I’m flying on what seems an endless leg, northward and eastward, currently on a trajectory over Russia; a 15-hour slog and reminder of the value of the “priority economy” ticket I declined to purchase. I’m stuck in a window seat, feeling alternately claustrophobic and antsy, two individual snoozing millennials blocking my access to what freedom exists on this sky bus.
In my ear is an audio book, Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. His account of a trip across Asia is significantly more interesting than mine thus far (N.B. it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read!!!).
Part 2 of this intro commences as I’m sitting by the pool when dawn breaks. Pigeons intermingled with morning songbirds, a sound one might not expect in this madly bustling city. It’s an oasis of sorts, tho a new LED billboard that blights the rooftop view hints of things to come.
I’ve spent 3 days here in Bangkok, my 2nd visit to this frenetic city. This go-round, I’m able to spend time with my uncle and his gf, who live here part-time. We eat our way through 2 days, wandering a night market (Chokchai), a weekend market (Chatuchak) and a produce market (Or Tor Kor).
After a morning bruising by a local massage doctor (My sore muscles will thank her. I hope.), we make our way to Nonthaburi pier to hire a boat to take us down the river a ways and out to the island of Ko Kret. The Chao Phraya River wends its way through Bangkok. On its banks, a mish-mash of older stilt houses look as if the next big wind might topple them, line-drying laundry and all, into the murky waters. Interspersed with the houses are shrines and temples and giant buddhas and new high-rise buildings, creating a ridiculous waterfront on this river’s banks.
Ko Kret was uninspiring. But we’ve arrived on a non-market day, so maybe it’s that we’re the only tourists there and the island is also unimpressed with our existence and chooses to ignore us as well. We hire bikes, roll along the pathways for an hour, and find our boatman to take us back to the pier.
In the middle of the river, we see flotillas of lily pads, a grand canopy for the massive barb carp, whose jumping makes the water seem to boil. And these lily pads are the perfect fishing spot for herons of all shapes and sizes, especially a beautiful little striated heron, who I hadn’t realised I caught until after the fact. Even here, a place where steel and concrete seem to spring from the ground as the jungle once did, there is nature to be found. If you look.
We get back and it’s almost sunset. The pier is buzzing with students and workers on their Monday evening commute. These food stalls have nearly everything you could imagine on offer: fried calamari, taro dumplings, hot dogs on a stick, dried shrimp, mango and sticky rice, grilled whole fish… lumpy stuff I can’t identify, and everything in between!
It’s not a secret that I love foreign markets. Ironically, I hate crowds but I’m strangely drawn to the buzz of these places, the smell of the myriad foods cooking in hot oil or over an open fire, the almost rhythmic flow of people and traffic and tuk tuks and motor scooters, with its own tempo and melody.
It’s with these things in my mind – a happier vision of Bangkok than when I was last here – I fall asleep. The next morning I’m off to Ranong, then to the Myeik Archipelago, to get my feet wet again, as it were. It’s a semi-complicated game of hopscotch, visas and border crossings, as I venture North to Burma.
So, Ranong. It’s like a forgotten place, this town: the old, storm-worn buildings, rusted cars and motorbikes and façades, as if stuck waiting for something to happen. There are cafés and shops lining the main street, but no patrons. I arrive mid-day on a Tuesday, expecting to be able to see the ocean or at least hop a bus or get a taxi or tuk tuk to take me somewhere with a view. “Too far” I’m told by the local moto-taxi guys. It’s not really a taxi, but a motorbike with a wagon on the back. A not-quite-tuk-tuk setup that I gather is more for moving people (and stuff) blocks, not kilometres. The hotel is equally helpful. No, there are no taxis. The bus goes near where you want to go but not at this time of day (it’s 3pm). There is no beach. Or, there are many beaches, but you can’t get to them because they are far. There are no scooters to rent. But you can rent a motorbike. Which is great, except I don’t want to die in this wretched place. I decline. At dinner, I was apparently too white to qualify to eat spicy food, and was thus served the bland version. Thus, my request for chili sauce was met with equal parts confusion and animosity.
I give Ranong a walloping thumbs down. It is, I gather, a stopping point for ex-pats on visa runs, or travellers, like me, in-between segments of a journey.
I’ve just spent 2-1/2 weeks travelling, bouncing between historic stone towns wrapped in ancient fortresses and a mesmerising display of what happens when nature gets to push its boundaries. I spent time in Croatia and Montenegro, and then a couple of drive-throughs of the Bosnia end of Bosnia and Herzegovina (passport stamped 2x, but it feels a little like cheating to “count” a country without really seeing it). Croatia, and to some extent Montenegro, draws cruise ships to its ports, but thankfully many of the wonders of both are too far inland or too small to be considered “worthwhile” destinations.
Worthwhile is in the eye of the beholder: I’ll always gravitate
towards that which is lesser-known, farther-flung, not-as-trodden, ditto
obscure; grateful for the opportunities that health and employment and relative
Before going home, I further bounced to a stopover in one of my favourite cities, Istanbul, where I set my sights on seeing things I hadn’t in my previous visits here. In all its own ways, this city mesmerises. On so many levels, it’s where East meets West and where secular meets orthodox. The Adhan, call to prayer, echoes in the streets at its regular cadence, the chants melding with the city’s din. In the market crowds, suited or Levi’s- and T-shirt-garbed urbanites jumble with burqa and niqab and headscarf-clad women to create a kaleidoscopic patchwork of cotton and silk and wool and skin.
