Balkan Odyssey Part 19: Kotor, Europe’s Southernmost Fjord

After spending a few days in Dubrovnik, my girlfriend and I grabbed a 10:30 bus from the main station and headed south. Our destination was the city of Kotor, situated on Europe’s southernmost fjord in neighboring Montenegro.

Tickets were just $10 each and the bus was very comfortable. I had taken this same route a few days earlier while traveling from Montenegro to Croatia, so I knew what to expect.

Just a few miles after passing the border, the road drops down to sea level where it meets an inlet of water coming in from the ocean. This is the beginning of the fjord. For the next two hours the road skirts the water’s edge as it circumnavigates this enormous body of water. Large mountains rise up steeply on either side, creating the quintessential fjord-like image despite the contrary dry shrubs and warm weather one doesn’t normally associate with fjords.

Kotor lies at the very furthest end of the fjord. Like Dubrovnik, it too is completely enclosed within thick stone walls and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main difference between the two towns is the size. Kotor is far smaller (less then 400 yards from the North Gate to the South Gate) and far more quaint than its neighbor to the north. Its cobblestone streets and stone houses are embraceable and even homey at times. Cars are not allowed within the city walls, nor would they even be able to fit through many of the narrow passageways. The other noticeable difference from Dubrvonik is the tourists; there are very few of them. They certainly visit, but not in the critical mass which often overwhelms Dubrovnik.

Perhaps the reason for so few visitors is that there really aren’t too many tourist attractions in Kotor other than a couple of churches. The ambiance and old-world charm is the true draw and getting lost within the city’s windy alleyways is a real joy. Most of the stone buildings which grace the old town, house private residences just as they have for hundreds of years. The ground floors, however, are lined with a multitude of shops. But not the typical bakeries and cheap Eastern European shops I was expecting. No, Kotor is full of little boutique stores selling women’s shoes, purses, jewelry, hip fashion items, handicrafts, and more. It was a definite disconnect. This is what I expect to see in Italy, not some struggling, Eastern European town most everyone on this planet has never even heard of.

I love outdoor markets and couldn’t resist sneaking a photo of the farmers hawking their goods. Although the market is located just outside the city walls, it remains a stark contrast to the fashionable boutiques which lie within.

Cats are EVERYWHERE in Kotor. How many can you count in this photo?

Kotor is blessed with a handful of decent restaurants. Like everywhere else I traveled in the region, Italian food dominates the culinary scene. We ate regularly at Restoran Pasteria, located just across from the 12th century Cathedral of St. Tryphone, which had good Italian food and a phenomenal cheese plate. City Caffe Pizzeria, however, was our favorite. Just around the corner and almost hidden in a shady, raised courtyard, the restaurant is a peaceful little romantic getaway with tasty food and great wine.

There are quite a few cafes and bars in Kotor as well. Most of the outdoor ones are filled on warm summer days with locals and foreigners alike, sipping cold beers, coffee, and wine. The evenings get a bit wilder. One night we headed to Cesare (above) for drinks and found ourselves in a hip club that (almost) could have been located in Western Europe. A two-man band was jamming away and the drink was on. I quickly learned just how surprisingly progressive this quant town was when my girlfriend got hit on–by another girl.

We were pretty happy with our choice of hotels. Hotel Marija (Tel. 325 062, 325 063) was 65 euros per night ($83) and conveniently located within Old Town. It did get a little loud at night, however, as there was some type of café directly below our window. Don’t be suckered into a hotel outside the city walls where the charm of Old Town fails to extend.

Kotor’s harbor is just outside the main gates. A couple of luxury yachts were moored up here but thankfully no cruise ships. Watching evening settle in over the calm waters of the fjord is a mystical, peaceful experience.

Just behind the city a long section of the protective walls zigzags its way up a very steep mountain. Early one morning when the sun was still behind it, I tackled the 1500 stairs that picked its way up the mountainside. There is a church halfway up, I suppose for those who can’t make it any further, but the real payoff is at the summit where a series of ruins offer a great lunch spot and fantastic views of the fjord and Old Town itself. This is not to be missed.

