Lovćen Park and a drive of a lifetime: a vertical mile of switchbacks

One place in Montenegro I was absolutely sure we wanted to see was Lovćen Park. Now that we had good weather, we grabbed the opportunity. Bojan had secured us a rent car, delivered to our apartment and at a small discount to anything I’d been able to find. Bojan was turning out to be an AirBnB host extraordinaire.

There are two routes to Lovćen Park from Kotor: the longer route via Budva and new roads and the shorter route via an older narrow, switch-back filled road up the face of the mountain at the end of Kotor bay. The road leads to the community of Cetinje. We’d heard rumors that the older Cetinje road was closed, but Goran had assured us that was not the case and we were dying to try it. Actually, David was definitely eager to try it and I thought I was, too, but with some reservations. While the views were said to be breathtaking, I had some concerns about the condition and safety of the road.

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Google gives us an idea of what to expect: lots and lots of switchbacks

The quality of the road turned out to be pretty good. It was well paved and reasonably maintained, if a bit narrow in spots and with some truly alarming gaps in the stone safety wall. Some of the gaps were intentional, some clearly the result of impacts. As we climbed higher and higher, eventually well above many of the surrounding mountains, I tried hard not to think of what had happened to the people in vehicles that had crashed into those walls. It was impossible not to think of them, and of the sheer drop just feet away. I rolled down my window for a better (more terrifying view) and the sound added a whole new dimension; the abyss seemed to roar from each gap in the stone wall. While David enjoyed driving a stick shift up this mountain, I was not nearly as sanguine and maintained a nervous monologue. Sometimes, its scarier to be the passenger (as anyone who’s taught a teenager to drive can attest)!

Often, the road was not wide enough for two cars and I cringed at the thought of passing. When we did meet another car, David flashed lights to signal the other driver to proceed as we’d seeen Goran do. Fortunately, there was not much traffic.

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Oh, joy. Cows and a blind curve!
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No shoulder, a gap in the wall, and a sheer drop
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Above other mountains: View from the roadside of Kotor and the bay
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Narrow tunnel requires one-way traffic at a time

As we neared the top, we left the beautiful day below and drove into the clouds and the temperature dropped dramatically.

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Driving into the clouds

Reaching Cetinje, we found few buildings: a closed roadside restaurant and a zip line, both presumably set to reopen with tourist season. The way to Lovćen Park was well-marked and we had no problems finding the entrance to the park. At a gate, we paid €2pp to enter.

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The narrow road through the park traversed a rugged and often barren landscape and was not nearly as good as the switchback road. At one point it narrowed to a 1-lane raised stretch with no rails and a drop-off on either side. Thankfully, we didn’t meet another car there as maneuvering would have been a tricky business. The weather, too, was completely different and not nearly as good as below. The temperature had dropped, clouds filled the sky; there was even snow banked along the shadier sides of the road.

At the center of the park, we reached our ultimate destination, the tomb of Montenegro’s hero poet, Njegoš. Climbing 461 steps brought us to the imposing modern mausoleum. The mausoleum has been a source of some controversy, but Njegoš himself remains a popular source of pride. We paid a few euros apiece to enter the mausoleum in part to escape a sudden cold rain shower. The ticket seller kindly offered to loan us an old Yugoslavian-era guidebook with English.

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Steps to the tomb of Njegoš, with many more to go inside the mountain
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Courtyard of Njegoš’ Mausoleum

Beyond the somber mausoleum is a spectacular mirador with a sweeping 360° view.

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New management had just taken over the restaurant space at the base  of the mausoleum steps and so we escaped the increasingly bad weather for the dry, but cold and cave-like interior of Restoran Vidikovac Lovćen. I mean “cave-like” in the most literal sense, the restaurant having been carved into the mountain. The location is fascinating and would have really spectacular views from its terrace on a sunny day. Today, however was not that day and we were happy to be inside. The manager (or maybe owner) greeted us warmly, eager to fill the empty space. Soon another group arrived and ordered drinks so things were not quite so desolate. Available menu items were limited, so we ordered what they had. An older woman behind the counter made the ubiquitous Montenegran pork cutlet to order. We’d quickly learned that despite our expectations of great seafood fresh from the Adriatic, other than squid, this country ate pork. And cheese. And pork with cheese, wrapped in ham. And ham and cheese sandwiches. According to Goran, a Montenegran’s idea of seafood is “pig that’s fallen in the sea.” Oh well, it was way too short on vegetables for us, but tasty nonetheless and very filling.

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Typical Montenegran lunch: pork, pork, bread and cheese

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