Montenegro Then and Now: The Story of the Little Country that Could

By , 06 Mar 2018, 16:59 PM Travel
Montenegro Then and Now: The Story of the Little Country that Could Wikimedia

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In thinking of what to write about for my first story for the inaugural Total Montenegro News site, I flipped through an old copy of Fodor’s 1979 Yugoslavia tourist guide and turned to the chapter that covered the then Republic of Montenegro. Scanning the pages to draw some inspiration about what has changed in the last 40 years, my eyes were brought to the following quote somewhere in the middle of the page, “At the birth of our planet, the most beautiful encounter between land and sea must have been on the Montenegrin coast.” That’s what Lord Byron had to say about Montenegro well over 200 years ago. Flash forward to 2018 and not much has changed despite the flurry of building cranes, construction crews and the hurried pace of modern day life creeping into the western Balkans. To the foreign visitor, these things herald an arrival on a monumental scale and are deemed impressive. The same is not lost on me, a native to these shores and now living abroad for more than half my life.

If you desire to see some of the most breath-taking vistas that southern Europe has to offer, you will never be disappointed by Montenegro. For a small country, it comes packed with history, culture, fantastic cuisine and a panoramic setting of awe-inspiring mountainous vistas plunging into some of the most beautiful azure blue waters your eyes have ever seen. The coastline of the Bay of Kotor in particular and its natural extension further south towards Budva and the small islet of Sveti Stefan - arguably Montenegro’s most photographed site - will leave you breathless and visibly astounded. Truly. The first time I had ever seen it myself, I was only a young girl and still recall that moment as if it was yesterday, so utterly unconvinced was I that this was all actually real. I had just finished reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and in my childhood mind the impressive fortress towns and steepled stone churches reminded me of a Gondor-on-the-Sea (if such a thing existed).  That was over 35 years ago during an era when Montenegro was a constituent component of an older country that many knew as Yugoslavia (‘Land of the South Slavs’). Much has changed.

Back then, my travels to Montenegro were for familial reasons. We spent lazy days visiting relatives and enjoying the seaside shores of sunny towns like Perast, Risan, Rose, Kamenari and Kotor, from which my maternal ancestors hailed. Hotel complexes were reserved for foreign tourists, the families of high-ranking military officers and the well-to-do remnants of the bourgeois classes. We were comfortable swimming in the smaller coves and bays known only to locals. Days began early, and you would arrive at the beach armed with a basket of delicious goods packed by loving aunts and relatives. Grapes, figs, pršut and cheese were just some of the staples to be found within (along with books, crossword puzzles and the occasional treats). Children frolicked in the warm, calm blue waters of the Adriatic Sea while adults read newspapers and played chess under the shade of oleanders, fig trees and macchia. Days passed on endlessly with a remarkable rhythm and structure. You woke up early for a morning swim, returned home to sit for a late lunch as a family and then journeyed back for another afternoon swim until the sun had set, and the last cafes had closed. Then it was time to don ones best and embark on the promenade which is always called the Riva in this part of the world. Here, you joined the evening throngs of families and couples dressed in their best to exchange chatter, local gossip and the news of the day while sipping on espresso and enjoying an ice-cream and ‘pivo’ (‘beer’ in the mother tongue, with the Nikšičko variety being the local favorite). 

Today one can certainly mimic the same routine, and to some extent many still do. As both a native and a foreigner, I still wake up early, swim in the local spots and buy my groceries from the locals at any green market because fresh and in the season is always preferred to anything that the superstores are selling. The sea is just as clean and beautiful as it was 40 years ago, even though (other than Croatia) the same cannot be said about some of Montenegro’s other Mediterranean neighbours. However, times have also noticeably changed. Superstores have become the norm, smartphones and iPads have replaced chess and books, and that old family home which is in need of a fix-up has been replaced by the perfect Venetian-inspired Airbnb where I can go for unadulterated peace and silence when curing writers’ block and preventing the erratic drop-ins by relatives and friends. Welcome to the new Montenegro.

In every village, town and larger Montenegrin city things are changing quickly and at an unprecedented pace, despite what you may hear from the locals. Sometimes these changes are better reflected externally (like the record time it takes a foreign hotel to be built) than internally (because economic progress is much harder to determine after you listen to people’s woes). Despite the occasional pessimism of my co-citizens, I am of the direct opinion that many of these changes are for the better, especially when compared through the magnifying glass of recent history. 

