Zdravo from Kotor, Montenegro and my first week in the Balkans!
Last week around this time, I hugged my family, tearfully told my Ollie dog that I’d be back for him very soon, and set out on a grand adventure as a solo traveler. I’m spending just shy of three months in the Balkans, starting with Kotor, Montenegro. In undertaking this trip, I am exploring my dream of becoming a writer and digital nomad. In July, I left my longtime career at the forefront of digital publishing in order to give myself space to create a new life for myself.
Here are a few of the highlights of my first week here, including a gorgeous bus ride along the Adriatic into Boka Bay (aka the Bay of Kotor), Kotor’s Old Town, a speedboat ride through Boka Bay, and just getting to know this place. I have a beautiful terrace, where (except when it’s pouring), I write. My room has the most incredible view (you’ll see that later). It’s an adjustment to go from someone who traveled for short-term trips to someone who is learning how to live in other places. This week, I did allow myself to mostly be a tourist.
Sunday: birthday wine in Dubrovnik
Late Sunday evening at the Dubrovnik airport after sixteen hours in transit, I thanked myself for booking an airport transfer with my B&B. Not only did I get where I was going smooth as silk, but the driver also proved to be good company. As we headed along the twisty roads of Dubrovnik, she talked about how she’d learned English by watching TV and Spanish by watching telenovelas from Mexico. Why do English and French speakers need to hear please and thank you so much, she demanded to know. We laughed about that, and about all the apologies from English speakers. I laughed as I apologized on behalf of English speakers for apologizing so much.
The driver dropped me off in the port at Villa Amfora, which I picked for its proximity to the bus station (and recommend if you have similar travel plans). The next day, I was heading to Kotor, Montenegro. Sunday was my birthday, and so I popped out for a late-night glass of Croatian white wine at Otto Wine Bar and sat on the terrace and toasted my luck to be on such a grand adventure. The night was balmy and perfect, the kind of weather I always want for my birthday and never get. It smelled of the sea (and smoke from the other patrons).
After my little birthday celebration, I fell into bed and didn’t crack my eyes until morning.
Gallery: The Bus from Dubrovnik to Kotor
Monday: the bus from Dubrovnik to Kotor, a cab ride from the Bad Place, and finding paradise
Monday morning, I took a quick walk through the port of Dubrovnik. The bus schedule for Kotor had buses hourly through 11:00, and then not another one until 17:00, so I decided that I’d save my sightseeing for when I head back through Dubrovnik for a night at the end of the month. I also needed to save my energy. The fumes I was running on had definitely grown fainter.
Adventures in getting a bus ticket
I had one of those European B&B breakfasts outside on their terrace and then gathered my things together and trudged in the heat to the Dubrovnik Central Bus Station to catch the bus to Kotor, Montenegro. Getting a ticket proved confusing—I went to the booth labeled “Tickets,” but was just pointed toward the bus bay. So I then went online and booked the next bus, leaving at 11:00, through Globtour/Croatia Bus. Fabulous, I thought. Then I saw the notice on my e-ticket that said e-ticket must be printed. Oh dear.
I was hot, and I was too exhausted to do too much about printing a bus ticket, and so I just decided that it was going to work out. A woman sat next to me and asked me about wifi in English, and so I took the opportunity to ask her if she knew anything about printing tickets. “Oh, I’ve taken that bus. Just show them the ticket. They might charge you a Euro or two extra to log your ticket, but you don’t need to print the ticket if you don’t have a printer.”
Thankfully, she was right, and I happily forked over 20 Croatian Kuna (about $2.50) for the privilege. You also need to pay to check your bags, €2 per bag. Take my backpack, too, sir. I hate that thing now. Thank you.
Sit on the righthand side to get the best views on your way to Kotor
The bus was not crowded, and so I grabbed a prized spot on the righthand side, which I’d read was the side to sit on if you wanted the best views of the Adriatic and Boka Bay. Bonus, when everyone had boarded, I had a seat to myself. Score! Turns out I was sitting behind two young women who’d be fellow guests at the guest house I’m calling home.
I knew I was in for a treat the moment the bus took off and I caught a glimpse of the sea. However, I had also read about this bus ride along the Adriatic, through the mountains, and along Boka Bay (aka the Bay of Kotor)—all in the space of about 2.5 hours (depending on how long it takes to cross the border), and I was psyched. It was a beautiful day, and visibility was going to be perfect.
Oh, Dear Reader. Take this ride at some point in your life. Definitely different from my awe-inspiring ride over the Andes, but still absolutely stunning. From Dubrovnik, we passed the Old Town and then rode along the sparkling blue Adriatic as we headed up into the mountains toward the Montenegrin border.
