Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Eyes Wide Open in Montenegro

Explore with your eyes open and you will discover so much more than you could have ever imagined. 

This is the thought that came to me as I pedaled my bicycle along the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. It was early in the morning and I was in route back towards Dubrovnik after a weekend bike tour to visit Croatia's close neighbor. 

The Bay of Kotor is a large winding bay off the Adriatic in southern Montenegro. The surrounding mountains tower over the large body of water and villages below, creating a dramatic contrast that captivates the eye. 

With a few days left in Croatia and a bicycle available from the warehouse, I packed my bags and hit the road to Montenegro!

I was able to bike to Montenegro in a day; starting from Cavtat to the apartment I rented outside of Kotor, it was about 86 km (or 53 miles). 
The undulating backroad for my route was lined with fig trees that were drooping with ripe figs, as well as blackberry bushes, olive trees and cypress trees. It took me past sleepy villages with limestone structures that date back to the 15th century and up to the ridge-line that parallels the turquoise sea down below. 

After riding for a couple of hours, I veered off route to see the southern-most tip of Croatia; a peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic Sea. It was a 2km descent down to the sea and the quiet village of Molunat, where I had breakfast overlooking the water. My waiter, Andres--impressed that I had biked down to his small town--placed a beautiful omelette and fresh squeezed orange juice in front of me and proclaimed, "You deserve this!" I would have stayed all day in this little oasis but the sun was getting hot and I still had another 51 km to get to my hotel in Kotor. 

I followed the road up a big hill on the edge of the mountain where the 'backdoor' border crossing is. I've heard that the boarder crossing on the main road can be busy with very long lines. It was Saturday in the high season and this lovely crossing had no line and as a bonus had great views of the bay. The boarder police seemed relaxed and happy to be there. After getting a new stamp in my passport it was an exhilarating downhill ride towards the Beautiful Bay of Kotor. 

My quiet road met up with the main road in Igalo and suddenly I was amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. For the next 20km I pedaled on the busy shoulder-less road past unattractive apartment buildings, stores, signs, gas stations and even a tunnel (scary!). I became more aware of the heat (it got up to 97F) but I wanted to get through the busy towns quickly so I picked up the pace and suffered through it. Finally in Kampenari I found respite when I hopped on a short ferry to cross the bay at its narrowest point. 

The other side of the bay was a different world. I followed the quiet road by the bay all the way in to Kotor, and then to my apartment (Apartments Lara) about 5 more kilometers past the old town. I couldn't believe that this little road would take me to my destination. Happy to be on a quiet road again, I nearly forgot about the heat and stopped frequently to take photos and admire my surroundings. 

My apartment was on the 3rd floor of a beautiful house owned by a lovely family who live on the bottom level. I was happy to have a cold shower, AC and a balcony with an excellent view of the bay. 

That evening I caught a ride down the road to Perast, an enchanting town right along the bay which makes for an excellent place to watch the sunset. The steep mountains surrounding the bay play with the light as the sun is setting; as the waning sun reflects on the water, the colors continue to evolve and get more and more beautiful. I couldn't peel my eyes away from it. I felt as though I were in a live painting. 

The next day I was up early to hike the fortress wall that towers high above the old town of Kotor. Kotor is a protected World Heritage Site nestled at the foot of a steep mountain in the far corner of the bay. The surrounding wall dates back to the 9th century, when it was built to protect from invaders. It extends 4000 feet above the town on the steep mountainside and provides a full vantage point of the old town and the bay. Climbing up the 1350 steps to the top is a main attraction in Kotor but I must have been early enough to beat the crowds because there was hardly anyone hiking when I went (around 8am). Maybe they are all in church? On the decent, as I was getting closer to the bottom, people were climbing up in masses, some of them already heaving. Not a good sign. The heat was already getting so strong. 

After exploring the town and sampling the local pastries, I got a wild hair and decided to catch a bus up into the mountains. I was pretty sure I saw signs with beautiful photos of both Cetinje and Lovćen National Park, so I went to the bus station, glanced at a map, (and snapped a photo) and bought a ticket to Cetinje. I would have just bought a ticket to the national park but apparently buses don't go there. Cetinje it was! It was only after I purchased my ticket that I learned that it was an hour and 20 minute bus ride and wouldn't be leaving for another half hour. I felt a little uneasy about not bringing a guidebook or doing any research but it was so hot in town that I wouldn't want to be outside anyway. So I found my seat on the bus and as it puttered its way up into the mountains I drifted off to sleep. 

