After Italy’s stifling heat, stepping off the plane to Montenegro’s warm but comfortable sunshine is a welcome surprise. I exit the airport to a chorus of men trying to catch my attention shouting, “Taxi! Taxi!” I need a taxi to take me to the bus station for the 90-minute ride from Podgorica to Kotor. I follow the sign for “Official Taxi” and am assaulted by cries of “Lady, I speak Russian and English, I take you anywhere you want to go!” I set my sights on one particular driver. No telling what it is that makes me pick him, but he has an air of competence. He seems disappointed that I’m only going to the bus stop and I think he may be trying to pawn me off on another driver.
Aki is his name, short for Aleksander. His English is spotty at best, but I speak no Montenegran at all (really it’s Croatian, but they don’t like to hear that), so he’s responsible for our communication. He pulls into a gas station and says, “Coca? Fanta? Aqua?” For me, I ask? “Yes, of course!” he responds. I go with the water, realizing I might miss my bus because of this unexpected stop. He returns with my water and tells me it’s 15 Euro to the bus stop. I know the bus will cost me another 25 Euro, so his offer of 65 Euro all the way to Kotor starts to sound pretty good. “I take you to final destination,” he says. “No problems for you.” Sold. Call me a sucker, but it ends up being a great decision.
I look up to see myself surrounded by amazing mountains and small houses with red tile roofs. I breathe in and it smells like dried grass baking in the sun. We pass signs for towns I can’t pronounce as we start climbing. I’ve done no research on Kotor or Montenegro, just picking it randomly from a photo I saw on Twitter, so I have no idea what to expect here. Kotor is very nice, Aki tells me. “You stay five days, ten days, very happy.” We pass a calm, pretty river and he spews its name too fast for me to catch. Cigarette in one hand and phone in the other, Aki still manages to shift gears and take the twisting curves like a boss. Even a year ago it would freak me out to be in a car with a strange man in a strange country with no common language between us. Today it’s fun. I feel very alive in Aki’s car, perhaps because I might not be for long.
These mountains must be what puts the “monte” in Montenegro. Aki points out a sign for Vranac and indicates with a mock swig of a bottle that this is wine country. A second later we see a roadside wine stand. “You see?” he says, grinning at me in the rearview. “Vino here!” Eyes on the road, buddy. Letting him drive me feels like a good deed and he’s clearly enjoying himself. Montenegro hasn’t yet made it onto the tourist map so it’s a hard living being a taxi driver. He goes above and beyond to give me a great ride, sharing tidbits about places we pass and stopping at every pretty view so I can take pictures.
This is a beautiful country, and within minutes I know I want to come back and bring my husband. He’ll love the mountains and lakes with all the hiking and fishing they promise. It reminds me of California as we wind through the mountains, and I don’t change my mind when we hit the Adriatic coast, which is the exact twin of Highway 1 running up the California coast.
Aki keeps up a running dialog as he drives, and even with him using his hands to make a point I still only understand one out of every ten or twenty words. It sounds like he’s saying Sweaty Steppa and later I realize we’re about to pass Sveti Stefan, a pretty outpost in the water.
Budva is a party town, he tells me, and although it’s pretty from a distance I hate its crowds of tourists once we get there. “You like Kotor, I promise,” he tells me. He has a brother living in Kotor so he knows it well.
As we pull into Kotor I’m awed by the bay protected by huge mountains. The cruise ship parked there reminds me of Juneau, Alaska. Aki rattles off another stream of words in Montenegran, ending with an “Okay?” and a nod at me in the mirror. “Okay,” I say. I have no idea what I just agreed to but it had vino and 8:00 in it. Ends up I’ve just accepted an invitation to dinner with his brother’s family two nights from now. That kind of life experience won’t happen on a bus full of tourists.
Have you been to Montenegro? What was your favorite part?