Updated: Aug 13
Our trip to Montenegro marked the first time we had visited a Balkan state. Amid the picturesque landscapes and fascinating culture, the journey revealed a complex interplay of emotions. As an openly gay couple, we grappled with both the warm welcome of some people, the perceived rudeness of many, and the cautious restraint of a country which is on an ongoing journey towards acceptance and equality. Whilst LGBTQ+ people have significant legal protections, being LGBTQ+ is still seen as a mental disorder and is not accepted by a large part of the population. There are no ‘gay bars’ or LGBTQ+ venues, but this is not neccessary to a holiday (I very rarely visit them at home), and LGBTQ+ visitors are advised not to show public displays of affection. As an ‘up-and-coming’ holiday destination for Brits, it was fascinating to see what the country was like for tourists. But, whether you’re LGBTQ+ or not, is this a destination worth visiting, and if you do, how can you get the most out of it?
Placed south of Croatia and east of Italy, Montenegro has what can be compared to a mediterranean climate, but with more humidity and rain than you might expect. Visiting in August, the weather ranged from sunny 38 degrees C, to nights with spectacular thunderstorms. Pack the summer clothes you might expect, but take with you or be prepared to buy an umbrella if the heavens unexpectedly open. There was a nice breeze for most of our trip and the occasional cloud-cover was a welcome relief from the intense sun.
Our first destination, and city of arrival, was the administrative capital, Podgorica. Roughly the same size of Cardiff, the cafe and bar scene was unexpectedly small. The best food we had tended to be from street food vendors, and while hotels were trying to be cosmopolitan (in a Western European sense), the food was often style over substance, and vastly overpriced. Our favourite bar was the beautiful Itaka Library Bar. Hidden below a bridge, delicious and reasonably priced cocktails were served in a relaxed and serene setting, reminiscent of hipster bars in cities such as Bristol. But aside from a few sights, there was not much to do, and one day here was enough. Montenegro has been typically patriarchal, and this was evident throughout the country from our first day. People generally sat in same sex groups, clothes and shops are incredibly gendered, and there are clearly expected ways of behaviour for men and women which are present no matter where you go. It was an interesting reflection on how far western Europe has come.
One encounter in Podgorica that left a lasting impact on the rest of the trip was with a local couple we met in a bar. During a discussion with one of them, it became apparent that they were more than likely part of the LGBTQ+ community themselves, but their struggle to openly discuss their identity created a palpable unease during our conversation. They alluded to being gay, but did not definitively confirm it. Whilst no-one should be expected to tell everyone every facet of their identity, much of the conversation, especially when talking about my job, felt like we were skirting around the issue and avoiding saying the actual words. As the conversation continued, I felt a growing sense of unease and started to become very aware of the inequality and prejudice that existed in the country and so ended the conversation rather abruptly and left. This encounter weighed heavily on my mind, casting a shadow of caution over the remainder of our trip; if locals feel like they cannot be authentic, how can we, as tourists, be ourselves and keep ourselves safe? The shared yet unspoken understanding between us highlighted the complex reality faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in certain regions, even as progress is made. It was a stark reminder of the barriers that can still exist, affecting not just locals but also travelers like ourselves who wish to embrace their authentic selves.
We did not hire a car and so relied on the frequent bus services; this allowed us to explore the country at a fraction of the cost of hiring a car, and allowed us to take in the beautiful vistas on the journey; I can honestly say that they are the most beautiful mountains that I have ever seen and I was glad that bus travel allowed us to take it in. The country's bus network offers a regular and cost-effective mode of transportation. However, we quickly learned that the buses fill up faster than one might expect and they often over-book places. To ensure a seat and a smooth journey, it's advisable to start queuing well ahead of the scheduled departure time. Arriving early not only guarantees your spot on the bus but also allows you to choose a preferred seat for a more comfortable ride. As the bus services are run by a myriad of bus companies, you cannot transfer your tickets, so make sure that you only get on the service that you book. The website www.busticket4.me was crucial in planning ahead, but make sure that you only buy tickets at the stations as you have to be able to print tickets; tickets on your phone are not accepted. Moreover, it's important to note that cash is king in Montenegro. While some places may accept cards, the majority of businesses and establishments prefer cash payments. It's wise to have a sufficient amount of Euros on hand to cover expenses such as meals, transportation, and souvenirs. You are also expected to pay for most toilets and to put luggage onto a bus.
