Kotor 28 June – 3 July 2017
Our bus trip from Vela Luka on Korcula, Croatia to Kotor, Montenegro proved to be our worst leg of the whole trip to date. We had tossed up about whether to catch a bus or use ferries to move down the coast but the bus trip looked to be much easier and quicker, involving a trip out of Vela Luka at 5:15am to Kotor, where the bus boarded the car ferry to the mainland (with us still sitting in the bus), then on to Dubrovnik. That part went well and we were in Dubrovnik shortly before 10am with an hour or so to wait for the next bus to Kotor. 11am came and went, with a large crowd standing around at Bay 3 waiting. 11:30 came and went with the same crowd getting more and more bored. A couple of people made enquiries but all got the same answer, “I think the bus is delayed.” Eventually, the bus arrived and two very frazzled looking drivers emerged to check tickets and check in bags. This leg of the journey involved a border crossing, from Croatia into Montenegro. It was relatively simple with one of the drivers collecting all passports, while checking that faces matched, and taking them to be processed while we all stayed on the bus. They were returned stamped and we were ready to go. The problem was that it took an hour in a slow queue to actually reach the point where the office was and then we had to repeat the process again two hundred metres down the road to enter Montenegro. By this time, we were two hours behind our scheduled arrival time. Add to that another 30 minutes waiting for a traffic accident to clear and we rolled into Kotor very much later than planned.
The traffic accident had caused a traffic jam so bad that cars were at a crawl for kilometres, right past the bus station. We faced a 2km walk to our apartment and had planned to taxi it but we could see that they were going nowhere so we saddled up the packs and walked along the beach, finding the chance to stretch the legs after the hours in the bus quite handy and the walk proved easy. Having left Croatia, our mobile phones would not work and we had no way of contacting our host so we just walked to where we thought the place was and relied on our memories of what it looked like from the images on the Internet. Sure enough, we recognized the lane that led to the three level set of apartments and Alexsandra was waving to us from the top to welcome us in. We have a small but comfortable apartment close to the water and within easy walking of a large shopping centre and the old fortress town. We were soon settled in.
Montenegro is a small country, once part of the now dissolved Yugoslavia. Over the centuries it has been variously controlled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines , Turks and Venetians. In more recent times, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although not part of the EU it uses the Euro as its currency (much to the chagrin of the EU bankers) but prices here are much lower than in the EU itself. Its most famous tourist feature is the beautiful Bay of Kotor, a large fjiord carved out of the Dinaric Alps that towers over all sides of the bay. The area is one of the wettest parts of Europe and where there is enough flat land there are pockets of lush, dense forest. The place has a very different look and feel to the Croatian coastline that we have moved through over the last three weeks.
We have Kotor Beach right in front of our apartment and it is well patronized. The beach is a mixture of pebble beach and concrete walls but it lacks the inspiration and crystal clarity of the Croatian beaches. The main problem is the presence of algae, lots of the green type. It must have something to do with the fact that Kotor is at the end of a 28km deep inlet and the water does not cycle as much as the places exposed to the open sea. It looks a bit like swimming at Mandurah. Lots of people do it but it does not look inviting. Despite some very hot weather, we didn’t actually go for a swim during our time in Kotor.
The old town is another medieval walled town, not as imposing as Trogir or Dubrovnik but impressive none the less. The most amazing feature is a 5km fortified wall that rises almost vertically up the mountain behind the city across terrain that it so steep and rocky that the thought of anybody attacking it is crazy. It ends in a fortress high above the town. Groups of people can be seen straggling up the twisting walls and paths to reach the fortress but this time we decided that we would leave it be. So far, we have climbed most challenges but the days are getting hotter and this climb just looks awful. Inside the walls is a network of very narrow lanes and alleyways that can defeat even the locals. There are a number of small churches, mostly Serbian-Orthodox with amazing murals and gold leaf icons adorning the walls. For some reason that is beyond us, the churches don’t have pews, just an altar and a big open space. We don’t pretend to be experts when it comes to churches.
Kotor is a favorite with the cruise ships because the water is very deep right up to the very front of the old town. The day we arrived we actually walked right under the overhanging bow of a monstrous ship that was berthed nose in to the town. It is an amazing sight but makes movement around the small town a tad chaotic when an extra 2000 passengers descend on the place. The cruise ships come in all shapes and sizes, from the 8 storey monsters to the beautiful sleek wooden three masted ships that look like they never actually use the sails. The large ones are full of carers and wheel chair ramps while the smaller ones have railings covered in beach towels and decks filled with bikini clad girls. Some of the smaller boats have a deck load of bicycles as well, although the thought of cycling around terrain like Montenegro or Croatia does nothing for me. Whatever, there seems to be a cruise designed for everyone and there are lots of people being employed along the way.
