An hour's drive south of Dubrovnik, I cross into the tiny and new country of Montenegro. Driving along the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, the humble town of Perast catches my attention. 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.
I hired a Montenegrin dinghy captain, cruised out, and was met by an English-speaking young woman. (The language barrier is minimal here, as English is taught from first grade in school.) She gave me a fascinating tour.
In the sacristy hung an embroidery — a 25-year-long labor of love made by a local parishioner. It was as exquisite as possible, lovingly made with silk and the woman's own hair. The cherubs that ornamented the border all had the woman's hair. And over the decades she worked on it, you can trace her laborious progress. As the years went by, both the hair of the angels and the hair of the devout artist 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 is everyone's top stop in Croatia. While it's a great city, if you've come this far, make a point to venture into Montenegro — just a quick drive or bus ride south. Europe's youngest nation awaits with a refreshing rough-around-the-edges appeal, the excitement of a giddy new independence, and quirky sights like church art with human hair.
Montenegro is generally Orthodox, and shares a strong cultural affinity with Serbia. But while landlocked Serbia can feel businesslike, Montenegro boasts an easygoing seaside spice. With its laid-back Mediterranean orientation, sparkling coastline, and more than its 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. Still, nothing can mar the natural beauty of Montenegro's mountains, bays, and forests.
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 by 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. The town, with 3,000 living inside the old town walls, has just enough commerce to keep a couple of restaurants and hotels in business.
With an inviting Old Town, 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 al fresco café. Enjoying my bijela kava ("white coffee," as a latte is called here) I watched kids coming home from school. Two girls walked by happily spinning the same kind of batons my sisters spun when I was a tyke. And then a sweet girl walked 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 made me happier than I imagined it would.