19-27/08/2018

Spring/Summer 2018 were all about massive changes.

End of the most important relationship of my life, having to move into a shared flat for the first time since the university years, dealing with my sexuality, going from being employed, to unemployed, to freelancer.

What could have been an absolutely devastating time, turned out to be a pretty surreal rollercoaster that I decided to venture with determination, enthusiasm and a pinch of carelessness. Maybe that’s how we all react when we feel there’s not much more to lose.

After I passed the B2 German exam,  while I was waiting for the certificate to be officially allowed to work as a vet surgeon in Berlin, I had a few weeks to kill.

Little money, last minute organisation, but also the will to detach from Berlin and take some time to actually process what I had been through.

So, why not checking out one of the few countries in Europe still on my to-do list? Since flying into Albania proved to be extremely expensive, I went for its neighbour, Montenegro. A country that, back then, I really didn’t know much about.

So there I was, backpack on my shoulders, headphones in my ears ready to play the moodiest of tunes, all set up to go on an introspective journey… Which actually lasted exactly less than few hours.  Because yes, between the hundreds things I was unaware of, it turned out that Montenegro, with its affordable prices, diversity and pocket size, is a proper magnet for young and penniless backpackers.

Flown into Podgorica, the pretty forgettable fresh-bread smelling capital, I killed the three hours wait for my bus to the mountains with a walk around the deserted old town and a ridiculously big portion of greasy and garlicky cevapi (Montenegrin sausages) at Pod Volat, a local’s favourite. Enough time to get my first impression of this country that had to make me think of the Croatia I got to know in my youth, with a Jugoslavian twist.

2 kg heavier I hopped on the small van to Zabljak, a mountain village in the north of the country and main access to the Durmitor National Park, one of Montenegro’s landmarks, and checked in a dorm at the extremely social Hikers Den. Famous for his Dolomites-alike peaks and Lord of the Rings too dangerous to be legal mountain paths, this place saw me reaching the top of Montenegro’s highest peak, Bobotov Kuk,  in white converse and literally fucking up my left knee, to the point I couldn’t actually bend it, on a 10 hour ridiculously tough hike on day 3. Perks of these days: the people I met while hiking and the way everybody seemed to be willing to listen and open up (hearts go to you Danyel). Take home message: stay away from the opinionated, annoying and loud biatch of the hiking group, if you won’t want to fight the urge to push her down the closest ravine.

Teamed up with Miria, a lovely German with the most genuine of smiles that would have become my travel buddy for the rest of the holiday, we took a train from the boiling hot Podgorica to Virpazar, a small village on the coast of Balcan’s biggest lake, Skadar Lake, renowned for its avifauna and slow pace. On the train we had our first taste of Montenegrin hospitality, when a pastel coloured, pretty ancient lady, with immaculate makeup and elegant manners, carefully opened her purse and shared her chocolate bonbons with us. I really regret not having taken a picture.

By the way, our day at the lake went exactly how we expected it to be: we sailed on a boat for a couple of hours, took a swim to cool down, explored the pretty unimpressive  ruins of a castle which, at least served as a beautiful view point and eventually took shelter from the August burning sun while sipping large ice cold beers and having a late lunch with some lake delicacies (marinated smoked carp for me) in a pretty hilarious boat shaped restaurant.

Well, we obviously enjoyed each other’s company, and the drinks, very much since we almost left our backpacks at the tourist office and absolutely forgot to check the buses’ timetables. Since the buses had all gone, me and Miria, weren’t left with other options but hitchhiking.

After a lift from a tacky man in his fifties with the most horrendous taste in music, a long wait for another bus spent people watching (the fried-skinned, chubby old lady wearing a “I LOVE BOYS” crop top won’t leave my memories any time soon), and some pretty personal chats where, absurdly, me and Miria found out we had a common friend in Budapest, we finally reached our next destination: Ulcinj.

On the southern coast of the country, Ulcinj is a good mix of Montenegrin and Albanian folklore. Overwhelmed by what got listed at the Pirate hostel as absolutely unmissable, we wrongly assumed one day would’t have been enough. It actually could have!

No regrets though because probably those two days in Ulcinj were between the best of the whole holiday. Put it down to the “dolce vita” vibe, the beach bumming, the slow roaming up and down the city’s old town, the sunset walks along the maritime pine forests and dips in the most Mediterranean-esque of secluded coves, and the fact that we met some of the nicest folks, like Basti and Fabian, and felt at ease as if we’d been friends for a lifetime.

