Sunday, 26 July 2015

Let me introduce you to beautiful Montenegro

When I was talking about my travel plans across the Balkans, I would get concerned looks when mentioning Bosnia, and  puzzled ones when I said I would also visit Montenegro. The thing is that nobody seemed to know much about this tiny country that separated from Serbia only a few years ago.
In Italy the country is known because we once had a queen that came from Montenegro, which has always sounded to me as an unusual place to look for the future king's wife. Naturally beautiful, wild in the interior as you would expect, but with sandy beaches and historical walled towns on the coast, Montenegro is a jewel that many tourists still haven't discovered. It's also convenient because, even though it's not part of the European Union, it has adopted the Euro. Moreover, it's cheaper than Croatia, and travelling is fairly easy, thanks to good roads and transportation network.

A landscape in Montenegro

While Croatia is mostly Catholic, the majority of Montenegrins are Orthodox. As a result, towns have churches of different confessions, often side by side. While I'm not a fan of big cathedrals, I'm a sucker for cute little churches. The sense of identity is both interesting and complicated here: while feeling an obvious tie with the Serbians, history sets the Montenegrins apart from them. The name of the country for instance, comes from the Venetian "monte negro" and it means "black mountain".

A church in Budva
After driving south from Dubrovnik by public bus for about 3 hours (145 kunas, 19,30 €) and after a somehow slow passport check at the border, I arrived at the spectacular Bay of Kotor, which is the most famous and touristic part of the country. It resembles a fjord, with steep mountains plunging into a narrow bay, but is geologically speaking a drowned river canyon, instead of an inlet created by glacial erosion. The bus slowly follows the coast, letting you see how the bay unfolds, passing by historical little towns with stone churches, pebble beaches and small harbours.

A view of the bay of Kotor

I found people particularly friendly and warm in Montenegro, treating tourists like guests to honour or even like new friends, which is always nice. You can consider this tiny country as a sort of connection point between the sometimes serious Slavic people and the more cheerful Southern Europeans. Most people visit Kotor, but I also went to Perast, Budva and Sveti Stefan. Contrary to what many people think, there are tourists in Montenegro and the country is definitely on the Balkan backpacking route, with hostels, Wi-Fi in every restaurant and bar, and in general good infrastructures. People have been invariably kind, redirecting me to the correct bus stop for instance, or giving me advice on what to do or what to eat.

A beach near Sveti Stefan
Coming straight from Dubrovnik I did see a couple abandoned buildings or Communist-era monsters built to boost tourism in the area, especially near Budva, but overall I didn't have the impression of a war-ravaged or poor country, at least on the coast. What I found is a pleasant and welcoming country that I would like to explore more in the future.
Visiting Montenegro, and the reactions I saw when I was talking about it made me think of how much we trust traditional media and recommendations when choosing where to travel, instead of researching on our own. Almost everybody that I met in Montenegro was travelling alone through the Balkans, as opposed to the families and groups of flash packers that I encountered in Croatia. For this I found it a more relaxed place, without the all the must-do/must-see lists that I find annoying about Croatia. Don't get me wrong, I loved both countries, but Montenegro holds a special place in my heart.
The island of Sveti Dorde, near Perast
It was both a familiar and unfamiliar country to visit, with links to Venice but also undeniably tied to the Balkan mosaic of identities. In the next post I will write about Kotor,  the destination Montenegro is mostly famous for.
Have you been to Montenegro? 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Welcome to Dubrovnik: the Pearl of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik was perhaps my favourite destination in Croatia. I know that many people hate how packed with tour groups it can get, and how touristy and expensive it is, but there is obviously a reason why so many people want to visit it. The first time I walked through the Pile Gate and saw the famous marble-paved Stradun in all its shine and glory, I was in awe. 

