Strangers in a Strange Land – Part III

It’s been pretty dull around KAF so I’m finally getting around to finish up my epic about the Montenegrin adventure my wife and I took last fall. As you may recall, Part II left off at the fabulous Kalaja Apartments in Ulcinj. Over the next few days we drove all over south and central Montenegro staying in some great places, laughing at some shitholes and getting lost. Our route is shown in red.

The Land That GPS Forgot.

Road Trip

Gypsy Fruit

Enamoured with Ulcinj, we kept our room there for a second night using it as a base for a day trip to Podgorica and Cetinje. The first part of our trip took us through idyllic countryside on our way to the shores of Lake Skodar. Entranced by the quaintness, we couldn’t resist stopping at a roadside fruit stand near Vladimir run by a very nice elderly lady. Intending to just take a picture and buy a token sample, we left with about 2 pounds of grapes, a giant string of dates and some other fruit we’d never seen before. We’re not even sure if we agreed to buy it…she just kept stuffing shit into bags and handing it to us then taking money out of the wad we proffered. She looked somewhat Gypsy-like…peasant dress, head scarf…so I assume she hypnotized us. We ended up throwing most of it out after we ate as much as we could stomach and it started to stink up the car.

Nice view but shouldn’t there be a shoulder on this road?

We then began to drive up the mountains through a series of switchbacks. They took us almost all the way to the top and to the south so we were overlooking the Albanian border. We then crossed to the other side of the mountains and got our first view of Lake Skadar. Joan tells me it was beautiful. I wouldn’t know as I had a death grip on the wheel for fear of plunging off the incredibly narrow road to our deaths.

This sign did nothing to alleviate my fear.

Driving along on this ridiculously narrow road, with hairpin turns every quarter mile we come across this incredibly odd sign. An exclamation mark? What the hell? It’s almost as if the road engineers suddenly thought “Holy shit! I can’t believe we’re building such a goddamn dangerous road. Let’s put up a sign to express our shock!” Every inch of this road is dangerous and “Holy Shit” worthy so they oughta put one of these every 100m or so.

Yeah, here’s where we need a guardrail, not on that fucking 180 degree blind hairpin turn up ahead.

Perhaps, after erecting their “Holy Shit” sign, one of the engineers decided that “Something has to be done. This road is positively unsafe. I have an idea, let’s put up a guardrail!” So they did. Unfortunately, the only length of guardrail we saw was along a particularly straight stretch of road. It’s like they put up this 50 feet of rail and then thought,“Fuck it, I’m not gonna drive on this thing” and just gave up.

We went to Podgorica so we could buy our bus tickets for Sarajevo for our return home. I didn’t want to find out we had no way to the Sarajevo airport the day before our flights. Finding the bus station was a bit of a chore as our map conveniently showed the bus station along with street names while Podgorica itself had no street signs what-so-ever. As we entered the town, I stopped at a gas station to ask direction in my best Montenegrin…which consisted of me pointing at the bus station symbol on the map and grunting. This somehow precipitated an argument between the two guys working there which, I think, centred around how many lights I had to drive through before turning right. One guy angrily pointed at the stop lights and counted off “4” on his fingers while the other guy more angrily counted off “3”. Fearing the outbreak of fisticuffs as their voices rose, I slowly backed out, thanking them for the ambiguous information. After about a 1/2 hour of aimless driving we found the station and bought our tickets.

Cetinje Monastary

Then it was off to Cetinje to visit the monastery there. As you may have gathered from previous posts, I’m not the most religious guy in the world. In fact, I may be the most unreligious guy. But the religious did build some pretty neat shit and I’m certainly not one to pass up a chance to blaspheme. The official church of Montenegro is, no surprise, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. It is entirely different than the Serbian Orthodox Church in that they use the word Montenegrin in place of the word Serbian in the name. No wonder there was a schism.

It was a pretty cool building but kinda spooky. The monks were dressed all in black with really crazy hats and wild beards. They never smiled.  Anyone in shorts, male or female, was given a sarong to wear if they wanted to enter the building. My policy of never wearing shorts paid off yet again. Some other men there were not so lucky and looked rather ridiculous in their wraps. Gotta give these dudes props though for applying their ridiculous, prudish dress code equally to both sexes. Can’t say the same for some other religions.

Illegal Icon Photo – I like to live on the edge.

