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Is Montenegro the Most Relaxed Country in the Balkans?

AFAR chose a destination at random and sent writer Cyndi Stivers, with 24 hours’ notice, to a young Balkan country where life happens at the café.

“Are you writing a blog?” the waiter asks amiably, watching me tap away on my iPad at a café table in Porto Montenegro, a seaside spot an hour and a half outside Montenegro’s capital city, Podgorica. When I explain that I am here because an editor chose my destination by spinning a globe, he laughs. “It must have been a very tiny finger,” he exclaims, “to spin the globe and pick out Podgorica!”

Only a week before, I’d known Montenegro mainly through the colorful stories of Zuffer, the superintendent of my onetime Manhattan apartment building; indeed, until this trip I’d thought of the country as a breeding ground for Upper West Side supers. Zuffer and his Montenegrin pals often compared notes on the skirmishes among the factions back home, and the tutorials on Balkan politics he gave me during the 1990s Yugoslav wars made the place sound sketchy, if not dangerous. Yet every summer, he added unpaid leave to his vacation so he could stay there as long as possible. Podgorica was his hometown.

The passenger terminal at Podgorica’s airport is less than 10 years old, and like the entire country, it is still in a wary state of becoming. Even the airport code is a reminder of harder times: It remains TGD, a nod to the city’s former moniker, Titograd—as in Josip Broz Tito, the strongman who ruled Yugoslavia for most of the second half of the 20th century. Tito died in 1980, the city took back its old name in 1992, and when Montenegro became an independent nation in 2006, it was tapped as the capital.

After deplaning, I headed straight for the airport’s welcome desk, staffed by two women who spoke English. I asked how much I should pay a taxi to take me to town. They looked stumped. Fifteen euros could be the going rate, they said. They shrugged and waved me along.

“You can walk everywhere and see everything in about two hours.”

Fortunately, my taxi driver also spoke English. When he heard where I was from,
he announced, “I don’t like United States.” He said he’d lived in Chicago for a year but found it “too cold.” Yeah, I said, that weather can be rough. “No, the people. All they do is work. All they care about is money. They are robot people! Here, we work today, relax tomorrow. Beach is 45 minutes away, mountains 45 minutes away. It is relaxed.” (The fare: 25 euros.)

Though it’s Montenegro’s largest city, Podgorica is not exactly large. Only a couple hundred thousand people live there, and based on my observations, at any given time about half of them are sitting in a café. The place was bombed repeatedly during World War II, so there’s a lot of Eastern Bloc gray concrete, but also a fair amount of green space. I was happy to see that the Hotel Ziya, where I would be staying, was at the edge of town, beneath Gorica Hill, which gave the city its name. Old-growth trees loomed and there was a park just across the street. After a brief nap, I hiked to the panoramic view at the top, amid cypresses, Aleppo pines, and Macedonian oaks, to get my bearings. I nodded to the fitness buffs I passed. No response. On my way out of the park, I stopped at St. George’s Church, a tiny, icon-packed chapel dating from the 9th century—a rare structure that seemed to have survived the wars. In its garden, roses and herbs were still blooming, even in November.

I sought out the tourist office, which was in an arcade near a supermarket. I startled the two men inside—no one comes on holiday in November, they insisted. They handed over maps and brochures, pointing out museums and historical sites, but said there was nothing going on: “You can walk everywhere and see everything in about two hours.” I had my mission: to somehow see two hours’ worth of sights—in five days.

But first, I needed sustenance. I plunked down for a plate of risotto at a café just down the street from the gorgeous Calatrava-style Millennium Bridge. I smiled and nodded to those passing by, but no one gave me even a glance, and my waiter, apparently not an unemployed actor, did not stop to chat.

 After my meal I checked out the view from the bridge, which spans the blue Moraca River. Splashes of Cyrillic graffiti adorned the walls nearby (mostly variations, I later learned, on NO TO NATO). Taking advantage of an unseasonal run of hot, sunny weather, a young couple was making out on the steps of the kayak club, far below.

Just a few hundred yards away from the Millennium Bridge is Moscow Bridge, a pedestrian-only span built by the city of Moscow. The far side is anchored by a kitschy statue of a shirtless folk singer, complete with guitar. Over the next few days, I would ask a half dozen locals who he was, but no one knew. The musician turned out to be Russian cultural hero Vladimir Vysotsky. Was this artwork Russia’s overweening attempt to claim cultural kinship? Or some sort of clueless-dad gesture? 

