Tuesday 13 August 2013

Learning curve #3 - The long and winding road

Kotor Bay, Montenegro, is quite simply stunning: a winding mass of water surrounded by dark green mountains majestically peering down at you. The old town of Kotor, rich in maritime history, nestles at the bottom; its cobbled streets and squares full of the silent footsteps of old sailors. At night, the old walls of the city light up, a jewelled crown protecting its king's head.

Curving up to the top of the mountain is a road, which affords spectacular and sweeping views of Kotor, the bay and beyond. Maria and I had heard about this drive and wanted to do it. After renting Beso (see HERE) we thought we'd be safe doubling our wheels from 2 to 4. No matter that the Brit drives on the wrong side and the road is a series of never-ending switchbacks that don't all feature on the local map. Let's do it.

View from the church tower, Perast.
We picked up our car in the morning, I was designated driver for this adventure) and drove round the bay to check out Perast. This small, old village languishes on the coast of the bay, pining for its days at the front line of seafaring adventures, fishing frenzies and pirate battles. Nowadays it takes care of holiday makers wishing to escape, wandering visitors like us, and its many (still standing) churches. We climbed to the top of its main church and hung out with its big, green bells and the wonderful view. We watched a diver swim out with a spear to fish. We waited, but he didn't come back with a huge catch wanting to share it with us, so instead we went for a dip ourselves (without spears) That's the thing with water, we realised. We just had to get in.

With me driving, I was prepared for some Alonso Formula 1 jokes. Turned out that while speeding along, it was my stupidity that was funnier than the whole surname thing. There are two things you need to know about driving in Montenegro. One is that your lights have to be on all the time, even in the brightest sunshine. The second is that the speed limit rarely goes above 40mph because no one can be trusted and bends are apparently for overtaking on.

So there I am, concentrating on remembering that the gears on the right of me and trying not to drive in the middle of the road when Maria gently reminds me we've been told not go over 50kpm. I glance down briefly. "We're only doing 20," I reply. Um, that would be the RPM you're reading there. Well, if that didn't make my passenger more comfortable I don't know what will. Talk about instilling a bit of faith! I slowed down.

We wound back through Kotor town and started the climb up the mountain. The road was about wide
View point on our way up the
mountain above Kotor.
enough for two normal-sized cars. Anything bigger and there were nervous looks from all drivers. On one side: cliff face. On the other: drop-off into the abyss. Of course, the views were distracting. I gripped the wheel and kept my eyes on the road.

Then, there was a bus. I'd just turned left up another switchback and coming straight towards us without any intention of stopping or room to pass was a coach. I'm not going to argue, I thought. I'll reverse back to the corner where it was wider and he'd have enough room. Between the rock face and the road were weeds and grass and I tried to keep close to the edge as I went back. The coach kept coming.

"Wait, you're really close to the rock." And Ker-BRUUUUM. The coach passed. He had enough room because I was now in a mini ditch. Turns out the grass part between the cliff and the road isn't level. First lesson learnt. I didn't have too much panic about this because I hadn't hit anything, so any damage would be unseen when we gave the car back. We were just stuck. I tried to get us out, but the power of a 1.0-litre VW Polo is about as helpful as, well, me driving it at that moment. So, we got nowhere.

Luckily, a car that passed us behind the coach had seen what happened. He stopped at the corner, as I went running towards him. The German Saviour (and he wasn't the only one on this trip) got to it, ripping out branches from under the rear tyre and getting behind the wheel to do what men do best: get girls in cars out of mini-ditch-up-a-mountain-pickles.

Once again, we were saved! Except we were still only half way up the mountain. The adventure continued. Cue very cautious approach to every oncoming car. But we made it. At the top of the mountain, a valley opened up, at the centre of which lies the village of Njegusi. We drove through, marvelling at the funny chicken-hut cabins and the cured hams hanging by the road. Deep green forests stretched out before us, rising up to the other side of the valley. We decided to see what was on the other side.

The valley and Njegusi.
As we left Njegusi, we spotted a hitch-hiker at the side of the road, heading our way. One good deed deserves another, and we had been saved by many who had stopped for our thumbs at the sides of roads. We picked him up. Imagine. You need to get somewhere. Two girls are in a rented car, the passenger with a map sprawled out on her lap. They have no idea what they are doing or where they are going. They are driving at a third of the speed that locals drive at. Have they been in a crash already today? But you get in anyway. Poor bloke. It was probably the longest and slowest hitch of his life. He sat back to admire the view as we laughed at what he must think of us.

Cars are girls, and like all our other modes of transport, this one deserved a name. She got Flo. I'm not going to offend anyone with that name by explaining our reasoning behind it, but she joined our little gang of bikes and boats and scooters and things with wheels and motors that became part of our adventure. And Flo's little adventure didn't stop there.

After a mate and cake overlooking the water and mountains, it was time for the trip down. This was
Important pit stop to refuel. 
less nerve-wracking: the brakes worked, I knew what to expect and I was quite happy to let faster drivers pass us by. Am I going near that edge or rock? No siree! We have survived this far and there are now less German Saviour's on the road to come to our rescue.

Fast forward about 3 hours. We'd parked up back in Kotor near the supermarket so we could climb around the city walls up to the fort, do a quick shop for dinner and then head back to our apartment for a run and feast. The climb was brilliant and sweaty; the views special. The sun dropped behind the mountain on the longest day of the year. The sky turned a hazy red and the water a deep emerald. We imagined ourselves guardsmen of the fort. We followed a rocky path to a tiny stone church, its roof moss-covered. We counted the churches in the town below.

You could tell where Flo was parked after we left the butcher and the supermarket. Of course you could. It was dark and there she was, guiding the way with her lights on. Oh bollocks.

"In terms of situation, I don't mind this one," I said after Flo didn't start. Maria agreed. We had wine and food and we could safely leave her there the night. The man from the car park came to help. I searched the boot. Excellent! These must be jump leads... Hang on... No, quick, put them away before he sees we're trying to give him tow ropes to start Flo with. Two girls. One car. Another pickle. Another saviour.

We got home and I managed to park Flo without dropping us off into the water. It was then time for a run around the bay. Finally, our long and winding road led us to wine and dinner on our balcony, under the twinkling stars of the shortest night of the year.

The old walls of Kotor lit up, Kotor Bay, Montenegro.

Learning: You always get your chance to give back. Take it.
Surprise: Maps don't feature every bend in the road.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Share a word or two... it's what life is all about.