Hiking in the Biogradska Gora National Park, Montenegro
Updated: Jan 23, 2020
Mile upon mile of ancient forest and mountains, glacial lakes and the endless expanse of the blue sky. Organic, homemade food. No running water. No electricity. Definitely no wifi. And a hole in the ground for your, well, you know what.
Over the past 6 days, The Boyfriend, my trusty walking stick and I have hiked 25 miles through the Biogradska Gora National Park, most of which seemed to have been up, up, UP!
We stayed with 4 local families in their katuns – these are traditional wooden huts which shepherds used to sojourn in during the summer months whilst their cattle were grazing. The families spoiled us with homemade food from their gardens and animals, as well as copious amounts of rakiya (a potent, home-brewed, fruit brandy which makes tequila seem positively refreshing).
Things started a tad bizarrely: we arrived at Mojkovic bus station expecting to be picked up by Tom. However, the only person at the bus stop was a grumpy, middle-aged woman who stared at me so long I felt my insides melting like an adolescent who'd been caught up to no good. This turned out to be Tom's wife. Lucky man.
She yelled at us in Montenegrin, then yelled at the bus driver who promptly drove off with our bags in the boot. We prayed that Tom's wife understood that they were supposed to go to our final hosts for us to pick up at the end of the hike.
Tom’s wife then marched us to a vehicle as ancient as the National Park itself. The windscreen wipers were stuck in the 'on' position and the red light on the dashboard flashed for the whole journey. Remarkably, the car made it up the mountainside, the daughter managing to narrowly avoid all the other manic drivers on the hairpin turns.
We didn’t have to pay the €3 entrance fee because Tom is a Park Ranger so we sped past the gates. Soon, the car arrived at the foot of Biograd Lake where we were thrown out and some instructions, in Montenegrin, were yelled at us.
Tom’s wife and daughter departed in a haze of dust which may have been from the car disintegrating. The 2km walk around the lake cleared our heads and we started to trek in the direction of Lanista where Tom’s katun was supposedly situated. Thank goodness for maps.me which is like GoogleMaps but works offline.
A lovely evening was spent with the family by their wood burning aga, eating polenta, kaffir and spicy stuffed peppers. By the time we came to leave the following morning, Tom’s wife gave me a huge hug; she and the family were departing the katun for the winter months and we were the final guests.
On our second day, we hiked over to Rakovic to stay with Stefan & his wife in a little hut on the side of a mountain. The stars, which are not visible in London, shone so brightly above our cabin that night that it made using the outside squat toilet at 3am almost a pleasant experience.
The third day saw us climbing to the peak of Crna Glava and signing the visitors' book. There was no obvious way down from the peak to Senista which was on the other side of the mountain. As you’d expect, things are not well sign-posted in the middle of nowhere in the Montenegrin mountains.
Our descent started well but soon turned so steep that we were grasping onto clumps of grass for safety whilst shimmying down the 80º mountain incline on our backsides.
Eventually, the ground returned to horizontal and we arrived at Jelco's katun in Senista only 3.5 hours late.
Jelco and his brother Misko were the epitome of tough mountain folk: they break walnuts with their palms, wash in cold spring water and eat burek for breakfast. They also didn't speak a word of English, thus we all conversed in exaggerated sign language with very limited sentences such as kada dorûcak? Which means: when breakfast?
I repeatedly said hladno whilst pretending to shiver so that they would throw another log on the fire. Instead, I was generously offered the home-brewed rakiya which certainly warms you up and eventually causes you not to care that everyone is shouting at each other Basil-Fawlty-style.
I had a bit of a head cold which brought out Jelco’s caring side as he endeavoured to cure me....
First of all, he boiled half a pint of rakiya with lots of sugar and attempted to force me to drink a cup of this burning ‘medicine’.
When I couldn’t even swallow it because of how strong it was, he then tried to get me to rub rakiya all over my neck and forehead so that the vapours would clear my sinuses.
Jelco, thinking I didn’t understand his charadic instructions, demonstrated by pouring undiluted rakiya straight into his palms and proceeding to smear this onto his colossal neck. I understood perfectly the first time but nothing on earth was going to make me rub that stinking liquor into my skin.
Our final part of our expedition was an easy 4km downhill hike to the little town of Jelovica to stay with Goyco, his wife and his son.
Goyco’s wife had prepared us a feast, everything freshly prepared from her own household: cheese and yoghurt, crusty bread, fresh honey, stuffed peppers, boiled potatoes and apple cake. We lay in a food coma for the rest of the evening, moving only to throw another log on the fire.
We departed the following morning to pick up our bags which, astonishingly, had made it to the correct station, and headed off to Berane to catch the 9.30am bus to Kosovo.
I had 143 WhatsApp messages when I finally got wifi in a little coffee shop in Peć. Most of these were from the family group chat as they were panicking because they'd not heard from me in nearly a week. I'd forgotten to tell them that we were off trekking in the mountains... sorry mum!
This 6 day retreat hike was definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done in all my travels. The purity of nature, the natural food and the warmth of the Montenegrin hospitality was utterly unforgettable. It was a rare opportunity in today’s busy times to completely switch off in every literal and metaphorical way, and just enjoy being grounded in nature.
If you are ever in Montenegro, I would thoroughly recommend using Meanderbug to help you organise this type of hike through the Biogradska Gora National Park. The small company works carefully with the local families to ensure that they are happy and properly compensated, plus they were super helpful with our logistics and directions.
Just avoid the rakiya.