Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Montenegro: The World's Newest Country



Our Canada Day was spent trying to get from Albania to Montenegro. It turned out to be easier than expected, thanks to some good luck along the way. When we arrived in Tirana, we were surprised to discover that there was no bus station; we just stopped at the side of a dusty gravel road near the centre of town. After calling out Montenegro a few times, someone said I should go to Shkodra a northern Albanian town, and pointed out two elderly people dressed in black. “Follow them” he said. “They go to Shkodra”.

So we did as we were told. A couple of blocks away we saw a very fancy Mercedes bus. “Get on” the driver said. “It leaves for Shkodra in two minutes”. But I had to pee, and there was no WC in sight. So I did what the Albanians did.

There are no bus tickets on Albanian buses. You just give some money to a driver’s helper who collects the fares and removes the luggage. He’s the fellow with just a couple of teeth. You know when he’s approaching because he usually hasn't had a bath or shower for at least a week.

Two hours later, the bus stopped at the side of the road and we realized we must be in Shkodra. Sally heard another passenger say thank you when he got his knapsack from the luggage compartment. “Do you speak English?” she asked. And he mumbled something to the affirmative. When he got out his copy of Lonely Planet, we knew we were in luck. He was Dave, and he too was trying to get to Montenegro. More importantly, his guide book was more up to date than ours. I asked if he knew if the coastal border crossing was open, and he said he believed it was. We agreed to set off together.

The choice was a minibus to Montenegro, or a taxi to the border from where we would get another taxi. I didn’t like the idea of walking across the Albanian/Montenegrin border and looking for another cab, so we decided to find the minibus stop. We found it, only to be told the bus wouldn’t arrive for another hour and a half. However, we were offered a taxi to a Montenegrin town. I was not sure what to do when an Australian voice piped up. “It’s ok. Go with him. I just came across for the day with my cousin who’s Montenegrin. The price for the three of you will be the same as the bus.” So I looked at Dave, and he sort of nodded (up and down, since he was British), and we got into a taxi, and set off. I’m still not sure exactly what happened at the border. Our driver took some cash from his wallet and our passports. Heseemed to know everyone in authority, shaking their hands and patting uniformed officers on the back. It was like watching Jim Moodie maneuvering through City Hall. About 10 minutes later, he returned to the car, gave us back our passports, and we drove through. We were very relieved.

The taxi took us to Ulcinj a border seaside town. We wandered into a bus station and learned there would be a bus to Budva, our desired destination, in less than an hour. We were delighted. We bought some tickets with our remaining euros, and at 4 pm we were on our way.

We had no idea that Montenegro, which only recently gained its independence from Serbia, would be so beautiful and majestic. Ironically, if it hadn't been so hot when we arrived in Skopje almost a week earlier, we would have missed it, since our initial plan had been to take an overnight bus from Skopje to Dubrovnik. Instead we got to experience two days in Albania and two fascinating old towns on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast: Budva and Kotor. Before this trip, I had not even heard of either of them. But each is of international caliber, with marvelous old walled cities attracting tourists and very impressive yachts from around the world.

Budva is part of Montenegro’s holiday coast. It offers beautiful beaches, a charming walled town, elegant restaurants, a big harbour: an amusement park area, and a lively bar and night life scene with gorgeous servers in skimpy black and gold bikinis and shimmering oiled skin. (At least we think it was oiled. We were too timid to find out.

The Stari Grad, or old town, is very picturesque, and in extremely good condition. That's because most of it was completely rebuilt following two 1979 earthquakes. (It’s amazing how much of the world has been damaged by earthquakes, and yet most of us don’t know or remember much about them.) We had a seafood dinner in a restaurant on the harbour that was very good. The prices were about three times what the two year old guidebook said they would be, but it was well worth it. I was interested to know where the other diners came from. I was told they were from Russia, Serbia, Macedonia, Scandinavia and Albania. Surprisingly, there were no Brits, even though I thought this was a popular destination for the English. Similarly, there were no Americans or Canadians, presumably since the latter were celebrating Canada Day!

After an early morning walk about town, we set of at noon for Kotor, about an hour's bus ride north. This is another UNESCO designated old walled town built over the past 6 centuries, which fortunately was not damaged by an earthquake. It sits at the end of a fjord, where large yachts from around the world are moored.

There was not much accommodation available within the old town. But fortunately, a local travel agency found us an apartment, with lots of space and a nice terrace. After cleaning up, we set off into the maze of narrow streets of the impressive old town. Although parts were full of tourists, others felt very authentic, and looked as they might have hundreds of years ago. Outside the walls were some nice beaches and restaurants. We thought that it would be a good place to stay for a few days, but we can’t.

We have now a revised itinerary that will hopefully see us in Dubrovnik for a few days, followed by a boat trip up the coast. We will then get a train to Lubliana, and then another train to Budapest. We hope to take a hydrofoil to Bratislava, and then a train to Brne Czechoslovakia. Then a train to Prague. From Prague our plans are uncertain. One option is to fly to Moscow. Another is to take a train to Krakow and then fly from Warsaw to Moscow. All being well, we'll get on a river cruise to St. Petersburg, and then fly to Amsterdam in time for dinner with Chuck Brook and Margot Paris, before setting off for South America.

At least, that's today's planned itinerary. And if the next 9 to 10 weeks are as good as the past week, we’ll be delighted.


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