Upstairs

Trip Start Apr 16, 2012
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Trip End May 18, 2012


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Flag of Montenegro  ,
Saturday, May 5, 2012

'You should go opSTEERS.'

The young waitress at the restaurant last night said she hadn't gone upstairs until last year and should never have waited so long. Going upstairs is one of the first things people here say you should do. Why fight it?

Minutes after our rental car -- a red, five speed Toyota Yaris -- is dropped off in front of the hotel, we are heading toward Kotor and the mountain road to hell. Judy navigates from two fairly useless maps the front desk printed off the Web with a line or two of vague directions on the back, but after only one false start we begin a climb that won't require shifting out of second gear for at least the next hour. In a harrowing series of switchbacks, hairpin turns and blind curves we ascend the mountain directly behind the tip of the Boka Katorska on a road just wide enough for two vehicles to pass (and much more exciting when one of them is a tour bus).

In place of guardrails, small tooth-shaped concrete posts and low segmented stone walls are all that separate this life from the next. From the passenger seat, Judy feels like we have one wheel off the edge at all times. From the driver's seat, I'm pretty sure each approaching car is going to relieve us of our side mirror. As we climb, I can't help stealing glances at the sweeping view of the bay and the rooftops of Kotor. 'Hairpin turn,' warns Judy. The way the road keeps constantly twisting back on itself, she could repeat that every 15 seconds. In fact, she helpfully does so. This would not be the best time to talk about NASA's research into the cause and nature of motion sickness, but in fact I do.

Just as we near the view point at the top, we are engulfed by a bank of clouds and by the time we park and enter the deck of the restaurant there, there is nothing to see beyond 100 feet. Not surprisingly, we are the only customers. Judy orders a palliative Coke. I have a bitter cup of Turkish coffee. After a few minutes of shivering and looking stoically out into nothing much at all, we pick up our drinks and move inside to a dimly lit plank table in an empty room. Somewhere, a radio is playing 'Killing Me Softly.'

Thus refreshed, and invigorated, we return to the car and just as I'm about to pull out onto the road we see a huge white tour bus emerge from around the corner and pass us. It slows, comes to a stop and begins to carefully back up. The reason for that becomes clear as we see FOUR other busses coming from the opposite direction, their windows lined with gaping tourists who seem at the moment disinclined to speak. One after another the listing, Kotor-bound coaches back and fill around the first bus and continue on down the road, vanishing into the clouds.

Soon we come to Njegusi, a little village tucked away in the hilltops where chickens wander through front yards and tour buses disgorge their contents to mill around clucking like chickens. They are here for the ham. Njegusi is deservedly famous for its smoked prosciutto and it's sold along with local cheeses and rakija at small stands dotting this hidden valley.

We stop for a bite. I order a ham and cheese sandwich. Judy asks what a Sherpska salad is and the waiter nods and goes off. A question is as good as an order here. It turns out to be similar to a Greek salad topped with the local hard cheese. My sandwich is plain white bread, a slice of prosciutto and a slice of hard cheese. No condiments to confuse the taste. A sign encourages us to 'follow the Ham Trail' but we forgo that in favor of stopping at one of the stands on the way out, where Judy buys a sealed pack of the freshly-sliced pride of Njegusi.

Just outside of town, a cement mixer is blocking the road in both directions as the crew pours a load into a freshly-built wooden mold to shore up the road. We get out of the car and listen to the breeze rustling through the trees and the spirited chatter of the Montenegrin road crew until the truck moves aside to allow the two lines of cars and buses to creep through and soon we're rolling into Cetinje, Montenegro's former capital city.

It's a fairly small and undistinguished place and we would have passed straight through on our way toward the coast were it not for the fact that there are no signs in sight to point the way. After driving through a great deal of Cetinje, visiting some parts of it multiple times, we stop and ask directions and within a few minutes, pass the sign to Budvar at the outskirts of town.

Budvar is another hub of the Montenegrin Riviera; a Venetian port on the Adriatic just outside of the great fallopian inlet of Boka Kotorska. As we trace long, lazy switchbacks down the hills to the town, we can see miles of rugged coastline stretching along the brilliant blue waters.

Budvar is a full-on beach town, with high rise resorts, marinas packed with gleaming mega-yachts and a younger, sun-worshiping crowd. Its StarGrad is smaller than Kotor's but otherwise similar and we spend some time walking its marble streets and enjoying drinks at a cafe on the plaza, before the drive back home.

From Budvar, it's a fairly short ride back to Kotor along the coastal road that culminates in a long tunnel beneath the mountains and we arrive back at Palazzo Radomiri eight hours after we left.

Dinner up the way at Stari Mlini (Old Mill http://www.starimlini.com/) a fine eatery specializing in fish. Set on the shore with outdoor tables scattered beneath grape trellises and stone paths that wind past pools of trout and sea bass. We share a green salad and an order of whole small bream fried in cornmeal which the waiter fillets at the table, delicious if bony. Judy has what turns out to be a daunting platter of fish broiled with honey with an onion and chard side dish. I have a good steak in a fig sauce with grilled vegetables and we linger over a bottle of a good, crisp local Sauvignon Blanc as the sun sets behind the curtain of black peaks across the bay.
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