvesting potatoes.
He joins, joyously.
His father Yugoslav shows us the pigs and the piglets, the onions and leeks, the chickens, and the three cows. I’m not sure exactly how they’ve come to this life, exactly. Surely, it comes from their ancestors, but they are extremely happy about it, and seemingly, they’ve chosen it. The kids go to school, and Yugoslav grew up in the nearby city of Berane. He and his wife are educated, presumably through secondary school. We are happy to see people having fun up high.
Two neighbor men have arrived to eat with us, although mostly we all laugh and marvel at the concept of Alaska. I do my best to make conversation with the men. We laugh and tickle and take pictures with the kids. Eventually, I divulge that we’ve ridden from Vienna through Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia…
Home made: butter, tomato chutney, eggs, milk, rakija, blubbery juice, and homemade bread. Salt, flour, coffee, sugar, and the bologna-type sausage come from town.
As we prepare to leave they offer some of everything on the table. We decline, as we are actually loaded for two full days of riding. We all compromise with a two-liter fill of milk in the Klean Kanteen.
Dressing ourselves for departure, Yugoslav takes my hat and snugly fits it to his head. He barely has to ask, but he suggests “I can have it?” Sure. Of course. Definitley.
The hat was a gift from a new friend that I met while living in Albuquerque (thanks again Collin!). He’d be happy to know that it covers the eyes of a shepherd somewhere up high on a planina in Montenegro. In such situations, I try to offer a few euro, which are quickly declined. At the second offer, it is gratefully accepted. It is fair, and one of the best touristic agreements that can be made.
Smiling, stuffed and pedaling once again.
Over the top, along a faint doubletrack which disappears on the ridge.
Several options exist from the ridge.
The route descends 2000ft on fantastic dirt roads, to climb another 2000ft back to elevation. A quick turn along a walking route takes us over the second unridable ridge of the day.
From the top, without the GPS track information, I do some old-fashioned looking around. The map is helpful, but the level of detail is inadequate . No problem, the topographic information on the GPS helps me isolate which drainage to descend. Eventually, we find the small jewel of a lake the guide describes. It elaborates about the small lake, which “sheds a tear for each traveler that leaves it”. It is a muddy pond, I swear.
At last, we begin the descent down to Rožaje. We will camp near town for the night to meet Przemek and Saŝka in the morning.
Off to Kosovo, in the rain!