There was one final stop in Bosnia before heading to the boarder, A day trip to the town of Mostar, a nice little town about two hours west of Sarajevo. I hadn’t enough time to explore the city much outside of the old town, which is what brings the majority of visitors to the city. Quite typical of most medieval cities of Austrio-Hungarian and Ottoman era influence, old stone buildings and roads, mosques and churches, weave their way outwards from the Neretva river. Mostar gets its name from the biggest tourism draw: Stari Most (Old Bridge), a stunning arch bridge that connects the two sides of town. Twenty years to the day that I’m writing this, November 9, during the conflict of ’93, the bridge was tragically destroyed, but has since been rebuilt, and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Probably the most photographed structure of the Balkans, once you see it in person, it’s easy to understand why. If you ever get the chance to visit, come early, the town is amazing in the morning, but close to noon, the entire old town becomes infested with tour groups.
After the visit to Mostar, we make our way back to Sarajevo, and grab a bus south into Montenegro. Again, the border crossing brought about a fairly noticeable change of scenery, this time with less colour, but much more stunning cliffs and mountains. The main destination in Montenegro is Kotor, on the coast, but to break up the trip a little, we spend a night high in the mountains at the Ostrog Monastery. Built into the cliffside above a wide valley, the Serbian Orthodox Church is a popular pilgrimage site for many followers, as well as a bit of an attraction for tourists, simply for it’s unique design. Our rooms are in the lower area of the grounds, very spartan accommodation, shared rooms and bathrooms, with beautiful lawns and a church nearby. To access the monastery proper, one can drive the long road of switchbacks, or take the more direct route up the stone pathway. This is where I realize how out of shape I’ve become on this trip. The path is an old stone walkway of very steep stairs that winds through a lush green forest on the hillside. The scenery is amazing, but the stairs quickly take their toll. Lungs and legs burning, we eventually reach the top, and are greeted with a huge white stone building, it’s face flush with the cliff, and a stunning view of the valley far below. The main structure is currently under construction, so inside, there was not a whole lot to see, and after we lit some candles in the small prayer room, we made our way back down through the forest to our rooms.
Five AM, and we’re in a minivan on the tiny road that switchbacks along the cliffside towards the main highway. Under the black sky, we are dropped off to wait for a bus on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere. A short time later, a bus shows itself on the horizon, and pulls over to pick us up, bringing us another four hours to the spectacular Bay of Kotor. The town centre, is yet another ancient walled city, with a beautiful blue harbour in front, and a fortress towering above the city on a mountain behind. Much of the first day is spent wandering the old streets, and getting caught in the first rain we’ve felt in weeks! Dinner of grilled calamari and squid ink risotto, at ‘Bastion’, was one of the better meals in a while, it was nice to enjoy some fresh seafood again being back on the coast. An early night, for an early morning, to climb the mountain to the fortress before the cruise ship arrives with the masses.
The climb to the fortress begins at the back wall of the old town, and winds back and fourth up over 1300 steps, some parts fairly easy, some not so much, to the top of the mountain. The fortress itself is in ruins, and there is little to see in the old buildings themselves. The real draw to the long climb is the spectacular views of the harbour below. Dark green mountains dive sharply into the calm emerald waters of the bay. The town from here is just a small mass of orange rooftops. We enjoy a couple of late morning ciders and soak in the view, before making the much quicker walk down. A quick sandwich for lunch from one of the many bakeries in town, and we meet up with the group for an afternoon on a boat ride around the bay, where I soon realize the water isn’t as warm as it appears.
We all enjoy some beer in the sun, as we take in the incredible scenery outside of the town from the water, eventually stopping to take a dip. Outside it’s in the early twenties, definitely warm enough for a swim in the ocean… what I didn’t realize, was that the bay is actually quite some distance from the Adriatic Sea, and is mostly fed from mountain run off. Jacob, one of our travel companions, tests the water with his foot, and I can tell by his face, it’s not going to be fun. Five of us dive in without any more hesitation, and before I surface, my body is already tensing up from the cold. We don’t last five minutes before our extremities begin to numb, and we swim quickly back to the boat, as our lips begin to darken a few shades. I can’t think of a time where I’ve swam in colder water, and I’m from Canada, I’ve swam in some cold streams in the rockies. While both exhilarating and uncomfortable at the same time, the lingering adrenaline rush that came with it was completely worth it, and I finally began to realize the draw to the ‘polar bear swim’ people seem to love.
The last evening in Kotor, Kylee and I take advantage again of the fresh seafood at ‘Galerija’, and splurge a little on some massive grilled prawns, and a giant pot of mussels in wine and tomatoes; absolutely the best seafood we’ve had since the first week in Sardinia. As much as I loved the experiences of Mostar, and the other cities throughout the Balkans, Kotor was a breath of fresh air from the stories and scars of war and tragedy. Though no longer hidden, Montenegro is a small, inexpensive, and beautiful country that should not be missed if you happen to find yourself in this part of the world… Just be ready for steep steps, and barely swimmable waters.
“The cold is an absolute doorway to the soul”Wim Hof