Monday, July 10, 2006

Getting to Montenegro

As a writer I am always looking for new experiences and fresh sources of inspiration for my writing no matter from where they emanate and a recent trek through parts of Eastern Europe proved such an occasion. Though European by birth (Northern Ireland though living now in the United States), I had never before visited her eastern reaches, and so, I stored away all my historical knowledge and prejudices about the Balkans and resolved to be open to even the most banal of encounters. If I had expectations, they were that I would not find the cities of the new European Riviera—cities such as Budva, Dubrovnik (also an ancient republic as powerful as Venice had been), Pula, Opatija, etc—suffering from the destructive effects of mass tourism such as one encounters in the original Western European Riviera. And I expected to discover magnificent landscapes, interesting people, unspoiled Roman ruins, castles and cathedrals, and of course mounds of inexpensively delicious food and gems of local wines. I was not disappointed and can highly recommend these countries to other writers and tourists looking for fresh experiences, though have chosen in this essay to concentrate on narrating the experiences I had on my initial journey.

At first, the assertive vividness of the meandering rivers of Croatia and the tiny mountainous section of Serbia and Montenegro—soon to be known only as Montenegro as a result of successfully voting for independence from Serbia whilst I was there—appeared to suggest they were sick with pollution. The water appeared sluggish, thick and jewel-like, the latter quality exhibiting to the exact degree the same gorgeous turquoise hue of the nearby sea. But visitors expects such riotous color to yield from the depths and shallows of the ancient Adriatic hugging the jagged coastlines of these lands; they don't expect it—at least I didn't—to assert from even the humblest of the fresh water lakes and rivers.

Given these countries are newly emerging democracies, as I traveled onward by bus, my Western cynicism came to the fore and I mulled if perhaps farmers and local industries were with impunity discharging toxins into the waters and this mimicry of the Adriatic's shining azure was but a telltale by-product. I scoured for the evidence, targeting my vision deep into nooks and crannies etched into the banks, searching for the glowing white underbellies of bloated fishes, for black, hairy fronds of mutated vegetation, for the rainbow scum of oil and assorted chemicals where the waters appeared particularly indolent and deep. I found nothing. The magnificent truth is that the color of these Montenegrin and Croatian rivers is as innocent and miraculous as that of their sea, and encounters with either will leave only but the most jaded tourist unmoved by the shimmering beauty.

My journey to these parts began at an obnoxiously early hour at London's Stanstead airport. Because the flight to the ancient city of Split in Croatia (site of Emperor Diocletian's huge palace with its well-preserved ruins including Jupiter's temple) was leaving at 6:30 am and the gate closed two hours earlier, I chose to spend the night 'kipping' on an airport lounge couch alongside, it turned out, most of my fellow passengers. (Later that day, I planned to hook up with my American friends in Budva, Montenegro. We were to embark with eighteen others on a 21-day guided tour of the Adriatic and Lake Bled, Slovenia but, because I was visiting friends and family in London and Ireland after the tour ended, I was responsible for organizing my own air travel to and from the points where the tour commenced and terminated. This I love to do where possible because it yields unparalled opportunities for visitors to learn firsthand about a country's infrastructure, customs and people.)

For my flight to Croatia I choose Easyjet, a budget airline that lists major airports for its arrival and departure points. (Some budget airlines may, for example, list Paris as the destination and the unwary passenger books the flight only to discover on arrival that the airport is situate seventy miles from the city.) Split was a new route for Easyjet—they'd started flying there just the week prior—and it was cheap, although I was surprised by the griminess of the seats headrests and aircraft interior. (On my return flight three weeks later from Ljubljana, Slovenia (already a functioning member of the European Community), the interior of the aircraft on the same airline was pristine.)

I found myself seated beside what I gradually came to realize was an English aristocrat traveling to Croatia in order to inspect a farm on an island near Split that he'd treated himself to as a divorce present and on which he planned to plant citrus groves and vineyards. The gentleman offered me a ride in his hired car into the center of Split—a journey lasting forty minutes during which I learned much about Croatia and England's strong links with their sworn enemy, Serbia, during periods of Balkan strife—and was lucky enough to be on time to catch the one morning bus traveling to Dubrovnik that day. One aspect I found amusing at the Dubrovnik national bus station was the requirement to purchase a ticket (only about thirty US cents) for my luggage, a suitcase that was then slung into the hold. TRAVEL ALERT: Easyjet has a tendency to offer sales on routes after you've just booked at a higher price, though they will give you a credit toward a future flight. However, the onus is on the customer to request a credit and they do not make it easy. I was required to call a dedicated number that I had to pay for on a per minute basis—they won't accept email requests—and found it engaged every time I called. I drew the conclusion that Easyjet knows their customers will soon realize their credit is being used up in paying for this absurd phone call and will give up at some point, which is exactly what I did. It is an outrageous fulfillment method and one that would not be acceptable in the United States.

