6 September/ Bar, Montenegro
Looking back one week to 30/August, I find it hard to believe that I have been able to cram so many events into 7 days. Since I was prepapring to leave Slovakia again, my good friend Martin Homza requested that we spend one more day in the Maly Karpaty. The Maly Karpaty (Small Carpathians) are part of the Carpathian Mountain Range that wrap around Slovakia on the East, over the top on the North, and back down the West side. Martin calls it “The Dragon’s Tail of Europe”. We hiked for nearly 3 1/2 hours mostly up, and then descended into the wooded hamlet of Marianka. Here in Marianka was a parish priest that serves as Martin’s guide and “confessor” as he puts it. Martin would have a few minutes with Father Vlad as I waited outside. We walked through the village as the churchbell rang out, and mas was underway as we stepped in the backdoor and sat on small benches looking into the church. It was a Tuesday evening and the church was 1/2 to 2/3rds full. From what I could see the Baroque interior was inspiring. I told Martin that after visiting these old churches here, I could almost be a Christian again…yes it is that inspirational for me.
Our hike beforehand revealed a great deal that I didn’t know about him, and I shared bits of my life with Martin as well. Of course we discussed Slovak history, but as is usual with us, it never fails to branch off into philosophy, politics, art, and we never miss geography. We discussed my upcoming trip through the Balkans, and shared the excitment of seeing new places. We were now on the far western edge of Bratisalva, and after transferring a bus or two heading back in, we said our goodbyes. Standard kiss on both cheeks and a big hug; “you will enjoy it, my Brother”. His last words echoed in my cranium as I exited my bus at Most SNP, the bus stop on the west side of the old town. Walking through the squares and down the now-familiar narrow streest of the Old Town, I began to realize how exceptionally fortunate I was to have met Martin and the many good friends I have made because of him. I was home on Grosslingova in no time and once inside my apartment, I realized how late it was. I knew the next three dyas ahead of me would be busy, so I showered and climbed into bed.
So dear family, friends and readers, I am now in Bar Montenegro. Let me attempt to draw a short picture of how it unfolded. In my last blog, “An Odyssey Still Unfolding”, I limned out a plan that would add a twist of adventure to this 90 days out. After taking the night bus from Bratisalva to Belgrade on Friday 2 September, I dragged myself to my hotel and stored my packback there since at 8am I was too early for check-in. I walked up and down some the streets in the surrounding area and settled on a coffee house in the shade. The bus trip is something that I will avoid in the future. We arrived at the Hungary/Serbia border around 1am. The lines were massive, and the bus inched forward every 10, 15 minutes or so. By the time we reached the Hungarian border post, it was 2am. We were told to exit the bus, walk into a building to get our passports stamped, and then wait outside as the guards checked the bus. I guess it was standard for these people to take a 10 minute break between buses. A half-hour later they tell us to reboard the bus, and I think were off. Nope, the bus went forward another 100 meters and we stopped again. We creeped up to the Serbian border post at 3:15/20. and eveyone off the bus and into Serbian passport control. I was reminded a second time that the Serbs have no love for the US. Initially when I boarded the bus in Bratislava, our driver, an older gentleman, looked at my passport and said, “Ugh, another American!”. Luckily Vlad had taken the walk to the bus station with me and explained to the man that I wasn’t “that kind of American”. Thank goodness for Vald! Now, at the Serbian border, the nice (seemingly) young female agent looked at my passort and asked why I am coming to Serbia, I told that I am fascinated by the history and I am in transit to Montenegro. She stamped my card like it owed her money. She handed it back to me, no smile or words and yelled for the next in line. Everyone behind me got a smile, thank you, and “welcome to Serbia”. The Serbs have never forgiven the US for bombing the shit out of them in the ’90’s. I was well aware of it, and I am always careful how I announce that I am from the US. I always say that I am from Slovakia, and then if asked I will say that , yes originally from the US. I sat smiling as my waitress brought my coffee, and we had a chat. A lovely young girl who said “welcome”, and added that she was glad I came. Just one cup of coffee changed the whole timbre of my trip
After finishing a delightful cup of coffee, and an equally wonderful brioche, I sought out a park that was nearby; wifi at the cafe really helped to get a feel for what was around me. There in a well manicured park was a statue to Gavrilo Principe, the man who killed the Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg, his wife. This act ignited the fuse that started World War I. While there are a muitltude of factors that led to it, Princip’s action alone sent Austria over the edge; they issued an ultimatum worded carefully and in a manner that Serbia was sunk either way, and so began the mechinations beginning the “war to end all wars”. Serbia is a defiant culture, and they choose to stand out and stand alone on many issues. I pondered this as I walked toward my hotel. After checking in, I took a long hot shower, and took a much-needed nap
Saturday, 3 September was a faint memory as I ate and slept, after the previous long night on the bus. Sunday I went down to the the centrum, and really enjoyed myself. Beograd Fortress was where I spent most of my time. I met an English couple, unfortunateiy (and uncharacteristically) I had to ditch them as they never stopped talking. The exhibits in the fortress are neverending and the history is breathtaking. As with all of the Balkans, the history stretches back past the Greeks in time. I wandered back to my hotel after a super dinner of Serb origin. I was still tired and ragged-out, but decided to pack and be ready for the early (7:30) check-out and dash to the train station. My man at the desk, Marco, had the taxi in front at 7:45 and I was off. As per the Balkans, my driver insisted that my train left from another staion. I kept telling him it was the Main Beograd Station. After I pressed him, he made a few phone calls, we were righted and I was all set with ticket in hand by 8:10.
