Montenegro: The New Monaco? Not exactly…

Montenegro: The New Monaco? Not exactly…

The New Port of Cool

In an article by Claire Wrathall, the March 2015 issue of Boat International Magazine asks, once again, is “Montenegro the New Monaco?” Claire has been writing about Montenegro since as early as November 2004 in The Scotsman, so she is certainly a credible witness to the regional transformation that has occurred over the past decade.

Many others have asked the same question over the years: I think it might have been Jack Grimston, in an April 2009 Sunday Times article, who originally inferred that Montenegro was “the new Monaco” (I could be wrong though). The Financial Times labeled Montenegro the New Port of Cool in their Boating Special in the June 26th 2009 issue of How to Spend ItThe New York Times in August 2010 referred to the same comparisonFrance 24 News also asked the same question back in 2010. The Times pondered the idea (again) on July 9th 2011. The Boat Blog raised the question as recently as August 2014.

Port Hercule

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

I think they all didn’t quite hit the mark.

The reason so many began comparing Montenegro to Monaco originates from when one new local marina began to offer superyacht berths about six years ago. Investors, journalists and others all got on the bandwagon.

However, I believe that, if you limit the comparison of Montenegro to Monaco’s Port Hercule with such a tight lense you grossly diminish what Montenegro really has to offer. Yes, perhaps in very specific locations (like the Port of Kotor) and at certain times of year (August, for example), it might somewhat resemble the main port of Monte Carlo..

So, instead of wondering if Montenegro is the “New Monaco” because of the yachting season alone, I think the intriguing question to explore now should be:

Is Montenegro the 21st Century’s Intersection of Eastern and Western Cultures?

Party at Hôtel de Paris Monaco.

A more precise comparison of Monaco and Montenegro, might instead refer to the principality in the first half of the 20th Century. Actually, it is probably better to compare this region to the entire French Riviera of 50-plus years ago. Monaco, at that time, still wasn’t yet a superyacht destination or on the Mediterranean charter circuit, but it was a principle intersection of Eastern and Western Europe societies.

Great families from the United Kingdom arrived and played with their Russian and Eastern European counterparts. It was a marvelous time of cross-cultural experiences and entertaining. Less than a century earlier the region was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, so the Italian influence was also tangible there, as it is here in Montenegro. Before the turn of the 20th Century, the Casino of Monte Carlo opened, and so did the Hotel de Paris. We still don’t have such iconic institutions here, but you know they are on their way.

Economic development in Monaco was spurred in the late 19th century with a railway link to France, much as it will be in Montenegro with the new Bar-Boljare highway project.

Monaco of that era (the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th), was a land that welcomed cultures from across Europe and beyond, as Montenegro does today. Here on any given day, sitting in a seaside café, you can hear languages from across Europe and beyond. Monaco, at that time, had much more to offer than a simple harbour for yachts, as does this enchanting land that sits on the Adriatic Sea. This is a place full of awe-inspiring mountain parks and lakes; flawless natural reserves; spectacular coastlines, significant UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Venetian and Roman historical references, and so much more.

So, instead of wondering if Montenegro is the “New Monaco” because of the yachting season alone, I think the intriguing question to explore now should be:

Is Montenegro the 21st Century’s Intersection of Eastern and Western Cultures?

I think it just might be.

Yachting and sailing, chartering, culture, art, hospitality, education, economies and so much more will be impacted forever if I am right. But, I will leave it up to sociologists, journalists, investors, writers and bloggers to examine the question further!

What’s it [Montenegro] Like?

What’s it [Montenegro] Like?

So Central, Yet Still So Undiscovered

I recently attended the Annual Luxury Real Estate Symposium in Venice Italy.
There were real estate colleagues from Australia, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, the United States, France and Italy discussing the latest trends in our industry.

Almost everyone there asked me “what is [Montenegro] like?”

There were a few people that had very defined preconceptions, like they thought of it as a place where people hid their money; a place like somewhere in Africa full super rich and very poor people; others didn’t know where it was on a map; some wondered if the people were friendly, and others asked about things like security or regional conflict.

