Balkan Doživljaj Part V: In which I battle a crowd for lunch and (travel to) Split

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)


Read more about our road trip: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains | Part III: Fleeing the Russians | Part IV: Fog and the Road to Hell (sort of)

The Balkan Doživljaj Part II: Up (and up. and up.) into the Mountains of Montenegro

[Read Part I here!]

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.

Never mind the cruise ships… Kotor is still much more likeable than Dubrovnik

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.

(sped up a tad for dramatic effect)

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.

Read more… Part I: Arrival and a Much-Needed Holiday