“Sunday, we go on excursion to the mountains.”
Few times before have I heard such pleasant words. See, we’ve been blessed in more ways than you can imagine, with the greatest landlord of all time. He’s like the local uncle we never had. He knew, before we arrived, that we are all about learning the local culture, history, language, and everything that goes with it. He didn’t say much about it over email, but we were in for days and days of great conversation, learning, excursions, and more.
We’re obviously not typical tourists, and I can’t imagine the forces that collided to allow us to stay in this place, meet these people, and have access to one of our most favorite people we’ve met along our journeys. So, on with it…
His plans on this day were to drive with us up into the mountains, visit local villages, see the scenery, and get a feel for how people live outside of the seasonal bustle in our local city of Herceg Novi.
We met him downstairs, early on a Sunday morning, and jumped in the car for what I would call a cross between school, entertainment, an expedition, and a scenic tour. Headed down the highway to Trebinje, Bosnia, we took a quick fork in the road and ended up on a mountain road, ticking off meters of elevation as we quickly drove up and up through the limestone karst and away from civilization.
The mountains here – in a range called the Dinaric Alps or Dinarides – are very unique to Europe. They almost look like a desert or lunar landscape, with jagged limestone peaks and crevasses. Because water quickly seeps through them into underground channels and natural drainage pathways, it seems very arid and very unlike any mountain range I’ve ever visited. It is extremely rugged, dotted with trees and shrubs wherever they can take hold and make a home.
On paths and walkways, and any flat areas, the ground is covered with natural gravel, and it seems a wonder that anyone can live here. But of course, we would quickly be proven wrong. We drove past the mining town of Kameno and up through a few other villages, stopping at a friend’s house for a visit. The friend wasn’t home, but our landlord chatted with his wife and came back with a handful of green and purple grapes pulled straight from the vine. That’s just how it is.
Then we were off, on our way to the historic hamlet of Žlijebi. Historically, Žlijebi was a self-sustainable community of farmers, noted for its distinct limestone houses and roofs. It really looks like a place pulled straight from the history books, with these carefully balanced and engineered roofs of rock and wood girders. Today, there are very few people who know how to make these roofs, and locals have settled with recreating them using rock and concrete. However, the real deal is to be found, and is a feat of engineering that I cannot even fathom.
Hopping out of the car and walking past Žlijebi’s stone houses and small farms, we made our way to a small church that overlooks the valley below and the sea in the distance. Here, we’d see a small graveyard with tombstones covering the history of a local people and folks from far away who fell in love with what is seemingly – but not – an area hidden from society.
Our landlord, being the guy he is, ran into an acquaintance at the church. Spiro is a local, born and raised in Žlijebi. Having left town to make his way as a seaman and ship captain, he now spends his free time in the area, restoring and rebuilding the village. This guy truly deserves his own story, so we’ll leave Spiro and friends for another day.
After spending time talking with them, we were off again, this time even farther up the mountains and into the above-1000m elevation, where fir trees dominate in the spaces that aren’t full of rock and gravel. People have started to build modest vacation homes in this area, and while I couldn’t spend too much time in what I would describe as the middle of nowhere, a few days here could do anyone’s sanity a great deal of justice.
We then stopped in the village of Vrbanj, where an older restaurant and tavern does its business next to a new lodge built to host peace-seekers and hikers. It was time for the first homemade schnapps of the day, and our landlord chatted up local visitors and the gracious tavern owner, who brought us delicious plates of homemade raisin bread to go along with our drinks.
Yes, our landlord either knows everyone or makes friends with everyone. He’s that guy. And our appreciation of that trait is something we couldn’t value more, even if we dedicated our lives to it.
Back in the car, we had an important meeting in the village of Kruševice. See, as we’d passed this village on our way up, our host had seen some friends at the center of town. They had been awaiting his arrival for some time, and it was a must that we stop and chat.
This is where I once again curse myself for not being able to ask people if I could take pictures of them. Everywhere we go, I’m bashful about people’s privacy and I don’t want them to feel like they are some sort of tourist attraction. I have to get over that.
Walking into the local café/tavern/restaurant, we were greeted by five or six of our landlord’s friends. These guys know how to spend their off days, sitting around drinking coffee and schnapps and having invaluable conversations that could be novels all their own.
Of course, sitting down with them meant more schnapps, and out came the owner with a tray of drinks with which we were to enjoy without hesitation. One of the characters, a guy in his fifties with crazy gray hair, spoke English and we were all able to make our way through dialogue and pointing, which of course included a lot of laughing and confusion. This particular man also possesses an interesting life story of building houses for people whose names regularly made the front page of CNN during the 1990s and 2000s as villains of Western media.
I can only imagine how many books the tales from each one of these gentlemen could fill. We literally could have stayed for days, listening to anecdotes that the greatest author can’t even create on his best day. There was only a limited amount of time for that, though, and we were off, spontaneously invited by the head of the village to see his handiwork.
And by handiwork, I mean a smokehouse of glorious, aging prosciutto, which gets smoked for one year and then aged for two more. Its drying, red and brown skin, dripping with fat, kept tempting us to snatch a few legs and make a break for it.
Walking back outside, the house was naturally covered with lush grapevines, because that’s just how they do, here in Montenegro.
Our host then showed us the barn of cows and pigs, who all looked quite comfortable in the shade as the days around here have been scorching all summer long. This man is clearly proud of his village and its production of delicious morsels of gloriousness, and it was wonderful to see that things in this land are still made by locals in their own villages, created with handiwork and generations of skill that cannot and will never be had by food conglomerates that have infiltrated every other corner of the world (including Montenegro).
Time was ticking away, and it was time to leave all of our new acquaintances for a drive down the mountains and back to town. Sunday means family day; and being the figurehead around here, our landlord had to make it back in time to host all the relatives for their weekly feast.
Another gem in what is beginning to feel like a boat-size treasure chest of booty, the knowledge and experience of this day is something we will never forget. Knowing that there are people like our landlord, who have a deep appreciation for the history and culture of his local land, and that there are folks in all corners who keep their local tradition alive, gives us hope that modernization (and the greed that comes along with it) will never fully triumph over what we consider integral parts of society as a whole.
These places, these people, and these long-standing traditions that can never be properly replicated in any form or fashion, are why we travel, why we learn, why we study, and why we are continuously motivated to live how we live.
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