Kotor, Montenegro: Fjord of the Balkans

Our barely air-conditioned bus navigated switchbacks and steep, narrow roads for over 6 hours in 95 degree heat. A child in the back of the bus vomited in a bag. The bus drivers smoked cigarettes while driving. They took turns driving, sometimes alternating at a stop in the middle of a road. Everyone was sweaty and uncomfortable; it was one of the roughest rides of the trip.

Montenegro has only been independent since 2006, previously being a part of the union of Serbia and Montenegro. It was also part of the former Yugoslavia. Kotor, a coastal city in a strategic inland bay, held charm and historical significance to the country. It is now a popular vacation spot for locals and backpackers alike.

The water’s edge in Kotor was marked by small boat docks and semi-private stone beaches. Hotels cordoned off small strips for their guests, while other slivers remained free to the public. Dogs jumped into the bay after their owners. Children donned snorkel gear to check out the mussels and clams lining the rocks underwater. As the sun passed the tallest peak of the mountains, sun-bronzed visitors packed up to move into their hotels and homes. A large cruise ship carefully traversed the narrow channel on its way to its next destination. I ran down by the water’s edge on the one lane road most evenings. Sometimes, I tried to race the cruise ship to anchor or leave port to motivate myself. One local man even gave me a nodding smile and clap as I finished a particularly hot jog. Even the small courtesies were friendly in Montenegro.

Peering up at the rolling, rocky peaks of mountains surrounding the Old Town, I noticed unusual angled lines closely matching the colors of the rock. A walled fortress was built 770 feet from the bottom to nearly the top of the mountain. One day we undertook a hike to the top, but only after electing the VIP route. The normal route included a direct-ish path with steps and an 8 euro entrance fee. Our route was off to the side, hidden behind a shopping mall. It was a longer, graveled supply road of switchbacks with occasional fresh donkey droppings. The incline was gradual and the path was free of charge. After about 45 minutes of beating sun and sweat saturated brows, Hannah and I rounded a bend featuring an old abandoned church. Several hundred feet away, a ramshackle, handmade wooden ladder precariously stood on a cliff edge outside a window carved from the fortress rampart. “Are you f***ing kidding me right now, Joshua!?”, inquired my wife Hannah indignantly.

The path had been named “The Ladder of Kotor” on Google Maps, which I assumed was a reference to the extensive number of switchbacks. One review even showed the picture of said ladder that we were staring at, though at the time I thought it was a visual representation of something attackers might have historically faced. With a shrug and a chuckle, I waved us on. With an eye roll, sigh, and hesitant demeanor, my wife followed. We witnessed several other travelers struggle up and down the rickety entrance. I steadied the ladder as Hannah scrambled over the top. I stared down at the 1 inch thick plywood ladder rungs held by 4 old nails and made my way up quickly while it still decided to hold my weight.

Clumsily back on solid ground, I looked up to a wonderful view greeting me. The bay shimmered in the bright sunlight. One website I read referenced Kotor as the southernmost fjord of Europe. Staring out at the steep mountains on either side of the water channel, I saw the likeness. Both were in an aged state of disrepair with random bits of rusted rebar jutting from crumbled ceilings and walls. Graffiti added color to the stonework where foliage had not already grown. Piles of trash were left behind by visitors and never carried away. We slowly made our way down the “normal” route after we enjoyed the view (the way down was free). The steps (narrower than my shoulder span at parts) were arguably much more annoying than the old supply route and ladder we used. The stones were slick from decades of being worn down, meanwhile tourists abruptly stopped for photo opportunities. Hannah and I rewarded our patience and workout with some BBQ for lunch.

Hannah and I took a day trip to a nearby place named Perast. Our trip there was memorable. A small-bus, intended to seat maybe 21 people was brimming with about 50-60. I sat on the front dashboard of the bus while Hannah stood crammed between other passengers. Meanwhile, the older gentleman driver answered phone calls while driving with his elbow and stood up, while driving, mid journey to hand a French woman his seat cushion so that she could comfortably sit on the floor. He was quite the character, alternating between conversations with locals and flirting with various women on the bus and throwing them playful winks. We were both relieved after the short 20 minute ride was complete and chuckling about the experience as we entered Old Town Perast.

The town was calmer and more peaceful than Kotor, with perhaps 3 large hotels and only as many restaurants in the entire town. The primary attraction there was its proximity to two islands. One was Our Lady of the Rocks, a small manmade island and church located in the middle of the Kotor Bay. We boarded a small water taxi for 5 euro and I chatted with the captain about NFL teams since we told him we were from Texas. The island itself was pretty and the church was typical for the region. On the return journey, Hannah and I asked about the second island, Sveti Juraj. Our captain explained it contains very old graves and the island itself is actually owned privately by a Hungarian family who spends about 3 months of the year there. What a beautiful place to spend a summer.

On our last day in Kotor, I sat on the balcony porch of our Airbnb listening to country music. Dozens of families descended the various cement stairways to the nearby schools. Rumblings of excited laughter and games punctuated the opening speech and national anthem before the first day of school got underway. I watched sunlight crest the mountains behind our Airbnb at an angle, revealing bright washed rock foot by foot as the minutes passed. The country had few roads up to European standards, with many crumbling and riddled with pot-holes. With much of it being mountainous, infrastructure costs are high, but so are its ambitions as a premier tourist destination. Time will tell.


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