Hoping to better understand the country’s geopolitics, I dropped in at the EU Info Centre, just a few blocks away. Montenegro’s application for membership in the European Union was filed in 2008. “Nothing will happen until 2020,” a staffer told me, “but after that, if we make progress . . .” 

That’s a pretty big “if.” As it happened, the EU released an update concerning the country’s application that very week. While acknowledging Montenegro’s progress, the commission called out the fact that no senior officials have yet stood trial for the war crimes they allegedly committed in the ’90s. 

I spent the next two days tramping around the city. The street signs were confusing—some were in Cyrillic, some in the Roman alphabet. Even in the pedestrian-friendly center, where cars are banned in the evenings, sidewalks tapered off without warning, and some streets still had open storm drains of the sort I hadn’t seen since a trip to the Caribbean in the 1970s.

As I strolled, I smiled at those whose gaze I met. No one smiled back.

The city’s epicenter is a glistening white stone plaza, Trg Republike, surrounded by shops and cafés that were packed with people at all hours. A large video screen atop the casino played an endless loop of commercials. I checked out some of the boutiques, many featuring logowear of dubious provenance.

On a recommendation from the staff at the Ziya, I had dinner at the Hemera, the local design hotel. The music on the sound system was a surprising mixture of U.S. soft rock, Sade’s greatest hits, and local mashups (a woman singing, not in English, over a Hall & Oates sample; a white-sounding guy covering Gregory Isaacs’s reggae classic “Night Nurse,” and so on). I ordered the White Montenegro Pasta, since it featured Njeguški prosciutto and cheese (the regional specialties), and a glass of Vranac, the local red wine, which was gutsy and good. From my table on the terrace, I had a ringside view of the street scene. The local guys appeared to travel in packs of three or four, and most wore jeans or tracksuits. When they arrived at the restaurant, they’d sit down together but would say little to one another before pulling out their phones. Across the room, a group of women were likewise lost in their devices. I turned to my own phone and called Zuffer in New York. He confirmed that hanging out in cafés really is the national pastime and suggested that I make a trip to the seaside.

The next day, and whenever I craved a jolt of natural splendor, I found myself returning to the roads that run along and across the Moraca River, which winds diagonally through town. Over the centuries, the river has shaved away the limestone riverbed, leaving layers of rock lined with old pines and cypress trees—a welcome slice of wilderness.

View of the Moraca River
South of the city center, along the river, lies Stara Varos—Old Town—which was the hub of urban life here during the Ottoman era, from the 15th to the 19th century. There’s an old clock tower and a mosque, and as I walked the narrow, winding streets I spied grape-laden trellises, pigeon coops, a chicken yard, and lots of feral cats and dogs. It felt like a country village, even though it’s a short walk from Trg Republike.

To try to piece together Podgorica’s crazy quilt of cultural influences—Roman, Slavic, Ottoman, Soviet, to name a few—I visited the Museums and Galleries of Podgorica. The women at the desk seemed flustered, requesting exact change when I purchased a guidebook. While I was there, a young couple hurried through, but otherwise I was alone. There were no guards or surveillance cameras evident, despite the ancient icons and other irreplaceable bits of history on display. I marveled at the delicate Roman glassware unearthed amid the ruins at nearby Doclea, which dated from the 1st century C.E.

At the Center for Modern Arts, housed in an erstwhile palace near the river, I had the place to myself, too. Two staffers waved me in, then quickly returned to their office, leaving me to explore the few rooms that were open. Here, too, there were no visible cameras and no one to tell visitors not to touch the art.

That night, I had dinner in Old Town at the fabled Pod Volat, where the locals go for special occasions. Since most of the patrons inside were smoking, I opted to sit beneath a sprawling acacia tree on the patio. The menu was a cornucopia of organ meats, and in honor of my WWI vet Grampa, who loved them, I ordered the grilled kidneys.

Here, for the first time, strangers approached me. One guy stopped by my table trying to sell me a car air freshener. Another urgently peddled some sort of fashion item in a blue trash bag. (“It is,” he assured me, “excellent design.”) This was also the only place I saw young men actually conversing while out together. That may be because one of them was not actually in the restaurant; he was leaning over the stone wall and chatting with a pair at a table on Pod Volat’s patio.