It is an architecturally fabulous city, elaborate and historic mosques and the 5th-century Walls of Constantinople that surround the oldest parts of the city, juxtaposed against the gleaming downtown bridges and myriad shops…there’s a sweet shop on nearly every corner selling a regional favourite – Turkish Delight.
I spend my first afternoon reacquainting myself to this old town neighbourhood – Sultanahmet – known primarily for the Blue Mosque and its neighbour, the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sofia), an Orthodox cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-cultural museum. It’s the latter I’m intent on seeing this day. The mid-day tourist crush has diminished and I breeze in without much wait. It is immense, and an engineering wonder on its own…(the interior height of the dome is an astounding 55.6 metres high). (Re-)built as a cathedral in 537AD, it was considered a pinnacle in Byzantine architecture. Once the Ottoman Empire did its thing in the 1400’s, Ayasofya was converted into a mosque (in the process, the spectacular mosaics were plastered over). Today, the structure serves as a museum, and as such, we see a restoration of the old Orthodox tilework with Christian works contrasted against the elaborate mosque décor, including 8 massive calligraphic discs depicting the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, and other related messengers and bigwigs (thus concludes my knowledge of the Islamic hierarchy). At present, the Turkish government is arming for a fight with the UNESCO folks, as Erdoğan is angling to turn the museum back into an active mosque.
Next morning, I hop a bus to get on a boat that takes me on a water tour from the Golden Horn (Istanbul’s old trading port and current and bustling waterfront) and into the Bosporus Strait, the waterway that serves to connect the Black Sea with the Aegean, and one of primary reasons Constantinople was a key trading post along the Silk Road. There are reminders of Istanbul’s place in history scattered throughout the city, like the Obelisk of Theodosius or a little stela, almost hidden between a tram stop and the crowded entrance to the Basilica Cistern, called the Milion Stone, marking the “zero point” to everywhere else that was important in the Byzantine era, with distances. Constantinople was the center of the modern world and this stone told you how far away the place you wanted to go was from the only place that mattered. It’s these little wonders that just add to the magic of this city.
Istanbul is the largest city that sits on the cusp of two continents, the Bosporus separating the European from the Asian side of the country. And from the water you can definitely see many of the historical influences in the variety of architectural styles. Grand mosques, old and new; modern industrial eyesores, marble palaces, red roofed stone houses built into the hillsides, pretty painted neighbourhoods that look like something from a travel magazine… And, to my delight, a castle! As we make our way down the Bosporus towards a stop on the Asian side, I see a massive fortress on the European side. The Rumeli Fortress, I learn, is one of several fortresses here. It’s not really surprising, knowing something of the history of the region, and these are now (all!) at the top on my list of what to see next time I return.
The Golden Horn is a natural harbour, and as we come into port, it warms my heart to see some of its resident dolphin population. This harbour was once bubbling with fish and these dolphins’ ancestors, but here, too, they’re sadly feeling the impact of overfishing and pollution.
We’re at port and I bid farewell to the hungover Finns I met onboard. My next stop is what’s becoming an annual pilgrimage to the Mısır Çarşısı, the old spice market, where I acquire enough Turkish Delight, cheese, olives and biber salçasi (a thick red pepper paste) to eat like a Turk for a while back home!
My remaining hours here fly by – I walk back towards my hotel along the water, watching the fishermen cast their lines in the channel where the Golden Horn meets the Bosporus. On the way, I wander through the lovely Gülhane Parkı and make it back to my neighbourhood. It’s all becoming more familiar to me; even the human traffic jam I encountered at the spice market seemed amusing, and I had a laugh at the situation with strangers in the crowd.
Dinner is at a cosy little place lit by hundreds of Turkish mosaic lamps, then I meander back to my B&B a bit slower than necessary. Early the next morning, I do a last wander around Sultanahmet before the crowds arrive. I patted some stray dogs, got adopted by a cat, had a fresh-pressed pomegranate juice and then brekkie in the lovely B&B courtyard before starting the journey back to the real world.
In a blink of an eye, I’m on a bus, reflecting on the string of encounters I’ve had in this strangely enchanting city. The bus is taking me back to the airport, and to the air ferry that will magic me over the continent of Europe and then over the sea that separates this continent from mine. Sitting next to me is a smiling woman from Kabul, here in Istanbul for a few days of shopping. Back home, she teaches Arabic. In broken English, hand gestures and Google translate, we shared a little bit about ourselves. Then she WhatsApp calls her teenage son in Kabul so he could meet me. The world is so much smaller than we are led to believe (and parents around the world will forever be embarrassing their teenagers, I think). People are people, regardless of their wrapping.
