Over the winter I had a call from Raytcho, one of my trail riding buddies, asking if I was interested in coming to Montenegro to do a bit of trail riding. Originally from Bulgaria he now lives in London but has a holiday home near the coast in Montenegro and likes to spend the summer there. He had been working on an idea to set up trail riding holidays using their holiday home as a base. The house is already set up for guests, having three seperate studio apartments on the ground floor : https://www.booking.com/hotel/me/apartmani-simba.en-gb.html
He had a plan to get hold of some Honda CRFs that could be used as rental bikes and the last piece of the jigsaw was to work out what routes to use, so he put out a few calls to friends to see who would be interested in helping with some scouting of trails around the area. My mate Dougie agreed to come along and planned to fly in together with his daughter Millie. I decided that driving was a better option as it seemed there might be a shortage of bikes and I always prefer to use my own bike if possible. In retrospect flying was probably the more sensible option as it took me four and a half days each way to drive with three overnight stops. On the plus side I did get to see some parts of the world that were completely new to me.

2200 Km – 4.5 days driving !

I drove through France and used the Frejus tunnel which connects France to Italy (70 Euros for the van!), across the top of Italy to Trieste. From there I had to pass through a small amount of Slovenia, where the road changed from motorway to winding A road. Then into Croatia onto a superb motorway that runs almost the length of the country. All of the above are in the EU so there were no border formalities involved. However, Montenegro is not yet in the EU, although they have adopted the Euro, which meant a 1.5 hour delay queueing to get through the border check point. You also have to switch off data roaming at this point to avoid exhorbitant charges – Raytcho was quickly able to sort out local SIM cards for us at very reasonable prices.

When I mentioned to some of my French friends that I was going to Montenegro to do some biking, the reactions were along the lines of “aren’t they still fighting ?”, “is it safe ?” and “isn’t that near Ukraine ?”. Well I can tell you that it is perfectly safe, although we did see some rather unsafe driving behaviour, and everyone we met was very friendly and welcoming.

Montenegro on the Map

We stayed close to Bar, right on the coast in the south of the country. For our scouting trips we limited ourselves to routes that were achievable in a day so that potential clients would be able to return to base every night. This ruled out much of the North of the country which would require staying overnight, but as this area is quite mountainous and there was still snow on high ground, it was the sensible option. We did go as far as Albania in the East and Bosnia in the West.
Montengro is about half the size of Wales and has about 20% of the that country’s population at 630,000 people so it is quite sparsely populated. Relative to the UK it is very mountainous – the highest we rode was 1840m, the highest point in the UK is Ben Nevis at 1345m.

En route alog the Montenegro coast road

I had brought my KTM 300 TPI, Raytcho was riding his GasGas ES700 Enduro and also had another KTM 300 and a Beta Alp available for guests to use. Dougie was hoping to be able to use a CRF250 which was also part of Raytcho’s fleet, but that had unfortunately been sold the previous week. However, once he had fiddled about with the suspension he felt reasonably happy on the KTM – apart from the piece of 2×4 that KTM call a seat. In the end Raytcho and I rode for a total of 10 days and covered 1350 Km, we were joined most days by Dougie on the KTM and some days by Millie or Raytcho and Iva’s daughter Yanna riding the Beta. The general routine was that Raytcho would work out a possible route and then we tried to follow that, making sure it was all safe and rideable and looking out for other possible trails to add in. We were using the Outdoor Active app to track our progress and that proved surprisingly accurate in identifying the difference between rideable routes and hiking routes (which were generally too difficult to ride).

We were staying in the town down below.

On the first evening our hosts suggested going out to “Starry Bar”, which I assumed was some sort of cocktail bar with a view of the night sky. It turned out to be nothing of the sort, “Bar” is the name of the neighbouring town and “Stari” means the old part of the town. In fact Bar is a fortified town and was originally built inside a walled fortress on top of a hill which is now abandoned but open to visitors.

Taking in the view from Stari Bar
Sunset over the old town.
In the mountains
Raytcho, Dougie and Millie
Picnic spot overlooking the sea

Following one of the routes, we spotted what looked like an abandoned church high on a hill so decided to go up for a closer look. Once we got there we discovered it was not abandoned at all and was in fact a working Monastery that had recently been restored from a ruin. There were five monks and an Abbot living there and one of them came out to meet us. We were a little apprehensive – four grubby bikers, parking their noisy bikes on sacred ground, but we needn’t have woried as he was extremely welcoming and took us inside for a tour of the monastery. We were very lucky to have Raytcho as our guide as there didn’t seem to be any English spoken. Even luckier when he asked us to sit down at a table outside and then brought coffee, cakes and fresh orange juice.

Millie and the Monastery

The next day Dougie and Millie chose to have a more relaxing day so Raytcho and I decided to head up into the mountains to the North on a longer ride (200Km).

Heading North from Bar it’s about 45Km of road to get to the capital of Podgorica (which also has the main airport). On the way we passed the absolutely enormous freshwater Skadar lake. Once out of Podgorica we started to climb, inially on a twisty ribbon of tarmac that resembled a go kart track which then gave way to more broken tarmac and then to a gravel trail. We could see quite a lot of snow on the higher peaks and did wonder what it would be like when we reached the top. In fact we didn’t encounter any snow until we arrived at the pass – the highest point of the ride at 1840m. It didn’t look too difficult, “How hard can it be ?” said Raytcho as he set off into the snow. He didn’t get far before the rear wheel dug in and he was stuck. Although it looked harmless the snow was quite soft and about two feet deep – the weight of the GasGas and the massive torque turned it into a trench digger. He quickly gave up and went ahead to look at what lay in store over the other side of the pass…

How hard can it be ?

