Croatian Characters and Chasing Butterflies in Montenegro

Hitting the main road after the Croatian border was a shock after two days in the Bosnian wild following the Ciro bike path from Mostar to Dubrovnik. Lorries hurtled past me within inches, rattling my bike and my nerves, causing us to sway in their gust of wind. Buses, karting tourists around the Dalmatian coast, beeped their annoyance, warning me to move out the way. But I had nowhere to move. I stopped regularly to calm my nerves. Take me back to Bosnia, I thought.

Arriving in Dubrovnik, I was suddenly just one tourist in a crowd of many. The friendliness of small villages disappeared as I became a commodity to the business owners of the town. Dubrovnik’s popularity comes as no surprise. The old town of pale regal stone and rich terracotta roofs juts out into the waters of the sea, encased by its impressive walls. Yet a victim of its beauty, Dubrovnik has lost its soul in between the cruise ships and budget airline flights. “I remember when the Old Town was full of music and dancing,”  mused Niksa, who grew up in the town, as we watched the sunset over the city. “The town was alive. We could afford everything. Now, I never go to Old Town, The whole city has become unaffordable because of tourism”. I was surrounded by Asian tour groups and badly sunburnt Brits as I wandered around the historic Mediterranean streets. There was no sign of real life. The city has been moulded into a walk-in museum for tourists.

I was not sad to leave Dubrovnik. I followed a coastal road to Mocici, eager to beat the storm that was closing in around the hills. Mocici is a small village with character to rival the size of the mountains that surround it, quite the opposite to Dubrovnik. It was in this village that Hayley and I crossed paths once again. After quickly and excitedly recounting stories from our travels, we visited Wolfgang, an Austrian who retired to Croatia with health problems. Hayley had promised he would offer local wine and true to her word, wine was retrieved from the cellar before our seats were warm.

Wolfgang’s dimly lit living room was cluttered with cardboard boxes. Some were empty and some holding one of his thirteen cats. The smell of cigarette smoke and animals hung low in the air as we watched the cats come and go. Wolfgang softly told us the story and mannerisms of each one, occasionally reaching to tip cat food straight onto the sofa or table. The cats would rub lovingly against his frail legs as he spoke to them gently in German.

Wolfgang lived down the road from the Mocici eco-park where Hayley and I were both staying. The park, which has welcomed more than 3000 other cycle tourers, is perched on the side of the cliff looking out onto the endless sea and horizon. It’s the latest venture of Marko, a loud and opinionated Croatian man on the brink of turning 80. Everyday he wears the same blue floral patchwork dungarees with holes in every inappropriate place that it is possible to have a hole. His bumbling presence and no shit attitude made for quite a character. On my final evening, we ate his infamous cabbage soup as he recounted histories of fighting soldiers for food during World War II, escaping the war on a boat, and becoming a successful businessman in Canada, not forgetting the women he encountered along the way.

The next day I crossed the border into Montenegro. The road hugged the coastline and extended its arm around the Bay of Kotor. Speckled grey mountains, looming over the sea, captured my attention as I rode. Nestled between the mountains and the cobalt sea were many medieval towns with creamy ancient spires. I studied the mountains with admiration and apprehension, wondering which one I would be climbing the following day.

The assent was long and hard. Slowly, slowly, I told myself, you’ll get there. I pushed on, fighting my mind which was ready to give up. From the top you could see the beautiful butterfly of the bay in all its splendor. The mountains, seeming so large the day before, were now mere ripples separating the waters of the sea. The towns were pinpricks at their feet. I was now in the heart of the Lovcen National Park, 1749 meters above sea level. I felt very small in this playground for giants made from boulder rocks and high mountains. I camped with a German couple in a settlement of a few houses. We drank coffee and beers with the few elderly residents, enjoying conversation with them despite our mutual complete lack of understanding.

The only traffic on the road the following day was butterflies. I rolled through the mountains, down green slopes, along a river and over flatlands in the sunshine. This was heaven. I climbed gently to reach Lake Skadar. The mountains and the lake, facing each other, were in competition to show off their beauty. Fluffy white clouds floated above the lake in the distance pretending to be snowy mountains peaks. The islands, the reeds, the sheer expanse of deep greens and blues. This place was special. I enjoyed this heaven for two days. The butterflies swirled around my legs as I travelled slowly into a dream.