Kotor Revisited, and How to Deal with a Travel Slump

Kotor was moody and fickle. Storm clouds – dark and heavy – threatened to ruin our hike, but midway up the mountain, the temperature had surged five degrees, leaving me sweaty for a picture proclaiming I’d reached my 30th country.

MEXICO

But, joder, she was worth the wait.

I’ve always traveled with a heightened sense of awareness – most notably, with my five senses. I can nearly savor the fried grasshoppers in Beijing or hear the call to prayer in Marrakesh (maybe those are just the annoying church bells at my local parish). In Kotor, though, I felt nearly numb to anything else but sight.

Emerald water and beet red roofs contrasted the ominous grey mountains that wrapped around the bay and the slate houses. Small boats bobbed as the waters lulled and lapped against the port. The mountains seemed hung from the sky.

picturesque Montenegro

Our road trip around Europe’s newest country had very loose rules. From our base in Herceg-Novi, we spent a few days doing our normal travel thing:  wake up, drive the car around until something pretty caught our eye, gorge on cevapi sandwiches and local beers (and the addictive JOST! snacks). 

The weather turned from bad to worse as we descended on Montenegro via Dubrovnik, including a hail storm and power outage once we reacher Herceg-Novi on empty stomachs. Each day, we’d simply drive out of town on the main road, keeping the Bay of Kotor on the right hand side of the vehicle and tick towns off the map: Perast, Tivat, Budva.

Fog over Kotor Montenegro

The undisputed jewel of the Montenegran Adriatic is Kotor. An unblemished Old Town, traces of Venetian, Ottoman and Napoleanic prowess and a varied population make it a popular destination and UNESCO World Heritage city.

2013 was a red-letter one for me as a professional and as a traveler, but only now, two years after our trip, do I feel like I found Kotor to stir up some weird feelings in me.

Historic Center of Kotor

Arriving in the early morning, we were told to take the stairs out of town that led to the old fortifications and a smattering of old Via Crucis and roadside temples. The 1350 steps were steep and the humidity hung heavy over our heads. Layer by layer, I took off my scarf and blazer as we climbed closer towards the castle and the gradually lightening sky.

Always privy to climb to the highest point of any given city to see it from above, Kotor didn’t disappoint. I probably blinked a few times. Like Dubrovnik, the views were storybook, like something I’d seen on social media and had dreamed up. 

The Bay of Kotor and mountains

The rain held off enough, but the dark clouds of the morning seemed to have cleared up in the sky, but were beginning to cloud my thoughts. I took my obligatory picture at the top, under a red flag emblazoned with a black eagle. Thirty countries, jaw-dropping views…and I was rather blasé about it.

Back in town, we tucked into a cheap local beer and greasy pizza slices before wandering the small but stunning well preserved old town. I can’t recall many details from the afternoon, save the pristine city streets juxtaposed with the jagged rock face of the surrounding mountains, the cats leaping onto café chairs, the domes of the Orthodox churches. My sight prevailed, but I failed to catalogue sounds or smells or even a local taste.

Nothing exciting, nothing unordinary, nothing particularly great or not great describes my day in Kotor, and even the way I’m beginning to feel about travel.

Historic Kotor, Croatia

Kotor marked a beginning and an end, in a way. Since I was 20, I’d longed to travel to world and learn a language or two. I told myself 25 by 25 would suffice, and pulling into an abandoned bus terminal in Prague at the break of dawn before my 25th birthday meant I’d have to rethink my goal.

Afterwards came Romania, Turkey, Andorra, and Montenegro (and then Slovakia and India), and I surpassed that goal before turning 28. A beginning to more mature travel and an end to constant moving.

Boats on the Bay of Kotor

I’ll be 30 in less than two months, with a mortgage and a new husband to boot. Travel hasn’t lost its sheen completely, but my preferred web sites are decidedly devoid of budget airline sites. I still get delight out of pinning places and reading blog posts about travel gear and news apps and far-flung destinations, but I’ve strangely not had much urge to travel.

A close friend asked me recently about my upcoming travel plans and I realized I hadn’t been on a plane sine January, and that was to Barcelona. That my airline miles on AA had expired from disuse. That my rolling suitcase had collected dust. I’m not packing up my passport, but then again, I’m not 100% certain as to its whereabouts.

St Tryphon Cathedral Montenegro

Since money again became a concern after the house (those things cost a lot of money to maintain – who knew?), my trips have been limited to weekends and any place I can reach by car. That’s meant a bachelorette party in Málaga, a solo hike on the Caminito del Rey, scattered weekends in Madrid or San Nicolás. For someone ready to comerse el mundo, it’s a weird – albeit welcome – feeling.