This is the part of the trip that’s a wild card, as it depends on how many vehicles are trying to cross the border (rule of thumb: allow at least an hour. I would keep a very loose schedule for the other end of your trip to make sure that you don’t miss anything). We had both an exit from Croatia and then an entry into Montenegro. We filed off the bus for each stop and approached the official sitting in a booth one-by-one. Neither said a word to me as they scanned and then stamped my passport, little cars indicating that I’d exited/entered by land.
Mountains! Villages! And Boka Bay!
Once on the Montenegro side, the first thing we saw was mountains. What mountains. They are limestone and ragged, with sparse evergreen vegetation at the tops. Then we passed more towns, some of them with that distinctly Soviet era architecture. But then we passed the medieval village Herceg Novi, at the opening of Boka Bay (the Bay of Kotor) and things got started to get really interesting.
Boka Bay resembles a large, gorgeous teal lake, surrounded by these villages like something out of a fairy tale. While there’s modern buildings (and the aforementioned unfortunate buildings), it’s mostly medieval churches and charm. It’s like stepping back in time.
Ugh, not a great taxi ride
Arriving at Kotor Bus Station (even the back of that looks up to a mountain), I resolved to get a taxi. It was about a 40-minute walk in the afternoon sun to where I’m staying, without all the crap I had for a three-month trip. No, I would shell out for a taxi. Perhaps I shouldn’t have.
I arranged to have one called for me at the little office in the bus station. As lucky as I was with the cab driver in Dubrovnik, I was unlucky with the jerk I got here.
I had showed him the address, and he just took me to a hostel instead, and then yelled that this was where I told him I was going. I showed him the address again and where we were on Google Maps, and this time, he took me well out of the way. I’d had enough, so I just paid him and resolved to walk. Looking at the maps, it was about 20 minutes around the bay.
I almost died on that last bit. I was sooooo tired. And hot. My shoulders ached from my bleeping backpack. But what scenery. If I’m going to die, I thought, at least I get to die in heaven. What a place.
I arrived in heaven
And then I arrived. WOW. The pictures in the Airbnb placement did not do this place justice, and they had made my friends jealous. My host’s wife greeted me, as did his parents. “You are going swimming,” she said. “Which one of these bags has your suit.”
We took that one upstairs, where she showed me a room that I still can’t believe was in my price range. Just you wait until you see it (I don’t post photos of my lodgings until after I leave, for safety purposes).
“HOLY SHIT, THIS IS MY VIEW?!” I cried, before I could catch myself. I apologized, but she roared and said that I’m the new quote for the room.
Ten minutes later, I was swimming in Boka Bay, and all was well with the world.
Gallery: Old Town, Kotor, Montenegro
Tuesday: Old Town Kotor
Humans have called Kotor home for 2,000 years, but it is the remarkably well-preserved walled medieval town in a region recognized by UNESCO for Natural and Cultural-Historical value that people flock to visit. The natural landscape along Boka Bay is enough of a stunner that the gorgeous town is almost too much.
Like Old Towns in much of the world, historical Kotor is a tourist destination and filled with souvenir shops and eateries vying for tourist Euros. However, even with cruise ships docked in the port, one can still find quiet corners. I just wandered the streets, fascinated, but also knowing that I could come back.
I’m working up to climbing the 1,350 steps to the top of the fortress, but Tuesday I scampered along the walls. You get some great views and the opportunity to snap photos without a ton of people in them. I loved the vantage point for the roofs. By the time I was done scampering, I was exhausted, but I got myself a gelato and discovered the park across the street for shade, and all was well with the world.
Gallery: Speedboat tour of Boka Bay
Wednesday: speedboat cruise of Boka Bay
Everywhere in Kotor, you will see signs for speedboat boat tours of the Blue Cave. I swear everyone with a speedboat has set up a little enterprise, but I went with Montenegro Submarine, which you can catch in a pleasant little park across the street from Old Town (pro tip: this is also a nice shady spot to sit in after you visit Old Town). Normally I’m not a big fan of tours, but my Airbnb host said that no visit to Kotor was complete without taking this tour. And, with every single speedboat owner in Boka Bay advertising the same thing, I figured that it might be worth doing.
Dear Reader, it’s so worth doing. What a rush. Here’s what the three-hour tour involves:
- A visit to Our Lady of the Rocks. This beautiful church sits atop the only human-made island in the Adriatic. The island was built after fishermen seeing an icon of the Madonna and child in a rock at the location. We also passed the monastery on St. George Island and had a lovely view of the UNESCO site Perast, which is a picture-perfect town right on the bay, as opposed to Kotor’s walled fortress. Our Lady of the Rocks was a total zoo, and so I didn’t go through the little museum, but I plan to do so when I visit Perast next week and could take more time on the island.
