Europe’s Western Balkans: Montenegro

Montenegro’s dense mountains hide many of its 700,000 residents and separate its Old World Adriatic coast from the bland Communist-era architecture in its likable inland capital.

I went Old World first. Travel-industry storytellers are accustomed to landing in romantic destinations in non-romance mode. Severely romantic Perast is a soulful, mountain base-hugging village on the Bay of Kotor. This sweet snapshot of local waterside culture can be taken in from several waterfront establishments. Akin to Adriatic Europe, Perast is a bargain, full of locals who seem to enjoy Americans. On the edge of town, the Pirate Bar (not a play on words like it might be in California) is a choice but rugged bayside imbibing and snack venue. It overlooks the bay and mountains, which are all perfectly illuminated by stellar sunsets.

Since Bill Clinton’s presidential farewell, I’ve rarely traveled with long-time friends. People get busy. My pals probably have no idea what it’s like to travel with me, someone married to the road. Those who do consort with me these days automatically acquire the travel wand—they decide everything as I go along tweaking the path. My only legitimate skill (no packing tips here) is recognizing the random locals not so much that you can trust (I usually do) but the otherwise unknown MVPs ready to help hone your state-of-the-art experience in the moment.

For two weeks of this four-country roam, I was joined by a Boston-bred pal I met in Thailand in the 90s. We hit Podgorica, Montenegro’s central city, blind…off the bus without a plan. Steve’s initial doubt and subsequent revelation in Podgorica was about trusting the wander. He insisted we find a hotel first near the bus station, then figure out food and leisure.

I swayed him into our first real not-in-a-rush-at-all traveler moment, which led us into an empty supermarket where we parked our packs, shopped for snacks and a beer, and chatted with the staff about which way to go. Heading in that direction, two mid-life dudes toting small but obvious backpacks met easygoing thirty-something Vladimir who was walking in the opposite direction. After brief directions, we invited him to join us at the riverside place he’d recommended. Steve nodded in agreement to this haloed travel strategy.

A relief from the electronic chirp music that’s consuming the planet, we enjoyed live ethno folk music—where the accordion takes center stage—by Crveno i Crno  (Red and Black) at a breezy, sprawling riverside establishment called Skaline overlooking the cooling Moraca River. Talking about Vladimir’s life, work, play, and the seismic governmental shift in his homeland was a Balkan highlight, because time evaporated, and we enjoyed buying him drinks he wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

Even if we hadn’t sponsored Vladimir’s drinks, he still would have continued guiding us to two more establishments. The first was a trendy Hindu-groove-themed mist-spraying hive with overhanging plants and a fancy drink menu. The other was a chain-smoker disco teeming with would-be Milan models backbending above forearm-length heels all pouting, “I can’t breathe without a butt cemented into my lipsticked mouth.” Vlad’s history and drinking place’s tour was complemented by commandeering us a cheap private apartment for the night.

Despite staying out past bedtime, he made it to work in the morning, and we caught our bus to Sarajevo. We’re still trading nationalistic prods, keeping the reason for roving alive. He can’t afford to visit the States, possibly ever in his lifetime. Often, life isn’t fair on many levels, and spoiled Americans, including me, need to get out there to appreciate that.

Like other Euro converts, Montenegrans are now experiencing price increases. However, for Americans, Montenegro’s cost of goods is still a deal on par with Miller brew prices in Wisconsin. Unlike the other Balkan countries on my itinerary, Montengro’s landlocked capital was chock-full of mediocre, blocky buildings that echoed Soviet block concrete—but Vladimir made it shine as one of those people who helps blossom a journey into a trip, or even better, a special occasion.

Perast’s magical Hotel Per Astrais best in special date mode.

Written by Bruce Northam for

Veteran travel writer Bruce Northam has reported (mostly good news) from 125 countries. His book, Globetrotter Dogma: 100 Canons for Escaping the Rat Race & Exploring the World, was cited by National Geographic as one of “Ten better choices: insightful travelogues that will inspire rather than dictate.” Bruce’s wander continues on


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