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Europe Part 6: Montenegro & the Bay of Kotor

Panorama from the Ladder of Kotor. Top of the city walls are visible at left. Note wildfire smoke in background.

From Mljet we took the ferry back to Dubrovnik and the mainland. The return journey was slightly less comfortable, as the ferry was overbooked. The few seats available were next to people who appeared to be seasick, so we ended up sitting in the stairwell for the majority of the 90 minute journey. From here we were headed for Kotor, a few hours south of Dubrovnik across the border in Montenegro. The drive from Dubrovnik to Kotor was supposed to be incredibly scenic, so we had booked a tour that would allow us to sightsee en route. Unfortunately our tour guide cancelled on us just a few hours before departure, so on the morning we departed Mljet, we suddenly found ourselves sans transportation to our next destination. Fortunately it wasn’t a long drive, so we were able to find a relatively affordable “transfer service” (basically a taxi) on very short notice.

The scenery was just as beautiful as advertised. From Dubrovnik to Kotor, the highway follows the coast until the border between Croatia and Montenegro, then diverts inland to wind around the Bay of Kotor, a crazily-shaped inlet of the Adriatic Sea that cuts deep into the rugged mountains of Montenegro. We stopped in Herceg Novi (hometown of our wonderful driver, Dario) and Perast for about an hour each on the way. In Herceg Novi, we enjoyed a short walk around the old town, went up in the Ottoman-era fortress above town, and enjoyed a delicious lunch from a little bakery. In Perast, a smaller, more touristy town right on the bay, we saw some dolphins swimming in the bay (no photos sadly) and took a water taxi to “Our Lady of the Rocks” a small Catholic church on a tiny island a few hundred yards out into the bay.

Perast, Montenegro

The island and church are steeped in legend. Depending on the source, the story goes that, in 1452, some sailors were returning from a voyage, one of them with an injured leg. On their way home they discovered an icon of the Madonna and Child stuck in a coral reef or rock in the bay. They brought it to shore and the injured sailor was miraculously healed. As thanks, they vowed to build a church on the spot where they found the icon. They began dropping large rocks into the bay, and intentionally loading up boats with rocks to sink them, until a small island was formed. Eventually they built a church on the island and put the icon inside.

Two small islands in the Bay of Kotor. Our Lady of the Rocks on the right.

After a pleasant drive, we arrived in Kotor around dinner time to a somewhat ominous scene. The jagged mountains above Kotor are themselves quite imposing. Though made of the same limestone we saw earlier on the trip in the Julian Alps, here the rock is much darker, hence the name “Montenegro” (black mountain). There were also some pretty intense thunderstorms forming above the mountains, and to top it off there was a wildfire with large visible flames crawling up a mountain on the other side of the bay.

Arriving in Kotor to yellow, smoky skies and wildfire flames

With this backdrop, we checked into our lodging, one of the more unique places we stayed on the trip: an apartment in a 16th century stone villa just a few steps from the water. The grounds of the villa were quite interesting, with several courtyards, gardens and a great waterfront view. The apartment was about a twenty minute walk from the old town of Kotor, which is basically a mini-Dubrovnik with its fortified city walls, dramatically wedged in between the bay and the mountains. In fact, the city walls of Kotor go straight up the side of the mountains behind town. They blend in with the rocks quite well, and are sort of hard to see during the day, but at night parts of the walls are lit up, making for a spectacular scene:

Kotor city walls at night

The following morning, our goal was to hike up to the top of the city walls where there is an old fortress that looks out over the bay and the city below. The walls are not in great shape: they are crumbling in many places and there is a ton of trash everywhere. (Admission to the walls was 8 euros/person and the place was quite busy, so it seemed somewhat odd they wouldn’t have the means to control the trash situation.) The air was also quite smoky; we could still see the fire on the other side of the Bay plus there now seemed to be smoke from a separate fire coming down over the rim of the mountains much closer to us, which was a little alarming. As such, the walk up was a bit of an adventure, but the views just kept getting more and more incredible as we climbed.

