ZOE RENFREW INTERVIEW

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ZOE RENFREW INTERVIEW

What, if anything, do you know about Montenegro? Here, in an exclusive interview with “Pulse” author Steve Rudd, “Curry Life” contributor Zoe Renfrew waxes lyrical about a small but perfectly-formed country like no other…

So you’ve just returned from Montenegro! What prompted you to go there on holiday?

A work colleague (whose father lives and works in Montenegro) recommended it for an affordable holiday in a beautiful location. When we saw photos, we were sold! I’m ashamed to say that, prior to this, my only impression of Montenegro was in conjunction with the Eurovision Song Contest!

What were your first impressions of the country?

From the plane, my first impression was, ‘Where on earth is the runway?!’ With mountains on one side and sea on the other, I had no idea where we were going to land until we hit the tarmac. The mountainous karst landscape is immediately apparent as you emerge from Tivat Airport, which was a short drive from our destination. After five minutes, the road plunged into a long, unlit tunnel through the mountain, from which we emerged into what could only be described as a vast “sea-filled” valley. Kotor Bay is often described as the Mediterranean’s only fjord; dramatic mountains, dotted with craggy outcrops and forests, plunge straight down for thousands of feet below the water. There’s no tide to speak of, and access to the sea is from small jetties and tiny shingle beaches punctuated by waterside bars and restaurants. Our apartment was opposite the walled town of Kotor (or Stari Grad), which is sheltered by the mass of St John’s Hill, so we had romantic views across the bay with its daily flotilla of cruise liners, luxury yachts and smaller craft.

Did you find public transport easy to use?

There was a good local bus service with links to major towns, but taxis were cheap and ubiquitous. We hired a car, which only cost £130 for a week, giving us more freedom to travel around. Driving could be described as a bit unpredictable, because you had to watch out for random pedestrians and cyclists appearing from nowhere. Other than that, traffic rules were obeyed, and road signs were simple to follow. Montenegro is unique in that it has no motorway, which is small wonder since the country is so mountainous! However, roads were generally in good condition. The drive along the side of Kotor Bay was slightly perilous due to a drop on one side and the reluctance of oncoming drivers to give way. However, as I’m sure you’ll understand, Steve, having been driven through India, I’ve experienced much worse! The mountain roads were definitely challenging, and not for the fainthearted. In the second week, we used taxis for getting around, which were reasonable. We were advised to use only metered cars displaying an official logo, so we were rather dismayed on one occasion when our driver stopped after a couple of minutes, got out, and threw the ‘Taxi’ sign into the boot before continuing! To be fair, his was the cheapest fare we had all week.

Which places were you most impressed by?

So many! Our location in Kotor was stunning. It’s an ancient city surrounded by a semicircle of walls dating from the 9th century. Inside, there’s a maze of stone passageways and hidden steps, which lead to the walls and rooftop areas with panoramic views over the bay. The city is also full of beautiful churches, a monastery and mosque, backstreet bars (where we watched England play), promenading locals, and spacious piazzas with sophisticated restaurants and shops. Other impressive places include Ostrog Monastery (which is slotted, Petra-like, into the vertical cliff), Perast (the romantic village at Kotor Bay’s apex, where we took a boat trip over to Our Lady of the Rocks, an islet with a Venetian-style church), and the beautiful city of Budva, only 10 minutes’ drive away, which resembled a mini-Dubrovnik… without the tourists!

Was there enough there to see and do to keep you suitably entertained?

Easily enough! We were there for two weeks, but we still didn’t tick off some of the sights on our bucket lists. For example, the Tara Canyon, the deepest in Europe, offers full-day and half-day rafting trips. Plummeting to a depth of 1300 metres, it’s only 200 metres smaller than the USA’s Grand Canyon. There’s also the famous island resort of Sveti Stefan (beloved by celebrities), the deserted village of Stari Bar, and the capital city of Podgerica. Then there’s a plethora of beaches, including the vast Jaz Beach, where the likes of Madonna and The Stones have performed.

Is there anything particularly special about cuisine over there? What was your favourite food?

“Homely” and “hearty” describes the local food. I really liked the fact that there weren’t many (if any) chain outlets, so there was no temptation to have a sneaky McDonald’s, but there were still some excellent pizzerias and Italian restaurants. Sadly, there’s only one Indian restaurant in the whole country! However, there’s a classy Lebanese, which recently opened in Tivat. Generally-speaking, ingredients used in Montenegro are natural and organic, with an emphasis on meat and fish. Lush vegetables, olives and cheeses are sold fresh from the markets. Bakeries sell rather stodgy, waistline-expanding pastries such as bureks and gibanica. The local red wine (Vranac) is excellent, costing around three Euros for a glass. The white wine is not quite so good, but the Krstač is very palatable. Typical desserts include crepes, pancakes and delicious fritters or doughnuts served with honey or jam. Cured meats, local cheeses, soups, stews (čorba) and polenta were also on most menus. I must admit, I was a bit perturbed at one mountain restaurant to find dishes described as “Cooked Head” and “Grilled or Cooked Bowels”! I suspect something was lost in translation!

