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.
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.
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.
Cesarica “Konoba” is in the heart of Old Town Kotor hidden away in a street behind between Pub Dock and Scorpion Bar. We discovered it when we arrived in 2009 and it has been a favorite ever since. It is consistently great; fresh food; warm and friendly service and the cozy ambience. Vaulted ceilings make for a great atmosphere, especially if you are with a group.
Hidden away in the maze of small streets that make up the Old Town of Kotor, it is not easy to find. Not to worry; any local will be able to send you in the right direction. It is very close to the Serbian Orthodox church of St Nicolas which you will find in one of the main squares.
The owner will show you all the old photos of his family on Muo just across the bay from Kotor. He was a sailor before he became a chef. I would highly recommend the black risotto, the squid stuffed with shrimp or the fresh catch of the day; grilled, with Swiss chard and boiled potatoes.
Entirely delightful. Enjoy!
Last weekend we ventured out for another Montenegro Weekend Road Trip like the one we did a few weeks ago. This time the destination was Kolašin. To get there we drove down the coast to Budva, over the mountains through Centinje (previously the Royal Capital) and past the current capital city of Podgorica.
The trip through the Tara Canyon was familiar to me. At least up to Kolašin, as I had done this route once before last winter on a previous Montenegro weekend road trip. This time, the roads were dry and free of snow, but it can be pretty nerve-wracking along the steep canyon which is reminiscent of driving through narrow Rocky Mountain gorges.
Within a couple hours we arrived at Kolašin 1450 Ski Resort. The off season is lovely there. Families are stocking up on firewood for the winter, and there a scent of wood burning fireplaces and stoves in the air. The town is very quiet. It really does come to life when the ski season starts. We had drinks in an old pub style bar that was full of tributes to Tito and dined on traditional foods at a local restaurant. Both “Konoba” (traditional national restaurants) we wanted to go to were closed for pre-season renovations. Bianca Hotel & Spa was warm and welcoming, with a huge fireplace in the lobby. Again, the scent of burning wood warmed the surroundings.
After a night at Bianca, the next morning we drove about an hour up the valley to Tara Canyon Bridge. The bridge is an incredible 172 metres (that is 577 feet) above the river below. A dramatic sight by any standard.
Tara Canyon Bridge
We continued our drive to Žabljak Ski Resort. This was my first time. The scenery was completely different than the canyon. The wide open flat plains with rolling hills and wandering cows were beautiful. It was Sunday which was also election day. There were over 1,000 polling stations open and we saw many along the route from the bridge to the ski resort. Some where just small huts in remote communities.
Cow in Zabljak
The road from Žabljak down to the Bay of Kotor has been recently re-done, so the trip only takes about an hour and a half. The rains from the night before brought down a rock slide just above Risan which left just enough room to squeeze by in the car. Luckily nobody was hurt.
The Bay of Kotor
A must do for anyone wanting to see the stunning variety in the geography of Montenenegro: the superyachts of Tivat – the old town of Budva – the capital of Podgorica – the quiet mountain town of Kolašin – breathtaking Durmitor National Park – beautiful Žabljak – Nikšić and its beer factory – Risan tucked away at the end of the bay – World Heritage site of Kotor.
In just a few hours on the road, you will see so much and feel like you have traveled through many diverse lands.
The other day I was having lunch on the Tivat waterfront at Prova Restaurant (one of the prettiest places in the town of Tivat to sit and dine or relax by the water). I was with one of my favorite colleagues from Porto Montenegro. He is from the port town of Bar in Southern Montenegro. A man with an incredible memory, attention to detail; full of stories and someone who knows everyone in the country. This was a particularly special lunch because he gave me ideas for two more blog stories:
Eclipse in Tivat
With Eclipse, the largest yacht in the world, sitting in the Bay of Kotor just beyond the jetties of Porto Montenegro, he thought it would be a good idea to tell the other story of Montenegro; the one of those who live at the other end of the financial spectrum than the owner and guests of Eclipse; those people in the mountains just a few dozen kilometers from the more affluent coast. There, transportation is still dominated by the ox. From immense superyachts to ox-driven carts; it is all part of the story here in Montenegro. He said I should interview them and ask about the US Presidential Election or the European Union to see their perspective; both are probably not on their radar screens. Vast contrast in close proximity (which takes some getting used to). The writing of this story will require another road trip to Niksic, a translator and some interviews. I am very much looking forward to that adventure, and I will post the story and photos as soon as I get there and back…
His other idea was to tell the story of Ulcinj and the legends of its history of piracy. When I mentioned to him that my trip to the most south point of Montenegro, near the Ada Bojana (which the NY Times has named one of the best beaches in the world) where the sandy beaches stretch on for kilometers, felt like I had left the Balkans, he could not have agreed more. To me, the area seemed more like Northern Africa than Southern Europe. I could not have told you why that day, when I went exploring, but something was so different than where I had just come from up the coast. He explained that, towards the end of the 14th century, Ulcinj became a centre for piracy and continued to be a dangerous refuge until the 18th century. Populated by North Africans, Maltese, Turks and others for centuries, it is for this reason, that this place feels so different than the Montenegrin coast or the mountains. This new post will also require another road trip (less invigorating than the mountain drive to Niksic and Ostrog Monastery), a translator and some interviews too… but I think it will be worth it!