When I got back to the Hotel Ziya, I asked Jovana, a vivacious university student who worked at the front desk, why the people I was encountering seemed so, well, unavailable. She explained that as this part of the former Yugoslavia evolved into its own country, the population has encompassed ethnic Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats, as well as Montenegrins, each group with its own dialect and grievances against the others. “Too many wars,” Jovana said simply.

Jovana and her colleagues, on the other hand, were eager to help. They captioned my photos, translated the multilingual graffiti I’d seen splashed all over town, and suggested restaurants and sites to visit. They described Podgorica as “a business town,” and it was evident from the breakfast room that most of the hotel guests were indeed hommes d’affaires, reading the morning news on their phones. The Ziya staff also fixed me up with a driver who could take me to the seaside.

For my last two days, I put myself in the hands of a courtly guide nicknamed Momo. Momo spoke almost no English, so when pantomime and Google Translate failed, we called a friend of his to interpret. Thanks to the spotty radio reception as we drove from Podgorica through the mountains, I got familiar with Momo’s CD of Balkan pop hits, which sounded like a cross between the Eurovision Song Contest and the soundtrack of a Wes Anderson film. The tunes added color to the stark, rocky landscape, studded with scrub and rust-colored ash trees.

We breezed along the cloudy coast of the Adriatic Sea, an area known as the Budva Riviera, stopping in Kotor, a fortified medieval city right out of Game of Thrones, and in the town of Budva itself, a higgledy-piggledy jumble of hotels, casinos, shops, and cafés. 

Conveniently, the sun came out just as we arrived at the pit stop Momo chose for lunch: a café in Porto Montenegro, about 20 minutes’ drive from Kotor. The contrast to workaday Podgorica could not have been more stark. Once home base for the Yugoslav navy, Porto Montenegro is now an eerily pristine luxury yacht facility, lined with recently imported full-grown palm trees. It looks like it’s auditioning to be in a James Bond movie. Most of the megayachts, as well as the patrons at the café, were Russian.

Later that day, as we zoomed by Lake Skadar, the Balkans’ largest lake, I felt a pang of regret that I had not been able to express to Momo how much I would have enjoyed checking out the lake’s famous birding spots. But secure in the knowledge that he was a kind, benevolent guide, I found enjoyment
in not knowing where the heck I was going to end up, or why.

“On a clear day you can see Italy, they say.” 

The Ziya staff knew by now that I really did want to learn some local history, so for my last day, they worked with Momo to plan a crash course in Njegoš, as he is known. Petar II Petrović-Njegoš was the most important leader of the dynasty that held power in Montenegro prior to World War I. Born in 1813, Njegoš grew up to be a bishop-prince-philosopher-politician-poet. Momo and I started at Njegoš’s birthplace, a stone farmhouse in the hamlet of Njeguši, source of the specialty ham and cheese I’d enjoyed in Podgorica. Later, we’d stop in Cetinje, a mountain town that was a center of European culture around the time Columbus landed in America. But the pinnacle of my journey, literally and figuratively, was the Njegoš Mausoleum, which opened in 1974 atop Mount Lovćen, the “black mountain” alluded to in the name Montenegro. After winding up the road to its end, we parked and climbed the 461 stone steps leading to the monument. There were no railings or fences of any kind—just a view from almost 6,000 feet up. On a clear day you can see Italy, they say.

It wasn’t until I got home and read further that I understood why Njegoš is so important to the Montenegrins. He was a controversial ruler, rabidly anti-Muslim and committed to heavy taxation. But he was also an early proponent of unifying the many Slavic peoples into one politically significant bloc against the Ottoman Turks. His epic poem, “The Mountain Wreath,” part of the Montenegrin and Serbian cultural canon, has been widely translated. Njegoš represents a moment when this region was a major player on the international stage, intellectually and politically. 

A month after my trip, NATO announced that it had invited Montenegro to join the Western alliance—16 years after its forces bombed the place during the Kosovo war. Judging by the graffiti I saw while there and the news stories I’ve read since, public opinion is divided on whether joining NATO is a wise move. As for Russia, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin vowed a “retaliatory” response to an acceptance.

Shortly after I returned to New York, as I walked along upper Broadway, I bumped into Zuffer, my old super—the first time I’d seen him in five years. We talked about my trip, his family, and his summer visit to Montenegro. Whatever happens politically, he knows Podgorica’s cafés will be there to welcome him. When I thanked him for his advice, he chided me for not reaching out sooner. “The next time you go, call me first,” he says. “I’ll give you the key to an apartment.”

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