Gorges galore

Before leaving Durmitor, we headed to the Ćurevac lookout point, high above the Tara canyon. A footpath took us along the ridge, to a vast stone outcrop from which we could watch the river, far far below, meandering down the base of the gorge. As we headed back towards where we’d left the van, the clouds started to gather, rolling up from below. The path was much less clearly marked on the return, and a couple of false starts had to be rectified. Fortunately, the threat receded as quickly as it had arrived, and we headed off south. We’d wanted to head west, through the heart of the Durmitor massif, but we’d been told the road was still snowed in where it crossed a couple of 2,000 metre passes.

As we headed out of the park the same way we’d arrived, we took a slight detour off towards the Komarnica canyon. We meandered through some back lanes, with signs once more in short supply, and found ourselves heading along a flat and fertile looking valley, with cliff faces heading up on either side. After admiring the view over lunch near the end of the track, we turned around and bounced back towards the main road. As we did so, we spotted another narrow canyon off to one side – with a tiny and fragile-looking bridge over it. As we gazed down from that bridge, the river splashed beneath us, way out of sight between two rock walls barely a couple of feet apart in places.

Once we’d returned to the main north-south highway, we headed north towards the Bosnian border. Rock again closed in on both sides, and we were following up the side of a lake, held in place by a dam and hydro-electric power station. As we crossed over the top of the dam (complete with large no-photos signs), we gazed down. On one side, the water level was no more than a handful of metres below. On the other, the concrete face dropped down over two hundred metres, with the river barely visible. We’d reached the start of the Pivo canyon. For more than 25 kilometres, the road wound across one side of the canyon or the other, in and out of tunnels ranging from several hundred metres long to just a ragged arched hole in a rock wall. A spindly bridge linked the two, giving the canyon a logo to put on signs. Eventually, we closed in on the Bosnian border at Scepan Polje. We weren’t planning on crossing the border here – the insularity of British insurance companies meant that we couldn’t without buying yet another expensive fixed-term policy – but the signs for the campsite we were aiming for continued to point straight on as we arrived at the frontier huts. We stopped. We looked at the map. We looked at each other. Eventually, I got out and wandered to the border guard in his little glass hut. Yes, the campsite was straight on. No, we didn’t need to enter Bosnia. No, we didn’t need to do formalities. Just drive around the outside of the frontier post… Where the road turned left to go across the Tara river – our shore Montenegro, the far shore Bosnia – we turned down a little track. Camp Grab stood out from the other dozen or so campsites within this short stretch of river for seeming to be located right on the banks. As we passed a couple of others, high up above, we wondered if it was another bit of wishful photography on the signs. But after a few more kilometres, we pointed the van almost vertically down yet more unsurfaced hairpins, towards the shore of the river far below us.

We weren’t disappointed. We’d found another little slice of heaven to pass a night in. We parked up in a corner of a meadow, and wandered down the steps towards the river itself. As we sat on the shore, with the water lapping gently at our cold beer bottles, watching the current bounce hard off the rocks in the middle of No-Man’s Land, we were happy. Who cared if the weather forecast for the following morning said yet more rain, rain that’d make it virtually impossible to climb back up the track out of the canyon? There was a Pinzgauer ex-military 4×4 at hand to tow us up if we really did get stuck…

The difference in altitude from Žabljak made a huge difference to the overnight temperatures, before the morning dawned warm with the early morning skies as blue as they had been on many other mornings over the last couple of weeks. Fortunately, though, the echoes stopped there – as we swung round the outside of the border point again, and headed down the Piva Canyon, the skies didn’t repeat their usual trick of clouding threateningly.

At the end of the canyon, we decided to follow the road which we should have emerged on straight from Žabljak, if not for those snowed-in passes. The junction turned left, straight into the rockface, and immediately we were climbing steeply upwards, clinging doggedly to the side of the cliff. Within minutes, we were high above the canyon, staring down at the lake’s surface far below. Eventually, the road turned away, and started to pass over a deserted landscape towards Durmitor. We turned around, and headed back down the cliff. On the way up, we’d been slightly startled by evidence of a very fresh rockfall all over the road surface as we exited one tunnel. Coming down, we could see no sign of it – just a few fresh scrapes and some gravel to suggest where it’d been. Then we caught up with the works truck whose crew must’ve followed us up, cleared up, then turned round again. Clearly, there’s a lot of work involved in keeping these roads clear – and around a few more bends, we found out just how much.

A smaller cliff at the side of the road had been judged unsafe, and the road was briefly closed whilst they chiselled away to get back to secure rock. Huge boulders were falling onto the road surface, together with medium-sized trees. Ellie’s wander up to take photographs of the work attracted nothing but a little curiosity, even though she got close enough to the action to feel a quick two-step out of the way appropriate on a few occasions.

With the road re-opened, we headed towards the new site of the Pivski Monastery, moved several kilometres up the canyon – and a hundred metres higher – when the construction of the hydro-electric dam, in the ’60s, usurped the position it had occupied for centuries. The work had taken more than a decade to complete. When we arrived at the outside, we were unsurprised to find no signs of life whatsoever – the guidebook mentioned it is now home to a grand total of one monk. He must’ve been having his lunch at the time. The outside door creaked gently open. The side door to the church was wide open, so we tentatively bent down and went through.
Inside, the true extent of the work involved in the monastery’s relocation became clear. As our eyes adjusted to the gloom after the bright sunlight outside, we saw more and more detail – the huge gilded iconostasis, the massive candelabra hung with yet more icons, the frescoes covering every single surface – all the way up to the high ceiling. The frescoes had been moved, fragment by fragment, and put back on the reconstructed walls. Amazing.

We tore ourselves away, and headed south towards the Kotor bay again, but by a different route – heading onto the northern shore across yet more spectacular scenery. For a country so small – with a population of only about 600,000 – we’d found not a single bland view. Much of the scenery was as dramatic as anything we’d come across in a year of travelling, but so highly compressed. The beach resorts might’ve failed to impress us much but even in a week’s package tour it’d be so easy to head into great natural beauty. As we rounded one bend, suddenly there was water glittering away in front of us, and the two small islands with a pair of churches just off the coast of Perast. We felt like we’d come home – but not for long. We followed the curve of the bay around, past the ferry I’d crossed on my bike, and towards the border. Croatia – a country we’d heard great things about from so many people we’ve met on the road, with not a single dissenting voice amongst them – was imminent.

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