Two days, two walled cities. Certainly a first for this North American. Ninety minutes and a customs border away I found myself in a country that, in modern times, has only been an independent state for six years. In 2006, Montenegro decided to sever itself from the remaining kernel of Yugoslavia briefly known as Serbia And Montenegro and go it alone. The name Montenegro, which translates to “black mountain”, is the Latinized version of Crna Gora which means exactly the same thing. A glance out the window at the shadows cast by these natural behemoths in any part of this speck of a nation will make you realize it might be the most accurately named country in the world.
Kotor is a small city, a town really, located on the Bay of Kotor. With its dark grey walls, the old city seems as if it was meant to be a colored extension of the mountains it grows forth from. Walking through the main gate, you notice a much smaller main square than Dubrovnik’s and a more tranquil one. There are a handful of other tourists but in Kotor you can actually make out the ground they walk on.
It was around dusk and I needed lodging. While the entire walled-in old city is minute compared to Dubrovnik, it’s narrow alleyways led me around in circles and forks. Getting your orientation beautifully jumbled like that made confusion a real treat. In contrast to Dubrovnik, I could actually afford an evening stay in the old city. I asked around and was recommended a cozy, air-conditioned haven from the heat with plenty of vacancy.
My room wasn’t quite ready so I wandered a few alleys away to a dive and grabbed a cold bottle of the local Nikšićko Pivo, a beer easily falling into a category I like to call WCL, or warm country lager. Any country with a warm climate for most of the year will inevitably produce lagers and pilseners whose main function is to quench a thirst. WCLs cover all or most of the beers you could drink in Central America, South America, Asia and Africa. Not that WCL’s taste bad, per se, they just rarely provide a dog and pony show for the palette that beer aficionados demand. But above a certain degree of Celsius, you’re more likely to forego the dog and pony for the loyal, yet simple affections of Rover.
After an extended session of lying around in my underwear in the air conditioner’s line of fire, I dressed and continued to get myself lost in the city. The sun had started to descend quickly and the buildings in Kotor used the twilight to its advantage. Against the mountains, medium-sized churches looked more majestic than they did during the day. The street lights scattered their rays like buckshot and the shrapnel lent depth and form to even the humblest of structures.
It didn’t take me long to notice that every restaurant, I walked past had two or three parties at the most, surrounded by numberless empty tables. When I asked, a local told me it was because high season hadn’t started yet. Another few weeks and the place would be mobbed. It was the same answer I got from a local in Dubrovnik even though I couldn’t imagine a Dubrovnik more packed than it already was. Walking past any little shop and I could see anxiety stapled to the face of the caretakers. They were ready and waiting for the rush that hadn’t yet arrived.
It was dinner time — when isn’t it? — and I wandered right into a restaurant with an ice case in front proudly displaying squid and other shellfish. An Amazon woman who surely never met a curve she couldn’t flaunt, asked me which table I would like to sit at from their empty collection. After mulling over an outside seat amidst the flies, I settled for a large table in the back of the restaurant. The sexy blonde put a large menu in front of me and left while ’80s American hard rock was playing overhead.
A word if I may on women from the Balkans. Upon going there, it is no wonder that this part of the world is a target-rich environment for supermodel recruitment. Now I get it. I couldn’t go a city block in Belgrade or Sarajevo without being attracted to at least one representative of the opposite sex, usually several. But what makes the Balkans such a hot bed of hot? After much travel over the years, I’ve developed a theory based on no science and questionable logic. Countries and regions with a tireless history of foreign invasion seem to have, I’ve found, the most attractive women. I’ve seen it in Lebanon, Greece and Italy. I’ve seen it in Spain and Cyprus. Subjugation, forced conversion and intermarriage, while of course horrible side effects of war, also create waves in local gene pools. Over time, the ripples produce something sensational.
My waitress came back to my table and talked me into ordering the John Dory, a flat fish found in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. Nobody is sure of the origin of John Dory but you have to love an animal with a proper name. Mr. Dory was a local favorite and a favorite of the voluptuous waitress as well. She could’ve talked me into anything. It took about half an hour but finally, there he was. A generous filet of John Dory was placed in front of me drowning in butter and cream and I was just happy to be the lifeguard. The fish was less flakier than cod but still pretty rich. I couldn’t quite remember if Bryan Adams or some other 80s radio staple serenaded me while I ate but John tasted so good that it didn’t matter.
I walked the slightly humid lanes and alleys of Kotor after dinner. John Dory and I walked past makeshift TV and projector screens set up for the locals to watch the EuroCup games which were overtaking anything else going on in Europe at the time. The game on that evening pitted Croatia versus Ireland, which meant that, while Montenegro wasn’t qualified to play, they were still rooting for their fellow Slavs and former countrymen. Behind a church that must have been at least five-hundred years old a screen was set up and a small group of Kotoris and some tourists were glued to the game. I stopped and watched for a bit, momentarily caught up in the excitement, then continued on my way.
Kotor at night has an eeriness to it that lends the place so much atmosphere. The iron gates and stray cats engage in shadow wars on a cobbled battleground. The parts of the city without tourism or commerce seem lonely and forgotten but man, that silence was somehow comforting. I explored these dark places and heard nothing but my footsteps along with the occasional futbol fan celebrating a goal or an almost goal in the not-so-distance.
The last stop of the evening was at a cafe somewhat obsessed with Tom Waits. A small picture of the rough-throated crooner was on the wall outside and some of his greatest hits came out of their speakers. Across from my outdoor table, the waiter at another cafe served the lone party of two a couple of drinks. I saw other restaurants across the square similarly deserted. It was kind of like watching the dress rehearsal before opening night. Kotor’s service sector was preparing for the relative onslaught. It’s buildings were standing at the ready, doors open to receiving. Even Tom Waits sounded anxious. But I loved it. I got to just sit there and enjoy Kotor with her makeup on, awaiting the arrival of her suitors. John Dory and I would wait with her. I ordered a coffee.
WHAT: the main drag of Kotor’s old city surrounded by the eponymous black mountains
WHEN: June 10, 2012
WHERE: Kotor, Montenegro