Ascending the Kotor city walls

Rather than going back down the way we came, near the summit we exited via a rickety ladder propped up to one of the portals in the wall, and connected with a trail known as the “Ladder of Kotor,” a several thousand year-old route with over 70 switchbacks that leads from the Bay up and over the mountains into the Montenegrin interior. We quickly left the crowds behind and came across the ruins of an old church and village in a little basin tucked into the mountainside. We explored this area a little bit, and walked up the “Ladder” a little ways to look down on the upper portion of the city walls (see photo at top of post). Had we more time, we could have continued another several thousand feet uphill to the very top of the mountains overlooking the Bay of Kotor.

Looking through a portal in the city walls toward the Ladder of Kotor. The small building in the center is the small cafe mentioned below.
Sveti Juraj church and ruins, just outside the Kotor city walls

Heading back down, we stopped at a small cafe serving tasty homemade goat cheese, pomegranate juice, and cold beer (here in Part 6, it should go without saying that it was hot and humid) at a handful of tables under a little tin roof, with a beautiful view of the Bay and mountains. The proprietor was hilarious, bustling around and giving us fly swatters to use against the pack of stray cats that were camped out waiting for someone to drop a bit of cheese. We found the cats very entertaining until an orange one made a lunge for our cheese. Fortunately, my cat-like brain and reflexes anticipated the move just in time. Sorry kitties!

From the goat cheese cafe, we continued down the Ladder of Kotor back to town. With almost no other people around, a solid tread (as opposed to crumbling steps), and virtually no trash, we were happy to be headed down this route rather than the walls! Plus, it was cool to follow a historic route that has been in existence for so long and see all the stonework that went into building it over the centuries.

Kotor was another quick stop, and the next day it was already time to head to Albania, the final country on our trip through the western Balkans. Our route took us along the very scenic Montenegrin coastline, however the traffic was horrendous so what should have been a 2-3 hour drive took more like 4-5. Near the southern border of Montenegro, we turned off the coastal highway and started driving inland toward the Albanian border. The border crossing was a breeze…I’m honestly not sure they even looked at our passports!

Not long after crossing the border, we arrived in Shkodër, the fifth largest city in Albania. We didn’t have much time to explore Shkodër unfortunately, as our main goal for the rest of the day was to regroup, repack, and get some supplies for our upcoming journey into the Albanian Alps. We walked around the city center a bit, had a few good meals, and saw the gigantic mosque in the center of town, but that was about it. There didn’t seem to be many tourists around, and those we did see were almost all backpackers headed to the Alps…just like us!

Ebu Bekër Mosque, Shkodër, Albania

Europe Part 5: Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian Coast

Looking out over Dubrovnik from atop the city walls

Links to previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

From Mostar we hopped a bus to Dubrovnik, in theory just a few hours south along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. I’m not going to describe that journey in detail here, but it was definitely the most unpleasant travel experience of the trip, and possibly our lives. (Our bout of food poisoning in Italy a few years back, which involved copious vomiting first on a train and then in an elderly Italian woman’s bathroom, didn’t last as long and it wasn’t 100 degrees…)

After crossing the border from Bosnia into Croatia (a crossing that was, thankfully, almost deserted thanks to the opening of the Pelješac Bridge just a few days earlier), the travel gods finally took mercy on us and we arrived in Dubrovnik. We took a taxi to our apartment, and I quickly realized Dubrovnik was another place I was thankful to not be driving. The roads weren’t quite as anarchic as in Sarajevo, but there were a lot of very steep and narrow one way streets, tons of people, and almost non-existent parking. The view from our apartment was gorgeous and expansive due to its location a few hundred feet uphill from the coast. We could see a wide swath of the Adriatic Sea, several islands, and the historic walled old town of Dubrovnik spread out below us. The disadvantage of this location was that getting anywhere involved descending (and later ascending) a series of long, steep staircases in near 100 degree heat + humidity.

View of old town Dubrovnik from our lodging

Dubrovnik was pretty much the epitome of what comes to mind when you think of a historic European city: narrow stone streets, lots of churches, lots of tourists, all surrounded by imposing city walls and fortifications. Dubrovnik is extra picturesque in that the whole affair is perched on a rocky peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic Sea. Old town Dubrovnik actually used to be two towns divided by a canal. Eventually the canal was filled in to connect the two towns, forming what is now the wide main boulevard known as the Stradun. (We were told that the loose material used to fill in the canal is likely to collapse in the next major earthquake.) The old town is pedestrian only, and boy were there a lot of pedestrians! Overall though, Dubrovnik was not as busy as we feared. A few years ago, there were often eight or nine cruise ships docked here each day, leading to massive and unsustainable crowds. Through some combination of COVID and limitations imposed by the city, cruise ship traffic has been greatly reduced and there was only one ship docked each of our three days in town. Dubrovnik was the only stop on our entire trip where there seemed to be a lot of other American tourists, roughly 50% of whom seemed to be on a Game of Thrones tour or in a Game of Thrones gift shop at any given moment. (Apparently large portions of GoT were filmed here, though we haven’t seen it so that significance was lost on us…)

