I’ve reached the mid-point of my week long trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia. Having spent all the previous day out in Mostar, Bosnia I was wondering whether anything could come close to beating that incredible day.
With my energy levels still high, I made an early meeting rendezvous with my guide Danijela. I was still pre-occupied with Mostar, I didn’t know that much about Montenegro but that was one of the reasons I wanted to visit. I just like going to out of the ordinary places. If no-one I know has been there than that means it is the sort of place I have to visit. I know Casino Royale of James Bond fame was not too far away from where we were going but was told it was unlikely we’d get to see it. I didn’t mind much as I was enjoying everything about this great holiday.
Our minibus parked up and I met the new driver for the day, Jacob. He was looked very slick or as cool as a cucumber as would have been said when I was lad. The drive to the border was only about 55km or 35 miles and until then I watched the mountains go by, many of which were covered by slender Cypress trees.
I was told that traditionally, couples planted Cypress trees as if they grew tall and strong then it was a sign of a healthy marriage. Apparently though divorce rates are soaring in Croatia so don’t leave it too late to come here or you may find the forests all gone!
We passed through the border without a hitch, I managed to get my passport stamped as we were again outside the EU. My third country in as many days and I think my 25th in total so I’d now visited more than 10% of the nations.
As with Bosnia, the landscape, houses and everything else completely changed once we got over the border. Montenegro though is much wealthier in appearance as it was allied with the Serbian aggressors in the war of the 1990s and the war was not fought on its soil.
Montenegro takes it name from the old days when its very high mountains were heavily forested and with all the dark rock and foliage it looked black. It is a very beautiful country and it felt like being in another world driving along the coastline with these very imposing and dramatic mountains at every turn.
Our first stop off point was reached about two hours after we crossed the border (there being no motorways or freeways in this part of the world) was the tiny but ancient village of Perast. The buildings were all made of stone with palms along the roadside but what really made this area like nowhere else on Earth was that of the Bay of Kotor. As you can see from the map above, it is a long route around the coast but the map doesn’t give any idea of how beautiful it is and the bay was filmed in Casino Royale for just that reason.
About half a mile out to sea were two islands, each of them with a church sat atop of them. They looked absolutely serene despite the islands being entirely man made. One island has a monastery on it and the other a church known as Our Lady Of The Rocks. The reason being is that two sailors found a painting of Our Lady on these rocks in the bay and they along with the locals started dropping rocks into the see, sinking ships fully laden with stone until there was indeed stable dry land. On top of which they built a beautiful church which even today people visit and pray before or after a long or dangerous sea journey. Once a year, the locals still come to the island to drop of stones into the sea to make the island ever stronger.
We found a sailor who was willing to take us across to the island for a nominal fee which was a lot of fun, it also allowed me to get a proper look at the village of Perast and the mountain it sat upon.
It was an incredible boat trip and it did come extremely close to matching the excitement and beauty of Mostar but in a different way as it was entirely unexpected.
We looked around the church for 20 minutes before returning to the mainland, mindful of the fact that the driver had assumed I was only stopping to take a few photos and this being pretty much a one-lane street had limited parking options.
Next up we went further into Montenegro to the city of Kotor. Kotor has been named as the city to visit in 2016, succeeding the city of Salisbury of 2015 which is a beautiful place I often visit on my tours.
Both are medieval citys with very narrow streets are beautiful buildings but whilst Salisbury lays well and truly on its very flat and open plain, Kotor is squashed between the sea and the mountains which are up to 2,534 metres or 8,315 feet tall.
For once in my trip I had found somewhere that was busy as a cruise ship was in port and Kotor was bustling. My guide took me to a local market where I bought the biggest piece of goats cheese imaginable (I am still confined to my gluten and dairy free diet) as well as tasted for free a selection of local hams, all a little salty but to die for.
My guide left me and so I was out to explore Kotor for about 90 minutes. I felt very at ease here and I enjoyed exploring the meandering narrow streets. The buildings here come under a different historical influence and so despite being much further south than Bosnia or Croatia, seem in many ways more central European.
The first task on the agenda was to visit the church on the castle walls. I must say, there was no reason to visit the church except for the reason that I knew it to be there. Do you ever do something and wonder why on earth you are doing something? That would be me climbing up the steeps steps up this mountain. The mountain being the Montenegrin equivalent of Mount Olympus to Greece.
It was a warm day and as I had been a little cold at times in Bosnia, I was wearing a semi-casual smart jacket. Being incredibly old fashioned and English, I wore it the entire way up whilst people from much warmer climes were pretty much stripping off as they went. Besides, my guide had said that in Croatia, everyone thinks of the English as being polite, well-mannered and cultured and I didn’t want to ruin our reputation!
I had teamed up with a Oncology specialist from Montevideo, Uruguay but by the time we reached the church, I and I think he too would be wishing he were a heart specialist.
Having had the memories of climbing Mount Sinai burned into my soul a decade earlier, I had a distinct feeling of deja vu as if I were once more climbing the Steps of Penitence. For my sins, I was rewarded with a magnificent view of Kotor, the bay and the mountains. The doctor very kindly offered me the first drink from his water bottle, the sort of thing I love about travelling off the beaten track.
