Too much of a good thing

Europe » Montenegro » Podgorica
December 3rd 2008
Published: December 3rd 2008
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Chapter 3- Montenegro
“Far too much free beer”

I was woken up again at about 3am. Another Serb guard, this one looked a lot like a James Bond henchman. He requested all our passports, and being the only non-Serb/Montenegrin passenger in the compartment I was of course the one who got interrogated.
“You speak Serbian?” he asked.
“No” (for some reason my school didn’t do a GCSE in Serbian. Not that that would have made much difference- I took a GCSE in German and I don’t speak a word of that)
“Only English?”
“Yes” (well, a little Norwegian too. Oh, and I can ask you to get me a beer in Serbian, but I don’t think you’re going to do that, are you?)
“You are alone?”
“Yes” (Wait a minute..I had twenty people with me a second ago, shit, where have they gone?)
“Ok, have a safe journey boy!”
With that ominous statement, he handed my passport back and left. That sentence made me both fear for my life and feel, for some reason, like Oliver Twist. There can be very few sentences that have both these qualities (with the possible exception of “Prepare to die you orphan twat!”). A little while later we crossed into Montenegro- where I was disappointed to discover they don’t stamp your passport at the border.
The old woman in my compartment promptly produced a small buffet from out of nowhere and before I knew it I was being offered water, chocolate, the Serbian version of mini cheddars and what I think was supposed to be a bacon and cheese roll. Christ knows what it was, or where it had come from but I swallowed it down, under the hawkish eyes of my fellow passengers, who were making sure that the foreigner got his fair share. The fact that I (the foreigner, obviously) had already had more than I could possibly eat seemed to be lost on them, as my continued “No thanks” were met with a total refusal to accept I was full. This of course led to me being in the possession of the last “bacon” roll in the compartment. I didn’t want to eat it, I couldn’t give it back and throwing it out of the window seemed a bit extreme (and an exceptional affront to their hospitality). Instead I just accepted that if I wished to dispose of it, I would have to wait until the old woman got off the train.
Eventually she got off by an unmarked group of trees and set off down the road. The other people in my cabin followed in quick succession and soon I was alone, alone with a bacon sandwich I really didn’t want. I placed it in a Morrisons bag I was carrying with me (pretty much for occasions such as this) and laid it on the floor of the train. That old woman was extremely generous and her hospitality and friendliness really put a smile on my face. I just hope her hospitality extends to not caring when I unceremoniously chucked the sandwich into a bin just outside Podgorica station later on.
The view out of the windows was fantastic. Mountains rolled into the distance and about a kilometre down from the tracks cars sped along a main road in the early morning haze. I snapped a few photos, but my photography skills (like my map reading, linguistic and probably survival skills) are pretty limited, so these aren’t exactly the breathtaking panoramic shots I wanted them to be.
The train eventually pulled into Podgorica station two hours later than planned- although this seems to be a pattern in the Balkans and, having experienced the shit service that is trains in Wales, I wasn’t too phased by it.
Podgoricas train station is hardly inspiring. In fact I would venture to say it was the worst train station I’ve ever been through- with the notable exception of Llantwit Major. It seemed to lack any facilities and I had to walk across the track to get to the main building and into the city.
You’d be forgiven for muttering the word “shithole” upon leaving the train station. The surrounding area consists of a few shoddy looking houses, a bus station and some weird pyramids above the (pay) toilets. A majority of the population seems to be drifting around fairly aimlessly and the one taxi driver in the taxi area just mutters taxi half-heartedly (this is the opposite of Belgrade station, where about twelve of them hurl themselves at you screaming “taxi!”).
I probably should have realised there wasn’t a lot to do in Podgorica when even my Lonely Planet “Eastern Europe” book wrote it off as a waste of time. Lonely Planet guidebooks do their best to make piles of dog shit seem like attractive destinations, so when they say “has little to offer visitors”, you know you’re in a bit of a dive. A good half of Podgoricas entry in the book is basically how to get to the coast from the city (Montenegro is renowned for it’s coastal towns). The second half informs me that the shopping-café heart of the town is Hercegovacka. This information would be more useful to me if lonely planet had printed a map of the city in their book, but they didn’t- pretty much every village in Romania has a map, but the Montenegrin capital doesn’t. I am useless with maps, but I’m even worse without them so I decided finding one was my first move.
