EXPLORING THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA IN BITS-MONTENEGRO 

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Photo of EXPLORING THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA IN BITS-MONTENEGRO by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh
Photo of EXPLORING THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA IN BITS-MONTENEGRO  1/1 by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

DAY 1

By lengthening the journey time between Dubrovnik and Kotor by 2 hrs, the international non-sleeper buses connecting the many bits of former Yugoslavia didn't really help the case of a solo-traveler with a searing forehead. Though sickness is a most unwelcome experience during travels, pampering and laughter, the two easiest cures known to mankind, always find their way in the care and mirth of fellow passengers. Maine from Uruguay treated me to generous doses of both. Handing out more tissues to stop my running nose, inviting me to join in uncontrolled chuckles to contemplate the circumstances of our rude and angry bus driver forged a bond, that I will fondly cherish for a lifetime.

Thus ended the last customs check and we succumbed to the scenic views of the Adriatic wide eyed, as the bus drove on. When it finally came to a halt in Kotor, it was time to part and a friendly hug was all I could give to this girl who dragged out my enthu-cutlet self that had somehow got blanketed in sickness for a while.

Photo of Kotor, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh
Photo of Kotor, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh
Photo of Kotor, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

Literally built within four natural walls of limestone, the fortified old town of Kotor is a 20 minute walk from the bus station-its most intriguing feature being that even the local taxi ranks, the sole-shopping mall and parking lot lie outside the entrance. Such is the compactness of the town, that only pedestrians are allowed inside. But don't you think remodeling it, just to suit public needs and avoid a 10 minute walk to use transport or buy groceries must have been absurd?

And so, this centuries-old heritage town lives on, not just in the heart of natives but in the eyes of tourists too! :) The compelling interiors of my traditionally styled air-conditioned hostel dormitory, with wooden-beams supporting its low ceiling atop four solid brick walls made it impossible to decline the invitation for an afternoon nap.

After the sweltering afternoon heat wore on, it was finally time to step out and bask in the glory of the setting sun. With the Montenegrin coastal towns being well connected by local buses, though I had plenty of options to choose from, it undoubtedly had to be this spectacular viewpoint near Sveti-Stefan-which is merely the stop where buses drop you off.

Photo of Sveti Stefan, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh
Photo of Sveti Stefan, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

Sveti Stefan being a private island, one cant venture to the island itself without prior permission from the elite classes who hold the ownership rights. But why even bother, when what really counts is this view, which of course is free for everyone to savor! BUT- I could already place the gnawing feeling in my stomach, even as I drowned in the moments of peace that followed at sundown. Such is the power of hunger :P

On arriving back in Kotor, I was pleasantly greeted by the pomp and show of street musicians entertaining local gatherings in the main square, with the cobbled streets of Kotor lit by street lamps shining brightly above food stalls with the most reasonably priced sumptuous meals. Italian influences on the cuisine were evident from the many gelato shops and the aroma of fresh stone-baked pizzas wafting in the air.

Photo of EXPLORING THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA IN BITS-MONTENEGRO by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

So after a lip-smacking but quick meal, I retired to my surprisingly comfortable wooden bunk-bed because the next morning called for an early start!

Photo of EXPLORING THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA IN BITS-MONTENEGRO by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh
Photo of EXPLORING THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA IN BITS-MONTENEGRO by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh
Photo of EXPLORING THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA IN BITS-MONTENEGRO by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

ITINERARY OF DAY 1

Kotor<-->Sveti Stefan (bus-no need to book tickets online. Buy at bus station/on the bus)

DAY 2

Winding past the Boka bay which lies just outside the old town is the highway connecting Kotor to North Montenegro. With the many places that I wished to visit in the north, hopping into a minivan with a tour group seemed like the most sensible option. While I was sure about the impressive natural landscapes that awaited me, a multicultural experience was something I had anticipated in the least.

Photo of Bay of Kotor by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

A mother of 5, a grandma to 30, and a great grandmother of 4, old Annie was among the 5 ladies being driven into the mountains of Durmitor National Park by a native boy, Luca. Not once during the 12 hour long escapade did old Annie fall asleep, because those sparkling eyes were busy taking in every bit rapturously from behind the window.

Photo of Durmitor National Park, Žabljak, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh
Photo of Durmitor National Park, Žabljak, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

The excited woman cheerfully stepped out of the van at every pit stop. When needed, she would take Luca's hand and walk slowly but surely with her stick. She beamed at the camera for her photos that she sent to her son via WhatsApp and for that, she knew well how to connect, even to hotspots! Just above the Boka bay, one of the first stops for the day is where she spoke to me. "Angel, can you take my picture?", she asked, not knowing my name.

