The Prokletije holiday

Sharp peaks, bears and traditional singing. What’s not to like?

The Prokletije, thanks to their ominous name (the Accursed Mountains), never sounded like a likely holiday destination for me. I assumed them to be dark and scary, and the only fact I knew about them is that they were the place where the (former?) highest peak in Serbia was located.

It was only after last month that I realised their amazing beauty, when my father visited during a trip around our ancestral home which lay a few kilometres west in Murino.

Initially five of my friends wanted to join, which in the typical process of Belgrade flaking ended up being two brave souls: J. and Z.

We set off south early on a Friday. We stopped in Novi Pazar for ćevapi and saw their beautiful old hammam. We stopped again at Crna Reka monastery, widely known for abuse of recovering addicts who stayed there, but not known enough for a fantastic 14th century cave church and its ingenious construction, clinging to a rock over a gorge.

Once we got to Gusinje, our jaws immediately dropped at seeing Karanfili, a series of stern, majestic peaks which looked over the Grebaja valley. We walked around, stunned by the landscape and stunned by the quiet. We even decided to walk without talking to take it all in.

At night, we had a hearty portion of kačamak, a polenta with a mix of local dairy products, while listening to a group of local guys who were eagerly singing Montenegrin songs. They only stopped to congratulate each other on how good their voices were. Other guests, a middle-aged German couple with an iPad and two young Germans who travelled in a camper van, were perplexed. Once we got to our little huts, we slept like lambs, helped by a few tipples of great rakija.

The next day we climbed up Volušnica, the peak with the best views over monstrous and mesmerising Karanfili. We pushed through a wonderful forest, criss-crossed by dry streams, and then up over the steep paths surrounded by juniper bushes. By the time we got up to 1900m at Volušnica we were almost dead, but completely taken by the scenery.

We braved onwards towards the spike of Talijanka (2056m), over ridges with sharpish drops on both sides.

Once we got to a little grove, we heard some tractor-like roaring from the trees. There was no one around. We agreed it was a boar, and pressed on. After conquering Talijanka, we were rewarded by seeing the sea of peaks towards Albania, which lay only a few meters from the peak.

Then we started going down, with our legs barely holing us up over the slipper rocks. Once at our restaurant, I was shivering and then all three of us collapsed into our beds. We woke up at night to enjoy the magnificent starry skies, and to hear a bunch of Montenegrins singing again in the honour of one of them who returned from Ontario. At the end of the performance they fired a few pistol rounds into the quiet night.

The next day, we had to leave for Belgrade.

We said goodbye to our wonderful hosts. Once we started saying how mesmerizing the scenery is they said they would gladly trade it for anywhere else, especially in the winter when snowploughs don’t reach the valley and temperatures drop to -30C. I asked the impressively moustachioed host about whether the noise we heard on our hike was a boar.

“It was a bear. We saw four around here just the other day. They are nice – a bit like dogs. They just leave.”

We decided we needed more of the Prokletije and went to Ropojane valley to see the Eye of Skakavica, an opalescent, green pool in the middle of the forest. On our way, there was a wonderful old mosque with a wooden minaret and many mega-houses, probably built by remittances from Germany.

The Ropojane valley was less dramatic, but picturesque in its own right. We followed the Skakavica river through the forest and got to the pool, which was its source. Once we got there, we were alone, and the scene was otherworldly, but for the trash that some tourists left at the banks. After 15 minutes of selfies, we realised that wind is getting stronger and started going back to our car.

We were wondering why we have never heard of the great beauty of Prokletije, which was comparable to the Alps or great American national parks. The only tourist we saw hiking around the Prokletije were Germans, there were no locals. Growing up, we always thought that great beauty is elsewhere, far away, so the magical places like the Prokletije, were overlooked, and discounted due to their their proximity.

“Do you know Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright?”, Z. said, while taking photos of some beautiful pink bush

“Yes.”

“Well… you can’t see the waterfall from any of the windows. Because familiarity slowly erodes the beauty.”

We rushed to the car and escaped the incoming storm.

On our way back we passed over the gorge of Lim, the expanse of Zlatibor and the fortress of Užice, which was being reconstructed.

Then we stopped near Požega to go to Jarijada (literally “kid-fest”) to, ironically, have some goat after we saw the event on Facebook. The fair took place on clearing: there was a small carousel and a tent, which was blasting ridiculous music, sung by a pair of brawny, big headed singers. There was no goat meat left as the competitors in kid-roasting finished their competition and have shared the meat with their families. We had to settle for some wonderful pork, served while we were listening to a ridiculous song about Prince Lazar, the NATO and Serbia. Although the whole setting made Guča look like night at the opera, it wasn’t unpleasant, but for the ultranationalist overtones, which the organisers tolerated if not encouraged. A guy dressed in biker-četnik garb wanted to pick a fight with one of the kid-roasters.

Full from the food, we drove back to Belgrade.

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