Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Croatia to Montenegro

There was an unexpected early start today when Kim got up and threw back the shutters announcing that it was half past seven. Even though I was still asleep it was clear to me that it wasn’t anything like half past seven and sure enough it was only half past five and Kim has read her watch backwards!

Although we went back to sleep we needed an early start anyway because today we were driving to Montenegro. Over a second excellent breakfast we had to keep this to ourselves however because our Croatian hosts were not especially impressed that we were visiting the neighbours who caused so much damage in this part of Croatia only fifteen years or so before and certainly weren’t keen to encourage us to go there.

We wanted to go to Montenegro because we were aware of it up and coming status as a holiday destination and with the Montenegrin Tourist Board making big claims like,

‘Montenegro is the pearl of the Mediterranean situated in the south of the Adriatic, there is nowhere else that you can find, in such a small place, so much natural wealth, beauty, beaches, clear lakes, fast rivers, gorgeous mountains, history, culture, tradition, good weather, clean air, beautiful nature, blue Adriatic Sea, everyone should visit Montenegro sometime’

we felt obliged to go there before it gets too busy so when we left we drove out of Mlini and took the main coast road south, back past Cavtat and the airport and then towards the border.

Driving is not straight forward in Croatia for a number of reasons. First of all there are the unfamiliar rules like driving with headlamps on even during the day, which seems a bit pointless when the sun is permanently shining. And then there is the issue of speed limits: Because the main road runs through every town and village along the coast these change frequently and you have to keep your wits about you to make sure you are not speeding. These speed limits however to not apply to the Croatian drivers who quickly become impatient when held up by an inconvenient tourist and I frequently found myself at the front of an increasing queue of traffic who didn’t share my resolve for dutiful compliance with the limits. Whenever I could therefore I had to practice my impression of a Lincolnshire tractor driver and pull over at a convenient spot and let everyone pass.

South of the airport there were two more hazards, first of all the potholes that had to be carefully negotiated and secondly, caterpillars. Yes, caterpillars! I saw some things wriggling across the road but it took a while and a few casualties to realise what they were. There were hundreds of the little things making a dangerous crossing from one side to the other and the smears on the road was proof that a lot of them didn’t make it. I have no idea why they were doing but I have been doing some calculations to try and fully appreciate the risk. Each caterpillar was about five centimetres long and the road about eight metres wide so this would be the equivalent of an average man attempting to cross a busy motorway the length of three football pitches without getting run down and was therefore fairly hazardous.

As we approached the border the scenery stared to change, the mountains retreated further inland and we drove along the edge of a large lush green valley flanked by gentle hills with an abundance of trees and then the valley disappeared and the road was squeezed into a narrow pass that brought us to the border controls.

First of all we had to get out of Croatia and this involved a fifteen minute wait while the only man on duty was dealing with traffic coming in the opposite direction before a second man finally arrived to deal with traffic going into Montenegro. And then after a couple of kilometres we had to stop again and be processed by the Montenegrin border guards. These guys were really thorough and although there were only two vehicles in front of us this took another fifteen minutes of passport and hire car details scrutiny before we were allowed to proceed.

While we waited the environment police checked the sticker in the windscreen to make sure our environment tax was up to date, which luckily for us some previous hirer had paid for and which saved us the €10 tourist tax scam. The Robin Hood style tax is explained by the Montenegrin Government “as being in response to the increase in the number of vehicles which have additional negative influence on the air quality and the general degradation of the environment as such. The increased number of vehicles effects the emission of pollutants and dangerous substances and endangers the environment, especially during the summer season, due to the increased numbers of foreign tourists”. What a load of bullshit!

Now we were somewhere different but the first sign we saw was the familiar blue EU sign that announces the funding of an improvement project and this surprised us because they are not even in the EU: is it any wonder that we have an economic crisis I wondered? Montenegro is classified as a highly developed country by the Human Development Index but one of two former Yugoslav republics which are marked as ‘Moderate’ on the Failed States Index. As it turns out Montenegro has been receiving more European Union funding per capita than any other country for the last few years and €131.3 million has been earmarked by the European Commission for Montenegro to assist it achieve what is called European integration. Montenegro became a recipient of the EU funding through a new mechanism, the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, or IPA, and most of the funds have gone towards ‘strengthening the infrastructure and management of the transportation sector’.

Well, we didn’t see much evidence of that and just as in Croatia I was being careful with speed limit compliance and once again I was irritating the local drivers. I wasn’t deliberately trying to make a nuisance of myself it was just that I was being mindful of the Foreign Office advice to take care when driving in Montenegro because the traffic cops can be rigorous in enforcing the law especially with foreign motorists and I was very conscious of having a Croatian number plate. It was a good job that I was being careful because in the thirty kilometre drive to our accommodation we passed four speed trap patrols that were waiting to pounce.

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