Back in Kotor, we bought and wrote postcards, sipped free beers as we checked our emails and caught up on Facebook, occasionally popping into a shop or craning our necks for a photo. But, as a destination, it garnered a mere, ‘meh.’

Shutters in the center of Kotor

I didn’t have any profound or life-shattering epiphanies upon reaching my 30th country before turning 30, just as I didn’t find enlightenment in India (just a stomach virus and a love for tuk tuks) nor did I figure out the meaning of life on the Camino de Santiago. For the woman who vowed to never feel tied down, I found that I needed a limit, a destination that failed to wow me, a place that made me choose how to spend my money. Kotor was undeniably beautiful, but lacked spark. 

I have no big trips on the horizon, and even our post-wedding road trip to New Orleans is an afterthought for me. Walking back over the Triana bridge on a balmy late spring night, I felt tears fill my eyes as the sun was setting. The gentle buzz of traffic, the smell of churro grease, the cobblestones under my feet.

As it turns out, my senses feel most alert in the very place I live, so I think I’ll be sticking around here for a while.

Have you ever experienced a travel slump? How did you overcome it?

My Travel Round Up from the First Six Months of 2013

My parents, upon my high school graduation (10 years ago…thank you, Atlantic Ocean, for existing and putting distance between me and my fellow Tigers just this once!) gave me a heartfelt speech about how I was always the child who never learned how to walk. I went from spitting up on myself to running, just like I went from college to globetrotter four years later.

There was no better way to start my year than ringing in 2013 with my familia and cousin Christyn in Puerta del Sol. The first six months of the year have been busy (but the good kind), fruitful and happy. I’ve been able to sneak in some travel, my 30th country and finish a master’s in the process.

January

After a trip to Barcelona with my parents and taking various day trips around Catalonia, I returned to work absolutely pooped and with zero ganas to move forward. The chilly weather and the extra responsibility of becoming a training Director of Studies was a lot of work, but the great people at Almohalla 51, Myles and David, allowed Hayley and I to come stay with them at their newly-opened boutique hotel in Archidona.

I also looked forward to having the Novio home from his duty abroad. As a late anniversary present, I took him to eat our way through Florence and Bologna. In between bites, we checked out the sites along the Arno, drank copious amounts of espresso and Moretti beer and befriended a Venetian named Peppino. Buona manggia, sí señor!

February

February was quiet, though Angela and Ryan of Jets Like Taxis joined me on a colorful trip to Cordoba. I chalk it up to being a short month.

March

As the trimester wound down, I began to get geared up for my Semana Santa trip to Dubrovnik and Montenegro. Hayley, my Spanish media naranja, and I walked the impressive city walls in Dubrovnik while refueling on cevapi, a spiced sausage sandwich and drinking in the views and local beers at Buza Bar (despite its obnoxious advertising).

After a few days in the Pearl of the Adriatic, we took a bus across the border to Montenegro, which was my 30th country. While  the weather wasn’t stellar, we were charmed by Europe’s youngest country. The friendly people, the free wi-fi and the views of our roadtrip around the Bay of Kotor made for a rejuvenating week.

April

April showers seemed to have brought Feria heat – we sweated right through our flamenco dresses, and I think my right bicep is now twice as large as its twin from all of that fan flicking. I even broke some of my own rules when it came to stalking around the Real!

Just the week before, I had gone up to Madrid (if only I had a euro for every maldito trip I’ve made to la Capital…) to visit my sister-in-law, Nathàlia, and pick up my new car, Pequeño Monty. Nath is Brasilian but did her degree in Alcalá de Henares, city of Miguel de Cervantes fame, so she showed me around her town known for its university and free tapas.

May

Luckily for this guiri, the usual May weather was nowhere to be found, so we got some respite from the heat. Meg and I drank rebujito at the Feria de Jerez, a lite version of Sevile’s famous fête where you don’t get trampled by horses, and we bounced between a Mexican-themed caseta and a biker bar. Toto, We’re not in Sevilla anymore. The following day, I continued the fiesta in the Novio’s village at their Romeria de San Diego, a booze-soaked picnic in the middle of the dehesa.

A week later, I attended my first blog trip to Calpe, a small fishing village that has capitalized on the tourism boom from nearby Benidorm. Despite the hotels popping up along the beach, Calpe is laid-back yet bursting with energy. We were treated to tons of water-related activities, including paddle surfing and betting on our lunch at the Lonja de Pescado.

