Vesna Alavanja doesn’t walk, she bounces. And she skips. And she sprints up the steps when Terence suggests he shoot her portrait at the top of a stone staircase in the Stari Grad or Old Town of Kotor. The woman oozes energy, even though she tells us she’s a little tired when we meet her.
Vesna’s secret? The Tibetan Rites exercises in rejuvenation. Detecting we need some, she promises to send us some information.
Something of a vagabond — “there’s always a tent and a sleeping bag in the car” — local guide Vesna tells us she loves to travel.
“I used to travel in order to satiate my thirst for the new,” she tells us, “But these days when I travel I wish I could make some sort of contribution to the places I visit. The best travels were when I started exploring on my own, and in the course of time met someone who later became my friend, and showed me more of the place.”
Vesna has lived everywhere from the UK to Norway, but has called Montenegro home for the last few years, spending her summers in Kotor and winters in the north of Montenegro.
“One rarely finds such a small piece of land with such amazing nature, and such diverse cultural influences and traditions,” she says. “I feel cosy and inspired here.”
Kotor may be her current home, but Vesna is ultimately a daughter of the Balkans. Her Montenegrin economist mother fell in love with her Croatian engineer father in Belgrade, Serbia, and Vesna was born in 1972 during the Tito era in former Yugoslavia.
Boasting a fairly classical arts education with degrees in English language and literature, and interior design, Vesna worked as an art researcher, taught languages, interpreted, and worked as a field officer on international projects, before obtaining her license as a Tour and Mountain guide.
“At a certain point I realized I didn’t want to spend my time in offices,” Vesna says. “That led to me doing the tour and hiking guide exams. I love the combination of organisational and language skills, the interaction with other cultures, respect for nature, transfer of knowledge, and flexible working hours — the job gives me a lot of free time.”
So what does Vesna do with all that spare time?
“I collect stones for my mosaics on the beaches of Monte, and I plan wine tasting and barbecues with my friends, activities which usually end up with us playing instruments and singing,” she tells us.
“One day, I would like to create some sort of self-sufficient household where people could spend time learning how to balance themselves, through learning how to grow plants, how to make goat cheese, how to fish, how to live with nature, and how to express themselves in an artistic way — paint, write, sing, play, make things.”
“The stay would of course be enriched with numerous excursions that I would organise,” Vesna smiles.
Q. So, what do you most love about your work as a guide?
A. The exchange — contributing to other people’s joy makes me happy and energised.
Q. Why should people come to Kotor?
A. God has endowed Kotor with exceptional beauty, laying it on water below the massive mountain peaks which rip the winds of the Adriatic and the North, and the ever-changing sky of the bay — many masts were broken during millennia of clashes of ancient and contemporary civilisations. Kotor is where contrasts meet in harmony.
Q. 3 words to describe Kotor?
A. Traditional, secretive and magical.
Q. 3 ways to describe the people of Kotor?
A. Warm hearted, curious and proud.
Q. Top recommendations for visitors?
A. Wake up, taste some local goat cheese and olives at the market, then walk up to the fortifications (with a bottle of water in your pocket) to contemplate the unexpected beauty of the bay and the centuries of craftsmanship that enabled the whole experience. Once down in town again, the Catholic cathedral with its Orthodox fresco work saved in the arches will provide proper soul food before immersing yourself into numerous cafes and taverns to have a taste of local beer or wine.
Q. Best souvenir from Kotor?
A. Buy a handmade mask from Gringo and Daniela, and thus help them renovate his grandfather’s stone house.
Q. Must-do eating experiences?
A. Tickle your palate with some goat cheese and homemade wine, continue with brodet (traditional fish soup), and a dish to your liking, but be sure to end with Dobrotska torta (or at least Dobrotska pancake) in the restaurant Stari Mlini (Old Mill).
Q. An essential thing to know before coming to Kotor?
A. Open your eyes and put your camera on. And only take the Red taxis — they charge by the meter.
Q. Most important phrase to learn in Montenegrin/Serbian?
A. Polako. It means ‘take it easy’. Don’t stress, don’t abuse the energy.
Q. Any other advice?
A. Just enjoy Kotor. Kotor is the best place to enjoy Mediterranean style on the land — its complex history immortalized in the stone architecture, the dazzling views, the lush vegetation, the laid back atmosphere… and if you are in for some swimming and beaches, then go explore the neighbourhood!