Friday, June 06, 2014

climb every mountain

From a very selfish standpoint, the collapse of European empires and the subsequent pancaking of European communism have been a boon to my travels. 

During the past week, I have added a new country to my “been there” list almost every day.  Malta.  Albania.  Croatia.  Bosnia.  And, yesterday, Montenegro.

The Balkan nations have taken to the free market system with a passion.  Most of the ports where we docked sell one product: picturesque charm for tourists.  The settings, of course, sell themselves.  The Adriatic is a perfect combination of mountains meeting the sea.  Gray stone.  Green mountains.  Blue sea.

I like stopping by real estate offices in new towns.  It is obvious that most people who buy here are either Russian oligarchs -- and there are quite a few -- or wealthy northern Europeans.  Modest houses anywhere near the sea seem to regularly list at 700,000 Euros.  The only exception was Bosnia -- for good reason.

Most of the cruise tourists were content to sit under umbrellas in reconstructed town squares while enjoying mediocre local fare served at 11 Euros or so.  This is not a place for poor pensioners to set up shop.

I have now had my fill of the restored port towns with their city walls and rather ordinary churches.  And Kotor, Montenegro falls into that category.  It shares the same history of cities in the region.  Greek.  Venetian.  Ottoman.  Austro-Hungarian.  You can find them all here.

So, I did a quick circuit of the bell tower, the cathedral, the church with both Roman Catholic and Orthodox altars, a series of rather-underwhelming big houses.  But that is not what I had in mind for my day.

Like many of the medieval cities in this region, Kotor has city walls to repel pirates and other unsavory invaders.  But it also has a long set of walls that climb the face of the mountain in back of the city.  And, at the top of that mountain, there is a fort.

To get there, all you need to do is to climb over one thousand very steep steps.  And it is open to anyone who is willing to part with 3 Euros and lots of sweat.

So, climb I did.  The day was not very hot.  Maybe in the upper 70s.  But, I must confess, the climb was a lot of work.  Even the well-toned ship dancers found it to be strenuous.

What made it bearable was the view -- and the general lack of tourists.  Kotor sits at the end of a long inlet of the Adriatic.  The mountains on both sides give it the appearance of a fjord.  A fjord with visitor-friendly weather.

The stairs zig and zag across the face of the mountain -- giving an ever-increasing panorama of the old town and its surroundings.  Even part way up, it is easy to see how small the old walled town is.  Maybe that is what gives it its Disneyland feel.  That and its overly-fussy cosmetic surgery.

I suspect it took me about an hour to get to the fort at the top of the stairs.  The view was worth it.  But I also had a greater respect for the soldiers who were posted there and who had to drag both food and armaments up an incline I suspect was a bit more difficult than the current stairs.

I say “suspect” because there are several areas along the way where defensive measures were obviously taken.  Changing the rise in the stairs.  Creating a double-height stair for fallback positions.  Building dead ends that are surrounded by defensive armament slits.

After all of the food I have eaten, it was nice to have a day of exercise.  Coming down was far easier.  I ran most of the way -- getting to the entrance in about 15 minutes.

These sleepy little towns tempt me to stay for a year or so.  The problem is that they offer nothing but scenery.  Culturally, it is still the Balkans.

We have three more stops.  Korcula sounds as if it is just another quaint seaport.  But Split and Venice offer some specific cultural attractions that I hope to share with you.

Maybe Korcula will have something to climb.


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