A beachtown in October is a haunted thing. Umbrellas folded and lounge chairs stacked, soda machines unplugged and a chilled air of desolation—packed up and shut down, another season over, as the clouds thicken and the waters dull.
Ulcinj is as mangy and lazy as a street dog. It has the restless wind of a border town, which in a way it is. Thirty-some minutes from the Albanian border, the town’s population is 80% Albanian, 80% Muslim. I didn’t realize what a sharp difference that would be until I got here, heard the ghostly adhans echoing from minarets, passed old women with white scarves over their heads, saw the men sitting crosslegged at cafe tables. And garbage—garbage everywhere, skinny stray cats stalking through the mess.
There are no gleaming ads for Montenegro tourism, no English restaurant menus, no cruise ship docks. The former pirates’ cove is run-down and dirty, filled with the buzz of flies and the smoke of kebab shops, bazars of cheap jewlery and beach blankets.
“It’s political,” the man who runs the guesthouse tells me. “The investment, it goes up to Budva, Bar, Kotor. Ulcinj is…” He brushes his hands in a dismissive manner.
“Too close to Albania.”
“They don’t like Albania much in Montenegro, do they?” When any of the people I’d struck up conversation with had asked me where I was headed next, they’d shake their heads sadly. “Albania!” the chef at the Sveti Stefan hotel had exclaimed, clutching his heart. “Oh, is better you go back to America!” (This, of course, has the opposite effect on me—I want to go more now, to see why Montenegrins don’t like it.)
“No, no,” the Ulcinj guesthouse keeper sighs. “Is long history. But Ulcinj, tourism now is…” he makes a downward motion with his hand, like a line chart dropped, or an airplane crashing.
Maybe that’s why it felt especially desolate as I walked around today. The weather changed today—late summer is gone and autumn has arrived, clouds and cool air, the fitfulness of something escaping. Most of the shops were closed, the streets near the coast empty. I wandered through the old town, a ghost town of stone and trash, laundry lines and the soft sound of voices floating out of windows—my own private Ulcinj. It wasn’t just that the season had ended; there was a weightier sense of abandonment, disrepair.A man with the face of a Swoon woodcut pauses as he passes me. He doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, and he starts chatting with me, as Montenegrin men will do, not letting the language barrier get in his way. It’s always a sincere and entirely unsleezy exchange; they want to know where I’m from, if I like their country.
I can’t follow much of what he’s telling me, so instead I watch the deep lines in his face, an impossible etching of sun and time. He is a fisherman and his doctor, no, his daughter, lives in Tirana. He hasn’t seen her in 5 years—he counts them on his fingers, slowly, tenderly. He gives me a big smile, front teeth missing and the others just thin little slits. He pats me on the shoulder, says “thank you,” though I’m not sure why. “Hvala,” I reply, my one word of Montenegrin.
I wander out of the stone arch of the old town, and wonder if he was a ghost.
I walk along the coast, and it’s an endless string on rocky coves, rubbish falling from the cliffs like weeds or rocks. The cement sun decks are all fenced off, locked up, an amusement park at night. I continue, go deeper, through a sponge of dead leaves and dirt, picturing the sun, the gleam of tan bodies—imagining being here, walking, with someone I love, picnic packed and towel-clutching. But, no, I’m alone, with the grey and the wind.
Maybe the guesthouse keeper is right—maybe in 5, 10 years, Ulcinj tourism will come back, go up again, the hopeful angle of his climbing hand. But for now, for today, it’s a spooky little place to spend a day.