Needless to say Montenegro was on their radar screens, but the destination was very much an unknown to them. The general sentiment amongst these luxury real estate professionals was one of great curiosity about this young Mediterranean nation in the middle of Europe. So central, yet still so undiscovered.

I was a bit surprised about the tax dodging question. I don’t see Montenegro as a tax haven. As for the question about super rich and very poor, I think this comes from the fact that the country has become well known for the yachting season as the Adriatic Sea becomes more and more popular as a sailing destination. This might give people the impression that it is just for the super rich, but I don’t believe it is. Yes, there are some substantial yachts in the various marinas and a few spectacular villas along the coast; there are also very humble locals, and life can still be hard for many. It is a land of contrast, yes, but also of caring. For example, you don’t see homeless people in the streets—here they take care of each other.

The People: I told everyone that our experience has been wonderful. From the moment we arrived we found the local community to be very embracing of us, even if we were a same-sex, openly out, couple. Pretty impressive for a country that still had riots at last year’s Pride parade and where coming out—or any kind of diversity —is not readily understood.

Security and Stability: I told my colleagues that Montenegro uses the Euro; is a member of the World Bank and the IRBD. The country begun the process to enter Europe and is actively seeking membership in Nato. It feels safe and secure. Of course, you can at times sense tensions that have deep roots in the history of the region, and you have to be respectful of this. They gained independence only in 2006 and the Balkan War is not a far distant memory.

Infrastructure: In the almost 6 years since we arrived, we have seen progress. Water, electricity and the internet are working, and things have changed slowly. There is a lot to be done here in many areas from animal protection to economic prosperity. But recently a highway construction project was announced, another signs of a country in steady transformation.

Health: I think living in Montenegro is very healthy. I have written a couple posts on the subject like these:  In Praise of Slow and Community or  What does Montenegro do to You. Most of the food is local and the menu comfortingly simple. Health care on the other hand is a different story. I do not believe that the public health care system ranks within the world’s top 100.

Geography: Many of my colleagues at the symposium (#lreven) had been to Croatia in the past. They asked me if Montenegro was similar. Well, I told them the geography changes to the south of Dubrovnik. Montenegro does not have the 1,000 islands that the Dalmatian Coast does. What it does have is almost 300 kilometres of stunning coastline, secluded beaches; and clean waters. Inland is as spectacular as the coast, with incredible natural parks and the second deepest canyon in the world. Roadtrip 1 and Roadtrip 2 inland were incredible.

“Montenegro does not have the 1,000 islands that the Dalmatian Coast does. What it does have is almost 300 kilometres of stunning coastline, secluded beaches; and clean waters. ”

I addressed some of the more practical questions in my recent post about living here in Montenegro. These are of course, very personal perceptions and just my opinion. I am sure others with similar experiences have different perspectives.

Traveling here is one thing. Retiring here is another. Working here is yet another. The coast is different than inland. The north bordering Croatia is different than the south which borders Albania. All different angles on Life in Montenegro. I for certain, love it here and have since day one.

I think after meeting new friends at the symposium we will soon have a new round of visitors to show around our Secret Garden!

TRAVEL

The Essential Montenegro

LIVING HERE

The Ultimate Guide to Living in Montenegro

DOING BUSINESS

Business Development in Montenegro

Check Please!

Check Please!

Life in Montenegro can be, for someone arriving from the West, full of quirkiness. Your day can sometimes be full of little things that make you slightly crazy . . .

. . .  things that, even many years later, you never really get used to; lingering leftovers from a bygone era (remember carbon copy paper?), or new inventions of a bureaucrat who has too much time on his or her hands. If you come for a visit, here is one example of local quirky you will like to know in advance:

Getting your bill at a restaurant

Each time you order something from the menu, a fiscal receipt has to be printed. This means, that over the course of a long dinner or drinks with friends, the server has to bring a bill for what you just ordered and leave it on the table… and this happens every time you ask for something. There is no such thing as getting a nice clean check at the end. As drinks or your meal evolves, all of these little receipts, typically get stuffed into a small shot glass on the table or under an ashtray (yes, you can still smoke inside in many locales).