The journey to Dubrovnik cost approximately $40, took a little over four hours (over six during the peak summer season) and was spectacularly beautiful because of the elevated views of the Adriatic coast. Upon arrival at the main station, a phalanx of friendly peasant women immediately surrounded me carrying placards brandishing the word "Sobe." Figuring this to mean "Rooms," I told them I had to be in Montenegro that evening and required information about departing buses. They scuttled about until they located a woman who spoke English and she informed me with a broad smile, "No more buses today. The daily bus to Budva leaves at 3.30 pm, but I can get you a good, cheap room." Public road transport around Croatia and Montenegro is very good and reasonably priced and buses—very comfortable on the whole—do indeed leave only once per day from major cities to other destinations. Moreover, given its coastal, mountainous location, there are no trains in and out of Dubrovnik. (Also, do know that Eastern Europeans smoke at every opportunity—even in five star hotels—though during the bus journeys it was not so overwhelming as to render my experience unpleasant.)

Crestfallen (and a tad panicked because my tour orientation was scheduled to take place at 7.45 that evening at an hotel in Budva), I wondered if I should indeed rent a room through this woman. As I mulled, a tall, young chap whom I'd noticed on the bus from Split to Dubrovnik approached me, introduced himself in reasonable English (better than my Croatian, which is nonexistent) as a citizen of Montenegro on leave from the Greek navy, and informed me the woman was not completely correct in her information. It transpired there were alternatives including catching a bus to a city beyond the Montenegrin border from where I could then catch a local bus into Budva.

Ten minutes later we were on the bus to Herceg-Novi and traveling out of the principal city of the former Dubrovnik Republic. (Dubrovnik is mindbogglingly beautiful, but crowded during high season even with the restrictions they impose on the numbers of people from docking cruise ships allowed hourly into its ancient heart.) As my new friend and I chatted, I stopped often in our discourse to take in the shimmering waters of the Adriatic and the weather-beaten (and shell-pocked) walls of the city and acres of red clay tiled roofs beneath. And as I'd hoped to gain by traveling with local people, by the time Milo exited the bus at Kotor, he'd imparted a number of restaurants and places off the beaten tourist track to visit. TOURIST TIP: Aside from showing my passport at the Montenegrin border, I had to also show it when we passed through a ten kilometer strip of land within Croatia that belongs now to Bosnia-Herzegovina (they have no access to the sea) which had been given to the Ottoman Empire hundreds of years ago by the former Republic of Dubrovnik as part of a successful treaty to stop the marauding Turks from invading the Republic.)

At Herceg-Novi I encountered no-one who spoke English and had to resort to German in order to learn of the times of connecting buses to Budva and the fare price which was a mere $5 for a forty kilometer ride. However, even if I didn't speak German, the process would still have been easy because all one needs to do is show the name of the city you wish to reach to any bus driver and they'll point one to the correct platform, etc. TOURIST TIP for US visitors: All bus drivers collect fares on the bus—in Euros if in Montenegro and Kuna if in Croatia—so it doesn't matter if the bus station is already closed. Moreover, it is best to exchange dollars locally rather than do it prior in the United States because the exchange rate is much better.

Croats and Montenegrins are happily still eager to meet and embrace Americans regardless of political or religious creed, their perceptions of American politics and corporatism perhaps not yet having rendered them as cynical of us as it appears to have done my Western European friends and acquaintances with whom I interacted in the UK and Ireland. But that is a story for another time. Of course these friendly attitudes will likely change in a few years because, like Slovenia now deep in the throes of integration, they are eager to become full members of the increasingly powerful and assertive European Union, which currently bears no great love of the US.

Finally, after a journey of twelve hours, I arrived in the stunning city of Budva at 7.30 pm, just in time it turned out for a 'cat's lick wash' in my room before rushing to the restaurant where the main course of the tour's welcome meal had just begun. I had paid a total fare of approximately $60 from Split to Budva though, of course, the journey had a value far beyond mere dollars: I'd seen much of the country's craggy coastline, become intoxicated by my first view of Dubrovnik, befriended a local chap and learned about Montenegro's colorful past, eaten local foods and candies, and traveled with the confidence of a local. And best of all, I'd learned indeed that rivers can also run stunningly blue.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This really is a useful desciption on how to get from Split to Budva. Which is exactly what I'm planning to do in early September. Thank you so much!