In Albania, most people travel around the country by furgon, which is just the Albanian for mini-bus. They’re generally white, fairly new and seat about 15 people – although they often carry more passengers than that. There are no bus stations, but various major pick-up points at squares and roundabouts, where these white vans gather.
We had read and been told that there was a furgon going from Shkoder to Ulcinj (‘ool-cheen’) just inside the Montenegrin border at nine and four every day. When we checked out of our hotel and walked to the nearby square for the furgon at 8:30, a man approached us and asked, ‘Ulcinj?’ and showed us to a café and there was another tall, middle-aged man there drinking and talking to some others. They didn’t speak much English, but we thought the second man was the driver. As a nearby church bell started ringing the hour, he finally came out and walked us to his car. Not a minibus, just a people carrier. And for €5 each he drove us, a young guy sitting next to us in the back and another older man in the passenger seat over the border into Montenegro
Ulcinj is actually south-west of Shkoder and we were heading north, up the Adriatic coast, to Kotor. From Ulcinj, we took an actual minibus to Bar, and from Bar we rode a rickety, exhaust fume-filled bus to Kotor. The route took us along a winding road, with mountains on one side and sea on the other. Just before the town of Budva, we passed Sveti Stefan (Saint Stephen), a tiny island densely packed with red-roofed old buildings, connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of sand and a causeway. It’s an interesting and very picturesque location, which explains why it’s now an exclusive resort.
Habiba was just saying that she might have preferred to stay at Budva or nearby when we passed inland and reached Kotor, which is on at the end of a long, twisting bay and is pretty much surrounded by mountains on all sides. The place was as spectacular as anything I’ve ever seen. The new town near the bus station is nothing special, but the highlight, and the location of the hostel we stayed at, was the old medieval town.
This mini-town is remarkably well preserved. The walls are completely whole, inside it’s all paved with rectangular marble stones worn smooth over the years, and the buildings are all handsome stone structures arranged pretty randomly, thus making a maze of irregular alleys and squares. It’s such a picturesque place there’s something unreal about it; walking around is like navigating a level in a first person shooter. It was spotlessly clean – a welcome change after the refuse-strewn Albania.
Above the town, the fortifications continue all the way up the mountainside. They’re less well preserved and in the upper reaches, the dark grey ruins have been completed with paler masonry to make them safer. The hike up – which we did on our second day there – is steep, but not too strenuous as it’s not a long distance and we kept stopping to take photographs. There’s a church halfway up and a little fort at the top, some of it modern, maybe from the Second World War. It’s an interesting place to explore as there are lots of ruined but mostly whole rooms and staircases and the walkways branch every now and then, giving a choice of routes up and down.
Outside the old town, we also took a couple of walks along the shore of the bay. While it’s an inlet of the Adriatic, it looks a lot like a lake, with mountains on all four sides, but the water turns a corner further along, maybe a couple of miles from Kotor. There is a marina at the very end of the bay in front of the Stari Grad (old town) and all along the waterfront there are lots of little stone jetties, presumably where people in the nearby houses moor their boats, just by the narrow lane where they park their cars. There isn’t much of a shoreline, just bits of shale here and there. Because it’s so protected, the water is very placid.
We stayed at Montenegro Hostel, right in the middle of the old town. They had a deal with a nearby restaurant to provide cheap meals – something we took advantage of every breakfast and dinner. Actually, we didn’t stay at the hostel, but in a room in someone’s house just round the corner, but the rooms were let by the hostel. It was a nice attic room, but it was a little cramped vertically. In the bathroom I couldn’t even stand up to pee.
Presumably they don’t have many Montenegrins staying there. We’d read long before arriving in the country that Montenegrins are some of the tallest people in the world and we saw quite a few beanpoles – maybe because we were on the lookout for them.
We ate a lot of pizza while we were there – and in the region generally. There are lots of pizzerias in Albania, Montenegro and Croatia, obviously because of the close proximity of Italy. People also say Ciao to say goodbye.
Two days after we arrived, we caught an afternoon bus to Dubrovnik, two or three hours up the coast.