I have done what any Serbian does, if possible, in the summer months: gone to Montenegro.
Montenegro is about a twelve-to-thirteen hour train ride from Belgrade, and I would recommend it above any other form of travel. Though the train is not air-conditioned and the heat, for about two hours after leaving Belgrade, left me feeling quite woozy, the train is, I think, a better alternative than the bus. Once we had hit more country and more mountainous areas, the night was cool and perfect for sleep in a cabin (it is about $15 CAD for a sleeper in addition to $30 for the passage itself). After the train, I caught the bus from Bar to Herceg Novi (about $12.50 CAD), where I am staying, and what should have been a two-hour ride turned into a three-and-a-half hour ride due to roads clogged with traffic. Unlike a train, a bus offers no washroom facilities, and there were no prolonged stops—just little stops in towns along the way to pick up new passengers and let others off. The plane, I am told, is fairly cheap between Serbia and Montenegro, but travel has to be planned well in advance to get a good deal.
Now, I have begun to revise the original blogpost I was going to put up about Herceg Novi (which I am keeping below) in order to indicate a shift in attitude I have had towards this place. My new take hit me yesterday/Monday morning with, notably, the beginning of a new week and the end of a weekend. I’m sitting here now on Tuesday morning with my new Monday-morning convictions still in mind. That is, I gave my head a good shake. Of course, the beach and a summer town are going to be different than they are come weekdays! I feel it’s necessary to assert this here now and in a strong manner. I am so glad I did not just come for the weekend as I would have left with a skewed understanding of things.
My Original Take Based on Arriving on a Weekend (Things That Irked Me)
I guess I was anticipating some kind of peaceful retreat, like the parish of Portland, Jamaica, where one gets away from the hustle and bustle of city life and takes in the ocean, mountains, and interesting conversations in small cafes and places most likely run by families. In Herceg Novi, in particular, I was anticipating the backdrop of a historical town against bright ocean where I was going to perhaps listen to the sounds of waves as I sipped a superior European coffee (Europe’s coffee is, hands down, better than anything I’ve had in Canada).
Well . . . Yes, the place is stunningly beautiful. The water is turquoise, and many of the stone buildings are very old, especially those in the old town/Stari Grad, which is found many stair steps up a sharp incline from the harbour.
However . . . I hadn’t accounted for the throngs of tourists and the manner in which it would be difficult even to stroll the promenade with people walking shoulder to shoulder all the way from Herceg Novi to a smaller community nearby, Igalo (this is about a thirty-minute walk). I hadn’t thought that, here, there might not even be space to lay a towel down on the beach—most of which is concrete, the rest of which is small rocks. I hadn’t accounted for the endless tourist stores, for the most part full of expensive cheap souvenirs.
To me, this place has the feeling of a very packed Okanagan town in British Columbia where tourists flock to the beaches, most notably for the infamous Peachfest in Penticton or for the desert area of Osoyoos, where a dip in the lake is even more refreshing in arid air. Or maybe this is like Negril, Jamaica but without a sandy beach that stretches for miles.
My Other Original Take Based on Arriving on a Weekend (Things I Immediately Loved)
The natural beauty of this place is so pretty, though, that I imagine I have just travelled at the wrong time of year. I mentioned to several people here that I would like to come to Herceg Novi (by all accounts thus far, the most idyllic place in Montenegro) in October or November. Indeed, people have told me the town is very different then with many less people and more of a real air.
What is notable, though, is that Montenegro and Serbia share a lot, like family, friends, and history. Of course, Montenegro was part of former Yugoslavia, too, and it’s not surprising that there are many commonalities between the two places. In terms of my research interests, it’s notable that Montenegro is very strong with respect to gusle traditions, and part of the reason I came to Montenegro is that I am told the maintenance of gusle playing is even stronger here than in Serbia.
Despite reservations, though, my travel here has coincided with the Montenegro Film Festival, which runs from August 1-7. See the following links for more information:
I hope to take in as much of it as possible, even though some films, if not all, might not be accompanied by English subtitles. Even images, by themselves, though, tell a lot about different cultures and places, and it will be interesting to see how this is perhaps registered in moving pictures.