Nor, for that matter, is the city of Kotor. Go now; It won’t remain off the beaten path for very much longer.

Yesterday’s Post: Dubrovnik, Pearl of the Adriatic
Tomorrow’s Post: Mostar, Bosnia

Balkan Odyssey Part 18: Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic

Even during communist times Dubrovnik was a hot destination for Western European vacationers and even some Americans. When communism fell, however, and war raged through the area, Croatia was shelled like everywhere else despite it having no military value whatsoever.

Naturally, this scared away tourists and continues to do so despite the war being long over. Although everyone is touting Dubrovnik as Europe’s newest hot spot, it still hasn’t reached its pre-war tourist numbers.

There’s good reason why Dubrovnik was so often visited even though it was locked behind the Iron Curtain: it is an absolutely perfect walled city situated on an absolutely perfect expanse of water. Just check out the above screen capture from Google Earth.

There are many accommodation options throughout the greater city of Dubrovnik, but the place to stay is within the Old Town’s city walls where cars are prohibited and narrow cobblestone alleys rule. A great site is This is where we dug up a fantastic one-bedroom apartment with bathroom, air-conditioning and a small kitchen located just above 17th century Gundulic Square. Placa Dubrovnik has three apartments available to rent. Ours cost just 65 euros a night ($83) and included a complimentary airport pickup by Tonci, the friendly, English speaking proprietor. The photo above is taken from our window overlooking the square. My girlfriend and I were very pleased and highly recommend the place.

So much of Old Town is narrow alleyways punctuated with stone stairs such as these. Restaurants and bars are squeezed in wherever there is room, but not so drastically that things seem crowded. And the restaurants are amazing. I found them rather expensive, but the quality was excellent for the most part. We began choosing restaurants by their locations and almost always scored a hit. The seafood was great and the Italian food as well. The cheeses, however, weren’t as good as those I had in Albania and Montenegro. One of the stranger things I ate which I wasn’t too fond of was a plateful of tiny, inch-long fish deep fried in batter. You eat the whole bite-size fish; head, bones, eyes and all. The taste was a little odd and the crunchiness unnerving.

Dubrovnik also has its share of bars and cafes. One of my favorites was a place with live jazz called Troubadur (on Gunduliceva Poljana). Undoubtedly the nicest place to sneak a drink is a tiny bar which clings to a rocky outcrop on the outside of the city walls. Café Buza, is a little difficult to find, but the view (above) is amazing. Walk along the interior side of the ocean-facing wall until you find a hole with a sign above it reading, “Cold Drinks.” On the other side are perfect sunsets and a wonderfully mellow vibe.

Walking the city walls is an activity not to be missed. At 25 meters high, one can circle the entire Old Town and soak up aerial views of life below, or linger on the ocean-facing sections and stare out to sea. The distance is misleading, however. The circuitous route is more than a mile long and many choose to duck out half way through.

The Croatians I met in Dubrovnik were some of the friendliest locals I’ve met anywhere. I found this surprising because the small town is so overrun with tourists and normally when this is the case, locals grow to hate such an invasion. It made me wonder if such friendliness was the result of the war where an entire city which lived and died by tourism was slowly dying as visitors stayed away en masse. I would guess that having lived through such tough times, Croatians no longer take tourists for granted as do other places like Paris. Or, and this is probably the correct answer, the Croatians are simply very nice people. If you want to see what I’m talking about, stop for some scoops at the ice cream shop on the Placa nearest to Pile Gate. The two brothers who own the shop inherited it from their father who inherited from his father. A lifetime of scooping ice cream and they are as happy and jovial as though they had just started that day. Incidentally, this is some of the very best ice cream in Old Town.

Dubrovnik really is a wonderful place, so wonderful in fact that George Bernard Shaw’s oft-quoted “paradise on earth” description no longer seems excessive once you’ve visited. The exception, however, are when the increasing number of cruise ships dock. One morning we awoke to discover 4,000 American tourists had disembarked and flooded Old Town like locusts. By afternoon they were gone, however, and Dubrovnik returned to its heavenly state.

