Friday, 27 November 2009

A small beach in Montenegro

"Russians," he said, with an air of bitter-sweet regret. "Too much, eh? Too much?"
I was clearly expected to agree but, seeing as we were swinging around hairpin bends on the mountainous coast road to Budva at the time, it was difficult to concentrate on anything other than the possibility that my son might be about to projectile vomit all over the taxi's leather upholstery.
This journey hadn't been part of the schedule. Having crossed the border into predictably rugged Montenegro from the relatively gentle mayhem of Shkodra in northern Albania, we'd had time for several cups of coffee outside Podgorica railway station before sitting out on the platform to wait for the train down to Bar and a spectacular journey through the mountains to the Adriatic coast. In a suitably dilapidated train, we'd rumbled into tunnels, and out again into valleys that took your breath away and around the brimming banks of lakes where fat men in swimming trunks were casually tossing fishing lines. At Bar, we tried and failed to find the only hotel that the guide book could bring itself to recommend.
"What do you want to stay here for?" asked the first taxi driver who picked us up. "Big money! Try this instead."
He dropped us outside what looked like a cross between a 1970s dole office and a vandalised primary school. The curtains were like shrouds; they blew out through the holes where the windows should have been. As we walked away, another cabby U-turned across the dual carriageway and then snorted with identical scorn when we mentioned the other hotel that the guide book recommended.
"Big money! Pah!" he said, even more emphatically than his colleague. "Where are you going anyhow? Budva? Kotor?"
Before we knew it, we were on our way to "somewhere much better" out of town. A petrol pump attendant filled our tank and waved us through without bothering to ask for money. It was as if having westerners in the back of his Mercedes were enough to grant our driver carte blanche. He took to the coast road with a derring-do which verged on the insane. After several more U-turns and tunnels, we were hanging over Sveti Stefan, the island resort much favoured by the likes of Sophia Loren. "It is presidential resort," announced the driver.
Hotels clinging to sheer-sided slopes came and went. They were all, he went on, built and owned by Russians. Somewhere around a hair-pin, and just beyond policemen hanging over a hundred-metres drop to look down onto a car crash, we arrived in Budva. This was where, the driver decided, we should stop. After some daredevil rubber-necking, he slid into the traffic heading into the resort. He'd been talking about delivering us further north in the old Venetian city of Kotor but he'd obviously lost interest. It was much too far. Instead, we swooped through lumbering coast road buses and, just past a half-finished apartment block, pulled up in a side street where the Hotel Kangaroo announced that it might or not have vacancies. God knows what the answer would have depended upon because we didn't have much choice. No sooner had the taxi rolled to a halt than a woman with far too many wrinkles for her age and a Japanese T-shirt leapt up from a table where she'd been drinking espresso very slowly, and, via the taxi driver's halting translation, announced that she had a room where we could stay. A short walk from the beach, amongst guesthouses overspilling towel-wrapped Serbians, Russians, Ukrainians and, since the political wind was still blowing in that direction, Slovenians, Bosnians and Croats, we were shown into a bare, four-walled cell kitted out wth a broken 80s ghetto blaster and a plug socket held onto the wall with gaffer tape. Naturally, we took it.
Budva itself was a ruin waiting to happen. In the absence of planning permission, a narrow strip of habitable land between the mountains and the sea was being rendered entirely uninhabitable. Adventure sports addicts who had no idea about where they were staying, other than that it was relatively close to an EasyJet airport, floated down into the bay on paragliders. The concrete skeletons of hotels were going up everywhere and the deeply stacked stalls along the waterfront sold everything from candy floss and shark's teeth to dodgy DVDs and ripped-off designer clothing. In the marina, photogenic yachts were moored beneath a gigantic hi-def TV screen.
In a bar in the old town, we sat drinking beer and were immediately distracted by a bulbous Russian oligarch with a half-shaved skull, a pony tail and a seventeen-year-old girlfriend in a bikini. Gift shops sold 'traditional' handicrafts and, in a cafe just down from the unvisited Archaeological Museum, we tried very hard to choose a salad that wasn't produced according to a recipe sent out across Europe from the restaurant franchise's HQ. People had come halfway across the continent to buy telling Balkan fragments and were going home with mass-produced necklaces, T-shirts and recorders. On the waterfront, the immigrant workers charged with sloshing out the bilges of the oligarchs' floating palazzi sat at tables knocking back glasses of indeterminate raki while impressed tourists took their picture. Under the trees, there were people selling cardigans, traditional knitwear and fish. A small sea bass wilted under the streetlamps outside the Hemingway Bar.
The town's only treasure was its library. Up in the castle, where teenagers forced into traditional dress handed out tickets that nobody bothered to check, there was a room full of locked cabinets. Each one contained ranks of books: English, French and German volumes about the difficult history of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. Nobody would agree to open the cases so I lay on the floor, scribbling down titles onto the backs of free postcards, each one half-blotted out by sweat, each one, hopefully, on Google Books. Outside, on both sides of the high Venetian ramparts, swimmers dived off the white stone walls into the bay.
Across the water was an island known as 'Hawaii'. It looks like that: a sudden volcanic apostrophe rising out of the sea. We followed a path round the headland towards a 'private' beach where, having handed over three euros for the privilege or 'privacy', we picked a route across the crowded strand to find a metre or two between American backpackers reading John Irving novels and the canvas shower cubicle where overweight Russians came to gossip before they washed off salt and sand. It was so hot you could hardly walk down to the water. We tiptoed around like ballerinas while the beach cafes thumped out turbofolk. Under the water, the only dangers were dumped beer cans, shiny-white between the lumps of rock. Looking back towards the beach , I couldn't help noticing a woman stood on the shoreline, arms outstretched, looking towards where her children were splashing around in the sea. Her husband called her back towards the bar. As she turned, the slogan across her buttocks was plain to see: 'Cool!' - the message and the medium perfectly out of kilter.

Originally published on-line by Various Artists. Reposted here with thanks. Tom Phillips

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