Friday, 8 July 2011

Greek Islands Cruise Part 2

After a night at sea we were able to sleep in a little before having breakfast at the restaurant and relaxing on the deck of the ship and then in our room. At around 10:30am we rounded Prevlaka (the southernmost tip of Croatia) and entered the Bay of Kotor. The next hour or so was spent cruising through one of the most beautiful areas we had ever seen; towering mountains dropping steeply into an astounding blue harbour; small villages perched on the edge of the water, usually on promontories; a road winding precariously around the various bays and inlets on each side of the water; and small islands, occasionally with a church or farmhouse in the centre, with people waving as we cruised past. Montenegro was the country we had heard least about before coming on this cruise but this section of the cruise rapidly established it as one of the places we most enjoyed, and this even before we had dropped anchor in the port. It is no wonder that this is a world heritage site.

Kotor has been known since ancient Roman times, having been part of the Roman province of Dalmatia, and was first referred to in 168 BCE when it was called Acruvium. It is located at the far end of the Bay of Kotor and was walled during medieval times. That wall still exists now, both around the city and extending up as a fortification over the hillside for 4 ? kilometres, giving a view of the harbour below. We travelled into town by tender, a trip which was incredibly smooth due to the calm waters in this part of the bay, met our tour guide and driver and boarded the bus that we were going to be travelling on as we explored this part of Montenegro.

The first step was to climb the hill, immediately behind the town, which we did via 25 switchbacks back and forth. This road is only 1 lane each way and feels quite narrow as well as windy. When traffic came in the other direction it was occasionally necessary for one or the other vehicle to reverse in order for them to pass. Looking out the window it was at times only an inch or two separating a side mirror from the side of the car or the rock mountainside. Near the road is an old mule track known as the 'Ladder of Cattaro', which used to be the only route linking the coast to Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro. There are stories of large pieces of furniture being carried on the backs of mules up and over the mountains. By the time we reached the top we were a kilometre and a half above sea level and the views were magnificent.

After a brief stop and multiple photographs we journeyed on to the village of Njegusi located on the other side of Mount Lovcen. This town was the birthplace of the Petrovics, the royal Montenegrin family but we were not there for a history lesson. As we drew near to our destination we spotted a group of small cabins and were commenting on how quaint they were. We then drew up at these very same cabins, and the restaurant that was the main point from which holiday accommodation in the cabins could be booked. Our lunch consisted of homemade cheese, smoked ham, bread and a choice of coke, red wine, or a mead drink. Because there were a couple of tour buses stopping at the same time it was very crowded. The bread was quite dry but the prosciutto and cheese were lovely and the red wine was very strong.

Of recent times, Montenegro has only been officially recognised as an independent nation since June 3, 2006, when it declared independence from Serbia as part of the long-term break up of the former Yugoslavia. This was not the first time that something like this had happened for this area. In 1878 Montenegro had received recognition as an independent state within the Austro-Hungarian empire (a situation which lasted till the end of the Great War, when it was annexed by Serbia and then incorporated into Yugoslavia). In its previous independent incarnation the capital was Cetinje, our next stop on the tour, and the city has maintained much of its historical character. We saw a number of foreign embassies, the theatre, an old monastery dating back to the 15th Century, and a variety of other buildings, with the highlight being a tour of the old royal palace.

While described as a palace, the building itself was smaller than many of the houses we see in Qatar or Australia. However, the guide who showed us around was immensely proud of the history of his country and the history it has had. The building featured an amazing collection of artefacts, most of the related to the royal family, including some of the medals, uniforms and regalia presented to them. For a tiny nation, as they were, they had obviously been very influential. Much to Meg's delight the upstairs section had been preserved to look as it had done when the family had lived there. The excellent preservation with the knowledge and enthusiasm of the guide made it feel as if we were stepping back in time. It was a wonderful experience.

From Cetinje we headed back toward the coast and the centre of modern Montenegrin tourism, the town of Budva. Unlike some of the roads we had previously traversed this was a wide modern highway which, when we saw Budva made a lot of sense. Budva is a tourist town because it is very beautiful, sitting on the Adriatic with idyllic beaches and small islands. Settlement there dates back approximately 2 500 years, but it is so modern in its architecture and fittings that it could be anywhere in the world. Jaz Beach, one of the prime areas, has hosted concerts by the Rolling Stones and Madonna, and some other big names were slated to appear there during the summer. However, Budva is probably best known for the island of Sveti Stefan, which is now connected by a causeway to the mainland, which was once a fortified village but is now a resort and was the titular setting (although no scenes were filmed there) for the 2006 version of 'Casino Royale'.

The last part of our trip took us out across the coastal plains toward the Tivat Airport before turning onto the road that took us through the Vrmac Tunnel (nearly 3 klm long) back into Kotor where we were to take a walking tour of the old town. The Venetians built the town walls back when Venice still had its own empire and much of the architecture of the rest of the city is Venetian as well. It had lovely old cobblestoned streets that are so narrow that traffic is almost exclusively pedestrian. An earthquake damaged much of the city back in 1979 but it has largely been rebuilt to maintain the old character of the town. We had a lovely walk around, admiring the beautiful, old, Catholic cathedral and sending postcards from the local post office before catching the tender back to the ship. The walls of Kotor bear the legend "What belongs to others we don't want, what is ours we will never surrender." It is a truly beautiful place and we hope that this is one of the things referred to by those words.

Cruising out through the bay was possibly more beautiful than the cruise in, as the sun was setting and the lights of the small villages began to twinkle on the shoreline. Up on the hills overlooking the bay there were individual dwellings and churches that must have had the most amazing view overlooking the bay. We immediately decided that, if we ever won the lottery, one of the places we would love to own a house would be on the shores of Kotor Bay. Overnight we would be cruising along the remainder of the Montenegrin coast (we passed Budva while we were having dinner) and then past Albania.

The following day was spent entirely at sea, the first of two we would spend this way during this cruise. The lack of a need to wake early to take a tour allowed us to sleep in before breakfast again. We were able to spend the day exploring the ship, participating in things like trivia and mask making. In the evening was the first heat of the karaoke challenge where a variety of people from around the world, including a girl from the Philippines, another from the United States, and a man from South Africa were among the contestants. Our South African friend fancied himself as a rapper and produced a hilarious version of the theme from 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air' while another, very drunk, English woman produced the most cringe worthy performance of the night. All in all it was an amusing day.

1 comment:

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