Montenegro, at long last!

I’d wanted to visit Montenegro when my boys and I had been in Dubrovnik back in 2003. It was so close!…but I’d decided against making what, in essence, would have been little more than a toe-touch in the country. Now, finally, I was going back and we had 5 nights in Kotor to explore this mountainous country. I was thrilled.

The getting there from Belgrade was both easy and fun. Pre-boarding, we enjoyed the amenities of the airport Business Club courtesy of our Priority Pass membership (an AmEx Platinum perk). Once aloft, we flew over the rugged mountains I’d originally thought of crossing by train, enjoying the views…and convinced we’d made the right decision to skip the train. The Air Serbia flight between Belgrade and Tivat, Montenegro, was barely more than an hour and as pleasant and efficient as our Ljubljana to Belgrade flight had been (with yet another “$0” free meal). Eventually, the mountains gave way, but only somewhat, to a spectacular Adriatic coastline.

20160407_143732
The Montenegran coast on the approach to the Tivat airport

We landed in the tiny Tivat airport and were met, as promised, by Marijana, the driver sent by our AirBnB host. Marijana led us to her own, small cluttered car. On the short drive to Kotor, she told us that she was a divorced mother of young children. She was interested to her what we thought of Belgrade, having lived there herself for years with her Serbian ex-husband. In her estimation, it was a great city and she missed it, but her children liked Kotor and and the cost-of-living was lower for her in Montenegro.

In no more than 15 minutes, we parked beside a canal just across from the walls of the old city of Kotor. Our host, Bojan, owned two apartments he rented on AirBnB on the 3rd floor. He listed the 2 together on AirBnB which explained my confusion as to the orientation of some of the rooms I’d seen online. Both are nice, new 2-bedroom apartments with balconies facing the old town. (While the living rooms were stylish and well-appointed in each, both apartments also had spartan upstairs bedrooms with ceilings that sloped laughably low. Bojan had been clear about that though, so it was no surprise. Just funny as David, who had the inside side of the bed and to stoop his 6’3″ low and scuttle, crab-like around the end of the bed to get out.) We were given our choice of apartments since we were the first to arrive and were soon happily settled.

20160408_112941
The roofs of Kotor old town. (Our apartment was in the 4th building to the right of the tall, modern building just off-center in the photo.)
20160412_110732
Crazy-low sloping ceiling in our bedroom

Now late afternoon, we set out to explore the old town on foot and find somewhere to eat. Old Kotor is achingly picturesque and its setting like something from a fairy tale with fortress walls running the length of the mountain at its back and and a magnificent, fjord-like bay before it.

20160408_172854
Old Kotor with the fortress and walls on the mountain beyond

One of my favorite food memories from the two weeks I spent with my sons in Croatia all those years ago was of perfectly grilled squid in Trogir. Happily, we found a pretty outdoor restaurant in old Kotor with great little grilled squid and the potato and chard side dish we’d found to be a staple in Belgrade. The restaurant was touristy, but not obnoxiously so, and the view of the fortress on the mountain looming above us was particularly beautiful as sunset gave way to dark. Lit up along the length of its walls, the fortress lay like a string of gleaming pearls on the ridge of the mountain. And, one of the joys of traveling off-season, we had the place almost to ourselves. In Montenegro, squid soon came to be our go-to meal: always good and, surprisingly, nearly always the cheap option. What an awesome country!

20160407_192959
Delicious grilled squid dinner in Old Kotor

 

April 7, 2016

Arriving in Belgrade, Serbia

David and I were both curious about Belgrade and I had my nose pressed to the window as we landed at Nikola Tesla Airport. We flew in over a sprawling metroplex constrained by the Danube River to the north and bisected by its tributary, the Sava River. More familiar looking structures gave way to massive, uniform blocks of high-rise housing as we neared touchdown.

20160404_110916
Belgrade, Serbia, with the Danube in the distance and the Sava forking in the foreground
20160404_111021
Huge housing blocks as we approach Nikola Tesla Airport

Nikola Tesla Airport felt enormous after little Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport. It was modern and bustling…with working free wi-fi! While we waited for our luggage, I texted with our AirBnB hostess, Vesna, via WhatsApp (invaluable for travel, expecially since nearly every AirBnB host I’ve dealt with has an account) and she promised her husband would be waiting when our cab dropped us off.

20160404_113536
A bit of whimsy at Nikola Tesla baggage claim

The day outside was sunny and unseasonably warm. Our taxi drove past many big modern buildings housing international tech companies before we passed a huge 6-story white building with two wings embracing a lovely modern fountain centered in a wide paved plaza. Although the place was enormous, it seemed deserted. When I asked our cab driver, he explained it was the “former congress of Yugoslavia.” I later learned the building is known as the “Palata Srbija” or “Serbian Palace.” We were to see several more abandoned and underutilized former Yugoslavian buildings in Belgrade and Montenegro and hear that same sense of regret for the loss of former glory or perceived glory. Despite what we were taught in the U.S., Tito and his era remain popular with many people in the former Yugoslavia. No doubt many others there feel differently, but that positive sentiment and nostalgia is an undeniable fact and something I’d been surprised by when my sons and I were in Croatia and Bosnia in 2003.