I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the right hand of John the Baptist that is purportedly kept at this monastery. I mean, who doesn’t want to see a rotted ol’ piece of a corpse, eh? But they don’t have it on display, dammit. So we wandered into where the iconography is. It was just past the “No Photography” sign. No one else was in there so I whipped out my IPod and prepared to surreptitiously snap a picture. Did you know that the IPod camera still makes a fake shutter noise even if you have the sound turned way down. I didn’t…until the moment I snapped the pic. SCHWICK. I frantically shoved my IPod into my pocket just as a creepy, scowling monk walked in. He growled something at me in Montenegrin. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “Hey, how ya doin'”. I smiled sweetly and we skedaddled the hell outta there and headed back to Ulcinj. We took the highway this time.

Land of the Lost

The next day we planned to visit the Monastery at Ostrog and then head up to Niksic to spend the night and, hopefully, visit the brewery. We drove from Ulcinj to Podgorica on the major highways. That was easy. I had planned to drive on the highway from Podgorica towards Niksic exiting at Ostrog which is just off the highway. However, as we left Podgorica, our GPS told us to turn towards the east. I knew the highway was to our west and wanted to continue that way, however, someone else in the car (not naming any names), said we should follow the GPS. A little perturbed that despite my 27 years as an Air Force navigator, my wife sided with the GPS (a device that killed my people), I grumpily turned east.

It started out as a rather fun adventure. Once again, we found ourselves on a narrow, winding road going up a mountain. Then down a mountain. Then back up what I think was the same mountain. Then into a broad valley where the road ran straight and flat but the asphalt was cracked and had grass growing up through it. Then the asphalt stopped completely and we were on gravel. The gravel became larger stones and we were on something resembling a disused lumber trail. Just as I thought it was time to turn back, we were suddenly on nice asphalt again. We hopefully followed that until it abruptly ended and we found ourselves in field of grass. I followed the rutted track through the field for about 100 yards at which point I said “We’ve gotta turn around”.

Bear in mind that the GPS was still confidently telling us we were on a marked road and only about 5 miles from Ostrog. I could see Ostrog on the GPS. It was indeed only about 5 miles away. Unfortunately, there was a fucking giant mountain between it and us. The red squiggles on the map above shows our approximate route. Also note that there had been no turns available during this entire 3 hours of driving…so we had no choice but to drive almost all the way back to Podgorica. That was fun.

So about 5 hours after leaving Podgorica, we found ourselves driving by Ostrog on the main highway. At that point, we figured “Fuck it, let’s just get to Niksic and find a hotel. We’ll visit Ostrog tomorrow”. Similarly, we gave up on the brewery after a cursory search for it; we were just too goddamn tired. We had planned to stay at a communist era hotel in downtown Niksic but, as we approached it, we saw a couple of school buses off-loading teenagers who appeared to be on a school trip. Having been teenagers away from home ourselves, we decided to find some other place.So we drove around town looking.

At one point, we scooted around this little cement post in the middle of the road. “That’s an odd place for a cement post” I thought to myself. We were then driving through a beautiful little square filled with promenading young couples, frolicking kids and old folks sitting at outdoor cafes. “Wonder why they’re all staring at us” I wondered. Then it dawned on me. “Oh shit, Joan…do you see any other cars in here. Oh shit, this isn’t a fucking roadway.” I scooted around another one of those odd barriers on the other side of the square and we decided to look elsewhere in town for a hotel.

Oooooh…fancy.

As we had entered the town we had seen a big billboard advertising the Marshal Hotel. It looked all fancy-pants with logo of laurel leaves wrapped around an authoritative looking M. “That place must be nice, Joanie. Just look at that billboard”. We drove around looking for it and after getting another set of of non-English directions, we found it just outside of town. I was underwhelmed as we drove up and really quite shocked that advertising could mislead me like that. By this time, however, we were looking for any port in a storm.

It was icky…just icky.

On the bright side, the place advertised internet in every room and a professional Jacuzzi. The bad news was it was 120 Euros/night…three times what we paid for an apartment overlooking the Adriatic in a Palazzo in Ulcinj. Fuckers. Now, I had never seen a professional Jacuzzi so on our way to our room, Joan and I peeked into the professional Jacuzzi room. Apparently, a professional Jacuzzi is one in a tiny closet that smells of mold and has no water. I would have guessed something different.

