On December 26th, we boarded a bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Kotor, Montenegro. This was one of the only bus rides we had the entire trip that was uneventful and arrived basically when it said it would.
The bus followed the coast down from Dubrovnik and then around the Bay of Kotor to the small fortress city of Kotor. The small city of Kotor is at the far end of a very oddly-shaped bay. It’s isolated location makes it very well hidden. It also makes for a very slow bus ride around all the curves of the bay. And by the time we arrived at this small UNESCO Heritage Site, I was feeling queasy.
I must admit, we knew very little about Kotor, and Montenegro in general, before we arrived. The only reason we wanted to go was because it seemed so close to Dubrovnik and it was another stamp in our passports and I don’t think I know anyone who’s been to Montenegro. Plus, I discovered, purely by chance and I can’t even recall how this piece of information fell into my lap, that there is a monastery in Montenegro that was carved into the side of a mountain. Yeah, that would be awesome to see. Kinda Indiana Jones-y. So we stuck it in the plan. (Yes, yes, I know. Indiana Jones was in Petra.)
When we started looking at how to get to this monastery, we found a link to a hostel that offered tours to it. The Old Town Kotor Hostel is located within the city walls of Kotor, only a five minute walk from the bus station. It was a incredible $18 a night for a private room with ensuite. Not only that, they offer a good-sized homemade dinner and breakfast for 3€!
Montenegro, in fact, has a very long history of being independent and part of a number of different empires and republics. It has been ruled by Austria, France, Serbia, Croatia and even Russia. Recently, it was part of Yugoslavia. After the break-up of Yugoslavia, it remained part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1992 – 2003, then it was controlled by Serbia and in 2006, it became the Republic of Montenegro. Montenegro means “Black Mountain” and in Montenegrin, they call it “Crno Gora”.
When we arrived, the staff at the hostel spoke English and were incredibly friendly and helpful. The hostel is as interesting and beautiful as it in the photos on its website. The private rooms were in a separate “wing” which was really just the next building over. This meant that to get to dinner or the heated common room, we had to go out of our building, down a set of stairs and down the street two doorways to the main reception area and common room. This actually appealed to us because the streets in the Old City are very narrow, just like they are in Dubrovnik and Split. So people often converge in the streets and chat. As we passed through, we had the chance to say hello, Bob had someone to smoke with and it created more of a community feel than just going from dinner to your bunk. It was also nice to feel the fresh air. The weather had continued to be beautiful (around 14°C or so during the day) so it was nice to have even these few short steps outside. In our wing, there was a full kitchen as well, though we didn’t need to use it except for early breakfasts. Breakfast is served at 8:30 and both days we needed to leave at 8:30 so we had to fend for ourselves in the mornings.
We checked in around 2:00 pm and we were starving. We immediately signed up for dinner but it wasn’t served until 7 pm. It was Boxing Day so we weren’t sure that anything would be open. Montenegro is Orthodox, not Catholic so their Christmas celebrations are in January. But still, not a lot was open. We found a restaurant that had a three-course meal for 20€ and it was delicious.
I should probably mention that people can smoke almost anywhere in the Balkans, except buses, bus stations and stores. So be prepared for another customer to light up beside you while you are eating your meal in a restaurant. Living in a country that is practically smoke free (Canada), I found it the hardest thing to get used to. Every night I spent a few minutes coughing, my lungs trying to dispel the second-hand smoke.
I should also mention that everything happens in the Balkans at a very relaxed pace. So always budget more time than you think you’ll need for things like meals, coffee or transportation. Living in a country where everything is rushed, regulated and packed full of expectation (Canada), I found this the easiest thing to get used to. We soon realized that we didn’t have to rush because there was no need to be early. Everything is a little bit late in the Balkans.
After our meal, we realized it was getting on in the afternoon. We had discovered in Dubrovnik that the sunlight can be quite fleeting when you are surrounded by mountains. The mountains in the Balkans (the Dinaric Alps) are high and steep and the sun dips below them at around 4:30.
The first thing we wanted to do to maximize our daylight was hike the 1350 stairs up to the Fortress of St. John, atop the crumbling fortified walls that snake up the mountain behind the town of Kotor. In the summer, there is a 1€ entrance fee but in winter it’s free. In actual fact, we weren’t walking on the walls as we did in Dubrovnik, we were walking a crumbling path up through the middle of the fortifications. The path had narrow steps on one side – only wide enough for one person – and beside it a wider, flat-ish cart path made of large pieces of gravel and crumbling stones. The wall beside the path (not the outer fortification wall but just a wall to protect the steps) was of varying heights throughout the journey up to the top. Sometimes it was a proper wall, with arrowslits and crenelations. In other places, the wall was waist height so you could rest your hand on it for balance. In yet other places the walls were knee height or non-existent altogether.
It took us about an hour to get to almost the top. The reason we didn’t get to the fortress was because Bob’s ankle was starting to bother him (God love him for doing all these stairs!) plus it was starting to get dark. There were lights that illuminated the outer walls but none that shone on the actual steps and we didn’t want to risk a stumble and re-injure Bob’s ankle, after three months of learning how to walk again. I don’t feel like I missed anything though because the views from almost the top were spectacular as well. We heard later that if you continue to the top, you can see another trail that continues over the mountains behind the fortress.
As we descended, the lights in the houses below and the lights that illuminated the walls on the mountain started coming on. Looking out over the orange tile roofs and the yellow limestone walls transported us back in time.
By the time we were back in the Old City, darkness had fallen. We wandered the streets, took photos of beautiful scenes, found a furry friend that was determined to follow us into every shop, down every street and even wait for us outside the hostel. We named him Benji.
There are a great deal of strays in the Old City, here and in Croatia. They are mostly cats and they keep the rodent population down. We were told that at one time, because Kotor is so close to the water and the Old City would often flood in the spring, that it was law that every house have a cat. Now the cats roam free but seem to be relatively taken care of by the community. In the morning, on my way for coffee, I noticed the market lady putting out the ends of the sausages that would have been discarded anyway. Restaurants often leave some of their food waste unbagged and you could often see a circle of cats feasting on fish and chicken scraps. Even our hostel had two cats. They roamed as well, the only difference was there was a food dish in the hostel and they had collars.
At 7 pm, we headed to the main room for dinner and had moussaka, fried cabbage, and pork chop for dinner. We shared a table with two other Canadians, shared our experiences and then I had to call it a night. Bob, the night owl, decided to go to a nearby pub and have a drink but returned early and also decided to retire for the evening. It had been another day full of adventure and we had an early morning the next day. We had booked a driver through the hostel to take us to Ostrog Monastery, the monastery carved into the side of a mountain, and we left at 8:30 am. We weren’t expecting the type of tour that we got.