When I travel, I try to come home knowing more than I did and seeing something new or from a different perspective. Sometimes it makes me question the rat race, makes me more worried about the rabid consumerism that spreads like a virus, makes me want to work harder to find that balance between work and play, where play should win out but doesn’t always…
Until next time, Istanbul. I’m readying for the next adventure…
I had sworn to not go back to Old Town, especially now knowing that there are literally two boatloads more people in town than there were a week ago. But… There’s a food festival in Old Town, says my host. And I’ll drive you there on my scooter. My boat doesn’t leave until 4. I’ve already booked my ferry ticket. I can’t refuse.
We zip our way through traffic from Port Gruž to Old Town (this
is the way to get around here, I think, as I become a little wistful about
my own former scooter) and he locals me through the crowded Pile Gate,
bypassing all the tourists as if we’ve got the golden ticket. We do, sort of,
because living in a place like this earns you a right to skip past massive tour
groups. We wander around the Old Town for a little while as he tells me about
the war, his thoughts on immigrants (we disagree), his thoughts on the US’s
president (we agree, mostly), and general tidbits about Dubrovnik. Then he
explains the lay of the land for the food thing: there are tables set up on
which the local restaurants and hotels lay out a spread of food. It’s a charity
event, so you buy tickets – each ticket entitles you to some food at each
restaurant’s table. So if you want to taste a few things, you buy a few
tickets. We’re here early under the guise of my host wanting to go to church at
11, but really the game is to scope out the tables as they’re laid out and see
which food you want to taste. They hold the back public until noon, but if you
line yourself up at your intended mark, you’ll be right in front of the stuff
you want to eat when they open the gates.
At a few minutes before noon, the emcee announces it’s time
to start, which turns out to be a happy chaos. It also turns out that they
don’t really care about the tickets all that much, so I’ve bought 2, plus one
for wine, and I’m able to taste a smattering of fabulous seafood dishes plus
some decadent desserts. My host is a big guy who has done this before so he’s
at the front of the crowd in no time, helping me squeeze my way in to get to
the good stuff. It was a funny scene, great food, and I’m glad he talked me
into going. With the crowd at hand, the event was over within an hour, and I
was back on a bus to Port Gruž in no time, with plenty of time to wander the
throngless Port area, pack up, and get ready for the next leg of my journey.
Fast forward 5 hours and I’m some 230 kilometres north. It’s almost 10pm, and I’m wandering around dark streets in a completely new place. Google Maps is telling me the guesthouse should be Right. Here. And it isn’t. And I’m exhausted and I’ve got a head cold and I want a hot shower and a comfortable bed. So without the help of the kind waiter at a local restaurant, I might still be looking for that teeny tiny alley, behind another little restaurant, exactly where Google said it should be. By this point I had begun inventing Croatian expletives (hint: there are not many vowels in use).
The good news was that my Dubrovnik host had made
arrangements with my Split host, and she was expecting me. So I was greeted
with a smiling face; I had a hot cup of tea, a safe place to crash, and all I
needed to do was figure out what to do here for the next few days.
There’s some history in this city. The Roman Emperor, Diocletian, built his retirement palace here in the 3rd Century. It evolved from a palace and fortress to a retreat for Roman royalty into the city itself – to this day Diocletian’s Palace remains the center of this bubbling place, stone archways, labyrinthine streets, narrow alleyways and all!
But I’d had enough of the cruise ship and tourist crowds, so after a day of seeing what Split’s old town was like (Diocletian blah blah, 1000-year-old palace walls, gelato, Egyptian relics, cats, narrow alleys and – WOW – where did that giant statue come from, and why are people rubbing its toe?), I decided to split Split and get me into some nature.
First up was Krka National Park. I get on a tour bus in near
dread mode, then lighten at the prospect that I’m not required to stay
with the group for more than an hour or so at the beginning, and then I’ve got
most of the day to wander the park.
This is labelled as the mini-Plitvice, so the expectation is
lakes, waterfalls, lush forest. What the guide, nor the guidebook, adequately
describe is this geared-for-tourists place where you walk on a wooden
plank path, counterclockwise around the park (follow the arrows; those who go
against the grain will be flogged), landing at the prescribed shops and/or viewing
stations along the way. There is no wooded trail, per se, and it is virtually
impossible to get lost. It’s end of season here as well, which works in my favor:
the crowds are smaller, swimming is not permitted (bonus opp for the picture-taking),
and there are no lines for the ferry which ferries us from the small town of Skradin,
across the lake, to Krka National Park proper.
The lakes here are a mesmerising emerald green and give the impression
that some mythical creatures reside in their depths. In fact, there is one such
being in Croatian folklore called Vodanoj, a water spirit who lurks by old
mills (one still is in operation here), awaiting unsuspecting humans to trap
and keep as slaves in their underwater castles…maybe it is he (or she) that
helps these lakes give off their mystical hues.
I’ve wandered from the pack at this point, walking the prescribed path to admire the small falls and ponds along the way, and then to stop and gape at the exquisite Skradinski Buk, Krka’s crowning gem. After this, the rest of the park is disappointing, and since I’ve got something like 3 more hours here, I decide to walk the 4kms back to town rather than take the ferry.
