Home is a lighthouse.

I am writing this on an overnight bus from Kosovo to Montenegro, where I will be reunited with Kotor, but this post is not about how wonderful Kosovo was (and it really was) or about the home I am going back to, it is about the home I just came from.

Skopje. Let’s not forget where this Balkan love affair began all those years ago. I know it’s hard for the travellers I meet to wrap their heads around why I have been back to this eccentric city 4 times (5 by the end of this trip). While drinking rakia and talking to travellers in the garden of my friends’ new hostel (Lighthouse Hostel Skopje, you have to stay here, seriously) I realised, I had been away for nearly 3 years but these people were still as exceptional as I had remembered.

I have been back in the Balkans for a week, and it has taken me this long to piece together my feelings and settle back into my happiness. The jetlag has been put behind me, but even in those tired weary days I was filled with the usual warmth that being in this part of the world brings, and it has nothing to do with the weather.

I didn’t realise how much I had missed Skopje. I did not take anything for granted, not even watching the sparrows fly around the rose bushes while drinking a strong cup of Turkish coffee, and certainly not the people whose company I have always enjoyed and who always make me feel as if I have always been there even when years have passed us by and so much has changed.

And so my bus pulls into Kotor after a long and arduous journey from beautiful Kosovo, and I am glad to be here but I am also glad that when those tear stained final days appear I will be going back to Skopje where it all began as if that’s the way it always was supposed to be since the beginning.

Be not afraid of where you are going, of who you are, or what might take you by surprise. The best moments are not to be anticipated, only lived.

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Montenegro is my soulmate…

It’s one thing to adore a remarkable town like Kotor, but it’s another thing to fall in love with an entire country like Montenegro. It’s no secret that Kotor has been a notable place in my life for the past 3 years (five visits and counting) but I’m starting to believe that Montenegro as a whole may just be my soulmate. It was by touring with 360 Monte Travel agency on my most recent visit that I came to this conclusion so I want to talk a little about my experience with them.

As a last minute decision I found myself on a day-long boat tour of the beautiful bay of Kotor. I’m not usually a tour company girl — everything I do is usually solo and self-planned — but I was in for an exceptional day! Relaxing on a boat being fed fruit and champagne, jumping off of it to swim through vibrant blue caves, and seeing unique sights along the way… well, that was all dreamlike enough, but as a bonus I also met some really incredible people and for me that’s the best part about travel.

After this wonderful experience I decided to book another tour with 360 Monte. After much deliberation I jumped on the Northern Montenegro tour because it was a part of the country I hadn’t come close to exploring. While the bay is indescribably beautiful and certainly attractive as a tourist destination, it was important for me to see that there is so much more to the country — especially after having been here so many times! Our guide Slobodan was amazing, giving us information and telling us stories which got me hooked onto Montenegrin culture.

I had been warned that there was going to be a lot of driving involved, but to be honest I found that to be part of the magic. The countryside, towering mountainside, twisty roads, mountain plains and canyons do not get boring. This is as much a feature of the trip as the marvellous stopping points along the way (Salt Lake, Tara Bridge, Durmitor, Black Lake and Ostrog Monastery — yes you do get to go inside). Everyone was laughing and forming new friendships, and with a little car dancing to keep spirits high and some local food along the way all I could do was smile and appreciate the wild beauty of Montenegro’s North.

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How I know Montenegro’s my soulmate:

1. It has beauty and soul.

It will charm you every chance it gets, from the mountains to the sea and all the wonderful people in between.

2. It calms and exhilarates.

There is no wrong way to spend your time here. Wild nights, lazy days… it simply lets you follow your heart.

3. Its stories never bore you.

It was love at first sight, but every tale told will make you profess your love for it even more. You’ll be enthralled.

4. You love it beyond all others.

It’s true love when you’re in an open relationship with the world but would give all it up to be here once more.

5. It leaves you wanting more.

After all this time I’m still constantly discovering and seeing this place with new eyes — and I hate leaving!

As with all travel experiences they are what you make of them. Sometimes you just connect, find your type of people, and get seduced by your surroundings. We’re all different, but for me Montenegro is what the fire inside me now burns for. I rarely give recommendations, but if you want to make the most out of your experience in this country come to Kotor. These are my five favourite businesses in town:

1. Old Town Hostel (budget accommodation done well).

2. Palazzo Drusko (amazing luxury accommodation).

3. 360 Monte Travel Agency (offering 4 day tours and transfers).

