Did you know that Montenegro (tied with Serbia) is the world’s third most recent sovereign nation? Montenegro split off by a referendum in which 55.5 percent of people voted for independence. The threshold to approve was 55 percent. As you might imagine, people still hold many strong feelings about this decision on both sides of the fence. As you also might imagine, such a new country, especially one coming from a communist background but now trying to join the European union, has a lot of growing pains and quirks. To celebrate its 16 years of freedom, here are 16 observations (good, bad, and everything in between) that stood out to me during my time there.
1. It was weird to be somewhere that has ethnic conflicts among a bunch of white people. Coming from the US where our conflicts are generally along color lines, this was strange to me because they all look the same. But it was very real. I was in Cetinje just a few days before violence broke out. Since 45 percent of people didn’t want to split from Serbia, it makes sense that there is a lot of bad blood.
2. Interestingly, the conflict bleeds over into their writing. Both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets are officially used in Montenegro, but for the most part, if you see something in Cyrillic, it’s probably a pro-Serbian business with conservative owners. It’s rare to see Cyrillic on the progressive, touristy coastline.
3. Because you do have these factions, Montenegro can be a exercise in massive contradiction. For example, gay marriage is legal (as of just two months ago) yet selective abortion of girls is still very common. I often felt that many progressive Montenegrins are trying to advance their country as fast as possible so they can join the EU, while the large religious, traditional contingent is trying to hold it back.
4. I really appreciated how the country already felt like it was part of the EU in terms of the way they treat foreigners. If you’ve traveled in poorer countries, you know you’re always fighting scammers, getting hustled, being ripped off, and generally having to keep a sharp eye out. Not so at all in Montenegro. Everything seemed to be on the up-and-up, no haggling, no fuss, no worries. As Lonely Planet puts it: Unlike in many other emerging destinations, hassling and scamming visitors isn’t big on Montenegrins’ agenda; for the most part, you’re more likely to encounter a spontaneous bear hug than a bothersome tout.
5. There’s still some lovely, controlled chaos. In the US, everything is over-regulated and over-controlled and over-licensed to the point of sterility and inconvenience. One thing I love about travelling other places are all the random vendors, like food vendors around bus stops. Montenegro has vendors selling their honey and fruits and rajika along roadsides and entrances to national parks. It’s convenient, but they aren’t there in such excess that it’s annoying. And as I mentioned in my last post, you can simply pull over and hop in the bay for a swim wherever you want. You don’t need a beach tag or to worry about the time of day. And you can roam around old forts and ruins at will. The walls are crumbling – proceed at your own risk. This should be obvious. They don’t have everything roped off and restricted for fear of frivolous lawsuits.
6. The stray animal situation was not as bad as I expected. In villages, I saw a fair number of dogs roaming free, but many had collars and all looked well fed. It seemed as if they were allowed to wander but did have owners who took care of them. Also, both Kotor and Dubrovnik (in Croatia) are known for their stray cats, but those animals have plenty of restaurant scraps to eat.
7. The graffiti and trash problem was really bad for a self-proclaimed eco state. I try not to judge poor countries too harshly for trash and pollution problems, and to be more understanding now with COVID, but Podgorica was a mess. I can’t believe the city can’t afford to pay someone to keep the parks clean. Also, when I pay 8 Euro to go somewhere, like San Giovanni Fortress, it definitely pisses me off when it’s full of litter because in that case, I know they are getting the funds to pay someone to clean it.
8. I love café culture! I love, love, love that you can sit for as long as you want and you don’t get harassed to keep buying things or get out. And you don’t get charged a “table fee” like you do in Venice. I had several delightful snacks and meals with a book and the most excellent people watching. And going back to the idea that Montenegrins are always looking to trends (even if outdated) to make their country a hot destination, there were places called Goodfellas and Cheers. I even found one place, the Amelie Bar, that had a “quarantini” cocktail menu.
9. However, you can’t escape the smoke on all those lovely patios. Like most of Europe, it’s impossible to have a nice meal without the taste of cigarette smoke. I would go to the least populated restaurant patio, sit nowhere near anyone else, but within a minute or two, smoke would inevitably waft over from somewhere. Again, the government is trying to move forward. Smoking is banned indoors since 2019, and strictly enforced, even in rural areas.
10. Montenegrins actually use toothpicks. It’s so cute. Toothpicks are always on the table and when they are finished eating, Montenegrins will cover their mouth with one hand and pick away with the other. As someone who carries floss around, I approve of this good oral hygiene, though I still prefer to excuse myself to the bathroom to carry it out.
11. Sometimes your dinner comes with entertainment. This woman playing the electric violin on a terrace in Kotor while I had a fantastic seafood dinner below made my night.
12. Kotor has become a hub for “begpackers“. Ugh. These people are scum. Please don’t ever give them money. They shouldn’t be in poor countries trying to get handouts. They should be spending money in poor countries and if they don’t have money to spend, they should go home and get a job until they do.
13. The second night in my hotel in Zabljak, all the other tourists had left and the place was nearly empty. But then, over a dozen young men came in for dinner. They were all wearing matching track suits, so they were clearly part of some team. It was the Mostar (BiH) basketball team, HKK Zrinjski. Essentially meaningless to me, but also pretty cool.
14. In another fun coincidence, I drove myself to hike Mrtvica canyon. The trailhead was about four miles off the main road, down a gravel, one-lane road. As I was leaving, I saw a couple walking back out down the road. It was a nice French couple and I offered them a ride. They had left their rental car on the main road, too nervous to attempt real Montenegrin driving. We get to chatting and I tell them I’m ending my vacation with a morning in Paris. I ask them if they’ve ever been to the United States, and of all the random answers, the husband says he knows Buffalo quite well. Buffalo, where I’m from. It turns out that he is a magician who goes to an international magicians convention every year in America which takes place, I kid you not, in a town right near the Buffalo suburb I grew up in.
15. I know English is the universal language, but you might not realize to what degree until you go somewhere like Montenegro. I heard English all around me, everywhere I went, but seldom spoken by a native speaker. Couples in restaurants would be speaking English, him with a French accent and her with a Russian accent, him with a German accent and her with an Italian accent. It was wonderful. And they all speak so, so well. Not just grammatically, but idiomatically. I’m impressed and jealous.
16. Yes, while I could overhear people in restaurants since the tables were only one foot apart, I also love how soft-spoken people in Europe are. Low tones, respectful of others around them. And then I get on my plane to go back to America and some Americans six rows away from me are having a conversation (but not an argument) at shouting volume. Ugh.
Also, I have to throw in one interesting fact about Croatia too, since I bookended my week in Montengro in Dubrovnik. Did you know that Dubrovnik is physically separated from the rest of Croatia? That’s right, go ahead and open a map. You have to go through a little bit of Bosnia-Herzegovina to get to the rest of the country. Wild, right? Since BiH is not part of the EU, this is obviously problematic because the two border crossings can cause long lines. For that reason, a bridge connecting the two parts of Croatia is opening soon.
This post is the third of three about my recent vacation to the stunning, rugged, and hospitable country of Montenegro. Recommended reading: The Full Monte: A Fulbright Scholar’s Humorous and Heart-Warming Experience in Montenegro.