Back in town, Skradin turns out to be something of a hideaway for boating types and rich recluses (one of Skradin’s claims to fame is that Bill Gates called it his favourite place in Croatia). There’s a marina, and if you follow the river far enough, you will eventually end up in the Adriatic. For a panorama of my surrounds, I climb to the top of the Turina fortress, built in the 13th century by the Šubićs (one of Croatia’s twelve noble tribes). From this perch, I enjoy the view over the sweet little town. After a while in the hot October sun, I descend in search of gelato. Finding the shop closed, I decide to rest on the sea wall by a park, where a few of the local swans stalk tourists in search of snacks. Unbeknownst to me, the she-swan is jealous and threatens to take me out should I flirt with her mate any further. At least I come away with all digits intact, and a bonus silly photo opp or two.
The next day’s adventure is the farther-flung national park called Plitvice (pronounce it if you dare) Lakes. This is another UNESCO World Heritage site*, and a proverbial Instagrammer’s dream for its teal pools and magnificent waterfalls (Veliki slap is nearly 80 metres high). Again, this park has been plotted (and gridded and girded) for the tourist trade. There is NO hiking here, and one may only travel via the planked paths around the park. Luckily, our group is small-ish and the tour guide bearable, so the few hours of the sheep-like following of the paths is tolerable. I resent the bus/train up from the parking area to the start of our journey (why can’t we walk?); the boat ride down also seems frivolous, but the intent here is to move as many people around the park as efficiently as possible, not to actually experience the nature that surrounds, but to view it and move on. Stopping to gaze for more time than it takes to snap a selfie is mostly frowned-upon, as the group needs to progress on schedule. By the end of the day, I’m feeling a tad like I’ve been a piece of luggage on a baggage carousel, wary of getting bumped by other baggage angling for the perfect angle. Also glad it wasn’t higher season, as I can’t imagine what that experience would be. I get back on the bus more under than whelmed to the overall Plitvice experience. The highlight was probably the restaurant we visited en route home, where we shared road stories over local cheeses and salad and beer (and tea for me – still fighting the bug).
These tour experiences further convince me that group travel is not my thing, though I’d met a couple of other solo travellers this day – a Canadian and an Irish woman, with whom (in search of a currency exchange and some gelato) I’d get lost in the alleys of Split’s old city that evening.
This is the beauty of itinerary-fluid solo adventures: the laughs one has with people you may or may not ever see again; the solidarity and trust forged in fleeting road connections. We laugh as we rub the toe of St. Petar (he was the first to go against the Vatican and deliver mass in Croatian rather than Latin. Heathen!) Lore has it that you rub his big toe and your wish will come true. I rubbed and wished…Jury’s still out on saintly magic.
I’ve got a morning to wander the promenade and the old town,
then a bus (and a promise of another stop – and passport stamp – in Bosnia),
then back to my guesthouse in Dubrovnik and an early morning flight to Istanbul
for a few days to round out the Balkan Doživljaj.
That last evening, I run through the past two weeks in my tired head. I indulge in some brown bread from the little local bakery with some cheese and figs (and Ajvar OMG!) I’ve saved from the fresh market in Split… and I’m going to sleep this last Balkan night sated. I’ve hiked mountains and seen some unbelievable vistas; spent a week making memories with one of my favourite humans, and learnt how to pronounce some words I may never use again (and botched many more!). I’ve nearly filled my passport, adding 3 countries on this trip; and I’ve rekindled a love of seeing the world. I’ll go home with a camera full of photos, a head full of words, and another dose of Fernweh, that farsickness that draws me away when the real world gets to be just too real.
Next stop, Istanbul.
*UNESCO World Heritage Site tally for this trip, 6:
Croatia: Old City of Dubrovnik, Historical Complex of Split with the Palace of Diocletian, Plitvice Lakes National Park
Montenegro: Bay of Kotor (Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor), Fortification of Kotor (Venetian Works of defence between 15th and 17th centuries), Durmitor National Park, Biogradska Gora (on the tentative list)
As we’d come to discover in this part of the world, the fog nestles in the canyons, blanketing the landscape in a dreamy cotton morning, sun warming the day and revealing the treasures that lay beneath. And it’s no exception when we arrive at the bridge spanning the Tara Canyon.
The story goes that the Đurđevića Tara Bridge was put into service just before the Italian army invaded at the beginning of WWII. Built between 1937-1940, it was quite the engineering achievement, earning the title of largest concrete arch vehicular bridge in Europe. Rather than help the enemy reach deeper into Montenegro, one of the project’s engineers sacrificed the bridge by blowing up its main arch and hindering the advance. When this man was ultimately captured, he was executed on the very same bridge he helped erect.
Sad history (and ziplines) aside, the bridge is gorgeous. As
the fog swirls to reveal the canyon below, we are even more excited for the
rafting trip we’ve just booked. So the (birth)day’s adventures are set: rafting
in the morning, hiking Durmitor National Park (Part I) in the afternoon.
It’s rather off-season for the rapids as well, but we enjoy a spectacular view of the Tara Canyon from the river, C takes a dip in the frigid waters (I’m further convinced that Swedes do not feel cold), and we arrive back at our starting point with smiles on our faces and hopes to see the river again at its peak.
