Tuesday, June 25: Kotor, Montenegro
Surprise! It’s Both Old and New
Here’s a true confession: Prior to our cruise, I really had no idea where this country was, nor did I know anything about it. In fact, I actually mistakenly thought that Montenegro was a city, not a country. And even though we had plenty of time to prepare and educate ourselves during the pre-planning stages of this voyage, one of the joys of ‘going with the flow’ is feeling no guilt about what you did or, in this case, didn’t do to prepare.
So here we were on June 25th entering this jaw-droppingly-beautiful harbor in the midst of the Adriatic Sea (and across from Italy, kind of on the far north side from the boot heel) and all I could think of was, “What the??? When did this country spring into existence?” Back in my high school days, I was the pride and joy of Mrs. Denhoff’s world geography class, plus I was always able to earn that pie in the Trivial Pursuit game before anyone else. But, as we’ve come to learn, maps and countries now change faster than their governments change opinions. So, I cut myself a little slack after learning that this country was only formed in 1992 after splitting off from the Mother ship formerly known as Yugoslavia. Whew. That was a bit of a relief to hear, and maybe I was just super busy that year and the whole announcement about ‘here’s a new country in the world’ passed me by? (Yea, that’s what I’m going with.)
Anyway, I’d say that this country was such a pleasant surprise, but as I’ve already been brutally honest and admitted I didn’t even know it existed, I obviously wouldn’t have known what to expect in the first place. So, having no expectations, let me just say Montenegro was a big WOW! It was gorgeous, but who knew? Like on our other tour excursions, we met up with a charming native guide, Ryan, as we boarded our bus being driven by the jovial Milosh, for the short ride to Perast, a medieval town built between the 15th and 16th centuries. Ryan was young but had lived through the turbulent creation of his country as it was happening back in the early 90’s, which not many people can say in this day and age. He remembered the war and was thoughtful, perhaps even somewhat careful, in his presentation of historical facts. But listening to him speak made me wonder how an older Montenegrin would have interpreted the whole ‘this is the history of my country’ story that usually starts the tour. Another interesting sidebar about Ryan was that he could legitimately claim to have lived in four different countries without ever moving due to the change in governments and borders during his lifetime. Now don’t quote me on this but I think the rundown of countries went like this: Yugoslavia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, now Montenegro. How cool is that?
Knowing that there’s only so much history that can be absorbed in one day, we had chosen a basic four hour excursion that would give us an overview of Montenegro and move us about from several key locations.
(Remember, we’re card carrying sight skippers so usually choose the tour of least complications. . .) Our favorite part of this outing came when we boarded a small boat and rode out to Gospa Islet, which is a man-made island created (according to legend) as seamen would drop rocks into the bay of Kotor upon returning from each successful voyage. Eventually, a church, appropriately called Our Lady of the Rocks, was built on the tiny island, and touring it on this gorgeous summer day was just a delight.
Once back on land we had some time to enjoy the village scenery while making a short stroll to meet up with our bus and guide again, and during that break I saw what was quite possibly the most picturesque restaurant I have ever laid eyes on. It gave new meaning to the term ‘dining al fresco’ as it was completely and totally open air (not even a fold-a-way awning over these tables!), and positioned right next to the sea wall. I swear a boat, or in the case of most Mediterranean cruisers, a yacht, could pull right up to the low-lying wall separating (barely) the dining area from the water’s edge and place an order or possibly deliver their own catch of the day to be freshly prepared by the chef. Apparently the kitchen was a few steps farther inland, although I never actually discovered where it was. Flower boxes bursting with vibrant colored blossoms were neatly separating the patio restaurant from the narrow road/path we were walking, and I wasn’t the only tourist to stand and gaze and snap photos as we sauntered by or stood awhile to smile and enjoy. With the Adriatic Sea glistening in the background and the air fresh as the mountain ranges we were positioned between, it was a precious site to behold, and many of us lingered a few extra minutes to do just that.
Apparently this was where I temporarily lost husband, but as there was only one direction in which we were all headed towards our awaiting bus I wasn’t too worried about his whereabouts. So I had another surprise when I sauntered around the next bend as I glanced down a rather steep bluff and saw husband sitting with some people at the sunken bar enjoying a cold Montenegrin beer. Him enjoying the beer was not the surprise part; that came when I was introduced to his new found friends and discovered that they had all gone to the same high school as my husband, in and around the same years. Plus, they were traveling on the same cruise with us, although now a full 8 days into it and to this point we had never met. Small world, indeed. So obviously a hearty toast was raised to St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, all the way from Montenegro!
Continuing on with our tour, we were delivered back to the city of Kotor, which is a charming medieval World Heritage Site complete with a protective wall surrounding it built centuries earlier as a fortress in the Middle Ages. Of course, no vehicles were allowed in town so we took a brief walking tour and discovered a city that looked remarkably like Venice (minus the canals); so it came as no surprise when we learned that it had once been ruled by the Republic of Venice and had withstood countless sieges over the centuries. So in the end, even though the country itself was only a mere twenty one years old (when we visited), it provided such a stark contrast of vibrant new buildings (outside of the ‘old city’) with the ancient historical ones that were everywhere it seemed to be a wonderful and respectful blend of Old Europe and New. Charming and delightful. Who knew?
One other interesting bit of Montenegro history is that plenty of Hollywood filming is now going on there what with it being a new ‘it’ place for celebrities like Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie to hang out along with ‘The George’. ‘James Bond’ had also filmed a good portion of Casino Royal there and I’m guessing that is partly because let’s face it, how many paparazzi and star gazers would think of making that trip to gawk at the working celebs in a relatively unknown part of the world?
And I can’t complete this travel narrative without mentioning what we didn’t do
in Montenegro simply because we discovered this option too late in the day. Apparently there is an ancient stone pathway directly behind the old town consisting of over 1,500 steps, all on a steep incline up the mountainside, and waiting right there for those seeking a ‘little’ exercise along with some rustic adventure. We were told that as you progress to the top of this fortress you pass multiple shrines and ruined battlements along the way, plus the views from the summit are outstanding. Unfortunately, we were back on ship when we learned of this free, healthy choice option (and, in fact, I’m pretty sure were already pouring some wine. . .) that we would have most certainly given a try had we done just a tiny bit of research before our arrival. Woulda, coulda, shoulda – famous last words; but it’s worth mentioning because those that did take the hike had nothing but spectacular comments and rave reviews, not to mention no guilt when they ate and drank the night away, confident that they had already burned off enough calories! Oh well, guess we needed something for the ‘must return to this place and do that next time’ bucket list.
Once back on board the Mariner of the Seas, we had a riot at the ‘Grand Mediterranean Sunset Bar B Que’ that night followed by dancing under the stars. Contrary to our other nights where we had dined in intimate groups and exclusive restaurants all over the ship, tonight everyone on board came together on the pool deck for an extravagant American style buffet. Considering all the other gourmet offerings we’d had each night, we found it rather humorous that they chose to offer a BBQ. That said, of course it was the most elegant, top notch BBQ this side of Texas and we assumed chosen as a nod of acknowledgment that most passengers were indeed American.
And I must admit that even these two experienced world travelers who have also seen their fair share of incredible events, barbeque and otherwise, were pleasantly surprised when the chefs all paraded out at the end of the buffet service and ceremoniously threw the fantastic ice carvings into the pool! Of course it was done with drama and flare, not to mention a live band playing an appropriate musical tribute, and what a way to end this day. From our unexpected discoveries on land to our amazing ending poolside on board the ship followed by – as promised – dancing on the deck under both the stars and Mediterranean moonlight to a delightful live band. This was another beautiful day and night for the memory books.