The Answer: Paradise

Trip Start Aug 14, 2010
Trip End Sep 12, 2010

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Flag of Montenegro  ,
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Up early for a tour up to Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro - it still retains the symbolic title, though for all intents and purposes Podgorica functions as the current capital.  The instructions I was given yesterday by the booking agent were to be by the tennis courts by 8:55.  I waited ... and waited ... did I miss something?  Finally popped into the nearby Hotel Aleksandr to use a phone and call the place - guess they were just running 30 minutes late.  To get this piece of information, I was charged 2.50 Euro by the hotel to use their phone!  They told me I had to pay to use it, but I never expected it to be THAT expensive.

Being the lone English-speaker on the tour bus (the others were from Russia and Ukraine), it felt a bit odd getting the English commentary, as if the tour guide was overcompensating, leaving me feeling a bit awkward.  Don't get me wrong - he was an excellent guide, and gave some great insight into the Balkan culture.  He mentioned something very profound about the breakup of the former Yugoslavia - that wars should be fought to protect your culture, your religion, your way of life, and  your people, and that this last war was simply done for all the wrong reasons, and was a gargantuan mistake.  If only those in power during the war could have admitted these things at the time, the world may not have witnessed such countless atrocities take place.

Nowadays, Cetinje is probably most famous for its Monastery, which houses two important relics - a shard of Christ's cross, and the mummified hand of St. John the Baptist.  Somewhat gruesome as it's all dried and shriveled up, it looks like something you might find in a Chinatown medicinal store, something that an herbalist might recommend be used to make soup for alleviation of arthritic pain.  Think I'm joking?  Not fully ... us Chinese have some mighty bizarre medicinal uses for even more bizarre items. 

A number of visitors brought items like bracelets and pictures of religious icons to place on the Plexiglas that topped the casket which contained the relics, as if hoping that somehow magic powers would be bestowed upon the items.  Feeling especially sacrilegious today, I thought to myself that if for some strange reason my mummified hand would be so venerated by people  after my death, I hoped that before being encased in Plexiglas, all the fingers of my hand would be bent inward to the palm, with the exception of the middle finger, which would forever remain raised, in a final eternal flip of the bird to the world.  I have no idea why I say such terrible things ... but for some reason, saying such terrible things always makes me chuckle inside :)    

We had about an hour of free time after visiting the Monastery, and the guide recommended a couple of museums to visit.  Hmmm ... museum ... or a cappuccino on the main pedestrian street?  A no brainer for me - all these years of visiting Spain have made me care less and less about seeing the sights, and more and more about chilling and watching the world (and Spanish ladies) go by.  It's a process I've dubbed Spanification.  I continue to explore and research this most beautiful and fascinating of processes :)

Had a funny Chino moment at some of the vendor stalls that greet the tour buses as they arrive in Cetinje - one of the ladies nearly tripped over herself trying to greet me, as her eyes lit up.  The thing about being a tourist is that locals always see bags of money when you arrive, and when you're an Asian tourist, they see bags of GOLD!

The final stop of the tour was Mt. Lovcen, one of Montenegro's four national parks - I visited Lake Skadar national park the other day, but won't have the chance to visit Durmitor (famous for white water rafting on the Tara River and its canyon, which is the second-deepest in the world) and Biogradska Gora (famous for Lake Biograd).  No matter, after my third day in Montenegro I already knew I would one day return - a place so surreal in its beauty, how could I not?

Situated atop the second-highest peak in Lovcen National Park, Jezerski Vrh, is the Njegos Mausoleum, which houses the remains of Petar II Petrovic Njegos, a former ruler of Montenegro.  The views from here are incredible - apparently, after witnessing the views for himself, George Bernard Shaw once posed the question "Am I in paradise or on the moon?"  My answer - paradise.  I simply sat and relaxed for quite some time, soaking it all in, and listening to some fresh tunes on the trusty ol' iPod.  Definitely one of those "wow" moments during traveling which you never want to forget.  

Like I said, the guide was great and gave me the story of how Montenegro was actually named by Italian explorers, who had sailed past and noticed some of the mountains lined with black pine trees, and dubbed it "Black Mountain" - or Montenegro, in Italian.  Montenegrins ended up calling it the same, though in the local language it's Crna Gora.  The guide mentioned that before this, Montenegro was known as Zeta, as in Catherine Zeta-Jones, he explained.  I laughed and asked how he came up with that analogy - "I LIKE her ...", he replied, with a smile.  If I ever get the chance to name a country, it'll be something like Claudia, Elena, or Eva, after a beautiful Spanish woman.  Once again, it's that whole process of Spanification!

Joined a couple of peeps from the hostel, two childhood friends from a little village just north of London, for the evening.  Stari Ribar was a restaurant recommended by the guidebook, and highly recommended by a the London girls from a couple of nights earlier, so that's where we ended up.  Good sign - no English translations on the menu, and no other tourists were to be found.  We struggled with the menu, with the girls asking the waitresses to explain what each of the 10 or so items in the meat section were - the first was described as "Uh ... grilled meat."  The second was also described as "Uh ... grilled meat.", as was the third, fourth, fifth items ... ad infinitum ...   

The meal was excellent - the girls split a mixed grill, of which I sampled some of their cevapcici, little minced-meat and casing-less sausages.  The Montenegrins have made an art of grilled minced meat, as both these sausages and their pljeskavica (hamburger patty), are so much more delicious than their simple description sounds.  Being on the Adriatic, it was about time I had some seafood.

Down to Stari Grad via the boardwalk, the girls commented how having just come from Belgrade, they still couldn't believe how incredibly beautiful and statuesque the Serbian girls are.  Mental note - move Serbia to the top of my travel list.  Of course, this shouldn't be surprising since most Balkans are South Slavs, and descendants of the same ancestors.  The different ethnic groups here are divided mostly along the lines of religion and geography, so if Serbian women are in any way related to Croatian or Montenegrin women, without doubt they  would have to be as beautiful, as well.

The girls have an insanely ambitious travel plan - they started with three days in Istanbul, followed by three days in Thessaloniki, then three days in Belgrade, before arriving here.  They've got a week coming up in Croatia, which I figure is about two or three days short of what they need to actually see what they are planning on seeing. 

Stari Grad - phenomenal vibe, it's shocking to think this all shuts down at 1 AM due to a curfew in the walled town.  I told the girls if they like this, they'll love Split, which is even more vibrant. The music was great, as was the people-watching, but the problem was the price of drinks - 6-7 Euros for cocktails.  At least the beer was relatively cheap, at 2-3 Euros for local brews.  We only stayed for a bit, in search of cheaper options, thinking the bars on the harbour just outside the walls would be cheaper, but that wasn't the case.  Too bad, because there was an incredible saxophone player doing his thing at one place - I would've loved to have stayed and enjoyed the moment, but the girls were on a more restricted budget than I, so we headed down to the super loud and trashy open-air discos on the beach. 

We didn't stay long, as there was a very plastic vibe, and the girls were getting annoyed by a couple of guys at one place - at first we thought they were hitting on them or trying to buy them a drink, but it turns out they were waiters and trying to pressure the girls into buying drinks from them, since they must get some type of commission.  Budva can be pretty tacky ... but it definitely has its charms and fun moments.

Balkan Chino Count:  4.  I saw another three at the hostel today, but aren't sure if they were the same ones as yesterday - we all look the same, after all!
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