Yesterday’s Post: The Long Road to Dubrovnik
Tomorrow’s Post: Kotor, Europe’s Southernmost Fjord

Balkan Odyssey Part 17: The Long Road to Dubrovnik

In today’s modern age, getting from Point A to Point B is often very easy. Of course, there are exceptions; such as when Point A is Ulcinj, Montenegro and Point B is the Dubrovnik airport where your girlfriend is flying into.

I sort of got the hint before embarking on my solo journey of Albania that if I wasn’t at the Dubrovnik airport to meet my girlfriend when she flew in, the rest of my trip would be solo as well.

So, here was the challenge: I had to travel the entire length of Montenegro, cross the border into Croatia, and be standing at the arrival gate by 3 p.m.

There is a very convenient bus that travels this entire route but it left Ulcinj at 12:45 p.m. and arrived at Dubrovnik too late to get me to the airport on time. The lady at the ticket counter suggested I take the 7 a.m. bus that traveled a town called Igalo near the border. I figured I could easily find transport onwards from there.

So, I woke at 5:30 a.m., caught a taxi to the bus station and jumped in a minivan. The coastal journey north towards Croatia is a very nice drive with plenty of scenic ocean vistas and wonderful homes and chateaus tucked in the hillsides. My girlfriend and I were planning on coming back to Montenegro after spending a few days in Dubrovnik, so the journey gave me a chance to scout out possible locations to visit.

Igalo, my minivan’s final stop, had appeared to be a small town right on the border when I consulted my map at the Ulcinj bus station. This was not true. The minivan dropped me off in front of a beachside hotel in Igalo which turned out to be about ten kilometers from the border. To make matters worse, there was no transport whatsoever to continue my journey.

A helpful woman at the hotel’s reception desk sort of laughed when I explained my predicament and told me I had to go back to the main bus station at Herceg Novi, a town I had passed through on the minivan about ten minutes earlier. To get there, I grabbed a local bus just outside the hotel and rode it nervously as it headed in the wrong direction for a long time before circling back and eventually dropping me off at the bus station.

Despite quite a bit of activity at the station, there was only one bus scheduled to head across the border to Dubrovnik. It left at 3 p.m. I was a bit angry to discover that it was the same 12:45 bus from Ulcinj which I didn’t take because it would not get me to the airport on time.

My only option at this point was a taxi. Unfortunately, the driver wanted 50 euros for the journey. So, I came up with a far cheaper solution. I’d take the taxi to the border for 10 euros, walk across, and grab a taxi or bus on the Croatian side. Easy enough. I’ve done it before and it has always worked out.

When the taxi dropped me off, however, the border post was almost completely empty. There were no busses waiting to cross or even taxis. I walked up to a window on the side of the building to get my passport stamped but the official waved me over to the little outdoor booth where two cars were waiting in line. I had to go and stupidly stand behind the last car, breathing in its nasty Eastern European exhaust, and wait my turn.

I thought it strange they didn’t have a window for people walking across the border. But, I quickly discovered why.

Once over the border, I entered No Man’s Land, that strip of earth that lies between two borders. Normally this area is less than 100 yards. But, as I started walking, I realized I couldn’t see the Croatian border post. The frontier was in the mountains and the road was curvy but every time I came around a bend expecting to see the border, all I saw was more of No Man’s Land stretching out before me. This was bad. I would have hitchhiked but not only were there no cars passing by, but I really doubted anyone would pick up a stranger in No Man’s Land. That’s like offering to carry someone’s bag through customs.

About a kilometer into my journey, all hot and sweaty, I stopped for a break and was taking a pee in No Man’s Land when I heard a car coming around the corner. I just had time to zip up before it blew past me, stopped for a moment, then slowly backed up. There was a man and women in the front seat but the back seat was empty. Without saying a word, I pulled open the door, threw in my bag and jumped in after it.

“Hi,” I said. The couple was all smiles and said hello back. Juraj and his wife were from Slovakia and had been vacationing at a friend’s house in Montenegro. They spoke a little English and I spoke a little Czech and suddenly my Hellish journey into No Man’s Land turned into a very pleasant one.

