I have two conversations before I set off for the summit of Mount Jezerski, the second highest peak in Lovcen National Park.
“You can’t possibly get lost” says the lady in the national park office.
“Did you know there are snakes in Montenegro?” says Elaine.
I am comforted by neither of these statements.
The first is demonstrably untrue because at the trailhead, supposedly for Mount Jezerski, there isn’t a single sign that says ‘Mount Jezerski’. Instead there’s a sign that says ‘Njegoseva Staza-Mausolej’ and a dusty track that winds off into a scrub-filled prairie. In addition, not one but two mountain peaks rise in the distance, with the sign pointing firmly – but unhelpfully – between the two. I take National Park Lady at her word and stride off down the track.
There may – or may not – be snakes
After about ten minutes, the jury is still out on the second statement. Elaine, let’s face it, has derived all her knowledge about snakes in Montenegro from a guidebook. I used to write guidebooks. Made stuff up all the time. Those pages don’t fill themselves. So there may or may not be snakes. But then again, there is lots of skittering and slithering in the undergrowth on either side of the track as I walk on by.
I scout around and pick up a large stick, which makes a satisfying warning clunk as it hits the ground with every stride. Guidebook writers are occasionally right after all.
The track leaves the valley and meanders slowly uphill, through a bare, rocky landscape. Red paint splashes mark the way, and at sharp turns in the track there are occasional small piles of stones left by passing hikers. Insects flit and buzz in the scorching sun – the sound of unseen crickets is so persistent that it eventually becomes part of the background noise, along with the clacking of the stick and the crunch of my boots on loose gravel.
At a meeting of two trails there’s suddenly a profusion of signposts, one of which says – glory be – ‘Jezerski vrh (1657m)’. ‘Vrh’ being Montenegrin for ‘what on earth are you worried about, mountain this way’. More red paint splashes indicate the route, which now crosses a flowering meadow so full of insects it buzzes like the sound of a chainsaw. Clouds of winged beetles and looping butterflies rise about my face and I wave them off with my free hand. If you think I’m letting go of that snake stick, you’re mad.
Views drop away to either side
A final clamber up a dense, tree-clad hillside brings me to a flight of concrete steps and then a car park. I’m red-faced, panting and dripping with sweat, the sun baking the back of my neck – but I’d still rather have walked this far than driven. There are views dropping away to either side and I’m looking down on smaller mountains and across to far bigger ones in the distance on all sides.
At the top of another flight of steps, a tunnel disappears into the rock and a man in a little cabin relieves me of €5, in order that I can climb another 500 steps to the summit.
For this is not just the top of a mountain. It’s the burial place and mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš (1813–1851), Montenegro’s best-loved ruler, poet and philosopher. Which explains the ‘Njegoseva Staza-Mausolej’ sign at the bottom of the trail, though you can’t help thinking someone might have explained that a bit earlier. National Park Lady, say. Or Elaine, she had the guidebook after all. Too busy with the chapter on snakes to mention it I expect.
Njegoš slumbers in the outstretched wings of an eagle
Telamonic figures tower at the entrance to the gilded mausoleum, where a gigantic figure of Petar – known as Njegoš – slumbers in the outstretched wings of an eagle. His achievements were many and great, and laid the foundation for the modern state of Montenegro. His last wish was to be buried at the summit of Jezerski, in a mountain range that inspired the very name of the country, Montenegro or ‘Black Mountain’ – ‘black’ for the dark, dense forests that cover Lovcen.
Through a stone passageway behind the monumental tomb, I emerge at the top of the world. A narrow stone path runs across an exposed ridge to a viewing rotunda, where 360-degree views unfold across an extraordinary tapestry of peaks, forests and plains. West is the glittering Adriatic ocean, north and east Serbia, south Albania – a famous Balkan view that repays the long, slow climb that got me here.
Day-trippers frolic on the walls, taking posed photographs with jaw-dropping backgrounds, and then turn back down the steps for their cars.
Me, I’m going to sit here for a while and bask in the gentle breeze of a hot summer sun. Climbed the second highest mountain in Montenegro. Didn’t get lost. No snakes. That’s a good day all round.
WATCH THE VIDEO! See more amazing views on the trail in Lovcen National Park, in southern Montenegro.
Is this Europe’s best mountain view? Follow me on the trail up Mount Jezerski and decide for yourself. I show you the way and give you some tips for a great day’s walk in Montenegro.
Need to know – Lovcen National Park
Lovcen National Park is close to Cetinje, Montenegro’s old royal capital. There’s no public transport, but a taxi from Cetinje costs €10 and takes about half an hour. You ask for ‘Ivanova Korita’, which is where the two hotels are sited.
The hike up Mount Jezerski
The signposted trailhead is just on the road a few hundred metres below the Monte Rosa hotel. Follow the red trail marks on the track for ‘Njegoseva Staza-Mausolej’ and you really can’t go wrong! It’s signposted as a 5.5km, 2hr 30min, walk (one way), but it’s more like 4km and under 2hr for most average walkers; and about another hour or so to get back down on the same track.
You can drive up if you wish – and there’s even a bar-restaurant at the car park. But if you’re reasonably fit and used to hiking you’ll be able to make it with no trouble. In summer, the lack of shade is the only challenge – wear a hat and take plenty of water if you’re walking.
Staying and eating
I stayed at the Hotel Ivanov Konak, which is a traditional mountain inn with cosy rooms and a terrace restaurant. It’s a bit old-school, but very friendly and not too pricey, and you get a massive breakfast – the trailhead is about a 20-minute walk down the road from here.
I ate at the more modern Hotel Monte Rosa, which is closer to the trailhead and has an even better terrace, with views across to Mount Jezerski. To be honest, I’d probably stay here too next time, as the food was better and more varied, and it has a pool.
There is another daytime cafe, on the road between the two hotels – it’s a good, cheap place for pasta and pizza at lunch, with a tree-shaded terrace.