Everywhere you look there is beauty, and to think that the city was bombed by the Serbian army in the early 1990s makes me shudder. 
Dubrovnik Old Town
I was also lucky that in early June the old town wasn't too packed with people. At night after dinner and early in the morning the it was particularly quiet, because the big tour groups were gone. Being a popular stop for cruises in the Mediterranean, Dubrovnik can get horrendously full of big groups of older tourists with khaki shorts and sun hats being led through the town by a lady with an umbrella.

Another view of Stradun
Another thing that makes it hard to love Dubnovnik are the prices, which are just ridiculous.: I've seen small bottles of water for sale at 15 kunas (2€), and soft drinks for 30 kunas (4€). The old town is really small, so it's difficult to get away from the touristy parts. For a nice evening meal, you could head to Lokanda Peskarija, one of the restaurants of the harbour, recommended both by locals and by guidebooks. I paid 122 kunas (16€) for a very big plate of grilled squid served in a big black pot and a gigantic season salad. Other meals I had within the old town weren't as exciting: in a restaurant I was even served cod when I was promised a seabass fillet.
It became natural for me to try to save a few kunas here and there. As most hostels in Croatia don't offer breakfast,  I soon discovered that bakeries (pekarna in Croatian) sell excellent croissants and the also make coffee on the go. In the morning I would buy a croissant and a cup of coffee at Mlinar and sit on the Onofrio Fountain, looking at one of my favourite sights in town, the church of St. Saviour, which dates back to the 16th century.
Church of Saint Saviour
One of the best views of Dubrovnik is nevertheless that of the harbour, as seen from the eastern gate and bridge close to the Dominican Monastery. It is absolutely breathtaking, and not even that inflationed with tourists.
View of the harbour
Of course I couldn't miss the opportunity to have a walk along the famous city walls. At 100 kunas (13€) it isn't cheap, but it's really worth it. I went there in the late afternoon, so the sun wasn't too strong, and it was a wise decision. Dubrovnik is called "the Pearl of the Adriatic" and I can see why: the sea is of an incredible light blue colour, and the roofs of the  houses offer a great contrast to it and to the paved roads.

A view
Walking along the city walls
Panorama of the town from the city walls
Many of the big churches in Dubrovnik wouldn't look bad in Venice, and while many people love them, especially the Church of St. Blaise, I fell in love with  the little ones, all built in stone, with triple bells and elaborated rose windows. Sometimes a tuft of grass would spring out of the stones, and I even saw a tree growing out of a vase on a fa├žade. The tiny Church of Saint Nicholas (Crkva Sveti Nikole) is one of my favourites. In the evening the restaurant nearby puts the tables in front of its main door for lack of space.

A cute little church

One thing that I liked about Dubrovnik is that there is always something going on: for weddings and baptisms, for example, you will see the guests in elegant dresses parading through the Stradun, led by a man weaving a Croatian flag and another playing the accordion. At other times, you will run into an orchestra, complete with bachelorettes and trumpets, or into a man performing traditional music while sitting by the Onofrio fountain.
Man performing in traditional costumes

Another pleasure of being in Dubrovnik is the wander its small streets full of staircases, looking for beautiful corners with colourful laundry out to dry and a view of the orange roofs.

A view of Dubrovnik
There might be surprises here and there, such as a stall selling lace next to a Romanic church, or a lounge bar built on the rocky cliffs that look directly down to the sea.

Selling lace
Overall, there are many things to love in Dubrovnik, and others that you'll have to endure to enjoy this jewel. I think it's important to take it for what it is: an extremely popular tourist destination, with Game of Thrones tours that sell for exorbitant prices, but also with lesser visited museums (the cloister of the Franciscan monastery is particularly beautiful) and charming small streets.
Franciscan monastery
With a little patience it is possible to find quiet streets that are not overrun with tourists. Dubrovnik may not be everyone's cup of tea, with its expensive fish restaurants, its baroque churches and endless holiday apartments to rent, but I think that it is really a beautiful place to visit, with lots of history and surprises behind every corner.

A quiet street in Dubrovnik

Have you been to Dubrovnik? What did you think?

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