The Stradun in old town Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik, long a major trading center along the Adriatic coast, is well-fortified with a ring of tall, thick stone walls completely encircling the old town. A highlight of our visit was a late evening stroll around the top of the walls, with amazing views down into the city on one side, and out into the sea on the other. From above, you can see different colored tile roofs representing buildings of different ages. Most of the city was rebuilt after a big earthquake in 1600, and parts were bombed during Croatia’s war for independence in the 1990s.

Orange and brown tile roofs in old town Dubrovnik
One of the many narrow lanes in old town Dubrovnik

As amazing as the city was, it was so hot and humid that we wanted to be in the water the whole time. There were a few small pebbly beaches a short walk from the old town, but these were packed to the point that it was hard to find anywhere to spread out a towel. We found a more relaxing scene by taking a 10-minute ferry ride to an island just offshore: Otok Lokrum. This island is a nature preserve with no permanent population, so there was plenty of room to spread out. There were lots of hiking trails, botanical gardens, some old ruins, a fort, rocky beaches…and cicadas. Lots and lots of very loud cicadas. The cicadas are the ubiquitous soundtrack of the Adriatic coast. Eventually you sort of tune them out, but when you pause to think about them, it is unbelievable how loud they are! We enjoyed swimming and relaxing on a pair of rocky beaches, though we did have to fend off several of the island’s resident peacocks, and avoid the abundant sharp black sea urchins when getting in and out of the water. The following day we kayaked around Otok Lokrum, going into a pair of beautiful sea caves, and getting a seaside view of the imposing Dubrovnik city walls.

Sea cave on Otok Lokrum

After several days in Dubrovnik (and over a week of being in larger cities), we were ready for a change of pace. Just off the coast of Croatia lies an archipelago of long, narrow islands that are collectively the main tourist destination in Croatia. We settled on a trip to Mljet, one of the larger but least populated islands, of which the western third is protected as one of Croatia’s eight national parks. We arrived on Mljet after an uneventful 1.5 hour ride on a high-speed catamaran from Dubrovnik (less exciting than it sounds…actually quite cheap, with airplane-like seating inside. But comfortable and air conditioned!)

The ferry deposited us in the tiny town of Pomena: a few dozen houses, one hotel, a small market, and a handful of restaurants. The main attraction of Mljet National Park is a pair of lakes: one big, one small. These lakes are connected to the sea (and each other) via a pair of narrow channels, so while they look like lakes and are quite calm, they are actually salty. The small lake (Malo Jezero), was only a 10 minute walk from our rented apartment. We purchased some sandwich ingredients from the small market and headed to the lake for a picnic dinner and a sunset swim in the wonderfully warm water.

Limestone coastline, Mljet National Park, Croatia

The following day we rented bikes to explore the island. A mostly level and paved bike/pedestrian path encircles the large lake, Veliko Jezero, which makes getting around very enjoyable and peaceful…save for the aforementioned cicadas. Along the way, we stopped to read many of the well-done interpretive signs explaining the natural and cultural history of the park. We ended up biking to the village of Soline, which is on the channel that connects Veliko Jezero to the sea. We enjoyed swimming and snorkeling in the channel, where the water was very shallow and had a mix of vivid blue and green hues. It wasn’t exactly the Virgin Islands from a snorkeling standpoint, but we did see lots of colorful fish, huge sea cucumbers, and various sponges. Thanks to some internet intelligence, we also found the largest coral reef in the Mediterranean. Given that there isn’t much coral at all in the Mediterranean, this also isn’t quite as exciting as it sounds. The coral was a muted brown color, and deep enough that it was hard to get a clear look. More exciting was the fact that I spotted several jellyfish a few seconds after getting into the water, and quickly realized they were ALL over the place. This freaked us out for a moment until we looked them up (because there is cell service everywhere in Europe, even in relatively remote national parks!) and realized that this species was harmless to humans.

