Last fall, fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Karla and I visited two of our Balkan neighbors to the north: Montenegro (called “Mali i Zi” (black mountain) in Albanian) and Croatia — both parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Immediately upon crossing the border into Montenegro, we could see how different it was than Albania. The trash littering roadsides was gone, houses showed less wear and disrepair, the countryside was no longer dotted with half-finished construction, and so on.
Our destination was Kotor, a small town linked to the Adriatic sea by the Bay of Kotor with its fjord-like land (sea?)-scape. We needed a stopping point on our way to Croatia and had heard that Kotor, a walled city dating to medieval times, was worth seeing. We didn’t realize until we got into Montenegro, however, that the country was so picturesque, so full of interesting sights and so conducive to tourism.
We soon realized that we had underestimated all that the country has to offer and wished that we had allowed more time for that part of our visit.
Montenegro is one of the former Yugoslavia’s lesser-known republics. It is exceedingly small (population ~650,000 as compared to Albania’s 3 million, Croatia’s 4 million+ and even tiny Kosovo’s 1.8 million) and it declared independence from Serbia only in 2006. Nonetheless, country is quickly becoming an elite tourist destination. Thanks to its natural beauty and its frequent appearance on “top destination” lists, tourism is a prime driver of the country’s economy.* Unlike Albania, which is still considered more of an adventure tourism destination, Montenegro has the infrastructure to support “real” tourism. The country still lags EU infrastructure standards, but has several key features that Albania lacks: English is spoken widely; there’s a coherent, predictable bus system (meaning there are schedules, bus stations and posted fares); tourism operators are better organized and more user-friendly; accommodations and attractions are less bare-bones; etc.
*Not sure if this is true, but it makes a great anecdote: During a conversation with the owner of a Montenegrin travel agency, he told us that, because Montenegro’s web domain is “.me”, the sale of web-site addresses eclipses that of tourism revenues.
In fact, even though the World Bank considers both Montenegro and Albania as “upper-middle income” economies, it is clear that Montenegro is in much better shape than Albania. In the “who-had-it-better/worse” Communist horse race, Yugoslavia was one of the winners and Albania was at/near the bottom of the pack. Tito, the former leader of Communist Yugoslavia, was dramatically progressive in comparison to Albania’s Enver Hoxha. The Yugoslav government was relatively outward-focused for a Communist regime, with more interaction with foreign (non-Communist) countries and more open borders, which allowed for tourism and contributed to economic growth and better infrastructure. In contrast, Hoxha’s Albania was not unlike current-day North Korea: sealed off, paranoid, repressive, desperately poor.
Kotor is a current-day port city (cruise ships included) with a walled old town built into the side of a mountain. We were able to stay within the old town itself and spent most of our time exploring the narrow winding streets, open plazas and ancient churches. The day was rainy but with waterproof shoes, rain parkas and umbrellas the only thing we skipped was the 1000+ steps that led to the outlook over the city.