Friday, July 8, 2011

What or where on earth is Kotor?

I'd burned 10 CD's with a mixture of music on them a few days back as the radio/iPod thing wasn't working right and one of the songs was to get us ready for Munich's Hofbrauhaus with a chorus of "Who the **** is Alice?" and you could say much the same about Kotor ... until you get there.

Welcome to Montenegro
The drive from Dubrovnic to the border along the coast was short and then we met the non-EU funded roads my brother Jan called "immediate death" of Montenegro.  Windy, switchbacks, deep gorges, you name it and with "immediate death" just a second's inattention away.  But then we entered a bay, or what seemed like a bay but turned out to be one of the largest fjords in the northern hemisphere.  Fjords are glacial and are to the sea what valleys are to the land.  Massive cliffs and very deep water and this one just kept going on and on.  Very impressive too seeing mountains all around as we drove further into the bowels of the fjord at the end of which was Kotor.

Never a fjord...
Kotor is yet another World Heritage Site as its old town again is in pretty darn good shape.  Apparently Kotor, like Dubrovnic, was a renowned trading location in the past as the caravans from the east ended nearby and Kotor (like Dubrovnic) had a huge trading fleet to take stuff further on.  Kotor survived pretty much unscathed as nobody knew it was there ... at the end of a darn great fjord, behind darned great walls.  However they built forts in them thar hills too which appear to have stood the test of time largely it must be said because nobody attacked them.  I suspect it was because nobody could possibly find them of they didn't know it was there for where Croatia's hinterland has rocks, trees, no roads and no people, Montenegro's is even more desolate than that (if possible).

Montenegro sided with Serbia pretty much all along and suffered the same WWI fate as them - i.e they were rolled up by the Austrians -- however that lasted only until 1918 when the victorious allies lobbed them in with Serbia and all the others to create a new Yugoslavia.  They also got a Serbian king too.  And that was pretty much it for Montenegro as anything other than a team that draws 0-0 with England at Wembley in various qualifying football matches ... at least until 2006 when the then president extracted them away from Serbia.  This must have been some feat as the Montenegro coast is/was Serbia's only water outlet and the Serbs are notoriously prone to invading other countries nearby if they don't like something.  But the Montenegrins themselves still consider themselves to be mainly Serb even though the tourist books say the language they share with Serbia should be called "the mother tongue".

Mother tongue and helpful translation
However the Serbs are pretty ever present in Montenegro.  They holiday there, they own second homes there, they are building a massive new development called Porte Montenegro just outside Kotor which is meant to rival Monte Carlo ... already some humongous boats are there, also cruise ships.  Remember this is a fjord.

The country is trying to build infrastructure but as they are non-EU have little access to cheap EU loans so building is slow going.  Driving at night is a death wish, according to Jan.  The WHS old town of Kotor is in pretty good nick still though as nobody bombed, strafed or attacked it but it is pretty run down and needs a billion or so to pretty up to say Dubrovnic's standard.  However it was where Jan chose to take two of his three children, Zofia and Gabriella, on holiday.  Rupert couldn't make it so as we were but one country away, decided we could make it instead.

Jan had rented a car and a yellow apartment building also housing a government department next to a Roman or medieval ruin ... nobody could be sure which.  It was a nice place to catch up too.  They had already met some crew of the monster boats whose sole pastime seemed to be vodka so were a little sluggish to start with.

Note the fort barely visible atop the 'hill' not mountain
Kotor was overrun by Russian billionaires and their trophy wives.  It was fun to see one particular TW pose theatrically by what looked like a drain in the old town whilst hubby snapped away.  One day we took a drive (Jan driving with Captain Beefheart, PJ Harvey or some other band screeching away at #11 on the dial) to Lake Skodor through the mountains on bad roads ("immediate death on both sides" according to Jan).  I've not seen so many lily pads in one place.