June

During the first weekend of June, I had to make a trip to Madrid for mandatory camp meetings and Camino dealings. I met with Pablo, Fernando and Alex of Caser Expat Insurance, who are helping me make my Camino For the Kids a reality. I even got my feet checked out by the team at Podoactiva, the same people who outfit professional athletes with their shoes.

The Novio and I snuck in a day at the beach, and my mom came to stay for a week in the last sweltering week of June. I was extremely busy with my master’s and preparing for summer camp. Apart from showing her my favorite restaurants and rincones of Seville, we also made it to Jerez to see the horse show, to Doñana for a horse ride through Mazagón, and San Nicolás del Puerto, where she got to meet the Novio’s mother and ride their prized mare, Orgiva.

I am happy to say that I have very few travel plans at the moment for the second half of the year, save slinging tomatoes at the Tomatina with Kelly in August and Oktoberfest with my cousins in late September – I need a break after a year of turning my blog into a business, completing a master’s in a second language and starting a new job. Sunshine? Yes. Siesta? POR FAVOR. 

Don’t forget that I’ll be back at camp in July, and then walking close to 320km to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer patients back home on the Camino de Santiago. Please follow #CaminoFTK on twitter or instagram for more information. Sunshine and Siestas is also accepting guest posts during this time, so please send your stories and photos from Spain!

What were your travel highlights of the first six months of the year?

Photo Essay: Driving the Picturesque Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

“Drive. Just drive. Stop when you feel like it, but make sure you’re not the one in the driver’s seat.”

Ryan, Angela and I were sitting in the bright February sun in Plaza de Gavidia while they helped me plan my spring break trip to Croatia and Montenegro. Their suggestion was to rent a car once in Montenegro and drive the staggeringly dramatic Bay of Kotor, a sprawling bay that looked like a butterfly bandage and is denoted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My friend Hayley and I had both been taking driving classes and had bought stick shift cars, so we figured we’d have little problem in renting a cheap coupe through an internationally recognized company. Climbing into the driver’s seat brought back a flurry of memories from when I was a new driver: It was with a heavy heart that I bid goodbye to my old Honda Accord calledthe Red Dragon. Bringing it to Spain was not an option I considered, despite the existence of companies like Autoshippers international car shipping, and my groggy brain welcomed the news that my father had sold it when I arrived to Madrid 12 hours later. Adiós, Red Dragon.

Since I couldn’t ship a car over to Spain, I recently bought my brother-in-law’s 2002 Peugeot 207, who has taken on the mota Pequeño Monty. He and I are still working on our relationship (read: despite having an EU license and convincing a driving instructor that I knew what I was doing when it came to stick shift, I’m still terribly nervous of stalling or running down the gears). I figured a little road trip in rural Montenegro with a newly minted DL would do the trick.

Herceg Novi

Herceg Novi was our base camp for the three nights we spent in Europe’s youngest nation. Just down the mountain from the border police and past the town of Igalo, famous for its mud baths, we were greeted by Stana. We were to stay in her apartment rental for a few nights while exploring the bay.

 Our first day was spent hiding in bars and napping while the rain poured, providing a gloomy backdrop against the dark, jagged skyline of mountains that protected the bay. Planning our route on w-fi and the help of Stana’s stash of maps that had been around since before Montenegro won its independence, we ignored the threat of rain and planned on reaching Sveti Stefan before day’s end.

Perast

Herceg Novi is one of those one-road-in-one-road-out types of cities. Hayley and I ditched the map, simply keeping the bay on the right hand side of the car. She drove, and I pointed out places to stop for photos. The skies were painted purple with streaks of grey, the harsh white caps that crashed against the coastline and threatened to wash over the pavement we were driving along, the switchbacks and the small roadside churches made of stone provided more entertainment for us than an unreliable radio.

As we rounded the bay at Kamenari, watching ferries leave and enter a sleepy port, a miniature church loomed in the distance. We stopped at  a lighthouse to take pictures and realized it was a small set of churches planted on a man-made island in the middle of the bay. Our Lady of the Rocks was an important pilgrimage site in conflicted times, and it interested Hayley and I, as we spent the better part of our journey preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago this summer. Indeed, we’d see ruined churches during the entire jaunt, some leveled to little more than rubble.

Ringing around the small towns promoting rural stays, spas and even Roman ruins, we passed Risan and decided we’d had enough nature and road on only a weak hot drink from Stana, which she’d left outside our apartment that morning. Perast was the next town along the bay, and because the highway 2/E-65 passes right above it, it remains hidden, save a church tower that jutted upwards, the bell tower level with the motorway.