When I woke up I was surprised to see urban sprall; billboards, traffic, big buildings and ugly apartments. I pictured Cetinje being smaller and more quaint. I looked at my watch; I had been on the bus for 2 hours! My heart started racing as I realized that I must have missed my stop. I saw a sign for Podgorica. I looked at the photo that I took of the map and zoomed in to see where I was. Oh dear. I was getting close to the border with Albania! I prayed that the bus driver spoke even a little bit of English and went to the front to tell him I had missed my stop. When I said "Cetinje" he gatthered what I was saying. He told me "bus station", so I sat down and 10 minutes later we were at the bus station. I would have to catch another bus back to Cetinje. Urgh! I felt so unprepared, so un-travel savvy! This would cost me not only money, but even more precious: time. As soon as I stepped off the bus I gave him a sad face and he put his arm around me and walked me over to another bus driver in the lot. He must have explained that this dumb American girl missed her stop (hahaha) and what do you say, can she catch a ride with you? The other bus driver took pity on me and gestured for me to hop on, free of charge. I made sure to stay awake for this ride, which took about a half hour. 

I had no idea what to expect with Cetinje but I pictured it being a cute, historic kind of town with views (since it was so high up). Indeed it was cute, but nothing extraordinary and it was also very sleepy (eerily sleepy). I couldn't find any amazing view points or even much life at all. What was I doing here? I felt silly getting dropped off in this random town with no agenda. I walked around and eventually spotted a beautiful church and a nice, shaded park. But who was I kidding? I rolled my eyes at myself; "Really, Tracy? You just spent three hours in a bus for this?!" I approached a girl sitting in the park and asked her if she knew how I could get to Lovćen National Park. She told me that busses don't go there because the road is too dangerous. Then she offered, "But my dad could drive you!" Before I could answer she hollered for her dad to come over. (He was chatting with some friends and smoking a cigarette). He spoke no English so she translated our negotiation. He offered to drive me to the national park, give me time to explore and then drive me back for 25 Euros (yes they use Euros in Montenegro). Wheels started spinning. I would love to see the park but I also needed to get back to Kotor by evening.  I offered him 40 Euros to take me to the National Park and afterwards down to Kotor. He agreed and we were off!

Sleepy streets of Cetinje

This is when my day turned around. Without speaking the same language, Čarlie (pronounced Charlie) and I hit the road and would spend the next 4 hours together. I could tell from the beginning that he was a goofy guy with a good heart. He stopped at every lookout and offered to take my photo. Then he would skip back to the car, open the door for me and bow or take my hand and kiss it. He had a cane and would spin it around and pretend to sword fight or do a little dance. I started calling him Charlie Chaplin. Withot words, our communication was at its purist: gestures, sound effects and lots of laughter. We spent 4 hours like this together, and he accompanied me to the national park, showing me the natural spring to fill my water and all the best viewpoints. He took me to the granite sculpture and tomb of Montenegro's greatest hero, Njegoš, which sits on the peak of a mountain. Čarlie climbed all 461 steps with with me to the footpath at the top and the 360 degree view. 

We took the old winding road back down to Kotor which is by far the more scenic route. With at least 25 hairpin turns and descending to sea level from an elevation of over 5000 feet, the views of the bay were just incredible. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be as the sun is setting (ironically, even after my unexpected delay we were just a couple of hours too early). 

By the time we reached Kotor, Čarlie and I were like old friends. We gestured that we would cry after saying goodbye. Then we laughed at our exaggerations, I paid him his well-deserved 40 Euros, and we parted ways. 

I am overwhelmed with joy and appreciation for the gifts that life has brought to me. That evening I enjoyed the sunset on my balcony with a glass of Montenegrin wine, counting my blessings.

The next morning I would be riding my bike again, smiling to myself and thinking about the many lessons that life teaches us. It's true that "hindsight is 20-20". But rather than looking back regretfully with clear vision, why not leap forward with open eyes and an open heart and enjoy the ride that lies ahead?