DANIELA had been telling Adam about Budva for years, saying she heard great things from her Montenegrin friends during her cruise ship days. That night we were going to meet them, see the city through their eyes. Jelena and her son Martin met us first, and after the years apart, Daniela and Jelena had an emotional reunion. We had the pleasure of meeting Martin for the first time in person, and quickly realized he was the most popular guy in town. As we strolled through town, one couldn’t help but wonder how Jelena gets anything done with every second person stopping to have a quick chat with Martin.
With the distinct luxury of having the company of someone who had lived in Budva her whole life, we strolled through the newer part of town, learning the history and how much Budva has. Although Budva’s Old Town is becoming “newer”, with clean and shiny store fronts replacing the originals (much to Jelena’s chagrin), to be there with her and Martin made it feel real. A lived-in place, not just a sight to behold. Not very long ago, Jelena told us, the place was a relatively sleepy fishing town, but as evidenced by the omnipresent construction sites and cranes- things were changing, and changing quickly. Unfortunately, as with all things awesome, Budva’s popularity is growing, setting off the inevitable raising of rents, cleansing of local character and rampant new construction. Budva is by no means a mini Dubrovnik, not even close. But you can see the process happening.
THANKS to Martin, we got to stop into a local institution, Poslasticara Branka. We would’ve breezed past this unassuming gelateria hundreds of times without a second thought with out Jelena. She explained that this is one of the few establishments hanging on in Budva. Many Montenegrins are quick to sell whatever property they have, no matter how ancient, to make way for shiny malls and luxury apartments for the yacht set, transforming the area and encroaching on the ancient center. The family that runs Branka came from Bosnia in 1968, and started selling traditional ice cream to make ends meet. According to Jelena, “they made ice cream to survive and now they are famous in the town”.
AS Jelena informed us, as of this writing, Budva is not listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so greedy developers and corrupt politicians are working quickly to sell whatever they can to the highest bidder. It’s hard to imagine Budva as a sleepy fishing town, but it’s clear the change is coming and it’s coming quick.
FOR dinner, Jelena recommended we try one of her favorite places on the waterfront. She admitted it was a bit popular with the tourists, but it had been around since 1976 and lives up to the hype. The beach front seating at Restrain Jadran kod Krsta was packed, but of course Jelena new the owner, so she got us situated in the garden (which we pretty much had to ourselves. We made plans to link up with Jelena the next day, and said good night to Martin.
WE ordered a bottle of Plantaže Vranac, and as we confused the grapes ended up getting to try our first local red. We went all in for the biggest, localest seafood option and for 45E we were presented a mound of mussels, clams, little necks, octopus, grilled squid, stuffed squid, AND a grilled fish. All caught with in the local area code. On the side there was bread, and a “Dalmatian side” which is a kind of local chimmichurri like sauce that we’d try to recreate stateside. Another Montenegrin feast, that raised the bar once again.
JELENA insisted that in the winter Budva is a rainy, desolate place, but whether that’s the case or not, in August Budva is the polar opposite. The local beaches are packed and at night the stretch of walkway around the marina is a throbbing strip of outdoor pop up clubs, heaving with young party goers and assaulting the senses (in a good way). It was reminiscent of the American “Summer Fair”, but on crack. Honestly it puts Cancun’s Party Zone to shame in it’s sheer Spring Break style hedonism, for better or worse.
But we avoided the perils of a late night partying and enjoyed another fresh, local breakfast from the market before setting out. After what felt like forever without it (actually it had been 3 days), we were craving some beach time in our life. Looming across the bay from Budva is Sveti Nikola, or as the locals call it- Hawaii, and the beaches there sounded a bit less crowded than the mainland beaches around old town.
A quick ferry boat across the bay and we were on Budva’s Hawaii. Near to the dock there were 3 rocky beaches easily accessible. The one on the north west tip is the place to be (it probably has a name, but we never learned it). The setting is stunning. Jagged chunks of earth jutting out of the water create a mellow swimming bay, as well as a diving off point for the brave of heart. It must be said that the area is less than comfortable, with the plum sized rocks and large random mounds, but the post-apocalyptic feel added to it’s unique charm.
AFTER the day swimming, writing and sunning, we waited for the last ferry at a beach bar near the dock. Drenched in golden hour’s deep hue, we listened to the smooth house wafting from the speakers, drank an ice cold beer, and looked back on Budva with her dramatic surroundings. We really, really liked it here.
“I can’t get the umbrella trick, I don’t know how the locals get it to stay with these rocks! After many embarrassing moments chasing my flying umbrella I gave up on the shade.” d.
