We woke before dawn to pack up and set off from our rustic, Tara River hideaway to try and catch the sun rising over the Tjentiste Spomenik, which was about an hour’s drive back into Bosnia. As our headlights illuminated the first stretch of our rugged drive, a dark blotch on the road ahead suddenly materialized into a stoic, sedentary fox; setting a surreal tone for the rest of the morning. Our destination was a gorgeous, mountainous national park area called Sutjeska, which was virtually deserted as we approached in the pale blue pre-dawn light. We reached the monument in time to watch the sun peak over the tree-covered hill in front of it. This particular monument was built to commemorate the fighters and over 7,000 fallen soldiers of Tito’s communist partisan party during the Battle of Sutjeska, which took place during WWII from May 15th to June 16th, 1943. In its heyday during the era of Yugoslavia, the monument was part of a larger memorial complex which included a visitors center and a large eastern bloc style hotel; both of which now stand empty and somewhat forgotten. We rounded out the morning with a breathtaking hike in the nearby Perućica reserve in Sutjeska National Park (the largest and one of the last two remaining primeval forests in Europe), affording us commanding views of surrounding mountains, waterfalls and valleys. While it may not be as popular of a destination as it was a few decades ago, the Tjentiste Spomenik was well worth the 4am wakeup required to see it trimmed with plumes of fog and golden morning light.
Following our morning of frolicking in rural Bosnia and Herzegovina (technically in the Republica Srpska region of the country), we doubled back toward the rafting camp to enter Montenegro at an adjacent border crossing. The latter half of our day was spent driving to our next accommodation through some absolutely stunning scenery. The first stretch of road into Montenegro meandered above the Tara River canyon; carved casually into the rocky slopes on either side. The serpentine ride switched frantically between the dark of driving through raw tunnels blasted straight out of the rock and bright, shimmering eyefuls of the pristine valley below. On our way through Niksic we stopped for a snack at the Spomenik at Trebjesa Hill. Contrasting our morning Spomenik visit, this statue was surrounded by liveliness. A herd of goats grazed the large green area surrounding it while dodging smacks from their herders’ canes, and groups of teenagers gathered at its base, conversing in distinct slavic tones. We arrived safely at our evening’s respite, Hotel Sokoline, after negotiating a series of tight switchbacks that led us up the side of a steep canyon wall overlooking a vibrant, bucolic valley called the Bjelopavlići plain. After settling in, we headed straight for the hotel’s restaurant terrace to enjoy the first of many incredible Montenegrin sunsets. It was the perfect accompaniment for a satisfying bottle of wine touting a favorable Montenegrin price-tag.