When we arrive at our first stop in Montenegro, a photo op at the entrance to the Bay of Kotor, we get out and observe the surrounding area. Montenegro’s black mountains loom around us. Its name is definitely fitting. The Bay only has a small opening, about ¼ mile wide; it’s deep, though. So deep that large cruise ships can pass in and out without incident. The perfect location for sea traders: strategically situated inside an easily defendable waterway—any ship who tried to invade had to get through the small opening and would be an easy target for the awaiting navy—and surrounded by high, jagged-peaked mountains, making it nearly impossible to invade from land, either.
Photos: Our Lady of the Rock, Perast, Montenegro
After a few photos, we’re on our way to Perast—our first real stop-off. Perast is a small seaside town. The reason most people visit it is to take a boat out to “Our Lady of the Rock” church. It sits on a manmade island in the bay. The legend surrounding it more or less goes like this: Some sailors found a picture of the Virgin Mary and Child atop the rocks on this sight. Seeing it as a sign, it was decided to build a church in the same spot. The only problem was an island didn’t exist to build it on. So, every time sailors returned safely home from a voyage, they passed by the site and would toss a stone in. Eventually, old boats were sunk on the site, more stones were added, and the island of today appeared. Even to this day, every year locals hold a festival where they go out in boats and toss stones around the island to shore it up. The first recorded church on this site dates all the way back to 1452. The church of today, while small, is interesting, and the short boat ride out to it is a nice feature, as well. Our driver arranges for a private boat to take us out to the island within minutes, then a guide to take us through the church, and finally our ride back with ease. After a short coffee break, we are on our way to our next stop: Kotor.
When we arrive in Kotor, Josip stays with the car while we explore. I ask if car theft is a problem inside Montenegro, as well. He says yes, but that the issue is more about his license plate standing out. There are Serbs in Montenegro, and they are not keen on the Croats, just as the Croats still express some hostility toward the Serbs. His license plate marks his as Croatian, so he doesn’t like to leave the car out of his sight. To emphasize this point, he tells me about a recent tourist who rented a car in Belgrade, Serbia (so it obviously had a Serbian license plate). The renter then drove the car to Croatia. The next morning when he came outside, his car had been destroyed, presumably by resentful locals. And so, the cycle of mistrust continues to promulgate between the two populations.
Photos: Kotor- Left: Main Gate, Center: Church, Right: Walls Going Up the Mountains
Kotor is much more crowded than Perast; there are cruise ships in the port adding to the regular influx of tourists. Our parting advice from our guide as we head into the walled city is to eat something simple like pizza. He says the power goes out quite often in Montenegro, and with the hot summer weather, he doesn’t suggest eating seafood or things that would spoil easily. We take his advice and follow a side street to a delicious smelling pizza place selling slices. We get one, and it’s so good that we each get a second, as well. After our hunger is taken care of, we set off to explore the city. It’s small, and there are only a few real “sights” (most are churches). We head outside at one of the gates to get a better look at the town’s fortified walls that wrap up the mountain. This definitely would not have been an easy place to invade; between the mountains, fortified walls, and easily defendable bay, it seems like it would have been next to impossible. We get lost in the narrow, shaded lanes of the old city, and before we know it, it’s time to leave.
Photos: Budva- Left: Beach, Right: Walking the Walls
Our next stop, Budva, is party central for visitors and locals alike. Josip says that the discotecs here are huge and stay open until all hours. If you want to party in Montenegro, Budva is where you head. Budva also had the sandy beaches tourists love; the medieval walled city is surrounded by them. We wander the streets, walk the short wall enveloping the Old Town, and stop for a drink. Outside the walls, there is a stretch along a pedestrian only street that reminds me of a boardwalk back home. It’s not directly on the shoreline, but it has the same feel lined with food stands, bars, restaurants, and shops.
After Budva, we have a quick stop-off at a viewpoint overlooking Sveti Stefan. Long Montenegro’s destination for the rich and famous, the resort costs a minimum of $1,000/night to stay there, and if you’re not staying there, they’re not letting you in. It’s pretty from above, but I can’t imagine spending that kind of money to stay there. It’s definitely for people in a much higher tax bracket than I am.
On our drive back, we’re supposed to take the ferry across the bay, but the line is backed-up for miles. Josip decides to return through a different route instead and takes us a back way that avoids the line of cars. In what seems like no time at all, we are back at the border, a different checkpoint, and an even worse road! Under construction like the first but this time actively, so we have to dodge bulldozers and backhoes. It’s definitely an adventure.
Photos: Border Road with Montenegro in Croatia
During the drive back, we get into a discussion on gun control. After the war, anyone with an unregistered gun was required by law to turn it in. If caught with one, you will be sent to jail.
“Many people still have them, though,” Josip tells us. “They are distrustful of the tentative peace they have with their neighbors and are holding onto them ‘just in case.’”
“Even with the threat of going to jail for years, they still keep them?” I ask.
“If you live through a war, you don’t always trust that peace will last indefinitely,” he explains. “You would rather risk jail than your life.”
“Where were you during the war?” I question.
“We spent most of it inside the wall of Dubrovnik during the siege, in the monastery” Josip tells us. “I was only a child. Many of us sought shelter there. We had a great sense of community; that is one of the only good things about war: everyone helps one another. After a war is over, that lasts for a little while, but then people forget again, go back to their own lives…”
I contemplate all that we have learned about these countries and the war as we drive the rest of the way back to Dubrovnik. The history here is so complicated. Even after spending time in Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Slovenia and getting perspectives on the wars that broke up Yugoslavia from several Bosniaks and Croats (we never ended up in a position to ask a Serb), I am still very confused. I decide that maybe there are just many sides to the same story. Some sides were wrong at different times, and some were right, but everyone is both innocent and to blame to some extent when you look across all of the different wars that split apart Yugoslavia. It’s much more complicated than that, but the best example I can come up with is that the defenseless Croats were attacked in Dubrovnik, but yet they can be viewed as the aggressors in Mostar (Bosnia)–similar situations, just with ‘victim’ and ‘aggressor’ reversed. I just pray that the countries can now put these horrors behind them and move forward as their own nations and as neighbors. They still have a ways to go, but as they slowly merge together as part of the EU, their borders will begin to disappear, and maybe their distrust of one another will in time, as well.
Despite their recent past, these countries are now beautiful, safe, and affordable tourist destinations. I found everyone I encountered to be friendly and accommodating regardless of which side of these borders I was on and never experienced any ‘tensions’ firsthand. For a tourist, the wars of the 1990s are just a part of the countries’ history. The beauty of these two countries and their natural surroundings make a trip here a once in a lifetime experience. I would hurry here before the rest of the United States figures that out, as well!
by Meghan Perkins