Sunday, May 21, 2006

From Dubrovnik: opinions vary

A planned day trip to the islands morphed into a hop over the border to Bosnia, which in the end turned into not Bosnia at all, but a long trip down south to Montenegro. Or, more accurately, Serbia-Montenegro, since they are now one, at least until the referendum today, when Montenegrins are voting (one hopes with ballots only; the European press is watching for signs of violence) on whether they are to become a separate nation-state. It’s going to be a close one.

My mistake was to ask for advice. Croats have opinions and they have this tendency to not budge. Ask for a table in the sun and you will get one in the shade with an explanation of why it is better there. If you persist with your request, they will persist with theirs and in the end, guess who will outlast the other?

When the seas became rough on Saturday, we gave up on the islands idea. A village in Bosnia seemed intriguing.

Not to the hotel desk clerk, whom I asked for advice on how to get there.

Don’t take the bus. Unreliable. Don’t go there anyway. There is nothing there!

Before the conversation ended he had connected me with his friend Veljko, who drives a car and takes people places and knows Montenegro very well.

Their coast is beautiful, Veljko tells me. But they don’t like to work. The joke is, if a Montenegrin is getting up, it must be noon! Without Dubrovnik sending them a few tourists, they would have nothing. I don’t know how they will manage as a separate nation. But we get along with them. We share the sea, we speak the same language. Still, they are poor. You will see.

And we do see. You cross the complicated border and you notice the potholes. You notice other things as well: little commerce, simple homes, simple lives.

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But it is better here, in Montenegro, than in Bosnia. In Bosnia, there are no street signs, no traffic lights. You come to a sign saying “Atena 900 km” and that will be it. There will not be another sign.

He takes us to Budva, halfway down the Montenegrin coast. I do not think any overseas travelers come to Budva.
But Serbs come here! It is their playground!

A walled town, washed by the waves of the Adriatic, it is, like Dubrovnik (though a miniature version of it), a UNESCO protected site.

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I remind Veljko that, sadly, UNESCO’s designation did nothing to protect Dubrovnik during the siege.

Yes, my family’s house was hit seven times, but Dubrovnik houses are solid!
How did you manage all those months, without food?

My mother stocked up when she sensed that war was coming. We had some supplies reach us once a week. But it was dangerous to go get them. If you stood in line, you were a visible target for the Serbs.

Do Croats get along with the Serbs now?
Mostly. The bad guys, Slobodan Milosevic (nc: himself a Montenegrin Serb), they’re gone. It was crazy then! My brother was in the Yugoslav army when the war started. So they asked him to shoot his own people! He left for Germany and never came back.

And you stayed in Dubrovnik?
Yes, I am starting my own touring business next year.
(I am guessing he plans to put Montenegro on the tourist map.)
I have a wife, a little girl. Her name is Ira.
Is that a popular name here?

Actually, in Dubrovnik, they like to name girls Dube, short for Dubrovka and boys Vlaho, after the patron saint.
(I suppose I might feel the same fierce loyalty to my home town had it experienced all that Dubrovnik did.)
My mother worked in tourism before she retired. You know, there used to be 55 hotels in the Dubrovnik area before the war. Now 35 have reopened. It is still slow.

We drive further south, along the coastal road to Sventi Stefan, another tiny former fishing village, walled, jutting out into the sea.

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leading up to Sveti Stefan

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village close-up

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Sveti Stefan close-up

We pass olive trees on steep mountain terraces.
Do you make olive oil here?
Yes and in Croatia too! My father-in-law makes olive oil. I will bring you some to the hotel before you leave.

And there lies that Croat hidden friendliness. You look at a face and you think: serious, reserved. And yet, by the time you finish the day, they are telling you about family squabbles and life’s dreams.

The trip south messed with our regular afternoon eating habits and so we targeted this evening for a great big Adriatic indulgence. You could not ask for better seafood. You really could not.

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asparagus, mussels, olive oil

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grilled octopus salad with warm chicory

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risotto with shrimp and zucchini

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crispy sea bass with capers and candied lemon

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pear, calvados and amaretto souffle and rum raisin ice cream