it was only about a two hour drive down the coast to reach kotor, montenegro, but dave and i had been so enraptured with dubrovnik that we had spent too much time wandering the walls and hadn’t left until sunset. by the time we reached the border crossing, it was dark, and dave and i pulled into the passport inspection trepidatiously, unsure of how it worked or if we were proceeding correctly. i had never driven across a border before, and most of europe’s borders are open, due to the schengen agreement (schengen is an agreement throughout a majority of european countries that states that all internal borders among countries are open and allow travelers to move unencumbered without having to produce documents to enter or exit countries. the only enforced borders are external borders, or borders from the countries on the outer boundaries of the schengen zone. when entering into through those ports -or airports, obviously- you go through a security zone where documents are checked, passports stamped, and then your countdown begins for allowable time spent in the zone starts – for americans this is a total of 90 days allowed spent in europe during a 6 month period. once your 90 days are up, it’s time to leave the schengen zone), but montenegro’s border is secured entirely by the montenegro government, as they are not part of the schengen agreement. as we approached the gate slowly in our vw golf rental
car, i was reminded of all my favorite cold war era spy movies, where you drive into a cleared out area, approach a gate with heavily armed guards and official-looking military uniforms that command attention. i started joking with dave about what his spy name was and then suddenly snapped to attention when we pulled up by the guard station. i rolled down my window and held out our passports and rental car paperwork. i was surprised when the guard emerged from the window, revealing herself to be a very attractive woman in her late 20s. she smiled politely, said hello, and then sat back down in the booth, checking to make sure everything was in order. i looked back at dave to make eye contact and silently mouth the word “HOT!” to him. he smiled and nodded and we looked back.
without looking up from her work, the woman addressed us. “why do you come to montenegro?”
expecting the question, i didn’t hesitate. “we want to see beautiful kotor!” i said cheerfully.
the woman glanced up and then held her gaze. time froze for a second, just long enough to wonder if i had just said the wrong thing, and suddenly she burst into a cute, relaxed laughter. confused, i smiled in relief and waited for some sort of explanation.
“guys, you can relax.” she said through a giggle. i looked back at dave, who had the same confused smile i had. we were both leaning forward and looking up at the guards with almost uncomfortable curiosity and intensity. we had been so on edge and so intent on making sure we didn’t mess this up that we looked like a couple of overeager schoolboys on the first day of class.
“is only montenegro,” she said with a knowing smile, “welcome and enjoy.” she returned our papers and the arm of the barricade lifted up. we slowly pulled out of the border control zone, laughing at our own silliness.
we drove the winding roads in the dark for another 15 minutes before passing through the first major town, herceg novi. it was dimly lit, with sparse street lighting that cast a shadowy atmosphere over the city. it appeared to be more on the industrial side, with few things attracting passersby or tourists. we passed by a few graffiti decorated buildings and a couple sections of roadside with broken up sidewalk with weeds growing up through the rubble, and people walking along, not too far from the road.
“yikes. this seems a little shady.” dave expressed a little concern. it was then that i realized that this was probably the closest to “unsafe” that dave had ever experienced while traveling. we certainly hadn’t been anywhere in italy or dubrovnik that was off the beaten path. i smiled, unconcerned with any potential danger. i knew exactly what dave was feeling, but it had been awhile. i actually missed the feeling a little. the light fear of the unknown, the inexperience of a new culture, the insecurity of the new. i had been traveling long enough now that this was my new norm. suddenly i got excited. i was going to get to watch the evolution of dave. i would get to be front and center as dave interacted with new cultures and became exposed to different worldviews, and i would get to see how his thoughts would expand and change, just as mine had over the previous four months.
we finally reached kotor, after driving all the way around the bay. everything was dark, so we hadn’t been able to see the giant body of water we had been driving alongside, but as we approached the city, we stared in awe at the dimly lit compound that loomed high in the mountains above the city. it was the medieval fortifications of the city from ancient times, preserved now with rebuilt walkways and steps and leading all the way up to st. john’s castle at the top of the mountain. the hazy, dull orange glow from the streetlamps illuminated the perimeter as it rose high above the city. dave and i agreed we would hike to the top the next morning.
we found parking and located our hostel after entering the walled old town center and wandering around for 10 minutes trying to figure out how to get around when none of the avenues were labeled. the old town was a small area, so it was easy to memorize if one was so inclined, but for a first time arrival, it confused us a little. when we finally arrived at our hostel, the property manager, kokolo, greeted us cheerfully and took us on a tour of the city.
