“It’s just up the hill and around the bend from that old castle”.
Our friends were taking us on a hike above the town of Kotor, Montenegro to locate a “surprise”. We had woken up early and left the walled town to hike straight up the mountain that shielded the town on one side. The views were more incredible with every step. The Bay of Kotor glistened below us and the medieval walled city looked like a page from a child’s storybook.
We had arrived to Kotor from Hercig Novi late last night in the pouring rain. The fortified town of Kotor had been drenched in rain; the marble streets were flooded and the rain pooled up calf-deep—trapped within the city walls. We were woken up by the trash truck, an amazing and nimble contraption that looked like a golf cart with multiple more carts attached to the back so that it could snake its way through the maze of stone buildings. I marveled at the ingenuity of the machine that was perfectly designed to fit in the tiny ancient streets of Kotor.
“I think this is the right way, yes! it’s just past that cow…”. Our friends led us through a small wooden gate with a crooked sign that read ‘cheese’ in Montengrin. We had come upon a small family farm that was perched on the side of the rugged mountain that overlooked Kotor. To get there we had hiked a few hundred stairs, wound through a dilapidated castle, and a stone fortress, and trekked along the rocky mountainside. Our destination had become clear, our friends wanted us to try the “best cheese in Montenegro” and it was found here on this tiny mountainside family farm.
A woman was outside hanging laundry when we arrived. Our friends asked her if we could buy some cheese in broken Serbian. She smiled and ran inside. When she reappeared, she had her young daughter with her. The young girl was about nine years old and was learning English in school. She told us they were out of cheese but that it was Orthodox Christmas Eve, January 6th, and we were invited to stay and have Rakjia with the family.
Inside the two-room stone house, we met three generations of family, all of whom had smiles bigger than their faces. They welcomed us, handing us bottles of homemade rakjia, an intensely strong plum and grape brandy, and began telling us stories. Each man told their story louder than the next, vying for our attention. The young girl was invited to stay in the room with the guests so she could translate the gesticulate stories, but the other women smiled at us and went back to their work. It was obvious that women in this culture were not typically invited to entertain guests with conversation. The young girl was ecstatic at having been asked to stay and she translated as best she could, trying to keep up with her fast- talking uncles.
Later, we bid goodbye with hugs and thankyous and emptied our backpacks of oranges and chocolates and any gifts we had to give the family. We hiked back down the mountain, making sure to stop and get an oak branch for the front of the car. It is tradition in Montenegro to affix an oak branch to your car on Christmas to signify a badnjak, which is an oak log that is burned on Christmas eve through to Christmas day and is accompanied with prayers for prosperity and good luck. The oak branches are later removed from the vehicles and burned in a giant bonfire in front of the Orthodox church on Christmas Eve. The bonfire lasts through the night with people coming and going to add their own badnjak to the fire.
Later that evening, we parked the car in Podgorica and took our badnjak off the hood. We added it to the giant bonfire in front of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral and reminisced about the lovely family that invited perfect strangers into their home on Christmas Eve. That to me is what Christmas is really about, no matter whose Christmas it happens to be. Montenegro was an amazing experience with insanely beautiful countryside, rugged mountains, sparkling waters and quaint stone villages, but it was the family that invited us to spend their Christmas with them that will really stick with me forever.