Montenegro: Montagne al Mare

After another semi-sleepless night bus ride with four border stops as we passed out of Macedonia, into Albania, out of Albania, and finally into Montenegro, I woke up to the flash and roar of a lightning storm rolling between the Montenegrin mountains and the Adriatic sea. The view beyond my window would have been magnificent in even the bleakest light but brightened by spears of lightning and enrobed in dark cumulous clouds it was sublime.

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KOTOR

As we wound through mountains and into little seaside towns the bus lost the last of it’s few passengers and by the time we reached Kotor I was the only one left aboard. The rain had abated by the time I stepped off the bus and soon I was well and truly committed to getting entirely lost in the winding medieval laneways of the old city. Even with my GPS it took several tries to find my accommodation—the myriad stops to play with kittens in the nearly silent morning air. Once I had dropped my bags I was sent back out into the city to entertain myself until check in at 2pm. I had thought I would just find a cute cafe in the old town to eat, caffeinate, and read but I soon discovered that the old town was home to only restaurants which were not open until much closer to lunch. Leaving the old town and heading to the promenade, the restaurants were replaced by caffe bars which were slowly filling with locals enjoying a breakfast of coffee and cigarettes. I would have preferred clearer air and rather more caloric content than the milk in my coffee provided but after an hour of wandering fruitlessly, I decided that Cafe Loco was the least smokey of my options and settled in for a coffee. The terminology is different iN Montenegro so cafe latte wasn’t recognized but coffee with milk got the point across and soon I had a glass of coffee with a plastic straw. I sipped my lukewarm coffee, read my book, and stared out the window at the beautiful bay beyond.

Technically the bay of Kotor is a ria or a submerged river valley but it looks like nothing so much as a Norwegian Fjord with high piebald ridges of stone and scrubby vegetation rising up steeply from the water. As the sun crept in over the mountains the sky shifted from a warm grey to a searingly bright blue and the water lit up with pin points of glitter on every ripple and wave.

Once I’d lingered over my coffee as long as felt acceptable, I headed back to the old town via a bakery where I acquired a cheese filled burek to eat as I walked. I naively expected to return to the peaceful stone streets I’d left an hour or so before. I was mistaken. By 10am the town was full of passengers from the two cruiseships docked in the very point of the bay and though Kotor receives and diffuses them gracefully through its many alleys the serenity of the morning was lost entirely.

As I dodged the hoards of British tourists, I soon found myself standing before the cat museum which happens to share a building with the city’s public library. I wasn’t sure what to expect but soon found three little rooms filled with examples of cats in every printed medium from world war propaganda to municipal legislation, building invoices, and reams and reams of postcards. The naked ladies with cats series was probably the most entertaining but it was closely matched by the Hitler cat. Outside the museum I also found a large ancient poplar tree that claimed to have been a popular meeting place for the people of Kotor for more than a few hundred years. It was certainly gracious in its largess and shadiness.

Back in the old town I also had my first taste of the effect of old church bells in an even older city. To call it cacophonous would be an understatement, but somehow the clamorous tones of too many bells in too little space was still pleasant if not exactly euphonic. I continued my wander until check in time and then set off to the grocery store to pick up a few things for my dinners for the next few days. I then was lured by a mixture of delicious smells and my own weakness into a bakery where I acquired both sweet and savoury pastries for my lunch which I ate on a bench, beside a church, beneath a tree, and surrounded by stray cats.

As I was sitting there munching my first pastry, a dirty scruffy little white kitten hopped up onto the bench beside me and very soon had planted himself in my lap with such aplomb that I felt I could hardly refuse. I didn’t pet him, I didn’t feed him, I just sat there on the bench and he sat there on me happy as a clam and only occasionally employing his needly shark little kitten claws to perforate my pants. As we were sitting there in our mutually independent pleasure, a French lady wandered by wanting to converse about the cats. I probably could have held up a conversation but I wasn’t exactly prepared and she was VERY French and as a result, after my first stumbled sentence she gave me that look of dismay said a few words about how they had cats like this in her town and then stalked off to find someone possessed of more convincing language skills than my own. This is why I find it hard to dedicate myself to learning French.

When I got back to the hostel to rest a bit, I found the dorm occupied by two shirtless lads in the throes of an epic bromance. One of the bros was a quiet German, the other was a loud American who could have been easily mistaken for an Australian as far as his long bleached hair and general don’t-care attitude went; both were shirtless and remained so as long as they were in the hostel. Having decided that shirtless bro land was not going to be conducive to a quiet rest, I set back out to see if I could get into the local library.