There was more snow on the other side and a lot of downhill hairpins. If we did continue there would be no going back – it was bad enough making progress on the level, going uphill in the snow would have been impossible. Between us we manhandled the bike through – the trick was to get right over to the edge and pick up some grip where the snow met the gravel/rock. The KTM fared better being a lighter bike but still not easy.

Tricky downhill hairpins. No chance of getting back up here.
Made it through the snow !

We dropped down the other side to an isolated lake for a lunch stop, very glad of the picnic lunch Iva had prepared for us. The lake had several “summer houses” nearby, including Hagrid’s hut…

Hagrid wasn’t at home…
Snowy mountains

Back home safely we decided to rule out any routes going over 1800m on this trip, as there was sure to be more snow.

Waterfall up above Stari Bar
Coffee stop in Stari Bar – real coffee !
Raytcho and Yanna checking out the view
Light lunch at a delightful restaurant – and a potential reception venue for Yanna’s forthcoming wedding.
Another day, another trail and more amazing views…
Coffee stop at the appropriately named “Panorama Restaurant”

On the way home on this day we decided to pay a visit to another fortified coastal town to the South of Bar, called Ulcinj. We followed signs towards the old part and were surprised to find it was quite busy with lots of sombre looking people walking through the streets. As we weaved our noisy bikes through the throng we arrived at the front and realised we were in a funeral cortege and there was the hearse and cemetry right in front of us. Lower down in the village one of the locals on a scooter had tipped us off that motorbikes were allowed inside the old town so were fortunately able to make our escape through a hole in the defensive wall. As if we hadn’t suffered enough embarrassment we felt very conspicuous riding bikes through the very narrow cobbled streets. It was true there were a number of scooters parked in the streets, but no-one with full sized enduro bikes. We made our escape through another hole in the city wall, tails between our legs.

Bikes allowed ?
Another coffee stop with an amazing view.
We were up there yesterday…

At one of our coffee stops we checked the map to look at our options. We found a gnarly looking trail heading down the mountain that should meet up with the road further down. Raytcho and I decided to check out the trail while Dougie took a break and agreed to meet us further down the road. The trail was a beauty and we had great fun riding it and then rejoined the road to meet up with Doug. Just as we pulled up to where he was waiting for us Raytcho’s chain fell off and he lost all drive. Our first thought was that the chain had snapped but on closer inspection it appeared that the axle nut had come loose, fallen off and then the axle locating block had followed. This allowed the spindle to slide out and the wheel to twist, throwing the chain. It was very fortunate it had happened at zero speed on the road rather than on the bumpy trail we had just ridden.

Axle nut and locating block missing..

We propped the bike up and got the spindle and wheel out, fortunately there didn’t seem to be any damage. But how were we going to fix this so far from home and with limited tools ?

We left Dougie to try to improvise something while we retraced our steps along the trail to see if we could find anything. Nothing doing, so bodging was the only option. Dougie had spotted that the chain adjuster could be backed out sufficiently to support the axle in the right position, it would just need something to stop it moving backwards and on the other side something to stop the axle sliding out. We found a few scraps of material and got to work…

That should stop the axle moving back.
And that should stop it sliding out…

It was a long a slow ride home, but it all held together. A spare wheel and axle block/nut off a KTM 690 soon fixed the problem once back at base.

I managed to get in a morning run on the beach most days – we were blessed with great weather for the first ten days of the trip. It was very quiet as the town is only slowly gearing up for the season. Apparently it is heaving with people in the summer.

Morning beach run.
Up in the mountains again..
Mille and the Beta
Exploring a hill fortress
Great views in every direction from up here.
Raytcho on the skyline

On the last day before the rain arrived we went up into the hills behind Stari Bar again to try to find some rock carvings and a waterfall that Raytcho remembered from years ago. There was a monastery nearby and apparently the monks use the waterfall for baptisms. It took a long time to find as it was not marked on the map and there was no information sign.

Rock carvings.

And then it was all over… Ten days of riding and 1350 Km. We found enough routes to easily provide a week’s worth of riding for potential guests. With such mountainous terrain it seems that every track has an amazing view and you have the benefit of being by the sea as well.

My return journey followed a similar route although I did use a different tunnel through the Alps (Montblanc 55 Euros). The fuel in Montenegro and Croatia was surprisingly cheap at 1.45 per litre – I paid 2.20 at a services in Italy ! To try to avoid getting stuck again at the border Iva and Raytcho gave me a route to a smaller border crossing known only to locals. It involved a slight detour but was much quicker – no queue at all. On the Montenegro side there was just a man in a shed recording the vehicle and passport details in a hand written ledger. Of course once you enter Croatia (and the EU) it was much more professional but still very quiet. Having got used to day time temeperatures in the 20s it was a shock to get to Limoges and find it was close to freezing.

A huge thank you to Raytcho and Iva for the invitation and being perfect hosts, we thoroughly enjoyed the trip and hope to see you again very soon.