Which would you rather have, an illicit affair or some porridge?
You’ll want to have your answer handy if you’re visiting Montenegro, because the same word – kačamak – can mean both. Hasty explanations may be necessary.
Then again, there’s a third meaning: sneaking off to chill out for a bit. Nothing grand, nothing crazy, just a few hours’ getaway. Which is exactly what’s on offer with a weekend in the country’s capital, Podgorica. It’s not big, it’s not buzzing, it’s not beautiful – blimey, it’s not even Montenegro’s main attraction; that’s the Unesco-listed town of Kotor, 55 miles away on the coast – but it’s a lovely little helping of kačamak a mere £15 flight away.
That flight ends, splendidly, in a vineyard. The Šipčanik winery surrounds the airport on three sides (it’s the largest single vineyard in Europe, apparently, with vines that would reach to Chicago if laid pointlessly out in one row). I’m normally wary of tours and tastings – blah blah notes of ripe berries blah minerality in the soil blah – but this one is well worth the 20-minute trip from town because the cellar is an utterly unexpected 350-metre-long tunnel under a mountain.
I was about to say it looked like a Bond villain’s lair – complete with busy fork-lift trucks and beavering henchmen types in hard-hats – but the Yugoslavs beat me to it by a few decades: turns out they used it as a top-secret bunker storing 27 fighter planes. The tastings are generous too (although the sommelier outdoes even the “ripe berry” brigade at one point, by lauding one wine’s “almost non-existent taste”.)
Hitting the city centre, there’s a splendidly short list of sights to tick off before getting stuck back into the liquid local produce. My guide takes me to precisely one museum/gallery, the confusingly-named Museums & Galleries Podgorica (old.pgmuzeji.me), and we spend the rest of the afternoon pottering pleasantly around the Ottoman old town, crumbling 15th-century fortress and picnic-flecked pebble-beach little riverbanks, scrumping the juicy pomegranates and date-like košćela which grow everywhere.
The highlight of the museum is the gusle, a one-stringed folk instrument which I ask for a demonstration on, because my mean side wants to laugh patronisingly at what must surely be the least musical musical instrument ever. Then my guide plays me some gusle on his phone – and it’s the most hypnotically haunting sound I’ve heard in decades.
Things turn even more sonorous when I wander off on my own towards leafy, lose-yourself Forest Park Gorica – but am lured into St George’s Church, at its entrance. It’s 6.30pm on a Friday, and from the open doors escape intermingled incense and incantation – inside is a Richard Osman lookalike with a Rowan Williams beard and long black robes intoning while a similarly-dressed priest sings out melancholy, mystical responses and the faithful cross themselves every few seconds.
The atmosphere is so heady it’s like I’m dreaming, and I can barely drag myself away. When I do, weirdly my feet seem to carry me – with no intention on my part – to another Serbian Orthodox outpost. The Cathedral of Christ’s Resurrection, 20 years in the building, was consecrated in 2013, but inside it could be the 1600s: every inch is covered in Byzantine gold and murals of sad-eyed saints or stern-browed Orthodox patriarchs.
In one apse, Tito, Marx and Engels burn in Hell; in another, some children seem to do the same; in a third, a leviathan inexplicably consumes some saints. In the middle, beneath a gold-wrought chandelier so complicated it looks like it might beam you to another dimension if you stand under it, a scrum of people wait to be blessed by another luxuriantly bearded but this time lavishly cloaked cleric.
They kiss his hand, kiss a couple of icons, cry… and the whole thing is so tinglingly strange and atmospheric and moving that I almost join the queue, infidel though I am.
Instead, I walk down Njegoševa, which I refer to in my head as the Boulevard of Broken Diets – for a mile or so the pattern of businesses is bar, bar, pizzeria, bar, bar, steak-house, bar, bar and repeat.
All of them are excellent, but the next day’s are even better. Under an hour’s drive away – over thick-forested mountains, and with a stop for a slowboat pootle on sparkling Skadar Lake at Virpazar – is Sveti Stefan. You’ll recognise it as soon as you google it: it’s where Aman resorts turned a small fishing village on a causeway into an absurdly luxe hotel (€200 gets you not a room, but a day’s hire of two loungers).
Just a five-minute stroll round a headland, though, takes you to the equally exquisite little public beach (with free loungers!) at Przno, where wave-smoothed shingle shelves into perfect aquamarine waters, still warm well into autumn. Behind it are a row of konobas – traditional taverns serving seafood and wine as wonderful as anything you’d get in Italy, only a few miles opposite across the Adriatic.
I watch the sun set, gather myself a doggybag and a bottle, and board my 9.05pm flight back to Stansted – kačamaked up to my eyeballs.
Plonked unpromisingly under an overpass is an artsy enclave too small to have a name but focused on a converted hammam (ask locals for the old Turkish women’s baths) near King’s Park. The hub is Itaka Library Bar – three narrow floors of the hammam’s minaret and a fairylit riad-like courtyard, serving craft beer and great cocktails – but there’s also a cool bookshop and art space.
The bonkers 2013 Cathedral of Christ’s Resurrection looks like several temples squidged into one: Eastern domes, Roman spires, rough-rock bottom half and finely-detailed little sculptures on the top half. And then things get really weird when you go inside (see main story).
Meat. Podgorica is a carnival for carnivores, but locals’ most cherished dish is popek: roast beef rolled in a coat of eggy batter and fried till it’s crispy but still bleeds beefy juices to the touch of your fork. Sample it – along with a dozen other varieties of flesh-based food – at Pod Volat restaurant on the Stara Varoš square. If you make it out to Italian-influenced Sveti Stefan, think squid, prawns, Swiss chard and pasta; try them at Konoba Langust on Przno beach.
Ksenija Cicvarić is the Rihanna of Montenegro – if Rihanna were a folk singer born in 1927. In fact the only parallel is that Ksenija was famous enough – in Montenegro – to go by just her first name, and is by some distance Podgorica’s most famous daughter.
Technically, as the country’s capital, Podgorica’s UK twin is London – but good luck finding a Tube station in Poddy G. Instead, think: Crazy cathedral, satisfyingly unsophisticated cuisine, serious drinking culture, underrated beaches nearby, no famous sons or daughters, no-one ever really goes there on purpose. Yep, Podgorica is the Norwich of Montenegro.
Montenegrins are the second-tallest people in the world (the average height for men is a fraction over six foot). The citizens of Podgorica are proud of this – but even prouder of the prowess it gives them in water polo, the national sport. (Psst! Don’t tell them that no other country really bothers with water polo.)
How to do it
Fly to Podgorica with Wizz Air from Gatwick, or Ryanair from Stansted/Manchester: flights cost from £15 one-way with both airlines. Hotels in the city are cheap; the best, smart Hilton Podgorica Crna Gora, costs about £90 a night. For more info, see montenegro.travel.