I had to borrow an ethernet cable from the front desk as the internet was not wireless in the room. I then had to go down and borrow another ethernet cable (which they stole from their own computer!) because the first one didn’t work. Upon trying the second cable, it was apparent that it was the internet itself that didn’t work. I brought this to the front desk’s attention and was met with a shrug…a very sovietesque response.

Aaah, the romance.

Oh well, there was wireless internet in the hotel restaurant so we went there for dinner. I ordered the “marinated karp”. Yeah, I know, it’s a bottom feeder and not really considered a delicacy (or even edible) by most North Americans…but when in Niksic. It was pretty much as bad as I could have expected. But, at least, we had the view…of the dumpster and the diesel trucks spewing noise and exhaust fumes on the roundabout. But the best was yet to come.

Hmm…this can’t be good.

As we’re going back to our room we notice something on several of the room doors in our hallway. “Holy Fuck! It’s fucking police tape. Holy fuck!” Boy, that was disconcerting. We get back to the room and conjure up all sorts of scenarios involving Montenegrin organized crime, drug deals gone bad or axe wielding murderers on the loose. As we’re checking out the next morning, I mention the police tape to the stoic woman behind the desk. “Oh, it’s just some NATO army officers stay here and put those on their rooms when they leave”. Well, there were some NATO military officers in the restaurant…sounds plausible…but why the hell don’t they trust the hotel employees to go into their rooms. Let’s just say I was glad to leave…after bitching long enough to get a 10% discount on the room for the non-existent internet. Overall, I rate the Marshal Hotel in Niksic as an “Oh my god, don’t ever fucking stay there, ever, I mean it”out of 10.

Onward to Ostrog

Cool but kinda silly too.

We drove down to Ostrog ignoring the GPS and got there in no time. There are two monasteries. One is relatively low on the mountain and is just a collection of regular stone buildings. The upper monastery is built right into the face of the cliff. Really bloody impressive if somewhat pointless. I’m just thinkin’ that trying to develop the germ theory of disease and stem the spread of the plague might have been a better way to spend one’s time in the 17th century rather than building churches in cliffs.

I am The Great Stanko and I admonish you! (giggle)

On the way up, you’ll find the Church of St. Stanko, Shepherd of the Incorruptible Hands. We never really could figure out why he was a saint but we giggled like 12 year olds every time one of us said “Stanko”. Come on…it’s funny. I bet he was teased in school. They even had a sort of stone throne outside the church which provided me no end of amusement as I pretended to admonish sinners while my long suffering spouse reluctantly took pictures.

Pilgrims. Nope, don’t get it.

It’s apparently de rigueur for pilgrims to walk up the many steps to the upper monastery from the lower one in their bare feet. We opted to drive. We had driven just about all the way up when we were waved off to a parking lot by some random dude who seemed to have appointed himself guardian of the road leading right up to the monastery. Seemingly having no choice, we parked and started to walk, fully shod, up the stairs. We went up several dozen steps and, winded, came upon a water tap with a little steel cup hanging from it. My wife proceeds to grab the cup and prepare to fill it for a drink. “Are you crazy? Don’t do that! Who knows what fucking diseases those pilgrims have? These are people who walk up mountains in their bare feet…you can’t assume they are smart enough to practice basic hygiene”. She shrugs me off and gets a drink. Let’s just say that Joanie was a little under the weather, gastrically speaking, the next day. Anyway, it was at this point that we looked up and realized the upper monastery was still much further away than our heathen bodies would carry us. We trudged back down to the car and, finding the guardian gone, drove the rest of the way up.

Candle line up. Cha-Ching

Those monks may dress weird but they’re marketing geniuses. Not only do they have all kinds of icons and shit for sale (we bought one of the St. Stanko trading cards and it now hangs in our laundry room…get it?) but they also sell candles. Ok, so what’s so ingenious about selling candles, you ask? Well, people first line up to buy the candles, then they take these candles they’ve just paid for and line up again to take them into a little chapel and light them! Don’t you see? The monks are both creating and satisfying the demand for these things. And, I bet at the end of the day, they go collect the half burned candles and remelt them to make new ones. Fucking brilliant.