On day 2, we got up early to hike up to Montokuc, the highest point in the national park, before it got too hot. Our bikes got us halfway there before we had to actually start walking, so the hike itself was pretty short. The summit is only about 250 meters (a little over 800 feet for the metrically challenged) above sea level, but there is a fire lookout tower at the top with spectacular views. We could see the whole western end of Mljet, the large and small lakes, the channel connecting them to the sea, and several other islands along the Dalmatian Coast. We only saw a few other hikers the whole time…probably the fewest people we had been around since the trip began!

Veliko Jezero from Montokuc lookout
Mljet coastline and the Adriatic Sea from Montokuc lookout

The warm water and air temperature made Mljet feel borderline tropical, though it was clear from the vegetation that it is actually a pretty dry place. Wildfire is a major concern on the island in summer, and there was quite a bit of smoke in the air during our visit, wafting in from fires on other islands and the mainland. Overall, Mljet was a much needed change of pace and probably the most relaxing stop on our month-long trip. While we were far from alone, it was certainly less crowded and more peaceful than most nearby destinations. We would have loved to stay for another day…or week!

From Mljet we hopped back on the ferry to Dubrovnik, and then headed south to Montenegro and Albania!

One of the omnipresent cicadas

Europe Part 4: Sarajevo and Mostar

View of Sarajevo at sunset from the Yellow Bastion

Links to previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

A short 45 minute flight on Croatia Airlines took us to Sarajevo, the capital and largest city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We arrived around midnight and hailed a taxi from the airport to our lodging in the city center. I was immediately glad to not be piloting a rental car here! Even as the clock approached midnight, the taxi ride was…shall we say…exciting; hilly terrain, pedestrians at every turn, lots of traffic sharing the road with rumbling communist-era trams, and sidewalks seemingly used as an extension of roads and parking lots.

Chaotic start aside, Sarajevo ended up being one of our favorite stops on the entire trip. There is so much complex and fascinating history packed into this relatively small city. Sarajevo has been a meeting point of cultures and a model of religious tolerance for hundreds of years. Ironically and sadly, the city is perhaps best known for two darker moments: the assassination that sparked World War I, and a tragic four-year siege in the early 1990s during Bosnia’s war for independence from Yugoslavia.

View from our home away from home in Sarajevo, looking south toward Trebević

More on the history later, but the first thing that struck us when we looked out the window the following morning was that Sarajevo is situated in an absolutely gorgeous landscape. It’s one of the few cities I can recall that seems to complement the natural landscape rather than detract from it. The bulk of the city is confined to a long, narrow valley that slices through the Dinaric Alps, with the Miljacka River winding along its bottom. Mt. Trebević rises more than a thousand feet above the city to the south, while other hills bound the valley immediately to the north and east. While this makes for gorgeous scenery, the unique geography was what allowed the Bosnian Serb Army to besiege and terrorize residents of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996. One prominent casualty of the siege is the bobsled track used in the 1984 Winter Olympics, located on the slopes of Trebević above town. The track was used as fortification during the war and is now abandoned, as are the shelled out remains of the Čolina Kapa Astronomical Observatory (the only professional observatory in Bosnia) nearby. We took the recently (2018) rebuilt cable car to the top of Trebević to get a bird’s eye view of Sarajevo and then enjoyed a pleasant, though at times eerie, hike back down into town, past the crumbling, graffiti covered bobsled track and through several residential neighborhoods perched above the main city.

Abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Winter Olympics, Trebević, Sarajevo
Remains of the Čolina Kapa Astronomical Observatory outside Sarajevo

Today, Sarajevo (and Bosnia itself) is majority Muslim. Half a dozen mosques, with their pointy minarets, are visible from just about any point in town, and the city is punctuated with the sounds of the Adhan (Muslim call to prayer) issuing from the minaret loudspeakers five times a day. Interspersed among the mosques are several Catholic cathedral spires, eastern Orthodox churches, and a Jewish synagogue, indicative of how people of many faiths have converged and lived together peacefully in Sarajevo throughout most of its history.

A large game of chess in front of an eastern Orthodox cathedral in central Sarajevo

At the east end of Sarajevo is the Baščaršija, the “old town” with architecture dating from the era when Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire. The tiled roofs, narrow lanes, and bazaars seem transported here from Turkey or the Middle East.