It’s late in the day to start a real hike, so we lunch in town, find a reasonable-sounding guesthouse for the evening, and take a nice afternoon stroll around Durmitor’s lake, where Chris is adopted by a local dog and we watch the sun fade over the water, mountains reflecting their tranquil mood in its mirror.
Birthday: pas mal, as they say. Also bonus: this night’s guesthouse ranks many stars above our previous evening’s experience. We’re greeted by a vivacious (!!!) host who not only gives us answers to every question we had but also answers to those we didn’t even know we’d wanted to ask. Suffice to say, we’ll be fully-armed to hike tomorrow, as it’s our last day and a last madcap dash through Montenegro, into Bosnia and back into Croatia to get C to his flight on time.
It’s only at dinner that we realise that each of us had the same thought whilst in the shower: our very friendly host lives with his mother in a little house in a little village and nobody knows where we are. But we meet mom in the morning (she prepares the strange and massive hodge-podge brekkie before we set off), and we’re convinced that they are just Montenegro’s sweetest mother-and-son team.
Erm, one hopes…
The next day: more cool nature, crazy roads, and why I’m going to hell.
Our host sends us off to the other side of Durmitor National Park, pointing us towards a hike he suggests will take approx. 5 hrs round-trip. We guestimate it’s a 4-hour drive from here to Dubrovnik, and we want to make the most of our last day. So we clip the hike a little (I think C feels a little guilty for giving me his cold and then sending me up and down mountains with a head feeling like a wax factory), then wend our way through the moon-like hills of this part of the park, stopping occasionally to gape at nature as it unfolds (several-fold) around us. NB: I could spend days here.
We decide we’ve got time for lunch at another (ok, the only)
roadside place, and also time to do a quick pass by the Ostrog Monastery, a marble
wonder carved into (or superimposed on) the side of a mountain in 1665.
Again we climb a white-knuckling switchback road towards this next really weird
First, the pilgrims. People from all over the world come to this monastery to be blessed. They walk the umpteen bajillion steps, barefoot, to pay homage to the saint, who lays wrapped in a shroud in a cave in the monastery. When you get to the upper monastery (there are two), you are met with a sprawl of humanity, the pilgrims (literally hundreds) sleep on mats outside the monastery (to what end, I’m not clear), and queue to take their turn kissing (and, presumably, being blessed by) the shrouded saint. It’s at this point we decide to enter the monastery to see its intricate mosaics. We apparently get in the wrong queue because as I duck into the cave*, I realise I’m in line to view the saint. Who is flanked by a priest. Who is holding a wooden cross at my face so I can kiss it. And so I panic, wave it away, shake my head, bow a little and say no, thank you. To which he answers, aghast, shocked, maybe pissed off, Vere. Arrr. You. Frrum? in a rolling-rrrr voice that sounds more Count Dracula than priestly. (inside my head is shouting: What. Is Happening???) In my humblest voice, I say, The US. The priest nods. I leave (again, cursing my blue passport and all that it represents). Chris has a hearty laugh. I’m going to hell.
We heathens continue up to the top of the monastery, and into the other cave to view the frescoes, well-preserved in the cave’s cool atmosphere. There are thankfully no more run-ins with priests. All I can wonder is what kind of curse I’ve been dealt, and cross fingers, touch the Ganesha that rests around my neck, and hope the rest of the trip is incident-free.
This bit of adventure takes a tad longer than expected: the book does not account for the harrowing road or the local traffic jam (a herd of sheep). But each little experience adds some fiber to the story, and we still have time to drive through Bosnia (country #3!) en route to the airport. The views are not bad as we go…
Tea in Bosnia, check! Passports stamped, check! Airport, check!
And, like that, the week’s adventure comes to an end. C is en route home and I’m on a bus back into Dubrovnik, and to the port from which I’ll take a ferry up to Split tomorrow and continue my wandering through Dalmatia. Just in time: there are 2 cruise ships in port when I arrive.
Some final observations: Montenegro is a tiny country with a history as meandering and unforgiving as its mountain roads. But it’s also beautiful and packed with terrain I never expected, its landscape reads as if nature tried to use everything in its palate to paint this little part of the world: rocky coastlines and breathtaking canyons and daunting mountains and rolling hills… Wild and rustic and rough around the edges, it’s a little place with a giant heart. In contrast to the attitudes we encountered in Croatia, the locals we met were warm and proud and content. Even in the bustling silliness of Budva, we were warmly received by our hostess.
It felt as though Croatia had somewhat sold out to the cruise ship industry, trading tourist € for a slice of their own heritage. And while Montenegro’s reputation as organized crime central is not a secret, one hopes that the tourism blight that has tainted Dubrovnik’s charm will take its time spreading beyond Montenegro’s coast, sparing the inland the tour buses and selfie-crazed throngs.
One can only hope. And look forward to revisiting the mountains,
hiking the canyons, and maybe having some of that kačamak or cicvara again.
*Ostrog: how they built this is unknown. For centuries, monks and others have used these caves to hide out and hang out doing their meditative retreats (or, erm, whatever else one does when hiding in a cave in a supremely remote location). And so, the enormous marble façade of the monastery is actually built in front of the caves, creating a surreal structure when viewed from below.