I took a lot of photos and was impressed by the stubbornness of the local lady selling drinks who refused to get out of the way of anyone and everyone wanting to take a photo of the church. I went a little way further up the path but conveniently by tight schedule meant I could go no higher!
We rushed back down the mountain and visited the beautiful Russian Orthodox church which was largely deserted. I wasn’t sure if I should take photos inside so took one from the doorway. I do hate it at some Cathedrals in the UK or Europe when you get people from other cultures just taking photos everywhere knowing full well that it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so in their own places of worship when services are being said.
Next up was Kotor Cathedral, I paid the entrance fee for my new found Uruguayan friend to equal out my water debt and we both went inside. It was a beautiful Catholic building though quite plain in comparison to most cathedrals I’d ever visited, even compared to the Russian Orthodox church nearby.
Upstairs was a museum and treasury with the relics of Saint Tryphon which were apparently being brought from the East when the ship carrying them sank. The locals confiscated them and built the Cathedral in his honour and the treasures upstairs are quite wondrous.
Soon it was time to return to the minibus so I bade farewell to beautiful Kotor and onwards we went. Kotor is so entirely surrounded by sea and mountains that it is all but cut-off from elsewhere except by way of a long road tunnel that cuts its way through to the main Adriatic Coast. Our final stop of the day was to be the city of Budva.
Except for a very tiny old city, Budva is not my sort of place. It wasn’t the sort of place of my driver, guide or anyone I met. It’s marketed to wealthy Russian oligarchs and organised crime gangs and full of tacky and very standard high rise blocks of apartments perhaps 10-15 storeys high. Not very well built and really it could be anyway.
Montenegro has always had close links to Russia and the local officials obviously thought it would be a good way to get some money in to the city, dirty money obviously and at the cost of totally ruining the city and scenery.
I met a few of the Russians around town, perhaps fresh off their anchored yachts. They all looked very rough indeed, dressed awfully and look like the worst sorts of losers that anywhere else you might see at the very worst parts of town. My guide said how beautiful the Russian women were who often could be seen at the sides of the rough looking men but I was reliably told that what they have in looks, they totally lose out on for everything else.
I asked my guide whether the locals minded about how their locale was being ruined but was told that it was all down to money and bent politicians with the people not even knowing they could object, one of the relics of communism.
After a brief look round the old city I had a mighty fine meal at the Jadran restaurant overlooking the marina. Njegusi Steak apparently and it was fantastic. After talking negatively about some of the visitors to Budva, I must say all the locals I met from Montenegro were wonderful and friendly people.
Our bellies full, it was time to return to Dubrovnik. We were only around 100km from Albania and a big part of me wanted to carry on to Albania, Greece, Turkey, Iran and forever onwards.
I recognised the area where we parked as looking very similar to the parking lot in Casino Royale, the part where James goes back to his car to electrocute his heart! I was content to see the advertisements for Casino Royale, knowing I had been to the city was good enough.
A few minutes later though I found that Danijela had obviously persuaded the driver to take a little detour and to my surprise we pulled up right outside Casino Royale. What a neat surprise and exactly the sort of thing I try to do for my guests on their tours in England. I was thankful I was wearing something smart as I got a chance to poke my nose around and take a few photos.
Thinking back to the film, my wife and I always laugh at the line when having been poisoned, almost clinically dead before he electrically reset his heart, James walks back to the card game in the hotel and remarks “That last hand almost killed me”.
I quickly went over to speak to the doorman to explain why I was messing around outside. To my surprise he didn’t tell me to hurry up or he;d call security, all he wanted to know was what I thought of Montenegro and the people. He was ever so glad of my response, neglecting to mention that part of the dodgy criminal gangs of course.
Budva did have a slight feeling of the French Riviera about it and you could tell it could be a really nice place if only it hadn’t been overdeveloped in such a tacky way. We all agreed that Russia was welcome to Budva and the rest of the world would soon be flocking to beautiful Kotor.
We made our way back towards Dubrovnik, the journey being about 2.5 hours. That included a short cut when we used a vehicle ferry to cut off half an hour of driving around Kotor Bay.
Despite the roads being deserted, we got held up at customs. The Montenegrin border guards holding up some Albanians in a very flashy car in front of us. I made my driver and guide laugh by doing an impersonation of what the argument was all about “Do you know who my father is” I boomed in my best Albanian accent. I don’t think I was too far wrong by the response of the security and how everyone was called out of the car, arms flapping around in protest.
It was dark and we had been out from dawn until well past dusk but we went out into Dubrovnik old town to a wonderful ice-cream bar called Dolce Vita. We had all made friends and I couldn’t thank Danijela and her colleagues enough whilst I think they were equally as glad to have had me with them for two days.
It was a long 190 steps back up the steep alleyway to my place in Dubrovnik. The whole day, the whole holiday had become even more unreal when I had been contacted in the restaurant about doing a UK wide interview on the BBC about my book “How To Get Rich Using Airbnb“It all went very well and I’ll post the interview on my blog in the coming days.
It had been another memorable day and tomorrow I was going to the Trsteno Arboretum, know to Game of Thrones fans around the world as well as being perhaps the oldest and most beautiful gardens in all of Croatia.
BTW the travel agency I used to find my guide and driver to Montenegro and Mostar was Elite Travel of Croatia. I can’t recommend them enough.