Climbing the stairs in a nondescript apartment stairwell just beside the first floor cat museum I was almost convinced that the library sign was just some historic note rather than an indicator of an actual local amenity. I was in fact about to give up when a woman came up the stairs with a quizzical expression of “what are you doing here?” on her face. I decided it would be better to set her fears of vandalism/buglary at ease by owning to my actual purpose rather than just fleeing past her to the outdoors. So I met her gaze and asked “biblioteka?” Turns out I was right in front of the door though you would never have known it was anything but another apartment—especially if you, like me, don’t exactly know cyrillic.

Inside the door I found a friendly librarian and a few shelves of miscellaneous books. they had no cutters on the spines but there were number listed inside the front cover and they seemed to be shelved on the basis of a very well limited set of Dewey numbers (almost exclusively 800s). I’ve never before seen a library so almost entirely fiction employ Dewey but I suppose it is one way to go.

Following another round of aimless strolling (and getting lost) in the old town, I decided it was time for a real adventure. I was going to find my way to the two old Austro-Hungarian forts from WWI that now rest abandoned in the hills around Kotor. Some two and a half hours of adventuring on the narrow, winding, and shoulderless highway past wild pomegranate trees heavy with fruit and fig trees having already been stripped of theirs, I arrived at the first fort: Gorazda. I was had only been nearly run-over once, had only one tear in my trousers, and had only witnessed one accident (to those wondering, no, I was in no way the cause). As I approached the old abandoned fortressed carved into the mountain top, I heard a strange rhythmic drumming associated with a man seated at the edge of the fort. I will admit that I was initially very wary but as I snuck nervously around the perimeter but I soon realized that it was not some strange rain dance but simply a man with his drum pads and a quiet place to practice without offending any neighbours.

I left my fellow adventurer to his percussion and wandered through the open door into the fort. I love the laissez-faire attitude around abandoned buildings in these sorts of countries. Sure it’s probably dangerous, some of the entries might be blocked off, but there is always a way in and there is seldom any sort of attempt to create an attraction of the thing. It’s there if you want to go in, but you’ll be doing so at your own risk. So I helped myself to a little adventure up and down staircases, through all manner of rooms with various levels of natural light and eventually made my way to the roof where I camped out amongst the now gunless turrets enjoying the view and the rising winds.

As the clouds creeping over the mountains behind me began to darken to indigo and trails of cold mist began to dribble down the leas, I decided it was time to get going to the second fort, Vrmac. I headed back down through the intoxicating perfume of the pine forests, past the apathetic cows and shockingly large lizards, and back up another hill to Vrmac. As I wandered along the roadside a charming couple in an SUV stopped to offer me a lift but having already committed myself to an adventure I declined. I really shouldn’t have. Within five minutes I had been suckered in by the temptation of a path straight up that promised to cut off a large section of winding, hairpin turn filled road. Initially it was an excellent idea. Sometime later I was clawing my way over rocks and through VERY aggressive local foliage cursing my damned curiosity and the stubbornness that had denied me the option of turning back and returning to the road. Covered in scratches and full of fragments of the forest, I eventually made it back to the road having saved maybe 5 minutes of time. I will not bother to defend my conduct.

When I reached Vrmac, I was initially deterred by a strongly padlocked entrance but as I was circumnavigating the fort in search of an alternate entry I spotted a pair of middle aged British adventurers crawling through a window, flashlight in hand. I was on their tail in no time. This fort was larger, more dilapidated, and offered access to the undersides of the gun turrets. It was also very much darker which made me very glad for the little headlamp I’d remembered to tuck in my purse before I left the hostel. Having explored all but the very darkest and scariest chambers of the fort, I returned to the air and the cows and began my descent (on a footpath, finally!) to the town. As I wended my way back and forth down the seemingly endless hillside trail, I caught the strains of music and initially got all sorts of excited about the potential that it was a live musical event. It wasn’t. It was only the day’s cruiseship pulling out of its berth and sailing merrily away to the strains of a farewell song and the MC’s shout outs to all the different nationalities of passengers.

When I eventually reached the town and found my way back to the hostel, I cooked a simple dinner, had a short chat with some other travellers, and packed my exhausted self promptly into bed. By virtue of my lack of sleep on the bus the night before and my hours of walking, hiking, and adventuring I slept like a baby.