The guidebooks do not paint a welcoming picture of Budva (or they do, but perhaps I’m not their target audience): a seaside party town with an exploding club scene (or as explosive a scene as one finds in this part of the world), fuelled by a booming Russian tourist crowd. Welcome to the Daytona Beach of Montenegro. Knowing this, our plan is to find a hotel outside the general hubbub, take a stroll through the old town, and leave early enough in the morning to get into the countryside. This we do, and settle into our surprisingly posh and quite cosy little hotel (booked while we were still atop Petar’s mountain in Lovćen).
The old town is now a familiar formula, with its fortified walls and narrow alleyways. This one is equally charming, but not nearly as big as Kotor’s, nor as bustling as we’d expected. And then we venture down the boardwalk, or the assemblage of the Daytona-esque restaurants and shops that constitute their waterfront. It’s a string of big, over-lit, trying-too-hard-to-look-like-South-Beach seaside restaurant-bars advertising their drink specials, tho it’s the very end of the season and there are literally no customers. We walk by dozens of proprietors who are too done to even bother with their seasonal cat-calls (Where you from? Are you hungry? You look for best dinner? You like feesh?) or to look up from their smartphones to sneer at us as we walk by. The impression it leaves is that of a desperate has-been resort town, where you’d expect a neon sign to pop and fizzle out, or a dangling H from the ‘otel Budva sign to wobble, grab on to a disappearing iota of hope, and fall into the (coarse, cigarette butt-ridden) sand.
Curtain falls on Budva and we wake to have a weird and terrible breakfast at the Hotel Moskva across the street. Had our Russian been better, I think the service might have been too. Budva done and dusted, our next stop is Skadar Lake National Park, where we hope to take a boat ride around this bird sanctuary on the Albanian border.
We drive up another exquisite-yet-harrowing mountain road to the interior of the country and arrive in another end-of-season town where we find a guide ready to serve. Within 30 minutes, we’re on a boat heading into the national park. They’ve supplied us with enough crnogorske priganice (Montenegran fried dough with honey) and cheese (and juice and wine!) to serve a boatload, and it’s late in the season, so we have the entire boat to ourselves.
It’s a treat to be motored through the wetlands and out into
the enormous lake. The only problem is that it seems to be late in the season
for the birds as well, and we see only a smattering of waterfowl and cormorants.
The ride is relaxing enough, but we’re eager to move now… and we’ve got our
sights on northern canyons!
Montenegro’s interior is literally littered with mountains and valleys, canyons and rivers. We leave Virpazar and wend our way along what Lonely Planet has dubbed a “thrilling, spectacular stretch of road.”
Our route, from Podgorica northwards, takes us along the Morača Canyon, over mountains and eventually down an increasingly sketchy dirt road to arrive at a trailhead in the Mrtvica Canyon. We’re greeted by a random guide, waiting for his clients to return from their hike (umm, okay), and he points us the trail with a warning that the locals have not forgotten the war and (oh, by the way) we have Croatian plates on the car. Hike in peace…(and hope our stuff is there when we return)
It was actually the waning daylight that worried me more than his warning as we hiked into a hairy fairy forest so full of greens and blues that photos could not do it justice. The trail, fantastic; the light, not so much, and I was sad to cut this hike short, but relieved to be off the trail before sunset (and to find the car intact – that is not a travel story I wanted to tell).
late reservation thanks to international data roaming, and we were off to find
a guesthouse in the hills of Kolasin, strategically chosen so we could hike
Biogradska Gora in the morning.
The guesthouse owner points us in the direction of Restauran
Vodenica, a local place famous for its regional specialties, so we try the kačamak,
a potato and cheese dish (this region’s answer to mac and cheese), and cicvara,
its partner-in-crime, a polenta and cheese indulgence. We top this off with a
local red (pas mal) and wobble back to the guesthouse to crash.
It’s on to Biogradska Gora, and the trail at least 2 locals have professed as the best in the park. I’ll wax poetic about pristine mountain trails, exquisite views and luscious canyon floors. But if I’m honest, the 14+ km slog up a gravel road to a lovely but not fantastic view was not my favourite of the trip thus far. The tea at a trailside farm, with local med (honey) to soothe a creeping cold, did help improve the mood tho.
After tea, we find the trail, finish the hike (shortcuts, yay!), and line up another last-minute guest house. It feels as if we’ve gone 412kms, tho the tally was more like 24, and the only thing I’m looking forward to at this moment in my existence is a hot shower and a comfortable bed in our next stop, a country chalet.
…At which point we reach the Tara Riverside. What they’ve failed to advertise is that the river is alongside the busy local road, and that the chalets are something more like IKEA kit cabins. Too shattered to protest (and, really, for 25€ a night, can one?), we partake in the folly and revel in a tepid shower (the intricate details of which I’ll spare: suffice to say it included a hand-held showerhead and no actual shower enclosure; oddly reminiscent of showering on a boat, or a weird roadside cabin in the middle of nowhere…). We indulge in the local fare for dinner, crash, and high-tail it to Tara Canyon in the morning, wending our way up the switchbacking, windy, foggy roads. Not the way I’d hoped to wake up on C’s birthday, but it is memorable if nothing else.
