Saturday, November 14, 2020

Montenegro: Kotor

Having not stepped out of the front door of my apartment for the first two weeks of my assignment in Montenegro, in compliance with the Embassy's mandatory self-isolation requirement, I was itching to get out and see something.  My house arrest ended on a Thursday, and due to the worsening coronavirus situation, Montenegrin authorities had announced new restrictions banning intercity travel during weekends, along with other pandemic-related rules.  The new policy would go into effect on Sunday, however, leaving that Saturday as my last good chance to do something fun.

With the help of one of my Montenegrin colleagues, I made a booking for a rental car.  The rental car office was affiliated with a car dealership, and it was about five kilometers from my house.  Happy to have the exercise, I headed for the dealership on foot, and in just under an hour, I arrived.

I had emailed a copy of my passport and driver's license to the rental agent Bato the day before, so when I arrived to pick up the car, there was very little processing to do.  I signed one form; Bato ran my credit card for the very reasonable amount of 25 Euros, and we went outside to visually inspect the car.

"This car is brand new," Bato boasted as we approached it, "only 800 kilometers!"

We walked around the car, a small black number, and neither of us found any blemishes worth mentioning on the form.  I did notice that the entire top surface, roof and hood, was slightly dimpled, probably from hail damage, but I didn't say anything.  It did answer the question, though, as to why this brand new car was on the rental lot instead of the sales lot.

Once we finished with the inspection, Bato handed me the keys.

"You must run the lights whenever you are driving," he told me, "and return it with a full tank of gas."

"If you have an accident," he continued, "first call the police, and then call me... unless you get injured really badly and can't call."

We both laughed at this morbid caveat, and then we were done.

This whole process, five minutes from start to finish, stood in stark contrast to my experiences renting cars in the U.S. and in most other countries.  I am used to standing at a counter for 20 minutes, signing half a dozen documents, getting upsold on insurance and gas schemes, and walking away having paid twice as much as the quote I had received online.  I'm not sure what coverage I had from Bato's rental in case of an accident, but it was nice to pay exactly what I was quoted and to get on the road in only a few minutes.

It was only 9 AM when I picked up the car, but by then, there were already two groups of people shopping the sales lot.  As I exited the lot, I peeled out a bit.  I turned some heads, no doubt, but sometimes it takes a second to get used to a new clutch.  After that, though, it was smooth sailing.

Rather than taking the most direct route, Google Maps wanted me to take a slightly longer way, crossing Lake Skadar.  The lake crossing itself was spectacular, and the rest of the ride was pleasant as well.  As I got closer to the sea, I also noticed some billboards for a few resorts named after American locales.  There was one for Laguna Beach Resort and one for Key West Resort, both by the Dukley chain.  I always enjoy finding such U.S. references overseas.

The beautiful Lake Skadar crossing.

I briefly passed through one zone where the speed limit was 100 kph (about 62 mph), but generally the maximum speed in Montenegro is 80 kph (about 50 mph), and in populated areas it's slower.  I was following the speed limit to a T, not wanting to run afoul of the law on my first outing, but I started to get the feeling that I was the only one in the country driving so prudently.  Most of the roads in the country are two lanes, and many are one-laners masquerading as two, often in windy mountains.  As a result, opportunities to pass slower cars can be few and far between, and I frequently found myself leading a line of 10 or 15 cars, all eager to get around my slow butt.  It was not unlike the scene in Dumb and Dumber where the guys are driving up the mountain on their moped, almost to Aspen, with a line of agitated cars and trucks behind them.  It's worth noting, however, that while the Montenegrin motorists were happy to ride my bumper, not once did anyone honk at me.

In about an hour and a half, I reached Budva on the coast.  Although the restrictions on traveling weren't starting until the following day, I passed two police checkpoints in Budva.  The police officers waved me through, along with most other people, so I'm not sure what they were looking for.  And a few minutes after that, I reached my first destination: Jaz Beach.  This beach is much loved in Montenegro, but in the past it has also been dubbed the best beach in Europe.  Considering all the nice beaches on the continent, that's a pretty good feather in the cap.

Because it was the off-season and even more so because of COVID, the area around Jaz Beach was deserted.  The area looked grey and depressing, however, so I decided to keep driving.  I had seen signs along the road advertising another beach nearby, so I followed these to a spot west of Jaz.

I arrived to Ploče Beach in a few minutes, and I was surprised to see that there was even a guard on duty in a booth at the entrance to the parking lot.  Along with my car, there were two others in the lot.

I walked down to the beach - all pebbles with little coves carved into the shore - and I quickly spotted my companions.  Two guys were fishing to my left, and a man and a woman were fishing to my right.  About eight stray cats were hungrily lurking around, hoping to steal a bait fish or hoping one of the fisherpeople would gut his or her catch.