I woke the next morning to peals of church bells shattering the 8am stillness of the old town. Being of an indulgent character I remained in bed until 8:30am when the bells were joined by voices raised in song and I decided that it was time to get up and face the day. My plan was to visit a nearby town that was famed for its medieval seaside. I had heard the it was possible to get a bus there but Google Maps also informed me that it would only take 2.5hours to walk so I decided to query the staff as to the likelihood of death by sideswiping cars should I choose to follow Google’s advice. The charming girl at the reception assured me that it was completely safe, which it was for the first hour and a half or so while I had a quite coastal road to stroll along, but then I was redirected to the main road and suddenly it was a repeat of the previous days adventures but with rather more cars travelling at rather higher speeds. In the interests of not dying I decided to start searching for a bus stop. It was only a few hundred metres of near death before I eventually found just what I was looking for and rode the rest of the way to Perast in the company of a motley crew of locals and tourists.

When I reached the town I found a quaint enough collection of old buildings linked by more stairs than sidewalks as they clung desperately to the hillside rising out of the bay. I decided to begin by venturing out to the island of Our Lady of the Rocks which houses a pretty little church built on a shoal that wrecked at least one large important ship. The ride across was a pleasant 5 minutes on the glassy bay but upon arrival I met hoards of tourists and very nearly regretted the journey. I persevered past the piles of people taking photos in the arches of the church, and peeked into the chapel which was filled with beautiful chased silver icons and mementos from all the weddings that have been held there. After circling the church and taking all the requisite photos I returned to the boat and soon was joined by a tour group of 30 some middle aged French people. It was a very full boat but we were back in minutes and I fled to the hillside where I could see another deliciously ruined fortress, this one of a rather more medieval extraction. After a bit of an adventure through the winding stairways I eventually reached the highway and a narrow, overgrown staircase up towards the fort.

At the top of the staircase, I found a fortress closed by a gate locked only with a leather lace tied into a rather intricate knot. There was nothing really stopping me but I decided to respect the knot and settle for an adventure around the outside. Behind the fortress at the highest point I found some sort of storage space dug into the earth and absolutely swarming with flies. The scent that poured from it seriously suggested that I should have taken a look and possibly had the local homicide department on the line as I did, but on account of solo travel and a preference against complication and disgust, I elected to just leave it be and return to the touristy part of the town. So I traipsed back down the myriad reasons that one wouldn’t want to be an invalid in Perast and found myself a little seaside restaurant for lunch. I ate a bowl of mussels followed by coffee and a delicious Montenegrin cream square. The square was layers of crispy fine pastry filled with thick, rich, indulgent cream ever so lightly touched with vanilla.

Once fed, I set off for the beach where I claimed a deck chair, changed into my bathing suit and slowly eased myself into the still-a-bit-chilly-for-me sea. I paddled about happily in the still water and eventually decided that it was time to return to land and work on my tan. I had been lounging in the sun for about 15 minutes when the proprietors of the beachside bar noticed me and ousted me from my lounger lest I desired to pay the handsome fee of €5 for the privilege of remaining. So instead I sat on the concrete until I was nearly dry and then shuffled off to a different dock to kill a few more hours reading and enjoying the sun.

When I had flirted the edge of sunburn for long enough, I set off to find a bus stop and passed another wedding. The thing about travelling solo in the summer is that you are going to feel incredibly alone. A lot. But the couple was beautiful and quirky and the reception looked lovely so I moved along with a smile on my face to find the bus stop.

Once back in Kotor I made the most ghetto risotto that has ever been made. Rather than rice, I used barley and rather than broth and wine, I used butter and water. It wasn’t exactly authentic but it was tasty enough and it filled my tummy. After dinner I went out for a wander through the dark and noticed models doing fashion shoots at various locations in the town and some sort of set up for an event beneath the hostel window. Shortly after my return to the dorm I heard loud music rising through the window and looked out to see that the set up had turned into an honest to goodness runway fashion show on the cobbles below. The dresses were pretty enough but alas the models, though pretty seemed rather lacklustre and shy. They didn’t have that sass that gives fashion its delicious little edge, but I suppose you can only ask for so much in a small town on the Montenegrin coast. Either way it provided an amusing diversion for me, the Argentinian, and New Zealander who were sitting chatting in the dorm. Fortunately the music was turned down to a reasonable volume in time for me to slip away to sleep.