Next stop: Birthday adventures in Tara Canyon and Durmitor National Park.
Having escaped the throngs, we catch a local bus to take us to the main bus terminal to catch a fancier bus to take us to the airport to get the rental car we’ve hired to get us from points A to Z (and several others, like B, K, S, L, O and D*), and back to again in a week… it’s like a series of semi-strategic moves as we shuttle ourselves to the next square in the game of What’s Next!?
Car, check! Green card that clears us to move freely in and
out of the surrounding borders, check! Snacks, check! And they’re off!
A colleague of mine whose family is from this area had told me that crossing the border into Montenegro is like going back in time 10-15 years. As we wend our way towards Kotor, over the border and through the (hills, villages and gorgeous seaside vistas), I’m reminded of his words as we pass through villages that look as if they’ve been bodged-together from scraps of Soviet-era block housing, brick, medieval limestone, corrugated metal and palm fronds (in not necessarily that order or quantity). Interspersed in the weird architecture are ancient palazzos, churches and other structures, each (IMHO) warranting its own page in Lonely Planet. Kotor is nestled in a rocky, fjord-like bay**; a limestone mountain backdrop springing majestically from the sea. The photos do not even do it justice.
And it’s bustling. Kotor has become both a cruise ship
destination and something of a smaller, sweeter Dubrovnik to the south. Because
we’ve raced a cruise ship here (and there’s another already in port) we’ve
decided to wander around the old town, climb up to the top of the fortress, and
find lodging on the outskirts of town to avoid the bustle (and the congestion)
in the morning.
The old town is a pleasant surprise: its narrow, labyrinthine
streets, now a familiar folly from a few days in Dubrovnik, are softer and
warmer and much more inviting than those to the north. Venetian lions flank
every gate, many a corner and a few fountains dotted throughout the town. So we
wander the alleys, marvel at the cats of Kotor (there are hundreds, perhaps
thousands here – there is even a Cats of Kotor museum down one of these narrow
streets) and bask in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Kotor’s fortress was built into the near-vertical limestone foothills of Mt. Lovćen (which we are to hike tomorrow), and it, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (actually, two: it’s part of the Natural and Cultuo-Historic Region of Kotor as well as the Venetian Works of Defence between the 16th and 17th Centuries). The town itself dates back to Ancient Roman times (Montenegro was part of Dalmatia too), and while the original fortress on the hill was built by the Illyrians c. the 5th Century, the fortress of Sveti Ivan (the one that stands there now), was built some 1000 years later. To get to the top, you first have to navigate to a back corner of the old city, find the guy at the entry gate and pay a fee to enter the city walls (NB: the book said 3€, we paid 8€; we couldn’t determine whether the fee had gone up or the toll-taker was making a side-living fleecing tourists). From there, you begin the climb. To the top, it’s roughly 1200 metres, or approx. 1350 steps.
Did I mention that it’s quite steep?
These city walls are higher than Dubrovnik’s, and perhaps this has kept out the nouveau-posh cafés and trinket shops besmirching its character. But along the way, there are a couple of old men selling water from a bucket and snacks from a blanket laid out on the old stones. Here, it just fits. We’ve come prepared (with water and trail food, but perhaps not expecting the day’s heat: it’s 25 and there’s not a cloud in the sky!), so we slog upwards past the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, noted for reportedly curing plague victims in the 1500s (also noted as the cover shot on Lonely Planet: Montenegro). The trail then continues up to the top, where, from his fortress, the spirit of Sveti Ivan watches over a now-peaceful Kotor.
If my Photoshop skills were better, I’d use them to blot out
the two cruise ship-sized eyesores from an otherwise gorgeous view.
An aside about our itinerary: We had a guide book, some
websites, and a rough plan of seeing as much of Montenegro (and possibly Albania)
as the week permitted. No rules, no reservations, and fingers crossed for
access to Wi-Fi so we could secure a place to crash for the night.
The day: simply wonderful, and we had yet to make it to our (first of many) last-minute choice of lodging, a B&B in a restored 16th Century Venetian Palazzo in the (pick one or more adjectives: adorable, charming, romantic, lovely) exquisite seaside town of Perast. We had this tiny town virtually to ourselves, as the cruise ship folk don’t make it here and the regular tourists have mostly gone for the season. The architecture alone in this little gem is worth a night or two. Did I mention that there were loop-holes in the walls of the room?! (I had to look that term up: these are the slits in castle or fortress walls from which guards can shoot arrows). Ours had, of course, been restored as windows (not needed anymore, as the conquering armies are now safely tucked away in their cell-like berths aboard their floating cities).
The views from our B&B were divine, and in our short
stay we could feel the different moods of this enthralling village: the
nostalgic undertones of the Venetian stone buildings, old and new; the warmth
of the sunset reflecting in a flat-calm bay; the whimsical fog dancing with the
same at sunrise… this is a place that calls one back.
Morning came too quickly, as I wanted to revel in the understated
luxury. I watched the fog play at the water’s surface as the sun warmed the air
and morning dawned another perfect day in Montenegro. Today’s first adventure:
a hair-raising, panoramic, thrill-ride up Kotor’s back road, a narrow, serpentine,
one-lane (2-way) road that winds you up to Mt. Lovćen.
