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)