The following morning dawned dreary and grey with an active threat of rain so I obviously decided it was the perfect day to go hike up a mountain. Dodging the paid entry to the fortress, I clambered up the old trail along the outside of the walls, past a ruined church and into the fortress itself. At this point it’s mostly just walls, stairs, and a few ruined buildings but the views were lovely and it provided a nice break for exploration before I began the second leg of my journey up the mountain behind the fortress. Hairpin turn after hairpin turn I walked through pomegranate trees and over rock slide areas with a better view each time I turned back. In the inclement weather I had the mountain to myself and the cooler temperature meant that I managed to avoid becoming a total sweaty mess.

Rather later, as I reached the summit of that mountain with the bay spread below me and flanked by sheaves of mountains thickening with mist, I reached a signpost. Now the signpost gave no indication of how to get toy original destination (the National Park) but it did give me an option that, according to my phone, pointed in that general direction though at a rather steep incline. So there I was again, bending back and forth across a slope, travelling ever upwards only this time it was through a forest. Less than an hour later I reached a settlement, Zanjev Do, where I found lovely views, a quiet little restaurant, and several clumps of older British, American, and Australian tourists equipped with cars. They were no little alarmed to find that I had just come from Kotor as I rose up out of the underbrush and onto the roadside look out point.

I would have continued on to what the signs labelled Kuk, but less than 10 more minutes up the path, I found my way blocked by a very large dog with very long legs and a rather menacing bark. He didn’t care that it was a public hiking trail, it was his trail and he, standing in the middle of it, was not inclined to let me pass. So, deciding to avoid a repeat of the Bulgaria adventure, I turned on my heel and headed back to the restaurant where I ate grilled sausages and chips with avjar—a delicious red pepper spread—with a gorgeous view of the entire ria.

Fed and rested, I headed back down towards Kotor under an ever strengthening sun. Through the forest I was still on my own, but as I stepped out into a brilliant hot light on the open mountainside I found I had been joined by at least a handful of other hikers labouring painfully up through the sun. There is something so delightful about hiking down accomplished while others are still suffering their way up.

Once off the mountain I popped back into the fortress to explore what remained on the way down. The answer: mostly tourists and stairs in various stages of refurbishment. Fortunately there was also a ramp of rough stones (or smooth pavers depending upon exactly where in the castle you were) so I hopped off the stairs and made my own rather swifter way down by ramp. I was nearly at the bottom when a trio of Italian stallions decided to play hero and nearly upset the entire adventure. Despite appearing just as fit (or more so) than me, they were carefully picking their way down the steps. When one looked back to see me making my way down the ramp he, in horror threw out a hand to catch me with a shout of “piano! slowly slowly!” which queued the two before him to unleash their valour as well. So now my way was met by three sets of flailing arms and all manner of shouted cautions and insistences upon assistance, because clearly the last flight of stairs/ramp was going to do me in entirely. In order to avoid them not only blocking up the stairs but also probably upsetting my own balance, I informed them that I was just fine and dodged by just beyond the reach of their heroism. I appreciate the idea but it seems at least a little foolish to presume that someone young and fit, moving confidently upon a surface, will need the help of three men mincing along on the easier surface.

I spent the rest of my afternoon reading on a wooden platform on the beach before purchasing butter and wine and heading back to the hostel to conjure another ‘risotto’ into existence. The hostel employees seemed to find me rather an entertaining specimen as I stood, headphones in, over a stove carefully stirring my barley into a creamy rich dish of some small degree of delicious and healthy.

After dinner I headed out into the darkness where I fell victim to first the call of sweet corn and second the sweet little mewlings of the local stray kitten population. How else can I explain spending the better part of an hour sitting in the sill of a church door with two kittens snuggled up in my lap, two sitting under my legs, and two more bounding around tackling my purse, each other, and me. My asthma won’t thank me, but my love of animals certainly did.

My final day in Kotor I spent most of the morning back on the wooden platform reading, tanning, and maybe napping a little. I cannot confirm. I ate a simple lunch at the hostel, took a wander around the harbour in the other direction, and generally took it as easy as my tired body and battered shoes required. There was an awful lot of sitting in picturesque places reading. I hadn’t intended to repeat my feline weakness a second night but as I was taking my evening tour, the tiniest little grey kitten came crying out of the cold windy night towards my feet and soon we were snuggled up together on a bench with me reading and him snuggling up for warmth inside my sweater. The other cats were all either hiding somewhere warm or going absolutely nutsy in the wind, but my little runt of a kitten was absolutely content to just sit and snuggle. I felt like the meanest person in the world when I eventually had to extract him and return to my bed.