Luckily I spotted “Hotel Europa” just around the corner from the train station. I quickly stormed the reception area and asked the bored looking receptionist, Svetlana, if they had maps of the city.
“Da, ve haf maps”
“Cool, can I have one please?”
“Five Euro”
£3.94 for a map?, in Montenegro?. Svetlana and I both knew the score. I needed a map, and Hotel Europa had what seemed like a monopoly. I forked over the money, wondering how many others before me had fallen into the same trap.
I went to a café in the bus station and ordered a coke. I was given a bottle and a glass half full of water to pour it into. Customer service has a lot of room for improvement in that part of the world. I pulled out my map and decided to see what there was to see.
Fuck all basically sums it up. There’s a bridge they built for the Millennium and that appears to be about it. The map is however probably the only one I’ve ever seen of a capital city that features every individual house/building (for a second I considered walking to a random house, knocking on the door and telling the occupant what an awesome location their house was in, but I decided against it). I began to feel a little down, Montenegro was my first new country on this trip and the 30th nation I’d ever visited- not exactly the most inspiring place to reach this landmark. I wondered why I’d thought Podgorica was a good idea, the train I had been on had gone all the way to the coastal city of Bar, and here I was in this glorified version of Stoke-on-Trent. I began to wonder when the next train was to Bar, I could catch the train back to Belgrade from there (and possibly entitle the Montenegro chapter “Bar’s in Bar”..someone would have liked that). I decided I’d stick with my choice and spend the day in Podgorica. I’d had fun days in Stoke before, I was sure I could do the same here.
So I set off towards the centre, past run down back streets that wouldn’t look out of place in a village and assorted broken down cars. If it wasn’t for the mountains that overlooked the city, I’d say it was probably the ugliest place I’d ever visited.
That impression changed when I crossed the river and the buildings all took on a more Mediterranean feel. Central to this area was of course the Hercegovacka street, a pedestrian zone complete with trees to provide shade for many tables stood outside cafes.
Before I did anything else though, I decided to go and take a look at the Millennium bridge. This was going to be my “cultural” thing for the day, a bridge. Nothing was going to stop me seeing the bridge, well, until I saw an Irish pub.
Fuck it, it’s only a bridge.
I went inside the, pretty dead, pub and ordered a Niksicko for 1.65 Euros (£1.30). Niksicko is Montenegro’s most popular beer and packs a punch at around 6% strong. It’s actually a fantastic drink and probably my favourite on the trip so far.
One of the barmen pointed at my shirt, which had photos of quite a few Lithuanian beers on it.
“What is best Lithuanian beer?” he asked.
“Svyturys Baltika” I replied. ( Incidentally, Lithuania is ace, their beer rocks and Vilnius is one of my favourite cities in Europe).
“Nice. Where are you from?”
The barman smiled; “I am from Serbia, my name is Constantine.”
“I’m Tom” I replied “Constantine is a very unusual name.”
“Yes, it is a good name” he laughed “It is very good with girls. Sometimes they ask for my identification to prove my name. There are a million Aleksanders and a billion fucking Ivans. But I am Constantine.”
Personally, I think Constantine is a bit of a sissy name, but I had to admire this man because, like all Serbs, he understood how to use the word “fuck” at the right point in a sentence. I took another sip from my beer.
“This is a good beer, does Montenegro have any other good beers I should try?” I asked.
“No, only brewery in Montenegro.”
“Cool” I replied, slightly disappointed.
“Where else do you plan to travel?” he asked.
I explained the other countries I planned to visit, without mentioning either Kosovo or Albania, both very much on the itinerary.
“Many places” he said “When I travel I like to interfere with the people where I go.”
I think he meant “interact”, but interfere is amusing.
“Yeah” I agreed, “It’s always good to meet local people”
“Yes” Constantine replied “They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a picture is worth nothing without a thousand words.”
