11 July 2012

Plan B (for Beautiful)

We arrived in Kotor to find that all our Montenegrin plans had been ruined.  We'd dreamed of laying out on the beach all day and going home to our rental apartment with a watermelon tucked under our arm and bags of fresh veggies in our hands.   In five days, we've made a total of one salad and not spent a minute lying out on the small pebble beach.  We've been too busy hiking around, doused in sun block and eating excellent restaurant meals, doused in olive oil.   Kotor isn't your normal Adriatic resort town.  It has neither sand nor swarms of sunbathers.  Its water is just one element of its magnificent setting and dropping yourselves into it like coins in a fountain is far from the only activity available. We feel lucky to have landed here.

As if the castle walls and ancient caravan trail zig-zagging up the mountainside weren't picturesque enough, the seaside fortifications enclose one the best preserved medieval old towns on the Adriatic.  Kotor's Stari Grad ('Old Town') is a maze of marble paved lanes and Venetian architecture. You walk down the narrow streets, which run around and into each other, feeling air conditioner breezes from boutiques and being shot in the stomach by the cupid's arrow that is 'pizza smell.'  Then, out of nowhere, your lane opens up into a piazza.  There, cafes tables are set out.  Fans twirl, fine mist wafts down from cooling systems, you sit for an ice cream or coffee with some beautiful old church or mansion looming above. And never want to leave.


A year ago today, we were in Zadar, reveling in our position outside the real 'hotspots' of the Croatian coast, ouching our way into the water along a pebble beach on the edge of romantically picturesque university city.  We've come a long way since then, but are remarkably close to that very spot now.  It feels a little like returning to old stomping grounds, something we don't get to experience very often.  A big plate of grilled squid surrounding a mound of blitva (garlicky chard and potato) greeted us like a friend last night.  Well, you haven't changed one bit!  Kotor is a lot like Zadar - an incredible spot that has the lucky misfortune of less-than-ideal swimming options.  This keeps the droves of tourists at bay.  Or, I guess in this case, out of the Bay. 
For mid-July, Kotor is remarkably not crowded.  The Old Town is deceptively large, there are enough cafe tables for everybody.  It's something you don't really notice until looking down at the labyrinth from above (from the castle).  The lanes are all swirled around like a big plate of spaghetti with red-sauce roofs.  You simply can't imagine the number of noodles under there until you feel the fullness.  Dumpster after dumpster of garbage and dozens of young women shopping around laminated photos of guest rooms for rent show just how many people can fit into Kotor, all still given the chance to feel like they have it all to themselves.

Outside the Old Town's main entrance, a daily market sells fresh produce and fish, local cheese, olives and cured ham (along with some imports from Croatia and afar). There are more apartments for rent here in Kotor than there are traditional hotel rooms, more of a chance to buy some sheep cheese (and then some cow cheese.... and then some cow/sheep mix if you're anything like us) in larger portions than just one afternoon picnic's worth.  It's one of those rare tourist destinations that invites you to feel what it's like to actual live here.  Though, the locals always have a smile at the edge of their lips that say, "I actually do get to live here.  Jealous?"  Yes, yes I am.
In some ways, we feel a little smug about our place here, too.  Most visitors to Kotor come on a day trip from Budva or for an afternoon off the cruise ship.  As I type this, Celebrity Cruise Line's "Silhouette" is blasting a horn to call all its passengers back on board.  We get to relax, shower and head back out into town with the rest of the over-nighters.  It's a different crowd, mostly families with young children and backpackers staying at some supremely well-located hostels.  We all meet up inside the walls - some of us have never left.  Sure, the clean, turquoise water one associates with 'Mediterranean' isn't really here, but everything else that word connotes sure is.  The emerald shrubs and cypress tree, the sights and sense of history, the food and wine, the casual intimacy and the way time moves.  You may have your first gelato at breakfast and go for your first dip of the day at 7pm.   Toddlers are changed out of swimmies and brought out to dinner at 10pm.  Truly Mediterranean. 
As Merlin said in his previous post, Kotor really is a part of the water, with just a sliver of usable 'inland' space before the mountains.  From every arched entrance, the sea seeps - in blue views, pink tan lines, bikini shaped wet spots on t-shirts and barefoot children.  Many of the people funneling in themselves have been out to sea on yachts and cruise-ships, delivered ashore just like the trading goods and supplies of yore.  Precious cargo, currency, foreign imports.   The tourism industry as it once existed here never really bounced back after the Yugoslav Wars.  Most development attention has been focused elsewhere, which accounts for its status as more of a day trip destination.  They say that the greatest cultural and economic decline in the town's 2,000 year old history has been taking place since the 1990s.  By the looks of it, there may be some resurgence happening.   Financially and artistically.
The Kotor Art festival is going on right now, which includes an International Children's Theatre Festival and Dan Branko's Music Days, amongst other events.  So, in the evening, the high, white buildings with their green shutters and terracotta shingles act as sound barriers, separating one performance from another.  As you wander around, lost as usual, you are left to just happen upon the next surprise.  A cartoonishly over-sized line of laundry is strong across a piazza here,  a classical youth orchestra performs for video-camera wielding parents there.  When the sun sets, never before at least 8:30pm, it all feels too magical to be true.  You turn down a lane that has a line-up of hip bars and hear the thump of a DJ.  Then, out of nowhere, a live saxophonist breaks in and begins to accompany the beat.  The two men stand side by side, woodwind and Mac, creating a breezily unique, amazingly congruous style of music.  

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