Few episodes I feel the urge to mention.

Our surreal clubbing night on the trashy promenade, where I was turned down for wearing flip flops. Only to have a local girl, dressed like Christina Aguilera in the dirrrty era (style that seemed to be the predominant around), saving my ass and saying I was with her. The club itself, with its tacky decor and mix of reggaeton, Balcan beats and Turkish hits, was a bit of a miss. Miria was the only girl dancing on a dance floor filled with tables and boys acting at their most macho pretending not to care. Of course me and the other guys didn’t conform and danced the night away.

Being the target of a charismatic seller at a local’s groceries market. I wanted to buy a peach, and left with literally two kg of grapes and every sort of things I didn’t need! She definitely knew how to do her job!

Feeling on the set of a horror movie when we took a cab out of town for a completely unsuccessful sunset flamingo spotting walk on an abandoned salt extraction plant. Me and the other guys soon had to agree that the whole situation was borderline creepy. We started to make jokes about who would have been the lucky one of us to actually make it out alive, and, to be very honest, we all felt relieved when the taxi came back to pick us up.

Next on mine and Miria’s list: the jaw dropping medieval Kotor, only 3 hours away from Ulcinj on a stunning coastal scenic route. Set in the heart of Kotor Bay, sheltered by mountains peaks, this gem of an old town is probably the most touristic place in the whole of Montenegro.

I have to admit that Kotor’s resemblance to the Lake of Como, one hour away from the town in Northern Italy where I was born and raised, was just striking. To everybody’s annoyance, I must have said out loud hundreds times.

Apart from backing off from the rakia-fueled, trashy, yet incredibly popular between young Aussies and Americans, hostel parties, when we were not “busy” sunbathing on the small wooden pier on the bay, or trying out most of Montenegrin traditional fish dishes, we actually engaged in a few activities, such as a boat tour around the bay and a sunset hike up the mountain (bypassing the 8euro fee demanded at the city gates) to see the sun setting on the bay. The former, in between stopovers ranging from a picture perfect, yet ridiculously packed, artificial islet (Gospa od Škrpjela), to a Cold War cave that could have easily been the set of a James Bond movie, and a natural blu-watered secluded bay, was actually an occasion to (ehm, finally I’d say) get some cultural insights about the current political situation of Montenegro and its wobbly relationship with the other Balcan countries. All of this while sipping the whisky our new buddies, Nicholas and Amy, had smuggled on board.

On a day trip to the picturesque Perast, me and Miria, that in the meantime have become the equivalent of an aged married couple, had a slow paced walk around the cobblestone stray cats inhabited alleys of this beauty of a town and eventually sat for a good couple of hours writing our diaries and sipping drinks at a fancy-ish cafe by the water. We kinda felt like in a vintage bubble, as if time had stopped there in the sixties and Sophia Loren could have appeared on a pastel blue Lambretta from one moment to the other.

Before leaving Montenegro for Dubrovnik we somehow managed to put back on the right track one of those days that, for unknown reasons, seem not to be wanting to work out fine  (no car rental in the whole Kotor had a single car available) and ended up on a bus to Cetinje, the old royal capital of Montenegro. Not much left from its glory days, apart from a slightly run-down yet charming main street, Ulica Njegoševa, and a monastery where our summer outfits got us kicked out. We opted for more Montenegrin delicacies instead and had the lunch of a lifetime at Kole, where I easily gained another kg with a surprisingly heavy yet mouth-watering muckalica, a sort of pork goulash.

Following the tip of a pretty ancient Norwegian lady we randomly bumped into, we took a cheap cab to Njegos Mausoleum, one of Montenegro’s landmarks, right on top of the Lovćen mountain. She claimed that the experience left her flabbergasted. Well, can’t really say it had the same effect on us, but we still enjoyed the drive there and the stunning scenic view.

Willing to make the most of the day, we hopped on another bus heading to Budva, dubbed by many as a less hectic version of Dubrovnik, and made it there right in time for sunset. What seemed to be love at first sight, turned, in a matter of a few minutes, in an uncomfortable claustrophobic feeling. Yeah, no doubt the old town was something absolutely wonderful, but can’t say the same about the amount of tourists that seemed to take up every available square metre.

We couldn’t help hoping we didn’t make a mistake to plan two days in Dubrovnik…

Miranda Sensomat RE, Fujicolor 200 (35)

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April 19, 2020

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