For more than a decade after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Montenegro — the smallest of the country’s six republics — seemed to hold no place in the traveler’s mind beyond that of Serbia’s little sidekick. Now independent since 2006, the Adriatic nation sandwiched between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania is quickly enticing Western travelers with a promising mix of history, beauty and culture. And for many English-speakers the country remains a largely unknown gem — a Croatia before Croatia was cool.
It certainly has a lot to offer: a 180-mile-long coast whittled with spectacular ports like the walled towns of Budva and Kotor, immense valleys and dawdling rivers seasoned with wild water chestnuts. Few visitors spend much time in Podgorica, Montenegro’s pocket-size capital, because opinions like “not much there for tourists” creep into the reviews. But during my two visits to Montenegro over the last year, I found Podgorica to be surprisingly pleasant, with lively cafes, intriguing neighborhoods and no shortage of charms and moving encounters.
My connecting flight from Paris touched down on a sunny afternoon last fall at the Aerodrom Podgorica, code TGD, a reminder of Yugoslavia’s Communist days when the city was known as Titograd. From the air I had squinted through the piercing glare of Lake Skadar, a national park, to absorb the terrifying peaks of the 8,000-foot-high Prokletije mountains that marked the Albanian border. Montenegro, or Crna Gora in Montenegrin, means “black mountain,” and the rugged fastness of the landscape makes the name an obvious choice. Yet everything below me was so green, a patchwork of rolling farmland stitched together with rivers and creeks. It felt like flying into a Balkan Montana.
Podgorica, pronounced PAWD-go-ree-tsa, was no Bozeman but a place burbling with progress all the same. NATO had bombed the areas around the airport in 1999 when Serbs used it as a regrouping area after raids into neighboring Kosovo. Montenegro was largely spared much of the NATO wrath because Milo Djukanovic, who was president of Montenegro at the time, worked to distance his country from the Serbs during the war. By 2006, a majority of Montenegrins voted to part ways with Serbia for good, and the breakup happened peacefully.
“It was like a marriage that just wasn’t working,” Ninoslav Markovic, a Podgorica native who studied tourism in the World Heritage city of Kotor, told me later. “There was some anger but no big fight.”
I struggled to spot any signs of the conflict on the ride into the city. Shiny BMWs and Mercedeses glided along a well-sealed road, past roundabouts, furniture stores and mechanic shops. Most of the buildings were squat, soulless apartment complexes with splashes of color from laundry draped over balconies. A donkey pulled a wood cart along the shoulder.
In searching for a place to stay I zeroed in on the Hotel Crna Gora, built in 1953, once the finest hotel in Podgorica. Back in the day it had been a place for the Communist Party elite. Looking at it now I saw little more than a drab concrete cube but quickly realized this was special in its own right. It had a bright lobby and dim hallways enlivened with long licks of red carpet. Over the decades the hotel had become a mini-repository for paintings by eminent Montenegrin and Yugoslav artists like Petar Lubarda and Milo Milunovic. My room had a creaky but comfortable bed next to an antique radio that probably wasn’t intended to be an antique.
The hotel will become a Hilton, and since my visit, construction crews have demolished large portions of the hotel as part of a $56 million renovation project. The new Hilton Podgorica Crna Gora is scheduled to open in May 2015 and will have 200 rooms, a spa and seven conference rooms. The artwork and some of the original stone facade will all be preserved, Zarko Buric, the owner of the rebranded hotel, assured me in an e-mail. “The new hotel will maintain flair of old Hotel Crna Gora,” he wrote, but I couldn’t help but feel a little glum. Hiltons are everywhere. Communist throwbacks — even a “Stalinist dump” like this one, as one TripAdvisor user said — are disappearing fast.
But some things are still the same. Podgorica is a fine place for walking: compact with about 185,000 people, leafy sidewalks and loads of cafes for people-watching. I dropped off my bags and headed out, passing by the 46-euro heels for sale in the Fancy Shop shoe store and the mini-mini-skirts that hung like party streamers in the window of Butik Diva. You can stroll along the Slobode, a street closed to cars come evenings, where families eat ice cream and prides of teenage boys prowl about in clouds of cologne. Promenades meandered along the confluence of the Ribnica and Moraca Rivers, past the ruins of an old Turkish fort and beside a small stone beach. I spent one morning ambling through the hushed warrens of the Stara Varos, or Old Town, where men drinking brandy by pigeon coops waved and wished me well. The friendly secretary of Podgorica’s Muslim minority welcomed me unannounced into an 18th-century mosque.