The next morning I awoke to much improved weather and a fascinating conversation in the hostel kitchen as I poached eggs. It seems that one of my fellow guests was an anthropology PhD student from Berkeley working on a project on language in public places in the Balkans. Now this is particularly interesting because almost all languages spoken in the Western Balkans are basically Serbian or Albanian, but in each country they are labelled according to political and nationalist needs as Croatian, Montenegrin, Macedonian, etc. They also employ cyrillics or not as the local ethno-political milieu feels most appropriate. The conversation also reopened that ever so dangerous can of worms that I have made such an effort to keep sealed of late, yes, the research instinct so deeply seated in my brain that I would spend the entire rest of the day musing delightedly on ideas for my own future linguistic projects. I do not expect to last long outside of the ivory tower.

HERCEG NOVI

And then, after a bit of waiting in the sun and an hour or so on the bus, I was in Herceg Novi, mere miles from the Croatian border with Google maps having decided not to save the maps I’d preloaded. Hillside cities are such a delight to navigate, especially when rather than a map you have only two dots in a sheet of uniform grey: one indicating your location and the other, your aim. Lost would be putting it mildly. Nonetheless, by sheer stubbornness and a lot of trial and error I eventually got my sweaty self into a lovely little room in a guest house and set out to explore the area. I wandered through the old town where I found narrow lanes, lots of restaurants, a noisy music school, and church with the most beautiful white marble iconostasis. I also dropped in on the local public library which, like the one in Kotor seemed to base it’s shelving on a chunk of Dewey decimal that started around 810 and ended very shortly afterwards. They also seemed to still be using a card system of borrowing as there were no barcodes but there were cards of various newness and fullness tucked into pockets pasted into the books’ first few pages.

Leaving the old town, I found a cafe overlooking the harbour where I contrived to meet my caffeine needs whilst also indulging in a bit of a treat. The fruit and ice-cream cup which landed on my table a few minutes later was nothing short of mammoth and, with the sun beating down on my back, delicious. This entire journey has been a bit of an ode to ice cream. I have had at least one helping in every country and probably one in every town—sometimes even on rainy days—and it’s still just as delicious every time.

Refuelled, I set off along the water on a little promenade which lead me past hotels, beaches, fortresses (some of which had fallen into the sea), and concrete beaches. Yes, rather than sand of even pebbles, most of the beaches are actually just multi-level concrete patios extending out into the sea and the locals seem to love them. I guess they hold heat well and you don’t have to spend nearly as much time picking sand out of everything you own.

At the end of the promenade, I turned up towards the hills where I found a beautiful little monastery with a climbing hillside graveyard which stretched from the back garden of the chapel all the way up the hillside nearly as far as the next chapel and graveyard. Between the two I found a shaded look out point where I rested, read, and took advantage of the peace and privacy to do a little bit of much needed stretching and yoga before continuing my wander through the park. A few churches later, I left the park headed for the Spañjola fortification on the hill behind the city. On the way, I paused to pick up a poppyseed strudel which, my first since Austria, was absolutely what the doctor ordered.

The Spañjola fortress is another lovely abandoned thing which might have been locked up once but is now open to the public in all of its ruined splendour. You enter via a tower which from the outside is perfectly cylindrical but which opens into a vaulted dome smeared with graffiti. From there you enter a yard filled with roofless building wrapped entirely in vines and other plant life across which you find stairs to the ramparts. Once you’re up on the walls, it’s all about the view. From glittering sea to cold, austere mountains, the entire landscape is spread around you and all you have to do is stroll from vantage point to vantage point along wide, smooth, mostly still intact ramparts. Can you tell I’ve a certain fondness for all these old ruined military posts?

Eventually I made it back to the guesthouse where I changed and grabbed a towel before heading down for a swim in the crystal clear waters of the bay. Water always feels too cold to me, but when it is glassy and vivid blue, even I am willing to suffer through the initial shock and ease myself in for a swim. I would have liked to lie in the sun for a while afterwards but alas, I’d left it too late in the day so I stayed only a short time on the concrete beach before the sun and slipped nearly below the horizon and it was time to forage for supper.

In a strange sort on indulgence, I ended up eating my own homemade grilled cheese with avjar on the guesthouse balcony watching the sky drift through shades from cerulean to rose with violet and peach glancing in from between the clouds.

And then it was time to leave Montenegro. At 9:30 the next morning I was on a bus headed north. We crossed the border in the mountains and I was once more in the EU (though not the Schengen) with a very spiffy little Croatia stamp on my passport and some very beautiful memories of “Europe’s Southernmost Fjord”.

Sun tanned and wind burned,
The Canadian

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