Texting Priest – “nuthins n da box, lol”

The highlight of the place seemed to be this little, tiny, dark room in which there was one of those creepy priests and a coffin. Our research had informed us that the relics (this means icky parts of his body…eww) of St. Basil are in there. We dutifully waited in the line of pilgrims (with presumably sore and bloody feet) to enter. Once we got in there was a young couple to whom the priest was muttering some sort of curse or prayer right beside the coffin as they handed him cash. It was a fucking freak show as far as I was concerned. Once again, I skedaddled. Our research had also informed us that one was supposed to back out of this room and kiss the lintel (the top of the doorway) as you go. Yeah, like that’s bright…hygeine – another thing they coulda studied instead of building the place. Later, a gaggle of priests came out of the monastery surrounding a guy carrying a reliquary which presumably contained St Basil’s spleen or some such. I was particularly amused by the monk texting on his Blackberry…it seemed so incongruous.

Me and the Bish.

One of the guys had a hat and beard that were weirder than those of the others. I figured him for a Bishop.  “Really, you want to do that?” Joan resignedly asked when I excitedly handed her my camera with instructions to get a picture of me as close as possible to the Bishop with a stupid ass grin on my face. I told her “It’s part of my Blasphemy Tour 2011″ and, since the idea of having this picture obviously brought me great joy, she acquiesced. I love my wife…even when she rolls her eyes.

Two Tickets to Paradise

On the road to Kotor.

After the monastery, we cruised on down to Kotor. Once again, this entailed winding mountain roads but the guardrails, while rare, were at least on some of the corners. And the views were spectacular..At one point we descended into a little valley town which was, apparently, famous for it’s sausage and homemade liquor. We stopped at one of the little houses selling the stuff. The propietors spoke no English but they insisted we sit down while an ancient lady brought out some cheese and meat samples. With hand signals they indicated that we were buying some using much the same selling technique of the fruit lady a few days before. It’s an interesting methodology in which the customer is not involved in the decision to purchase. I was then motioned to a little shed at the back in which there were bottles of all shapes and sizes filled with the local moonshine. I was given a tiny sample of the stuff and it burned all the way down. Through sign language I was informed that I was buying some but managed to purchase only a tiny bottle…maybe 3 ounces. It was vile and tasted somewhat reminiscent of aquavit which is somewhat reminiscent of nail polish remover.

Now this is worth 120 Euros.

Coming down off the mountain into Kotor involves a series of about 29 hairpin turns. They’re actually all numbered…except for the one with the broken guardrail which was rather disconcerting. We had reservations at the Palazzo Radomiri, an 18th century Baroque palace. It’s a very high class place with a pool, spa, bar and right on the Bay of Kotor. And it cost 120 Euros/night…the same amount as the shithole in Niksic. Montenegrin hotel rates make no sense.

A sure sign of quality…

We walked the several blocks to the stari grad (old town) arriving just as one of the big mo-fo cruise ships was unloading its cargo of sweaty, overweight, yammering tourists. Ugh. After our walk we were pretty hungry so stopped at the first restaurant we saw. Now, I’m no restauranteur but if I opened up a restaurant in a circa 1200 AD building in an historic old town, I don’t think the thought “Hey, what this place needs is a giant, fibreglass chef” would pass through my brain. Who the hell told the owner that that monstrosity was appropriate? It serves to attract the likes of the two older British couples at the next table who were quite irate with the marginally English speaking waiter when he didn’t know what a “shandy”was. First off, no one should ever drink a fucking shandy…they’re stupid…have a pop or have a beer…make up your goddamn mind. Secondly, I really don’t think their animated discussion of how unbelievable it was that a Montenegrin waiter wouldn’t know what a shandy was should have gone on for several minutes after he left their table. I got ten bucks says they were from the fucking cruise ship.

I really learned a lot about history on this trip…

After lunch we went to St. Tryphon’s Cathedral where, once again, didn’t get to see any dessicated corpses relics despite rumours that St. Tryphon’s bits were in residence. But I did get to see what I looked like in Bishop’s robes. I also got to give the evil eye from the church balcony much to the bemusement of the German tourists. This was all dutifully recorded by my wife. Goddammit, I’m a fun date.

Communist Societies Were Truly Classless

The 70’s called, they don’t want their door back.

After two days in Kotor, we motored on up to Podgorica for a night. It’s a pretty ugly town filled with dilapidated, communist era concrete apartment blocks. We were staying at the very weirdly retro-kitsch Hotel Kerber right in the centre of town. Everything in it was lime green, bright yellow or day-glo orange. Oddly, this colour scheme appears to be intentional. I found it charming for the first 5 seconds after which it was merely nauseating.

We were happy to find that there were about two blocks of Podgorica that were really quite nice…lots of shops and cafes…right near the hotel. We stopped in at a little cafe that was covered in religious iconography. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised they didn’t serve beer but I certainly wasn’t expecting their version of Coke.

