[This is the second of a four-part trip recap; Previous Post: Driving a Region Less Sought [Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania]]
October 24, 2015 (continued) – Driving in the Black to the City Dressed in White
After quickly driving through Albania, we arrived at the Montenegro border. With a freshly-stamped passport in hand, Robyn drove west toward the Adriatic Sea on the highway. All of a sudden, the road that our Garmin guided us to turned into a small one-car-fits-all road on the mountains. It was pitch black with no sign of life.
Our Opal Astra continued up steep hills with sharp turns. When we would meet another car, we would basically have to pull over in the ditch in order to get through. At this point, we had to really use the restroom due to the combination of our travel jugs of water and nervousness. Robyn is scared of heights; it was almost a blessing that it was dark out because she was not able to see the steep cliffs our car was straddling.
Somehow, someway, we eventually made it to a decent highway along the Adriatic Sea, only to be quickly put back on a steep switchback road. At this point, we were driving through lit up towns that were perched on the sides of mountains. We were finally on the last stretch to Kotor, our destination. Around 11 p.m. local time, we arrived and found parking near the Bay of Kotor. After an exhausting ride, we were delighted to see an ancient castle lit up on the side of a mountain. We knew we were staying in the UNESCO-protected Old Town in Kotor. We lugged our suitcases through the enchanting passage to the center of Old Town, where our host Lazzar was waiting for us at a local bar. Our Airbnb had a really convenient location. We found a late-night fast food place to quench our hunger. After that, it was nice to walk around Old Town, which was styled with white stone buildings and streets.
October 25, 2015 – The Hike to St. John’s Castle & Bay of Kotor Beauty
Boy, did we need to sleep in. After all of that stressful driving and navigating, we needed the rest. We walked around Old Town to see the white-stone buildings in daylight, including the Cathedral of St. Tryphon. We walked outside of the historical site and became overwhelmed with the picturesque view of the Bay of Kotor. After I would take a photo with my phone, the picture looked fake, like a painting on a movie set.
One of our goals of the day was to walk up to the top of the mountain where St. John’s Castle and the Illyrian Fortress stood. Along the switchback hike, we would stop to take in the ever-changing view of the bay but also to catch our breath in the altitude. There were a few smaller “castles” along the hike up the mountain, including the Church of Our Lady at Remedy. After about an hour hiking up, we reached the top at St. John’s Castle. Atop the castle waved the Montenegro flag to complete the view. Within the castle were several nooks and crannies to explore, with part of the castle still intact while the rest was crumbled in ruins. A couple foreign guys were brave enough to stand on a ledge for photos. I was jealous, so I found enough courage to post up on the ledge.
The walk back down the mountain went much faster as expected. Once we reached our stay, hunger set in and we found a local Italian restaurant called Old Winery in Kotor. We both had a vegetarian risotto and a bottle of red wine to cap off the day. We ate dinner pretty early, so we explored the stores and streets of Old Town before stumbling upon some pistachio gelato. Apparently wine and gelato was not enough, because we later bar-hopped across the town, drawn out by great laughs, Montenegrin drinks and a pack of cigarettes. Our last stop was Cafe Perper, a bar at the bottom of our Airbnb stay. The cafe seemed like a man’s bar, as the 40+ aged locals were watching soccer on TV and chatting about the day.
When we got home, we thought we would put some of our dirty laundry in the small washing machine so that we could have fresh clothes for the rest of the trip. We packed the machine with our dirty clothes and let it run overnight as we slept. In the middle of the night, I kept getting disturbed by the washing machine, as it was making noises washing machines should not make. Eventually, I just turned it off so we could sleep.
October 26, 2015 – Finding Our Way Up and Down Montenegro
We woke up and read the washing machine manuals to see how to fix it. There was a metal drum inside the washer that appeared stuck, and it wouldn’t open for us when we tried. I emailed our host to let him know our issue. We were worried, especially since we needed those clothes to continue on the trip.
In some of the brochures we read about Kotor, most of the suggestions included taking a boat on the Bay of Kotor. We walked down toward the bay to check which times it would leave. After much research, the locals said 10 a.m. would be the time of departure. We walked to our favorite bakery to grab pastries and drinks. This cafe was amazing because it made gluten free pastries and desserts! We walked back down toward the bay while a large cruise ship approached the waters. A bunch of foreigners departed the boat in droves, reminding me that I never want to be part of a cruise.