“you can leave the hostel? but what if someone needs you?” i asked earnestly.
“there is no one here! there is only 4 japanese students staying here this week other than you two, and they don’t talk to me or anyone else. they are kind of boring, so i don’t think they will need anything from me” he said with a laugh. he was happy we had arrived.
as we walked around the old city, kokolo pointed out important historical buildings and the significance, happily teaching us about the history of his city and his country. he stood about 5’8” and had a big, toothy grin that always adorned his face, even when he was listening passively to someone else speak. he had short black hair and thick eyebrows that sheltered his dark, honest eyes. he had started to allow his beard to grow in thick, as the winter of december had begun to set in over the balkans, and he wore a hoodie sweatshirt and a jacket to combat the cold.
dave began to get more inquisitive and curious about this individual who had lived a wholly different life from him on the other side of the world, but was really very similar in interests and style of conversation. i tailed from a distance, snapping off photos and listening attentively as dave and kokolo interacted. neither dave nor i had known much about montenegro or its history, so it was really interesting not only to get a private tour of kotor, but to be able to get the local take on things without the tourguide spin. kokolo was studying tourism in school, but he wasn’t practicing being a tourguide with us, he was genuinely interested in us and wanted to share his culture. we asked him questions about managing the hostel, about life in montenegro, and eventually about the conflict in the 90s. he shared with us freely, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
as we returned to the hostel, a young cat crossed our path casually (are cats ever not casual?) and kokolo excitedly scooped her up. we had noticed quite a few cats throughout the old city, often picking through garbage bags left in back alleys, ready to be disposed of the next morning. but this particular cat was one that kokolo was familiar with. she affectionately cuddled up against him as he held her, and he enthusiastically informed us that he had been feeding her semi regularly until about a week ago she had
stopped coming by. this was the first time he’d seen her since.
a little later, dave and i left the hostel to find some dinner. we found a small local restaurant and had an unremarkable meal that filled us up and did its job. after dinner i suggested we venture out again into the night and explore some of the areas that kokolo hadn’t taken us. dave seemed unsure at first, but caved easily once i pressured him.
we wandered away from the well lit areas and explored into the darker alleys and walkways. the further i pushed into the dark, the more uneasy we got, but it was fun and exciting to be extending into the unknown. i found a steep staircase that i excitedly ran up, and found myself along one of the fortified walls. i wanted to see what was on the other side, but there were no windows, only tall stone walls. i found a small garden area with a small door in the corner where there clearly was a small apartment that someone must have lived in.
“dude i think we’re in someone’s front yard. we should get out of here” dave suggested.
“hah. cool. okay we’ll get outta here, but let me just look down here first.” i walked to the end of the walkway toward an archway that was in disrepair. i poked my head in to find only darkness. there was no roof, so the night sky hung low over the clearing i was now standing in, but i couldn’t see anything around me. to my right, about 50 feet away, was the silhouette of a low portion of the wall. on the ground below, a floodlight bathed the outside of the wall in illumination. i turned to approach the edge and look out, but suddenly i heard a noise. it was heavy breathing. i froze. i definitely should not be here. i heard steps, growing louder and louder. it was a faster pace than just casual walking.
