Wednesday, 31 October 2007

STEPH Mlini to Herceg Novi 30/10/07

We walk steadily today, all day, and cross into Montenegro about an hour before dark. We walk along the main road and, mercifully, the traffic thins out the further we get away from Dubrovnik . . . or the closer we get to Montenegro, whichever way you want to look at it.

We stop for a bread and cheese brekkie overlooking Adriatica. We stop for fabulously fine hot chocolates in a messy town. We stop for lunch at a cafĂ© that sells nothing but petrol – more bread and cheese. We roll out the backgammon for every stop.

Most of the day we are walking through scorched Earth, where the summer’s fires have taken the life from the mountainsides. A couple of hours from the border, the spotted mountains shift a beautiful valley away from the road and autumn wheels through valley floor, all the shades of red and orange and yellow.

As in Herzegovina, it is difficult for us, son and daughter of the new world, to know whether buildings are in a simple state of decay or have been bombed (do things really get bombed? surely only six-year-olds with plastic toys blow things up? are we making up stories?).

As we draw close to Montenegro, these buildings – homes and farms – have clearly been destroyed. They don’t proclaim their ruined status to an attention-seeking world. They sit quietly, stark yet barely visible, shaded by autumn and new life. This is more than television.

About a km from the border we turn a corner and Montenegro comes into view, a great valley skirting a puddle of ocean. The sky is a massive watercolour wash, a pretty blue-grey – Montenegro, my unpainted canvas.

As we pad, pad, pad down the steep hillside between the Croatian checkpoint and the Montenegran, we have that conversation again about the name we call people and the name they call themselves. What, we wonder, is Montenegro in Montenegran?

We don’t wonder long, for there is a sign between the borderposts and the republika announced there is unpronouncable – Crna Gora.

We walk well into the darkness before finding a restaurant. The meal is well-cooked but nothing I particularly want to eat, especially for the big euro prices. I eat chips and a pancake and a fair whack of Ben’s tomato and onion salad. We rise to leave and the bill is exorbitant – she’s ripped us off, fair and square. Ben goes to the get the police to sort it out, because no-one is speaking the same language. I sit quietly among her regulars and wait for his, or their, return.

He comes alone. English speakers are rare so far in Crna Gore . . . I reckon he’s going to have any more linguistic luck with the cops. I’m happy to pay her and move on. We walk into the night, past boggy fields and rubbish – neither of which I’m willing to camp in or near. We seek a room, knocking on doors that advertise Sobe (rooms). No, no, no (it’s not the season) or more robber baron prices.

We walk on. It’s a sober town. The only women on the streets are those making their way home. The men in the bars and meeting places have little life in their faces. There is a shimmering fear in this world. And an awful lot of mud around.

And then, the miracle. I ask a man loading stuff from the boot of his car into his garage if he has a room. He does. He gets his wife – a woman of middle age who has life coursing through her being, a welcoming smile, a loving hand greeting. They want a wonderfully fair price for their room.

We unwind the packs and collapse onto chairs, feet up on the bed. We’ve been on the road 13 hours, walking for about 11 of them. The woman brings us a shot each of Ben’s favourite pirate brew. She brings us pancakes. She bids us goodnight.

And then a wild thunder roars and the skies open and . . . well, we’re very very glad – for many things really.

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