When I left off last episode, we were in Budva. It was here that we rented a car and became free to explore Montenegro on our own terms.
Things I Learned From the “Actually Rents Cars to People Lady”
We’d reserved our car on line prior to leaving Canada. The address of the rental place was SportCenter. I had looked in vain on line trying to find a street address but was lucky enough to spot a SportCenter-looking like place from the bus just before we arrived at the station and it was only a couple of blocks from our hotel. So, I walked over there and was happy to easily find the rental place. Unfortunately, the two guys drinking coffee and chatting at a little folding table right outside the door seemed a little put out that I actually, like, wanted to rent a car or something. One of the guys grudgingly got up from the table and beckoned me to come inside with him. He asked my name, looked up my reservation on a list, then got on his cell phone to call someone to come and do the actual rental. The “Don’t Rent Cars to People, Just Drink Coffee and Chat” guy told me they’d be there in about 45 minutes and went back out to continue his chat/coffee. His ability to do all this while never once showing any type of facial expression beyond a Slavic scowl and only barely acknowledging my existence was impressive.
Eventually the “Actually Rents Cars to People Lady” showed up. She was very pleasant and smiled a lot. I explained the problem I had finding their address and suggested they put it on their website. She just laughed and said “I’ve lived here many years and I don’t know what street we’re on. Nobody knows the street names.” This Montenegrin idiosyncrasy came to hinder my navigation efforts throughout the trip despite having bought Montenegrin maps for our GPS we brought along. I learned to rely on intuition and a keen sense of direction rather than addresses.
As we chatted, I pointed out that I found the accents in Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro to be very different. She laughed and said “Here we speak Montenegrin, in Croatia they speak Croatian and in Bosnia they speak Bosnian but they are really all the same language. Montenegro’s politicians argued about which one to teach in school so now children have to have classes in all three even though they are all the same language. Montenegro is complicated”. I learned that language and ethnic identity is still a sore point in the former Yugoslavia.
As we finished up the paperwork, she made a point of writing down my Visa card number on her copy of the form despite having completed the transaction electronically. I thought this was weird but wasn’t overly concerned. A month after we got home, $1500 worth of charges to hotels in and around Paris showed up on my credit card. I learned not to trust smiling Montenegrin “Actually Rent Cars to People” ladies.
We were given a “Hyundai i10”. Looks fast and sporty, eh? It’s not.
Apartheid, Meat and Paradise
We drove south down the Adriatic coast enroute to Ulcinj. In doing research for the trip, my wife, Joan became entranced by the ubiquitous stock photos of a place called Sveti Stefan that appears in every tourism ad for Montenegro. It’s located just south of Budva so we just had to stop there. Apparently, it was the go to place for celebs in the 70’s and, after a recent major reno, is now fast becoming the place to be for the rich and famous. We thought a wander through the old town, perhaps stopping for lunch at one of the many foufou restaurants we’d read about would be just the thing. I had visions of rubbing shoulders with the likes of George Clooney and Gina Lollobrigida.
So we drove down a narrow winding road. At this point, I was not yet inured to staring death in the face at every hairpin turn so my nerves got a little frayed. I paid a couple of Euros to park and we walked towards the causeway to the island. As we approached, a dude in a hotel uniform informed us that only hotel guests are actually allowed on the island. What the hell? This damn island is featured on every damn website and tourist book about Montenegro but you can’t actually visit it without booking a room? Hey, George and Gina, fuck you! It was one disappointed woman and one grumpy old man that got back on the road, 2 Euros poorer but infinitely, and sadly, wiser in the ways of the world.
We stopped for lunch at a little roadside restaurant called Casablanka just outside of Bar. Thankfully, they let anyone eat there. There was only one other group of diners there so service was really fast. It appeared to be run by a guy and his wife. He was the waiter while she worked in an open kitchen with a big wood stove. We’d missed breakfast in the hotel that morning and, other than the sickening candies, we hadn’t eaten all day. I saw a meat platter for 12 Euro but beyond that the description was pretty vague. I’m not a huge eater but I was pretty hungry and the smell of grilled meat that wafted through this place was mouth-watering. I figured it couldn’t be too big for only 12 Euro. I was wrong. It had two chicken breasts, 2 pork chops, a lamb chop, some spiced ground beef patties, and a couple of sausages. While initially daunted, I accepted the challenge and tucked in voraciously ending my feast with feeble moans of “Please Joan, have some chicken…” Even with a bit of help I couldn’t finish it but I think my gluttony was impressive, if a little embarrassing when put next to Joan’s more rational omelette. I once told my vegetarian brother “For every animal you don’t eat, I’m gonna eat three”. I think I’ve fulfilled the spirit if not the letter of that boast.
