An hour's drive south of Dubrovnik, I cross into the proud little country of Montenegro. Driving along the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, I catch sight of the humble town of Perast. In front of the church, young hunks clad in swim trunks jockey to take tourists out on dinghies to the island in the middle of the bay. According to legend, fishermen saw Mary in the reef and began a ritual of dropping a stone on the spot every time they sailed by. Eventually the island we see today was created, and upon that island was built a fine little "Our Lady of the Rocks" Church, with an adjacent museum.
I hire a Montenegrin dinghy captain, cruise out, and am met by an English-speaking young woman. (The language barrier is minimal here, as English is taught in school from first grade.) She gives me a fascinating tour.
Among the items she shows me is an exquisite silken embroidery — a 25-year labor of love made by a local parishioner. Remarkably, the parisoner used her own hair for the angels ornamenting the border, and you can trace her laborious progress by the hair's changing color. As the years went by, the hair of the devout artist — and thus the hair of the angels — turned from dark brown to white. Humble and anonymous as she was, she had faith that her work was worthwhile and would be appreciated — as it is today, two centuries later, by travelers from around the world.
Dubrovnik seems to be everyone's top stop in Croatia. While it's a great city, if you've come this far, make it a point to venture into Montenegro — just a quick drive or bus ride south. You'll be rewarded with seaside settings even more striking than Croatia's and a chance to experience a scruffier, but no less welcoming, bit of Balkan culture.
Montenegro is generally Orthodox, and shares a strong cultural affinity with Serbia (from which it declared its independence in 2006). But while landlocked Serbia can feel businesslike, the part of Montenegro nearest Dubrovnik boasts an easygoing seaside vibe. With its laid-back Mediterranean orientation, sparkling coastline, and extra share of Catholic churches (left behind by past Venetian and Austrian rulers), Montenegro also has a lot in common with Croatia.
And yet, crossing the border, you know you've left the sleek, prettified-for-tourists spit-and-polish of Croatia for a place that's grittier, raw, and a bit exotic. While Dubrovnik and the showpiece Dalmatian Coast avoided the drab, boxy dullness of the Yugoslav era, less affluent Montenegro wasn't so lucky. Between the dramatic cliffs and historic villages, you'll drive past grimy, broken-down apartment blocks and some truly unfortunate resort-hotel architecture. Montenegro is also a noticeably poorer country than its northern neighbor...with all that entails. Montenegro now struggles to upgrade its lagging infrastructure as it draws more wealthy travelers from places like Russia and the Middle East.
Still, nothing can mar the natural beauty of Montenegro's mountains, bays, and forests. For anyone interested in getting a look at the untamed Adriatic, a spin on the winding road around Montenegro's steep-sided and secluded Bay of Kotor is a must.
Just beyond Perast is the town of Kotor. Butted up against a steep cliff, cradled by a calm sea, naturally sheltered by its deep-in-the-fjord position, and watched over by an imposing network of fortifications, Kotor has survived centuries of would-be invaders thanks to its imposing town wall, which scrambles in a zigzag line up the mountain behind it. Though it's enjoyed a long and illustrious history, today's Kotor is a time-capsule retreat for travelers seeking a truly unspoiled Adriatic town.
With an inviting Old Town, inhabited by just 3,000 people, it seems custom-built for aimless strolling. Though it's sometimes called a "little Dubrovnik," that's a stretch. Kotor is low-key, less ambitious, and much smaller than its more famous neighbor. Yet visitors find that Kotor — with its own special spice that's exciting to sample — is a hard place to tear yourself away from.
Wander the enjoyably seedy streets of Kotor, drop into some Orthodox churches, and sip a coffee at an alfresco café. Enjoying my bijela kava ("white coffee," as a latte is called here), I watch kids coming home from school. Two girls walk by happily spinning the same kind of batons my sisters spun when I was a tyke. And then a sweet girl walks by all alone — lost in thought, carrying a tattered violin case.
Even in a land where humble is everything's middle name, parents can find an old violin and manage to give their little girls grace and culture. Letting that impression breathe, it makes me happier than I'd have imagined it would.