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Montenegro: One of Europe's Hidden Gems

When telling friends and family we were headed to Montenegro, many people told us they either hadn’t heard of the country, or had to check google maps to see exactly where in Europe it was. While I had heard of the country, thanks in part to the 6-0 win for Argentina over Serbia and Montenegro at the 2006 World Cup in Argentina (the two countries were joined in political union at the time before Montenegro voted for independence that same year), I did not know much about the nation’s history, its people, food, or wine. What we got was better than our wildest dreams as we discovered a tiny and relatively poor country with a rich and proud history and immensely diverse natural beauty. The food, wine, and tourism industries are burgeoning thanks to a population who opened their arms and homes to us with the most sincere warmth and hospitality.

So what is Montenegro and who are the Montengrins? As mentioned above, just 15 years ago Montenegro and Serbia were in Union and there is still a strong link between these two predominantly Serb Orthodox countries. In fact, history and local legend tells us that many of the original Montenegrins were Serbs who fled to the mountains after the disastrous defeat inflicted on Serbia by the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Around this time, Venetian sailors started calling the region beyond the Bay of Kotor Montenegro, or black mountain, after Mount Lovćen and the other mountains surrounding it. Overtime, Montenegro has gained national pride for its resistance to Muslim Ottoman rule and its fighting spirit. Somehow, this tiny nation with a population of only 650,000 today has always had a larger part to play in European affairs than so small a nation would normally hope to play.

The first stop for any tourist heading to Montenegro south from Croatia is the Bay of Kotor, beautifully set between mountains so that it resembles a lake.There are many important settlements on the Bay, but the three most important and interesting are Herceg Novi, Perast, and Kotor itself. The best way to see the bay and the various settlements scattered intermittently along the water is by boat.

We began our journey in Montenegro in Perast, where we quickly learned that the coffee culture in Montenegro is much like that of Croatia. Cafes line the water in Perast where at 11 am we saw locals and tourists alike ordering coffee, most often with delicious pastries and cake, the perfect mid-morning snack for sweet lovers.

On the whole, the architectural remnants of communism are far more prevalent in Montenegro than in Croatia, but around the Bay of Kotor, much like the Dalmatian Coast, it is the Venetian legacy that looms larger despite the passage of centuries.

Kotor itself is a walled town that we heard a few locals describe as a smaller version of Dubrovnik. While there are various super yachts docked outside the city, inside the town holds much of its medieval Venetian charm and the winged Venetian Lion can be seen throughout it. The walls are quite impressive and rise into the mountains, a daunting task to conquer for would-be invaders that threatened the town over the centuries.

Like Croatia, the coastal towns rely heavily on seafood, and restaurants always offer the freshest catch, tuna tartare, octopus salad, and fresh fish baked with vegetables. The wine offerings in this small country are not as plentiful as other former Yugoslav Republics, but are more than worth tasting. Chardonnay is the leading white varietal and is sometimes called Sardone. Montenegrin Chardonnay is not like your typical oaky, Napa version, as it is far crisper and perfect for a hot summer’s day while snacking on seafood.

Herceg Novi is a town certainly worth visiting for those interested in history or if you just want a good meal with a view of the water. Konoba Feral is probably the most popular restaurant in the old town, so make a reservation if you plan to go. We had the most fantastic octopus salad of our trip (and believe me, we had a lot of octopus salad!) and a sensational scorpion fish drenched in olive oil. The service was top class as were the views of the water. Locals walking by on the adjacent promenade make for great people-watching.

The interior of the country, known as “Old Montenegro,” features a completely different geographical and culinary component than the coastal region on the Bay of Kotor. These people who live here pride themselves on being the original Montenegrins: Serbs who fought the Ottoman Turks at Kosovo before fleeing into the mountains and continuing the resistance to Muslim rule. The Montenegrin identity is confusing to foreigners as its origins are closely linked to Serbian and Slavic identity. The great Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Petar II, normally referred to as Njegos, the place of his birth, wrote what is probably the most important piece of literature in the Serbian language, The Mountain Wreath. This epic poem has influenced Serbian nationalists, for better or for worse, since it was written in 1846. The Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on 28 June 1914 (often called the spark that started the fire that was World War I), could recite large parts of the poem by heart. Serbian and Montenegrin leaders during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s also sited the poem as a major influence.

