Montenegro. It’s the former Yugoslavian country that you’ve not heard of. All the others – Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia – roll off the tongue far more readily, even if it is only to be followed by the ubiquitous Eurovision “Nul points” or as winner of the longest country name in Europe – although at least now Macedonia is all but universally recognised, it’s been able to drop the “Former Yugoslav” bit off, leaving it with just “Republic Of” for Sunday Best.
But Montenegro? Probably because it’s so small – only about 600,000 population in the whole country, and just over 100 miles across and up/down – it’s one of those that gets you serious points in any spontaneous travel quiz.
When Susie & Steve, Ellie’s cousin and her husband, first told us that they’d bought a plot of land in Montenegro, “Where?” was most certainly our first reaction. Now we’re here – with just over a week in hand before they fly in for a short holiday. Since we can’t wait to meet up with them again, the plan is to slowly take the first bit of coast, towards the resort of Tivat where they’ll be staying, then head into the mountains up north.
After Albania, our first impressions are, to be frank, that it’s all a bit posh, and all a bit bland. But that’s compared to Albania, so not exactly a fair test.
Once we’d crossed the border, we had a little scout around for Lake Šasko, so we could have a picnic lunch on the shore. We never did find it. As we headed down yet another narrow and little-used track in search of it, we did find a big and scary sign telling us we were in “Frontier Territory”, though. So we gave up. Eventually, we found Ulcinj, the first biggish town up the coast. On a very quick look, the centre struck us as nothing very special, even if we did manage to buy a much-needed national road map, so we stopped off at a little supermarket prior to finding the campsite that we knew to be just outside the centre. If that was a typical small Montenegrin supermarket, we were in food porn heaven. Again, after Albania (much as we love it), not difficult, but even so. We stocked up on some delicious cold meat and far too many nibbles.
The campsite and beach were, well, a campsite on a beach. A big long (very, very long – longest on the Adriatic coast) beach, sure. But… bland. Scorchingly hot, but somehow not tempting enough to get us out of the shade. So, the next day, we headed a bit further north, to the next site which we knew was open.
We saw the signs for Camping Utjeha, and dropped off the main road down towards a small and stony-beached bay. There were signs for another campsite, too, but the list we’d got said it hadn’t opened for the season yet. We reached the bay, and found the road more-or-less closed by roadworks. We could get to the sign for the other site, but not to our target. But what’s this? We’re being dragged in to the closed site, Camping Oliva. It’s open. We park up, and head to the veranda of the house to register. We’re thoroughly made welcome by Grandma, who isn’t one to let linguistic differences get in the way of communicating, pressed into seats and force-fed glasses of home-made Rakija while she lectured us on the alleged shortcomings of the other site (some serious rivalry, it appears) as the heavens opened and the garden flooded.
Once the rain slackened enough to return to the van, we quickly got chatting to the only other people staying there – a Dutch couple, Chris & Annelies. As we continued to hide from the weather in their awning, the chat turned into a glass of wine or three or five, sopped up by one of Ellie’s chicken curries. Not only had they brought their utterly gorgeous four-month old Australian Labradoodle (A mix of the obvious two, plus an Irish Wheaten Terrier) with them, but they seemed to have adopted a local random puppy. On a walk, they’d found three very young pups looking sorry for themselves. One had followed them back, and was being fed and de-ticked by them. The other two quickly got in on the act, but couldn’t quite twig how to get from the next-door garden in to the campsite – so their food had to be passed through to them…
The port city of Bar isn’t particularly special, but the old town of Stari Bar certainly is.
Once you’ve negotiated a pleasant little cobbled street of very nice restaurants and reasonably tasteful souvenir shops, the walls of the old town loom before you. In a fantastic location with a spectacular view over the coast and up to mountains, it’s had a hard life – culminating in the ruins being almost destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1979.
The walls, together with the churches, palaces and houses they contain, have since been restored and reconstructed partially. The ambitious project, though, has struggled since first the break-up of Yugoslavia then the wars which followed. Initially aimed at producing a mix of spaces for public enjoyment of theatre, music and culture, many of the venues are still just empty shells at best. As you wander round, though, with wild flowers and giant snails everywhere, you can really get a feel for what could have been – and may still be. Let’s hope that if and when it does happen, it doesn’t lose any of the laid-back appeal it currently has.
The new town of Bar’s biggest appeal was a purely consumerist one. If we’d thought the little supermarket at Ulcinj was good, we had a real shock in store. The butcher’s counter was a dream – superb quality meat, with a good choice of cuts. A fantastic deli counter, with a big stack of various smoked and cured sausages. OK, there was no fresh fish at all – it’s a port city, so maybe the harbour’s got a good market? – and the fruit and veg was a bit lacking in choice to our UK same-selection-all-year-only-the-source-country-changes eyes. But… it even had… GIN! AND! TONIC! Both! At the same time! This was a first for us since we left the UK. Our eyes scanned the shelf. The Bombay Sapphire and Hendricks were hard to pass by, Gordon’s a bit less so. The couple of bottles named after seemingly random London suburbs (Wapping? Finsbury? Seriously?) easy, but we finally made a choice. And so, with groaning basket, we headed to the checkout.
And there the fun started. No, we could not buy the half litre bottles of the ubiquitous brand of local beer. But why not? Finally, with the help of another member of staff, we came to understand. We couldn’t buy them, because we hadn’t got any empties to trade in. There was no problem on smaller bottles, bigger bottles or other brands. But those bottles (probably the most numerous on the shelf) – no. But how do we get empties to trade in, so we CAN buy them? Ah. Sheepishly, she grinned and shrugged. She didn’t have the first clue either. Judging by the crates of empties outside various bars, one answer does seem to be obvious, although I’m not sure it’s the one that’s really intended.