From Croatia to Kotor Bay, Montenegro | Road Trip, Part One

As our time in Croatia was coming to an end, a new journey was about to begin. Our Croatian driver, Nicolas — the one who had picked us up when we landed — was waiting outside for us at 7:20 in the morning. He drove us to the airport where we picked up a rental car that we’d use to explore Montenegro for the next few days.

Montenegro is the country south of Croatia, which had also been part of Yugoslavia. The border was a quick ride from Dubrovnik, being only about 45 minutes. Exiting the Croatian side, border control stamped our passports and waved us on to enter Montenegro. In another four miles, we reached the Montenegrin border control. 

Handing over our passports, I was a little nervous. I had read online that some visitors had issues with the border police requesting money for entry, which is just a tourist scam, so I was hoping we wouldn’t be faced with any awkward or shady situations. The officer glanced down at our passports, “U-S-A? You OK!” He had absolutely no interest in us, quickly stamping our passports and moving us forward into his country to spend our American dollars. 

Our final destination for the day would be Kotor, where we’d stay in an AirBnb apartment for the night. Distance wise, nothing in Montenegro is far. Due to the mountainous terrain, the roads are windy and narrow, making every voyage a timely one. Our early start really helped, as the roads and the border were both yet to be clogged with the usual tour buses.

Kotor was about an hour from the border. Within twenty minutes of crossing into Montenegro, we saw the first sign of the enormous bay that feeds in to the country from the Adriatic Sea. From there, the entirety of our journey was along the edges of the bay, the road delicately balancing between shimmering blue water and expansive mountain ranges. The drive is easily one of the most scenic I’ve ever experienced.

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The first stop on our Montenegrin road trip was in the town of Perast. Also located directly on the water, Perast is popular for its church, Our Lady of the Rocks. Located on a small islet, the story is that 15th century seamen found an image of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus here on a rock. From then on, people would drop rocks on the site, eventually forming an island where the present-day church was later built.

Pulling off the main road, we parked and were immediately approached by a pack of Montenegrin boys who wait to pounce on visitors upon their arrival. “I take you to island for five Euros — only five euros for both you — I take you and pick you back up.” Coming from a country where we had been using kunas, we had no euros yet. He attempted to charge us a much higher amount in order to accept our kunas, but we didn’t fall for it and left to find an ATM in this very foreign land.

After a few aimless stops and debit card rejections, we were back and on a small motorboat with the same nonnegotiable Montenegrin boy from the parking lot. I say boy, but he was likely in high school, or maybe even his early 20s. His friend asked where we were visiting from. When we told him San Francisco, he broke out in song, accompanied with a strangely sensual, eyes-closed dance. Singing in his heavy accent, “If you go, to San Fran-ceeeesco,” he proclaimed his love for the city. 

These guys have never left their beautiful little corner of the earth, both born and raised in Perast and still living here. When I hear this, it makes me realize how grateful I am to be here — across the globe, exploring someone else’s home and culture. After a short ride, he left us on the island and said he’d be back for us in 20 minutes. 

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The artificial island really is just a church, nothing more, nothing less. Well, that and a small gift shop. The church is tiny and a few private tour groups were taking their guests inside and discussing the site in languages we could not understand. The woman monitoring the door wouldn’t let anyone else in while this was taking place, just one tour group at a time. 

Unclear when we’d be allowed to enter since groups were taking precedence, I noticed the next tour group waiting to gain entrance was from Spain. I thought to myself, we are brown, I know some Spanish — let’s go for it. I instructed Taka not to speak, just nod and smile. “Hola! Como estas? Gracias!” I said to the woman as we entered, trying our hardest to blend with the Spanish tour group. She smiled, handed us the paper material and in we were, listening to the history of this quaint little church in espanol. 

We admired the interior and realized this Spanish session was going to go on for a while. Wanting to exit but not wanting to blow our cover, I asked the door woman, in Spanish, where the bathroom was and we snuck out. I later felt guilty when I learned that by joining the tour group, we avoided paying the required entrance fee that visitors are charged. I had no intention to pull a fast one on the church, so I've made a mental note to make up for that.

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The Montenegrin boy took us back to shore, also scolding me for stepping on his seat cushion — oops. Walking away from the parking lot and boat dock, the sleepy little town had a cute collection of bayside cafes and markets. We explored a bit, enjoying a cold beverage in one of the waterfront seating areas. It was late morning by now and the heat was really starting to kick in.

