After heading west from Shkoder, the landscape begins to change a bit. The countryside gets a little rougher, the small towns a little poorer. Dark mountains begin to rim the horizon. At the Albanian border crossing, big posters are plastered everywhere condemning corruption and bribery while a border guard goes car to car not-so-subtly shaking people down . Luckily, our driver knew the drill and only bribed the guys at the counter. We got to watch a seasoned professional. Had it been us driving on our own, I’m pretty sure the process would’ve been a bit more painful. Once into Montenegro, things don’t look all that different at first. The roads start out pretty narrow and rough, framed by rolling hills and farmland, the same sort of vineyards and pomegranate trees we’ve seen working our way north. As you come onto E80 and get your first glimpses of the Adriatic, you really get your first sense that you’re in a new country.
There is some big money in Montenegro. Private islands, sprawling estates on secluded beaches, rows of yachts. And that’s before you even get to Kotor. Where Albania is still cleaning up after decades of despotic rule, Montenegro is cashing in at full speed. Our driver mentioned that he knew of Montenegrins that claimed to be Albanian while seeking asylum in the United States, as we had a more straightforward visa process for Albanian refugees. That sort of makes sense, because while they could use a little help in Albania, they seem to be doing just fine in Montenegro.
We overnighted in a hostel inside of the walled old town in Kotor. The place is (intentionally) laid out like a maze and reminds me a bit of Zanzibar in that way. The scenery is absolutely stunning, but detracting from that a bit are the swarms of tourists…. geriatric cruisegoers by the hundreds, european college kids traveling in packs… selfie sticks in all directions. We also found shopkeepers to be (often) a bit rude. We took note of that after several kind of dickish interactions in a row. We have heard people say that Kotor is the best old town in the Balkans and that it is “even better” than Dubrovnik. I can’t speak to the truth of that exactly, but my sense is that that memo is out, and there are just a whole lot of tourists in Kotor these days. Maybe, giving the benefit of the doubt, annoyance with the ever-increasing barrage of visitors and novice travelers is what is reflected in the service we saw. I don’t know. What I can say though is that while we didn’t find Kotor particularly charming per se, the place is still beautiful.
We spent a couple hours hiking up the castle fort, which gives a view of all of Old Town as well as the Bay of Kotor. For a couple Euro, we caught a 15-minute bus to Perast, a little further up the coast. Perast looks similar, but has a much more sleepy feel to the place. From there, we caught a ferry to the church that is on a small island in the middle of the bay. There was a lone Princess cruise ship that exited the bay as the sun was softening. The ship let loose a musical sequence with the horns that just echoed and echoed off the mountains in all directions. It’s like a big natural cathedral. Outside of that, everything seems so quiet. Light splinters through the clouds, lighting one little town while neighbors remain in shadows. The sunset from that vantage was pretty incredible. There were some very light sprinkles on the way back to Kotor, but we managed to avoid any major showers. We had some Serbian barbecue back in Kotor at a small joint that had a line crawling outside the place. Very nice, and I’m looking forward to more of that in actual Serbia. (For reference, Montenegro only broke from Serbia officially in 2006.)
After this, we get to take it easy (sort of) for a few days in Dubrovnik. We have a little more time in Croatia than we’ve had for these last couple of stops.