Looking In The Mirror – Stari Bar: A Reflection of Ourselves (A Balkan Affair #18)

Bar was quite modern, the result of its post-1979 earthquake reconstruction. The streets were swept clean, the high-rise apartment buildings looked much more presentable than others I had seen in the Balkans and the crosses above the Orthodox Churches sparkled in the sunlight. There was not much old to be found in modern Bar which stretched outward from the waterfront. By this point in my Eastern European travels I did not find this newness to be very surprising. It has been my experience on more occasions than I can now recount, that the idea of “old” Europe is as much a myth as it is a reality. Much of Bar was younger than me. It felt like a seaside city with no idea of the past. Besides King Nikola’s late 19th century summer palace, which I never saw due to a confrontation with a pack of wild dogs ferociously guarding a street corner, modern Bar offered very little of interest to me. On the other hand, Stari Bar (Old Bar) was well worth the time I took to visit it.

An Old Lifeline - The Stari Bar Aqueduct

An Old Lifeline – The Stari Bar Aqueduct

An Invisible Border – Turkey In Europe
Stari Bar is only five kilometers from Bar’s city center, but architecturally, culturally and historically it belongs to another era. The site’s location atop Londza Hill is symbolic of a time when topography offered as much protection as weaponry. The hilltop locale is all but impregnable on three sides. The terrain beyond it is increasingly harsh as it gives way to mountains. The bus ride from Bar wound slowly upward through the city streets past olive trees and through quiet neighborhoods. Here was the unknown Europe, the fringes with benefits. Before long, I sighted my first minaret in Montenegro, a reminder that the country still has a sizable Muslim population. The Ottoman past came much closer after the bus reached its final stop at the beginning of Stari Bar.

I disembarked on the edge of a different time and place, a million kilometers culturally from where I had begun my journey 15 minutes earlier. I crossed an invisible border, the place where east meets west. I had been here before in Sarajevo and Mostar, now Stari Bar was the stand in for what had once been known as Turkey in Europe. The clash of cultures had died over a century ago, the guns long since silenced and assimilation was no longer a dirty word, only a process. I began to walk along a single street that led up a very steep incline. On either side, Turkish music played, a few men sat at cafes sipping coffee, shops sold an incredible array of souvenirs and restaurants offered the best of Balkan food. Stari Bar was bipolar, part of it was a living community, the other part was one of the great medieval historical sites in the Balkans.

A Medieval Church - Along the streets of Stari Bar

A Medieval Church – Along the streets of Stari Bar

Aged & Ageless – The Myth of Invincibility
A map at the entrance to Stari Bar showed what the walled town looked like in its prime. There were multi-storied stone houses, elegant bastions, soaring towers of varying sizes all packed together in an incredibly dense environment and threaded through with serpentine streets. The whole was surrounded by towering walls, an impressive complex that would have rivaled anything Dubrovnik or Kotor may have offered sans the seashore. Several South Slavic entities ruled over Stari Bar during the Middle Ages. It later fell under Venetian rule for over a century until the Ottomans conquered it in 1571 and held onto Stari Bar until the latter half of the 19th century. Churches were turned into mosques and one palace was even converted into a Turkish bath during this time. The Ottomans held Stari Bar longer than any before them, but they and the walled city finally met their match when a Montenegrin force in 1878 placed it under siege and literally exploded the myth of its invincibility. Nearly two months of heavy bombardment, then a massive incendiary explosion that disabled the city’s aqueduct and consequently its water supply resulted in Ottoman surrender.

Stari Bar has never been the same since the siege. From that point in history right up through today it has largely been a ruin. One worth well more than the two Euros I paid to visit the site. On this mid- winter’s day, a cloudless, infinitely blue sky of piercing brightness and impenetrable depth provided cover for an entire world. The sun caused the stone walkways and ruined walls to glow. The grass among them turned to tufts of burning gold. The layout of the site hardly mattered as I picked my way around the ruins. Semi restored structures such as palaces and churches looked like they could stand forever, though the detritus scattered around them showed otherwise. Their slate gray and dirty white facades looked weathered, but stout. These buildings and adjacent ruins were as much a part of the landscape as the hill upon which they stood. Stari Bar was both aged and ageless.

Signs of Progress - Ruins in Stari Bar

Signs of Progress – Ruins in Stari Bar

The Future Age – A Thinly Veiled Curiosity
I made my way to the walls where I looked out through one of the arched portals towards the mountains. They looked stark and formidable. Stari Bar was molded in the same image as the landscape in which it stood. Beyond the walls I could see the aqueduct constructed so many centuries ago. A vital line that supplied it with water and by extension life. Once this link was broken, so was Stari Bar. I continued wandering past walls partly covered in ivy, nature’s tapestry now covering the works of man. Light and shadow were sharply defined. It was mid-afternoon, but time had little meaning in Stari Bar.

All the previous ages that had contributed to the development of Stari Bar had collapsed and so would this one. A reconstructed Ottoman clock tower rose above the ruins. It did not work and why would it, time had long since lost its meaning here. I didn’t have to know a thing about the history of Stari Bar to know this is how it always ends. In a future age, people will walk through our own ruins and stare at them with thinly veiled curiosity the way I did at those in Stari Bar. What they may or may not realize is that these ruins are a mirror that reflects the future. And in that mirror the image looking back at us is always our own.