No beer? God help me!

Admit it. You laughed.

And the point of that sign is…?

We walked around for a bit and then, at around 2 pm, began looking for some lunch. Most of the restaurants seemed to be closed up. We did find one open with a big sign that said “Pizza”. We went inside, sat down, asked if we could order a pizza…and they said “No”. They, apparently, not only had no pizza but were not serving any food. We knew the Kerber had a “Snack Bar” in it so we went back there only to find that the only “snack” available was coffee. A snackless snack bar…neat concept.

We eventually found a little, tiny pizzeria and managed to get fed…not an easy task in Podgorica and it didn’t get any easier that night.

Wow! Look at all the stuff they don’t have!

We’d read about the Ribnica restaurant in a Lonely Planet travel book. It was excellent they said. So, I made reservations as recommended. When we got there around 7pm, the place was deserted. They showed us to a table out on the patio and brought us these tome-like menus. There was page after page of items. Of the several salads available, I figured I would finally try an octopus salad after having passed up multiple opportunities in Dubrovnik, while Joan decided on something more mundane. For our mains, I don’t recall exactly what we each wanted but that became moot anyway. The waitress returned to take our orders. She didn’t speak any English but “This’ll be easy,” I thought, “I’ll just point to the menu items”. I pointed to the octopus salad. “No”, she says, pointing to chicken salad, “Piletine salata” . “No, octopus salad”, I naively said, pointing to, of course, octopus salad. “No, piletine salata” she persists, pointing again to the chicken salad. Envisioning some leafy greens with grilled chicken on top,I reluctantly concede this round. Joan ordered some sort of non-pepper steak for her main course but the waitress insisted on repeating “Feffer steak” and pointing to pepper steak on the menu over and over again. Joan admitted defeat fairly rapidly as it was at least a steak. I ordered some sort of fish. The waitress scowled and disappeared without another word only to return a few minutes later, shake her head and say “No. Feffer steak?”  Nodding dejectedly, “Feffer steak”, I said.

Uh, thanks?

So, my chicken salad arrived. It was a heaping fucking mound of, you guessed it, chicken salad. The stuff that in non-fucked up areas is served on sandwiches. Sure, they gave me a little bit of bread on the side, but Jesus H. Christ, who the hell eats that much chicken salad…ever. And it was my goddamn appetizer. It had to be a pound of the stuff. When the steaks came, no surprise, they sucked. Fuck you, Lonely Planet.

End of the Road

Smelly inside, pretty outside.

The next day we caught our bus to Sarajevo. It was packed and we had to sit at the long seat in the very back. Every time the guy next to Joan moved, a hideous stench emanated from his armpits. Fortunately, the crowd thinned out as people reached their destinations along the way and we were able to get two seats away from stinkyboy. It was a scenic trip, if a little long.

I was a little perturbed when the bus stopped and everyone started to get off. As we got off the bus, I knew that this was not the Sarajevo bus station we had departed from almost two weeks before. “Sarajevo?” I asked of the bus driver as he was tossing our luggage onto the ground. “Ya, ya”, he said rather unconvincingly. Having no choice, we grabbed our bags and headed over to the taxi stand. The first cab in line was a decrepit piece of shit that had a decided list to the left. “Stari Grad”, I told the driver. He looked at me skeptically for a moment. “Stari grad” I repeated. “Ok”, he shrugged…and we were off on a scary, creaky 45 minute drive into Sarajevo proper with the driver intermittently asking for directions via radio. In hindsight, I figure the bus from Podgorica stops in the Serbian part of Sarajevo as Montenegro was decidedly pro-Serbian during the civil war. Leave it to the ignorant Canadians to fuck up their apartheid.

Bottom Line

The trip had it’s ups and downs but was always fun. Ok, maybe I wasn’t having too much fun as I sat in a field cussing out the GPS or as I was gamely trying to choke down 16 ounces of chicken salad…but it was a great time most of the time. Looking forward to our next adventure…

“Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” – Paul Theroux

2 thoughts on “Strangers in a Strange Land – Part III

  1. When I was Zurich I did something similar to what you did Niksic, I was driving along what seemed to be a nice little street when I noticed the pedestrians seemed to find something very funny. This realization came about 15 seconds before I noticed the damn street car coming straight at me…some streets you share the road with the street cars, but not this one!

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