I’ll take the check  . . . I mean the handful of receipts

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

At the end of your bar or restaurant experience, your server has to manually add up all the little receipts to give you your total due. It is especially fun when you have to save these for office expenses! It may be a great way to ensure that fiscal crime is being fought, but if any receipts fall on the floor (or someone takes a few and puts them in their pocket), the server has to make up for the difference.

Recently, while brunching at one of my favorite spots, Restaurant ONE, I was sitting beside a couple of Americans where were having their first “fighting fiscal crime, one chit at a time” moment. The, polite and thorough, explanation by the server did not go very far in helping them understand why the corner of their table was full of little paper chit receipts for each of the vodka martinis they had ordered over the past couple hours. There was confusion on both sides (and it was not just because they were drunk) and they left their first Montenegrin hospitality experience scratching their heads.

I am still getting used to “quirky”, one day at a time…

 

TRAVEL

The Essential Montenegro

LIVING HERE

The Ultimate Guide to Living in Montenegro

DOING BUSINESS

Business Development in Montenegro

Roundabouts, Ketchup and Patience

Roundabouts, Ketchup and Patience

The Bay of Kotor

The Bay of Kotor from Drazen Vert

I am heading into my fifth winter here in Montenegro ( “winter” seems a bit too strong to describe the season given I was outside in the sun for brunch this past Sunday and it felt more like early September than mid November). Who would have thought, back in the summer of 2009, that I would still be here writing, Instagramming and Facebooking (are those real verbs?) to the world about this, not so anymore, secret garden.

In fact, I am more than just here with you and this blog. This month we purchased an old stone house in Tivat, so it looks like this is going to be home for while longer. You will have to put up with my chronicle of this new life in the country for some time to come. I guess it’s not that new, but I certainly feel like I am still adjusting.

I never would have imagined that this part of the Adriatic would be my new home, so far from Vancouver and Lugano. I am thoroughly enjoying being a new local, no longer living behind the gates of a luxury marina with security guards ensuring the place remains exclusive and slightly insular; I had gotten into the lazy habit of not leaving for social activities; suggesting to friends that they always come to me. Now, I am getting in the habit of exploring the little local cafés and restaurants of Tivat and getting to know the community even better than before. I am officially out of the “bubble.”

So much has changed…

When I got here, there was one major international resort development happening, and I worked on that project for over three years. Today there are no less than five major developments within a 10 kilometer radius of each other comprising multiple hotels, four marinas, golf courses and hundreds of apartments and villas. Major players like the Qatari Diar Group and the Azerbaijan Oil and Gas Company’s One&Only Resort as well as the Abu Dhabi Royal Group are investing in coastal Montenegro. Recently a Turkish company, Global Ports Holdings, bought 62% of the country’s only commercial marina in Bar.

There is evidence all around that the transformation, which began with the country’s independence in 2006, is now accelerating. Some changes are small. Like Heinz Ketchup arriving in food stores. Others are more significant. For example, while not in Montenegro, it is close (and I like the example): JAT Airways, the rather rundown national airline of Serbia was recently bought by Etihad and rebranded as Air Serbia with new jets, a new attitude and bold plans for the future of the region.

Roundabouts (yes, the ones you drive around) are new to the country and most, but not all, drivers seem to have adapted well to their arrival. The first French bakery on the coast has opened in Tivat. I can now buy a real croissant and a loaf of sourdough bread. These little things in life are so cherished when you can’t have them. Until now, there was only a couple types of bread here. Nothing like the vast variety and options available back in Vancouver.

So much hasn’t changed…

I still have not gotten used to the economic disparity of the country. Even on the coast, whose affluence is driven by yachting and beach resort hospitality, there is still a lot of people challenged to make ends meet for their families. New projects are planning to hire thousands of people in 2014, so this should go a long way to mending that problem.

