Kotor is not an old town, it is an old ship moored to the rough terrain of the land and abandoned by its captain. And when you first step foot onto its deck you can clearly hear the roaring depths of water under your feet, see the wavering canvas of tormented sails, listen to the shrieking howl of wooden masts, struggling to keep their vertical position, and peek into the tiny cabins of the crew. It is like despite many years has passed, the ship is still hoping to one day push off the shore and sail into the ocean. And while someone invisible was trying to preserve everything in a state it was left in, they somehow forgot about their worst enemy – thousands of years, that can’t seem to stop flowing.
It takes three hours to fly from Moscow to Montenegro. It is one of the few countries in the world that does not require Russians to get visa and they take full advantage of that, splurging on luxurious villas right on the sea shore, throwing piles of money at Budva’s casinos and flooding beaches in summer. I have never before travelled to a country so close to mine in terms of language, traditions and culture. I aspired to faraway destinations with different people, exotic food and unknown history. But familiarity is a deceitful veil that makes you believe that there is nothing new to explore. And when you succumb to it, you stop searching. Kotor is a Pandora Box, that dispelled strangeness into my own home.
It is the old city walls that I like most. For they divide the world into mystery and commonness, a fairytale and ordinary existence, a dream and reality. They mark the beginning and the end of the triangular piece of land, that for many years represented a strategic military point and occupied minds of numerous European nations. First, the Illyrians, then the Venetians, the Austrians, the French, the Russians at some point in history – all those powerful empires simultaneously shattered and enriched city’s cultural heritage at once and you will find traces of those cultures everywhere: from architectural styles to language and religion.
Tucked between foggy mountains, in the bay of turbid turquoise water, separated from nature by its man-made walls, the city has been worn out by the two wars: the war of humankind, that it was forced to take sides in, and its own endless battle with nature and time. And as the time passes, it slowly fuses itself with the surrounding landscape: the walls are being coated with a light shade of green, the molding is turning into indecipherable lettering, multiple cracks and scratches begin to appear on the buildings surfaces. The city’s age is not hidden under the glittery of tourism and the medieval town looks older than it is. Walk out through the gates and you might never see Kotor again.
When the sun goes down, the rusty medieval lamps wrap the narrow alleyways with scarce yellowish light, that only makes certain corners darker. The mountains change colors from green to sinister black and loom over the city like leering monsters. The sounds of your footsteps, bouncing off a cobblestone pavement, tick off the time left before sunrise. I can walk the city from wall to wall in 10 minutes and while it is a rather enlightening experience, it also leaves me distressingly alarmed. You can never feel safe within those walls. Whilst they protect the city from the outside invaders, they also provide a perfect shelter for your worst nightmares and ghosts. There might not be a single soul on the street but there will always be someone following you. Maybe, it is the ghosts of history trying to claim their old town back.
As the plane ascends the treacherous runway of Tivat airport and the bay of Kotor dissipates in front of my eyes, I start wondering if the city actually exists. Whether it was one of the many medieval towns, so abundant in Europe and guarded against tourists by its cautious locals, whether it was a forgotten set of Lord of the Rings movie, for some reason chosen by the filmmakers over the more dramatic beauties of New Zealand, or whether it was merely a play of my imagination, depleted by the lack of stimuli and vying for some sort of magic – I am struggling to define what I saw. And for the first time in my life, I don’t want to solve that mystery yet.