Click here for: Tunnel Vision – The Bar to Belgrade Railways: Yugoslavia’s Greatest Achievement (A Balkan Affair #19)

Making Connections – Kotor to Bar By Bus: The Exceptional In The Unexceptional (A Balkan Affair #17)

It was all downhill from Kotor. At least that is what it felt like as I traveled down the Montenegrin coastline to my next destination, the port city of Bar. I expected to see some beautiful scenery along the way. Unfortunately, the hour and a half long bus trip was a letdown. Several of the towns were situated in beautiful seafront settings, but other than the idyllic resort islet of Sveti Stefan, everything else was unmemorable. Travel is often this way. I have spent many of my journeys with that childlike voice in my head asking, “when will we get there? or “Is that it?” Much of the time I find myself searching for the exceptional in the unexceptional. This journey was no different from so many others. Only later would I discover why this stretch of highway was lined with so many forgettable towns. The coast between Kotor and Bar had been laid waste on April 15, 1979 while enduring ten of the most terrible seconds in modern history.

Seaside Attraction - Sveti Stefan

Seaside Attraction – Sveti Stefan (Credit: Marcin Konsek)

Ten Terrible Seconds – The Consequences of a Cataclysm
Earthquakes are notoriously hard to predict. They are sometimes preceded by tremors, but just as often by periods of inactivity. A pattern of smaller earthquakes sometimes leads to larger ones or nothing at all. Then there are those times when both large and small earthquakes are frequently detected. That was the case in 1979 throughout Montenegro, especially along its nearly 300 kilometer long coastline. No seismologist could have possibly predicted what would befall the area when over 10,000 temblors were registered in a single year. Many of these were barely perceptible, while some were deemed powerful enough to be felt or cause minor damage. One earthquake stood out from the rest. It turned out to be the proverbial big one with predictably cataclysmic consequences.

At 7:19 a.m., a magnitude 6.9 earthquake occurred 15 kilometers off the coast between Bar and Ulcinj (close to the Montenegro-Albania border). From deep within the bed of the Adriatic Sea the earth began to shake violently. Shockwaves emanated outward with incredible force. The temblor lasted only ten seconds, or the same amount of time it probably took you to read the last three sentences. The earthquake’s brevity was inversely proportional to the amount of damage it inflicted on coastal communities. Budva and Kotor were left in ruins, while Bar suffered such bad damage that much of it had to be rebuilt. This earthquake was the ultimate in cruel irony, a wrecking ball from the ground up in one of Europe’s most enchanting areas. A mere ten seconds changed the lives of thousands forever. That catastrophic moment is still remembered to this very day throughout the country.

As the bus wound its way down the coastline, I looked out towards the Adriatic. Its surface was placid, the water benign. It was hard to believe that a potential apocalypse was forever lurking just offshore. It was lurking inland as well. The highway we were on would not stand a chance against an earthquake similar in seismic scale to the 1979 temblor. Hundreds of kilometers of highway had been damaged or destroyed in a matter of seconds back then. Buildings did not hold up any better causing 100,000 to be left homeless. All this seemed as unimaginable to me as the fact that everything had been rebuilt. There was not a single trace of the 1979 earthquake discernible to the eye unless you knew what to look for. Every modern bungalow, smooth strip of roadway or high-rise hotel was a victory over destruction.

The result of ten terrible seconds - 1979 earthquake damage in Kotor

The result of ten terrible seconds – 1979 earthquake damage in Kotor (Credit: Boka News)

Trainspotting – Catching A Ride
One of the greatest post-earthquake construction projects along the Montenegrin coastline just happened to be my destination on this bus journey, the city of Bar. It had been completely devastated in 1979, but this led to the construction of the city that stands today, including port facilities which have proved vital to Montenegro’s economy. Bar is a transportation hub for a small nation, with ferries westward, trains eastward and the main north-south Adriatic Highway passing through the city. Every one of these transport options connects Bar to another country, whether it be Italy, Bosnia, Serbia or Croatia.

My first impression of Bar was that it did not feel like a city, more like an overgrown seaside town. If not for its international transport connections I would not have come here. The same could be said for many others. I was traveling to the city because of its role as a terminus along the famous Belgrade to Bar railway line. This had been my main impetus for traveling to Montenegro in the first place. I had told so many friends and family about this unique railway journey that I felt duty bound to follow through with my plan to ride it during the dead of winter. Otherwise, my trip would have seemed incomplete.

Starting Point - Bar Railway Station

Starting Point – Bar Railway Station

Sprinkled With Magic – Words To Live By
I arrived at Bar’s unsightly bus station which might best be described as a thousand cigarette burns, spilled coffee and exhaust smoke wafting through the parking slots. I imagined that this was the kind of place that attracted people who make a virtue out of loitering. Fortunately, I had arranged a transfer to my accommodation. A medium sized woman with dark hair and a zesty accent approached me. When she spoke my name, I became extremely proud. This was the first time I remembered hearing someone say it to me on this trip. Can there be a better greeting than hearing one’s name pronounced back to them in a foreign land? There is a certain magic in being acknowledged. Perhaps it was because acknowledgment implies acceptance. This was instant kinship by name calling.

The woman was the proprietor of my accommodation. She was extremely helpful in getting me checked in to my apartment for the night. She had little other choice since it was attached to her house. The apartment was in a great location for anyone wanting to take the Bar to Belgrade train. I could walk to the train station in two minutes. My hostess told me there was plenty of time to purchase tickets for the next day’s journey so there was no need to rush. As soon as she left, impatience got the better of me. I headed straight to the station for one reason, I could hardly wait for the next day to arrive.

Click here for: Looking In The Mirror – Stari Bar: A Reflection of Ourselves (A Balkan Affair #18)