Bay of Kotor and Budva - Andrew - 2001
After World War I the peoples of the western Balkans were thrust together into a country called Yugoslavia - "the South Slavs". This country lasted through tough fighting in World War II when Marshall Tito held the country together and led it, afterwards, into Communism. Yugoslavia's brand of Communism always veered away from the USSR and in the 1970s and 1980s it began to encourage Western visitors, particular to it's coast.
It was a huge shock to the World when this country became the worst casualty of the end of Communism in Europe. Whilst the Czechs, Poles and even the Russians had left Communism behind with relatively little violence in Yugoslavia a full scale and very unpleasant war raged for five years from 1990 to 1995 when it was finally finished by UN intervention.
By then a number of new countries had been born, including the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which consisted of the Republics of Serbia and Montenegro with the capital in Belgrade. Further bloodshed ensued in the Kosova region which once again has only been stopped by the UN. With the overthrow of the Milešovi regime came a new start and one of the first changes was the final end for the name "Yugoslavia" - finally in 2006 a referendum was held and two new independent countries were created - thus making it that Andrew visited Montenegro without ever actually setting foot in a country of that name!
I was delighted to see listed in the brochure of the Atlas Travel Company thrust at me by my rep. when I reached Dubrovnik Airport a day excursion south into the Montenegro part of Yugoslavia. As Yugoslavia is still something of a problem destination for West Europeans it seemed an ideal opportunity to visit the country without hassle.
When I booked the trip my rep. told me "it's a very beautiful country, but we don't really like the people. We were at war with them and they bombed us." It was my first reminder that this region had all been no-go only six years before.
It was a really early start for the trip to Montenegro and after the usual round of picking up other passengers the coach headed south down the rapidly thinning coastal strip that was Croatia. On the coach, oddly enough, were the Australian couple I had befriended on my first day in Dubrovnik and Janie and Sue who I had befriended on the trip to Mostar!
The border crossing is a little way north of Herceg-Novi and has only recent re-opened. It actually stands at the head of a mountain pass quite literally in the middle of nowhere. All that is here are a few customs sheds and big queues of cars. It took quite a while to get through the customs, but eventually the coach headed down the hill towards Herceg-Novi. Unfortunately we thundered straight through this town and I could only look longingly at the two wonderful Castles standing overlooking the bay.
The coach swooped down to the Bay of Kotor, a massive many fingered inlet vaguely reminiscent of the Norwegian Fjords. The waters are hemmed in by the massive forested hills which give Montenegro it's name (the vegetation makes the mountains here look black as opposed to the hills north of here which are bare white rock - hence "black mountains" - Montenegro, or Crna Gora in the local language).
Montenegro is once more looking for independence, being the only part of the Balkans not to have been entirely controlled by either Turks or Venetians. However, this landscape is so hard to get around and so sparsely occupied you wonder how an independent country could possibly operate.
Our first stop was by the side of the road on a dusty parking place, giving an excellent view of part of the Bay, across to the tiny hamlet of Perast and in the bay two islands, one natural and one man-made which contains the tiny church Our Lady of the Rocks.
After a few brief moments the coach moved off and we were travelling around the snaking shore of the Bay (on our return journey we would cut a good hour off the trip by taking the ferry which crosses the Bay just west of Perast).
I had expected us to stop at Perast, but we pressed on and on until eventually we drew up at Kotor. The wait was worthwhile. Kotor was a really stunningly lovely little town (completely ignored by my Lonely Planet "Eastern Europe" guide which is just ridiculous).
We started in the main square by the clock tower and our guide told us a little about the town which is enclosed by Venetian built walls which lead around the old town and then up the hill behind where they join with St. John's Castle, impressively perched on the top of the mountain.
To read more about the Castle, see Castles of Europe pages.
We then walked around a bit of the old town to the Catholic Cathedral and then the Orthodox Cathedral before being allowed around 45 minutes to ourselves to do what we wished to.
I decided to retrace the steps of the guided tour at my own speed, starting in the main square, which is actually rectangular in shape with the clock tower at one end. The tower is actually rather old and leans to one side having been displaced slightly in an earthquake in 1979.
I briefly left the old town to go over to the harbourside to get a view up the hill towards the Castle. Unfortunately the sun was right behind the Castle which stopped me being able to see as much detail as I would have liked, but the sight of the walls zig-zagging up the hill was pretty impressive.
I then went back into the old town and wandered up to the two Cathedrals. The Catholic one is a fairly normal design, twin towers and a large entrance with an impressive peal of bells ringing out across the town. The Orthodox Cathedral is hemmed in to a small square with St. Luke's Church (the oldest church in town apparently) down one side which was the Cathedral's predecessor.