Perast is said to have one of the highest concentrations of millionaires along the bay, and its rustic, Old World feel was breathtaking. A quick stop for coffee and tea turned into an hour while we photographed boats, Our Lady of the Rocks and the crumbling stone buildings.

Alright Montenegro, you’ve more than made up for the weather.

Sveti Stefan

By passing Kotor, the de-facto capital of the region, stop for cruise ships and title holder of another UNESCO nod, we took the newly-opened tunnel Vrmac that cuts travel time around the bay significantly. Exiting Kotor’s Stari Grad, take the roundabout towards the big, gaping hole in the mountain, and it will spit you out at the Tivat airport. Rather than heading back around the protruding peninsula towards Kotor, we instead headed south towards Budva and Sveti Stefan

Sveti is only 10-15 minutes past Budva, and was once a rocky island that has been turned into a luxury hotel complex that seems to retain some sort of charm. The problem was, the isthmus that has been constructed to reach the island is heavily guarded by hotel staff, and they won’t let you get past the gates and the thin strip of rocky beach. On our way back up, we stopped for an epic meal at a roadside bar, complete with fireplace and enormous mugs of Nikšićko beer.

Budva

Rounding out the day, we thought we’d make a quick jaunt to Budva, an ancient city with fortified walls. I’d been warned by Liz of Liz in España that the town resembled a strange Russian resort town and was best skipped.

She was right.

The walls are striking, but the town’s historic center – which has some traces of the architecture I’d seen in Split – has lost much of its beauty due to tourism. This also meant that the sites and most businesses were closed during the off-season. We’d paid for more than two hours of parking, so we spent the drizzly afternoon in and out of bars to steal wi-fi (this country is practically connected everywhere!) and popping into shops.

Our afternoon plan was to drive to Kotor to watch the Montenegrin’s national team’s football game, but we chose to bypass the tunnel and instead drive back along the coast – this time with the water on our left-hand side – and drink in the mountains-meet-water views. The roads were rampant with potholes, and any passing cars would have to creep along, as there was only enough room for one. We were told the journey would take an hour, but as soon as the lights of the Stari Grad appeared around the band of the village at Muo, we were stopped by an unadvertised construction obstacle, meaning we had to turn around and go back to Tivat anyway.

Kotor

Familiar with the road and our rental, Hayley and I jumped in the car after another one of Stana’s hot drinks rounds the following morning. Her enormous German Shepherd followed us down the stairs to the gate, where Stana was waiting for us with open arms. Using simple, monosyllable words and over exaggerrated hand gestures, we explained that we were leaving.

“Oh!” Stana exclaimed, clasping her hands together and then enveloping us in a hug. She said something in her native tongue and with her hands on our shoulders, announced that we’d have  nice day with nothing more than a thumbs up and “Nice Day!”

Taking advantage of the morning cool, we decided we’d first attack the mountain that shelters the ancient city. The medieval fortifications that surround the town also extend upwards another three miles. As Hayley and I are walking 200 miles on the Camino, we figured we’d start training: we grabbed some bread and refilled out water bottles and began the trek.

The thousands of worn stone steps are punctuated with small temples, stations of the cross and other panting climbers. We stopped every so often so swigs of water, slowly peeling off the layers we’d put on the brave the elements that day. Once we’d reached the top, our 45 minutes of suffering were rewarded – the small, protected cove of the bay was striking against the jade green water, slate grey mountains and the bright terra-cotta roofs below us.

Kotor is, in short, well deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage nod.

The rest of the morning was spent lazing around the city, ducking into artisan shops, writing postcards and drinking beers with locals. I was shocked with the warmth of a people who had been so battered during the previous decade’s war and turmoil. Every other beer was paid for, our enormous (and cheap!) pizza slices were delivered with wide smiles and the beautiful restoration work in the historic center, within the stone walls, spoke nothing of the war.

Tivat

While driving through Tivat the day before, we noticed signs for an enormous luxury complex, Puerto Montenegro. McMansions were going up along a quiet cove in the bay, complete with upscale restaurants and markets and a luxury spa called Pura Vida just steps off of where the yachts were parked. Since the forecast had predicted rain, we thought it a good idea to book treatments, choosing a mud wrap from the “healing” mud of Igalo and a facial – but not before a glass of wine with a view of the port!

My mom never took me to spas as a kid – I was a tomboy and always busy with sports – so I always feel ridiculous going into them because I have no idea what to do. Those stupid cardboard flip flops and the stupid, crispy white sheets. I got rubbed down in oils and mud and wrapped up like a pig in a blanket, and then had to tell the esthetician to be careful around the black eye that had sprouted under my right eye.

