Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On the Road to Montenegro

Greetings from Zagreb! Yea, I know, I haven’t written a word here in some time, but that doesn’t mean that nothing’s been going on here. Quite the contrary. I have a backlog of pics from Christmas and many other events and, of course, shots of food and other odds and ends that have intrigued us. And I wanted especially to talk about the babushka at Dolac who sells me rakija in little plastic coke bottles.

But in today’s space I would like to talk about one of our trips—and such a trip it was! Yikes. Part of the story is about how we got there and back—in one piece—and the other is about some of the things we did along the way. I don’t want to spoil the story, but all ended well and it was a very cool adventure. And by the way, we reaffirmed the idea after 40 something years of marriage that what constitutes ‘very cool’ for an adventure for one person may not be so for another.

The bottom line is that I was asked to give two talks and a poetry reading in Montenegro. It’s understandable if you don’t know where the country is, because it is not on the radar of most folks, but give it a quick ‘Google’ if it’s not part of your ‘geographic imaginary’. Oh yea, it’s been a country since 2006, having barely passed a referendum to leave Serbia. Having reached the middle-aged crazies, I thought it would be cool to drive, and so we did, for the eight day trip.

We drove from Zagreb to Podgorica via Dubrovnik and Kotor (Google these places if you want to see them on a map). My intent was to head home north through Nikšić (Montenegro) to Sarajevo and then on to the border, but when we left Podgorica it was snowing in most places directly north, so we basically (but not quite!) retraced our steps. The roads were very good most of the way, with highway (A-1) through much of Croatia being state of the art. Then again, there were some other roads that proved to be a bit more challenging.

The first night on the road from Zagreb was spent in Šibenik (Croatia), which is a deceivingly nice coastal town. It’s not that ‘upscale’ and it clearly falls under the shadow of Zadar, Split et al., but apparently it is a gateway to so many of the islands. It was cold and the wind was blowing (the bora—more on that later), but it was very, very nice to look out across the water to all the different islands, not being sure where one ended and the other began. The streets were steep and had many steps, twists and turns reminiscent of so many places in Italy. Of course, the influence of the Italians in the region (Dalmatia) is great, which was reflected, if nothing else, in the headstones and plaques in the gorgeous cemetery that overlooked the town. The Cathedral—where we saw the second of two weddings—is a bit unusual in its style and surroundings, and it was in a bit more disrepair than we usually see. That said it was very old and absolutely beautiful.

Dinner in Šibenik was a fine risotto di mare and cuttlefish risotto with its own black ink. The latter is apparently very Venetian, although the first time we had it was in Padua. It has a strong and unusual flavor that comes from its sac (cuttlefish is like a squid and is not a fish) that may not be for everyone, but we loved it. By the way, risotto in these parts is less the creamy kind that we know so well, but is more of a rice dish with the kernels being firmer.

The next day took some unexpected turns, literally, although fortunately the weather was gorgeous. The main highway ends not too far from Dubrovnik and from there you are on your own. We ended up on this narrow and very winding and steep road that descended into this amazingly picturesque valley of small farms and a couple of lovely little towns. It was Sunday, so the traffic was light, while the few shops in town were closed. We eventually ended up on the ‘main’ road near Ploče, and then winded our way slowly but surely along coast. It was not divided, and was steep and narrow, but it wasn’t really bad. The view was nothing short of spectacular, but I usually didn’t get to look, because the drop was w-a-y down. I had a running commentary from my navigator who told me the mountains, islands, and sea were absolutely beautiful, but that I was not allowed to peek, although I finally found a spot to stop the car and take a quick look at Dubrovnik from above. We then passed through Neum, which is a small strip of Bosnia and Herzegovina that lasts for maybe 15 miles before reentering Croatia.

Eventually we found our way to Montenegro and sea level, whereupon we slowly drove around Lake Skadar and the Bay of Kotor—some say it’s the largest fjord in Southern Europe, although those in the know say it’s not even a fjord—to the town of Kotor. The road was very narrow but good, with the water on one side and the mountains on the other. Along the way we passed through a variety of postcard picturesque towns, with two very small islands, one with a church the other a monastery, beautifully plopped down in the middle of the bay. It was absolutely gorgeous. In the town of Kotor, where we spent the night, you look out to the bay, mountains, and islands in front, while behind you is a rocky and nearly vertical cliff with steep steps leading up to one of the area’s many monasteries. In case you were wondering, Velvet, dinner was a sea food risotto and stuffed calamari that were caught earlier in the day.

Podgorica was a short drive from Kotor the next morning. We were hosted by the wonderful Isabelle and John, who kept us moving; they were wonderful hosts. We stayed at the Podgorica Hotel, which looked out to the river and mountains beyond. It was a very nice room and hotel, but—as with the rest of Montenegro—smoking was allowed almost everywhere, including eating areas. The city is surrounded by mountains and is in a beautiful setting, but most of the city was destroyed in WW II and the rebuilding has been somewhat haphazard. Still, it is a fascinating town with a very distinct character of its own.