The modern part of Belgrade yielded to the old as we crossed over the Sava River. We turned north, coming to Kalmegdan park on our left. I made a mental note to return to check out the vending stalls visible from the road along the main path. Past the stone wall of the Belgrade Zoo sporting tiles representing the animals within, our cab turned into a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood. The buildings were unremarkable, many marked with graffiti, and a few downright dilapidated. I’d deliberately chosen an AirBnB apartment in the old part of the city, and was reassured by Vesna’s assurance that it was a family area and she and her family had lived there before moving to a bigger apartment to accommodate their growing family. Still, I felt a twinge of concern. David is such a sport about going along with nearly everything I suggest on our travels that I didn’t want him to be disappointed in my choice of lodging.

As promised, Vesna’s husband, Zoran, was waiting for us. Zoran led us to the apartment, gave us a brief run down of the area, handed over the keys, took our passports to register with the government–promising to return them within the hour, and we were on our own.

After a quick trip to a nearby grocery store/deli, we decided to enjoy the beautiful weather by lunching the balcony. Prices at the store were wonderfully cheap and about $5 fed both of us well. With two schools nearby, children on the playgrounds made a happy background noise.

20160404_140210
Lunch on the balcony
20160404_190113
View of the neighborhood from the balcony. If you look closely, you’ll see David crossing the road on a later solo trip to the store.

After lunch, it was time to explore. We walked up the street shown above towards the Danube. We crossed a pedestrian bridge over a wide span of old railroad tracks that ended in the common area of an uninspiring apartment complex. Not exactly picturesque. Beyond the apartments we finally arrived at the wide expanse of the Danube. Two wide, paved walkways ran parallel to each other and the river separated by a wall to keep back rising waters. A lone fisherman stood on the bank while swans swam nearby. We passed a few others out for a stroll, including a family of 3, the father of which wore a t-shirt depicting the US flag being pissed upon by that impish little boy often seen on pickup trucks at home. Hmm. If this guy was any indication, we might not be too popular in these parts.

DSCF1267
Strolling past a fisherman on the Danube in Belgrade

With no shade in sight, it was getting uncomfortably warm. I’d guessed we could get to Kalmegdan Park via the riverside, but it was becoming obvious I’d underestimated the hike and the heat. When we reached a sports complex, we gratefully bought ice cold bottled water from a vendor and gulped it down before continuing on to the park and the welcome refuge of scattered shade trees.

20160404_171226
Kalmegdan Park with vendor stalls in the background

Many people were enjoying the park this sunny Monday afternoon. We wandered over to the vendors I’d spied from the taxi and found much of the things on sale to be Russia-themed: Soviet-era trinkets, t-shirts depicting Putin and the like. From the park, we continued our ramble to Kneza Mihaila, the main pedestrian shopping street of Belgrade.

20160404_173618
Kneza Mihaila, the main pedestrian shopping street of Belgrade
20160404_172823ret
Cafés along Kneza Mihaila

Starting to droop after our early morning, flight, miles-long walk and the heat, we made our way home via a quick stop at the National Theater to see if last-minute tickets might be available (often a great deal in Eastern Europe), but no luck. We opted for deli dinner at home, a big advantage of apartment over hotel. Sometimes even dinner out is more than we we’re up for.

 

 

Air Serbia from Ljubljana to Belgrade

Serbia hadn’t originally been part of our plans, but it caught my attention when I stumbled across a really intriguing-looking train ride from Belgrade/Beograd to the Montenegran coast (which was, along with Slovenia, on my must-go-there list for this trip). Although further research convinced me we would not like the train ride after all. Reviews described spectacular views, but also an 11-hour trip with the potential for hours more in the event of flooding, uncomfortable seats, filthy bathrooms. Nope, we’re too old and too addicted to at least a moderate level of comfort for that. But, in the meantime, Belgrade had caught my imagination.

I discovered relatively cheap, one-way, 1 hour 20 minute flights between Ljubljana and Belgrade on Air Serbia, a new airline for me, but interesting. As a bonus, Air Serbia has recently partnered with Etihad, so we could scoop up a few Etihad Guest points while we were at it.

We dropped off the rent car with Sixt at the Ljubljana airport and made our way through the uncrowded and efficient departure procedure. We had a minor hitch when I realize I’d read an outdated weight max online (Amateur mistake. Shame on me!), and we had to do some quick reshuffling to accommodate the wine that we’d thought was no issue. Air Serbia used to have an extremely generous baggage max, but has now fallen in line with most airlines at 23kg per checked bag in economy. Thankfully, the nice Air Serbia lady cut us some slack and we didn’t have to jettison the wine. Hooray!

Our 2nd hitch came as we went through security and discovered that David and forgotten to pack his very favorite Laguiole corkscrew. He hustled back to the nice lady, threw himself on her mercy, fibbed a little about it being a family heirloom, and convinced her to retrieve his suitcase so he could stash the corkscrew. That was the first time I’ve ever seen that happen! So, we left Ljubljana with one last impression of friendly people.

The Ljubljana airport is small, but modern, clean and comfortable. It was not at all crowded and we had a leisurely wait and boarding. We were bused out onto the tarmac for boarding.

20160404_091421
Ljubljana departures waiting area

20160404_094141

The flight itself was pleasant albeit a little cramped. The only oddity, but in a nice way, was the meal service. When I bought our tickets online, I was given the option of a meal for “$0.” Hmm. Seemed like it must be a mistake, given that the flight was so short, but I figured “What the heck?” and signed up. Sure enough, shortly into the flight, the attendant offered us two small sandwiches saying we’d pre-ordered a meal. Not fine dining, but appreciated nonetheless.

April 4, 2016