Driving back around the bay, we bypassed Kotor after a trip to the mall and headed back towards Herceg-Novi. Despite all of the great food we’d had, Hayley suggested stopping at a roadside bar for more cevapi, a grilled sausage sandwich. We made it nearly all of the way back to our home base before seeing the lights of a bar whose name was written in cyrillic.

The meats were laid out in a deli case, and upon requesting the cevapi with seven sausages (gluttony much?), the attendant fired up an outdoor grill and slapped 14 sausages down on the grill. We could hardly contain our appetites as we drove the last few kilometers home, laughing at how Soviet the bar had looked.

Herceg Novi

Back once again in Herceg Novi, we finally got a clear day. The waters on the bay lay calm and a slight breeze had us wrapping ourselves in sweaters. “I have a great plan,” Hayley announced as we walked through the Stari Grad, cameras in hand. “Let’s grab a few beers from the convenience store down by the beach and sit and just hang out.”

Girl gets me.

Have you ever been to Croatia or Montenegro, or had an epic road trip?

Montenegro! Very nice! Weather, very bad! But People, so nice!

The bus driver slammed on the brakes, causing me to crash into the handrail I was using to steady myself. “Thank you! Bus Station!”

We were regurgitated from the Dubrovnik city bus and into the dreary station, where ruddy-faced city folk roamed like the stray cats we’d seen all over the city. Taxi? a few whispered as we passed by with our suitcases. Hotel? I approached the dirty ticket window and asked for two one-ways to Herceg Novi, Montenegro, an hour south of the Pearl of the Adriatic. After two glowing days in the city and a big life decision, I would be stepping foot in my thirtieth country.

Hayley and I settled into the plastic benches inside the station, watching the rain come down. Fifteen minutes ticked by past our sheduled departure time. Then another fifteen. Buses headed to Zagreb or Mostar rumbled in and out, but nothing marked HERCEG NOVI or any other destination rolled by.

Ninety minutes after we expected to, we had passed two border controls and entered Crna Gora. The highway snakes between a series of mountains, finally dumping us out in the seaside village of Igalo on the Bay of Kotor. Low, dark clouds rolled in over the wide mouth of the famous bay, which looks like two butterfly bandages stuck together.

It was odd to remember that Montenegro was born in the same year as kiddies I taught in first grade last year, that’s it’s been centuries since they’ve had their own money, that for years they were the little sister to Serbia after the Yugoslav conflict. I braced myself for bullet holes in buildings, or war cries painted on cracked and crumbling drywall. Montenegro looked the same as Dubrovnik, just with half of the signs written in Cyrillic, a homage to the city’s tumultuous past.

Dovar met us across the street from the bus station. It’s apparently really easy to spot two bewildered American girls in a country that a cell phone claims is Serbia and things are written in cyrillic and the Roman alphabet. Our car was upgraded to an automatic, snow chains came included and we were a mere 200 meters from our rental apartment. Stana great us with open arms, enveloping us into a big hug.

“Montenegro! Very nice! Weather, very bad. Ok. We come, girls.”

She made us hot drinks, showing us around the apartment and a few scattered and torn maps of the area. Once we’d satisfied our internet vice, we set out in hopes of finding a place to eat. Stana didn’t understand our requests for food, instead offering us up a few wrinkled oranges she’d cultivated from her garden.

The rain started pouring the moment we got into the car. Unaware of how to get to the historic part of town, we drove away from the apartment and followed the narrow, winding roads until Hayley spotted a red, white and green awning. “Ah! Italian! Stop the car!”

We stopped and I immediately regretted putting my umbrella in the trunk, especially after our two gorgeous days walking the walls in Dubrovnik and drinking beers at cliffside bars. The street had turned into a landslide, a waterfall, and the Italian restaurant was actually a shoe store. Montenegro has become a popular getaway for the jet set, but we were at the end of March.

The historic center, which spills down a hill right into the Bay of Kotor, was a ghost town. The only open establishment was Portofino, easily the priciest restaurant in town during the low season. As it turned out, the hail had shut off the power in the entire historic center, and we were offered  a limited menu: Caesar Salad or Caesar Salad, to be eaten by candlelight.

At least the beer was still cold.

As we asked for the bill, the waitress told us in broken English that we’d been invited to a drink by the group of men sitting near the door. We’d observed the four townies throwing back shots of the national spirit, Rakia. They raised our glasses to us, and we did the same to them.

I think I’m going to like Montenegro, I thought to myself, crap weather or not.

Have you ever been to Montenegro? What did you like about the country, or not?

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