The coach arrived to pick us all back up and off we travelled again, this time heading inland. One of the snags with heading inland anywhere in Montenegro is that you have to cross some pretty hefty mountains to do so. In this case it was up the windiest road I've ever seen in my life which snakes up the mountain-side above Kotor in a series of frankly scary hairpin bends slowly but surely heading upwards. The view of Kotor and the bay began to get more and more like a view from an airplane. At the height of the trip we stopped briefly to allow some photographs down the mountainside to far distant Kotor town.
I think everyone was quite relieved when the coach started heading down the other side of the mountain on a far less vertical road. We stopped in a little (and I mean very little) village (it transpires it was called Njegusi) for "lunch" which was a glass of thick red wine or juice and a sandwich filled with some variety of cold meat. I stuck to the juice, which was pretty tasteless, and ate the rolls I'd brought with me from breakfast that morning.
The brief stopover turned out to be just a slight respite from scary mountain roads as once we left we were immediately climbing again into a rocky empty wilderness. For some while we drove without any sign of life and then the coach began to plummet down yet another hairpin-bend filled road down to a town we could see in the valley far far below.
The town turned out to be Cetinje, which was once the capital of Montenegro before Podgorica had that honour. Cetinje didn't look like a particularly enthralling place, the buildings were in poor condition and very few people seemed to be around.
The reason for our visit was to stop at the State Museum, housed in the Palace of Nicola I Petrovic, the last King of Montenegro which dates to 1871.
The Museum was by guided tour and apart from a vague amusement to be gained from seeing how generations of the Montenegran aristocracy looked exactly the same as each other there wasn't much to enthrall inside or out. We probably spent the best part of an hour in Cetinje and to be honest gained very little from it - it may be the historic capital, but personally I would have preferred more time either in Kotor or in Budva where we headed next.
The road to Budva was somewhat easier than the road into Cetinje for most of it's length. Then we reached the coast and you realise just how high above sea level you are. Cetinje stands on a high plateau and the edge is reached very abruptly above Budva. Another stop for panoramic views was had before the coach started down yet another bendy road down to the sea.
Budva is the place where Montenegrans and Serbs come for their holidays. It is situated on a wide bay with a long beach and has a beautiful old town and a really buzzy atmosphere.
If Yugoslavia (or an independent Montenegro) becomes a holiday destination Budva will most likely be swamped by ugly hotels and cheap souvenir shops - which will be a great shame.
The first thing that strikes you is the amazing condition of the town walls. This is something of an illusion as the town was almost razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1979. Since it was rebuilt the residents of the old town have been moved to accommodation outside the walls and the whole place has been turned over to pleasing tourists. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Budva is no faked up museum; the little windy streets and the stunning architecture are exact replicas of what was there before and have a very genuine feel.
You can walk most of the way around these reconstructed walls and get some superb views of the town and the hills surrounding it. The Gibraltar shaped island immediately south of Budva forms a backdrop to many of the views.Down off the walls you walk through a number of tiny hemmed in alleyways, one of which leads to the main square which is flanked with no fewer than three churches (all reconstructions of course).
I have to say that of all the places I visited during my Balkans trip Budva was the place that was filled with the most beautiful women - the impression enhanced considerably by the profusion of bikinis. For a country that currently has international sanctions in place Budva seemed reasonably prosperous with none of the hardships obvious in Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Unfortunately we didn't have enough time in Budva to do the town real justice, particularly if you wanted to see the town beaches as well as the Old Town, which I did. So I headed away from the walled town to look around elsewhere.
From the small bay immediately north of the Old Town there are some superb views back at the walls and the churches and castle at the seaward end, with the "Gibraltar island" behind.
It was hard sitting here to believe that you were in a country that only a few months ago had been the scene of international scandal when two British men and a Canadian were arrested on spying charges for taking photographs. It all seemed so civilised and exuded Mediterranean cool.
Across the other side of the Old Town is the main beach, a massive sweep of pebbles and eventually sand which heads off southwards towards distant Sveti Stefan, once the haunt of the rich and famous.
To read more about Budva's fortifications, see Castles of Europe pages.
All too quickly time was up and it was back into the coach for the journey home. This was up along the coast and back to the Bay of Kotor, passing some of the longest sand beaches on the Adriatic on the way. This time, thankfully, instead of going right around the Bay's coastal road we shortened our journey considerably by taking the ferry from Tivat near Perast across to the northern side of the Bay.
From here it was a surprisingly short journey back to Herceg-Novi with it's glorious Castles which we sped past once again (damn it!) and up to the customs point in the middle of nowhere, which we passed through quickly this time without even getting our passports stamped.
Before I knew it we were back in Dubrovnik and I was swapping phone numbers with Janie with a view to meeting up when we were back in England.
Back to Eastern Europe
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