Which would you rather have, an illicit affair or some porridge?
You’ll want to have your answer handy if you’re visiting Montenegro, because the same word – kačamak – can mean both. Hasty explanations may be needed.
Then again, there is a third meaning: sneaking off to cool off for a bit. Nothing big, nothing crazy, just a few hours to go away. That’s exactly what a weekend in the country’s capital, Podgorica, offers. It is not big, it is not buzzing, it is not beautiful – blimey, it is not even the main attraction of Montenegro; That’s the Unesco-listed town of Kotor, 55 miles away on the coast – but it’s a great little help kačamak fly just £15 away.
That flight ends, spectacularly, in a vineyard. The Šipčanik winery surrounds the airport on three sides (apparently the largest single vineyard in Europe, with vines that would reach Chicago if needlessly laid out one after the other). I’m usually wary of tours and tastings – blah blah ripe berry notes blah minerality in the soil blah – but this trip 20 minutes from town is well worth it as the cellar is an unexpected 350 meter long tunnel under a mountain.
I was about to say that it looked like a Bond villain flag – complete with busy fork-lift trucks and beavering wax types in hard hats – but the Yugoslavians beat me to it for a couple of decades: they turned out to use it as a top- . a secret bunker storing 27 fighter planes. The tastings are generous, too (although the sommelier even defies the “ripe berry” brigade at one point, by recommending “almost non-existent flavor” with one wine).
Hitting the city centre, there’s a surprisingly short list of sights to tick off before re-indulging in the liquid local product. My guide takes me to one museum/gallery, the confusingly named Podgorica (old.pgmuzeji.me), and we spend the rest of the afternoon merrily pottering around the old Ottoman town, crumbling fortress and 15th century picnics. – flecked pebble-beach small river banks, scrumming the juicy pomegranates and date-like košćela that grows everywhere.
The highlight of the museum is the brightness, a one-string country instrument that I ask for a demonstration of, because my side wants to laugh patronisingly at the smallest musical instrument ever. Then my guide plays for me some brightness on his phone – and it’s the most hypnotically haunting sound I’ve heard in years.
Things get even happier when I walk alone towards the leafy, secluded Gorica Forest Park – but I pull into St. George’s Church, at its entrance. It is 6.30pm on a Friday, and from the open doors escape mixed incense and glowing – inside is the appearance of Richard Osman with the beard of Rowan Williams and long black robes singing out melancholy, mystical answers and the faithful cross. themselves every few seconds.
The atmosphere is so heady that it seems that I am dreaming, and I can hardly drag myself out. When I do, my feet strangely seem to carry me – without any intention on my part – to another Serbian Orthodox center. The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, 20 years in the building, was consecrated in 2013, but inside it could be in the 1600s: every inch is covered with Byzantine gold and murals of sad-eyed saints or end-browed Orthodox patriarchs.
In one app, Tito, Marx and Engels burn in Hell; in another case, some children seem to do the same; third, Leviathan inexplicably consumes several saints. In the middle, under a gold-worked chandelier so intricate it looks like it could transport you to another dimension if you stand under it, a scrum of people waits to be blessed by another big bearded man only this time he has a big cloak.
They kiss his hand, kiss a few icons, cry … and the whole thing is tinglingly strange and atmospheric and moving that I’m almost into the queue, infidel though I am.
Instead, I walk down Njegoševa, which I refer to in my head as the Boulevard of Broken Diets – for a mile or so the pattern of businesses is bar, bar, pizzeria, bar, bar, steakhouse, bar, bar and repeat. .
They are all great, but the next day is even better. Within an hour’s drive away – over thickly forested mountains, and with a stop for a slow boat pootle on sparkling Lake Skadar at Virpazar – is Sveti Stefan. You’ll recognize it as soon as you do: it’s where the Aman resorts have turned a small fishing village on a causeway into an absurdly luxe hotel (€200 not a room for you, but two seats for the day).
A five-minute walk around the headland, however, takes you to the equally exquisite public beach (with free lounges!) at Przno, where shelves of smooth shingle undulate into perfectly aquamarine waters, still quite warm in autumn. . Behind it is a row of canabas – traditional pubs serving seafood and wine as great as anything you’d find in Italy, just a few miles across from the Adriatic.
I watch the sunset, collect myself a doggy bag and a bottle, and board my 9.05pm flight back to Stansted – kačamaked up to my eyes.
There’s an artistic enclave too small to have a name but it’s disobediently directed by a detour but centered on a converted hammam (ask the locals for the old Turkish women’s baths) near King’s Park. Itaka’s Library Bar is the hub – three narrow floors of the Hammam’s minaret and a fairy star-like courtyard, serving craft beers and great cocktails – but there’s also a bookshop and a cool art space.
A must-see sight
2013’s bonkers Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ seems to have a number of scattered temples: Eastern domes, Roman spiers, the bottom half of rough rock and small, detailed statues on the top half. And then things get Seriously strange when you go inside (see main story).
A signature dish
Meat. Podgorica is a carnival for carnivores, but it’s the dish that the locals love most papak: roast beef rolled in eggy batter coat and fried until it is crispy but still bleeds beef juices to the handle of your fork. An example is – along with a dozen other types of meat-based food – in the Pod Volat restaurant on Stara Varoš square. If you head to the Italian-influenced Sveti Stefan, think squid, prawns, Swiss chard and pasta; try them at Konoba Langust on Przno beach.
Kseniya Cicvarić is the Rihanna of Montenegro – if Rihanna was a country singer born in 1927. In fact the only parallel is that Ksenija was famous enough – in Montenegro – to go by just her first name, and it is in by far the most famous daughter of Podgorica.
Technically, as the country’s capital, London is the UK’s twin Podgorica – but good luck finding a Tube station in Poddy G. Instead, think: Crazy cathedral, art without sophistication, serious drinking culture, underrated beaches nearby , no famous sons or daughters – anyone really goes there. Yes, Podgorica is Norwich Montenegro.
Montenegrins are the second tallest people in the world (the average height of men is a fraction over six feet). The citizens of Podgorica are proud of this – but even more proud of the ability it gives them in water polo, the national sport. (Psst! Don’t tell them that no other country is seriously disrupting water polo.)
How to do it
Fly to Podgorica with Wizz Air from Gatwick, or Ryanair from Stansted/Manchester: flights cost from £15 one-way with both airlines. Hotels in the city are cheap; The best, smart Hilton Podgorica Crna Gora costs around £90 a night. For more information, see montenegro.travel.