It seemed like a good idea at the time.
We were in Mostar, in southern Bosnia, and hadn’t been to a beach in months. We’d heard from a friend that although most of the beaches in Montenegro catered heavily to an Eastern European package-holiday-and-thousands-of-beach-umbrellas crowd, there was a little cove in Ulcinj that was much more relaxed.
Best of all, the little town was only 195km away as the crow flies. We’ll got there for a couple of nights, we thought, and work on our tans. Perfect.
14 hours after leaving Mostar and still sitting in a van, we were really wishing we were crows.
I should probably have got the hint when I was trying to buy tickets the day before. One of the bus companies offered just a solitary overnight option, leaving at 10.30pm. That seemed a little strange for such a short journey, so I found another option that left at 7am and would go as far as Budva, via Dubrovnik. From there, there were apparently regular minivans to Ulcinj.
Not a great deal more palatable, but those were the choices.
“How long should the trip take?”, I asked.
With a shrug, the woman behind the counter suggested somewhere around eight or nine hours. “Depends on border and traffic”, she said.
And indeed it did.
The bus arriving an hour late didn’t help, but at least for the first couple of hours we made reasonable progress. From that point on, however? Not so much. We crossed and re-crossed the border so often that I actually lost count of the number of times I handed my passport to someone that day. I think it was six, but it could easily have been more.
Traffic at all of the crossings was terrible. It wasn’t unusual to sit there for an hour, slowly crawling along while the air-conditioning failed to cope with the outside temperatures and packed bus. The view was beautiful, but it was hard to focus on it as we sweated in the heat and the trip showed no sign of ending.
With an ironic cheer we pulled into Budva, at least four hours late. The town looked like my worst kind of holiday nightmare, with acres of sunburned flesh waddling along the crowded sidewalks as we arrived at bus station.
Finding the ticket office, I asked when the next bus to Ulcinj left. “Right now!” was the answer, as we were hustled out the door and into an idling minibus. Two minutes later, and we would have been waiting another four hours for the next one – at which point I may well have broken down in tears.
It’s fair to say that once we finally arrived in Ulcinj, it failed to impress. Dropped off by the taxi hundreds of metres from our guesthouse, we navigated through souvenir stands and street performers, shouting families and all manner of touts as we struggled to find our stuffy, overheated room.
The party carried on all night, but after some food and (more than one) beer, we did not. Music blasted from the foreshore as we tossed and turned in our sweatbox, with any snatches of sleep being broken up by the call to prayer from the adjacent mosque. Tomorrow would just have to be a better day.
And it was. With the partying crowds still nursing their hangovers, the streets were quiet the following morning. For a brief time the air was cool. Nobody tried to sell us anything as we headed for the ocean.
Ignoring the main beach, which even at that early hour was starting to heave, we walked ten minutes over the hill to Liman Beach. Although far from empty, it felt like solitary confinement compared to the other options. It took a while to find a comfortable position amidst the large stones, but the water was crisp and refreshing, the few umbrellas were cheap to rent and the general air of laid-back calm was a nice change of pace.
This was the beach time we had been craving. Several hours of doing not much, reading books, working on our tans and occasionally rock-hopping down to the water to cool off. Not quite the traditional experience for someone bought up to believe that beaches contain sand, granted, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.
Eventually, though, the sun got a little too hot and the rocks digging into my back became a little too uncomfortable. We headed back, and other than some aimless wandering in a half-hearted attempt to explore the town later in the day, that was it for Ulcinj.
We had another all-day journey ahead of us the next day, a half-hour taxi ride to Bar before a twelve (read: fourteen) hour train ride to the Serbian capital of Belgrade. All in all, we had spent 28 hours on public transport to spend half a day at the beach.
Was it worth it? Well, in a way it was – those few precious hours in the sun were great, and just what we needed. Also, while the beachside towns didn’t do much to impress, other parts of Montenegro looked gorgeous as we passed through them. I’d be keen to come back and check them out properly in the future.
Would we do it all again, however?
Not a hope in hell.