We took a taxi-boat ride around the Bay or Kotor, taking in a few of the sights. It was a centre consul speedboat about 6 metres long and got places in a hurry. The water was calm in most places except for one narrow neck where the tide was against the wind but later we headed outside the bay to the open Adriatic coast to visit the Blue Cave. The swell had been very big a few days before and the skipper was uncertain whether we could manage this part of the tour. The swell proved moderate and not too uncomfortable until we got close to the cliffs, where the waves bounced back and created some very disturbed water. We approached a low hole in the cliffs which looked too low slung to allow us entry but after waiting for the right lull in the waves the skipper gunned us forward and suddenly we were inside the cave, a small cave by any standards with a second but even smaller entrance towards the rear. Our boat could manage small tight circles inside the cave to show off the main attraction. The water is crystal clear and the sea floor near the entrance is pure white sand so the sunlight coming through reflects from the sand in the most amazing shade of blue, as though it has been created by a bank of artificial lights. It is very beautiful and worth the heart stopping moment of entry. Getting out was equally exciting and we had to congratulate the skills of the skipper.
Back inside Kotor Bay we visited a couple of submarine tunnels dug into the cliffs by the Germans during WWII to house U-Boats. Our boat entered two of the tunnels, which were used after the war by the Soviets up until Yugoslavia broke up. Now they are just used as tourist attractions.
We stopped for about half an hour on a small island that housed a church and small shop. The Island is called Our Lady of the Sea and legend has it that it was created over many years by fishermen throwing rocks into the sea or sinking old ships filled with rocks on the spot. It would take a lot of time, effort and rocks but having seen lots of evidence to show that humans are capable of any kind of crazy thing, especially in the name of religion, the story is plausible.
We really enjoyed the tour, having the chance to see many other towns and villages that are scattered around the vast Bay of Kotor. The Blue Cave experience on its own would have made the trip worthwhile.
Kotor was a good stay, with a beautiful town area and wonderful scenery fully deserving of its World Heritage status. For us, the biggest disappointment was the poor water quality and the presence of so much algae, putting us off swimming even though there were good crowds at all the popular spots. The town is definitely worth a visit but really does not rate well as a beach destination.
Bar 3-8 July
The bus trip to Bar was worth the drive alone. After deviating to go into Trivat and the International Airport, it hit the coast and drove along the coast through Buvda, Sveti Stefano and Sutomore. The views were absolutely magnificent. Small beach resorts filled every little cove and bay while the bigger cities like Buvda were like a beach club on steroids. The beaches had whole cities of lounges and umbrellas and the waters were teeming with swimmers. Jetskis whizzed around and the sea was criss-crossed with the wakes of small boats. The beautiful Sveti Stefano is a tiny little town perched on a little island only about two hundred metres offshore and joined to the mainland with a spit of white sand. It looks picture perfect. The money seems to be centered around Buvda with some very fancy resorts on the southern side of the city. It was a drive full of interest.
We faced a 1.5km walk from the bus station to our apartment through a light industrial area. We reached the general area but had to find our actual apartment because there were a great many apartment blocks that all looked the same. All except one that stood out because it was a sick shade of green, which made it better than the pale grey and concrete cancer look of all the others. It looked like an area that specializes in drive-by shootings and drug deals. Our phones had suddenly decided to be out of credit (we bought a tourist SIM and really can’t understand how it works) so we couldn’t ring our host but we still had data and thankfully he responded to our email. The green building proved to be ours and the inside a huge improvement on the outside. The apartment was spacious, modern and clean, with a view over the harbor area and on towards the beach area.
Bar is totally different to any of the town we have been in so far in Europe. The streets are wide and open. The front walk along the beach area is really expansive and not every open space is filled with restaurant tables. The shopping area of the town is open enough to be able to see what type of shops there are over a hundred metres away, instead of visibility being limited to the next 20 metres of old town. It made us realise just how much we are over “old towns”. Medieval towns are very cute but one can fill up on them. The downside to Bar is that is looks like a city with tooth decay. It presents a great smile but needs more than just a scale and polish. My guess is that most of the buildings date from the communist era and that standards were not really well adhered to. So many buildings now look as though they suffering from a structural rot. It may be that they are fine inside, like ours, but they sure look sick from the outside.