That was the ice-breaker and then she went on to tell me how much she loved Rajasthan and swimming in the sea. Along the way, old Annie told us that she had been a teacher and taught the 'Art of Life'. It takes much knowledge of a subject for one to teach it. She must have made the right teacher, dont you think? It was a 15 minute walk to the Black lake from the car park and though she knew it would take her longer, she came along with the rest of us.

Photo of Tara Canyon, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh
Photo of Tara Canyon, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

The Ostrog monastery was one of the main highlights of the day trip. Skillfully erected in the niche of a cave, is a shrine where the mortal remains of a revered saint are kept. A wonder in the simple sense that it reunites all the different beliefs and nations that warred for the division of the once mighty Yugoslavia. One of the many significant events narrated by the locals include the tale of a baby who survived a deadly fall when her cradle tumbled down all the way to about 900 meters below the sacred hill.

Photo of Ostrog Monastery, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

Now whether or not there was divine intervention during the miracles, isn't just the power and energy of this ancient monastery to lure people of three different religions living in the 6 former Yugoslavian states to pray under one roof ASTOUNDING??

And after listening to the tales told by our guide, it was old Annie who engaged us all in conversation about the religious practices around the globe. How this turned around the boring prospect of the long drive back to Kotor! So much, that at the end of the day, when we bade goodbye to each other, the youngest of us lot exclaimed, "I want to be like her when I grow old". Don't you want to be like Annie too, one who has grown old and wise, carrying a young heart full with life?

ITINERARY OF DAY 2

Day tour with 360 Montenegro travel agency in Kotor (many agencies in the old town. Can be booked one day in advance at their offices)

Places visited on the tour: Boka Bay, Durmitor National Park, the second deepest canyon in the world-TARA, Black Lake and Ostrog Monastery.

DAY 3

Even after an early morning spent scanning every nook and cranny along the way to the famed St. John fortress towering above Kotor, I had yet to quench my thirst for exploration. So venturing off the beaten track to visit Europe's largest freshwater lake, that borders Albania and Montenegro seemed like the most viable solution.

Photo of Petrovac, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

A rather long bus ride, but enticing in itself, as the local bus neatly skirted the coast of Southern Montenegro on a perfect day with bright blue skies smeared with fluffy clouds, offering spectacular views of Budva and Petrovac. This was followed by a spotlessly clean and insanely cheap train journey to the little town of Virpazar-right on the shoes of lake Skadar.

Photo of Lake Skadar by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

Though the train station had no polished western toilets, the lady cleaner outside had a warm smile on. She collected the 50 cents dutifully, but pointed to her chin, pinched it and blew me a kiss. 'Wala' (Thank you) was all I could say in response to her kind complement. With English barely spoken and not many shops in sight, I decided to pick up some 'jogurt'(curdled milk) fom a little stall outside the station. Inside the shop, the shopkeeper's little one tugged at my bag and smiled shyly as his mum scolded. A smile that turned innocently notorious when I offered to hi-fi. Thrusting his little palm in mine, he ran away and I went my way.

Google Maps wasn't really helping and there were no clear-cut directions to the lake, save for the directions to a VINE SHOP IN ENGLISH (*PRIORITIES*). Nevertheless, I continued my walk on the road outside the train station where I met a family heading in the same direction, just as lost. Eventually we all crossed the rail-track and passed by fields of wild lavender, finally giving way to the little town we had come in search of.

VIRPAZAR-It reminded me of Kerala. The journey, the place, its people, their ways, everything reminded me of traveling in India. And that's precisely why I love enduring long journeys to these hidden gems. They may be faraway, but so is home and that homely feeling-one that you don't find in crowded touristy spots. A travel tonic to sip on when the solo sojourn wears you out!

Back in Kotor, I decided to spend the evening in Perast-another very old town, home to nobilities in the middle ages. With just its main street defining the whole town, its main attractions are the islets of St. George and Our Lady of The Rocks-these two sit right in the heart of the Boka bay.

Photo of Perast, Montenegro by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh
Photo of EXPLORING THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA IN BITS-MONTENEGRO by Mahalakshmi Venkatesh

The Our Lady of the Rocks is man-made and was established by a tradition started by local fishermen about 200 years ago. Anyone completing a successful voyage at the sea, would deposit a rock at this spot. Gradually the base widened and added enough girth for the construction of a monastery. The tradition continues to this day, when on July 22nd, locals row out and deposit more rocks. The St. George island exists naturally and is also home to a monastery, but forbidden to the public.

Just strolling in Perast, learning more about how the two islands came into existence while watching the sun set behind the hills, marked a most blissful end to my 3 days in Montenegro : )

ITINERARY OF DAY 3

KOTOR FORTRESS

VIRPAZAR AND LAKE SKADAR

PERAST

STAY DETAILS:

11 eur per night

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