Lily pads all the way to Albania
This place is 2/3 in Montenegro and 1/3 in Albania ("I spit on Albania" said our boat driver) and on one side of the lake is a castle formerly Ottoman truly in the middle of nowhere (you must have done something really bad to get posted there) which was the border of the Ottoman Empire (and where they stopped probably not able to face the endless mountains between them and the sea).  The boat ride was fun but after the boat driver suggested a family restaurant where the local speciality called Krap (actually carp, the fresh water fish) was pretty darn good.  When we asked for a menu, mein host said "no menu, just feesh" so we said "fish please" and moments later started an Anthony Bourdain moment when for a change it was us who were taken to a place off the beaten track, taken into someone's home, and had them cook and cook and cook the local stuff for us.  OK we paid (not very much) at the end but the krap was startlingly good.  There was also local trout and sardines -- although not sure how sea water sardines could reach the lake.  Nobody much wanted to ask but they tasted great though.  All deep fried with frites and salad and the first time that Ali and I came across a new holiday favourite which was cabbage salad.

We'd had cooked cabbage already and were actively looking to dodge a repeat but the salad varietal was fantastic.  Some places wanted to add stuff so here are a few rules for cabbage salad:
1) fresh salad finely chopped
2) olive oil
3) salt and pepper
4) lemon juice
5) vinegar
This is a pretty good start and if you stopped there would be easily good enough but if you really must you can add stuff like:
6) caraway seeds
7) fennel seeds
8) coriander or parsley
But definitely stop there.  Trouble is that at times the keener chef would add horrors such as:
9) smoked bacon or ham
And this was where the trouble started as on the first night Ali and Gabs had done some shopping for snacks and acquired some cured ham, salami and what was termed "gouda style cheese" in a brick shaped block.  Even the sight of this stuff made me shudder but the others chowed down and Ali was "off" ham and cheese for the rest of the trip.

Note cheese brick next to Z together with mystery meats
But the fish (I gushed) could have been some of the best ever.

We also visited the beaches nearby which were enormous but narrow with people huddled together.  All within beach cabana type arrangements where on beach nosh and beer could be obtained.  The water was really clear and relatively warm too but the setting at the foot of enormous mountains was almost surreal.

Just in case somebody did find Kotor, the residents built a fort on top of a ridiculous hill ... not a mountain as it wasn't high enough.  Access was at times vertical so I got Jan and Gabs to join me up there to check out the view (Ali had discovered vodka and fresh lemon juice the night before so wasn't up to much) which was pretty darn impressive.  It was old but undamaged other than by age.

Parting was sad but Ali and I planned a great swing through Serbia and further north so had to get going whilst Jan, Zophia and Gabs all headed for home.  However we took a wrong turn almost immediately and gave up on that notion as we were barely able to follow a road, never mind keep a speed decent enough to enable us to actually reach Belgrade (our target) sometime that week.  So we ended up briefly (we think) in Serbia but for quite a lot longer in Bosnia again (nice uniforms) where their mountains we found were every bit as nice, rugged and unspoiled as those in Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia (we think).

We gave up on quite a lot of things that day including fooderies serving mystery meat en route but finally decided that we should stay at a place called Zadar (in Croatia again) not sure why now but I think because it was nearby around the time to stop.  Zadar is another old town on the coast somewhat north of Split and south of Rijetka and apparently has the most clubs of any Croatian town in a place the size of Hamilton.  For accommodation we rocked up to the tourist office and asked for a B&B and Mira appeared less than 60 seconds later saying "this way".

Mira's place was a very clean, double room with wireless internet.  Our neighbours were all back packers or clubbers just over for a couple of days Jack Daniels-ing.

Access to internet is simply THE most important thing in creating a new future.  Young people have a real need to stay connected and internet is how they do it.  On their phones, PDA's, whatever.  Give them wireless and they are in touch.  Greater communications = greater growth potential.  Some large firms see this, most don't.  Step up Mac Donalds, Starbucks, Burger King and ... Mira.

Heading north again tomorrow.

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