Kotor, Montenegro (via Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Although based in Dubrovnik this week, we also wanted to see a bit more of the surrounding countries and decided to rent a car for a day trip over to Montenegro. Initially, we actually had two primary destinations in Montenegro: the Ostrog Monastery, a beautiful Eastern Orthodox monastery built into the side of a mountain in the center of the country, and the city of Kotor, which has a lovely medieval “old town” and incredible views. In order to reach the monastery, we’d need to cross into Bosnia and Herzegovina and meander our way up to Montenegro, passing through the city of Trebinje. Buckle up, because it was an adventure!

First things first, we picked up our rental car at the hotel, where we made small talk with the agent. He asked what we were planning to do, and when we said Ostrog Monastery, he gave us the knowing, international look for “wow these tourists are making a poor choice, but I can’t ruin their day” while casually saying “Oh, I’ve never been there!” Simultaneously recognizing and ignoring “the look”, we cheerfully headed off in our needlessly-upgraded BMW.

We were slightly worried about the border crossings, as we’d heard they could take quite a while. However, we pulled up to the Croatia exit / Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia, for short) entry border and within a minute or two had cleared and were on our way. From there, we started to take in the gorgeous surrounds, including fantastic water views off of the sheer cliffs, and then beautiful foliage off of the relatively sheer cliffs. Don’t worry, there were little ballasts in lieu of a guardrail!

Not the most inspiring – we took this picture on flat land after a harrowing 20 mins or so!

In less than an hour, we were in our first destination, Trebinje. The drive in to town is dotted by little monasteries on hilltops and signs highlighting the “Herzegovina Herbs and Honey Route” which seems to run through the area. Trebinje town is cute, with a main thoroughfare that runs towards / along a river.

As with most towns, it has a lovely main square that had a vibrant farmer’s market and many people out and about doing their shopping, grabbing coffee, and otherwise socializing on the already quite warm Thursday morning.

We opted to sit for a coffee to get our bearings before exploring further. While waiting for the coffee to arrive, I did a cursory exploration of the town square and saw what appeared to be the “old city” walls. After we’d paid (we’ve been using a bizarre combination of currencies to get buy, as Croatia and Bosnia are not in the Eurozone but Montenegro is), we decided to explore it further.

The old city itself was a little sparse and pretty sterile – there were a couple restaurants and the requisite souvenir shops, but there didn’t really seem to be any “lived” presence or antique feel, unlike most of the other “old cities” I’ve visited across Europe. I’m returning to Trebinje as part of my tour / transfer to Sarajevo tomorrow and plan to see if I can get more history (my hunch is that this area may have suffered as a result of the Yugoslavian wars in the ’90s and has since been rebuilt).

That being said, the old town was beautiful and had two lovely mosques (and some amusing electrical work!).

Next, we followed our eyes (and stomachs) to the local market, which had an amazing display of meats and (quite smelly, in a good way!) cheeses, including the kajmak that we enjoyed on our Bosnian meat platter in the old city of Dubrovnik a couple days ago.

Unfortunately, we were running very low on Euros (especially the coins, which have been largely accepted everywhere), so we had to feast with our eyes. We did have just enough left to get a couple pastries at a nearby bakery, where we sampled a chocolate pastry and a spinach / feta “cake”. Both were somewhat underwhelming, but they held us over to lunch.

After that, we headed back to the car, stopping by one of the little chapels downtown. It seems these old Eastern Orthodox chapels are everywhere, and the cities have just been built up around them. In this case, the little chapel was on the side of the main road into town, and was adjacent to the parking lot of the local police station and elementary school.

Both the architecture and the interior decor was gorgeous. We saw several versions of decor on these types of chapels throughout the day – I think we stopped at ~6 or so across Bosnia and Montenegro, and decor varied wildly from vibrant to extremely austere to baroque to “modern Eastern Orthodox” (photos of that one below!). This one was especially lovely.

I always try to light a candle in these chapels as a memory for my grandmother, who was devout Roman Catholic. I looked for the classic candle lighting section and thought I had struck out until I saw a random lighter and pile of very thin candles. Lighting a religious candle with a lighter was a first for me, but it served the exterior context well.

After that, we trudged back to the car (at this stage, picture an oven in “preheat mode” to understand the heat) and reviewed the map’s timing to the monastery in Montenegro, which was now suggesting an unfortunate 2 hours and 23 minutes to go ~37 miles. With the AC in the car fully blasting, we made the executive decision to scrap our original plan and begin our trek to Kotor, Montenegro.

On the way, we passed signs to two other monasteries, each located only a couple kilometers away. With our British GPS insisting we “please turn around” every two seconds, we decided to make a five kilometer detour to (as it turned out) one of Ostrog’s sister monasteries on the St. Basil Pilgrimage Path.

The monastery itself is lovely – it’s nestled in a little vineyard with an olive grove, with lovely Romanesque architecture. At the entrance, both men and women are robed to cover exposed legs, and women are required to have shoulders and cleavage covered as well. Suffice to say, it was quite hot under the robes, so our visit was relatively short-lived.

The monastery had both a larger church as well as a small chapel, and both were lovely. The church itself was quite bland from the outside, but the inside had vibrant paintings and what appeared to be some type of crypt visible through glass flooring.

The chapel was also lovely, although a little bland inside (although the ceiling was beautiful).

Then, we satisfied our GPS and finally started the trek to Montenegro, which took us up through the mountains to the border crossing before having us wind around the country’s coastline until we finally arrived at Kotor. The border crossing warnings were definitely apt for Montenegro – we waited about thirty minutes for the first crossing, and over an hour for our return into Croatia.

