Friday, 28 July 2017

Black Risotto in Montenegro's Black Fjord

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
One best be brought here blindfolded. That, or when it is dark, which is almost the same - coming down from the high mountain of Cetinje, Montenegro's old capital. At first the darkness is impenetrable. Then the lights of Kotor's bay appear - far below, as if seen during an airplane landing.

As one descends the spiralling road, the lights remain as a faraway constellation. The 15 kilometres down to the sea level take about 40 minutes. The vague curiosity about what will be revealed at dawn becomes tense anticipation.

Whatever it is, the morning surpasses it. If Steinbeck declared the Amalfi as Europe's most dramatic coastline in the 1950s, it was only because he hadn't come to this fjord.

The navy blue water is shimmering as if in a deep silver bowl. The mountains, reaching hundreds of metres upward and just as much downward, reflect in the bay. At 8 o'clock in the morning their slopes are still grey but the coasts are already bright – like in a commercial for a colour laundry washing detergent. The smell of lemons becomes more and more pungent.

Kotor is Europe's southernmost fjord. It was formed from the sinking of a river canyon under the Adriatic's waters. Its circumference measures about 60 kilometres and if you enter from the sea, you would have to drive for more than an hour on the coastal road in order to get back to the fjord's mouth. Covered with overgrown pomegranates, the road passes underneath the slopes of the 1900-metre high Orjen and the 1700-metre high Lovćen mountains and past a few towns built up in the bay, among them Kotor and Herceg Novi. Further into the water, there are scattered islands and churches.

Even after having travelled through Croatia's entire coastline - from Rijeka, through Velebit, the elegant Zadar and the resort atmosphere of the Croatian Dalmatia, Kotor is surprising and somehow theatrical. The cliffs are a décor, constantly changing its colours and shadows, which with every new instant give a new appearance and meaning to the stone walls, the clotheslines, the towers, the cats on the roof, the children on stairways or the group of tourists all wearing the same hats.

Kotor is, in many ways, a place between two worlds.

On the one hand, it's your typical Venetian town with its wide-stoned pavements, sharp-arched windows, doors with lion bas-reliefs, bell towers, turrets with romantic balconies and lots of water. Between the fifteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, it was part of the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, one of Dalmatia's most developed parts.

During the thirteenth century, the region was flooded by Dominican and Franciscan monasteries, whose chief role was to prevent the expansion of the Bogomil religious movement popular at the time. While the European Renaissance surpassed the Balkans, at the time in the Ottoman Empire's embrace, the towns in this bay competed with Dubrovnik and Venice itself. Before seceding from the Serenissima Republic, they had one of the Adriatic's largest fleet, consisting of more than 300 ships.

This place, however, never managed to forget its belonging to the Balkan world. The historical squabbles for Kotor drew in all of the peninsula's larger states - Byzantium, later the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, even Bulgaria. During the tenth century, Kotor was briefly under Bulgarian Tsar Samuil's reign, who managed to carry away its most protected church relic - Saint Trifon's remains.

Visually, the history of this Balkan race for the control over the bay has dominated the cityscape since the Middle Ages, when the eccentric fortress wall was build into the almost vertical hill, St. Ivan, over the town. Stretching over 4.5 kilometres and reaching 20 metres in height, the wall was build for protection against attacks from the peninsula's interior.

The fortification, considered to be one of the most brilliant examples of Venetian military architecture, is a UNESCO monument. The climb up is the town's most exhausting, but also its most gratifying tourist activity. It lasts about an hour and offers a build-up of magnificent sights of the Kotor's old town and that part of the fjord.

Sweating one's way up the hill, one realises that only a very serious threat could motivate the construction of such a wall. And no surprise there - the fjord towns' belonging to the flourishing Serenissima community only strengthened the interest towards them.

Between 1538 and 1657, the bay was occupied by the Ottoman Empire, which constantly attempted to get its hands on it. Marguerite Yourcenar romanticised this historical episode with a short story in her Oriental Tales, where the main character is Krali Marko - a good swimmer in the fjord's icy waters, a stout man with a harsh temper.

In constant hiding from persecution, Krali Marko was too tall to disguise himself as a beggar or a tradesman. In order to secure himself the freedom to move about, he began an affair with the wife of the Pasha of Shkodra. He bore her heavy body and moustache, the way she spat behind his back when he kneeled down to pray.

What he couldn't bear was bad food - even when persecuted, Krali Marko remained a lover of life's pleasures. Enraged by his mistress's burnt lamb, he threw the pan through the window into the bay's waters and then almost got killed because of the cook's fury.

Good food has been a source of ideological contention in those parts and it appears that it hasn't been settled until now. Hanging in between two worlds, Kotor is continuously torn between the Balkan gourmet traditions and those of the Mediterranean.

The locals are often seen in their green yards, paying their dues to the mountain eating habits from the peninsula's interior: men in white aprons mercilessly skin, then put a stake through a lamb, which is finally fried over a slow fire until it forgets where it came from.

Another school in the local cuisine rejects this harsh tradition and favours southern food. Its pillars are the local, handmade onto sticks pasta with tomato sauce and garlic and especially the black risotto with squid ink.

Thus, the Montenegrin coast's eclecticism is predetermined. One shouldn't wonder if, near a cardboard shack, he sees a villa adorned with stone lions and marble waterfalls or if he gets simultaneously passed by a pack of homeless dogs and a yacht millionaire from San Marino.

Far too many people, historically and nowadays, have wanted to be a part of Kotor. There are two reasons why visitors of the bay should be brought there blindfolded: One being an increase in pleasure; the other - so that they would not be able to return with friends, thus turning the bay into Babylon.




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