Kotor, Montenegro

The second stopping point for our cruise was in what, on initial appearance, looked like a fjord but was in fact a submerged river canyon, the port city of Kotor in Montenegro.

As a history teacher I knew a little about the terrible history of the Balkans. I had taught the unit in Senior History many times called “The Causes of World War One.” This unit touches on the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Balkan Wars before the start of World War 1 and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. I was aware of the invasion of the Balkans by the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) in the 1940s and the post-war communist history under Tito. Many refugees left Yugoslavia after World War 2 and settled and worked in the suburbs of Sydney and were part of the background of my childhood. More recent history was very visible in the alleys of Dubrovnik which had been our first stop on this cruise. We had noticed huge posters on the sides of renovated houses telling the terrible story of the bombing of Dubrovnik from the sea by Serbian and Montenegrin forces during 1991–1995; the walls of Dubrovnik are great tourist attractions but no longer protect its citizens from modern artillery.

Modern Montenegro received its independence from Serbia in 2006 and uses the Euro as its currency, unlike Croatian Dubrovnik, and is an applicant to join the European Union. I was to learn much more about Montenegro from our bus tour guide that day.

The remnants of the fortification built by the Venetians were to be seen on the side of the cliffs as our cruise liner entered Kotor’s Harbour. On the left above is a defensive position built at the opening of the Kotor ‘Fjord’. On the right above are the fortifications still standing around the actual city of Kotor. So impressive are Kotor’s reminders of the Venetian Republics presence in this region that it has been declared as one of six ‘Venetian Works of Defence built as part of their empire in the 16th and 17th centuries’.

We only were given a short time in the town of Kotor itself to examine its interesting architecture and landscape. The activity that we had chosen for our day’s stay was to catch a bus into the hinterland and stop at a ham production facility where we would feast on the local cuisine consisting, so we were told, of local wine and cheese as well as the ham.

Given that Kotor is sited at the end of a river canyon, the only way out into the surrounding countryside is up over the mountains that hem it in. So within five minutes of the start of our trip, the bus started to negotiate the first of the switchbacks which were to be our continuous companions for the next 30 minutes…27 hairpin bends on a single lane mountain road. Each turn in the road was marked by a small wall which the bus missed by millimetres giving the passengers remarkable views down the mountain. My caring wife gave me the aisle seat but this made no difference to the beautifully terrifying view that was mine for the rest of the trip up the mountain. The photo to the tight gives a great view of the slowly receding harbour.

I was not a great fan of hair-pin bends and steep mountain roads and the thing that distracted me for the trip up this mountain was the driver. I had never met a Montenegrin before and certainly no rumours of the national wry humour had ever come my way, but this guy worked his audience all the way up the mountain. He announced early in the trip that his job was perfect for him as Montenegrins are lazy. He illustrated this by telling us his first joke of the trip.                                                                                                                             

Cigarette packets in Europe have health warnings written on the front of the packet…It reads “Smoking kills”.                The Montenegrin says, “Work kills!”… and sits down and has another smoke.                     He explained further… “Why would I work hard…look around you at these barren mountains…what can you do here except smoke ham and make cheese (neither of which is over exciting!)”

 Half way up the mountain our guide pointed out the almost vertical goat track on the side of the mountain opposite the one we were climbing. “See that goat track over there…that’s the original path into Kotor. Can you imagine taking the donkey up there to get to the nearest shop up country, getting the groceries, coming home down that goat-track and then realising you forgot the salt and had to go back again.”

He told us early in the ride that we were lucky to have the most skilled and experienced bus-driver in Montenegro and that we should not worry about the 27 hairpin bends ahead. Again, to illustrate the importance of the bus driver, he told the drive’s second joke.                                                                                                                                                         A bus driver and priest die and go to heaven. The priest is welcomed and given a small room that he has to share with another priest. The bus driver gets the presidential suite. When the Priest finds this out, he goes to St Peter and puts in a complaint.    “How come I get to share a small room and the bus driver gets the presidential suite. I have been a good man all my life, said mass every Sunday, prayed for all my parishioners… and he’s just a bus driver, whoring, drinking…a mountain of sin!”  St Peter said, “Well…let’s look at this realistically. Every Sunday you say mass and half the people go to sleep. On the other hand, every day people get on his bus and throughout the journey, everyone prays!!”

We eventually found our way up the mountain and into the hinterland where our ham production facility awaited. As a result of this bus trip, I became very concerned at the ability of Montenego and Montenegrins to maintain any economic activity to feed themselves; apart from tourism of course. The Ham factory was a cantina that also promised us the delights of Montenegrin goat cheese and local wine. One curious fact that I noticed looking around this dilapidated little town set in the most beautiful of valleys was the lack of live stock that might be the source of the cheese and ham…no goats or pigs to be seen. After we inspected the smoke house and the hanging hams, we sat down for our meal break. I asked the bus guide where did the pork legs come from to create the local delicacy.

He replied with a shrug, “There are no pigs in Montenegro, all pig meat is imported.”                                                 

If all Montenegrins are as lazy as our bus tour guide suggested, the world would be a better place. He was able to happily get over forty nervous foreigners up a murderous mountain road, kept us fully entertained the whole time while at the same time giving us a close insight in to the past and future of his small country.

After we said goodbye to our bus-driver, we had some time for a quick exploration of the centre of town inside the walls. It was a very picturesque place with the steep alleyways encouraging us to explore further. We found the Cathedral of St Tryphon which is one of two Catholic Cathedrals in Montenegro. It was consecrated here in 1166 and is one of the largest buildings in Kotor. It was badly damaged in 1667 when this town suffered from an earthquake that caused widespread damage. It was rebuilt but the locals had to relive their ancestors problems when in 1997 another significant earthquake hit the Montenegro coastline and again greatly damaged the Cathedral.

We had a very interesting day in Kotor with our bus trip up the mountain and our swift tour of the old town. We were a satisfied bunch later that afternoon as we sailed back down the river canyon into the Adriatic sunset.

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