I sat on the platform smiling to myself, thinking “how about this adventure”. Maybe it is just me, but I wasn’t as impressed by Serbia as everyone else was. Beautiful -yes, growing – yes, and still trying to shake off the “Cold War” past. Some of the buildings were the most unsightly architecture I have ever seen. I was really excited to be moving on. While on the platform, my luck changes again, and I meet Marcel and Max. Both are young men from Germany, and they welcomed me into their cabin for the run down to the coast in Montenegro.
The three of us spent 11 hours talking laughing and eating. Max was the “map-guy”, as he was looking over his forthcoming options. Marcel was already settled into his plans, and was heading back up to Sarajevo. They were a very bright spot on this trip so far. In the cabin next to us were some young travelers and Max jumped back and forth. At times we were all out in the passageway looking for good pictures as we rolled in and out of tunnels. The best pictures belong to the quick, and I wasn’t among them. While talking to them, I was reminded again of the difference between the European youth and those in the US. By and large they are exposed to more of the world than our kids. Max is in his early 20’s and has been to nearly every corner of the continent. Marcel, an engineering apprentice, has done it all by now in his mid-20’s. Cultured, well-mannered, and very worldly, these two guys are surely a blessing. A we got closer to Bar, we couldn’t believe that the time had gone by like the landscape around us…very quickly. We said our good-byes at the station in Bar, and planned to meet today for coffee, or something. I woke up nice and early and went for a swim in the Adriatic. It was a rejuvenation that I needed.
Peering back into yesterday, I had the first day of sheer enjoyment since I walked out of my apartment with Vlad on Friday night. The views were beyond epic, and the company kept me laughing for the whole ride. Both Marcel and Max are intelligent, witty, and very quick of mind. If I don’t get a chance to see them today, I will miss them. They represent the best of the future. As for me, I am heading tomorrow to Shkoder by car. Yep! I’ve rented a car for 60Euros. It is twice the cost for the train/bus to Shkoder. It would be a 3 hour and 15 minute drive if the train is on time, the connection to the bus, and the bus is on time -37euro. By driving, it is 1 hour, and I have places to stop and see. The train goes back up to Podgorica, and then connects to the bus down to Shkoder. So you would go North to go South. I’m adding a slight twist in this adventure. I might give Max a ride if he is still going to Shkoder. As it stands, I will be overnight here in Bar, to Shkoder by car tomorrow, and overnight in Skoder tomorrow night. Thursday, my hotel in Shkoder has already made the arrangemnts for my minibus trip to Theth to see Pavo. I am anxious to not only see what the road-trip will offer, but Shkoder is a gem on the shore of Lake Shkodra (the largest lake in Southern Europe). I will have time to look around in Shkoder before I leave “civilisation” and the mountains of Theth for the rest of September and maybe some of October.
In the end, I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at right now. I had a wonderful breakfast after my swim. Here, the Adriatic sparkles and shimmers, the water is clear and perfect. I hadn’t planned to write such a long post, but I wanted to at least highlight what I’ve experienced. Montenegro feels much different than Serbia, the Montenegrins are very warm, and open. I will post and head back down into the heat, about 29C (82), and take a dip and get some sun. I thank you all for following me, for now I have traveled through the dragon’s tail and I am comfotably nestled in the Balkan Alps…it’s good to be in the mountains again. I have been gifted by each and everyone of you, and I hope you are all well. I will post again on Saturday from Theth, I love you…please take care of yourselves, and each other.