Immediately upon entering Montenegro, we started seeing road signs for falling rocks, cows, pigs and donkeys. We didn’t see any pigs or donkeys on our ~4 hour drive, but we did see two cows in the road and many, many fallen rocks. After a bit of mountains, we got our first glimpse of the coastline, and it was worth every single minute spent driving. It was slightly hazy, but so vibrantly blue in person.

It was absolutely stunning, and as we got closer to the coastline only kept getting more and more beautiful. It seems that Montenegro effectively has one major highway running in a loop around the country, primarily along the coastline and then up to the capital Podgorica before heading back into the mountains to service sites such as the monastery. We spent most of our time driving to Kotor on the coastal piece, which was a cultural adventure in an of itself.

Picture, if you will, a relatively narrow two-lane road, with scant shoulder on one side and the other side host to a thin sidewalk. People with vehicles of all sizes, from motorcycles to passenger vans, have parked on the sidewalk, wheels jutting into the lane. Both lanes have relatively fast-moving traffic, with motorcycles zipping through the center when there is a break in on-coming traffic. Suddenly, a police van appears, sirens blaring, and both lanes need to make room for a third vehicle. It clears – somehow – and suddenly traffic is moving at a normal pace again. You go around a tight curve, and suddenly there is a full-sized, double-decker tour bus bearing down on you. As soon as it passes, you’re turned the other way, making your way around another curve in the road.

As hectic as the traffic was, the coastline was absolutely beautiful. The Adriatic here is host to many mussel fisheries, which line the sides of the waterways much of the way.

We also passed a beautiful church located on the water itself, Our Lady of the Rocks. One of the destinations I really hoped to get to but didn’t have time for on this trip was a place in Slovenia called Lake Bled, where there is a similar church on the water. While this wasn’t exactly the same, it kind of satiated my desire to view a water-based place of worship.

About two hours after viewing Montenegro’s coastline from above, we had finally would ourselves to our destination: Kotor. A beautiful city on the water’s edge, it boasts a lovely old town with a variety of sights. It also boasts hilariously tight parking lots, as we would discover when we pulled in and quickly realized that it dead-ended with no spots available. With no room to turn around and a car in front of us headed for the exit behind us, we were left with no choice but to reverse our way out (to the great amusement of the folks sitting eating ice cream along the wall). One man seemed to take pity on us and helpfully moved a trash can out of the way so we could attempt to turn around, and then of course we ended up doing a 17 point turn, Austin-Powers-style, with our GPS yelling haughty British directions all the while.

After that embarrassment, and parking at the casino across the street, we had arrived. My favorite part of the town is the fact that it looks like something out of a fairy tale – the Old City is completely enclosed by city walls, with stairs that extend far upward to a sentry station that would have overlooked the town in olden times. It also continues to have a moat to this day, and it all made me feel momentarily like I was transported to a medieval town.

Of course, it had some modern day attractions too, including a vibrant fruit market right out front. At this point, picture an oven set to 375 and you’ll understand what the baking heat felt like as we made our way (hungrily, it was about 2pm when we finally arrived) to the old city from our parking spot (we checked later and it was ~95, which is unheard of for this area).

First things first, we immediately headed for a seafood restaurant that tops all of the “best in Kotor” lists – Konoba Scala Santa. It exceeded expectations. After viewing so many mussels being cultivated on the side of the road, we of course opted for the mussels in the traditional, tomato-based sauce, as well as the shrimp and saffron risotto, and a traditional gnocchi with baby shrimp and a cheesy sauce, topped with a delicious basil oil. Each dish truly had fine dining flavor in a very simple presentation – honestly, I debated putting the photos here because they completely undersell how good this food was and that’s truly a shame. The mussels especially were truly among the best we’ve ever had, and the gnocchi was exactly what people mean when they say it should be “pillow-y” (and I don’t even really like gnocchi, but this has made me a convert). The local olive oil was also amazing.

After lunch, we actually went back and walked “in” from the city walls again, as we’d been so focused on our lunch that we didn’t take the time to enjoy the old town properly. Passing through the city walls, you are somewhat transported back in time. I love that many of the cobblestones on the town square feel authentically old, and they haven’t tried too hard to mask the disrepair in some areas. It was beautiful to wander through. I also liked trekking up the winding stairs to see the view of the rooftops – you get a good sense of how old this place is when you realize that some of the buildings that appear normal from ground level are actually ruins within the city.

Of course, churches were somewhat of a focal point, and with good reason. Pictured below are three of the main churches in town with their various interior decors.

My favorite was actually not the “main” church (the one above, which sits in the main square is the only one where an entrance fee is required and seemed like the “official” town church as its been there since 1166), but the “modern Eastern Orthodox” church.

Inside, it had a truly beautiful altarpiece, amazing frescoes, and beautifully carved and ornate ritual objects.

As we were now running slightly lower on time (given the border crossing times and one-way highway back to Dubrovnik, we wanted to ensure we got back before dark) we opted for one final stop: the holy grail of Kotor’s meat, BBQ Tanjga. Located outside the old city and across from our parking lot, it offered a charcoal BBQ experience like no other. Essentially, they offer every type and cut of meat you could want, and will transform it into a plate of delicious kebabs for a hilariously low sum: 5 Euros for 5 kebabs, or you could get double the meat for only 3 extra Euros! I was stuffed, but my fiance powered through and somehow managed to eat the rest of this feast.

Overall, a great day in Montenegro and a great introduction to Bosnia and Herzegovina for me before I hit the road for the solo portion of my trip starting tomorrow. Up next, a trip through quite a bit of Bosnia before I spend some time in Sarajevo and then continue up to Belgrade, Serbia later this weekend!

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