Street scene in Sarajevo’s Baščaršija
Dusk with crescent moon in Sarajevo’s Baščaršija

West of the Baščaršija is a newer section of town with buildings resembling those in Ljubljana, built during the late 1800s when Bosnia was part of Austria-Hungary. Speaking of Austria-Hungary, the heir to that throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was on an official visit to Sarajevo in 1914 when he was assassinated by a Serbian separatist on a non-descript street corner along the Miljacka River. Austria-Hungary demanded that Serbia investigate the assassination, and when they refused, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, triggering alliances that plunged the globe into World War I. The site today is home to a small museum and marked by a a plaque and metal plates showing where Ferdinand’s convertible was stopped during the shooting.

Even further west is the modern business and government district, with its large hotels, skyscrapers, shopping malls, and lots of traffic. It is also home to the U.S. Embassy, which appeared to be better fortified than the Bosnian parliament building across the street. We explored this area a bit on our final morning in Sarajevo, on our way to the nearby train station. After a short ride on one one of the extremely rickety but charismatic communist-era trams, we took the elevator up to the 35th floor of the Avaz Twist Tower skyscraper for an aerial view of the city.

View of Sarajevo from observation deck on the Avaz Twist Tower

We ended up spending almost an entire day with a local guide, journalist, and siege veteran, Amir Telibećirović, who wove a powerful narrative of Bosnian history, from ancient times up through the present day, while walking with us around town to visit a variety of sights. Especially striking were the many small cemeteries containing hundreds of white headstones from the siege. These cemeteries were located right in the middle of town, in strategic locations where the risk of sniper fire was minimized. Even then, residents typically waited to conduct burials during periods of heavy fog. While Sarajevo is a bustling city filled with tourists today, the scars of war are still quite obvious here, more so than anywhere else on our journey through the former Yugoslavia. Many buildings remain riddled with holes from shrapnel and bullets, especially if you stray away from the main tourist destinations. And beyond building facades, Bosnia’s economy has been slow to recover and unemployment remains quite high compared to other Balkan countries.

In addition to soaking up the local history, we also spent a fair amount of time soaking up calories by trying the many delicious local foods, including strong Bosnian coffee, burek (filo dough rolls stuffed with meat, cheeses, potatoes, etc) and Ćevapi (little sausages in pita-like bread with a creamy cheese called kajmak). All very tasty, and all very meaty. We frequently remarked on how it would be hard to be a vegetarian in Bosnia! Another highlight was sunset from atop an old fortification called the Yellow Fortress. From here we had a spectacular view looking west down the Miljacka River valley toward the setting sun. With residual clouds from a series of brief thunderstorms earlier in the day, the lighting was truly spectacular, and combined with the illuminated mosques and call to prayer, it made for a very unique and memorable experience.

A trio of mosques illuminated at sunset, Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina

After several days in Sarajevo, we boarded a train and headed south to Mostar. We were once again reminded of the ease and comfort of European train travel. (It’s a damn shame this mode of transportation isn’t more viable in the U.S.) As we rolled through the scenic mountains of Bosnia, the vegetation changed gradually, from the relatively verdant landscape near Sarajevo to a more desert-like, Mediterranean landscape as we neared Mostar.

From the train station in Mostar, it was a twenty minute walk to our hotel for the evening. It was getting close to sunset so we made a quick detour to see the primary attraction of Mostar: Stari Most (the “Old Bridge”). The Old Bridge is, not surprisingly, a bridge spanning the Neretva River, connecting the east and west halves of Mostar. It is not, however, very old. The bridge was originally built in the 1500s but was sadly destroyed during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, along with much of Mostar. Today’s bridge was rebuilt in the early 2000s, using the same techniques, tools, and materials used in the original version. Shops and restaurants line the cliffs along the river on either side of the bridge, and it was PACKED! We had a somewhat forgettable dinner in an unforgettable setting on the banks of the river with a beautiful view of the bridge and city.

A busy evening on the streets of old town Mostar

Mostar was a brief stop en route to the Adriatic coast, so we unfortunately didn’t have much time to explore beyond the main sights. After less than 24 hours, we were walking back to the train station to catch a bus to Dubrovnik, an experience that turned out to be the polar opposite of our train journeys in just about every way possible. That’s next time!

Night scene in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina