One of the main reasons why I love to travel is that you are so very often taken by surprise.
It’s this factor of suspense, of not knowing what’s around the corner that just keeps me going and going and going. I can walk for hours in big cities, I can climb mountains, I will paddle as far as my arms would take me. Exhaustion is something I can blissfully ignore until I finally hit the pillow at night to sink into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Alas, surprises don’t happen that often, but when they do they can be a full-on totally exhilarating, intoxicating experience. Just like a gambler who cannot stop spending money on his thrill I cannot stop exploring the unknown.
And there is one little moment where exactly this kind of excitement flooded over me a couple of weeks ago, while exploring the city walls of the little town of Kotor in Montenegro.
The little known UNESCO world heritage site of Kotor
Kotor is still a rather unknown tourist destination and not easily accessible. It is probably best known as a cruise port, if anything else. Located on a deeply indented section of the Mediterranean Sea that bears uncanny likeness with a Norwegian fjord painted in South European colours, this little place with its beautiful old town is a haven for anyone who has a knack for pristine, unspoilt cultural experiences.
When we climbed the Venetian city walls up the limestone mountains we enjoyed the most wonderful views of the Bay of Kotor and the roofs of the old town. Around us colourful specks of wildflowers and butterflies. The walls, crumbling under our feet zigzagging us up the mountain towards an old fortress that is now in ruins.
A little surprise halfway up the wall
As many other visitors on that day we were driven by conquest – we couldn’t wait to get to the top to enjoy the ultimate views. But then, just before a zig turned into a zag, I noticed a little sign pointing in the other direction, away from the summit, to the left. It said, in English, “church”, and the arrow pointed to the remains of an old forecourt or plaza that used to be part of the elaborate fortifications.
Looking around, there was no church in sight. Yes, we had already passed a chapel and a number of shrines. But there was no church here. Puzzled I looked back at the sign and noticed something else: A crude dot painted with a big brush stroke right next to the church sign.
I looked around again and, to my surprise, there was another dot, right next to an opening in the city wall. A window perhaps, or a barbican, and then right next to it, a single, lonely dot.
Curious, I walked up to the opening and looked through it to find a steep slope on the other side. Below, some rocks and boulders, loose stone from the ruined wall. They were arranged to a step that would lead the adventurer to a path to the right which I now traced with my eyes.
I needed to lean through the hole now to see a bit further. And, sure enough, there was another one of these dots, leading the way along the city wall’s other side through a sea of hardy grasses and wildflowers.
Let the adventure begin!
You need to understand this: Even though climbing through a window into the unknown in the Montenegrin wilderness seemed a bit daunting at this stage, it almost felt like looking into Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole. An irresistible offer to find that hidden church on the other side of the wall. Despite the risk of breaking my leg or indeed my neck, there was no stopping me.
And so we climbed through the hole and down the haphazardly arranged blocks of stone to a remote beaten path in the shadow of the towering city wall. Just a couple of metres across a meadow sprinkled with goat droppings, surrounded by butterflies dancing from flower to flower to both sides of us, and there it was. A tiny, ancient church in the middle of the paddock.
Surrounded by dry wooden sticks, arranged to crude fences to keep animals in or out. The remains of stone walls and foundations, and a tall charismatic cypress that was echoing the upward line of the small bell tower.
It was sitting there all alone in this peaceful valley in the shadow of the city walls.
A little church, a thousand years old
Another sign here, handwritten, luring visitors to a small farm house with cows grazing on the field in front. We could spot it in the distance.
“Goat cheese” it said, in English, and “raki” – the local spirit, and “ham”. As much as we would have loved to indulge in these local delicacies, we passed, and turned our attention back to the small church next to us.
Walking around the church we noticed that it was in a terrible derelict state. The windows were missing, and so were parts of the roof. We peaked inside to find that in the shadows lingered the smells of goats and mould. The paint on the wall was all but gone, and so were the other furnishings, the saints and the cross. This was a shell of a church, and God only knows how much longer it would exist without proper conservation work.
On the door we found a small money collection box. Handwritten labels pointed to the left and to the right, indicating the areas of the church that were dedicated to St George (to the left) and St Maria (to the right). 50 cents per visitor, it said rather modestly. So we left a couple of euros for the upkeep of this beautiful little church.
Most surprisingly, the age of this building.
Here we were, looking at 1,000 years of European Christian history, tucked away in a remote valley in the Balkans. What a marvel!