My friend Glúmur Baldvinsson who has only visited Montenegro once in 1978 as an 11-year old Icelander, once told me the story of how he arrived in the country in a light-blue Renault with his parents and sisters.  They traveled via Greece, being denied entrance through Albania and arrived sometime in the very late evening at a small village in the high mountains. He was most impressed by the drive up a curvy road with majestic views and people on donkeys trudging further up past them carrying items he had never seen before in his life. He went on to recount that he felt he had arrived in what he thought was a different world altogether, but the sense of poverty was not lost on him. During that trip, he also fell in love for the first time. They parked the car in front of a village home which was something of a 1970’s version of Airbnb. It was totally dark, and only a faint light could neighbor in the windows of the stone homes surrounding them. His parents knocked on the required door of one such highlander home, and a woman with long dark hair and haunting eyes answered. After a few exchanges, she proceeded to lead them up a set of winding stone steps with a candelabra in hand, to the sleeping rooms which awaited them. She was 40-something, he was 11, but it was love at first sight (on his part). He still talks about her to this very day, and the indelible impression her facial features and dark hair (all but unheard of in Nordic Iceland) left on him. Although he has not visited the country since then, he still harbors dreams of finding this long-lost Montenegrin beauty despite not even knowing her name or the village where his family spent that night of sound slumber. I often tell him that he will be completely shocked by how much Montenegro has changed since his fond childhood memory dating back to the late 1970s. He is eager to return, and 2018 will most likely be the year. The question remains, what then will he and all those who have not visited in many decades (or ever) expect to see?

The answer is a country on the brink of unprecedented and rapid economic change (despite the impatience of its citizens) and by all accounts, a brighter future than the one it left behind. While it once lagged behind it’s prosperous neighbor to the immediate north, Montenegro is in many ways taking advantage of an economic path which its ex-Yugoslav neighbors (especially Croatia) would be wise to notice and adopt, especially when it comes to the reduction of bureaucratic red tape vis-à-vis foreign investment.

For the curious visitors, however, be it the day trippers or affluent westerners tired of the crowds along the Cote d’ Azur, the noise of Majorca and the never-ending yacht parties on Hvar, Montenegro offers the best-in-class luxury travel experience with a hint of panache and a dash of insouciance. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the luxurious resort of Porto Montenegro which opened its grand doors in 2009 and boasts an envious position right near the coastal town of Tivat’s centre. A resplendent resort which resembles a Venetian-inspired nautical village, Porto Montenegro has transformed Montenegro into the Monte Carlo of the Adriatic, thereby rivalling the regional neighbour Croatia which has not built anything of this magnitude with foreign capital in recent years. And it hasn’t stopped there. 

Further down the coast, the picturesque fishing peninsula of Sveti Stefan (where my sister Ana got engaged to her now Swiss-husband in early 2011) was leased and refurbished by Aman Resorts and now carries that prestigious brand name. Similar projects are in the works or are in the discussion phases. As these things usually happen, all this investment and building boom has had a direct effect on every little picturesque town stretching from the Bay of Boka Kotorska as far south as Ulcinj near the border with Albania. Rebirth can be seen in Miločer, Rafailovići, Bečići and Budva, where palazzos and villas adorned with infinity pools, and cutting-edge spas vie for attention and have replaced the dilapidated orange tile-roofed family homes of the Yugoslav era.

 Old Town Budva is the one coastal town where the frenzied pace of development is best seen and which has directly benefited in a domino effect of lifestyle choices ranging from boutique spas, designer stores, high-end cafes and pop-up kundalini yoga and pilates on the beach groups. The only thing missing is a world-class casino, but with the allure of the latest James Bond movie which will film in the neighbouring Croatia in early April, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Broccoli Productions makes a detour to the country which inspired the first franchise, Casino Royale (don’t quote me on this) and inspires a local millionaire or two to kickstart such a project. Mostly, whatever your heart desires regarding an array of lifestyle choices is now available up and down the coast and extends further inland all the way to Podgorica.

During my last visit to Montenegro just a few months ago, I ventured on a private yacht past Porto Montenegro and took in the scenes along the bay from the deck. It was late afternoon, and I wryly smiled while contemplating where to sip my late afternoon Campari as the endless choices popping up in Budva surprise even year-after-year returnees like myself. Taking in the scene onshore, I couldn’t believe what Montenegro has been able to do in just a short number of years since declaring independence: attract and cater to a jet-set clientele in a setting that has integrated magnificently with the local community. Lord Byron would be smiling in his grave were he to know that the divine interaction between land and sea that is the very essence of the Montenegrin national terrain has so far been preserved intact.

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