Since the saying is “thank god for…”, it’s tempting to start this post with “thank god for vaccines.” But “thank science for vaccines” is the more logical statement, even though it doesn’t roll off the tongue naturally. In any case, yay, vaccines! Thanks to science, I recently took my first international holiday since the start of the pandemic to a tiny country you’ve probably never heard of, Montenegro.
It was wonderful! And while I have a lot to tell you about this wild and beautiful place, if you haven’t travelled internationally in the last year and half, you might be curious how it was to travel in the time of corona. I actually flew into Croatia, drove to Montenegro, and had a morning in Paris on my way back, so lots of opportunity for COVID-19 to foil my plans. Yet it all went perfectly smoothly. Despite me forgetting my physical vaccination card and only having a photo on my phone. And despite the EU, halfway through my trip, taking American tourists off the green list because our infection rate was so high.
I travelled with some COVID-19 home tests, approved for international travel. These are $50 each and you take them at home while a person watches you via video. The process takes about 15 minutes and the results take another 15 minutes to come in. I had to show my negative result to get on the AirFrance flights. They weren’t interested in my vaccination status. The opposite was true entering Croatia and at the land crossings between countries; I showed the photo of my vaccine card and that was enough.
My flights were one-half to two-thirds full, and I had my row to myself for both my transatlantic flights, which was very nice for sleeping. AirFrance handed out “sanitation kits” and recommended we change our masks every four hours. Surgical masks only; you’re not allowed to wear cloth masks on AirFrance flights. From the time I got on the shuttle bus from the parking lot at the Denver International Airport to the time the shuttle bus from the Dubrovnik airport let me out at the Old Town, I had a mask on for 18 hours. And then almost never again until I left.
If you are worried about catching COVID-19, Croatia and Montenegro are NOT the places to go, especially at the end of August, which is big European holiday time. Dubrovnik and Kotor were packed. People on top of you, squeezing past you down narrow cobblestone streets, breathing directly in your face in markets. And I was told that it was actually not busy compared to 2019 and previous years. Yikes. I’m glad I went now. I can’t imagine being able to enjoy myself with more people than there were already.
There were billboards in many places encouraging folks to get vaccinated. And mask requirements inside stores did start to be enforced at the end of my trip, after the EU blacklisted the USA and…Montenegro. Montenegro is in really bad shape with the pandemic, largely because of the Serbian Orthodox church. I’ve taken a pretty laid back approach to COVID-19 overall, but my visit to the Ostrog Monastery left me horrified. Hundreds of people filed in to the miniscule crypt to see the body of the saint. They ALL kissed the hand of the monk who stood there, kissed the archway as they left, kissed the icons as at the altar, rubbed their hands all over the same places. It was disgusting and shocking. Obviously not a single mask in site. And, despite the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church dying of COVID-19 almost a year ago, the church is actively telling adherents they must continue following these rituals and god will protect them. The country hit its highest daily infection count of the whole pandemic on August 27, when I was there. So yeah, America isn’t the only country filled with irresponsible, religious nuts.
But I have no regrets about going. Despite the volume of people, I was the only person on all the tours I signed up for. I crafted my whole vacation à la carte, largely through viator.com and hotels.com, though after I arrival I realized that Montenegrins much prefer booking.com. I bought a few half-day tours and one three-day tour to the mountainous north of Montenegro. I also rented a car for the second half of the trip Everything I purchased was eligible for a full-refund if I cancelled more than 48 hours in advance, so I wouldn’t lose a ton of money if the world went sideways. There were large tour groups around, but they must have been on some package tours because no one was on my tours. I had a fabulous time zipping around the winding roads of north Montenegro for three days, just me and Pavle in his Nissan. This highlight of the trip for sure, and more to come on this in a later post. But I was conscious the whole time that my gain was their loss.
While it was wonderful for me, the lack of visitors is terrible for these regions that rely so heavily on tourism (for Montenegro, it’s 22% of their GDP, Croatia is 25%). The people who live there are in bad shape financially from the last two years. Which is, of course, why they are all ignoring the EU recommendation to stop letting certain tourists in. Dubrovnik was filled with Americans ready and willing to spend. So yeah, I tipped everyone way bigger than I would have normally, I’m stoked that I went, and thank science for vaccines!
This post is the first of three about my recent vacation to the stunning, rugged, and hospitable country of Montenegro. Recommended reading: The Full Monte: A Fulbright Scholar’s Humorous and Heart-Warming Experience in Montenegro.