Kotor, in Montenegro, does not look the sort of city you could spin a long blog post out of. Its thirteen-thousand citizens must lead more or less unremarkable lives, waiting for the next cruise ship to dock or dodging the tourists by speeding round the bay to a quayside bar.
True, the Bay of Kotor is almost uniquely beautiful for this part of the world, with its high, fjord-like mountains on all sides and its aqua-blue water. The locals must be fit, healthy and broadly happy from hikes up to the fortress of St John several kilometres above the town, or water polo, goal posts for which dot the coastline every hundred metres, but perhaps slightly bored at watching the world pass by. Bored enough, at least, to decorate the buildings on the road to the bus station with graffiti.
It is striking then, that the town motto is the prickly and solitary “What belongs to others we don’t want, what is ours we will never surrender.” It is, of course, optimistic at very least and willfully bling at worst. Kotor has been passed between Italian, French, Austrian and Serbian empires over the course of its history and on its belated referendum on independence in 2006, Montenegro chose to anchor itself to the German Duetschmark.
Montenegro uses the Euro, a decision which must now seem somewhat ill-fated. For miles leading up to Kotor half-finished apartments look out onto the bay, advertised to those passing through in Russian or English. The contrast with Croatia, where construction recommences as soon as one crosses the border, is significant. Combined with the hotels, the churches hired out to rude Americans for opera performances and the nightclubs appended to the city walls, quite a lot has been surrendered.
Nonetheless, the locals know how to live. The Kotor Art Festival seems as much for the benefit of locals. One event takes us around the Bay to Prcanj, a town once known for having the fastest mailboats in the Venetian Empire and therefore freed from the obligatory manual labour. The townspeople must have used the additional time and energy afforded by this blessing in building their rather splendid church, in which courtyard a recital of Goethe and Beethoven took place. Quirky and unique, maybe, but at the same time, very European.
Whether Montenegro, like so many other deserving places, will be granted a ray of hope, no one can surely say. Tourism and the prospect of EU Accession is keeping Croatia relatively buoyant and perhaps the same can sustain Kotor. Yet, like the buses, Euros make their way over the mountains slowly and infrequently. Kotor is at least fortunate to be in the business of exchange.