Road Tripping in Dalmatia

The next morning, we boarded one of the last Yugoslav airline flights to Tivat, Montenegro. Soon the airline will be re-named “Air Serbia”. My in laws were coincidentally also booked on this flight, and we sat across the aisle from them during this short trip. Once we landed, we said goodbye as they went south for their vacation, and we rented a car and started our drive North, up the coast of Montenegro and over the border into Croatia.

Our first stop was Old Town Kotor, an ancient village on the sea built within massive stone walls all around it. As we entered the city gate, I was in awe. I had read about it, seen pictures, but to see it in person was something else. The streets were white marble and the churches towered in every square. This was one place where Catholic and Orthodox churches shared a courtyard, recording a time where many different peoples lived amongst each other in peace. We strolled through the town, stopped to enjoy some street musicians, and take in some history from the many guided tours. This would be the first of many cities we would visit that had a similar feel o them. A fortress, massive stone walls, marble streets, ancient history mixed with modern pizzarias and ice cream shops, and lots and lots of tourists. Still, the beauty was astounding, and we lingered enough time to appreciate it.

Soon, we moved on and continued our drive to the bay of Kotor. We stopped in Perast before pressing on to Risan for the evening. Perast is quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I’ve been many places in the world, seen a million views, but this is one of the most unique seascapes I have ever seen. Set in a deep inlet, the views from the land are of tall hills that dominate the sky. Technically it is not a fjord, but it looks like one. Both Perast and Risan are tiny coastal towns with ancient stone buildings, churches, and clock towers, and seaside restaurants and cafes along the main stretch. There are a handful of rooms for rent, and seafood is the local specialty. The tranquilty along these stretches is otherworldly. We sat at a restaurant on a dock and breathed in and out the salty sea air, and this was the first time on this trip that I let finally let go of the burden of my stress and surrendered to the peace around me.

Later we drove on to Risan, where we stopped to ask a toothless woman with a baby walking on the side of a road if she knew where “Lorena Rooms” was. She did indeed, in fact she was related to Lorena, and pointed us in the right directions. I had carefully selected this guest house after many hours of online research, but now I began to doubt myself. Minutes after we pulled into the driveway, my doubts vanished however, as we met Branko and Lorena, who greeted us and immediately offered us a drink of their homemade wine. We sat on their balcony overlooking the view, and they talked and talked and talked like they hadn’t had any visitors in quite awhile. Luckily, my muz speaks the language, and I was able to sit back and listen. Above us stretched a canopy of grapevines, the grape clusters swollen and begging to be picked. Even kiwi fruit hung ready from the vines above us.

They showed us to our room, which was simple but clean and fairly modern, and we had our own bathroom and refrigerator, and the view was simply stunning. They had even included a bottle of wine.

The next morning they greeted us with “local tea from the mountain, domestic honey and lemon grown from their garden” It was divine. We sat and talked and talked and talked, and the glistening in their eyes gave away their sweet spirits, even though I could not really understand most of what they were saying. Lorena was saying how I looked cold, and she went into the house to get something for me. To appease them, I dug into my bag and put on a sweater, and soon she emerged, satisfied that I was now warm enough. A few minutes later I noticed she was discreetly putting back on the simple crocheted vest that she had been wearing previously. Suddenly I realized what had just happened. She had literally gone in and realizing she had nothing else, had simply taken the shirt off her own back to give to me. I have heard about his, but never witnessed such behavior. These were good people. When we left, we waved and waved as we drove away. I almost felt like they had become family.

We drove on the Herceg Novi, not to be confused with Hercegovina. Herceg Novi was yet another variation of the ancient city set alongside a gorgeous sea view. This city was a little more developed, a little more touristy, but still, simply breathtaking. We walked along the seafront, settled for coffee and a view, taking the time to smell the salt air before returning to our car and driving up north again.

Soon we reached Dubrovnik, which of course is the most well-known town of this region. As much as I enjoyed Dubrovnik, I have to say, if I came here again, this is the one city I would not visit. After seeing a few lesser known, but still ancient and beautiful coastal towns, this one left me a little unimpressed. Maybe because it’s so popular and therefore overcrowded. Or perhaps, if I stayed longer, I would discover more of it to love. It is the quintessential Dalmation coastal town, completely encircled in a stone wall, which at times, is 6 meter thick. We walked along the top of the wall and the view from above – the vast expanse of orange clay roofs was indeed incredible. The marble streets and stone churches were gorgeous, but the tourists from the many cruise ships crowded the city like ants. We finally found a perfect spot of peace amongst the crowded streets. We discovered an isolated little bar outside the city wall, clinging onto the side rocks, where the view was amazing, and dropped steeply into the sea. Here we had cold Pepsi, hot sun, an ancient fortress behind us, nothing but sea view in front of us, it was divine.

Soon we were back on the road, and much to my surprise, my muz turned off the road before reaching our ferry point at a little town called Ston. There were two towns, Ston, and mali Ston (little Ston) and we pulled over and explored the town a little, which really did feel like a hidden gem. This town was once famous for is salt production, and because of its proximity to bigger, more important Dubronik, and the fact that Dubrovnik depended on it economically, a foreboding long stone wall was built around the city to protect it against the many invaders, mostly the Ottoman Empire. Apparently, in Ston, you can volunteer for a day or two to work at the still functioning salt flats. It is also a culinary treasure of the region, famous for its fresh seafood and olive oils and of course, local sea salt.

We returned to the car and pressed on to Orebic, where we would catch the ferry to Korcula. The drive from Ston to Korcula was a steep winding road hugging the mountain side so tight, I don’t know it 2 American size SUVs could pass each other without one falling off the cliff and into the sea below. Most places there were no guard rails, and the blind curves were relentless. We stopped to take a minute at a war memorial off the side of the road, furthering, if only by an inch,  my understanding of this region’s complex history.  We arrived in Orebic and boarded the ferry to Korcula. Since it was dark, I couldn’t see the island much as we approached, but I knew we were finally here. The excitement rose up inside me as we met his old family friend at the ferry dock and she drove us through the old town to our home base for the night. My muz had asked her to help us find a place for the night on the island, much to my protests. Even though this was his stomping ground, I felt I had a better idea of what we were looking for in an overnight stay, and I, being the control freak that I am, hated to surrender this important decision to someone else.  I wanted a place with character, a room with a view, a place where we could meet other travelers and share stories and ideas. I knew that these places were available here, but I also knew that this may not be where we were going.

It had rained recently, and we drove through the dark, wet, streets of Old Town Korcula making our way to what I hoped would be a perfect resting spot from which to enjoy the Island. As we approached the building where we would be staying, something didn’t seem right. We opened the door and walked down the hall, each side covered in old paintings of hills and seas with huge crosses on them. We opened the door to our room which was all white. White walls, white floor, white bedding, a tiny window in one upper corner which opened up to the grey street above, and a single gold crucifix hanging above our bed. I suddenly realized where we were. This was no charming guest house, we were in a convent! My heart sank as I realized we would be staying here. No view, no character, no island feel. We did have access to a patio, we were told, but to be careful when we went up there, no late night talking or coffee and conversation, as the nuns might be using it for their daily prayers. So much for the relaxing romantic setting I was hoping for. So far, Korcula was nothing like I expected.


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