There is a massive and unfortunate typo in the Lonely Planet’s Western Balkans (1st edition, 2006). It reads:
“Unfortunately, Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, is its most unattractive spot. With no sights and only expensive hotels, it is really a place to go only for a half-day, if you need to do your errands. It also becomes cauldron-hot in the summer, so don’t say you weren’t warned. It is a much wiser choice to go south and stay on the coast.” (p. 309)
I first came to Montenegro five years ago. I was traveling through the Balkans, and this was the only place I came to that had an outlet to the sea, so I was really coming to explore the coast. I had no real intention of coming to Podgorica, but even if I had, this Lonely Planet entry surely would have dissuaded me. This time, however, I was coming to do research and meet artists, so Podgorica was the place to be. When preparing for this trip, however, this paragraph about the city stuck in my mind from when I had read it five years ago, and I had some trepidations about coming.
I was also a bit nervous because I didn’t really have any contacts here. I had scheduled five full days in Podgorica, but only had two potential meetings. As I flew in on my connecting flight from Belgrade, I began to wonder if I had made a big mistake in including Montenegro on my trip. After all, one of the most significant performance artists from Montenegro, Ilja Soskic, currently lives in Rome, so I wouldn’t even be able to meet with him. What had I gotten myself into?
I arrived on a Sunday, which is probably a day that the Lonely Planet writer spent here. It was hot, and I took a short walk into town to get my bearings. I found a compact city laid out in an easily navigable grid, its streets lined with outdoor cafes and bars – all of them empty. The city was like a ghost town. Was the Lonely Planet right? Was this going to be five wasted days?
I calmed myself down by telling myself that everyone must be at the beach. After all, Montenegro’s stunning coastline is only about an hour from its capital. I settled into my hotel for the night, anxious but optimistic about what the next days would bring.
On Monday morning I saw a much different picture of Podgorica – the cafes came to life and the streets filled with people. Living in Aberdeen, one thing I really miss is outdoor drinking and dining; its simply too cold there. But not in Podgorica! I started my day by attempting to check out Montenegro’s Center for Contemporary Art, located in the beautiful Petrovic Palace. I walked about a half hour across town, climbed up the marble staircase to the top of the hill, only to find it closed. I love walking up big hills to contemporary art centers and modern art museums to find them closed, really I do. I loved it in Prishtina (although admittedly, the hill wasn’t that big), loved it in Skopje, so why not in Podgorica, too? I thought that since I was there anyway I would maybe check out the library or archive if they had one, so I knocked on the door and asked if there was anyone there who spoke English. The woman I spoke to called for someone else, who told me to go to the next building, ask for “so-and-so” (a name I immediately forgot), and they could help me. I went to the second building, asked if anyone spoke English, was told to sit down and wait. The kind man I spoke to made a phone call, and proceeded to hand me the phone. A conversation ensued in which I understood that the woman I was speaking to was a translator for the museum and the wife of the man who gave me the phone. I explained to her what I was looking for, and she asked me to give the phone back to her husband. They exchanged a few words, and he escorted me to the door, told me to go to the next building, and someone there would help me. And help me, they did. I was given catalogues, books and contacts for artists in the area whom I might contact about my research. I may not have seen the interior of the Center for Contemporary Art, but it did provide me with a window onto the art scene.
From there I proceeded to explore the city that, according to the Lonely Planet, only warranted half a day. I discovered a 15th-century Ottoman bridge, a lovely riverside cafe, the Turkish Old Town (Stara Varos), complete with two mosques and an 18th-century clock tower, the 16th-century St. George’s Church with its frescoes in tact, and perhaps the coolest place I have ever come across – not just in Podgorica but in general – the Karver Bookstore, located in a Turkish bathhouse, under a bridge (downtown). The city apparently lopped off the top half of the building to build the Novi Most Bridge, and someone with a vision recognized the potential in this place and turned it into a bookstore and cafe. The underside of the bridge is filled with graffiti, and the banks of the Ribnica River make it the ideal setting for the city’s bohemian crowd. Perhaps I should write for Lonely Planet?!
Podgorica is a city with great potential. It has a thriving cafe culture that makes it the ideal place for artists, writers, and intellectuals to while away the day. Let’s not forget that this country is filled with the spirit of the “grandmother of performance art,” Marina Abramovic herself (she was born in Belgrade, but her parents were both born in Montenegro). At night two of the main roads in the downtown area are closed to traffic, and pedestrians flood them, bringing life and vibrancy to the city as it cools off from the summer heat. (Oh, and “cauldron-hot in summer,” Lonely Planet? Well, that’s every city in the Balkans, really. If you can’t take the heat, then stay out of the cauldron, or the Balkans!) But Podgorica is also a really green city, with lovely parks dotting the downtown, and tree-lined streets keeping it shady. And there are all sorts of unusual and cool little places where interesting things could happen.
A lot of the artists I spoke to here lamented the fact that there were no real spaces for contemporary art in Podgorica. Even the already-petite Center for Contemporary Art will soon lose some of its exhibition space, which is being converted to offices. But I think there are real opportunities here to develop places for contemporary art, even pop-up or temporary venues. I suppose one of the good things about getting a bad write-up in the Lonely Planet (and, just to be fair, that paragraph was written several years ago, so maybe things were different then…) is that Podgorica is still kind of “off the beaten path,” so many of the interesting places and spaces that would be overrun with tourists or popular and mainstream in other cities are still captivating and unique, and full of potential to become a place where interesting things happen. Karver seems to be one of those places, but there are others yet to be discovered in Podgorica. So, don’t listen to your guidebooks. Podgorica’s the place to be!