27th February 2017
I planned on taking an early morning bus from Dubrovnik to Kotor, in Montenegro. I checked out from my hostel, and walked to the old town, giving myself plenty of time to spare. The bus company’s website had told me that the bus departed from just outside the city walls. Reaching the main gate to the old town, I asked a woman at the tourist information kiosk where to buy tickets. She assured me that only local city buses left from our location, and that I’d have to head to the station on the far side of Dubrovnik for an international bus. Certain that I’d be too late, I jumped on a local bus to the station across town. I arrived at the depot at the scheduled departure time. Scanning the row of buses, I found the one bound for Kotor, and ran to it, just as the driver was closing the doors for departure.
The short bus ride along the coast was disrupted by two sets of passport checks. Myself and the dozen other passengers showed our documents to the Croatian officials as we left one country, then had them collected by the driver and given to the Montenegrin officials as we entered the next. After the border crossing, the bus took us along the Bay of Kotor; where the sea extends far inland, surrounded by steep slopes of exposed rock. The towns along the bay are squeezed tight between the mountains and the water, moulding them into long strips extending around the coast.
I got off the bus in Kotor, the largest of the towns in the bay, and began walking to my hostel. The history of Kotor extends back to the ancient Romans. The old town is enclosed by thick stone walls, built in the middle ages, which reach high up the slopes of the mountain. The town inside the walls is small; five minutes will see a walker from any point to any other. Despite this, the town seems deceptively large, due to the narrow, winding alleys that make up most of the paths inside. I was staying in Old Town Hostel Kotor; a large townhouse once owned by a noble family, carefully decorated to preserve its antique atmosphere. Every detail of the interior embodied aristocratic luxury. The warm staff ensured a welcoming ambience in the dining and common areas, which, in the evenings, were occupied by guests drinking the night away.
The old city walls continue far beyond the edge of the town at the base of the mountain. They zig-zag high up to an ancient fortress perched on the rocky slope. After checking in to the hostel, I set off on the hike along the walls up to the fort. I was joined by Edme, a South African woman I’d met in the hostel. Edme works with a church group in Cornwall, England, and occasionally volunteers in mainland Europe to help newly-arrived Middle-Eastern refugees. As we trekked along the walls, I asked her about her experiences with those fleeing the countries I may be visiting on my travels. She told me that the majority of Pakistanis she encountered were forced out of smaller villages by the Taliban; she didn’t know how safe the larger cities may be for western travellers.
We reached the old fortress at the top within an hour. After soaking in the views, we set off into the valley to the east of the fortress, in search of a farmhouse that sells local produce, which the hostel staff had told us about. The farmhouse was easy to find; it was the only non-derelict building within eyesight along the rocky slope. The house was surrounded by a sparse set of trees, amongst which some goats and cows spent their time searching for grass. We followed a winding path from the fortress, along the slope, into the trees, to the back entrance of the house, where the middle-aged farmer greeted us. He spoke very few words of English; ‘come’, ‘sit’, ‘cheese’, ‘bread’. We sat on a concrete porch drinking fresh pomegranate juice, overlooking the bay, as the man continually asked us if we wanted more of anything, and brought it regardless of our answer. What began as a request for some juice and cheese (both of which were recommended by the hostel staff), turned into a feast of salami, bread, and rakia, a strong brandy made fresh from the farmer’s vineyard.
“Very good!” he told us. “Grapes! No sugar!”
He sat with us, poured us each a large shot glass from the bottle, and instructed us to drink half. The rakia was stronger than I expected; 50% his English-speaking teenage daughter later told us.
For half an hour myself and Edme sat on the porch with the farmer, who seemed to enjoy our company, despite us not being able to understand each other. We tried to ask him about the geography of the bay using hand gestures. Whenever he couldn’t follow us, he would call for his daughter, who was trying to study in the house. Not wanting to disrupt her unnecessarily, we stopped trying to speak to him, and the three of us sat silently, watching the town and the bay below. Myself and the farmer finished our glasses of rakia. Edme, who didn’t like to drink much, gave me her second half. The farmer offered me another, which I declined. He then poured a shot for himself. Not wanting to leave the man drinking alone, I gave in, and accepted a second drink.
The bill came to €19. He wrote the number down on a piece of paper, and handed it to us. We handed over the cash, not exactly sure what we were been charged for, and what had been on the house. The cheese, pomegranate juice, and rakia were certainly included. We weren’t sure about the bread or salami, which had appeared without request, or the pack of cured ham Edme had asked the price of, but not actually taken. We took the direct trail from the farmhouse back to the town. It was slightly shorter than the route via the walls and fortress we had arrived by, but still a long series of switchback trails. We wondered how tedious the farmer and his daughter must find this commute to their nearest shop or neighbour.
That evening we had dinner back at the hostel, with the staff and other guests in the common room. We stayed up until early morning, sitting in antique chairs around candle-lit tables, drinking cheap ale from large plastic bottles. Having spent the past week in near-empty hostels along the Croatian coast, it was a great relief to be amongst fellow travellers again.