Monday, April 25, 2011

The Accidental Montenegrin Mountain-Climb-Easter-Breakfast-Car-Race

Last year if someone would have told me that this Easter Sunday I’d be in Montenegro climbing a mountain, sharing an Easter breakfast with strangers on their hillside balcony, and watching a mountain-track car race, I would have said—that’s crazy.  But that is, in fact, what happened.

Yesterday I left the hostel for my morning walk, feeling good.  Things have been feeling less of a slog lately, the book-writing’s going well, and perhaps most important, the mattress on my bunk bed this week has actually been comfortable. 
I set off on my usual route over to the far side of the Bay of Kotor and, along the way, decided to turn up a side street to see where it would lead.  The road began to wind up somewhat steeply, and soon I happened upon an ancient-looking church on the side of a hill.  I snapped a photo and kept going to see what else I would find.

The next thing I knew, I was climbing a mountain.  The road kept going up and up, switchback after switchback, and I kept turning corners to see where they would take me.  I was loving the feeling of climbing a mountain unexpectedly.  The problem was, I hadn’t yet eaten breakfast, and the climb forced me to drain all the water out of my little water bottle already.  I needed more in order to continue.

The road was totally desolate, but up ahead I spotted some people sitting on a second floor balcony of their hillside home in the distance.  I approached and held out my empty water bottle as if to say:  “Can you refill my water bottle, please?”  They waved me upstairs.

Once there, I found an older man and woman, and four younger adults, about to enjoy an Easter breakfast.  They had put out plates of prosciutto, salami, and bread, and were drinking traditional rakia.  They asked me to have a seat at the patio table, and the older woman brought out a platter of brown decorated Easter eggs and set them before me.  At first I refused to eat because I felt bad for crashing their breakfast, but they insisted.  I sampled a little of each thing, told them I think Montenegro is beautiful (which is true; I do), and snapped some photos.  I thanked them profusely for the hospitality and left to continue my walk up the mountain.

Over the next twenty minutes I started to suspect something was about to happen on this mountain.  Cars and motorcycles began to stream steadily up past me.  People would pull over at various points, get out of the cars or off their bikes, and sit on the sides of the mountain’s edges looking down, as if waiting for something. 

Finally I made it to the highest place on the mountain before the road began to descend.  I found a couple guys wearing official-looking reflector vests who spoke some English.  They told me that a big car race was set to begin.  It all started to make sense.  Back a little way I had seen a group setting up with a laptop and a camera next to a man standing near what looked to be some sort of finish line with a black-and-white checkered flag.

The finish line.
“So, it’s not safe for me to walk back down the mountain, then?” I asked, jokingly.  They told me the road would be closed until the race was finished after a couple of hours.  Might as well join the race fans, I figured.  I really had no choice.

I found a place on the mountain-side of the guardrail among the fifty-or-so  Montenegrin men set to watch the race on this part of the road.  From this vantage point we could see the roads winding up from below; each length of road was dotted with locals who turned out to watch.  I settled in for the mountainside Montenegrin version of NASCAR, completely excited.

Of course it didn’t take long for me to start chatting up the men along my guardrail.  One spoke good English, and he filled me in on what was about to occur.  The cars race up the mountain individually from the Kotor city center and are timed to where we sat near the finish line.  The cars then go back down the mountain and do it again, for a second chance at a better time.  The name of the race is Trojica, and it goes on for seven days in Montenegro at different locations.  There aren’t any official prizes, because the place is too poor for that, I was told.  Only a few drivers have sponsors.

I heard the loud vroom of the first car’s engine well before I saw it coming around the mountain.  It was the Serbian version of a Mini-Cooper-looking car, and was taking the hairpin turns way too fast to stay in control.  I saw it skid with tires smoking a couple of switchback roads below, and that’s when I realized maybe it wasn’t too smart to be sitting on an exposed mountain guardrail with race-cars whizzing by at top speeds.

Worried, I turned to my new friend—Daniel was his name—and said:  “What if a car crashes?”  I clapped my hands together loud to simulate a car crashing into us.  He pointed to the patch of land below our feet and suggested, simply, that in such case we should “jump.”  Made sense, I thought.

My guardrail seat.
What I saw next was completely amusing.  The cars coming up the mountain—every few minutes or so—were primarily a series of shitbox, painted-up old Yugos with powerful engines dropped in.  When the first one came up, Daniel turned to me and said, with an embarrassed tone, “Yugo,” perhaps guessing that I had been expecting to see some Ferraris. 

“We’ve got Yugos in America,” I said, sympathetically, trying to think of the last one I’d seen there.  Daniel smiled and said, “Bruce Willis; Die Hard,” referring to a Die Hard film that features Bruce Willis driving a Yugo.  That was not the first time I’ve heard that reference in the former Yugoslavia.  The people here are apparently very proud of that particular Hollywood cameo. 

Sprinkled among the Yugos were some old Fiats and Peugeots, and one Volvo too.  Toward the end of the first run I saw a Honda Integra coming up and, I don’t know why, but it made me exclaim I drive a Honda! to everyone sitting around me.  “A stick shift,” I added, like that would cause them to be even more impressed.  They nodded and smiled.

Sometime in the middle of the first run, an attractive young man walked up in a race-car driver jumpsuit and stood near us.  My new mountain-guardrail friends introduced me as "a woman from America."  I learned that this man was the driver of car number 51-0; the “orange car.”  I showed him that I had taken a picture of him in his car coming up the mountain.

After the last car came up for the first run, we all took a break while the drivers prepared to return down the mountain for the second run.  I began walking down the street toward the finish line in search of a toilet, and that’s when the driver in car 51-0 spotted me.  I waved to him and he, in turn, blew a kiss to me out his window as he drove by.  What a great day, I thought.

I rejoined my friends on the guardrail and watched the second run which, surprisingly, was just as exciting as the first.  A couple of cars stalled out on this one, and one crashed a bit into a mountain curve below.  When the last car reached the finish line, we all got up, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways.

Now I was tired, and completely dreading the long walk back down the mountain to Kotor.  I started the descent and then thought, what would really be great is to get a ride back into town.  I had nothing on me that anyone could steal, and in light of the wonderful day I had among warm, friendly, and generous strangers on a packed-out mountain, I figured, who’s gonna kill a hitchhiking tourist on Easter Sunday in little Montenegro right out here in the open

I turned around and started walking down the mountain backwards with my thumb out.  Most of the cars that passed were filled with passengers, so no dice.  But then, across the street, I spotted three young guys getting into a little white car, about to take off from the shoulder to descend down the mountain.  They saw me with my thumb out, and waved me over to get in.  The two in the front, I learned, were drivers from the race; one drove the souped-up Peugout.  "It's French," he said, and I nodded.  Needless to say, with a race-car driver behind the wheel, I was back down the mountain in a flash.    The guys dropped me in the city center and we all yelled Ciao! as I hopped out and waved goodbye.

I went back to my comfortable bunk bed for a little afternoon nap, and tried to think of a more exciting Easter Sunday as I drifted off.  I couldn’t.