The Balkans: Montenegro & Croatia

Montenegro was our next stop on the road; from Shkodër we caught the bus over the Albanian border to Ulcinj, a town on the southern coast of Montenegro famous for its long beaches. Once known to be the pirate capital of the Adriatic Sea, we walked to the beach on the other side of the main town which was completely deserted with not a pirate in sight! A visit out of season allowed us to view the long stretches of brown soft sand without interruption as the sun was setting.
Walking over the Bojan River we stopped to see these magnificent fishing nets called Kalimeras dotted along the river. At a glance they looked like small river huts with a possible community living on the river. I was quickly corrected on closer inspection, noticing the large nets on a pulley system which would be lowered into the river with presumably bait, as to encourage fish into the nets before the nets were then lifted above the surface. Really incredible to see!

From Ulcinj, we had our first experience of hitchhiking – our destination was Bar which was further north along the coastline. We had heard from a few travellers we had met so far, that hitchhiking was pretty safe in this area, especially as we were in a couple (plus the fact that we had some pepper spray also helped!) We walked along the main road out of Ulcinj, one arm held out and thumbs up in the hope of flagging someone down – we felt like proper backpackers! Walking for a while with no luck, we found a good place on the side of the road where we could stop walking and still flag passing cars…just when we were about to give up, a lovely German guy, also called David, picked us up as he was on his way to the capital city of Poderica, (Bar was on his way, and he kindly detoured his route from main roads to coastal roads to take us!) Trusting our instincts that it was safe, we got in, chatting to him in broken English and thankful for the thirty minute drive which saved us both euros and time getting a slow bus.

Bar was extremely quiet in comparison to what we had expected. Visiting out of season, the area was almost deserted and many places were closed. Deciding to use Bar as a stopping point for refreshments, we had the most delicious mousse-like hot chocolate to warm us up in the windy coastal town of Bar, followed by a walk along the waterfront. Warmed up from the earlier rain, we walked to the main road, picking up five stray dogs who proceeded to follow us (I felt like the pied piper for hungry dogs). Back onto the road for hitchhiking, we were picked up by an animated Albanian who now lived and worked in Montenegro in construction, and who also had a lively passion for English football. Driving along the meandering coastline with a backdrop of limestone mountains and views of the Adriatic Sea, we spoke with him and laughed; it was definitely interesting to hear a locals view on history and the recent war, and how people are living today. We hitchhiked with him to Sveti Stefan, the iconic tombolo with a rare geographical feature, (made up of an island connected to the mainland by a sand spit). Home to the superb and exclusively private Aman Sveti Stefan island-hotel, tourists are prohibited from even stepping onto the bridge which connects it to the mainland, (we tried our luck but security was strict to our disappointment.) Several beaches come within the complex, each side of the causeway has curving pink sand and pebbled beach, one public, one managed by Aman. After being refused a closer look at Sveti Stefan, we walked around the mainland coastline, and managed to sneak (the gate was open!) into a private area of beach where Dave jumped off to swim whilst I sat and watched enjoying the peaceful surrounding atmosphere.

A wet night in Sveti Stefan we woke to more rain, making our way to Budvar, the historical district with a seaside citadel. With the rain pouring down we walked along the pebbled waterfront towards the old citadel, taking refuge in a cafe for lunch and waiting for the rain to stop. An hour and a hot meal later, the skies had cleared to help us explore the narrow streets of the old medieval town of Stari Grad. Stepping through an arched doorway in Budva’s medieval walls, cobbled streets were lined with tables and lounge-sofas managed by nearby cafés. We wandered through to see the citadel churches and the massive fort walls which plunged into the blue waters of Boka Bay. Lucky to avoid the three euro fee, we walked up the stairs to walk on the citadel fortified wall which led us to walk along the walls perimeter, gaining a view of the outside seaside town and inside old town streets. 

Catching another ride to Kotor, this time we hitchhiked with an American food photographer and journalist called Babs, who was spending 5 months out of the year in the Balkans documenting slow food within the regions. She was a delight to pick us up and fascinating to listen to. Babs dropped us outside the old town of Kotor. Built between the 14th and 15th century and filled with medieval architecture and historical monuments, Kotor is steeped in tradition and history with remarkable views of the fjord-like bay and the limestone mountains that surround it.

The huge defensive wall surrounds the old town that sits under the mountain scenery and St Johns Hill above. Resembling a smaller version of China’s Great Wall, Kotor’s remarkable barrier of rock (which would have once acted as the towns defence system in the 9th century) seems perfect for us to aimlessly stroll the cobbled pavements between the old streets, with ample cafes for tourists to sit and enjoy the sunny days. A cruise ship was docked in the bay and it was amazing to see so many people drift of the ship and into the old town; it made such a difference to the buzz and atmosphere of Kotor, (it is easy to imagine just how crowded the cobbled streets would get in high season with having three or four cruise liners in the bay!)

An 1400 step ascent up the fortress of St Johns took us through a series of cobbled zig-zag paths dotted with the colours of autumn. Emerging at the top of the fortress, the impenetrable mountains and panoramic views are impressive!

Later that evening we ate traditional Montenegro stew and listened to local music at a nearby restaurant. A quiet night away from crowds of tourists, we had front row seats to them playing and singing. A delicious meal and enjoyable evening relaxing in the musical atmosphere.

Spending a couple of days in Kotor, we later caught the bus to the Croatian southern coastal city of Dubrovnik, known for the distinctive old town encircled by stone walls. Overlooking the blue seas of the Adriatic, the magnificent walled city boasts the largest tourist trade that we have come across in the Balkans so far. A popular holiday destination it is easy to see why with Dubrovnik’s glorious weather, amazing seafood eateries, and a place steeped in history is so busy out of season as well as high season.

The pedestrianised old town with medieval walls has two main entrances, huge arched gates that welcome tourists from the east and west. Joined by the Main Street, Stradun, which runs its entirety, the placa is lined with countless cafes and shops. Running parallel to the Stradun are a grid of restaurants and guesthouses, apartments and hostels to rent.

A night tour took us around to explore the streets at a quieter time of day and to hear about it from a Croatian who has lived in Dubrovnik her whole life. Speaking with much passion, she described the ‘four fears’ that the Croats’ had and how the various buildings protected the people from these fears of thirst, hunger, earthquakes and illness.

Treating ourselves to the overpriced fish thanks to my mum, we enjoyed the delicious Dubrovnik fish and seafood risotto for dinner later that night, definitely worth the extra money and the setting was perfect!

One of the best ways to see a great panoramic view of the city was to take a cable car up to Mount Srjd and the Imperial Fort where there is an observation platform which looks over the city. The view was amazing with the stark contrast of blue sea and terracotta roofs from the old town; the other Elaphiye islands the dotted the Dalmatian Coast could also be seen from this magnificent viewpoint! A walk around the Imperial Fort describes how the Homeland War depicts war life from 1991 – 1995, and how the Fort helped the defenses of Dubrovnik. A little overpriced for a cable car but worthwhile for the 360•views and an exciting way to see Dubrovnik from another perspective!

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