Sated, we continued on our way to Ulcinj. We had no hotel reservations but, on line, we’d seen a couple of nice looking hotels that were down in the old town. Not being sure of how to get there and our GPS being a tad confused, we stopped in at a “Tourist Information” place just outside of town. We asked for directions to the hotels we were looking for. “You want place to stay. My friend have nice hotel. Very cheap. I take you.” was the response. We declined the offer and quickly realized that this was no government-sponsored, unbiased tourist info place like you find back home. It was a storefront setup to steer people to specific hotels. Off we went, with the GPS telling us to occasionally “Turn right” into a fence or an open field. After another frightening drive up a windy, narrow steep road to the top of a mountain overlooking the old town, I grumpily did a u-turn and got very close to it. We parked outside the walls of the stari grad (old town) and walked in. It was hot, I was tired…all I wanted was a room and a beer…not necessarily in that order.
We found one of the hotels we were looking for but as we entered its courtyard through a creaky gate, it was deathly quiet and we couldn’t find a way inside. We continued on to our next target that we knew was near the water’s edge. Out of nowhere popped a young man who asked us if we’re looking for a room. We warily answered “Yes, we’re looking for the Hotel Dvori-Basilca”. He was joined by an older guy who says “Come look, we have nice apartment. Please come, come.” He lead us up several flights of stairs. I thought “Oh great, we’re either gonna be mugged or he’s going to show us a rat infested shithole and try to guilt us in to renting it. How can we politely get the fuck outta here?” He opened the door onto a beautiful apartment with a kitchenette, bathroom, sitting room and bedroom. It was on the third floor of his totally renovated palazzo and looked out over the Adriatic on one side and the beach and bay on the other. I could tell Joan loved it and I thought “Oh shit, this is gonna cost an arm and the leg”. He told us he had a restaurant and bar downstairs…it’s sounding even better. “How much is it?””40 Euro a night”. One glance at Joanie and “We’ll take it!” I said.
The place is called Kalaja Apartments. It’s run by a middle-aged Muslim fellow who will happily sit down for a beer with you (now this is a brand of Islam I can handle) to complain about his daughter who likes American cars and going to the clubs and doesn’t pull her weight around there. His wife ran the kitchen and he had a young Kosovar guy who did everything else. It was he and I that walked back down to the car so he could show me where to park and help me with the bags. This same kid then had to lug a keg of beer up the hundreds of steps in 30 degree heat because “Beer must be fresh, no good after 3 days” as my host told me. When I saw the poor kid finally make it to the bar with the keg, sweating and out of breath, I refrained from saying “About time!” despite having had to settle for bottled stuff up to that point. Fuck, I’m a nice guy.
We were the only guests in the place so the service was excellent. I told him we hadn’t seen his hotel on the web and perhaps he should improve his web presence. He shrugged, “It’s very busy in July and August. Now, not so much. You don’t want to work too much. It’s good”. Two more years in KAF and I’ll be talkin’ like that.
Dinners at Kalaja were very good. Our keg hauling friend brought over a platter of fresh fish from which we each picked our preference. I don’t know what mine was but it was damn good as was the squid and scampi appetizer although the owner scolded us for having a seafood appetizer with fish.
Breakfast was included with the room and the choices each day were an omelette or vicla. In keeping with my policy of ordering shit if I don’t know what it is, I asked for the vicla. Our waiter (the keg guy again) gave me a look that a more awake person would have interpreted as “Really?” but I groggily interpreted as “I see you are a man of the world, good sir”. Vicla is fucking hotdogs. Not sausage. Not something similar to hotdogs but with an Eastern European flair. No. It’s fucking hotdogs. Plain, boiled fucking hotdogs. They don’t even serve them with mustard. Joan loved her omelette and made a point of telling me so.
Ok, the view from the balcony was awesome. I gotta give ’em that but the coffee. Jesus H. Christ…the fucking coffee. The only kind they had was Turkish coffee. They brought it in little espresso-like cups. “Mmmm…I love espresso” I said to myself. I took a sip and it was a viscous, ground-filled sludge…mud-like is the only adjective that seems appropriate. Joanie, who’s more worldly and better educated than I, patiently told me to patiently wait for it to settle. She knows damn well that I don’t do anything patiently but I made the effort to relax and enjoy the view as I impatiently waited. I eventually got the stuff down but it was more akin to doing shots of Aquavit than sipping coffee…I was going for effect not taste.
Despite the vicla and coffee fiasco, the Kalaja Apartments in Ulcinj were awesome. We’d originally planned only one night there but instead spent two, doing a road trip with that as our base on the second day. More about that in the next installment.
Sveti Stefan (St. Steven) is pronounced Sweaty Stefan. So there.
“We’re better than everyone else” – George Clooney
“We certainly are” – Gina Lollobrigida