The coastal road takes us south past the cliffs of Dalmatia. The sea peels away from us in deepest blue as our bus rounds mountains creeping higher and higher. We get off for a break in Bosnia.
Melanie and I stand and stretch outside a hotel in the country’s sole resort town, Neum. We’re only passing through: fifteen minutes to learn a new country. It’s sunset, and there’s no one around except for the people on our tour bus. Everything glows. We’re overlooking a silvered bay, surrounded by the mountains that have followed us since Velebit, though by now their slopes have thickened with gold pines.
“You know, I’m kind of glad we didn’t end up planning a leg in Bosnia,” Melanie says.
“Why?” Our reason for eliminating Bosnia from our original itinerary had mainly revolved around safety and logistical hassles. We’ve shrugged since when people have asked us why we’re not going there. Not enough time.
Melanie shrugs now, too. “I’m not sure. Based on this, it would be more of the same, I guess.”
I can’t help but laugh. “Based on this? This is literally the furthest you could get from representing Bosnia.” Bosnia’s never devoted a whole lot of energy to its coast for the main reason that there’s 22 kilometers of it. Singapore has more. Isolated Pacific islands have more. Beyond Neum, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s only sea access has been left untouched—forest, hills, water, just a small piece of historical legacy stretching back to the Ottomans. On the other side of Neum lies our destination, the last of Croatia—the walled city of Dubrovnik. Muslim-occupied Neum was its barricade against the Venetian army.
“Eh,” Melanie replies, persuasively.
We’re only in Dubrovnik for a day. It’s too much to stay longer for our budget, which is shoestring from that nearly see-through pair of sneakers I use for mangrove cleanups. But by now we’ve got city exploration down to a formula. We each set alarms; Melanie oversleeps; we pass blame back and forth like a hot potato; gulp down instant oatmeal; and run to our first destination of the day, carefully culled from my midnight binge on top ten lists and “24 hours in…” articles.
Except for a family of Chinese tourists just ahead of us, we have the city walls of Dubrovnik all to ourselves and the soon-to-be-destroyed Westeros is ours to rule. On one side the sea stretches out into first islands and then horizon. Pigeons wheel out from cliffs around—real rock pigeons, not the rats that infest HDBs, the authentic European thing. It’s an hour after sunrise and the Adriatic around is still soft from the night. Kings’ Landing is at peace.
On the other side is the warren of the old city, offering birds’ eye views into people’s backyards and a surprising number of basketball courts. Through the windows of a school we can see students studying; it must be so distracting, having math classes next to one of Croatia’s most famous tourist attractions, the relentless waves of people posing for selfies and screaming children, knowing that your very landscape of your day-to-day is a commercialized object most valuable as a pretty background.
I say as much to Melanie and she points out I’m taking a picture of them.
“At least I’m not from an Asian tour group,” I retort, lamely.
Later, on our free guided tour, the guide bemoans the fact the website he uses doesn’t let him restrict numbers per sign up. “Sometimes, in the summer, I get fifty people per group, from the tour buses. And then you have to dodge the cruise ship crowds too—” He shudders. “It’s just impossible.”
In the city he lays out the Game of Thrones filming locations and describes the carefully neutral trading history of Dubrovnik: calculated diplomacy to avoid plague, war, famine, relying only on the constancy of the sea paths. So this pale-walled city remained stable; so these cobblestone alleyways trembled only briefly and largely untouched in the Yugoslavian war, though countless memorials have since been erected and every bomb that fell has been meticulously dotted onto a map at the entrance.
“And here’s where they filmed The Last Jedi,” he adds.
It’s almost too bright a day and everything is bled hollow in the sunlight. There isn’t a cruise ship today, but still there seem to be only tourists floating around, posing for things, smiling at each other, and it’s hard to see this place with any kind of permanence. It lives on visitors who stay for a day, two, rarely more. Few residents remain: after all, it’s much more profitable to rent out a seaview apartment to an AirBnB guest willing to pay the price and space of a hotel room than a student looking for six-month accommodation. It makes so much more sense to open an overpriced cafe or ice cream shop rather than a local grocery store. Nebulous concepts like liveability sell worse than postcards.
Every year they say they’re going to limit the number of visitors to the walls, even if it reduces tourist numbers; every year the crowds still come, seeking the authentic Croatian coast in a living medieval city, nominally, or just another place where a story took place, whether past or present, and Dubrovnik is the backdrop. Many owners here have profited from the location rights. They threaten to open their windows in the middle of a scene if so many thousands of euros are not guaranteed, and the production companies have no choice but to hand it over, else the story be revealed to take place somewhere living.
“You do realize we’re also tourists, yes,” Melanie says after we cross the border to Montenegro later that day.
