One evening in Dubrovnik we found ourselves studying the map of our surroundings.
“Hmmm, the country of Montenegro is only a 1-hour drive from here.”
That was all it took. The next day we were across the street from our apartment hiring a car. An easy paper shuffle at the Sixt office in the lobby of the Hilton Imperial left us with keys to an Audi in record time. We sat in the tiny round-about of the hotel wondering how on earth anyone ever fit so many cars into such a small space. Miraculously, we squeezed past more luxurious vehicles without a problem.
Not more than 10 minutes into the drive a Croatian police barricade left us confused. This was the only way onto the highway — completely blocked. As if to answer our puzzlement, a convoy of elegant vehicles with government plates zipped past us. Must be a local politician or diplomat(?) Minutes later, we were speeding south, enjoying the costal scenery.
The traffic was light in both directions until we approached the border. Coming to a full stop gave us ample time to ponder the wisdom of not even knowing a single word of Montenegrin. Would we offend if we had to use our extremely limited Croatian linguistic skills? It turned out to be a non-issue as the border control staff on both sides knew English (and likely at least 3 other languages!) Oh, how we love that the new lingua franca is English! Amis désolé pour ça!
Across the border the first major town we arrived at was Igalo. With absolutely no agenda whatsoever we pulled off the highway to drive around town. The road narrowed with a surprising increase in traffic. We decided we wanted to get much further into the bay of Kotor (Boka Kortorska) before we left. Minutes felt like hours as we inched back towards the highway. We were happy when we returned to the on-ramp of the highway. We are sure Igalo is a nice place, but we had to keep moving.
The sheer enormity of the bay of Kotor became obvious the further we drove. Photos do not do justice to the sharp contrast between land and sea here. We kept thinking how great it would be to sail this bay!
Our next stop was the Verige Strait – the narrowest part of the bay. This channel is only a mile (340m) wide! It divides the body of water into two separate parts. It is deep enough for even cruise ships and once you get your boat into large inner bay the water is so calm and protected that it might as well be an inland lake! Other drivers pulled over too.
Another hour of driving found us entering the sleepy village of Perast. We parked the car. A good time for gelato! We strolled along the waterfront. If you are looking for an “off-the-tourist-trail” style village Perast is a good choice. The most distinctive features in the waters of Perast are two islands just offshore.
One island has the Abbey of St. George (1166). The other, “Our Lady of the Rock” lies about 400 ft (115m) northeast of the island of St. George. The stone plateau in the middle of the sea with a church is the result of the enduring efforts of generations of mariners “… to leave there, in the heart of the Bay of Boka Kotorska, a testimony of their Christian faith and culture…”
There is a custom called “Fašinada” that is unique to Perast. On July 22nd inhabitants commemorate the year 1452 when an icon of the Virgin was found on a small crag in the sea and construction of the island began. On this day people bring stones out in their boats and drop them into the sea around the island. There is also a big International sailing Regatta: The Fašinada Cup!
Other picturesque villages dot the coastal road. At this point, we focused on the city of Kotor itself. The traffic was shocking! Maybe a million other people drove here today? After about 40 minutes of being stuck in traffic we were able to park.
One gentleman in particular had the most elaborate traffic signaling with his arms. Winding up like a pitcher he spun his arms around multiple times before blowing his whistle. The intersection was safe – for now.
Once again, I decided to climb an unfathomable number of stone stairs up a mountain. This time it was at the peak of the day’s heat. Denise was having none of it. She decided to explore old town while I made my way up.
The distance was much further than it looked from the bottom. Fortunately, there was a chapel half-way up the ridge with some shade. Many of the cruise ship passengers had decided to brave the climb as well.
A man accidentally walked backwards over my foot. Did I mention this crazy hike was being done in flip-flops?
“Désolé, désolé!” he exclaimed.
“ça va, ça va monsieur – merci” I replied.
I was too tired at the moment to care that my toes had just been crushed under his stylish hiking boot. A few more minutes in the shade and our group was ready to continue. 45 minutes later we reached the top. There is a reason Kotor is known to be visually stunning.
Reunited with Denise, we jumped back into the car. There were still a few hours left before our long drive around the bay back to Dubrovnik. What do we do? Drive the complete wrong way into the interior of the country – just for fun!
Nerves of Steel
The Cetinje-Kotor road is famous for its dangerous hairpinned turns. Its mostly a narrow one-laned road with endless switchbacks and hairpins. We saw this road and had to drive it! As dangerous as it is now, it used to have no guardrails whatsoever. Now at least there are occasional stone barriers along the outside.
The best-known portion of the road is a steep series of 16 hairpins. It is certainly disorienting to glance at the valleys thousands of feet below each turn. What did I spend 2 hours hiking for if we could have just driven over the mountain- twice as high???
The road was built by the Austrio-Hungarian Empire and there is a little shack that used to hold a customs point. Imagine a horse-drawn carriage arriving and “checking-in” to Kotor after being in the vast wilderness for so long. When you reach the highest part it feels like the top of the world. (In the video below, the hairpin turns start around 6 minutes or so.)
If you are planning on a trip for 2016, make sure to consider Montenegro. Kotor is the #1 best in travel city for 2016 according to Lonely Planet – and for good reason:
Kotor is drop-dead gorgeous from every angle. Within the city walls, locals sip strong coffee at pavement cafes and queue for warm bread at the bakers amid a dreamy maze of alleys and plazas; beyond them, the mountain-encircled, fjordlike bay of the same name is one of the most photogenic spots in all of Europe. Better still, the cruise ships have yet to overwhelm this marvel of the Med – get here before they drop anchor.