We planned to head inland on a day trip to take in the famous Skadar Lake and Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro. There were a few interesting looking tours offering lunch for the lake but the times and days did not seem to match with us so we decided to take public transport. So it was back to the bus station to check out schedules and look into the trains, which ran from station nearby. The trains proved irregular and gave us a long wait so we opted for the bus, which gave us a medium wait. We watched the big comfy buses come and go, heading off to other parts of the Balkans, until finally our bus arrived, a stumpy little thing that did not look nearly big enough for the massed crowd. Indeed, we had to squeeze into the back seat and gasp for air for the ten minutes or so until the driver decided we needed an air-conditioner. Despite being full, the bus still stopped along the way and people just got on and somehow levered a seat out of nothing. I had a young girl squeeze in between me and the guy next to me (who was manspreading to the max). She was shorter than me which meant that her bare shoulder fitted neatly into my very sweaty armpit. The jolting of the bus gave it a good workout.
Christine kept an eye on Google Maps so we could identify our stop at Virpazar for the lake tour. Unfortunately, the swaying and bumping put us both to sleep and we were caught a bit by surprise when the bus stopped and the driver yelled “V%@#*&” and took off again. It took all of a minute to realise that we should have got off. Damn! Even though we had only paid for a ticket to Virpazar, we stayed on the bus to Podgorica, figuring we could pay extra on arrival. As the bus pushed north, we looked out at the scenes of the lake going by and asked ourselves, “Why did we want to get off anyway?” What is described in the guidebooks as one of the great wilderness areas of Europe and a nature lovers dream looked like a large swamp bordering an even larger stretch of boring water. The teeming masses of birdlife were represented by a single small duck and the extreme biodiversity of the amazing pristine region probably couldn’t be fully appreciated in a single visit anyway. Even the charming little traditional lake boats that take you on a tour looked just like aluminum dinghies with outboards. It was interesting enough but not the sensational destination we had been expecting. We scratched Lake Skadar from our travel plans and decided Podgorica would get more attention.
If we thought Bar was a bit tatty, Podgorica was full on grotty. The bus and train station was a 1.5km walk from the main CBD through some areas that looked like something out of an post-apocalypse movie. The pavements were broken and crumbled or would just come to an end for no apparent reason. Most building were unpainted grey concrete, streaked with rust marks from the obvious rot within. Like Bar, the city was open and the streets wide and straight but it looked very unkempt. The older buildings were all flattened during WWII so almost everything dated from the immediate post war era where style meant nothing. While reasonably affluent during the times of Yugoslavia, Montenegro suffered badly during the Balkan War and the sanctions imposed by the West and so maintenance has simply not occurred. Things were starting to get on track again when the GFC of 2012 hit and sent the country down again. While tourism is bringing in big investments, especially from Russian sources, the money appears to be being spend on the beaches to the north rather than here.
Things improved a bit in the very central part of the city and we found a couple of nice areas and a pretty strip of cafes, where we had a ridiculously cheap lunch, having sandwiches, fries and a couple of beers for 5€ each in a charming al fresco setting. After lunch we wandered down to the Zeta River, through pretty parkland and found a clear water fast flowing stream with a good volume of water. Finally, we headed back to the station to await the train. After the horrible bus ride we decided the train was a better bet. We had spied a train during the bus ride, a sleek modern affair that looked very comfortable. Alas, not all trains are equal and ours was an incredibly grubby and noisy thing without any air-conditioning. The windows were so dirty that you could barely see out of them and photography was only possible though an open window. We slept much of the way, waking every time the train stopped at one of ten tiny sidings, mostly broken down and overgrown with weeds. Hopefully, Montenegro will be brought into the fold of the EU before long and infrastructure will get a much needed financial boost. They need it. By the time we got back to the apartment we had walked just on 8km and were very tired. We decided to forgo our evening walk along the foreshore.
Another big disappointment in Bar was the beach. Bar has a series of beaches stretching north towards Budva from the harbor. They seem to get more and more stony as they go, with the far ones being made up of rocks the size of tennis balls. People still seem to go to them. Closer to the start of the stretch, the stones are more like pebbles and there is sand once you get to the water itself so we opted to go there for a swim. However, the rubbish problem was extreme, with a lot of plastic being washed up or just floating around in the water. Three were also a worrying number of dead fish and squid, indicating that all is not well. It was hot so we went in but refused to put our heads under water. With both Kotor and Bar being ruled out as beach destinations, perhaps Budva would be the place to go for a beach vacation.
We came to Montenegro on a promise of glorious scenery and inexpensive living. The second proved true, especially away from Kotor. The scenery is certainly impressive but no more so than further north in Croatia and the dirt and poor infrastructure detracts from the place considerably. With tourism already playing a big part in Montenegro’s economy, there needs to be some serious attention paid to how things are presented, especially now that the rest of Europe is becoming so environmentally conscious.
We took a ferry out of Bar back across the Adriatic to Bari in Italy, a trip of about 8 hours.