The two guys were wrapping up when I arrived, and they soon left.  With just the couple to my right remaining, I stripped down to my swimsuit and took the plunge - my baptism in the Adriatic.  The air temperature was about 18 C (64 F) and the water about 19 C (66 F), so for a mid-November day, it was decently warm.  The only problem was that it happened to be windy and rainy.  As such, there was very little appeal in getting out of the water once I had gotten in.

My Montenegrin christening.

The water itself was quite clear, just how I like it, and the seabed was a wonderful mosaic of shells and colorful peddles polished smooth by the waves.

As I was paddling around, the couple to my right finished fishing.  While the woman gathered their belongings, the man stripped off his wetsuit, revealing a swimsuit beneath, and he jumped in the sea.  He was in his own little cove, but we regarded each other with head nods.  He swam for but a moment.  Then he and his companion, probably his wife, dumped a bucket of fish entrails on the beach, much to the delight of the gulls and stray cats, and hiked up to the parking lot.

I had the whole place to myself at that point, but after about 20 minutes, I got out too and laid on a rock in the rain watching a fishing boat in the sea.  Somehow swimming and "sunning" in the rain feels wrong, but there's something fun about it too.  It's not unlike the Simpsons episode where Bart is flying a kite at night; it's kind of fun, but not quite right.

Once I dried off and changed, I was in Kotor in less than half an hour.

I parked my car in a commercial lot by the port, and as I was walking toward the historic Old City, a man caught my attention.  He was selling boat rides around the bay, and while these excursions looked fun, I had some hesitation.  For starters, I was already chilly just standing on the seawall.  Whipping through the rain and wind on a speed boat sounded miserable.  The second issue was the cost.  Normally, a seat on the boat was like €20, but since there were very few tourists (because of COVID and also because it was the off-season), I would have to hire the whole boat at a cost of €200, which even included a discount.  I declined the offer, but I didn't make it ten feet further down the seawall before another boat operator started into his sales pitch, which was pretty much identical to the first guy's.  At that point, I noticed that there was a line of boat captains the entire length of the wall.  Unwilling to run this gauntlet, I left the water's edge and proceed to the Old City using a sidewalk closer to the road.

Old City Kotor is surrounded by fortifications dating back to the 1400s, when Kotor was part of the Venetian Republic, although the city itself is much older.  As I left the new city, crossing through the grand city gate, I was immediately taken back in time, that classic old-city effect.  The gate opened into a cobble-stoned plaza flanked by old-looking buildings, just mismatched enough to be interesting.  There were a few souvenir shops, boutiques, cafes, a post office, and some banks.  A handful of Italian tourists were taking photos in the square, the men with their sweaters fashionably hanging over their shoulders, at the ready in case they should catch a chill.  Kotor is built on a mountain, and homes stretched up its slope, toward St. John's Fortress at the top.

It was around lunchtime, and I was peckish, so I decided to eat.  Of the numerous eateries around, most were deserted.  Not wanting to judge a book by its cover, I decided to try the least-interesting-looking place, Pizzeria Sara, with its beige tents in the shadow of Saint Tryphon's Cathedral.

As is the practice in Montenegro, I sat myself and waited for a waiter to appear, which didn't take long.  And not only was he prompt, he also spoke English.

"I want Montenegrin cuisine," I told him.  "What can you recommend?"

"It has to be meat," he replied, turning my menu to the grilled-meat page.

There were several options of sausages and cuts of meat in a variety of preparations, but here I was sitting by the bay.  It didn't seem right to order a kebab.

"Anything you can recommend from the sea?" I asked.

While there was a whole page of fish and seafood, he recommended I take either the fried fish or the grilled squid.  I went with the latter.

As I waited for my food, I observed the only other diners in the place: a group of teenagers speaking with British accents.  They didn't have anything interesting to say, but it was kind of surreal just to watch them clowning around, a group of unrelated kids all over each other, without masks, like things used to be.

My food arrived in 15 minutes - a simple plate, but tasty - and I followed it with dessert.

Order up! Pizzeria Sara's grilled squid.

Then I walked next door to the cathedral.  Normally I bristle at the thought of paying admission at a place of worship, even if I'm entering as a tourist, but I bit the bullet and gave the attendant the token fee.  I was the only customer at the time, so I checked out the lower level first.

Saint Tryphon is the patron saint of Kotor, and the cathedral itself was consecrated in 1166, although it has been reconstructed a few times after being damaged in earthquakes.  It's a Roman Catholic cathedral, and not the more dominant Serbian Orthodox.

The lower level had a pretty standard church vibe - some seats, some paintings, some candles, some statues - so I walked around there for a few minutes and then climbed the large stone staircase to the upper floor.

