Friday, April 7, 2017


(California Focus bonus coverage)

By Thomas D. Elias

KOTOR, Montenegro -- Among  the world's millions of roads and highways, a very select few have themselves become destinations.

There are western Canada's magnificent Icefields Parkway, California's own Highway 1 through Big Sur and Maui's Hana Road, to name three.

None of them has anything over the nameless road that winds its way through 13 miles and 27 hairpin turns up a 3,500-foot cliff from this medieval Venetian-built port town, best known today as the setting of the James Bond movie Casino Royale. The road leads to Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro, on the small nation’s rocky central plain.

          Sometimes billed simply as the serpentine road because of all those switchbacks, so sharp that authorities painted numbers at the apex of each to let drivers know where they stand, the route features almost constant views down to the Bay of Kotor, or Boka Kotorska in Serbo-Croatian, the southernmost fjord in Europe.

          Look the other way, and from some turns you can see the gorgeous beaches at Ulcinj, about 30 miles south, and part of the port town of Bar, with occasional views of the overcrowded resort town of Budva and the ultra-luxury St. Stephen’s Island, the entire place now one large five-star hotel.

The views are among the world’s finest, one dramatic vista after another. It’s no wonder Lord Byron in the 19th Century described the coast of Montenegro as “The most beautiful encounter anywhere between the land and the sea.”

The road’s surface is smooth asphalt today, with guard rails protecting drivers from abrupt, unbroken drops of hundreds of feet. Even so, bus drivers who ferry cruise ship passengers up Lovcen (pronounced love-chen) Mountain all through the summer take it very slow and easy. They sometimes have conflicts with other drivers who don't understand the worldwide protocol that on a road too narrow for more than one vehicle, the car or truck heading downhill must back up to the nearest wide spot.

Difficult as the driving looked the other day to most of my fellow bus passengers from the brand-new cruise ship Viking Sky, to me it looked pretty simple.

That's because the last time I came here, on a cross-Balkan road trip in 1989, this then-completely nameless track featured gravel and no pavement, plus the same sheer drop offs, but with no guard rails. Great fun to drive, but maybe a little nerve-wracking for passengers.

My wife and I signed up for Viking's 10-day "Empires of the Mediterranean" cruise from Athens to Venice the moment we saw it featured a daylong stop in Kotor and a shore excursion up the well-remembered road, which I recalled clearly as one of the most gorgeous, least-publicized and most adventurous drives we ever made.

We figured there must've been some heavy work done on the road in the 28 years since we last drove it – and there has been. The government of Montenegro appears to be on a road-building binge.

Not only has our favorite lane (it's still only one lane) been paved, but a new highway is almost finished over much more gradual terrain on a far longer, circuitous route between Kotor and Cetinje, also the terminus of the so-called serpentine road.

The new route has two lanes and some decent views over the Adriatic Sea coastline, but no romance or sense of adventure.

The road you might well love and certainly would never forget was built by Swiss engineers working for the army of the Austro-Hungarian empire during World War I.

It was never meant to be a highway, but rather as an invasion route for enemy troops to enter Montenegro from the back way and surprise the locals. That never worked.  For a reminder of the difficulty of the task faced by those Swiss mercenaries, near the top of the narrow road you can look across a deep gully to a steep, dirt footpath that previously was the only route linking Kotor and the rest of Montenegro.

Kotor, as romantic on a springtime evening stroll as it looks from above, appears much as it did in Medieval times, when monarchs from all over the known world sent their most promising young sailors to the town's Marine Academy to learn the latest ins and outs of navigation and boat building. Kings like Peter the Great of Russia and Ferdinand of Spain were among its patrons over the centuries.

With narrow streets and no space for cars in its Old Town, known as the Stari Grad in Serbo-Croatian, you would never imagine being able to find a replacement iPhone charger cord here, but I ran across one in a little shop off a small plaza. Modernity met medieval and my cell phone kept working.

Getting here was a great part of the fun, too. From the moment you board the Viking Sky, which made its maiden voyage in February, you sense this is a unique ship. The odors of high-quality leather and fresh varnish pervade the ship.

Its kitchens put out Scandinavian specialties not available on most other luxury liners. Brand-new books seem to cram every spare shelf aboard, even some cubbyholes around the swimming pool with its retractable roof.
Walk the staircases and see huge tapestries featuring Viking legends. Itineraries are carefully crafted for synergy and stimulation. Add lectures on subjects from fashion to mythology, economics and details about the next port. Free WiFi throughout the ship and no-charge mini-bars in every cabin. Free washers and driers with free laundry soap. Specialty restaurants without the extra charges common on other cruise ships, and free house wines with every dinner. Listed fares on some spring 2018 sailings of this cruise start at $2,649.

Put it together and you have a ship with both pizzazz and substance, just like the road it can take you to, one with beauty, meaning and adventure all rolled together.


          Thomas Elias writes a syndicated column on California public affairs appearing in 93 newspapers.

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