The narrow blue bay is tucked into a valley between high mountains on three sides, and while the cruise ship is a blight on the landscape, it’s good business for the town. The dramatic landscape keeps giving me the sense that I am in Juneau, Alaska in summertime, but the variety of languages and accents that surround me bring me back to Kotor, Montenegro. I know nothing of this town or country – I came on a whim based on a photo of the bay I saw on Twitter a month ago. It was a good choice.
The MontenegroHostel4U where I am staying is directly across from what counts for a beach here – pebbly and hard, but with easy water access. The hostel has built a small wooden dock and platform that serves as our private beach. The hostel is clean and bright, and for a few sweet hours I have the room to myself before being joined by two young men from Milan. We’re only a five minute walk from the walled old city where I find myself on my first night in town.
The old walled city comes alive with tourists and music when the sun goes down. A lone clarinet plays Moon River to my right while a pair of Mediterranean guitars vie for the attention of my left ear. Four lovely ladies, brilliant in red party dresses, approach my dinner table to let me know about a promotion on a local liquor that’s being offered tonight. 27 herbs, they say, so it’s very healthy. Sorry ladies, you lost me at “bitter taste.” I eat my fresh fish smothered with sour cream sauce and appreciate the people watching from my dinner spot. The bell in the clock tower beside me chimes nine times and the air is gentle. I could almost let my hair down from this harsh ponytail but why bother, I have no one to impress tonight.
Boban and Marko at the hostel are tall, beautiful young men with bright smiles, warm demeanors and always a kind word or touch on the shoulder. I can imagine many young visitors fall for them and for a moment I wish I was 25 years younger and single. After dinner I return to the hostel to find a rowdy game of sangria pong underway, sponsored by the staff. Around midnight they take everyone on a pub crawl but I decline along with a half-dozen others and I soon find myself embroiled in an hour-long conversation about world politics with a wonderful couple from France living in Geneva. This is what makes the discomforts of hostel life worthwhile – the connections I can make with like-minded travelers from all over the world.
My plan is to wake around six and climb the 1,400 steps to the fortress, so I arrange all my clothes in advance so as not to wake my roommates, who are out at the pub crawl. By now it’s 1:00 AM and I try to sleep, but on this strange, lumpy bed it takes more than two hours to accomplish. Sometime after that my roomies stumble in and get themselves into bed in hushed voices. I wake a few short hours later and my brain registers 6:00 AM and rebels at the idea of getting up, so I roll over back to sleep. Next thing I know it’s 9:00 and my Italians have packed and gone and the air is hot and still. Maybe I’ll hike the hill tomorrow. Instead, I walk to the mini mart up the street and invest 4 euro in a bright pink floating mattress, upon which I spend a blissful day in the bay surrounded by spectacular scenery. Floatie will become my best friend for the next few days.
A busload of 16 travelers check into the hostel around 8:00 PM and before I know it, I am embroiled in a rousing game of Kings, where I soon realize the objective is to pick on me. Seriously, every single “Never Have I Ever” is directed at the only person over 40 at the table, and I soon feel the effects of all the vodka. I haven’t laughed this much in ages, and sometime around 2:00 in the morning I find myself sitting on the dock with three great university students from the US. Maybe it’s their unjaded curiosity and optimism, but I just love people in their 20’s.
Unfortunately, I can’t keep up with their drinking, so when I stagger out of bed the next morning to tackle the fortress I feel like a cat died overnight in my mouth and left behind its fur. But I’m determined, so I stumble around Old Town, and it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve never asked anyone how to find the trailhead (this is where Boban’s favorite “shit-fuck” combination comes in handy). After an hour of this nonsense I give up and settle in for a cappuccino and a big bottle of water at an outdoor cafe.
A few hours later I recruit a Canadian traveler to take the bus to Perast with me. I’ve heard it’s beautiful and our local beach is starting to get boring. She’s full of questions: How far is it? How much is the bus? How often does the bus come? I have no answers, so together we embark on the adventure. It ends up being very easy – the bus stop is just a short walk from the hostel, costs only one euro, and comes every 30 minutes. The town of Perast is pretty, but after a week in Italy I’m done with looking at old towns. The beach is disappointing in that there is none, just two swimming areas on each end of town. The concrete sea wall serves as the beach, and the heat seeps right through our thin sarongs. I’ve brought Floatie with me, but it’s not worth the effort of blowing it up, and after a short swim we head back to town to wait for the bus to take us back to our own beach.
In addition to nightly pub crawls, Boban and Marko arrange other excursions, too. I joined the one going to Lovƈen National Park. The park is only about 90 minutes from the hostel, and in that time we climb from sea level to almost 2,000 meters (6,000 ft.) elevation on a road that is not for the faint-hearted. Just wide enough for two cars to pass with their bellies sucked in, the road winds up and up and up some of the hairiest curves I’ve ever experienced, but Boban is a pro and I find myself laughing with the joy of it (until a huge bus from the other direction threatens to run us down, prompting another “shit-fuck” from Boban). Boban stops along the way for some pictures, but the downside to going in the late afternoon is that the sun is all wrong for photography. The views are amazing, though. We climb even higher, then mount 300 or so steps to the top where we find the mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, who, before Tito took over in 1945, was considered Montenegro’s greatest ruler. From here we can see far into the distant mountains and down the seacoast across the Adriatic toward Italy.
Kotor offers a slower, cheaper and less hectic option than Budva for visitors to Montenegro. It’s a wonderful place for enthusiasts of both water sports (fishing, kayaking) and mountains (biking, hiking). The weather is hot but not humid, the people are friendly, everything is inexpensive, and the scenery is simply stunning.
Have you been to Montenegro? What was your experience like?