It was another 4-5 kilometers before we hit the Croatian border post. I would have been walking a long time if they hadn’t picked me up. I asked where they were heading in Croatia and they told me they were dropping off their rental car and flying out of Dubrovnik Airport. Perfect! I asked if could catch a ride the rest of the way and they had no problems with that.

Juraj did, however, want to visit Dubrovnik first before going to the airport. What I didn’t realize was that the airport is on the road between Montenegro and Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is actually another 20 kilometers beyond the airport. I’ll bet that 12:45 bus from Ulcinj would have gotten me to the airport only a little bit late and I probably could have taken it after all. Damn!

So we spent a quick hour in Dubrovnik (that’s Juraj above on the main street in Old Town) where I learned that, in addition to picking up strangers in No Man’s Land, Juraj and his wife run a small hotel in Kremnica, Slovakia called Stefanshof. Be sure to visit it if you’re in the area. We then headed back to the airport just in time to catch their flight and to meet my girlfriend at the gate.

Mission Accomplished!

Yesterday’s Post: Ulcinj, Montenegro
Tomorrow’s Post: Dubrovnik

Balkan Odyssey Part 16: Ulcinj, Montenegro

Although technically still part of Serbia until the end of the year, quaint little Montenegro has a personality all its own. That would explain why the people of this region voted just a few months ago to secede from Serbia & Montenegro to become their own country.

Sandwiched between Croatia and Albania, Montenegro is easy to get to from popular Dubrovnik (more on that in a later post). I was coming from the south, however, and did so by paying 20 euros for an hour taxi ride from Shkodra, Albania to the coastal town of Ulcinj (cheaper minivans run the same route a couple of times a day).

My first impression of Ulcinj was rather disappointing. The taxi driver refused to take me into Old Town and dropped me off on Bulevar Maršala Tita, a busy thoroughfare lined with ugly little shops not so far from the bus station.

I grabbed my luggage, headed up the street and turned left at Ulitsa Skenderbeu. This street headed downhill to the bay and Old Town. It was less than half a mile, but the more I walked the nicer the street became. Restaurants began popping up, cafes were filled with people sipping drinks, travel agencies beckoned with exciting excursions, locals stopped me to ask if I needed accommodations, and tourist shops were hawking all manner of kitsch made from seas shells and rocks. After seeing so few tourists in Albania, it was strange to walk down a street whose storefronts were all dedicated to serving them.

My destination was a hotel in Old Town poised on a hilltop overlooking a perfect half-moon bay. That’s it, the furthest building on the far left of the photograph. Dvori Balšica (fax 421 457 leart@cg.yu) cost an incredible 55 euros for a bedroom, spacious living room, kitchenette, bathroom and phenomenal ocean views.

The above shot was taken just outside my hotel window. There are much cheaper places up here as well, for as little as 10 euros. It seems everyone has a small hotel or B&B willing to put you up.

Old Town is small and ripe with character. Although there are a fair number of hotels and restaurants, they are all incorporated into the ancient stone architecture. In fact, most of Old Town is private residences, just as it has been for centuries. There are no tacky tourist shops or busloads of Germans blindly following their tour guides. Old Town is quaint and left alone.

Wandering through the narrow cobblestone alleys you really gives you an authentic feeling for the place; it’s not some tourist manufactured claptrap with locals dressed in period costumes handing out fliers or selling ice cream.

Most of the restaurants in Old Town have amazing patios where you can chomp down sea food and soak up the killer ocean views. Restaurant Klaja, Antigona, and Teuta were three of my favorites. The food was good, perhaps a little pricy for a place like Montenegro, but very nice nonetheless. Even if it was bad, however, I would have kept coming back for the view. Both restaurants have phenomenal patios overlooking the ocean. Indeed, this was my way of choosing a restaurant in Old Town; I just looked for those with a great view and sat down. I was never disappointed.

