“I’ve been on the road for six months,” said Denise, an Irishwoman I met in the Czech Republic. “Sure, that last town was pretty, but at this point, for me to say a place is special, it would have to be dipped in gold.” Now, after three months of travel, I know just what Denise meant. Every few days Rich and I haul out the map and start Googling destination options. And I find myself saying things like, “Well, it’s got a 12th century cathedral, an old town that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, the miraculously preserved dead body of a saint, opera in a Roman coliseum, and a two-hundred-foot waterfall … but nothing special.”
As it happens, “nothing special” is exactly how most people describe Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital. So when our route included a brief overnight stay there, I didn’t bother to do much research ahead of time. Our train pulled in late on a rainy afternoon, and after checking into our hotel, we took a stroll around the modest neighborhood, which held a few tree-lined streets, a desultory collection of shops and cafés, and a plaza with a fountain. The next morning I asked the desk clerk for a map so we could explore the city.
“There is no map,” she said.
“OK,” I replied. “Can you direct us to the center of the city?”
She looked at me strangely and said, “This is the center of the city.”
Seriously? “OK, then could you recommend anything for us to do?”
She thought for a moment. “You could go to a café and have a coffee.”
Let the good times roll…
After that underwhelming build-up, I was pleasantly surprised by Podgorica’s geography. The city is built around a winding river flanked by lush parks, and distant hills provide a dramatic backdrop. But the urban landscape is crowded with hulking concrete buildings that range from underwhelming to astonishingly hideous examples of the Brutalist style that was such a hot fad among mid-century totalitarian regimes. “The setting is really quite nice,” I said to Rich. “If they ever figure out how to exploit the natural beauty around here, tourists will flock to Montenegro.”
I soon learned the Montenegrins were way ahead of me on this. Arriving at the wonderfully picturesque medieval port of Kotor, Rich and I could hardly squeeze through the town’s gate, so thick were the throngs of sightseers from the massive cruise ship anchored just offshore. “This? This isn’t crowded,” a local boatman told me the next day. “Sometimes we have as many as four big cruise ships, and several smaller ones – they bring maybe 10,000 people a day to the town.” With just 13,510 people living in Kotor, that’s practically a one-to-one tourist-to-resident ratio.
“I think they’ve figured out how to exploit the natural beauty around here,” Rich said.
Overwhelmed by the throngs, we fled Kotor, hopping a local bus to another coastal town, Herceg Novi, the one-time home of blogger friends Ang and Ryan of Jets LIke Taxis, who told us it was a must-see. As we stepped off the bus, we could hear riotous singing from a caffe-bar called Orange adjacent to the station. Someone was playing recordings of Montenegrin folk music, and half a dozen men were raising their glasses and their voices in a haze of patriotic fervor. Rich and I wandered on through the town, admiring the spectacular scenery and stopping at an outdoor café to restore ourselves with grilled fish and a local chardonnay. Arriving back at the bus station, we found the men still singing lustily. “These are hardy folk indeed,” I remarked.
With half an hour to wait, and the bus station lacking such frivolous luxuries as benches or rest rooms, we inevitably wound up at the Orange Caffe-Bar. Within two minutes of our arrival, the party animals bought us a round, and after that it seemed only courteous to buy them a round and join them in singing and pounding out the songs’ rhythm on the bar with our hands and glasses.
“Hoopa! Hoopa!” shouted the impromptu DJ, and somebody jumped on the bar and started dancing.
Eventually our bus arrived, and – it being the last one of the night – we had to tear ourselves away. But not before several of the men shook Rich’s hand and kissed me on the cheek. One fellow asked, “Where you from?” When I told him, he said, “Go and tell them. Tell all the people about what you saw here!”
I am only too happy to comply. Because it may not have been dipped in gold, but to me, Herceg Novi and its people will always be something very special indeed.
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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