We’ve known all along that traveling like this would require some flexibility, the willingness to change plans when things don’t work. Yesterday that meant changing gears and going to Kosovo instead of Albania.
First, though, a farewell to Dubrovnik. I haven’t written here for several days, not because I was too busy but rather because I was un-busy, whatever the right word should be. My day quickly fit into a pretty comfortable pattern: up early for a run, breakfast, down to the rocky beach for hours of reading and swimming, lunch, walking into the old town, dinner, sleep. That’s not a bad way to go.
OK, but five or six days of that is enough. (Well, really it’s not, but it was time to move on anyway.) As Mark wrote, it was across the Montenegran border into Budva to meet Rezart. The plan was to drive to to Valbona National Park up in northern Albania for a day or two of hiking in the mountains. If you ask Google Maps for a driving route from Budva to Valbona, it sends you down the Adriatic coast into Albania, then north through Albania to the park. Rezart wanted to drive through Montenegro, though; he’s driven through Albania plenty but had never been in Montenegro. It’s supposed to be a beautiful mountainous country, so we quickly agreed. Google will give you a route from Budva to Plav in northern Montenegro and then from Plav across the border south into Albania and the park. Sounds reasonable, though perhaps it would have been wise (plot alert!) to question the apparently secondary roads out of Plav or even question whether there would be an open border crossing.
But with a car full of gas and innocence, we headed out from Budva. The route was more gorgeous than we could have hoped for. We were along the coast for a little while, and that was every bit as beautiful as you’d expect. As we turned north, then, we got into the mountains. It was just beautiful. We stopped in the capital city of Podgorica for a coffee break, and continued through the winding mountains to Plav. It made you think, “Wow, I really need to spend more time in Montenegro,” something that’s not occurred to most people.
So all is good. We get to Plav somewhat later than expected because the roads were so windy, but no problem. Once we leave Plav, though, it’s clear we’re on a really secondary road, much smaller than anything we’ve seen so far. And it starts going from secondary to … worse. Pavement gives out occasionally. Major pot holes. Can this really be the road to an international border crossing? After maybe 30 or 45 minutes, we get to a spot where there’s barely a wooden bridge across a creek. This can’t be right.
Fortunately a car of locals pulled up in back of us. “No, you can’t take this into Albania; they closed that border crossing years ago.” Back we go to Plav. By now the rain has quit, the sun’s back out, and while we don’t have any idea how we’re going to get to Valbona, you have to appreciate the sheer beauty.
Basically, there’s no easy route to the park; there are no roads across the mountain into Albania. Here, though, is where familiarity with a little geography comes in handy. Rezart suggests maybe we should go east into Kosovo and then south into Albania. Really? Can we do that? Can we go into Kosovo without a visa? And what the hell is Kosovo exactly, anyway? I know there was a war there a few years ago, but is it a country now? A region?
Well, it’s complicated. Kosovo was a part of Yugoslavia, and then was a part of Serbia when Yugoslavia broke up. But the people are mostly ethnically Albanians and, like Albanians, mostly Moslem. So they tried to break away from Serbia. Serbia fought to keep them. The U.S. intervened on the part of Kosovo and, when Kosovo appeared to succeed, recognized their independence. Not everyone though – particularly the Serbs and their Slavic allies like Russia – has recognized it as an independent country. So if you look at Google Maps again, you’ll see a dotted line between Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovars control the apparatus of government on the ground (our passports have Kosovo stamps), and the IMF and World Bank recognizes it as an independent country, but the U.N. does not yet. Like I said, complicated.
The good news, though, is that since the U.S. was Kosovo’s ally, we had no trouble getting in. TripAdvisor showed one nice hotel in Peć, the first important city, so that’s where we are. Rezart quickly found us the perfect restaurant to have local food, and with a bottle of wine all was good again.
Today we’re pretty confident we can get to Valbona across a real border crossing. Meanwhile, how much better can it get than a gorgeous drive, a great dinner, and a surprise stop in Kosovo?