What struck me odd about Old Town and its great hotels and restaurants was that they were all nearly deserted. At the most, there might have been one or two tables occupied at every restaurant I visited. Often times I sat by myself. Montenegro is still very far off the radar for foreign tourists.

Ulcinj, however, remains very popular for local tourists who can’t afford the high prices in Old Town and stay down by the water instead. In fact, the town actually gets a little crowded down by Obala Borisa Kidrica, a typical seaside promenade running along the beach at Mala Playa. The beach itself is quite nice, although I preferred swimming off the concrete dock below Old Town. Old town is just to the left of this photograph.

At night, Obala Borisa Kidrica explodes with young vacationers who cruise up and down the promenade dressed up and shooting sly flirtatious looks at each other. There are plenty of non-descript bars and cafes as well, but walking up and down the promenade seems to be more heavily favored. This was the same ritual I saw throughout Albania. It was not a big surprise. Ulcinj is 85% Albanian. This means the city is mostly Muslim as well. The mosques which had haunted my waking hours in Albania with their morning calls to prayer had followed me across the border–fortunately the sound blasting from the minarets wasn’t able to reach Old Town.

Ulcinj is one of those waiting-to-be-discovered beach resorts where good deals are to be had and good times are to be enjoyed. It has a wonderful, beach town vibe, but one day when it becomes popular (and it will), the whole place is going to change. I’m sure happy I was able to enjoy it before the jetsetter crowd arrives.

Yesterday’s Post: Albania Wrap-Up
Tomorrow’s Post: The Long Road to Dubrovnik

Balkan Odyssey Part 15: Albania Wrap-Up

Balkan Odyssey will continue but before moving on to Montenegro, I though I’d just wrap up the Albania segment with a few thoughts.

First off, I highly recommend this country. A few years ago it was almost impossible to travel here as a result of the craziness and crime which resulted after 50 years of isolation came undone with the collapse of communism. Things have settled down tremendously since then. I felt safe the whole time I was in the country (although caution must always be exercised no matter where you go) and was treated wonderfully by those I met. Not a whole lot of people speak English, but it is still relatively easy to get by.

I opted for public transport instead of renting a car and was pleased with the ease of doing so. The only hassle was occasionally waiting for the minivans to fill up so that they could leave. Of course the worst thing about not having a car is the inability to stop and check things out that look interesting off the side of the road. I still regret not having had the chance to photograph my favorite sign, “Puke 15 Kilometers” because we drove by it too fast in a minivan.

Travel hindsight is always 20/20 and if I could do the trip again, the perfect trip would be as follows:

Fly into Corfu, Greece and take the ferry over to Albania. I missed most of the south and the treasures it contains, such as the picturesque Albania Riviera on the Ionian Sea, and numerous old ancient ruins. Part of the reason I didn’t go south was due to lots of unseasonable rain which would have certainly put a damper on the beach towns. In addition, to get to the south and back from Tirana is very time consuming; the ferry from Corfu drops you in the deep south so all that you need to do is head north with no backtracking whatsoever.

I would certainly hit Gjirokastra, which is also in the south. Everyone I met who visited this ancient town, the birthplace of Enver Hoxha and Ismail Kadare, loved it.

The next stop would be Berat, followed by Tirana.

From Tirana I would head directly to Shkodra to catch a four-wheel drive to Thethi. A few nights in this small mountain village would be followed by a hike over the mountains to Valbona. Then across the border to Prizren in Kosovo. After Prizren I’d head to Kukës. This is where I run into a problem. My last bit of travel would include the ferry across Lake Komani. I’m sure a couple of minivans would make the journey from Kukës, probably on some pretty rough dirt toads. Or, there might be a ferry/boat service running the length of Lake Fierza.

So, that’s Albania. I guarantee there are many great sections of this mostly undiscovered land that I failed to discover on my journeys. This is great news for adventurous travelers, however, as it will still be a long time before Albania makes it off the beaten path–although I have heard recent rumors about a Club Med possibly being built in the Albanian Riviera…

Yesterday’s Post: Bunker, Bunkers, Bunkers!
Tomorrow’s Post: Ulcinj, Montenegro