I have not gotten used to the driving, even now after so many years. I used to wonder why people were in such a hurry and passing all the time seemingly without regard for safety. Things are slower here. There is nowhere to rush to. Then I realized that is it more of a “get out of my way” approach to driving. I suspect that attitude is somewhere deeply rooted in the culture; the root of which I have yet to discover. If you have been reading for a while, this whole journey is about discovery. In any case, you probably don’t want to be biking on the main roads; save that for the national parks.

I have not gotten used to not having everything being at my fingertips. In any given supermarket in London or Vancouver you find an, almost embarrassing, cornucopia of foods and conveniences. Not here yet. Just recently a large new food store opened nearby. Unfortunately, the limited variety did not change, there is just lots of more the same things. They have introduced a few convenience items though. Nothing as grand as a deli counter or as overflowing as the aisles of a Sainsbury store, but you can pick up a roast chicken and some pre-washed coleslaw. This is a place where there is still someone at home making breakfast, lunch and dinner from scratch for the whole family. Anything pre-made, pre-prepared is virtually non-existent here (think prewashed varieties of mixed salad). It forces you to take time for things and make dinners from scratch. I had almost forgotten about that back in Canada.

I have gotten used to the fact that there are no international brands here (yet). There was one, Costa Coffee, but all the locations closed abruptly recently. Big brands are still not here; so be prepared to live without any of the comforts – emotional or actual – that those bring you. Here, it is all about exploration (and sometimes in Cyrillic). There are no big brands to help you feel closer to home.

Take away…

The transformation is slower than I expected when I first arrived. I was probably naive to think things would move faster. Established resort communities in the Western Mediterranean took decades to authentically come into being. Now I know it will take a generation before the impact of international investment permeates the social fabric through and through. This is the best part of living and working in a place where everything is not pre-made, finished, regulated and done. Being part of the steady slow transformation; working creatively to understand the market and how relates to the “adventurous” ones who are investing and living here gives me great satisfaction.

This is a fascinating complex country in slow evolution, not revolution.

More Transformation: Coming Out in Montenegro

More Transformation: Coming Out in Montenegro

It has been a few months since my last post. As you might know by now I just need a little inspiration to get me going. The other day I got it…

A couple of years ago my partner and I met a Montenegrin man who was in his mid twenties and gay. At the time, that combination seemed like a death sentence to him. He had not come out of the closet to anyone and was suffering for it in so many ways. He was even scared to come to our house for a visit; worried that the receptionist or someone would see him arriving and immediately label him as gay by association (something that happened a lot in the first few years; much less now as the local community has gotten used to us – the “only out gay men in the village”).

In the months that ensued our friendship grew and grew. Many of our conversations with our friend were about trying to empower him.  We had to let him know that there was a different world beyond these borders; a world where he could be open about his orientation and not be living a life in secret.

Jump ahead 24 months.

Just over a year ago our friend moved to Switzerland; met the man of his dreams and is getting married this summer. Last weekend he came home to Montenegro and came out. Firstly to his sister and her husband. She was thrilled for him and only sad that he had suffered for so many years by not being able to tell anyone. Her husband was also very happy for him and extremely loving. He did not expect this as his brother-in-law comes from Niksić, a town which is not known for being open minded. On the contrary; it is a Northern mountain town where the men are known for being very tough. Not the place you can easily walk around it as an open gay man.

When our friend told us about this experience he was in shock. So happy and yet so surprised at the first reactions. He would have been happy with “OK, that’s your life, I don’t want to know anything about it”, but what he got was much greater.

His next meeting was going to be with his best friend. That went extremely well too.

He said that Pieter and I had been incredibly helpful in the process. Once he met us back in 2011, he realized that you could be gay, out and partnered and have a fulfilled life. It is nice to know that we served as role models in a country where he had none.

Since we moved here in 2009 there has been much positive transformation around us. This blog has attempted to document that. We have watched LGBT rights also slowly become more accepted. There is still much to be done. There are countless men and women who are still stuck, just as our friend was two years ago. I hope his story; his wedding and his coming out will be a catalyst for a more open and tolerant society in this little magical kingdom.