Did you find tourism to be a growing industry?

It’s Montenegro’s main industry! At present, the majority of tourists seem to be Russian and other Eastern Europeans. There’s also a growing band of British visitors arriving via Montenegro Airlines. What’s more, Easy Jet have added two flights a week from Manchester. Having said that, we visited in June, and places seemed very quiet. Apparently, the main holiday season stretches from July to September when temperatures are higher and can reach 40 degrees. That said, I would thoroughly recommend visiting in May, June or October when prices are lower and temperatures are still well above 20 degrees. There’s also a skiing season from January to March, mainly in the Durmitor Mountains.

Did you head into any of the countries surrounding Montenegro?

It seemed like a golden opportunity to see Dubrovnik in Croatia, dubbed one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a mere 17 km from the Montenegrin border. Many people will be familiar with Dubrovnik as King’s Landing in “Game of Thrones,” which made it even more unmissable! It took three hours to get there, mainly because of a slight delay at the border, but the picturesque drive was reason enough for going. Dubrovnik felt like a different world in terms of volume of tourists, but is still holds an atmosphere of mystery and romance. We did the obligatory walk around the walls, ate seafood in a touristy restaurant, explored the marble streets, and drank beer in a bar set on the rugged rocks overlooking the Adriatic.

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What were the overall highlights of your trip?

Watching the lights form a golden semicircle around the walls of the Old Town of Kotor at dusk, and hearing the church bells strike with a melancholic, gradually diminishing cadence; gaping at the huge cruise ships whilst sipping cocktails outside the gate to Kotor’s Old Town; travelling up the vertiginous mountain road to the Njegos Mausoleum, where 461 steps take you to the dark tomb of the hero of Montenegro, Petar II Petrovic, guarded by two stern granite giantesses, with views extending as far as Albania and Croatia. Other highlights included the picture-perfect beach at Przno, and eating fresh mussels in a courtyard restaurant in beautiful Budva. Still, I think the biggest highlight was climbing the 1350 steps up to Kotor’s fort, 260 metres above sea level. The hot and steamy ascent from the North Gate costs three Euros per person, but the views over Kotor and beyond are unforgettable. It’s also a very popular trip, and we were accompanied by a hundred or so (mainly American) tourists from the cruise ships. Rather than retrace our steps, we decided to continue along the semicircle of the walls and descend by the less-used route, despite being warned by a traumatised Russian lady (wearing high heels) that it was “not very safe.” By the time we realised that she was somewhere near the truth, it was too late. However, the thought of going back up was more daunting than continuing via the precipitous, fast-disappearing route. Clinging on to various rocks and vegetation, we landed on a path surrounded by untamed nature, wild flowers and brightly coloured butterflies, with stunning views of the bay below, and a feeling of complete happiness.

Did you learn anything particularly interesting about Montenegro while you were there?

The country’s history is fascinating. Proudly independent, Montenegrins use the Euro as the main currency, even though they’re not part of the EU. The country has been ruled by the Venetians and Ottomans, and the Italians and Germans during World War II. Post-war, as part of Yugoslavia, Montenegro spent 50 years as a communist state, gaining independence from Serbia in 2006. In the recent civil war, Montenegro united with Serbia to bomb neighbouring Croatia, in particular its city of Dubrovnik. Some bad feeling still remains between the two countries, but, in spite of its turbulent history and population of mixed religions, people now live together very harmoniously. Oh, and bears still lurk in the forests!

Who did you fly with, where did you stay, and would you recommend the airline and hotel to others based on your experiences?

We flew with Easy Jet from Manchester and stayed at Kotor Vista, a lovely apartment in Muo. On the day we were supposed to return, our flight was cancelled due to bad weather. The airport was one of the smallest airports I’ve ever been in, and there was a chronic shortage of information available, with no announcements in English. Needless to say, after spending most of the day cooped up in the departure lounge, some travellers became rather stressed. However, any shortcomings in EasyJet’s communication were soon forgiven. We received a text from the airline saying we could either have our money for the flight reimbursed and make our own way home (which, in our case, would have been rather costly), or they would book us into a hotel free of charge until the next available flight in four days’ time. Strangely enough, we took the latter option! The previous week, we’d spotted the beautiful 5-star Regent Hotel in Porto Montenegro, the site of a new superyacht marina, and we’d sneaked in (under the pretext of visiting the loo) to gape at how the other half lived. As you can imagine, we were highly excited to discover that Easy Jet had booked us into the Regent, with breakfast and dinner provided. It was probably the best hotel we’ve ever stayed in, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone. They even give you a present every night as a “thank you” for staying there! Unfortunately, at over 300 Euros per night for a double, I don’t think it will be an option for us in the future!

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