No trip to Montenegro is complete without a trip up Mount Lovcen, the country’s namesake. After driving up the steep, winding, one-lane road, climb over 400 steps to the mausoleum of Petar II, Njegos. As strange as it may seem, the mausoleum, tomb, and statue (by Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrović), were built during the communist era by the communist government. Surely, a hereditary Prince-Bishop would be the last man communism would want to glorify, no? Njegos’s importance in the forging of Serb identity certainly outweighed any monarchical sentimentality the monument could arouse in the population.

The food in this part of the country is centered more around meat, especially lamb and beef. We were lucky enough to be invited to the home of Nikola Martinović for an amazing, authentic Montenegrin lunch. The traditional opening snack in Montenegro are priganice. small round balls of dough, dipped in honey that were to die for. Nikola then treated us to his homemade brandy. While some brandy can be very strong and harsh on the throat, especially at lunch, Nikola’s blackberry brandy was smooth and sweet. At only 16% alcohol, it reminded me much more of Port or a late-harvest wine than other brandies.

The second course, with a second glass of brandy of course, was a massive plate of Montenegro’s version of prosciutto and smoked local cheeses. As is to be expected in any European country with a long tradition of great food, a basket of freshly baked bread accompanied the charcuterie board.

Foolishly, I thought the meat and cheese plate was the main course and was nearly full of the splendid smoked ham when Nikola’s sister Slavica, our chef for the day, arrived with a sensational vegetable soup. The last course took the top prize as she brought us local lamb and veal accompanied with some of the best potatoes we have ever had, soaked in the meat broth and red wine sauce. All the while Nikola and Slavica supplied us with brandy, mead, wine, and stories of their families thousand-year history in Montenegro. One of his ancestors had been the standard bearer against the Ottoman Empire. The room where we ate, made of stone in the basement of his house, was decorated with swords, flags, traditional dress, and other fascinating pieces of Montenegrin memorabilia.

Not far from Nikola’s home is Cetinje, the historic and royal capital of Montenegro. It was here that the Montenegrin forces would rally to the banners to fight the invading Turks. It was also here that Montenegro’s only King, Nikola I, constructed a new royal palace. King Nikola is a man I became more fascinated by the more our fantastic guide Miroslav told us of him. As a Prince, Nikola helped gain the sympathies of the great British statesman William Ewart Gladstone, who championed the Montenegrin cause against tyrannical Ottoman Turk rule in the House of Commons.

At the Berlin conference of 1878, the Europe’s great leaders, including the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark and British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, met to determine the “Eastern Question.” Montenegro was granted its recognition at long last as an independent principality, thanks in large part to the insistence of Prince Nikola. How did this prince from an obscure mountainous region get his country onto Europe’s biggest stage? He was friendly with the likes of the French Emperor Napoleon III and the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II. He was even able to marry his daughter Elena to Vittorio Emmanuelle, who would be King of Italy, making his daughter Queen. Two of his other daughters married Russian Archdukes.

In 1910, after writing to the Tsar, Nikola gave himself a promotion to King and declared Montenegro a Kingdom. Sadly for Nikola and his wife Queen Milena, they had to flee into exile in France when Montenegro was overrun by Habsburg troops during World War I. After the war, Montenegro lost its independence and was absorbed into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovens under the Serbian King Petar I (governed by the Regent Alexander as Petar was incapacitated. Alexander would ascend the throne in his own right from 1921). The Royal Palace, untouched by communism, remains a source of pride for Montenegrins as the home of the man who first gave them independence. The palace, though modest if you’re expecting Buckingham Palace, is filled with military uniforms and paraphernalia. The walls feature family portraits along with those of King Nikola’s powerful friends, like Tsar Nicholas II (see below).