Our next destination was the captivating coastal town of Budva, where we spent a delightful five days basking in its natural beauty. Budva's allure was undeniable, with its pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and historic architecture that painted a picture of a bygone era. However, it was hard to ignore the price tag that accompanied this paradise. The cost of living in Budva was noticeably higher compared to other parts of the country, with prices in many bars and restaurants similar to the UK. Spending a bit of time hunting through the winding streets of Old Town or going a few streets back, such as to the Garden Cafe, was essential to avoid the tourist traps and find more local and more reasonably priced venues. However, a curious aspect of our journey was the mixed reception we encountered in certain local establishments, particularly those not directly catering to tourists (I always prefer eating and drinking local food and drinks, rather than the slurry that is often offered to tourists). Whilst the warmth and friendliness of the people were evident in some interactions, I did notice a lack of what we would consider hospitality in most places. This contrast in attitude left me wondering whether this is an example of cultural differences or a distain for tourists. Examples include not even acknowledging our presence, orders not arriving, mockery between staff at our expense and staff throwing tickets at us. There is a very large Russian tourism presence here, and I would be interested to know whether they feel the same, or whether British tourists’ experiences are unique. However, we also had some wonderful experiences, including one of the best seafood meals I’ve ever had, in a seaside restaurant called ‘Jadran’, where the service was also impeccible.
It was in Budva that I went scuba diving which was an impressively reasonable €40 including all equipment. The waters were crystal clear and there was a surprising abundance of colourful fish and somewhere I would definitely snorkel or dive again.
As we were in Budva for the majority of our journey, this is where we relaxed and spent the largest time by pools and on the beach. We quickly became aware of our own anxieties around being authentically us, and whilst many other people were affectionately holding hands or being tactile, we felt we couldn’t, as we didn’t know what the reaction would be. One humorous incident occurred when a rose seller went to every single table in a restaurant except ours; no doubt thinking that we were just friends, but showing the stark contrast to other European cities such as Madrid or Lisbon, where we would have been offered one.
The pinnacle of our Montenegrin trip was reserved for the charming town of Kotor. With its mesmerising fjord-like bay and captivating medieval architecture, Kotor effortlessly made us relax and feel right at home. Every corner seemed to be a tableau of history and beauty, and the warm and welcoming locals were in stark contrast to the service we received in other parts of the country. The highlight, however, was undoubtedly the culinary delights that Kotor had to offer. We had our best meal here, in the Hotel Catarro, which had beautiful flavours, equisite presentation and excellent service. This was also the first place we saw any open LGBTQ+ couples, with a couple holding hands on the bus. This was a relief to see, and made me consider whether our encounter on our first night had given us a false impression of LGBTQ+ acceptance or whether there are significant regional differences.
While my journey through Montenegro was marked by stunning landscapes and unforgettable moments, there was an underlying tension that I couldn't shake off. As part of the LGBTQ+ community, I couldn't help but feel on edge throughout my trip, especially during my time in the more conservative areas. Though Montenegro has made strides in acknowledging LGBTQ+ rights, there still remained an air of caution that prevented me from fully embracing my authentic self with my partner. There was a continuing fear of judgment and discrimination that created a barrier that dampened my spirits at times.
Our holiday in Montenegro was a collection of contrasting experiences – from the tranquil city of Podgorica, to the alluring charm of Budva, and the captivating beauty of Kotor. Each destination left us with unique memories, and while the culinary offerings sometimes missed the mark, we had a wonderful trip in a beautiful country. As I bid adieu to this Balkan gem, I carry with me not just the images of picturesque landscapes, but also a deeper understanding of the complexities of being true to oneself in a world that still has strides to make in terms of acceptance and equality. Although it has a long way to be welcoming to tourists, it has huge potential, with all the makings of a perfect holiday destination.
Would I visit Montenegro again? Probably not. But should you visit the country? There is certainly a lot to see here and if you are willing to do a bit of work to navigate the country and customs, there is a lot to enjoy. I do not hold the lack of LGBTQ+ acceptance against the country as there have been significant moves to support LGBTQ+ people through law, and equality and societal acceptance takes time. But it’s important to be aware of the realities of the country, so you can fully enjoy this Balkan beauty-spot.