Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro
I blink a few times and squint… is the fellow walking on air?! The vast space dances in light from above reflecting the gold of saintly objects and diamond luster of marble giving the uncanny illusion of the man’s feet not touching the floor.
Rick and I are inside the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Podgorica, after much time appreciating the exterior of white stone with brilliant gold crosses rising into the azure sky. Construction of this Orthodox house of worship began in 1993, competed 20 years later. Of the 17 bells in the loft, the heaviest weighs in at around eleven tons, and is the largest bell in the Balkans!
It is our second day in this amazing city and we are love-struck! Our Alexandar Lux Hotel is perfect to strike out from, being on the pedestrian-only street with many café choices, and a nearby supermarket for in-room dining after a long day of sightseeing.
We learn the name Podgorica (meaning – under the small hill) was coined in the early 1300’s from the town’s hovering Gorica Hill. It became the choice city to be called “Titograd” (in honour of Josip Broz Tito) from 1946 to1992, when the country was part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
This city’s setting at the confluence of the Ribnica and Moraca Rivers is post-card scenic. One of the most eye-catching structures is the Millennium Bridge spanning the Moraca. Its 140-metre-length and 57-metre pillar rising above the roadway has Rick dashing about to capture it from a dozen angles.
On our walk-a-bouts, we note the popularity of Renaults in passing vehicles – old ones, new ones, plain and deluxe ones. We also become attuned to the large number of Casinos; one might say the amount seems “flush” for the size of the city.
The Capital Plaza is a neat find. This chic new complex of condos and shops has a lower level café under a glass dome where we sip cappuccinos and share a gargantuan sandwich for a mere 2.5Euros ($3.50Cad).
“How out of place is that!” I blurt at the sight of a sizable dull grey un-kept building across the street from the ultra-modern plaza. It behooves investigation. We climb decrepit stone steps with weeds sprouting from cracks to the structure at the top with mildew clinging to its concrete surface. Looking down the building’s side from this vantage point, our curiosity is peaked seeing well-dressed people entering and exiting a doorway – so down we go.
“This is the state owned Montenegro Radio and Television, shabby on the outside but re-done inside,” says a distinguished looking gentleman, who takes us for a mini-tour of stellar renovations. Who would have thought?
“What? Not again…this appears closed,” I say as we approach the small museum that was once the Royal Palace of King Nikola I Petrovic. The pink edifice has boarded-up windows and overgrown grounds. It’s a déjà vu moment when around the building’s other side is an open door. Inside we glimpse elegant rooms once enjoyed by royalty; the walls now displaying creations by local artists.
Another day we serendipitously run into a large enclosed market siding the Mall of Montenegro. Standing beside the heaps of plate-sized tomatoes, watermelon that would require assistance to carry out, and other such oversized items, I feel like a shrunken Alice. We pass a meat section with butchers furiously a-chopping. Cheese and more cheese – vendors cut slabs right out of the fermentation barrels…how fresh is that?
Ostrog Monastery Complex – Montenegro
Ostrog Monastery, 50 kilometers north-west of Podgorica, is our first day-trip. Our driver Goran was arranged by our hotel, and although his English is limited, he has been transporting visitors to this monastery forever – and why are we not surprised when his vehicle is an old Renault?
I go over my fact sheet as we breeze along. This Orthodox Monastery/Cave-Church was founded in the 17th century by a Serbian bishop, who died in 1671, was later canonized as Saint Basil and to whom the monastery is dedicated. The present look of the monastery complex dates back to 1923-1926, after a massive fire destroyed much of the complex. Two enclaves with 17th century frescos survived the blaze, and also remained untouched during attacks by the Turkish army in their attempts to quash the Saint’s popularity.
After passing through the village of Danilovgrad elevation continually increases, the last several kilometers are harrowing with a narrow road and hair-pin curves. We by-pass what is known as the “lower” monastery and drive to the “upper” monastery parking lot, where we leave the Renault.
Goran leads the way up the multitude of stone steps until my thighs feel wobbly….finally – the arch of the monastery entrance. What?..a small parking lot at this level!…but on second thought, we would not have missed this climb in the footsteps of pilgrims.
Just inside the monastery entrance Goran steers us towards taps where people splash water on their faces, and some drink from filled hands or a receptacle they have brought along. We refrain from the latter, but do let this blessed water flow over our hands.
The grounds are getting busier by the minute. Goran motions to hasten past the long structure with windows containing monk cells and shops to buy holy oil and candles for offerings and such…I’ll be back.
We join the queue to the cave-church, the focus of all who are here. The white façade clings perilously from the vertical cliff face; an enlightening spirit against darkness. Stories abound of miracles that have occurred here. The line inches along, the sun beats down, people coming down pass on one side, many filled with emotion.
It is our turn to enter the cave where Saint Basil’s relics are enshrined. His remains, said to be incorrupt, are respectfully cloaked in rich brocade material. The legend is that upon the saint’s death his body was buried under the church for ten years, at which time the-then-Abbot of the nearby St Luke Monastery had a reoccurring dream instructing him to open the tomb. This was done in the accompaniment of church superiors; wherein the body was found completely intact, yellow as wax and scented with sweet basil – from which his saintly name was derived.
From this small enclave we enter the main church cave and are taken-a-back at how deep it extends into the rock. A series of steps brings us to different levels decorated with faded frescos. On the wall of a corner balcony that overlooks the valley is one of Saint Basil lying in deathly repose; a grape vine grows out of the rock above where it should not rightly be able to thrive. We leave enriched by this wondrous historic and sacred place.
The Town of Kotor – Montenegro
Once inside the walls (built between the 12th and 14th centuries) we meander through a labyrinth of cobblestone streets with several Romanesque churches, old stone shops and eateries that once served ancient traders and sailors – and that now cater to visitors with souvenir shops and restaurants, with a few hotels thrown in.
Best are hidden pockets – the upward-angled narrow alleys of well-worn stone stairs the sun never reaches, the walls of buildings alongside taken over by dampness and moss – giving off a slight odour of mold. We linger until the time of the last bus back to Podgorica – our enjoyment so great we did not want to leave.
Back in Podgorica birthday celebrating is in order for “moi” with a long, leisurely walk in glorious sunshine, a surprise “home-made” cake and red rose from our awesome hotel staff, and a traditional supper at Pod Valet. This small restaurant in the oldest section of town near the clock tower is village-style and decorated in red tapestries and other-era vessels and utensils.
“What is the most traditional dish in Montenegro?” I ask. “Meat, under the dome”, says our waiter. Our puzzled look brings on a grin and a wave to follow him. Out back and a few steps across to a shed-like structure he lifts dome-shaped covers off a sizzling flat black grill, stoked underneath by charcoal – a delicious aroma wafts out – lamb, chicken and goat (I think) with potatoes and spices – we are sold! We combine this with a variety tray of cheeses, puffy rounds of bread, and Niksicko pivo (a local beer) and feast away – for a mere 24 Euro!
Our time in Podgorica and our Montenegro day-trips were a delight in every way…we leave with great memories.
More Montenegro Information:
– Podgorica, Montenegro – is a stop-over for visitors who are after adrenaline sports or beaches/resorts. Mountaineers, serious hikers, rafters flock here heading for a National Park (of which there are 5).
– Beaches/resorts of Montenegro line the shores of the villages/towns along the Adriatic Sea. Off the coast of a village named Sveti Stephan is an island paradise with villas/resorts for the rich and famous, many Hollywood stars (accommodations range from 1,000 € to 5,000 € per night).