Mentioned by Ptolemy as far back as the 2nd Century, the ancient seaport and former pirate stronghold of Ulcinj, the southernmost town in Montenegro, clearly has a significant history.
Not that I’m aware – nor indeed remotely interested in this fact – as the mesh of metal and cloth someone imaginatively termed a bus and persuaded me to ride in, rumbles forward and; exhaling one final splutter of toxic fumes, expires in a bay outside the town’s station.
Relieved to be free from the auditory tortures of Albanian radio and have the chance to stretch my legs – and lungs – I’m here for one reason only: to buy my ticket and wait the customary hour or so until the bus to Budva: obligatory next stop on the backpackers’ trail.
That is until I meet Blond: a seventeen year old covert agent for the town’s tourism board, cunningly disguised as a barman at the station’s cafe.
“Why are you going to Budva? he probes disapprovingly, handing me my coffee. “Everyone heads straight there. They don’t know that Ulcinj is better: less crowded and our beaches are more beautiful”.
Intrigued to see whether in fact it lived up to these bold claims, I decide to trade my bus ticket in for a tour of the town.
As it transpired, Ulcinj does indeed lay claim to Velika Plaza, the longest stretch of beach along the Adriatic, and boasts an obliging climate to match, but as an alabaster history buff it’s the town’s past, not its temperature, which gets under my skin.
The confluence of East and West, Ulcinj, is a veritable cultural mosaic, hoarding – much like its pirating history would suggest – a wealth of artefacts and edifices from bygone civilisations, including Kishë-Xhamia: a former Church then mosque which now houses the town’s museum.
Accompanied by Blond’s sister Aldina, I lose myself in Stari Grad, the old town: a life-size Game of Thrones version of Monopoly with its whitewashed, terracotta-topped buildings, buffeted on either side by teeth-like fortifications and thick vegetation, which sprawl up and out; invading the cerulean sea in the shape of a serpentine monster.
With every twist and turn through its arches and labyrinthine cobblestone streets I am sucked closer into the past until I can almost hear the drums beating, the traders haggling and the sentries stoking the fires.
I am charmed by Dvori Baslica, former Royal Palace turned Hotel where were it not for the hospitality of my Albanian hosts I would have certainly stayed. Opposite the town’s museum I stand in what was once Slave Square, and imagine being on sale.
As the coral sun sets and my hair flaps madly in the wind – the protagonist in my own melodramatic telenovela – I have time to reflect on my journey so far, and wonder just my next cup of coffee will lead me.