The Balkans: Four hours in
I had my left foot on the clutch and my right foot on the gas at 9:30 a.m. Four-and-a-half hours later, I am writing this from an apartment balcony in Kotor, a balcony that I will call my own for the next four days. Only 60 miles separate Dubrovnik Airport and Kotor, but the journey took much more time and even more patience.
My moods shifted with every change in gear as I curved around the Croatian mountain roads in my Renault Clio. I rolled the windows down, breathed in the cool morning air, and felt more than ready for my long-awaited vacation to begin. Then...brake lights.
I shifted into neutral and pulled up the emergency brake. Here I would sit for the next hour, slowly inching toward what Google Maps was indicating as the Croatia-Montenegro border. I reclined the seat slightly and carried on listening to the audio book I had downloaded specifically for this trip: The Balkans: A Short History.
Is this actually the border? I wondered. Cars would sporadically drive past in the other direction, and some that were already in line eventually gave up waiting and turned around. A brief clarifying conversation with an older Englishman in the tan van behind me revealed that I was on the more patient side of this scenario. He was sick and tired of waiting in his van full of women so he left the line, and following cars moved forward.
The Budva-based bus in front of me convinced me that this had to be the line to Montenegro. Finally approaching the gates, I passed through with ease and once again felt myself flying down the now-Montenegrin roads. Then...halt.
Drivers were forced to stop once again to enter Montenegro. Supposedly the previous "toll booth" was the Croatia exit point and now this was the official entrance to the neighboring nation. I wondered what the deal was with all that space in between.
My rental car eventually eclipsed one of many mountain corners, but on this particular turn, the Bay of Kotor spread out before me. Upon seeing the bay, I audibly uttered "wow" as I tried to safely hover between the road lines while admiring the scenery.
I partially followed my hired GPS device while also following the curves of the roads that took me around the north side of the bay before ending up in the old city of Kotor. Having yet to purchase a SIM card, I had no internet connection and was forced to rely on this seemingly dated GPS device, which led me to a smaller seaside town called Perast and later down a crowded street of parked cars in Kotor before I found the gates to the walled city on my own. I unplugged the useless black box of a GPS and angrily shoved it into the glove compartment, never to be used by me again.
I finally found a vacant block of pavement in a bus lane packed with other parked cars, so I grabbed it. I felt a hint of guilt as a bus then pulled up next to the lane and opened its door to let off passengers, but the driver didn't seem to mind as he simply adjusted to what he was dealing with and let off riders in the middle of the street. All good.
Delirious, starving, and with a full bladder, I flopped my way through Old Town Kotor, searching for the St. Tryphon Cathedral where I was to collect my apartment keys and hopefully empty my bladder. I found two men at the entrance of the cathedral who were taking donations for entry into the Romanesque church. They pointed me to an elderly woman selling tchotchkes and souvenirs on the front porch of the church. She tells me the situation in full-on Serbian. I nod, indicating that I understand but accompanying my nods with a verbal "English?" She pulls out a small black flip phone, speaks Serbian into the receiver, then hands it to me. A male voice on the other end tells me (in English) that he will be here in "maximum 10 minutes."
Irritable and out of sorts, I can feel my face effortlessly drop. Upon seeing this, Grandma tells me (in Serbian) that I can go into the church for free to kill time. "Look up...view...church." We began to rely on hand gestures at this point, and her touching my back and pointing me in certain directions was not out of the question.
In a cloud of hunger and fatigue, I humor her and wearily climb the steps to the church's balcony, overlooking the plaza below. It's all just a haze to me, but I try to appreciate the architecture and views, or at least make a mental note to appreciate them later when I am fed and rested.
I exit the church and am faced by Grandma again, telling me in Serbian to "coffee" and "maximum 10 minutes." Coffee sounds great, but food sounds even better. I stumble around the corner to a deli and ask for a turkey sandwich, water, and two granola bars. "Two euro fifty," I am told. Wow, that's a price I can get used to.
I return to the church, scarfing down a granola bar from one hand as I am introduced to an early 20-something man/boy, named Bruno (I think? My foggy brain could not commit this memory), who will lead me to my apartment. I told him I have a car and need to park in the hotel's advertised free parking. "OK, I will come with you and show you where to park."
Finally getting a bump in blood sugar, I start to make sense with my words and ask him if it is OK that I parked in the bus lane. "Yes, is fine. There are no tow trucks in Montenegro." Good to know.
We set off in my rental car toward the street I had accidentally turned down previously in my attempt to locate Old Town. "Turn here," he says. Oh no. We inch down the street where cars have parked on sidewalks, in front of alleys, and on either side of a small bridge that crosses a mountain stream.
"OK, now we look for space." I quickly realize that the advertised "free parking" means finding your own space among the haphazard parking lots that are formed out of nothing. I spot an empty space between two small cars on the bridge. "There!" I said, excited to have found a space amid the impound-like block of parked cars. "No, you cannot park on the bridge." I let out a chuckle as we were surrounded by cars that are parked on that very bridge. But I go with it and follow the local's instructions. He finally ends up moving one of his own vehicles to allow me to park under a shaded tree. After spending so much time and effort to locate this shady oasis, I decided to keep to myself the fact that I will need to vacate this spot the next morning when I venture out to the countryside for two days.
I sling on my bright pink backpack and lift my black carry-on from the Renault's trunk, which is quickly taken by Bruno as he leads me across the aforementioned bridge. "See that balcony over there?" He points to a charming, red-roofed house just within the city walls. "That is your balcony."
"REALLY?!" I am ecstatic and suddenly fueled by what I call NPA (new-place adrenaline, trademark pending), a burst of energy that I get when in a new destination, regardless of how tired I am or how many wrong turns I have taken.
Although this NPA provides me with a quick high, my energy levels return to low when I spot the apartment bed and feel the soft pillows. After a few minutes spent soaking up the balcony views and breathing in the humid air that rests between the mountains and the bay, I retreat inside for my first siesta of the trip. You can take the girl out of Spain...