New East Digital Archive

Letter from the Bay of Kotor: searching for authenticity in Montenegro’s tourist idyll

Can this Balkan paradise survive an ever-increasing influx of tourists with its unique charm intact?

3 July 2018
Text and image Hannah Weber

Driving through the craggy hills in the golden late afternoon, we’re keeping an eye out for cows and their shepherds, who periodically appear just on the other side of each hairpin bend. A dry summer has already scorched knots of olive trees and it is impossible to tell whether faraway smoke plumes are forest fires or commonplace piles of burning garbage. The journey from Bosnia has been equal parts winding through country roads and waiting at the chaotic border, where we languished about, unsure about whether to drink the water supply while the car stood hot and stagnant or save it for the inevitable motion sickness.

Nevertheless, I’m in awe from my first glimpses of Boka Kotorska, or the Bay of Kotor. All thoughts of cows disappear as we descend into what some people call Europe’s southernmost fjord, though geologically it fails to qualify. In fact, the saltwater bay was once a river system before it opened out onto the Adriatic over thousands of years of tectonic shifts. Now, the mountain’s pleats and folds plunge dramatically into the bay’s great blue bowl in front of us.

Our host’s address is vague and our exasperated Bosnian taxi driver circles the village twice before dropping us at the foot of the Church of St Eustachius — the patron saint of hunters, whose contemporary claim to fame is having his emblem plastered on Jägermeister bottles the world over. After much fruitless questioning, we find the apartment block we’re looking for. But rather than feeling relieved, I’m apprehensive, calling “zdravo!” meekly into the empty lobby.

Waiting for an answer, I listen as the cicadas sing jubilantly, rubbing their tymbals together. Cicadas sing the most in the hottest hours of the day, as if conducting arguments that grow steadily more vicious under the barometric pressure. Suddenly, an apartment door swings open and a gangly teenage boy peeks out, followed by the tallest woman I have ever seen.

It is impossible to tell whether faraway smoke plumes are forest fires or commonplace piles of burning garbage

Statuesque does not begin to describe our host, Ana. She takes up the entire doorway, standing in just a bikini, skin glistening with sweat; in her face I read Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, and Virgil’s Dido all at once. She wastes no time with small talk, lifting the heavy rucksack off my back as a giant might lift a teacup, and shows us into a monastic cell of a room. There are no books in the house — not even a magazine. Ana does not believe in reading, as it’s an idle activity. She has faith only in perpetual movement, recommending a strict regimen of hiking, cycling, and swimming to occupy our time yet, almost immediately after, launching into a lament on her “Western” guests’ inability to relax.

Tourism for development, she argues, is an “EU-approved way of producing funds in the Balkan Peninsula, but it’s the devil in disguise.” A necessary evil, you could say. The entire bay and its communities are a UNESCO World Heritage Site — a fact the government touts enthusiastically to bring in new tourists every year. Ironically, that coveted status is at risk precisely because of rampant development to accommodate those tourists.

Legend says that Our Lady of the Rocks was formed by local seaman paying tribute to an icon by throwing stones overboard

As the sun begins its slow descent, Ana leads us to a local beach. “No tourists!” she grins and, with the exception of us, it seems that she is right. From our vantage point, we can just make out Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks) and Ostrvo Sveti Đorđe (Island of St George) on the far side of the bay, two islets propping up a Roman Catholic church and Benedictine monastery. Legend says that Our Lady of the Rocks was formed over many centuries by local seaman paying tribute to an icon of the Madonna and Child by throwing stones overboard. A few metres away, a group of girls dangle their feet over the edge of a low cliff, tossing pebbles into the sea. Gulls snatch at empty crisp packets littered in between sunbathing families rubbing aloe vera onto their cheeks. A corpulent man stands breast-deep in the water, his laundry basket piled high with washing balancing on a nearby boulder. He turns his back on the whole scene to stare out at the gap between the mountains leading out to the Adriatic Sea, not pausing once to watch me swimming by while he wrings faded shirts and underwear out in his enormous, veiny hands.

The village should be in the shadow of the mountains, but the entire Bay of Kotor appears utterly devoid of any shade whatsoever. There is no respite from the heat except to bury our heads in the water — even then, with closed eyes, the sun makes dazzling orange flares on the inside of our eyelids. The shape of the bay traps the heat so that it defies the usual rules; instead of reaching its pinnacle at midday, the temperature continues to rise, coming to a boiling point around seven in the evening. A constant blue haze makes the foreground pop and the landscape beyond appear as if projected on a screen in a smoky cinema.

The walk from the village to Kotor takes an hour under the relentless sun. The sea is a standing invitation, and as soon as the last drop of salt water evaporates from our shoulders, we drop our belongings on the edge of the stone walkway and jump in again. All along the shore, holidaymakers take their positions for the day, looking like mini embassies under umbrellas bearing Russian, Serbian and Italian flags. Bobbing heads in bucket hats meander some 50 metres away, their bodies inflated by the water’s optical illusion.

This area has been populated since antiquity, with Kotor surviving many tumultuous centuries behind its impenetrable fortifications. From above, everything looks calm, shimmering in the haze. One can make the arduous ascent up the mountain to the Church of St John to see the city cradled far below like a ship. And, like a ship, its belly is crammed with marvels. Slim, sandy-coloured cats roam the narrow alleys, avoiding the puddles left by shopkeepers perpetually washing their cobblestone entryways. Day trippers unload from colossal cruise ships and buy overpriced ice cream and fridge magnets, leaving an hour or two later. An array of smells wafts over everything: barber’s chemicals, fried sardines, cheap plastic, lemon juice, börek and ever-pervasive sweat.

An array of smells wafts over everything: barber’s chemicals, fried sardines, cheap plastic, lemon juice, börek and ever-pervasive sweat

Lured by an open door, I leave behind the swarms of tourists and climb a steep staircase, ducking into a miniscule second-story chapel. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, faces of the Saints peer out at me, reflected in the light of a few candles on a small altar. Aged icons huddle in groups, their gilded details perfectly preserved.

When night falls, the ancient city walls are lit with the same golden hue, giving Kotor a fiery halo. The humidity breaks just before midnight and fat raindrops pummel the remaining tourists for a brief moment before the wind blows the clouds inland. The thunder rumbles more furiously than before and we stop to watch the lightning strike the sea. Above the din of the storm and the laughter of soaked revellers taking cover, I can just make out the ringing of church bells. Across the water, the mountains stretch out like a great sleeping leviathan.

Text and image: Hannah Weber