No tour boat ever came. We eventually found some guides that said tours were closed for the season since it was late October. Oh well, we had a Plan B. In southern Kotor, we found the bus station to grab a ride to Cetinje. The bus made a few stops toward Budva and then we headed east toward Cetinje. Budva had amazing views of the bay and an island on the Adriatic Sea. The bus continued up steep hills toward our destination; I fell asleep in the back of the bus as the sun through the window felt comforting on my body. We woke up in time to jump off the bus in Cetinje. We arrived and could not see any direction to the mausoleum we were going to visit. After walking down an unpaved road with little to no sight of humans, we began to panic with frustration.
No one spoke English here. A lot of times, I feel guilty being a foreigner who always wishes everyone speaks my language. Sure, English is a worldwide language now, but I can’t expect everyone to know it, especially in a small town in Montenegro. We asked several people for directions and finally a woman helped us.
It was becoming mid-afternoon, so we grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant. The woman who had helped us said that we definitely would have to take a cab to Lovćen, the mountain we wanted to see. The first cab driver we found seemed unwelcoming and confused, so we turned him down. Another cab driver across the street spoke to us in Serbian, as if we seemed local (a compliment I suppose?) After our facial expressions and body language clearly indicated we did not understand Serbian, we thought he would maybe try a different language. No. Eventually, I got out my Google Translate app and asked him to take us to Lovćen, which was 20 minutes drive away. We were worried/hopeful that he actually understood our ask correctly. Also, it was getting late enough that we would likely miss the bus back to Kotor after we were done at Lovcen. His name was Dragán.
The cab driver drove us through beautiful roads covered with fall foliage into Lovćen National Park. The roads, at times, were the same level of terror as our drive into Montenegro. With his manual transmission driving, I was T-20 seconds from vomiting. Our cab made it to the top of the mountain. Dragán was so excited to go with us that he ended up being sort of a tour guide of the place. He was really fun to be around.
It was a decent climb up stairs to get to Njegoš Mausoleum. The view was absolutely stunning at the top, where you can see the black mountains (for which Montenegro is named after) as well as Italy, Albania and the Adriatic Sea.
At the mausoleum, there were a bunch of students on a field trip who left shortly after we arrived. The mausoleum includes the remains of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, a prince, poet and philosopher from the 1800’s. We walked through the marble tomb and then out on a narrow walkway that led to a circular lookout. It was unbelievable. Dragán would try to speak to us in English and then would switch back to Serbian in which we would just smile and nod our heads. I have never felt so liberated as I did atop that mountain. I think the fact that this place is so remote and underrated as a landmark of beauty added to the moment.
As we hoped, Dragán drove us back down the other side of the mountain to Kotor. Before our trip, when Robyn and I were researching the region, a website called http://www.dangerousroads.org popped up and this drive to and from Lovćen was listed there. Imagine how those hairpin roads felt when Dragán drove us around. It took him about 45 minutes to drive us back to Kotor. It likely would have taken 3 hours and 3 Xanax for Robyn and I to do the same.
Upon arriving to Kotor, we said goodbye to Dragán and tipped him generously for his time, help, and most of all, companionship. We walked to our Airbnb where we met our host Lazzar to discuss the washing machine fiasco. Apparently, there is a drum that you have to latch together before starting the machine, a completely foreign concept (literally) to us. We paid him for the repair bill. He was super nice about it and even hung out our wet laundry on a clothesline outside our place. We later went to eat at a nearby restaurant and of course got ice cream. I should also note that everywhere we would go and eat in Kotor had stray cats lingering the streets. The cats would wait underneath our table for scraps. Robyn is a huge cat lover and was delighted to feed them quality restaurant food.
After a day full of anxiety, uncertainty, delight and wonder, we tucked in for our last night in Kotor.
October 27, 2015 – Driving Along the Adriatic Sea
We left our stay in Old Town Kotor and got some of our favorite regional potato chips (called Chipsy) and some bananas for the road. I know, a strange combo for a snack. Our car, which had been parked by the bay this whole time, was luckily still there and intact. Unfortunately, someone had parked slightly behind our car which made it nearly impossible to get out. An old man who wanted our parking spot got out of his car and helped us maneuver out of the spot. It was about a 20 point turn to get out of there, but as soon as we were able to get out, I was ready to hit the road.
For miles we drove along the Adriatic Sea, a magical drive in the daylight as the sun sparkled off of the water. The roads were windy, but wide enough to field two-way traffic. Next on our trip itinerary was Croatia, a time to explore the sea…
[See my next posts to learn more about Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina]