2017, Daily Log, Personal, Travel

Riley Goes to Kotor, Montenegro Sunday October 1, 2017

We woke up early because we had not purchased a bus ticket to take us to Kotor, Montenegro and we were a little confused as to how often it ran. We figured the best thing to do would be to get over there as early as reasonable and buy the ticket for the next bus. We had no idea if it would be busy or not but we were worried there would be fewer buses on a Sunday.

The bus station lay directly across the bay from us, but there were no direct bus routes within the city to get us there so we took a cab, which ended up being pretty cheap.

We got to the bus station sometime after 8 to find that the first available spots were on the 11-something bus. We still don’t know if that’s because the 10 o’clock bus was full or because it was not operating. Either way, we ended up spending a long time in the Dubrovnik bus station, which was an interesting experience.

We got breakfast at the cafe which, for no conceivable reason, was not serving breakfast at this time of the morning. So we ate sandwiches which, though edible, were basically the worst food we ate during our trip to Croatia. We were served by a waiter who didn’t want to be there, didn’t seem to want us to be there, was annoyed we spoke only English (though he spoke English, working at a bus station in a tourist city, where the tourists  nearly all speak English) and whom I later witnessed using the toilet without washing his hands (as we sat across from the toilets while waiting for the bus). He was a splendid person.

Now is as good a time as any to remark upon an interesting and somewhat troubling phenomenon we found not only in Croatia, but in Montenegro (admittedly, tourist areas) and Serbia, but most especially in Amsterdam: the amount of English spoken. So much English is spoken in the places we chose to visit that, most of the time, it made zero sense for us to struggle with their languages to get by. Neither of us are adept at languages but, when we went to Colombia, we picked up enough words that we could at least indicate with these words and hand signals what we wanted to a non-English speaker. That never happened on this trip because 95+% of the people we dealt with in these countries either spoke English or knew enough English words to serve us essentially in English. When they discovered we spoke English, they would only address us in English even if we tried to use Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian (we barely bothered with Dutch). It reminded me of going to school in a bilingual town in Quebec, where I didn’t learn French because even the French-speakers spoke English to me. My terrible French and desperation to be understood made everyone resort to English.

My concern is this: the locals need to learn English because it is the language of tourism; tourists from China speak some, tourists from Japan speak some, I tried to help some French tourists with very little English speak some because they didn’t know Croatian and the woman serving them knew only Croatian and English. Most tourists cannot or will not make an effort to learn the local language, especially if they are on a trip to multiple different countries with different languages (and/or they are like me and have zero self-confidence when it comes to languages) so they use English. English will get you somewhere where your home country’s language usually will not. It makes sense on a practical level to use it in places where it is mostly understood. But it is a vicious cycle wherein tourists use the local language less and less the more locals learn English, and the more the locals learn English, the fewer tourists bother to even try using a few simple words of the local language. Is the fate of all tourist cities that of Amsterdam: where everyone has to be bilingual in the local language and English in order for the economy to prosper?

This strikes me as unfair but, more importantly, harmful. Diversity is a strength, not a weakness. I don’t want to live in a world where one language is shared between all 8 billion of us. I think it would be better for us all if we have more modes of communication than just English, a not very pretty, not very elegant, historical accident which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (This is coming from someone who can only speak English.) So I feel guilty when I fail to speak Croatian, or Montenegrin/Serbian, or Dutch (or Spanish or Turkish) when I am abroad. But it’s so easy not to, which is the problem.

Anyway, back to the trip…

Eventually, a bus showed up in the parking spot that we had been told was for Kotor and a whole bunch of people, mostly tourists, tried to get on. We discovered that our tickets did not purchase baggage storage and we had to pay a small additional fee to stow our bags, as did everyone else (as nearly everyone getting on the bus was a tourist staying at least one night in Kotor, or going further down the coast). There were two staff, one who spoke no English and one who spoke more than he would let on, which is perhaps why writing about this bus trip prompted my thoughts above. He clearly resented tourists (or, at the very least, tourists who can’t speak Croatian) and did a half-assed job of trying to force us to use Croatian, at least initially. This led to a great deal of confusion. (As did the presence of the supervisor of the bus company, who was yelling instructions at everyone, mostly in Croatian.) We had no trouble once we paid for our baggage (beyond Jenn being handed the baggage claim ticket for some guy’s bag) because we bought our tickets at the station, however a number of other people had a problem.

It’s hard to find the Dubrovnik bus terminal online. A number of third-party sites have monopolized (well, oligopolized) the search results so that most people likely purchase their tickets through a re-seller. Some of those tickets clearly state, in English, “This ticket must be printed for use” and some of them do not. A bunch of people had used a re-seller that did not inform them their tickets needed to be printed and come from societies in which tickets on smart phones are usually accepted in lieu of paper tickets. Not so for this bus line.

The staff member in charge of taking the tickets essentially had a 30 minute hissy fit on board the bus as he fought with these people about how they didn’t have paper tickets. He sort of explained, but never fully, that he needed to present all the paper tickets to someone. He was either unable or unwilling to explain who he had to present the tickets to or why he had to do this. He just kept insisting they were going to get him in trouble. My theory was that the border guards in Montenegro want the paper tickets but there was no problem (in this regard) at the border. The tourists had been told they could get paper tickets on the bus, both by the bus terminal staff and by the driver (though his English was such that there could have easily been a misunderstanding). So this man lectured his customers in an increasingly exasperated tone and refused to do anything to solve the problem. The tourists, who have clearly traveled a lot in Eastern Europe and took it in stride, found it mostly amusing and offered solutions (or asked for them) but, when he refused to tell them what they could do, they began to mock him. In one light this was cruel, given his broken English (and everyone’s lack of Croatian) may have prevented him from fully communicating with them. But the odd sentence was let slip where it seemed as though he knew plenty enough English to tell them what the problem was in more detail than “it bad for me.” When the tourists asked “What do we do?” he would just yell at them about not following the instructions that were not printed on their tickets. They offered to buy new tickets and he would ignore it and yell at them for not following the instructions.

This man appeared younger than me, so communism doesn’t feel like an explanation but this felt like one of those stories you hear about with an inflexible bureaucrat following the rules by the letter, refusing to make any exceptions or to explain why the rules exist in the first place, and doing a pretty awful job of phishing for bribes. (I don’t know that he was, but if he was, he was doing an awful job of it.)

Eventually, those tourists without paper tickets were given paper tickets and everything was sorted out. Nobody could figure out why he threw the tantrum (and it was a tantrum, as he yelled and gesticulated) and there was no trouble related to these tickets at the border or, as far as we could tell, with the bus company.

The other fun part of the bus ride was the temperature: it was a full bus and apparently the bus’ AC couldn’t cope so the ride was hot even with the windows open and the AC supposedly on. But the worst part was at the Montenegrin border, where you have to go through passport control and customs at two different places and, at passport control, we were in the bus for a good 30 minutes with no fresh air and no AC. It was hard to believe it was October and my shirt was soaked through with sweat. I used my passport, and then the guidebook, as a fan and it sort of helped.

Then, we had to get out and have our passports stamped at customs. (So, basically, they came on the bus and got our passports for the visa, but made us get off for customs. In neither case were we asked any questions.) Though it took forever, it was actually refreshing because we got to stand outside where it was something like 10 degrees cooler than in the bus. (Seriously, that is not an exaggeration. The hottest bus ride I think I’ve ever been on.)

On the plus side, the drive out of Dubrovnik and the drive into Kotor are incredible.

The bus route winds around the norther and easter sides of the “fjord” that Kotor is located on, and it’s one of the more incredible roads I’ve had the pleasure to take a bus along: the view changes constantly and there are loads of little villages as well as two churches literally in the “fjord” to look at. Though the road is narrow and slow-going, there is always something to look at.

