Podgorica – feeling of Montenegro culture in modern world
Podgorica (which means “under a small hill”) is a place that doesn’t pretend to be anything, for example, a ‘cool western metropolis’, to attract tourists. It is as it is – a small, cozy capital with friendly and warm-hearted citizens because it’s the way they are and not because you’re an outsider. And ‘tourist’ places aren’t the best that Podgorica can offer. There is some melancholic beauty in this place which you can only discover by passing the streets in silence, not being disturbed by loud groups of rushing people.
When we decided to celebrate the New Year’s Eve 2017 with our friends in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, I must admit, I was a bit skeptical. My first thought was “taking the size (220 thousand inhabitants) into consideration, we are going to be done with sightseeing in just a few hours”. The second thought (thankfully) was more optimistic: “but, in that case, we’re going to have more time to taste Montenegro wine”.
When we arrived at Podgorica in the early afternoon, it was a tremendous change for us when compared to our home in Berlin. First, it was sunny (it is something unusual to see sunlight in Berlin in the winter). Second, there was no rush in the city. We saw few passers-by on the cozy streets. Most of the stores were closed at that time, except cafés and some liquor shops (which we did visit to buy some local drinks). In the market square, a concert stage was being built for the New Year’s Eve party the day after. Children were splashing water flowing from the fountain, and despite chilly temperatures, there were green palm trees growing out of the concrete streets. After fast-paced Berlin, these scenes almost seemed to happen in slow motion to us.
After a short walk, we found a café that looked promising. Even though there was not enough space for a group of 7 people, waiters moved tables to make it possible for us to sit together – a good first impression. The second good impression was the food – the portions were almost impossible to finish in one sitting, and everything was fairly priced. The café was crowded and the modern Balkan music was playing from the TV hanging over the bar.
As we discovered later, this kind of electronic music was something unique to this region. In almost every bar and restaurant we went through, there was at least one TV where you could watch video clips with all beautiful, sometimes half-naked women dancing to the rhythm of modern electro music, sometimes mixed with folk sounds. A combination that’s hard to describe unless you’ve heard it yourself. Despite my feminism protesting in my head (“why must the women be naked?”), there was something charming in those sounds that followed us everywhere. Nowhere before could I observe such lack of popular international music and focus on the local bands.
If one is a fan of Balkan cuisine and is not vegetarian, Podgorica is paradise. The most common meat dishes we tried were Ćevapi, Pljeskavica (a local hamburger), and Ražnjići, which you can get in many restaurants, but also as street food. Basically, everything that had meat in it was on the menu. Apart from that, we discovered another variation of ‘cheese on top’ – Njeguški sir – cheese kept in oil. These dishes went very well with Montenegrin white and red wine from the Vranac grape – an ancient kind of grape typical for Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro, which is grown mostly in Montenegro, in regions around Podgorica.
We had two days to walk around. The clear blue sky allowed us to see the Gorica Hill overlooking the city (which gave the city its name). You could draw your own conclusions about the name of Montenegro (“black mountain”), as the capital actually lays in a flat area. Podgorica is surrounded by two rivers: Morača and Ribnica. The first one stretches over a valley in the middle of the city, and it was a pleasant experience to take a walk along its turquoise-green water, which contrasted with the white stones covering its shores.
The architecture of Podgorica is also not easy to describe. It is marked by changing regimes. The oldest part of the city is not like in other towns. It is almost purely a residential area with old houses and narrow streets. The times of Ottoman Empire also left a mark on this place – we found two mosques and a picturesque clock tower there. It was such a distinct experience for us to compare it to the place we stayed in Nova Varoš (“new town”), where the streets were as wide as other European cities.
During World War II, Podgorica was almost razed to the ground and was built as a Yugoslavian city in the communistic bloc (the city was then called “Titograd” – in the name of Josif Brod Tito, the president of Yugoslavia). Those blocks of flats were typical for this time and were painted in bright colors in many places, which gave the city a more vivid look. From the 90’s onward, the urban revolution began, and the new steel and glass buildings were erected. This was also a time when the Millennium Bridge and the orthodox church Hristovog Vaskrsenja were built and became the main landmarks of contemporary Podgorica.
Another example of this steel and glass trend in Podgorica is George Washington street, which is a must-go for a unique experience. Nico and I went there during the day and were the only people passing by the luxurious but empty shops like Emporio Armani, Max Mara, and others. A playlist of American Christmas songs was playing from the speakers and seemed to start the moment we approached those buildings. Then, suddenly, after a few more steps away from this street, we were surrounded by people walking slowly to office buildings around or to a favorite restaurant.
This is how I could sum up the experience of Podgorica: a city that is unique and confident in its culture, where local music, food, and genuine friendliness takes over widely spread western pop-culture. This doesn’t mean that we had culture shock, there is much from Europe in this place. You could also feel safe and comfortable in every part of the city. What I mean is, the trust and praise of their own traditions spread so much into modern reality, that it became a firm part of it. Those traditions are not only historical, as in many western countries; they are alive and growing into new forms, adapting to the modern world around.