I do not have one reservation at all, however, about food. This place teems with the freshest of seafood and fish, as well as the typical meat fare of Serbian cuisine and good-looking fast food. You can count on the fact that anything from the sea has probably been caught that day, or within the last couple of days, and cuisine is served with an artistic flare and in a very friendly manner.
Of course, I can’t help mentioning the stray dogs and cats. There are many. However, the dogs, especially, seem to be more communal than homeless. They appear well fed, loved and gentle. The cats are perhaps not so communal, keeping, as they tend to do, to themselves. However, I have seen many a cat lying in the doorway of a shop or restaurant undisturbed by both owners and patrons. As well, I was befriended, without trepidation, by a specific kitten who had obviously lost a fight (as evidenced by the huge gouge in her side), and we shared a lovely plate of calamari and afternoon together. This seems to be an animal-loving place, which says a lot about the culture of Montenegro. These animals appear to be part of some big family.
Back to the Weekday and More Recent Ruminations
Wow. Many have cleared out of Herceg Novi. This was obviously a main place for people and their families to come to for a fine summer weekend, and I imagine people are now back at their jobs and in their hometowns or cities. There are a number of people strolling along the promenade, but there is now enough space that one could go for a good jog along the path without having any problems. Everything is quieter. Though there’s still a lot of chatter and laughter, there is room and silence enough to pause and reflect and, yes, listen to the sounds of not the waves, maybe, but those gentle remakes of classic rock which seem to be filtering out of the cafes these days and humming over the beaches. What I am referring to here are classic rock and roll tunes that have been turned into easy-listening jazz remakes. I know this has been done before, but the remakes are quite original (something reminiscent of the remakes the band The Civil Wars sing), and it seems to be quite the rage here. Most memorably, Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child of Mine” becomes something akin to a lullaby. And the female croonings and their light harmonic accompaniment in a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Time” make this classic rock song sound much less suicidal and more like something you might play at a garden party.
There is much more room for swimming in the bay, and the large tourist boats carrying huge numbers of people around to different ports—like the harbor of Herceg Novi—have disappeared. Servers and owners seem less manic and have slowed their pace.
I’m reminded now of the Southern part of St. Lucia and, in particular, the old French town of Soufriere, which is a soothing relic out of the past on weekdays but which can become a raging party town on weekend nights. Just as Southern St. Lucia is to be contrasted to its Northern island part—a bit garish and overrun by the foreign nouveau riche–Herceg Novi seems to be a bit of a step back in time from more pronounced “developed” and less unique realms as Bar and Budva.
I’m feeling that something special now that people told me I would feel before I came to Herceg Novi. This place is especially soothing early in the morning—around 7:00 or 7:30—and is the perfect place to write. I would imagine that, come October, when the temperature is in the twenties or teens, or in November, when the place is mainly in the teens, that this might be one of the most perfect places around to write a novel.
Yesterday, too, I found out that all the films at the festival will have English subtitles! In particular, I’m looking forward to seeing Men Don’t Cry, the first film to be played tonight on opening night and, again, on Thursday afternoon (August 3). Directed by Alen Drljević (b. Sarajevo, Yugoslavia), the film is summarized in the festival’s synopses booklet as follows:
“The armed conflicts of the 1990s not only visibly destroyed the land of the former Yugoslavia but also left the deepest wounds in the memory of each of its belligerent nations. There are as many different interpretations of that bleak past as there are countries affected. It is therefore hard to expect perfect harmony when, less than two decades since the war ended, a diverse group of veterans gathers at a remote mountain hotel for a therapy session over several days. This brilliantly directed drama is about how we must first learn to forgive ourselves before we can forgive others.”
It took me only a couple of days in Belgrade before I realized it would take a lifetime to understand something about the politics in the Balkans, and this film’s billing indicates, at the very least, that this might be the first important thing to understand.