Last week, I spent a couple of days in Podgorica; the capital city of Montenegro and Europe’s youngest country. As it was my first time in Podgorica, I thought I’d note down some brief impressions on the city.
From the outset, nobody, least of all Montenegrins, would claim Podgorica was in line to win prizes for either its architecture or range of tourist facilities. On several occasions, I was asked what I thought of the city, only for the person asking the question to quickly follow up with a pained expression and assurance that I should “feel free to be honest”. So I will be.
Podgorica is what it is: a small city catapulted from relative obscurity inside a wider Yugoslavia to capital city of a sovereign state, a city comprehensively destroyed by fighting in World War Two and rebuilt in a Tito-era communist image and a place relatively lacking in tourist attractions.
That’s not to say it’s in any way unpleasant. It isn’t.
For starters, the setting of the city is stunning. While battered by rain and shrouded in mist for most of brief stay, the view of the snow-topped mountains and forest-covered hills surrounding Podgorica was undimmed.
In keeping with its Alpine setting, the city itself is incredibly green. Even in the city centre area close to the mains square, Trg Republike, trees line the roads and mask some of the worst examples of communist architecture. It is immaculately maintained with very little by means of graffiti or litter.
Walking through Podgorica, you seem to stumble upon a public park every few hundred metres. I chucked when I stumbled upon a pleasant, newly-refurbished park financed Azerbaijan; a country I had hitherto not thought had anything to do with Montenegro. (From Montenegro to Mexico, the financing of public parks in foreign countries appears to be Azeri dictator Ilham Aliyev’s way of honouring his father, former dictator Heydar Aliyev).
The River Morača that runs through the middle the city is, almost uniquely for one at the heart of a settlement in the former Yugoslavia, not (too badly) clogged up with plastic bags, car tyres and unwanted pieces of furniture. Walking along the river, I found an area of the city called Skaline (“the stairs”) which afforded probably the most historic and picturesque sites Podgorica has to offer.
To find it, simply follow a path surrounded by slightly overgrown vegetation to the banks of the river. From the riverbank, you have a terrific view of an ornate stone bridge, the remains of a fort, the confluence of the Ribnica and Morača Rivers and the larger Millennium Bridge looming overhead.
When I visited, the area around the bridge seemed quite unloved with many cracked paving stones, a fair amount of rubbish and several suspicious-looking characters lurking in rocky alcoves. I sense that part of the reason for this feeling of dilapidation was that the city wasn’t yet geared up for summer, when a couple of bars set up shop on the concourses either side of the riverbank; cleaning it up in the process.
I could imagine, with the rubbish and broken glass swept away, restaurant canopies set up and the sound of Balkan Europop filling the air of a warm summer evening, it would have felt rather different. Nevertheless, I spent a pleasant half hour looking at the crystal clear water and imagining the moustachioed merchants that plied their trade on the riverbanks during Ottoman rule.
After crossing the bridge, you come to the rather sorry remains of the birthplace of Stefan Nemanja – the founder of the Serbian state. Nemanja’s memory is held in great esteem by the Serbian Orthodox Church, yet he appears to be a rather less important figure to Montenegrins – despite the instance of Orthodox Patriarch Irinej last year that “like Siamese twins, inseparable, one and the same nation.”
While the view from the top of the town’s ruins is worth the climb in itself, there is very little in terms of carvings or even semi-identifiable ruins to take in. It would surely not a too much of a cost for either Podgorica City Council or the Montenegrin Government to spend a small amount of money renovating the fort or even erecting some basic signs to explain its historic significance.
Following my visit to Skaline, I went in search of Stara Varoš, the Ottoman Old Town. While I couldn’t find any signs to guide me there, I spotted the minaret of a mosque in the distance and walked in its general direction.
The Old Town itself isn’t particularly noteworthy and might come as somewhat of a disappointment if you’ve seen any of the hundreds of more notable Ottoman attractions littered across the Balkans. The Ottoman clock tower, which is said to have been one of only a handful of buildings to survive World War Two, is worth spending a few minutes exploring, though – if only to soak up the atmosphere in the packed lanes.
Aside from sight-seeing, Podgorica is a pleasant place for eating, drinking and shopping. Hercegovačka Ulica (Street) in the city centre appears to double up as both the shopping and diplomatic quarter of the city, with clothes shops occupying the downstairs of most buildings while oversized flags flutter from Embassies based on the first and second floors.
Just around the corner from Hercegovačka Ulica, you find Njegoševa Ulica which is filled with a pleasant range of good restaurants which all appeared to serve a combination of steaks, seafood and pizza (which is generally the thin-base variety and probably the best I have tasted anywhere outside Italy).
My abiding memory of Podgorica will, however, be its calm and relaxed atmosphere. Recent history has had a lot to do with that.
Montenegro’s split from Serbia in 2006 came not as a result of a brutal struggle or even a particular aggressive war of words but a process more closely resembling the Velvet Resolution in Czechoslovakia. The two sides talked, leaders debated, a referendum was held and, by the very closest of margins (0.5% over the agreed threshold), Montenegro opted to go its own way.
As such, the city is free of the atmosphere of arrogant and occasionally bitter defiance you find in many cities in the former Yugoslavia. Montenegrins are proud of their independence; but don’t go about their days surrounded by public monuments to the “martyrs” of its independence struggle (because there aren’t really any) or the painful memories of lost fathers and sons.
Instead, Montenegrins appear to spend their time basking in a contented, continental cafe culture more often characterised by pizza than burek, fresh seafood than ćevapčići and strong espressos than rakija, giving it a more Mediterranean than the country’s Slavic roots would at first suggest.
Podgorica isn’t ever going to be a tourist attraction in its own right. It’s an administrative city that houses the bodies with responsibility for treading a quiet and uncontroversial path to EU and NATO membership. It’s a stopping off point for visitors and place businesses are headquartered.
From the Bay of Kotor to Skadar Lake, Montenegro as whole has far more to offer visitors than its capital city does. But, if you find yourself in Montenegro for work or play, it’s worth at least a few hours of your time.