It’s a long trip (significantly longer than the above map indicates, even though 2 hours for 90 km likely strikes you as absurdly long) because it takes forever to get anywhere in Montenegro, as the roads are mostly windy and narrow, with low speed limits (due to their narrowness). Montenegro remained independent as long as it did because of a simple fact: it is surrounded by mountains and mostly mountainous itself (the highest mountains are over 2,200 metres tall). It is called Crna Gora (pronounced Tsrna Gora) aka Montenegro because, when approaching the country from any direction, one is often confronted by a black mountain (really, a grey mountain, but let’s allow a little poetic license here). Kotor itself was usually not part of historic Montenegro because it is on the Adriatic, at the base of one of these massive “black” mountains. The only way to enter Montenegro from Kotor was, until about 130 years ago, a track up the side of the mountain.

Kotor is at the head of the Mediterranean’s only “fjord,” a giant, winding inlet that is much bigger in person than it looks on that map. If you’ve never been to Norway, or BC, or Alaska (I have only ever been to BC), I suspect there is nothing that quite prepares you for the immensity of this body of water surrounded by mountains. The only thing I have seen like it is Western Brook Pond in Newfoundland, which is much smaller in length but possibly a little higher/deeper mountain-wise. But none of these places have what Kotor has: a preserved medieval walled city.

You can’t see it that well from the bus, when you enter the town. Even in our traffic jam (there is one major road in the town), all we could see were the walls on the mountain and the walls in front of the city. You have to enter it to see what’s like: a smaller, flat Dubrovnik, with fewer people and far more affordable everything (and way more cats, too).

We got out of the bus station as soon as we could, not wishing to experience any more of our host/driver’s bad day, and walked to the gate closest to the bus station. All we knew is that our apartment was on the other side. Finding it proved difficult, because the houses and restaurants and stores are all numbered but not in an order that is readily apparent. It took us a few missteps and one hilariously brief and confusing conversation with some local teenagers, and one cruise ship guide, to find our apartment. But when we did, we were over the moon.

Our cheap, modern apartment was massive: a bedroom and living room bigger than my living room and kitchen (which is big) with cable and closets and a dining room table. Plus a full kitchen across the hall and a washroom with laundry. (This was a big deal for me, because I do not own enough underwear to last the length of this trip.) We paid an absurdly low rate for this massive place for two nights and, if you’re not sure you can afford Dubrovnik, let me tell you that you can absolutely afford Kotor, if you can figure out how to get here. I don’t know that I’ve stayed in a nicer “apartment” while traveling.

We went to lunch at the hilariously titled “Harbor Pub” (nowhere near the harbor, relatively speaking) which was extremely reasonably priced for a pub in a square (compared to Dubrovnik) and which was decent if slow. We were introduced to Montenegrin food here. We had been warned repeatedly that you don’t go to Montenegro for the food. but with a few specific exceptions, we found the food to be uniformly good, if very similar just about everywhere. And we have no idea what people are talking about when they say the food is bad here. It’s not varied (every place has essentially the same menu) but we had great luck with the flavour and with the quality of the cooking (rarely if ever was food overcooked).

We spent the late afternoon walking through the narrow streets and alleys and then went up on the walls. The walls in Kotor (around the city proper) are free, a far cry from Dubrovnik’s. They are also in far worse shape (and dirtier). Though Kotor gets tourists (many via cruise ship), it gets far fewer tourists than Dubrovnik (as you might imagine) and it seems as though there’s less money to maintain things. (Or people just like the walls run down.)

Later we went for gelato and went to Kotor’s Cat Museum. Kotor is famous for its cats, which are everywhere (much like Ephesus or like the dogs in much of the Balkans and Turkey).

For dinner, we went to a recommended place for fish, and I picked my fish from a table of freshly caught fish (which is a thing in Montenegro, on the coast anyway). It was delicious.

After dinner we went to a craft beer bar and had some mediocre (but interesting) Serbian craft beer.

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