“dude, let’s go!” dave whispered violently. i turned around and began to retreat when my eye caught the silhouette of an old man jogging near the floodlit wall. he drew near to me as i made my way back the way i came, and suddenly i could see him better. he muttered a phrase to me i couldn’t understand repeatedly and gestured for me to come in, come in, come in. he passed by, not really caring to see if i actually would. strange, i thought. i turned back around and strode confidently into what appeared to be a courtyard area on the top of the wall. i walked up to the edge of the wall and looked out. a paved road ran underneath me, leading to i don’t know where, but the view was quite nice, if unspectacular, only due to the visibility as opposed to the darkness i’d been standing in. i turned around as the strange old man lumbered by me, completing another lap of the courtyard. in that moment, i felt a sudden comfort, and i wanted to stay and meet the old man, and explore more of this mystery area i’d discovered. but the old man was getting his exercise in, and had merely detected that i was just a curious tourist and had wanted me to see this rather than retreat in fear. i waved to the man, who didn’t see me, and returned to dave. we retired for the night.
the next morning we awoke and consulted with kokolo about the best way to find the trailhead to climb the mountain to st. john’s castle. he directed us accordingly and then asked us about our plans. earlier on, before dave had arrived in italy, we had agreed to only focus our energies on croatia and montenegro, but i had been very eager to explore bosnia. eventually i had ceded that we would be trying to squeeze too much in if we were going to make it to amsterdam for the new year. we were up against a deadline, but i couldn’t help myself. whenever i had found myself up against time constraints while traveling, instead of relaxing and focusing attention on one particular place like most people, it seemed to have an opposite effect on me. i always tried to squeeze as many destinations and activities as humanly possible.
“do you think we have enough time to get to bosnia?” i asked kokolo. the tourguide in kokolo lit up, and he began telling us of the wonderful things to see in the country that a typical tourist might never even know about. my eyes began to get big. kokolo showed us a picture of an ancient arched bridge in the town of mostar that i immediately wanted to visit. i looked at dave, pleadingly. dave clearly wasn’t interested in bosnia. he was looking forward to getting back to croatia.
“or should we stay here? should we stay longer in kotor?” i asked him, weighing options.
“well… you are here in offseason. there is not much to do here now, and no people to hang out with. i think you should go to mostar. and then you will be halfway to sarajevo! and this city is amazing!” i was sold. i wanted to go. i pleaded with dave as we packed our bags and checked out.
“okay fine. let’s go to mostar and if we don’t like it, we’ll just go back to croatia,” dave compromised, “but first let’s do this hike.” i was ecstatic. we made it to the trailhead and ascended the stone switchbacks at a breakneck pace. we now needed to get up and down and on the road quickly if we were going to get to mostar before dark.
there was no one else on the trail, almost as abandoned and forgotten as many of the thousand-year-old ramparts and fortifications that we passed alongside on the path. by the time we reached the top, we were exhausted. the view was incredible. the bay of kotor reaching all the way down the channel with the hills stretching up to create a perfect green and brown contrast to the deep blue of the water. the city below was small. a light breeze drifted along the top of the ruins of st. john’s castle as we ate sandwiches and energy bars. we had the place to ourselves. it was a perfect place for a perfect moment. a tiny swallow landed a few feet from me and stared curiously at me for a moment while i basked in the sun and allowed my pulse to return to normal.
after 30 minutes dave and i agreed it was time to get moving. we stowed our garbage into the backpacks and began our descent. we ran the entire way down, taking stairs two at a time. i almost fell twice, but the adrenaline rush was coursing through my body as my blood pumped wildly, sweat escaping my pores. we got to the bottom and reentered the city in a breathless, sweaty mess. a few old women sitting nearby looked at us funny and then began giggling.
we made our way back to the hostel, collected our belongings, bid farewell to kokolo and thanked him for his advice, and then went on our way. next stop, bosnia.
this week’s musical magic comes from seattle electro pop quartet beat connection. featuring fun little synth touches and a light dusting of guitar funk, the soft melodies of song “so good” will leave you swaying to the beat and relaxing in moments. enjoy…
and for those following along on spotify…