4. Scala Santa (restaurant with great food and atmosphere).

5. Letrika (great coffee by day, phenomenal bar at night).

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My vows to Montenegro:

1. I’ll learn your language (just give me time).

2. I’ll come celebrate with you when I graduate.

3. I’ll do my best to capture you in my writing.

4. I’ll not forget the times we’ve had together.

5. I’ll cry everytime I leave you (100% guaranteed).

 

 

In good company…

What is it that makes travel friendships so incredible? I have been travelling on and off for years, almost always solo, yet there are so few times I would ever say I felt alone. Even the times I was lonely I would say that was by choice, and mostly out of stubbornness and not because there was no opportunity to socialise. But even those stubbourn lonely moments lead you back to people if you let them, like the time I broke my foot in Montenegro and sat debilitated in my apartment for 5 or 6 days before I was able to overcome my pride and ask for help. Once I finally did great things flowed on from it and proved that not even my pride or broken bones and ligaments could stop me from finding silver linings and amazing people.

I think what happens to you when you travel on your own is that you’re stripped of routine, familiarity and responsibility and what’s left is the purest version of yourself. It is this version that people react to and their reactions for the most part are a direct reflection of who you are at your core. When you travel longterm without accompaniment you naturally drop all the pretences and live more openly and I suppose it is this openness that attracts good company in kind, be that of local citizens or other travellers crossing your path along the way. And here’s the great thing: friendships like these when they survive can actually be resilient as hell.

And how do these friendships survive? Is it possible to maintain them for years after a brief encounter? I think so. I know so, because I still feel incredibly connected to some people several years on and keep in regular contact. We still share jokes, memories, and ideas. Some of these friends I can imagine still knowing when we’re old and grey, laughing about the time we had way back when and (if we’re lucky enough) the times our paths crossed again afterward. The mere idea of that makes me smile, and the hopes I have for each of their futures fill my heart along with the gratitude I have for having known them now.

I think when you travel on your own the world shows you who you are, and if you don’t like who you had once been it gives you an opportunity to evolve. Doors open and limits dissolve, and you cross paths with people who are going through a similar experience with minds wide open. This is a positive thing to connect with and while we are all so different we are also indeed the same and we laugh and bond and sometimes cry when we have to say goodbye because there is no certainty in when you’ll meet again. Travel friendships may appear to come out of nowhere, but they’re written in the stars as we stumble our way wide-eyed through a world we can barely ever truly know, but at least we know we’re in good company.

Special thanks to my friends at Old Town Hostel Kotor and 360 Monte Travel Agency. These are the people you need to know to take your Kotor experience to new heights.

Until we meet again…

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Photography by Erika Kochanski.

How do you say goodbye to a place that never fully leaves you? The answer is you don’t. You take it along for the ride with you wherever you go until you are able to return again. Then you welcome it with a new hello and allow the familiar to become something entirely new. I came back to Montenegro thinking I had returned here to hide out in Kotor but I was in denial. I wasn’t coming back to hide away from the world at all, I was simply coming home.

Up until the first time I met this place I was counting countries. Apart from countries that housed family, I had not considered revisiting places I had already been to an option over the chance to go somewhere new. Then back in 2015 I came to the Balkans for the first time not knowing what to expect and everything changed. I stopped counting and I started returning.

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I have been meaning to write a decent blog entry since leaving the UK, but it’s hard to write Kotor when you’re living Kotor. As much as the town and its people inspire me, it’s become a place that puts me under a magnifying glass and I am faced with all the parts of me that I’m not always so willing to embrace. But Kotor accepts my demons, even encourages them in a way that I once believed to be self-destructive — but now I know otherwise. We make unfathomable connections to others when we’re bound by the truths of our raw selves. We don’t need fixing, just embracing. We don’t need defining when we just let ourselves be.

There’s a part of me that also wants to write about the beauty of Montenegro, because it is exquisite, but I am still emotionally swept away and going through the pain of leaving it all behind again. I am enjoying Croatia now, but my heart is of course still in Montenegro. Maybe it always will be. As my Montenegrin friends tell me, I will be back again. They appear to be very confident in that fact, but then they seem to know me better than I know myself sometimes. I trust that they are right.

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In a place that couldn’t be more different than where I come from, a place that is as confronting and confusing as it is comforting and insanely beautiful, I have a surrogate family. They leave me realising that the only enemy I have is myself. I am allowed to be messy. Good bad ugly mess. Raw. Pain. Love. Overwhelmed. When those dislocated emotions get turned up to full volume and you think they might just eat you alive, out of nowhere comes this human safety net whose presence feels like a hug. But I think you need to have gone through the pain to fully appreciate the embrace.

I don’t trust my brain to bottle it. It cannot be preserved indefinitely. I try to write about the polished limestone and the hearty laughter but I can never do it justice. This is why I know when my friends tell me that I will be back again that they are right. If people are soul food, then Kotor is delicious and can be enjoyed with a side of natures splendid majesty. Whatever the rest of the world strips from me, it is replenished here in so many different ways. One need only trust that the stars will align for my return sooner rather than later of course.

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