Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Adventures in Montenegro: A Love/Hate Road Trip

I'd never seen Montenegro, so we decided to do a quick weekend road trip this February. After crossing the makeshift and grungy Serbian border post, there's a couple of kilometers of windy no-mans-land road until you get to Montenegro's far nicer border post. As we drove between the two borders, we passed a Septic Pumper Truck parked at the side of the road dumping its load into the river below. Notably, that river flows south-to-north back into Serbia. Also notably, the truck had Montenegrin plates.

A few minutes later, as we were waiting in line at the Montenegro border, the same truck merrily skipped the line to pop right over the border without any annoying ID checks or customs declarations. Here's a pic I snapped of it zipping through while we stagnate in line:
It was fairly obvious from the border guards' attitudes that the truck goes back and forth, dumping sewage into the river that leads to Serbia, fairly frequently. In fact, about a half hour later we passed the same truck in a neighborhood of a border town, getting ready to suck up another load from a customer's house.

I hadn't realized some Montenegrins are (literally) this pissed at Serbia. Nearly 32% of the population is of Serb ethnicity, 63% oif the population speak Serbian as their primary language, and 45.5% of voters in 2006 voted against independence from Serbia (the 55.5% majority won, however.)

However, after driving through the entire country on the main highway from the Serbian border in the north to capital city Podgorica in the center(formerly known as Titograd - a fact I learned when my 70-something father-in-law called up the mobile to ask where we were, and didn't recognize the name Podgorica at all until my husband finally bellowed 'Titograd!" at the phone) and then down to Kotor on the Adriatic, I realized quickly one reason why Montenegrins might hate Serbia. The roads which were built by the Yugoslav and then Serbian government are not remotely adequate.

Aside from a few bits immediately in and outside Belgrade, most Serbian "highways" are strictly amateur-hour. They are fairly thin - mostly just one lane per direction. And they're not always very well maintained. Here's a full-breadth snapshot of typical Serbian highway taken on a grey February day as we made our way toward Montenegro:(To be fair, none of the highways in Croatia that regular people use are any better either. There are spiffy, new billion dollar highways in Croatia that were supposed to replace the older roads, but nobody uses them except for a handful of tourists because the tolls are ungodly high. So, you have this weird twilight zone experience driving on them.)

The thing is, Serbia's landscape ranges from flat to smoothly-rounded hills. If there's not too much traffic, and there's rarely serious traffic, these narrow, straight-ish highways do the job well enough. Passing is pretty easy so you're never stuck behind a slow driver for too long and the view is extremely pleasant (a lot like southern new England.)

The same roads just don't work in Montenegro's geography of steep, dense mountains. Every few hundred yards there's a blind man's curve, making passing dangerous and difficult. If there are any roadworks -- and due to rock falls, aging tunnels, and icy winter conditions there are ALWAYS roadworks -- national traffic comes to a complete standstill as only one lane can be open at a time. Northbound traffic gets the sole lane for 30 minutes, and then southbound traffic gets their turn at the lane, and so on. You can't get off the highway and take an alternate route because there aren't many exits, there aren't really any other roads you can get to. There's a mountain-face to one side of you and a yawning crevasse to the other side and that's it.
Every single truck bearing supplies to Montenegro's interior is stuck on that same, tiny, winding highway with you. With typical traffic and road delays it took us more than five agonizing hours to drive from the Serbian border to capital city Podgorica. Supplies also come in through the rail system, but it's apparently fairly badly aging.

I can't imagine how Montenegro with a total population of just under 700,000 have any hope of being able to afford substantial improvements to their infrastructure so people and goods can actually get around the interior without undue agony. But then, Belgrade isn't famous for spending money on for infrastructure in the provinces (the tax money goes to Belgrade and pretty much stays in Belgrade), so I guess staying with staying with Serbia wouldn't have helped much.

Although it was after dark, we decided to press on to the old capital of Cetinje to spend the night. The old city which only has a population of 15,000 is absolutely adorable and totally worth a visit, despite the arduous drive. We stayed in communist relic, the Grand Hotel, which is made of concrete with a faded red carpet out front and more than 250 rooms with rather nice wood paneling; none of which had hot water that night so we got a 50% discount off the high ~100 Euro price. The staff thoughtfully put a space heater into our room when we went out to dinner so it would warm up faster.
That night we were one of only about five guests at the hotel, but a stack of glitzy brochures at check-in proclaimed the Miss Balkan beauty contest finals were being held there at the end of the month. I hope they had enough space heaters for all the girls because those bikinis looked tiny. The grand prize was carefully worded as "the possibility of a trip to New York" (US visa permitting of course.)

Although Cetinje only has two hotels, there are loads of nice restaurants - far more in fact than in Zadar which has a far larger population and many more tourists. We picked the Restoran Nacionale at random (it was the only one we could find on a cold dark night without a map) and had one of the all-time best meals I've ever had in my entire life - and I've eaten out a lot all over the world. True it was a little disconcerting to see our waiter run out the front door to get the groceries so the chef could cook our meal, and frankly Montenegro's wine isn't as good as Croatian wine. But, the food, oh the food. Total rhapsodies.

The next day we walked around town - it's in a lovely small valley in the mountains. Purple-blue crocuses were just pushing out their tips en mass across the city parklands, and I noticed quite a few nice pieces of sculpture. Buildings are only 1-2 stories high, and built from stone in a vaguely Austro-Hungarian-manner that reminded me of our hometown of Sombor Serbia. I should have taken loads of beautiful pictures, but I just wandered about in a happy daze and forgot to take hardly any at all... such is life. Next we set out for Budva on the coast which is reputedly even cuter than Cetinje (except when it's overrun in the late Summer by far too many holidaymakers). However, although we did see this rather startling sign:
...we couldn't find any pertinent road signs, and thus wound up on the road to Kotor instead. Such are the tiny, empty, winding mountain roads that we had no idea we were going the wrong way until after an hour or so of driving, we turned an abrupt curve and saw the Adriatic and the bay of Kotor below us.
Needless to say, the road down the hill was a steep one-lane affair with switchbacks every few hundred feet. It took ages to get down off the mountain. Most people fly directly to Kotor's airport and avoid the inland altogether. By "people" I mean mainly vacationing Russians who have famously overrun the place in recent years. Shops have signs in Russian in their windows, and despite the freezing cold, we passed several groups of Russian tourists on the streets. (To me it felt a bit like celebrity sighting in LA.)

Kotor has two parts - the harbor:
and the old town, which is behind a tall stone wall between the harbor and the mountainside. The old town looks pretty much like all the old towns in Central and Southern coastal Croatia. The buildings and streets are made of the same whitish, slippery stone, and everything's densely packed into a small area. It was the coldest day possibly in Kotor history, so naturally I stopped for a quick glass of wine at an outdoor cafe (I'm the one waving at the left.)Looming mountains aside, Kotor reminded me a lot of Zadar where my husband's parents were waiting for us at their flat. So, after a quick visit, we got back in the car we'd borrowed from my father-in-law and drove up the thin, windy coastal road toward Croatia....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

first,thanks for visiting us..i agree with you ,that we have excellent food,and allso thanks for comments witch you made about the restaurant wicy you visit alredy..its really nice to hear that..and,i hope things that you saw with a truck is not gonna change your mind,and i hope you ll came again but in a summer time,when is a lot of fun...goodluck from montenego!!