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Nearing noon, we continued on our way to Kotor. Our AirBnb host asked that we meet her at a shopping center near the apartment, requesting that we call her when we get there. I explained that we do not have functioning cell phones, so she suggested we use the shopping center Wi-Fi to message her. 

Following instructions, we arrived at a very busy shopping center. It was a crazy part of the day with tour buses starting to arrive. I ran out of the car and into the shopping center to message our host. After many failed attempts to connect to wi-fi, my message went through and our host’s mother greeted me out front. She spoke next to no English, so I must of stood out like a sore thumb because she knew exactly who I was and approached me immediately. She waved her hand in a universal gesture to follow her and led us around the corner to the apartment.

We walked together up a flight of stairs where she then yelled, “Marijana!” and disappeared behind a closed door. She was done with us, and a few seconds later her daughter came out. Speaking much better English, this is the woman I had been communicating with. We quickly learned that the entire family lives within this small, intimate complex, made up of three apartments. Marijana took us into our basic, no-frills apartment, gave us a few food recommendations and off we went to eat and explore Kotor. 

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In addition to the beautiful bay and natural scenery, Kotor is popular for its Old Town. Surrounded by walls, some refer to it as a little Dubrovnik, but the vibe was entirely new and different to me. Kotor’s Old Town is much smaller, for starters, and while some characteristics and materials might remind one of Dubrovnik, I think it’s unfair to compare the two. Each has a unique history.

One perhaps not-so-important tidbit about Kotor’s Old Town is that there is a very entertaining obsession with cats. Gift shops are filled wall-to-window with kitty memorabilia. But wait, that’s not all — there is a cat museum, as well as scattered donation boxes to help save Kotor’s abandoned cats. Serious question — is a cat considered abandoned if it never had a home or an owner to begin with? While I appreciate the love for animals, I think what they really need is a lesson in animal control — maybe a word or two with Bob Barker. There are cats everywhere!

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For lunch, we put all of our trust in a restaurant that was recommended by both our Kotor host and a Croatian friend. When we asked Marijana what the locals like to eat, because that’s what we want to eat, she responded in a very it-should-be-obvious tone — seafood. Well then, seafood it is. 

We chose a seafood platter, as the restaurant supposedly has the best seafood in town — like they’re the only place to claim that. One of my favorite foodie things about traveling in these countries has been their obsession with platters. No matter where you eat or what their specialty is, there is always a top menu item that comes in platter form, allowing you to binge on multiple items at once. Tasting a majority of the menu in one sitting is right up my alley. 

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Incredibly hot and full of food, I wanted to get close to water. Right outside of the Old Town, the bay is filled with cruise ships of all sizes. I get that this is a popular stop, but a giant wall of a ship can really put a damper on the otherwise serene views. We wandered down the water a bit until we found a beach area with swimmers and loungers. I say beach lightly, beach here does not mean sand — beach means rocky terrain, or slabs of cement with lounge chairs laid out. Either way, it works and the clear, refreshing water is the real winner. 

We claimed two open chairs right at the edge of the water. The chairs were part of the nearby cafe, so you just had to order a drink to occupy them. Our spot was perfect for getting in and out of the water to cool off as we pleased. The most fun, though, was kicking back in the chairs and watching the Russian tourists do intentional bellyflops into the water — over and over again. Montenegro, this area and the nearby coastal towns in particular, is an incredibly popular vacation spot for Russians. 

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After a pretty shitty mojito and a sun-filled nap, it was time to get up and moving. I was woken up to cigarette-smoked filled lungs, my favorite way to rise and shine. The ladies in the four lounge chairs next to me smoked cigarettes non-stop for at least two hours. I’m always quickly reminded how much different the smoking culture is outside of America. But I’m the visitor here, so I don’t complain. 

A shower was needed — the water here is so salty. After drying off, I would find salt flaking off of my skin in amounts that could fill a dinner table saltshaker. After cleaning up, we head back down to the water, just in time to watch the sun set behind the mountains and over the bay.  The cruise ships were gone now, since they usually only dock here for an afternoon and move on to Croatia. The bay was quiet and peaceful, the water and sky were glowing. What a gorgeous place you are, Kotor Bay. I can't believe it took me this long to discover this beauty, but better late than never.

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