On Wednesday there was an event for Black History Month—“Lift Every Voice—A Coffee House Celebrating African American Writers”, which was hosted by the American Corner. It was organized by the dynamic duo of Dustin and Danielle, ETA Fulbrighters; they are wonderful. The program was almost two hours of high school and college students, members of the Embassy staff, and an assortment of other folk, reading poetry, short stories, and even singing, to an audience of 80 people. I opened the festivities with a reading from Frederick Douglass (‘Love of God, Love of Man, Love of Country’) and later on Lucia read two poems from Rita Dove. It was a lovely evening and the two ‘kids’ deserve so much credit. The Montenegrin students were charming and engaging. It was more than a bit touching to hear them read Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, etc. with so much heart and soul. The next evening I gave my talk on “Influential African American Women” to a small group, and I was interviewed by the local press.

The next day we drove ‘up’ to Nikšić with Isabelle. The road was a bit winding, but not bad, and it was much colder than Podgorica; and there was plenty of snow on the ground and potholes in the road. At maybe 60,000 it is the second largest city in the country of only 600,000 people, but it is very low key. I gave my talk on traveling cinema there. The students are wonderful—eager, warm, friendly, and interested in so much the world has to offer. The opportunities available to them are somewhat limited right now, but they are an overwhelmingly optimistic lot. We then went out of town to a restaurant on the water, hosted by the irrepressible Marija K. and the so kind Janko A. Our lunch was several large platters of octopus salad, smoked fish, peppers, cheese and some fantastic pršut (prosciutto), which is a very big deal in the region. The food was great!!! Oh yea, I LOVE pršut.

While in Podgorica the next day we visited the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Church in Podgorica. We couldn’t get an answer as to its exact affiliation (Montenegrin or Serbian) but it would seem to be the Metropolitanate of Montenegro Diocese of the Serbian church, clearly Serbian then. The issues are very complex here, so I’ll leave it at that. They have been working on the church since 1993 and construction is moving very slow. But the part that’s done is astounding—it’s new but made to look old and it is stunning; it is like nothing I have ever seen. Liturgy is held downstairs, which looks gorgeous in itself.

Montenegro is a small country with many cultural and economic hurdles to clear, but it is also a country with breathtaking natural sights and a unique history and culture. And the people are wonderful. I want to go back.

So, on an early Friday morning we headed out of Podgorica toward home. Again, we basically retraced our steps, because the weather wasn’t so nice. At the Bay of Kotor we took a ferry, which shortened the trip by well over an hour. We saw a little light rain and snow flurries, but nothing serious. After some thought, we decide to stop at Šibenik again. By this time, I was a bit more comfortable with the roads and near Dubrovnik we made the right connection this time, which was very fortunate, given the mountains were getting heavy snow. Dinner included fresh squid grilled right in front of us in a small, intimate restaurant. Of course, we also had a fine Croatian white wine.

The next day seemed to work out fine, because we were able to get back on the main highway without much trouble. By the way, besides the most state of the art bridges, tunnels and highways, there are ‘animal crossings’, which go over the tunnels, usually the briefer ones. There also fairly inconspicuous fences along the way, so the bottom line is that there is virtually no road kill of any kind. And apparently the animals use these things. I kept telling Lucia that Shari would be pissed if I didn’t take any pics, so here you go.

The boro is a powerful wind that comes out of the mountains along the Adriatic toward the sea, and they are especially strong in Croatia. The Santa Ana winds have the same physical premise, but they are wimps compared to these guys, which have been clocked at 120 mph—hurricane force. There are giant wind socks along the highway in a variety of places, along with some large and complex fences of different orders, to protect cars and trucks as much as possible. Well, the bora decided to REALLY blow when we were not more than three hours from Zagreb on this fine four lane highway.

All of a sudden the signs made us get off the highway. There were police cars with lights flashing, but no directions. Where next? The Croatian drivers didn’t get much in the way of answers and went off in different direction. So we followed a small road through town, which looked like it would dead end, so after some time we went back to the off-ramp. There was a new cop who spoke a little English (much more than I speak Croatian). The bottom line is that he barked out some towns. After looking at the map we saw that it was a long detour around a huge lake and then here…and there…before supposedly reconnecting with the highway. If you are interested, we were in the region of Lika, and eventually passed through Obrovac and Gračac.

It took hours. We passed by some beautiful but what seemed to be poor farm countryside, complete with burned our churches, homes, and schools from the Homeland War. At far too many other times we crept up the side of very steep mountainsides (in second gear) with sheer drops and sometimes no guardrails. It was an astonishing landscape. To make matters worse, even this route was windy—we passed by a large truck on its side—and traffic was fairly heavy, because everyone eventually came to know this was the only possible route. And buses and trucks were taking the route. Alas, the story ends well, because we finally reached the highway again, and even though the bora was cooking, it was not worrisome and we got the car back to Zagreb before nightfall. To say we were exhausted at the end of the ride is an understatement. Ah, but what a rush; so cool. This brings me back to the definition of adventure experienced by two people sitting next to each other…

Zagreb, Croatia