“Laying on a rocky post apocalyptic beach across the bay from Budva the locals call Hawaii or Slodj (it’s officially called Sveti Nikola). I fucking love Montenegro” a.
THAT night we met back up with Jelena, and Adam got to meet Daniela’s other friend Sanja. They brought us to another time honored favorite called Old Fisherman’s Pub, and after another fantastic meal and amazing hospitality we hot the town. The mania of the pop-up clubs on the marina notwithstanding, Budva’s old town has a thriving and more “mature” scene. Jelena and Sanja navigated the old lanes to a place with the unassuming name of “Jeff”. We’d passed this little bar stashed in a small square in the middle of Old Town during the day, and it seemed like a random pirate themed kiosk you could grab a water or beer from and chill in the square. By night it is a different animal all together. The square was shoulder to shoulder packed with people and deep house music pumped from the speakers, ricocheting off the ancient stone walls.
SOMEHOW, Jelena and Sanja finagled us a table and some drinks in the center of the throng, and we started to groove to the beats blaring out of the sound system. The music was supposed to go until 1AM, but around 12:30 AM the proverbial (and possibly literal) needle screeched off the record, and the music came to an abrupt halt. At first we figured all was normal and that was that, but within seconds a heavily armed police officer climbed one of the tables and started yelling out at the confused crowd.
We clearly had no idea what the guy was saying, but we understood that he was giving stern instructions. The next minutes were a confused mess of people scattering, realizing the police had the crowd surrounded, and at the same time trying to pay our bill in the melee; #karma. Jelena and Sanja said they were checking everyone, and although they said not to worry, the look on their faces made it clear something was up. Daniela wisely took the valuables as the SWAT team was separating the men and women to search the men. After a quick, but thorough pat-down, we all linked back up, and soon enough we were joking around wondering what the fuck just happened. Jelena and Sanja speculated that there was a high end drug dealer reported at the club, and it was a sting. In later reading, we did learn that, just like many “paradises” in our hemisphere, the government is battling an epidemic of drug trafficking and organized crime.
“music stops, police officers go on top of the tables… what do you think? strippers right… I was so wrong! We couldn’t understand a word they were saying but after seeing everybody faces I knew something bad was about to happen. Jelena and Sanja translated as quick as they could and I went from laughs to fear in seconds.” d.
“seeing the raid happening around us, I’m instantly reminded that the world isn’t always the paradise it’s felt like for the past 3 weeks.” a.
WE had another drink at chic outdoor bar literally sharing a wall with the ancient ramparts that protected the Old City. Jelena and Sanja commented about how empty the old town was, and the waitress even mentioned that this was the “worst summer” for business in her memory. It seems the same bullshit cartel violence, inflammatory reporting of such violence, and government corruption has tourists wary and potentially slowing the speed of Budva’s rise as a destination. Or maybe it’s just keeping costs down for developers….the sad comparison to our beloved Mexico is palatable.
THE next day Adam woke up with a hell of a case of the flu. It only got worse over the next couple of days in Budva, hence a lack of documentation, but we progressed on undeterred. Thankfully Sanja had offered to drive to the iconic Sveti Stefan this day, and we were not going to pass up her hospitality. The tiny island/world class resort is connected to the mainland by a strip of a walkway, and only the elite have ever seen the inside of it’s walls. In 1949 the government sold the island to a resort developer, and ever since no one who didn’t have a couple thousand euros a night to drop on accommodations has been able to enter.
ON either side of the entrance promenade are areas that the peasants like us could enjoy. Really nice, sandy-ish beaches with calm water. We sunned our buns, Adam tried to sweat/swim out the flu, and all in all enjoyed our time with Sanja strolling the neighborhoods around Sveti Stefan.
THAT night for dinner Adam wasn’t in any shape to go exploring for dinner, so we followed a sign just outside our flat and ended up at a gem we’d highly recommend called Restaurant Aquarius. We enjoyed our usual selections of Dalmatian goodness, which totally hit the spot, and the location felt away from the beaten path. Our server, Nene, was a veteran of cruise ships like Daniela, and super hospitable, so that added a layer of enjoyability.
IN another shining example of Montenegrin hospitality, Sanja lent us her car for our last two days in the area. SHE LENT US HER CAR! For two fucking days!!! Would you do that?!
This is Montenegro.