“Really?” I say straight-faced. “I had no clue.” Everything, of course, is thick with irony here, chief among the fact that I’m the one choosing to open and then obey top ten lists.
I want to do what’s there to be done, but also what no one knows is there to be done; I want the experience, but not the people; I want the authenticity, but not the inaccessibility; I want the quality, but not the prices; I want to immerse myself, but I also want to see everything. I want too much. Most of all I want to be okay with falling short of what I want.
The cliffs grow higher as we go into Montenegro. The mountains stalactite with pine trees. We overshoot our stop by a kilometre and walk back off the side of the highway. There are no pavements here; there are barely roads—we’re relying on an offline map app and frequently the tarmac disappears without warning for a dirt road, or a field. I stop in one for several minutes to admire the sunset over the bay: the hills have been touched warm.
“Sunsets are overrated,” Melanie says.
I glare at her. “Just because sunsets are a mainstream fascination doesn’t mean they’re bad.”
She shrugs and keeps walking. Outside our studio apartment for the next three days the landlord’s dog barks madly, and runs up to us, slobbering for attention. Three old ladies are sitting over evening cups of tea on the porch and they stop their conversation only briefly to smile at us as we enter, and then resume their life.
I decided to come to Sutomore, Montenegro because the AirBnBs were cheap, because I didn’t look at the map closely enough, and because it was where we needed to leave from next. Prior to arriving I determined two things about the place: that it was a resort town and that its white beach, one of the few in Dalmatia, cured arthritis. After near-daily travel for almost a week, we deserved a break from the vacation, anyhow.
Melanie takes full advantage of this and sleeps till 3 pm while I mindlessly binge Netflix. When we emerge from the teenage stereotype into the bright outside world, a new country lies at our doorstep. Where tourists have flocked all over Croatia, Montenegro has had almost unilateral focus and funds directed towards the Bay of Kotor. With a population of less than a million, there’s not much to work with; the country hasn’t got its own currencies, and instead uses the euro as default despite not being near to entry into the Eurozone or Schengen area.
Development has started and stalled. Everything seems in an indefinite state of construction: the stairs to our apartment are bare concrete, and the husk of a building behind shadows over us. Walking along the beach promenade, workers slowly rearrange rushes of grass on a seaside bar. Sutomore is a resort town, but there’s only one restaurant open, crowded with people squinting over limp pizzas; everything else is dusty ice cream signs and shuttered cafes. Stray dogs guard their territory fiercely, and trot alongside us to make sure we walk all the way past. There’s nothing to stop for here, they bark at us.
We climb a hill just past the beach. At its top is, unexpectedly, a castle overlooking the bay. We balance on its walls and walk its perimeter. Its roof has long since crumbled and it has cracked open ragged to the environment round; the walls are standing, but not much else. Cliff swallows swoop long mandalas across its breadth. We speculate what it might have been for, how long ago, but in our limited medieval history background we draw blanks. Though we find it marked on the map, there’s nothing written about it, as if there is nothing to know. Only the fact of it here and crumbling, here and skeletal, here and memorial, devoid of people or desires.
For dinner we simmer chicken and vegetables for an hour and eat it hungrily with large hunks of bread from the bakery down the road. It might be our first full meal in a day or two. It tastes, if not like home, then some grounding we made ourselves, and satisfies fully.
The next morning we go to the bus station to head north for the day. Lake Skadar cuts across the middle of Montenegro before dovetailing into Albania. It’s southern Europe’s largest freshwater lake and houses endangered pelicans and I need little more reason to drag Melanie somewhere. She can offer little counterargument.
The town by the lake is largely empty upon our arrival. We’re set upon by eager vendors offering boat rides; all are rebuffed. Instead we take the road up. It’s a bright day and the trees have yellowed in the light, swathes of gold on the slopes. We have nowhere in particular to be, nothing in particular to do but walk and see.
The lake stretches below, blue and massive. At its far edge mountains rise into snow. We don’t talk much, except to lay out the days ahead. The birds are loud here, but persistent in the undergrowth. By a village full of vines we find a path through woodland to the lake edge. We stand there for by a rusting boat watching the grebes duck beneath the surface at regular rippling intervals. Every time I see their crest surface in that striking maroon and white my heart jumps, as if this is all I’ve been waiting for all along.
We leave the next morning, assemble our bags and beg the landlord for a ride to the train station to wait in the sunlight by the small platform. Several old men have gathered around a table and hold muttered court. They’re not waiting for anything but the passage of time. I duck into the stationmaster’s office to confirm the time of our train and examine in astonishment at the energetic zebra natural history documentary playing on his back wall while he writes down the train number for me, a cigarette in his other hand. The train is on time, and arrives soon after. The old men blink at us from their patch of sunlight as we drag our bags on.