Empires have ebbed and flowed across the Balkans for centuries, and each passing tide has left its mark on the Montenegrin plate. I found Austrian-influenced strudlas and Greek baklava. I ate pizza in a Serbian Orthodox spiritual center that doubled as a restaurant where St. Simon judged me from his perch on a heavy stone wall. The Ottoman Turks ruled the Balkans for 500 years and left the most indelible impressions on the country’s cuisine. I stuffed myself into a near coma with a huge platter of roasted meats and cevapi sausages at Pod Volat, a restaurant with stone arches near a 17th-century Ottoman tower. During the feast, in the no-smoking section, my waiter stood four feet away smoking a cigarette. It was so absurd I could only laugh.
My wallet was certainly giggling. I spent a whopping $25 at Pod Volat. That delicious pizza with a drink and coffee totaled $3.79. Hotel rooms clocked in around $75 a night. I never paid more than $1 for coffee.
Toward the end of my trip I met Fetah Mahmutovic at his bakery in Zabjelo, a neighborhood on the southern flank of a hill called Gorica that gives Podgorica its name. Mr. Mahmutovic, 28, has an eponymous band called Fetah Vibration, which he said was Montenegro’s first and only reggae band. That seemed believable in a land where turbo-folk is far more popular.
“Turbo-folk makes me puke,” he said.
When Yugoslavia was falling apart, Mr. Mahmutovic declared Zabjelo’s independence and joked that his bakery, which specializes in burek, fried pastries stuffed with cheese or any other ingredient, was something like the White House. It was satire, of course, but his shop, Burekdzinica Zabjelo, has since become the undisputed capital of Podgorica burekdom thanks to a recipe passed down through at least four generations. We sat for more than an hour talking music and Montenegro over a burek packed with spinach followed by another one drizzled in chocolate. A glass of runny yogurt was the perfect accompaniment.
I felt the need to walk a little more vigorously, given how much I’d been eating, so on my last day in the city I headed north along Slobode with plans to hike a few miles to the top of the Gorica. There the city’s fit run on trails that circle under the pines and offer views of the high-rises below. I’d eventually make it to the top, where I’d sit on a bench and watch the sun settle into an unmade bed of mountains rumpling toward the horizon.
But I was distracted. There at the foot of the hill sat a squat chapel tucked against a clutch of olive trees and cypresses. This was the 16th-century St. George Church, the city’s oldest, a dark and moody bunker with an overgrown cemetery out back. The tombs had been vandalized and forgotten, and were now blanketed by enormous mounds of thick ivy.
Inside the chapel I stared at John the Baptist, St. George and Petar of Cetinje. There was nothing magical about the place for a nonbeliever. There was no organ music, no vaults to admire. The air was stale without a swinging censer. It was just me and a guy sweeping the floor.
“Would you like to see something?” the church’s guardian, Radovan Mitrovic, asked when he saw my interest in the saints. He put down his broom and removed the icon screen to show me the chipped remains of the church’s original frescoes. There were deep reds and navy blues. A forehead. A halo. They were ancient, he said, maybe the oldest in the Balkans. I felt no need to verify that but was content to accept it for what it was. Maybe that same thinking helped me like Podgorica as much as I did.
I bought a small icon of St. Nicholas from the chapel’s modest gift shop and left for my hike.
“Wait!” Mr. Mitrovic hollered, running outside after me. “Here, a gift for you,” he said, handing me an icon of St. Basil, one Montenegro’s most popular saints. “Maybe he will bring you back.”
IF YOU GO
Hotel Ambasador (Vaka Djurovica 5; 382-20-272-233; hotel-ambasador-podgorica.montenegro365.com) has nine rooms and a restaurant terrace overlooking the Moraca River. It sits within easy walking distance of downtown, St. George Church and Gorica park. Doubles start at 90 euros, about $116, at $1.29 to the euro.
The Hotel M Nikic (Kralja Nikole; 382-20-220-292; hotelmnikic.com) opened earlier this year on the banks of the Ribnica River and offers a contemporary setting with 71 rooms, walk-in showers and windows of blue mirrored glass. Doubles from 84 euros.
EATS AND DRINKS
A stroll down Bokeska and Njegoseva Streets near the city’s center square, Trg Republike, will bring you to dozens of cafes and nightclubs that are popular with the city’s fashionable youth just about any time of day.
The Mojito Cocktail Bar (Bokeska 6; 382-69-222-579) serves many variations of its namesake as well as stiff coffee.
Pod Volat (Trg Vojvode Becir Bega Osmaagica 1; 382-69-618-633).
Burekdzinica Zabjelo (Vaka Djurovica; 382-67-881-269).
Spiritual Center (Duhovni Centar in Serbian, Njegoseva 27; 382-20-665-519).
Source: The New York TImes