- A spin through a WWII submarine cave, where the Yugoslav army hid submarines and warships from the Nazis. If you’ve seen Casino Royale, these should look familiar (though, fun fact: it was not shot in Montenegro), but it’s an entirely different experience to go in one. There’s even a submarine in there! Our tour guide played the James Bond theme.
- A fast ride through the remainder of the bay, which is absolutely stunning to the mouth of the Adriatic. There, the tour stops in front of Mamula Island, a very creepy place that was used as a POW camp by the Nazis. Oddly, it’s being turned into a luxury hotel now. Huh.
- Then, the famed Blue Cave. When we arrived, there had to be eight other boats in there, but I was still in awe. That water. Oh my god. I’ve never seen that color blue before in nature. We went into a couple of different caves in that area, including one called the Bat Cave, apparently because it fills up with bats at night. I wish the guide had not told us that. We had the option to swim, but I didn’t, not because of the bats, but because, out on the water, I had finally cooled off.
I am a huge fan of this three-hour tour. This isn’t some kind of deep way to get to know a place, but it’s a way to see the gorgeous Boka Bay in a way not otherwise possible for €35, and it’s fun. Not to mention cooling off. I think if I was here in July and August, I’d take that tour at least once a week for the air conditioning factor alone.
While we were bumping along looking toward the mountains, I had one of those amazing travel moments when you realize that you really are here, right now. I couldn’t stop smiling. I even got teary.
Gallery: Settling in
Thursday: Kotor Market, Old Town, and cafés
Thursday was thus far my favorite day here, as it was the day when it hit me that I don’t have to try and jam everything into a short visit, because I’m actually here for a while. I get to experience this place. Where I’m staying has one of the best terraces I’ve ever seen, right on the water, and I just stayed there for a couple of hours, writing. Then, I took a walk to the Kotor Market to get mushrooms to make risotto. I walked along the bay slowly, utterly content. I got a coffee at one of the cafés on the water.
The Kotor Market is just past the Sea Gate heading into Old Town, so I walked through there, too, finding a little quiet spot, away from the bustle, near St. Nicholas’s Orthodox Church (it’s from the 19th century, so it’s definitely a newcomer. Then I got a gelato from the place right near the Clock Tower just beyond the Sea Gate (you can’t miss it, and it’s good!) and ate that in the park.
Friday and Saturday promised (and delivered) rain and wind, so, after lunch, I went to the grocery store and to the bakery up the hill. I took a nap and decided against making risotto and had some olives, charcuterie that I had also picked up at the market, cheese, and tomatoes with some wine on the terrace.
Friday: thunder and rest and testing out the modest kitchen
Yesterday, it was not so nice. Thunderstorms are no joke here—one small mercy for my poor Ollie who might would have shaken in his little paws all day yesterday. I took advantage of the terrible weather to just veg out and “watch” a couple of episodes of the new Lord of the Rings series (I took naps and don’t really know what’s happening in the storyline).
I also made a version of my Lemony Carrot Soup with Dill. I’m staying in a guest house for this leg, which has a very modest kitchen (the price for the terrace right on the bay, I suppose), and it definitely presented challenges, not the least of which the burners do not really turn to “low,” so sweating vegetables involved taking them off the burner and putting them back on. I had fun undertaking the challenge, and I daresay that the resultant soup was right tasty.
During breaks in the weather, I ventured out for short walks on the bay, but it was otherwise the inside day I needed.
Saturday: “We’ll swim tomorrow!”
If yesterday was definitely an inside day, today’s been a kinda inside day. The wind’s been intense, but it hasn’t rained the entire day, so I’ve gotten out some here and there, including two ventures to a café/bar down the street that I think might be my spot for my stay, as it has a good terrace, good coffee/drinks, and decent food.
One of the other guests and I also got out onto the terrace, braving the wind for a few moments. We had an interesting conversation about climate change in Poland and my part of the US and bonded over just how lucky we are to stay in such a place.
My host’s mother and I have really hit it off. There’s an outdoor shower out back to help wash the salt off after a swim, and I accidentally happened upon her. Thankfully, we wound up just laughing hysterically about it, and we’ve been fast friends ever since. She likes that I like swimming here.
“Sara!” she exclaimed when I saw her this afternoon, “We are going SWIMMING tomorrow!”
And we shall.
Have you been to Kotor, Montenegro? What do you want to hear about?
Have you been to Kotor, Montenegro? What do I absolutely need to do while I’m here?
And, what would you like to hear about? I am planning to do a guide to Kotor, but I’d love to hear what you’d like to know about this place and/or my experience here.
Please drop a line in the comments!