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The Leaving Journal

Beyond the "Wild Beauty"

MONTENEGRO | Sunday, 8 November 2015 | Views [392]

It felt unbalanced to post about Montenegro's glorious natural spaces without mentioning my experience with the cuisine, people and history, as these factors shape a place as much as geography, if not more.

It's worth mentioning the powerful factor of off season - many restaurants and shops were shuttered for the winter and I recognize that Montenegro's tourism industry hinges on warm-weather beaches and summertime parties. But, for all its natural beauty, Montenegro's cities were generally dilapidated. This manifested itself in the country's physical structures - dark, dingy stores and restaurants, piles of rubble and dusty construction sites - as well as the food. In almost every grocery store we entered in the country, the dairy products were expired, the potatoes were soft and sprouting, the greens were limp. I was expecting a European country where it was easy to travel comfortably on a shoestring budget. In reality, it's possible, but you're going to eat some crappy food. The seafood, a major staple of Montenegrin cuisine, was extremely pricey (more than 30 euros for a piece of fish) even in a cheap restaurant, and I never felt confident about the freshness of the catch.

We had two encounters with traditional dishes. Our first was a secret garden-esque restaurant hidden away on a creek in Kotor Bay, Konoba Catovica Mlini. It came highly recommended and we had a delicate fish stew and gritty-but-tasty mussels in garlic and white wine. This was the fresh, light, coastal fare I had expected to find easily and affordably in Montenegro, but this was the only seafood we ate for our entire trip. The food was decent, but it was the beautiful grounds - with waterfalls, Japanese bridges and flocks of geese waddling around - that made the restaurant worth seeking out.

The other culinary tradition in Montenegro is that of the mountains: a more hefty, meat-focused menu. At Kole in Cetinje, we decided to commit to the experience and ordered razanj, a traditionally spit-roasted meat stuffed with ham and cheese, and fritters. We got exactly what we ordered, but its hard to imagine meat stuffed with meat and cheese and fried in bread and topped with more cheese until you're actually looking at it. While the flavors were savory and not unpleasant, the meal was exhausting.

The derelict infrastructure and lack of access to fresh food piqued my curiosity about the country's history and its role in the current state of affairs. It's a turbulent history shaped by recent war, civil unrest, isolation and resistance. Tourism in Montenegro came to a halt as a result of the Yugoslav wars in the 90s and it wasn't until after Montenegro gained independence from Serbia in 2006 that the tourism industry began to recover. While that was nearly a decade ago, these relatively recent upheavals must contribute to the country's hard-to-pin ambience. Montenegro lies somewhere between the developing world and the developed, where sprawling, five-star resorts neighbor ramshackle piles of stone.

Inserting oneself into this country's permeating cafe culture for a few hours, it becomes clear that Montenegrin people deeply value their appearance. Perhaps this stands out to me as an American, where most cities outside of New York and LA have very little in the way of style, but people took great care with every detail of how they looked. I particularly noticed the women: thin and tall, with manicured nails, perfectly coiffed hair, full make-up, and tight-fitting (but not revealing) clothes. The men clearly hadn't rolled out of bed, either, though I found the "gym rat" aesthetic of sweat suits, gelled hair and bulging muscles to be rather unappealing. More important than my personal taste, though, was what this reflected to me about these people: despite the ruin around them, they carry themselves with pride. (Or maybe I'm just being shallow and focusing too heavily on physical appearance because I've been socially groomed to do so.)

There is something fascinating about the dichotomy of beautiful people and geography with disappointing food and neglected infrastructure. Montenegro made me think, which is more than I can say about many places I've traveled. Personally, I'll gladly tolerate the minor let-downs in favor of experiencing the country's "wild beauty" free of the crowds that descend in peak season.

Tags: cuisine, culture, food, history, montenegro, people

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