The bus was slowly making it's way around the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, heading towards the town of Kotor itself. The views were stunning, clear blue water filled the bay that was surrounded by towering mountains that rose immediately, and imposingly, from the waters edge.
I tried to relax and just soak it all in, but the beauty of the scene and the sense of awe it inspired in me was exactly what was agitating me. I just wanted to get out of the hot bus and explore.
At the same time, part of my agitation was due to the fact that once I got off the bus in Kotor, I had no idea if, or when I would be able to catch another bus out of the town and continue my journey to Istanbul. The bus websites were vague, even more so after being translated into English. Different busses ran during different seasons, or sometimes ceased to run altogether. Looking online at the bus schedules and information for a company from Macedonia or Montenegro gave much different information than any of the poorly informed aggregate transportation websites. In the end I had taken a leap, decided to talk with someone at the bus depot when I arrived and hope it all worked out.
The bus finally completed it's sinuous lap around the bay and arrived at it's destination. I walked up to the ticket booth and was relieved to find someone who could speak passable English working the booth. My gamble it turns out, had paid off. There was a bus leaving that night for Skopje, my next destination. Other than that, I would have to wait two days for the next bus out. I bought the ticket and locked my luggage in the store room before stepping out into the warm mid-morning air, eager to begin my exploration of the town.
I didn't know much about the town of Kotor, other than the fact that it was a gorgeous, ancient fortress city, built up the side of a mountain. I had read somewhere that in the summer months it was a tourist hot spot, especially for retirees, but as I entered the walls of the old city in late November, I found the old city almost empty. Many of the tourism related shops had closed up for the season, and the shops and restaurants that remained open seemed to do so only out of habit, like spiders waiting in their webs, hoping to entice the occasional passerby. There were a small number of tourists wandering the streets, but for the most part, I had them to myself.
After meandering the cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways for a while I made my way up to the perimeter wall of the city, which overlooked both the bay, and the modern town. I made my way along the wall, completing the full semi-circle until I reached the point at which it met the side of the mountain. From here the only available path was up.
The castle of Kotor rises above the town, accessed by one of two brick walled pathways that zig-zag their way up the steep incline of the mountain. Every so often the walkway is punctuated by an ancient watchtower, church, or armoury, until at its crest a wide array of buildings cluster, all in varying states of decay. Grass and moss cover what's left of the rooftops, and where they have caved, trees poked through in search of sunlight.
I picked my way up the brick path, careful to avoid the places where crumbling bricks threatened a misstep leading to a tumble down the cliff. The odd sign here and there along the wall reminded visitors to respect the site, but aside from these gentle reminders no guide rail, glass walls, or interpretive personnel were present to inhibit interaction with this incredible historic site.
The castle felt real, alive, and touring it seemed like an exploration, taken at ones own risk. Indeed, many of the stone roofs seemed due to collapse at any time, including as you poked your head into the dark quarters they sheltered. There were few, if any plaques or signs explaining the layout, use and history of the specific buildings, no suggested route to take or sights to see. This was the country of imagination, free to roam and construct what it would, to form ones own history and reality.
With each step I ascended, I felt as though I was pulled back in time another year. In the hours I spent exploring the castle I encountered only a half dozen other people, all of them quiet and in awe.
As I explored the castle in solitude - my heart soaring at every new discovery - I came across a window at the castles edge, overlooking a valley leading down the mountain. From beneath the window a small dirt path skirted along the base of the castle wall, before heading across the small valley toward a small church in the distance. Stepping through the window and onto the path I felt as though it was likely that little had changed in this quiet valley over the past 500 years. A wooden, hand painted sign hung off-kilter from a gnarled tree trunk, it's rough print advertising homemade goat cheese and rakija – a Balkan fruit brandy. There were a handful of goats, no doubt the producers of said cheese, roaming the hillside, grazing on the scrub grasses that dotted it. Further down the valley I spotted the homestead, a tiny structure nestled in the valley, surrounded by small gardens and orchards.
Winding my way down the small dirt track which lead to the church I was overcome with wonder. The history was palpable. Not some grand history of a once mighty civilization, but the history of the generations of farmers and herders who had likely been tilling the same soil and praying at the same church for hundreds of years. The goat cheese and rakija production process had probably changed very little over that time, and so it seemed had the farmers lives.
The church itself was tiny, with only room for a handful of worshipers inside its crumbling stone walls. Lichen and moss spread from the cracks in the plaster, and the blue and red remnants of a once painted ceiling still clung on, devout in their attempt to convey a long dead artists vision.
On the outside, the few red clay shingles which remained all but overtaken by the creeping growth of grass and weeds. The bell tower hung empty, and the walls of the courtyard crumbled around the structure. The carving on lintel above the entry was still clearly readable, though in a language I could not understand, some form of Slavic.
After exploring the area, and spending some time soaking in the bucolic, mountainside setting I made my way back up the path towards the castle.
I made my way back down the winding ramparts as the sun began its descent, glinting off of the golden crosses atop the churches below, and painting the town, covered in it's red clay shingles a warm soft hue. I reflected on the magical aura of the place as I ate dinner at one of the empty restaurants in the old town square.
So many historic sites around the world are constantly in a state of restoration, protected by railings, glass, guards, and rules. I love many of these places and think it right to protect them, the problem is that it becomes impossible to actually interact with them. Here in Kotor however, the lack of rules allowed an intimate experience with a historic site that is impossible at other, more centrally located, well known sites. Sure, the architecture is a slowly crumbling tribute to its former glory, every day inching closer to becoming nothing more than a pile of rubble, but the feeling of history found its way into my bones and took me back in time, if for no more than an afternoon.
Smoke rose from the ancient chimneys as I made my way back to the bus station after nightfall, soon to be on the way to my next destination. I was equal parts saddened by the fact that I had had so little time to explore such an incredible place, and overwhelmingly grateful that I had the opportunity to see it at all. Kotor is one of those places that, while I hope against hope I get a chance to visit again one day, I have a feeling that my one afternoon and evening is all I'll ever get. And I'm okay with that. Either way, I'll forever remember the way I was enchanted by a decaying fortress, past its prime, and an old dirt path leading out a window and down to an ancient stone church.
What are some of the places that you've felt most connected to history? What made that connection what it was? Are there places you've only been able to spend a few hours in that forever made an impression on you? I'd love to hear your stories!
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