The upper deck was set up as a museum, showcasing a variety of artifacts ranging from priestly garments to golden crosses to saintly relics.  Unfortunately, it was so poorly lit, it was hard to fully appreciate the objects.  There were numerous lights installed throughout the museum, but no matter what combination of switches I flipped, none of them illuminated.  I wasn't sure if there was a power issue, or if perhaps the lights had purposely been disabled to help preserve the collections.  Regardless of the reason, though, the poor lighting accelerated my visit; there is no need to linger when you can hardly see the displays, and I didn't feel like walking around with my cell phone light turned on.  To be fair, though, my aging eyes were part of the problem.  I'm sure those with better, younger eyes could probably function better in this low-light, low-contrast situation.

The museum was set up on both sides of the upper deck, and to get from one side to the other I got to walk outside by the bell towers.  Catching a break in the rain, I got a nice view of Old Town.

After Saint Tryphon's, my next stop was St. John's Fortress, the stone monster occupying most of the hillside.  It was drizzling again, but I decided to risk it.  I walked through the buildings of the Old City until I reached the entrance to the fortress path.  There were several signs along the way warning visitors that a ticket was required for admission, but when I reached the path, it was clear that this information was outdated.  The ticket booth didn't look like it had been open in quite a while, and the entry turnstile was broken.  I felt like I was entering an abandoned amusement park.

There was a group of three guys climbing up the stone path at the same time I was, and I passed one large group, possibly a school group, coming the opposite direction.  Other than that, the place was empty.

St. John's Fortress

The three guys and I stopped at all the same overlooks and took all the same selfies, and in our brief conversations, I learned that they were scouting locations for a documentary.  They eventually lagged behind, though, and I was completely alone.  I climbed the stone steps for quite a while, and every time I thought I must be near the end, they would loop back one more time.  Eventually, though, I did reach the top where the fortress itself was situated.  I took some pics and explored the rooms of the ruined castle, and as I was doing so, the heavens opened.  As my father likes to say, it was raining down like a cow pissing on a flat rock.

I waited for several minutes inside one of the castle's chambers, but as the deluge showed no signs of slowing, I decided I should just get moving.

I was wearing a rain jacket, but it stopped at my waist.  As such, my pants got soaked quickly.  I gingerly descended the mountain, clutching my two phones, my camera, and my wallet inside my jacket, tight to my chest.  It was an uncomfortable, cold, wet hike to be sure, and of course I was worried about ruining my electronics.  My biggest concern, though, was busting my butt.  The stone stairs were now slick with rain, and if I would have fallen, it might have been a while before anyone found me.  I doubted that anyone would be starting the hike in the heavy rain, and it was also nearing dusk by now.  Luckily, though, I made it down without wiping out, looking like a drowned rat.

With evening approaching, I made my way back to my car, stopping at a souvenir shop near the city gate.  It was disappointing.  The store was full of made-in-China trinkets - magnets, t-shirts, shot glasses, and postcards - and while I often buy such things while traveling, I wanted something more authentic and more unique.

"Do you have any local products?" I asked the clerk. "Ceramics... carvings... jewelry... textiles?"

"No, we don't," she replied with a hint of surliness, "and no one else does either.  We don't do that here in Montenegro."

Not needing a Kotor pot-holder or sun visor right that minute, I left empty-handed.

The drive back to the city was like my drive in the morning had been, except I took a more direct routing not across the lake and also it was now dark.  I took my sweet time as before, observing the speed limit, and as before I ended up with a train of a dozen cars behind me the whole way.  I was like the grand marshal of a parade.

I filled up the tank just before I returned the car to Bato, and then I resumed my standard lockdown routine of sitting at home alone.  It wasn't a bad way to end my moderately eventful day.


Unknown said...

Nice! We really liked Kotor. Such a climb up, we were passed by a woman off a cruise ship in high heels. From Chicago.

Glad you got out and about before continuing lockdown.

Bruce said...

As always a fantastic story. Chris, you have a way with words that pulls the reader in and doesn’t let him go...until the end! Also, very informative. Loved the photos, especially the fried octopus and the fort. I completely understand the feeling about going back to the room...totally alone.

Aldo said...

Well told, as always. The calamari look VERY appealing!

Eleanor White said...

Chris, loved it, as usual. Now I want to visit Montenegro!

Unknown said...

Hello Chris

Thanks for the exciting introduction to Montenegro. ☺️ Your blogs are quite interesting.

Unknown said...

Hi Chris,
I really enjoyed your story, I could hear your voice and see your light smile. Thank you for sharing! And this is really you, the person who can be happy in a rainy cool day at any time and any places