Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Full Montenegro

Having safely jumped the Albanian hurdle, it was time to check out the delights of Montenegro. I was in Ulcinq, the first town across the border. Immediately I felt a wealth that was not present in Shqipëria. Montenegro was seriously courting the EU and its money. Even at the border the flag flying was not the new red and yellow Montenegrin flag with its coat of arms of Nicola I (Montenegro’s only ever king whose reign was cut short by the end of World War I) but instead the blue EU flag with its 15 yellow stars. And the roads to the coast were being upgraded courtesy of Brussels’ grants too.

But the most noticeable marker of their ticket to prosperity is the currency. Montenegro switched from the DeutschMark to the Euro in 2002. On the switchover the Montenegrin government deliberately asked for as many small coins as possible so that shopkeepers would avoid the temptation to jack up prices and fuel inflation. That may have worked as an economic measure to begin with, but there is little doubt that Montenegro, while still relatively cheap, is quickly catching up with mainstream European prices.

Its efforts to go European are in marked contrast with its relationship with its most powerful neighbour and former ruler Serbia. Montenegro dissolved the union with Belgrade in 2006 after a referendum. There was a 55 percent threshold required and it was just passed with 55.5 percent voting in favour of full independence. Podgorica became the world’s newest capital city. But I gave Podgorica a miss. Nothing terribly much against it, and it is supposedly pretty enough by other accounts, but I wanted to stay on the coast and eventually get to Dubrovnik.

Ulcinq bus station would be my springboard. Ideally I wanted to get to Kotor, sited at the head of the Mediterranean’s only fjord. But there didn’t seem to be a bus for several hours. A German I’d met in the hostel in Tirana had recommended a closer town, Budva, as a nice place to visit too. Noticing there was a bus direct to Budva in an hour’s time, that was good enough incentive for me. I booked a ticket and sat down for a couple of very enjoyable local pivos (beers) while waiting.

When the bus got going we quickly headed to the coast and stayed there for the remainder of the trip. The scenery was gloriously spectacular. The mountains hugged the coast and roads peered over the Adriatic while dipping under cliffs. We zigzagged our way slowly north. I was happy to go slow as it meant more time to admire the view and take photographs. It was like driving Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, only complete with 14th century old towns every twenty or thirty kms (I wonder what Lorne will look like in 2508?) The bus stopped in several of these towns and a couple of times I was half tempted to get out and spend the night there on spec. It is little wonder that Montenegrin tourism is on the rise, the country is a hidden wonder.

After about 90 minutes, the bus arrived at Budva bus station. Next door was a tourist bureau where I asked was there any cheap and nearby accommodation in town. The well spoken lady there told me I could stay in a “private residence” for 12 euros. That was ok by me. All along the coast I had seen signs for "sobe/rooms/zimmer/camera" advertising in four languages the fact that rooms to rent in private homes were commonplace. The lady made a phone call and then told my landlady would be here in three minutes. Good, I thought, she can’t be driving too far. Even better still when she arrived, I discovered she had walked and I would be staying a handy three minutes from the bus station when I needed to leave in the morning,

The accommodation itself was pleasant. A small room with ensuite totally separate from the main entrance and just a ten minute walk to the ‘stari grad’ (old city). Budva is one of the oldest towns on the Adriatic with at least 2,500 years of continuous settlement. Its old town is not quite of that vintage but was built by the Venetians in the Middle Ages. Venice grew wealthy on trade and acquired a network of cities on the Dalmatian coast from the Hungarians who were devastated by civil war.

Budva is reliant on the old town and nearby beaches to bring in the tourists. The city has expanded drastically in the 1990s and many locals have become cashed up by selling their properties to wealthy British, Irish and Russian citizens. Russians first came to Budva looking for bargains after the end of the Balkan Wars in the 1990s and they have kept coming. The local mayor Lazar Radenovic told the New York Times Russians were attracted to the Balkans by a cultural connection stretching back to the 18th century. Serbia and Montenegro share a Slavic Orthodox identity with Russia. “When Russians come here,” he said, “they don’t feel like we have crossed over the border.”


mewriter said...

Derek, have been following your travels quietly but I am compelled to comment now. I think you should have jumped off the bus along the Montenegro coast. Sveti Stefan is one place worth a stop. Ulcinq is home to an interesting museum and there are some lovely river places there. I expect it was too cold to swim. Montenegro is a special place. I am lucky to have been there twice on assignment. Apologies, I just realised I had not linked to your posts from the journalism conference in Brisbane, and have fixed that. That must seem long ago.

Derek Barry said...

Thanks for your comments. Are you Marian from the journalism conference? Hope your project is working for you.