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New York Times: Savings by the Sea (for Now) in Montenegro

Published date: 28.06.2006 16:51 | Author: Kliping inostranih medija

Ispis Print

The World Cup match had hit a lull. Neither Argentina nor Serbia and Montenegro was able to penetrate the other's territory, and the crowd at Scorpio, an outdoor bar in the seaside Montenegrin town of Kotor, had started to discuss other subjects: real estate, girls, local hip-hop. I was beginning to understand why Americans are not big soccer fans. Then, out of nowhere, the ball skipped into the air and a player flew after it, one Adidas-clad foot extended. Goal!

The applause echoed off the white stone walls of this medieval town, wedged between a fortress-crowned mountain and a pristine fjordlike bay. For a moment, I was shocked. The dozen Montenegrin guys drinking 1.50-euro Nik beers at Scorpio were cheering not for their home team but for their apparent opponents, Argentina.

Actually, it wasn't their home team, they explained: Of the 11 players on the Serbia and Montenegro team, only two were from Montenegro and one was on the bench. To ever-louder hoots from the men of Kotor, Argentina ended up winning the game with a humiliating 6-0 lead. The losers that day weren't Montenegrins, but the Serbs.
So it goes in Montenegro, the latest stop on my high-style, low-budget trip around the globe. This country of 600,000 might have been a mere way station, a pause on my southward leg from Croatia to Albania. But on May 21, its citizens voted for independence from Serbia, thus dissolving the last remnants of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. How could I skip the world's newest nation, especially when because of decades of underdevelopment and wartime sanctions Montenegro was reputed to be significantly cheaper than its northern neighbor?
From Dubrovnik, Croatia, where I spent two brief but happy days, I took a two-hour bus (99 Croatian kuna, or about $17) along the dramatic coastal highway to Perast, a tidy town on the Bay of Kotor, a Unesco-protected fjord. Why Perast? Because it's gorgeous the Newport, R.I., of Montenegro. The waterfront is lined with stately Venetian-style palaces and old merchant homes built by wealthy sea captains. The scene is intimate and proud, with a whiff of nostalgia for a once-glorious era when Peter the Great would send his officers to the maritime academy here.
But most important, Perast had Vladimir Bulatovic.
Vladimir or Vlatko, as everyone calls him is one of only about eight Montenegrins on, a Web site that allows members to offer their sofas, floors and spare bedrooms to like-minded travelers. A restaurateur in his late 30's, Vlatko has the slightly crazed look of a man besieged by errands and chores, but utterly delighted to be juggling them. (And like many younger Montenegrins, he speaks English fluently, or at least enthusiastically.)
His four-year-old restaurant, Otok Bronza, on the only road in Perast (no phone), serves seafood from the cool and cozy ground floor of a 15th-century house. I dined there on my first night in Montenegro, savoring a hearty pork-and-bean soup known as pasulj, as Vlatko told me of abandoned villages high up in the nearby mountains, and his dream of touring Europe by motorcycle with his wife. Plus, when you make friends with a restaurant owner, dinner is always free. (And no, dear reader, he didn't know I was a writer.)
But his spare room, it turned out, was occupied by his mother, so Vlatko took me down the road to his friends George and Milinko, who were gracious enough to rent me a small, clean bedroom in their stone house for the astounding price of 8 euros a night, or about $10.
The rate was no fluke. Everywhere I went in Montenegro, I found prices that were much lower than in Croatia. Rooms rarely topped 10 euros, cybercafes were a euro an hour and the Grilled Fish Index my preferred measure of a country's expense dropped to 30 euros a kilo, from 45 euros in Croatia.
Affordable Montenegro will not, however, be around much longer. Unlike Croatia, this country is small, and the future of its beautiful beaches and wild hills seems to include only luxury travelers. Amanresorts has won the right to operate the entire island of Sveti Stefan as a hotel, and other five-star properties are going up along the coast.
Independence is only accelerating a process that began in 2003, when Montenegro began formalizing its own economic and political goals separately from Serbia's. The country adopted the euro as its currency, even though it's not a part of the European Union. It defined itself in part as an "ecological" state, dedicated to preserving its natural environment the biggest draw for tourists. Even Serbs I spoke with agreed: Montenegro has been independent for quite some time.
The crackle of change is in the air, from the laughter of two guys joking about the country's sunny outlook ("What's new?" "New country! Ha!"), to the whirr of buzz saws outside your window in the morning. The country's infrastructure is undergoing massive expansion and improvement: Roads are being widened, treacherous switchbacks are getting guardrails, and freshly dug tunnels are cutting travel times by an hour or more. (The police are also cracking down on drunk driving.)
All of which is a little strange in a country that prides itself on being lazy. "Man has trouble being born," according to one local saying, "and should spend the rest of his life relaxing." Yet everyone I met, from Vlatko to the guys talking real estate at the soccer bar, kept one eye on business and one ear on the cellphone.