The biggest wine producer in Montenegro by a wide margin is Plantaže, meaning plantation in the local tongue. At first glance, Plantaže is not the place you’d expect to find interesting wines or new and innovating winemakers and techniques. It seems the kind of place whose wines one might prefer to avoid. The company is 54% state owned, it has the biggest vineyard in a single complex in Europe of 2,300 hectares of vines, and produces 22 million kilos of grapes. While the idea of mass-produced wines in such enormous quantities makes small wine producers cringe a bit, Plantaže is a must-visit for any wine lover visiting the Balkan region.

The curiosity of having the largest vineyard in Europe is certainly noteworthy and an attraction for visitors, but the facility inside a secret, old Yugoslav airport and hangar, used as recently as the Yugoslavia Civil War in the 1990s, is undoubtedly the most distinct and unforgettable wine cellar I have visited. Šipčanik, as it is known, was partially destroyed during the Nato bombings in 1999 and was abandoned until Plantaže took over and transformed it.

The barrels and metal vats seem to go on infinitely down the old hangar. The tasting room, where we were given a beautiful meat and cheese plate to go with four wines, made us feel as though we were in a bunker preparing for battle. The room had more similarities to Churchill’s War Rooms in London than any other wine tasting room I’ve been in. The wines themselves were surprisingly good and diverse. They do mass produce Chardonnay, a local white grape called Krstač, and the local favorite red wine of Vranac, an intense and powerful varietal. They also have premium, ultra premium, and a special Selection label for the very best. One of our favorites was a blend of Vranac, Petite Verdot, Merlot, a bit of Bordeaux just outside Podgorica, Montenegro. Plantaže also produces their own brandy and olive oil to go along with an 86-hectare peach plantation.

Certainly, after visiting such a massive, almost factory-like winery such as Plantaže, we wanted to see that there were small, independent winemakers and producers willing to take on the partially state-owned giant. Just a short drive through the capital of Podgorica (a city Miroslav assured us offers nothing for tourists, and after seeing communist-era apartment buildings from the highway, we agreed) takes us to Radevic Estate Wines.

Radevic may have been the highlight of our time in Montenegro as we drove through the gates into a newly-constructed complex owned by Goran Radevic and his American born wife, Renée. Born in Montenegro, Goran was a doctor in his previous life working far and wide from the USA, to the Cayman Islands, to China. After marrying Renée, Goran fulfilled his life long dream of making wine in his homeland. At the top of the hill sits the family's home, while at the bottom of the driveway, made from the same type of stone, sit the winery and wine shop.

Goran himself gave us a tour of the winery, sharing with us his vision and dreams for the place as we went. After the tour, Goran joined us for the wine tasting in a beautiful wine cellar made of brick (see above) that came with, as you can probably guess, a meat and cheese plate, prepared by Goran’s daughter, and bread. We enjoyed all the wines, from the dry Chardonnay to the Vranac and Goran’s personal favorite, the Syrah, which we bought because it was good. Goran spoiled us by giving us a taste of his desert wine, made in the Port style, his brandy, and even Cognac. All the while Goran chatted with us about wine, politics, history, travel, and sports. I cannot recommend a trip to Goran’s Estate enough on visiting Montenegro. His personal touch, along with the fantastic wines, made the place truly remarkable.

The final piece to the geographic jigsaw puzzle that is Montenegro is Lake Skadar, located far to the south and straddling the border with Albania. Once an immensely important strategic point for the Montenegrins in the life and death struggle with the Ottoman Empire, today Skadar is packed with tourists waiting to board a boat to cruise through the waterlilies.

Our boat ride, like almost everything in Montenegro, was accompanied by plenty of food and drink. While the red wine, homemade local Vranac, was tasty and easy to drink, the homemade brandy at nearly 50% alcohol, not so much. Again we were supplied with the famous Montenegrin doughnuts and honey, followed by smoked fish, caught in the lake, and cheese.

With so much to see, this small country should be at the top of every traveler's list. The size makes everything accessible by car, or by boat, and day trips are easily made from the south to Skadar to the Bay of Kotor in one day. As hospitality, food, and wine continue to grow, Montenegro is poised to become a more popular tourist destination in the years to come. Few places are more deserving.


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