Much as our 24 hours in Dubrovnik wasn’t really 24 hours, our day in Montenegro would probably be better described as about three hours. Kotor is increasingly becoming a cruise ship haunt. However, few visitors to Dubrovnik realise just how close Kotor is, and how easy it is to visit one of the youngest countries in the world.
First, a primer on Montenegro. The country has, like much of the region, an extremely turbulent history. With origins in the Roman period, the Turkish took over control of the territory in 1496, after which it managed to gain its independence in the 1800s. It was officially recognised as a Kingdom in 1910, but following World War One, was absorbed into Serbia and lost its statehood, army and dynasty. After World War Two, it became part of the Yugoslav Federation, but remained in union with Serbia after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It sided with Serbia in the Homeland War, participating in attacks on Dubrovnik and other sites in Croatia. In 2006, its people voted to become independent, and the modern country of Montenegro created.
Kotor has a bit of a shady past, and was well-known as a prime port for smuggling. Like Croatia, most of the tourists that visit know little of its history, or that it still suffers from severe drug and gang problems. While these elements have little to no impact on tourists, it is a stark contrast to the beautiful setting in which you find yourself. It is easy to forget that many people in this region live in severe poverty, while cruise ships glide in and out peacefully.
Our Uber driver in Dubrovnik had advised us to leave early for our drive, owing to the fact that you have to do two border crossings to enter Montenegro. You first exit Croatia, then enter a weird no-man’s land, then enter Montenegro. The whole crossing process takes about thirty minutes. The trip, in total, was around 3 1/2 hours total driving to Kotor. The moment you cross the border, you see the road quality decline. Tourism is no where as developed in Montenegro as Croatia. Decades of Communist underdevelopment show. It reminded me a bit of some of the backblocks of Moscow. Also, the standard of driving in Montenegro is horrific. I come from Dubai. I know bad driving. But the local drivers in Montenegro were really something else. It’s not necessarily scary, but you do have to pay close attention to the road!
We snaked our way around the bays towards Kotor. The area is beautiful. Amazingly beautiful. It is an incredible drive, with lake, mountain and coastal scenery. Kotor is built on a fjord. You pass by old crumbling ruins and villages on the way around it. Many people stop at Perast on the way, admiring the island churches and Venetian-style village. However, we were realistic, and figured we couldn’t see it all in one day. We managed to snaffle a (free!) car park on one of the side roads of Kotor by the dock, and wandered along the water towards the town. Looking around, you can imagine just how difficult it would have been to invade Kotor during the naval age, particularly with its giant fortified walls.
Montenegro (and Serbia) are cheaper than neighbouring Croatia. We enjoyed a hearty (and very cheap – 5 euros!) lunch at a local restaurant, but given that we had our credit card details stolen somewhere in Montenegro or Serbia, I won’t give a recommendation! Handy hint.. in Dubai, you never need to worry about someone taking your card to a machine to pay. In the Balkans, you definitely should. The weather, while warm, looked like it would give in at any second. We decided to enter the Old Town before it started bucketing down.
Like Dubrovik’s Old Town, Kotor’s Old Town (Stari Grad) is a UNESCO Heritage Site. It is lovely. Partially destroyed by earthquake in 1979, it has been progressly restored. The walls surrounding the Old Town come to a length of over 4km and are between 2 and 15m thick. It was, I imagined, like visiting Dubrovnik twenty years ago. It wasn’t very crowded, it wasn’t overly touristy, and there were far less tacky restaurants and shops. The site is a confusing mix of iconography. The entrance gate sports a winged lion, harking back to its Venetian origins, but also a Communist star celebrating the towns liberation from the Nazis. There was some random inclusions, like a museum of cats. Matt didn’t want to visit, sadly. Like most of the region, the place was overrun with cats! The centre of the Old Town is St Tryphon’s Cathedral. Rebuilt and restored many times over its history, it is 69 years older than Notre Dame in Paris and 460 years older than the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. We managed to find a little post office and send postcards home, and spent several hours photographing and sneaking through the back alleys of the Old Town.
Our original plan had us climbing to Tvrđave Kotora, the Castle of St John. This seemed like a good idea, until we saw it. It looked like the Great Wall of China. Given how much climbing the Great Wall of China took out of us, I wasn’t really too sure I wanted to climb it – particularly as giant black rain clouds loomed overhead. The walk itself takes about two hours. I’m not usually one to shy away from a hike, but I remember feeling a bit crummy that day. As we exited the Old Town and the heavens opened, I was grateful that we had decided to stay on the ground. It would have been a long drive back to Dubrovnik soaking wet.
While it rained on and off, we ducked in and out of the local buildings, before spending a bit of time wandering around the area outside of the Old Town. Judging by the boats in the harbour, Kotor is becoming a new trendy spot in Europe for sailing – probably due to its relatively cheapness. We visited a supermarket where food was half the cost of Croatia. The whole place felt like stepping back in time.
Given the long drive ahead of us – and that we wanted to explore Babin Kuk when we got back to Dubrovnik – we set off on our trip home. On the way back, the driving was…. again… shocking. People passing us on blind corners, cars swerving all over the place. After about 40 minutes of driving, we came to a stop. Everyone was out of their cars, trying to figure out what had happened. Surprise… it was a crash. People ahead of us keep turning around and going back towards Kotor. After about twenty minutes waiting, an ambulance sped along beside us. After about another thirty minutes, we started moving. We passed a grisly crash scene. Then we noticed that, ahead of us, was the same ambulance that had sped past, also smashed up. One of the impatient people who had spun around to drive back to Kotor must have smashed straight into the front of it. Come on drivers. Get it together!
If I was to visit again, I would actually stay overnight in Kotor or Perast. This would give you time to explore both towns, including the island churches, and to climb to St. Johns Castle. And I would bring my hiking boots!