That was without a doubt the smartest thing I’d heard all week, and it’s certainly true. I began to wonder where he ‘d learnt his English.
“Do you get many tourists in Podgorica?” I asked.
“Some, most go to the coast, with the rich Russians” he replied “But some while ago, Ireland play Montenegro here, and you can imagine what happened. A thousand Irish people want beer.”
No wonder he wasn’t doing any work, he didn’t have to. Once you’ve had a thousand Irish football fans visit your pub, you never really need to work again.
“It was good” Constantine went on “I like to meet people from other countries. If people are ok they are ok. The Albanians do not see it that way, it is their faith.”
I had to respect the opinion of a man who managed to combine the concept of universal tolerance and hatred of Albanians so seamlessly. So I decided to ask about the sights of Podgorica.
“So what is there to see in this city?” I asked, draining the last of my Niksicko as I did so.
“You have seen the bridge?”
“Not yet”
“We have the bridge”
Ok…it looked like I was going to have to see that bridge. I said goodbye and headed up the street, turned left at the top and got my first sight of the bridge.
It was a huge thing, glistening white like the sail of a ship beneath the blue skies and October sun. That really is about all there is to say about the Millennium Bridge. I walked across it, and that’s about it- bridges are pretty limited in their amusement potential really. It’s not even a fantastic bridge. If you only get to see one bridge in your life, make it Charles Bridge in Prague. If you only get to see two, add the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo. If you get to see three, there is quite a nice one in Rome. Even if your life isn’t judged by some weird bridge quota, I still can’t say this is a must see.
Nevertheless, I took an unhealthy number of photographs of the bridge from every possible angle. In fact I took so many that my “Montenegro” folder on the computer looks like a bridge-fetishists porn collection (do people get off on bridges?, possibly).
After that thrilling foray into bridges I decided I was hungry. This resulted in me buying a godless looking type of sausage in a bap from a little café just down the street from the infamous bridge. It was, despite first impressions, actually very nice.
With that much-needed dinner sorted, I went in search of other decent pubs in the capital. I was to be disappointed. Like the Serbs, Montenegrins favour a café culture and while this results in dozens of places to buy beer, it results in very few where you feel you should be drinking it.
I eventually settled on Café Titograd, mainly due to the name. Tito was the dictator who controlled communist Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. He was the only one who could keep the various vying groups of nationalists in check and after his death it was only a matter of time before the country erupted in bloody civil war. For a short while Podgorica was renamed Titograd, hence the name of the café (which also gave me an excuse to cram some information about Tito into the chapter). Aside from the coffee and assorted spirits there a large variety of imported beers are available in Montenegros many cafes. Most of them seem to originate mainly in Holland, Belgium and Germany, although Niksicko seems to remain the nations favourite by far.
By the time I’d left Café Titograd, the evening was drawing in and I decided to return to the Irish pub. My train back to Belgrade didn’t leave until about half past ten and I believed this would give me more than ample time for a few more Niksicko’s.
The pub had become more crowded since I’d left, although Constantine (watch out ladies, he’s single and he has a strange name…) left just as I was arriving. I sat down at the bar and ordered a Niksicko dark. A fine quality dark lager with an almost chocolatey taste at times (although of course that’s just my opinion). The bloke next to me turned to face me as I ordered a standard Niksicko shortly afterwards;
“Niksicko, good beer?”
“Yes, a very good beer” I raised my glass “Ziveli!” (that’s like “cheers” in Serbo-Croat)
He raised his glass back; “Ziveli!”.
I smiled, for once I’d managed to say something in another language and not make a total and utter arse of myself (which I do enough in English). I turned to the bar and ordered another beer. A voice from somewhere behind addressed me.
“You’re a long way from home lad”
I turned around and found myself face to face with a beaming Yorkshireman a fair distance past 40.
“Yeah mate” I replied “Still, decent lager, can’t argue”
“That’s true, I’ll get ya this one”
Brilliant. Just because we were both English (the only foreigners in the pub) he brought me a beer. That is why I love this country- because whenever you leave it, every other English person is your mate by default.