SO we set out south along the coast with the goal of checking out Ulcinj. The drive was amazing, winding along the Adriatic through mountain passes and fishing villages. Ulcinj drew us because of it’s reportedly different vibe, having a majority muslim population. We were excited to see Ulcinj’s mosques and see what life was like on the cultural border. To be honest it didn’t really move us much. The dilapidated hill top Old Town is interesting because it shows what a Budva, Dubrovnik, or Venice for that matter might look like if there wasn’t a bunch of money around to renovate it. The minarets poking out over the squat skyline were new to us, but we felt uncomfortable going inside, and the vibe around the beach from was at the height of it’s August tourist rush so culturally speaking we weren’t getting anything we hadn’t seen at the Jersey Shore.
WE decided to go further south, to the border with Albania, and check out the forgotten nudist colony of all nudists colonies; Ada Bojana. In the Yugoslavia days this bucolic stretch of sandy beaches in the absolute middle of nowhere had been THE premier nudist resort for Europeans, and a premier destination for folks in the 1970’s to live the budding “naturalist” movement….aka naked hippies.
We had been to a few nude beaches at this point, but this place is the first time in our life we’d ever actually witnessed the urban-legend that is a nudist colony. It was fucking weird. Almost as soon as we pulled into the dilapidated compound, we started to see the Walking Nude. This was not like the discrete nude beaches we’d enjoyed, this was an entire resort were people, mostly leathery old people, lived with zero clothes and zero fucks about it. Happy hour? Ping Pong? Kite Surfing? Zero fucks. Zero Clothes.
We kept our eyes on the ground, and set up shop under one of the free palapas that line the sandy beach, our first sandy beach in almost a month. Yeah, this place is weeeeeird, but as the sun started to dip into the Adriatic, we couldn’t help reflect on the absurd glory of what was happening. In all our wildest dreams, we would’ve never, ever, ever, ever imagine we’d be together on our honeymoon…in Montenegro…on a nudist colony…at the border with Albania…and that it would be so damn pleasant.
ON our last full day, thanks again to Sanja, we had another road trip. This time we drove over the coastal mountains, and into the interior. The drives we’d had on this trip had been spectacular, and this drive to Ostrog Monastery didn’t disappoint. The story goes in 1665 Saint Basil (Sveti Vasilije) miraculously built this monastery, which seems to grow on the side of a sheer cliff, 6000 ft above the valley below. No one knows how he did it, and his mummified corpse that still lies here in repose is one of the most revered pilgrimage destinations in the Orthodox Christian world.
AFTER winding up the fairly terrifying road clinging to the steep foothills, we parked in the plaza below the gravity defying oddity. The place feels really holy, and we were completely in the dark as people chanted, bowed reverently…and bought holy souvenirs at the holy gift shop. Not really realizing what we were doing, we wandered into the main room of the chapel, and soon we were quickly ushered in front of the preserved body of St. Basil himself. It happened fast, but it was a dizzying experience; with the heavy fragrance of beeswax and incense, fervent worshipers pushing past to kiss the coffin, and a monk chanting next to the body in the tiny grotto. Like so many times on this trip, we left feeling privileged to have experienced this unique corner of the world.
“It was all a mystery! From how the Monastery was built to the religion they practiced. I’m not going to lie we felt confused and overwhelmed…” d.
“I found myself thanking the universe for experiencing this, but feeling pretty awkward for having no idea what the hell was going on.” a.
FOR our last dinner in the Adriatic, we walked into the Old Town one last time, and tucked into a cozy looking konoba called Stari Grad. It was the usual fare we had happily repeated almost every night for the past month – wine, bread, cheese, pršut, fresh seafood – it’s simple, it’s amazing. Our last dinner, and last hours on this marvelous coast were simple, and notable for how it had become our ordinary. We weren’t sad or excited or moved in any way, because at this point it felt like there was no other reality than warm golden days, delectable food and wine, and atmospheric nights in ancient citadels.
“Having my last sip of local wine, feeling nostalgic, but thanking destino for a trip of a lifetime with the love of my life!!” d.
“I will miss this food immensely….until I learn to re-create it together back in New York!” a.
AS the writing of this memorable chapter in our life’s comes to an end, almost a year later, the impressions of the trip are vivid even to this day. From the obvious destinations in Venice to the little know oddities like Ada Bojana, the Adriatic coast boasts a myriad of destinations, not to mention world class beaches, weather and cuisine.
We left humbled, and thankful for the opportunity to celebrate our wedding, our first year of marriage, and our love of travel together in such a stunning and surprise filled locale.
We hope our rambling recollection of the adventure provides information, entertainment or at the very least pretty pictures, and we hope it inspires you to go find the good life in your next travels!