Dearest and unfailingly faithful readers, I have spent the most perfect day in Kotor, a day of bests beating bests, a day when I struggled to find ways to describe the awesome even to myself, a day I gratefully shared with J & L, who I will forever remember for their shit-eating grins, patience, and innate kindness.
It was a day whose outcome was precariously balanced on a coalescence of seemingly unrelated whims and coincidences. Had J not spoken within earshot of an intention to go beyond Saint John’s Fortress, had I tempered my eagerness to see more than just another walled town, had L not been so grandly disappointed with Budva, Kotor would have been filed under the categories ‘quaint’ and ‘old’, sharper details eventually loosing their value and melding into a similar general impression from previous stops.
But, my ears did overhear the word ‘hike’, and my eyes did record the mark of a traveller eager for company. The seed for The Perfect Day in Kotor was planted, germinated while we waited for the promised sunny weather, and coaxed to the surface with groans as alarm clocks shook, beeped, and played pop tunes across our shared dorm rooms.
The day of the hike dawned clear and crisp, details pinged and sparkled, a welcome shift from grey drizzle washing sky into landscape into stone walls into steely ocean. It was as the forecast predicted, the reason J had decided to choose Sunday instead of Saturday, the motivation behind pushing my departure and risk arriving late for a prearranged, and prepaid, tour on Monday.
I joined them in front of the hostel, head swimming with hesitant expectations for a beautiful day crammed side by side with persistent concerns about the level of damage five months of barely sporadic activity had done to my once high fitness level. Will I have to turn back? Or worse, will they have to slow down?
The Up begins, stairs sloping towards the sky, guiding us through the small town, past the wall, sweeping back and forth, back and forth. The switch backs have a certain hypnotic rhythm to their movement across the skirt of the mountain. Even so, I soon find myself gently cursing my short legs. I fix my gaze on the boots in front of me, push past the initial burn, and accept the ache that settles into my quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
The boots stop. I look up.
This process is repeated with just a little more cursing and a little less acceptance. As we move up our mountain the sun works its way down the faces opposite.
Occasionally I let my gaze slide uphill.
Until we arrive at the Fortress, where most visitors mill about for a short visit, then turn around.
There is a window masquerading as a door into the valley behind the walls. We climb through towards the true start line of our ascent. That line, once crossed, separates us from the average tourist, nudging us into the category ‘explorer’. Standing on a narrow ledge on the other side of the wall, gazing up past more switchbacks, to a ridge lined with tiny lollipop trees, I feel certain I will have to turn back before the others, but not yet.
Not far from here we meet a man, wide smile and sparkling eyes highlighting a deeply lined face. An old seaman. Local mountain goat turned human by the Fae, I am sure. Could there be any other way to explain the nimbleness of his step cutting straight uphill in complete ignorance of the easier, zigzagging path us ‘youngsters’ were reliant on?
He pulls out his phone and states he will take a picture of us for Facebook. We chat, he advises us on our route, I chide myself for my surprise at his excellent English. Stick to the old road, his path among the stones is less comfortable. Weathered features never drop their smile, and I wonder if my lines will ever be as deeply cut, as firm a testament that life is beautiful no matter what.
Up and up, back and forth, I am happier now there are no stairs to modify my step. Then there it is, that ridge I had been staring at for the past two days.
Of course there is another mountain to climb beyond this. A little voice inside starts whispering, ‘Nope.’ I bolster my stubbornness with the mantra of the little engine that could, ‘I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, so shut it!’ We take longer pauses, I am holding them back, but the smiles are only getting wider with each glance back over the bay. Until we reach ‘the top’.
What I thought were smiles before were ghostly pale in comparison to the lips stretched to almost absurd limits across their faces. I takes me a moment to realize I have one of my own creasing valleys into my cheeks. We are surrounded by majesty, made all the more sweet with the effort it took to achieve these front row seats.
What do you think of the view from our lunch table?
Refueled, refreshed, re-energized, we continue.
We share bits of our pasts, genealogical details, educational backgrounds, career paths, career upsets, travel tips and motivations. The little things that make us tick. Three days prior we never knew the others existed. Now the two of them are planning the next leg of their trips together, and I am wishing I could join them. Must be the fresh air.
We do eventually turn around, retrace our steps, now with the low afternoon sun gilding the mountains and trees from the west, revealing new facets to the landscape passed on the way up. We can see the bay and Kotor bellow are already in shadow, and no one wants to leave the caress of the sun.
So we find one final view point, walk to the very edge and wait for this to happen.
L, ‘This is the best day on my trip so far. How do you describe today? How would you … How could … I just …’
J, ‘I don’t know how you would use words to describe how I feel right now. But if you are able to, then it’s your calling.’
We finished the last two hours in the twilight, then the dark punctuated with flashlights, and I rolled the dilemma around in my head. Testing a few descriptive phrases, muttering combinations of words under my breath, tasting their weight on my tongue, fingers itching for my keyboard.
How to convey to someone who was not there, the essence of the Perfect Day in Kotor? In short, I cannot. I read over and over the words, plug in some images in an attempt to fill the gaps, polish a bit here, edit a bit there, and still a piece of soul is missing.
What I can say is this: I am often tempted to just rent a car, as so many of my fellow travellers do, to roam beyond the main arteries of attractions and view points, and to drink in the scenery I know must be around that distant bend in the road. Then a day like this one unfolds and I cannot help but feel rewarded for my sticktoitiveness. The use of a car to reach further afield, to feed more marvelous mountain ranges, more sumptuous valleys, more vistas of sandy beaches lining azure waters into my memory banks is not the key.
This day one mountain, a couple of valleys, and an honest sharing between a few souls was more than enough.