Podgorica, Montenegro, and onto Sarajevo, Bosnia i Herzegovina

PodgoricaGiven Montenegro’s beautiful mountainous scenery and historic coastal towns, it is not surprising that Podgorica, formally Titograd, Montenegro’s business-orientated capital city, is not usually on anyone’s itinerary. I wanted, however, to get to Sarajevo and this was a good midway point between Albania and Bosnia i Herzegovina.

I had come across from Albania to Ulcinj and had a couple of hours to wait until the midday bus to Podgorica. Since there was nowhere to leave luggage, added to which it kept raining, there was not much for me to do but wait at the bus station. Entertainment was soon provided by the arrival of a rather odd couple. They spilled out of a taxi in a fluster, luggage in all directions. She was English, thin, dyed black hair; he was Mediterranean, short, round, tanned, and bald. They wanted to go straight to Croatia and had some notion of needing to get to Herceg Novi, the last town on the Montenegrin coast before the Croatian border. The tall, quiet station supervisor kept trying to explain to them that the bus they kept thinking they should get on was in fact the Podgorica bus and not the one they needed; someone else tried suggesting that they should perhaps get a bus to Bar and go on from there. Advice and discussion in a variety of languages, including English, ensued while I and other waiting passengers watched with idle amusement. In a state of fluster and confusion the couple wanted to remain, or so it seemed, and everyone was still trying to sort them out as my bus pulled out half an hour later.

Montenegro is named as such for good reason and the journey to Podgorica passed through some stunning mountainous countryside. The bus made its way north along the Adriatic coast, before turning inland to take a road past the huge serene Lake Skadar, encircled by dense woods and stretching for miles. It was a grey old afternoon in Podgorica as the bus pulled into the huge communist-era bus station. I bought a ticket for the night bus to Sarajevo, dumped my bag in the left luggage place and headed out for a wander around the city.

I decided to visit the museum first, but nearly missed it. While it was a large and grand building, the entrance was an incongruous single modern aluminium and brown glass door looking more like a fire-escape than an entrance. I tentatively pushed it open to find a large and almost empty foyer. At one end the whole wall was occupied by an impressive painting entitled ‘Titograd’, dated to 1957 and at the other end was a ticket desk. When I asked for a ticket, the grey but youngish man behind the counter raised his hands in the air and rattled off something in Montenegrin, indicating, it would seem, that there were no tickets and therefore I didn’t need to pay. I was the only person there, and the place had a rather forlorn feel to it. Half of the first floor was occupied with what I hoped was only a temporary exhibition of truly awful paintings by a young artist who I won’t name. Then there was a small but interesting exhibition that focused on Podgorica’s Roman foundations, and a smattering of other material from different periods. They had lots of historic books on display, including ‘A Compendium for Travellers’ by Vićenco Vukovic, published in Venice in 1547. They were all in glass cases but with a complete lack of monitoring equipment, and there was even a dead fly on the page of one, causing great concern to my professional archaeological self.
After the museum, I took a wander round central Podgorica, passing a bee-keeping fair in the main square, then over the river and past an American embassy under construction and back round again past the Ottoman Clock Tower. By 4.30 it was starting to rain and there wasn’t much to do except head back to the bus station. By the time I got to the bus station, the rain had become a torrential downpour, so I settled down with my book for the long wait until my bus departed, breaking the time up by having a huge dinner in the café, which won me the approval of the friendly waiter, and a favourite pursuit, people-watching. The bus station slowly emptied out except for a couple of drunk homeless men whose antics provided some tragi-comic light relief until they both fell asleep, and some taxi drivers watching on the telly what appeared to be the Montenegrin version of Pop Idol while smoking cigarette after cigarette; evidently the prominent no-smoking signs were not to be taken seriously.
Midnight came and there was no sign of my bus. A smart coach pulled in, Eurolines blazoned along its sides with the bus company’s name, but no, this was not the bus to Sarajevo but the bus to Belgrade, as I discovered when I tried to get on it. Finally, a battered and coughing bus pulled in, driven by a rotund and slightly dishevelled driver. This was the bus to Sarajevo. Was it going to make it to Sarajevo was my initial thought, and secondly did Balkan politics run to such a deep level that it even affected the quality of the bus depending on where you were going…?

My only regret was that I had taken the journey at night because judging by the narrow, endlessly winding and climbing road we took, it must have been quite scenic, but all was pitch black. The driver had to dodge potholes and the occasional rock slide, but we reached the border without incident at about three in the morning. The Bosnian immigration officials were stern, stomping through the bus, peering at the everyone’s passport with a torch, and stamping them. With that the border was crossed and into Bosnia i Herzegovina we went (my fortieth country to travel in, for the record).

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sofia

The bus then stopped briefly at a café that really felt like it was in the middle of nowhere but was open despite the ungodly hour, and then on again. We finally rolled into Sarajevo at about 6.30am, still in the dark. Naturally, the bus did not go to the main terminal in the centre of Sarajevo but pulled in at a one on the outskirts from which there was no public transport. Badly in need of an espresso but without any Bosnian currency, I hopefully proffered a €20 note to the man behind the counter in the station’s bar. Clearly he was used to this as he gave me back change half in euros and half in Bosnian currency. The lack of public transport meant my only option was to take a taxi so I found one and was soon standing on the Latin Bridge in the centre of Sarajevo, not far from the spot where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sofia, his wife, were shot, precipitating the First World War. War has sadly been a trademark of this lovely city and I was to spend a fascinating if poignant couple of days here.

For my month-long Balkan trip, I used the Lonely Planet Western Balkans guide book, the Lonely Planet Eastern European phrase book, and the Freytag & Berndt Balkans/South-East Europe map.

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Author: Caroline Sandes

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