We arrive at the top unscathed and are rewarded with what Google calls “Best View of Kotor.” The rest of the views are not half bad either. For the effort, C wins all the adventure points for this drive! Had I been behind the wheel, I would have ended up pleading for mercy in a corner of one of the road’s 25 hairpin turns. And that was just the morning’s adventure (there’s also a precious resident stray mutt up here that, for some moments, I consider smuggling home with me).
As it turned out, by driving up the snaky road and following Google Maps into Lovćen National Park, we overshot the trailhead and ended up in a parking lot at the top of the mountain. So we did the hike in reverse, first visiting the mausoleum of Petar Petrovic Njegoš (Montenegro’s own philosopher prince. Ish.), the site situated atop Lovćen’s 2nd highest peak, with its breathtaking views of the valley and surrounding mountains. The day was so clear, we could see into Bosnia. And, who knows…Montenegro is so small that perhaps we could even see into Albania. With these views, I guess they wanted to ensure Petar could look out over his kingdom in the afterlife as well.
Beginning with the hike down the 461 steps we had already hiked up, we found a rocky trail that led to dry, grassy fields, and came out on a local road in a mountain village that was quite obviously taking a deep breath after its busy summer season. So we had the outdoor restaurant virtually to ourselves, where we lunched in style on local cheeses and Montenegran salad. They present salad here in sort-of an “assemble-your-own” format, so each meal has been an interactive experience thus far. The local cheese, sir, is divine; the air, fresh; the travellers, sated. And the travellers push on, back towards the top, but not before missing a cue on the trail, ending up back at the park ranger’s station and having to walk along the road we rode in, then meeting back up with the trail a few kms ahead.
All in all, another stellar day. Montenegro is looking like
a winner already.
Tomorrow’s adventure: Budva (the Russian Riviera of the
Balkans) and into the National Parks of central Montenegro. Yay!
*Budva, Kotor, Skadar, Lovćen, Ostrog and Durmitor to name a few…
**while it looks like a fjord, Kotor (like Sydney Harbour and many more like Kotor up and down the European coastlines) is actually a ria, or a drowned river valley that remains open to the sea.
Preface: I had not taken a proper holiday all year. Months of 50+ hour weeks were grating on this wanderer’s spirit. I had planned literally NOTHING for the trip, save a B&B for the first and last days. I had not read the guidebooks. I had not figured out what one does in Croatia or Montenegro or Bosnia and Herzegovina for that matter. But I was on a plane, headed for the Balkans.
Part I: Dubrovnik
I arrive, late and groggy, and foggy from the long flight. Warm sea air and fortress walls welcome me to a new place I’ve read near-nothing about due to a near-overflowing plate of things to do back at home. All work and virtually no play for months make this a much-welcomed holiday (NB: as I begin to write, I am 9 days into a 17-day holiday and have not as yet looked at my work email or read any news.).
I sat and contemplated the upcoming 2 weeks, toes dangling in an aquamarine Adriatic on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, thinking and so it begins:
The B&B here in Dubrovnik is the only place I’ve booked for the trip, and the only “known” knowns at this stage of the adventure are these: my feet are on the ground, there is an old walled city to be explored, and my co-adventurer will arrive at 2100 tomorrow. I am the least-prepared for any trip I have ever taken.
Also, I have never read or watched Game of Thrones. This, I mention, because from the throngs of tourists on GOT tours throughout the city, it’s disturbingly clear that these filming locations were the show-stoppers, and ensuring proper selfie angles were more the goal, than admiring Dubrovnik’s centuries-old and history-rich walls and streets and architectural marvels.
First, Dubrovnik Old Town is gorgeous. Its marble streets are stunning, and the fairytale-esque fortress walls certainly seem less daunting in peacetime than when they were erected – outdoor cafés and gelato shops certainly help. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old city’s fortress walls were built in the 9th Century, re-fortified in the 14th Century, and even further strengthened in the 15th Century. What they hadn’t figured out then was how to protect themselves from a 1667 earthquake that demolished the city, and the 1991 onslaught by the Serbs (ditto). Speaking to any native Dubrovnik-ite, one gets the clear message that the signage throughout the old city about the Homeland War and especially the attack on Dubrovnik in 1991 is there to remind visitors that while GOT is a fantasy world, theirs is an everyday reality. Even 28 years later.
No other metaphor is nearly as apropos: playing something like a Game of Throngs, we walked the old city’s streets and tallied countless steps through the alleys and fortress walls (little did we know that this was only a mere taste of what was to come in the days that followed!), we found what locals consider the best gelato in the city (Peppino’s), the best spot for watching the sunset (atop Mt. Srđ), a quiet place to (cat) nap by the sea, and so many charming little hidden alleys with cats galore.
But 2 days in Dubrovnik is more than plenty, so it was time to move on. Next stop: Montenegro. Kotor first; then, as they say, we’ll figure it out.
*Doživljaj (Croatian/Serbian/Montenegran/Bosnian): n. experience, adventure. NB: I discover that they are not big on vowels here and that many words I’ve tried to pronounce have me sounding like a drunk muppet. Naprijed!