It’s not been enough time in Montenegro – I’d like to have walked more, ate more, talked to more people, gone to the city – but then again it’s not been enough time anywhere. There will always be more and more and more. Travel is a way of discovery, yes, but native to all discovery is grieving for the way things looked before.
The train pulls away faster and faster. We find a compartment for ourselves and Melanie falls asleep almost immediately. I stay outside in the corridor, standing by the window as the coast recedes and then gives way to mountains. This train ride in particular is famous for the number of bridges it crosses, but I realize quickly it’s difficult to observe bridges as you cross them. Instead I watch as the mountains fold upwards into jagged skyline around. Glimpses come of plateaus of snow beyond, else belts of trees; rivers run by us in turquoise contours far below and then disappear from view, following paths I’ll never know.
I feel a little weightless looking out on it all. There’s an endlessness to the rattling train and the views molding themselves anew around. Everything I see for as long as it takes to register and then it too slips away. In the movement the train stands apart from the world and its roots, offering instead a brief fantasy that landscapes are only to look at and that we passengers hold responsibility to nothing but transience. For now the ground is only something to leave behind.
It’s 12 hours to Belgrade but feels like much less. Eventually Melanie wakes and the landscapes passes into slopes of bronzed trees tumbled with brooks, and villages growing fungal in the valleys, and we eat our lunch carefully looking at the stationmasters waving as we pass, and we talk, and write, and listen to music, and then the Serbian plains at sunset, making gold by the tracks the decomissioned carriages, their time long since come to an abrupt standstill.
Belgrade is not a pretty city. The capital of former Yugoslavia doesn’t seem to have fully emerged from the time. Most structures remain gray cinderblock monolith and press in on the streets. A few flourishes – large red letters declaring #BEOGRAD in the main square, a digital clock embedded into a metal pipe curving off the ground in a self-conscious swoop – feel like a slightly desperate attempt to claim modernity. But for the most part Belgrade makes no effort to sanitize itself. Doors are covered in graffiti devoid of aesthetic concern and most things are chipped on the edges in the way of wear, neglect, and the long reign of humanity.
After our obligatory free tour on our first day, we find ourselves caught up in a carnival. We were planning to make our way towards the Tesla museum but instead our path is blocked. The whole of the former gang headquarters, known euphemistically as Silicon Valley due to the density of prostitutes and their associated implants, has come alive with movement: cotton candy, merry go rounds, balloon vendors drifting pendulously forward, crowds of identical girls in identical outfits handing out iced tea, rows of food stalls run by professional microbreweries and grandmas alike. Children parade down in costumes. We can’t read any of the signs adults carry in front of them but cheer raucously regardless. It’s not clear what’s going on but it involves free samples, so we are obligated to stay.
Even after making the rounds of all the food vendors, twice, we’re still not sure what it all is for. Everyone we communicate with in hand gestures and pointing alone; for some of the grouchier food vendors unhappy with the sampling, this works out for the best. This isn’t a tourist event, clearly, and nothing is catered to us. Live music starts up and a plump woman bellows into a microphone words I can barely separate, let alone understand. In front of her a couple whirls in swinging circles. I give my bag to Melanie and dance by myself on the edge of the ground, hopping irregularly from side to side and waving my hands to the beat I don’t quite get and don’t quite want to. The crowd is alive and laughing around us.
We walk everywhere in Belgrade after that. How else can one stumble upon such things? There’s a thrill of illicit serendipity to it – this thing is not directed at us, temporary visitors, and yet here we are regardless, trying to pretend an understanding of this new place. The next day we promenade along the Danube with all the Serbian families out in the sunlight laden down with popcorn and ice cream. In the medieval neighborhood, Zemun, I do the Serbian thing and have a kafa slowly and luxuriantly looking out on the road. I’m disappointed by the coffee – it’s extremely grainy – but satisfied with my brief companionship with everyone else in the shop also slowly sipping. In the square, back in the main city, we get cevapi, the ubiquitous meat-in-a-bun dish, from a food truck. We sit eating it messily in a park on the only free bench.
In the evening, we go with a group from the hostel to the fortress for the sunset. Michael, a paragliding instructor biking from Germany to Nepal, keeps up a low stream of conversation about the places he passed entering Belgrade: the restaurants by the river, the strange staircase in the business district, fresh sights and sounds.
The sun is mostly hidden behind a thick cloud on the horizon but still we keep our eyes trained there. We’re far from alone: the fortress walls are crowded with groups here with the same mission.
But it’s all mostly hushed conversations, as if we’re keeping quiet out of respect for the turn of the light. The sky fades warm and another day ends, just like that, and as it darkens around we watch the time slipping past us. In its wake it leaves nothing for which to wait or want.