His name was John and he was part of a team of builders working on our embassy over there (Montenegro only being an independent country since 2006 and everything) Him and his mates had worked on embassies in Moldova, Russia and Vietnam before this one and all in all it sounds like a pretty cool job- very “Auf Weidersehen, Pet”. He necked his pint and pointed out another Irish pub just around the corner where he was going to meet his mates, before inviting me to come along when I’d finished my pint. I said I’d definitely drop by later (only a slight diversion from the train station..) and he left.
I had no sooner finished my pint in order to follow him when another was placed in front of me. I pointed out to the barman that I hadn’t ordered another one. The bloke next to me turned to face me and raised his glass.
“For you my friend, a present for coming to Montenegro!”
Balkan nationalism displays itself in some vile forms, but getting free beer just for being in a country is definitely not one of them.
I smiled and we toasted again before he introduced himself as Alen. His brother, the improbably named Tony, sat to the left of him- for some reason he seemed more interested in the beautiful Montenegrin girl sitting next to him than the idiot Englishman his brother had brought a drink for, just can’t please some people.
The mandatory discussion about how awesome Montenegrin beer is was drowned out by a sudden burst of honking from up the street. Then about a dozen cars raced past, Serbian flags and banners hung from every window and angry Serbs leaning screaming something about Kosovo and waving yet more Serbian flags.
“Serbs” Alen muttered knowingly “They do it to show their strength.”
(I would find out a few days later that Montenegro had recognised Kosovo’s independence the day before.)
“I am surprised they do it in Montenegro” I replied, I’m not really sure what you’re supposed to say when a nationalist convoy has just driven past.
“It is why I voted for independence” Alen smiled, before adding grimly “I would give my blood for Montenegro.”
“Cool mate” I took another swig “You have beer which is worth fighting for” (because your cities an abject shithole)
I finished my pint and said goodbye to Alen and Tony. I then walked around the corner, went into another Irish pub and was handed a drink by another Yorkshireman I’ve never met before in my life before being ushered to a table with John and a few of his mates.
The conversation mostly consisted of comparisons between Montenegro and England, whether the bar man was gay- I didn’t think so, but they were pretty adamant and the quality of prostitutes in Moldova (good to very good apparently).
By the time I’d had a few more drinks and tried in vain to buy a round back I remembered I had a train to catch. So I said goodbye and left the pub.
To claim I was still sober would be a massive lie. Normally I moderate my drink when abroad and pace myself-but all of the massively strong lager, the lack of food and sleep and the fact a lot of it had been free had taken a massive toll on me. I was absolutely shitfaced.
I don’t remember getting to the train station- I seem to recall calling a dog a wanker on the way there, but I’m not sure why. The next thing I recall clearly was standing alone in Podgorica train station facing two amused looking policemen.
“Why you here?” one of them demanded, his mate standing behind him in a pathetic attempt to look like the hard one.
“I’m here for the train to Belgrade” I murmured drunkenly.
“Train is go. One hour ago!”
“Oh, fucking hell” (not usually the best thing to say in front of coppers, but oh well, their English wasn’t that good) I looked down at my watch, yup, he was right. Bollocks.
“You must spend night in Podgorica”
“Ahh, ok, where are there hotels?” (fuck you, I’m not spending a night here-I’ll hitchhike, or jump onto the back of a freight train, either of those is better than this)
“You go to bus station, information desk, they will tell you where is accommodation.”.
I was beginning to get the impression I wasn’t the first person this had happened to (it’s probably the main source of revenue for Podgoricas hotels.). His plan was relatively sound, but I had a better one. Going to the bus station was certainly a good stage 1, but I thought I’d make my own plan from there.
I walked over to the information desk and grinned stupidly at the terrified young woman, who suddenly became very grateful for the glass screen between us. I tried to smile reassuringly
“When’s the next bus to Belgrade?”
“Twenty minutes”
Problem solved.
As I climbed aboard I felt vaguely satisfied with the brilliance of my plan. Certainly more satisfaction than a man should feel for coming up with the idea of catching a bus from the bus station.
The bus roared off towards Belgrade.


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