Montenegro. Black Mountain. This tiny country, and Europe’s newest (Montenegro has been around in current form in all its glory since 2006), is filled with mountains and dotted with some of the most spectacular beaches I’ve ever seen. This isn’t your ordinary coastline; instead of fine sand, you’ll most likely find tiny pebbles. And the mountain range extends almost to the waves, leading to what feels like an insular valley of bright blue water and tiny green islands.
Montenegro is the one of the only two countries to use the euro without being a member of the European Union (Kosovo being the other). From the research I’ve done, Montenegro had no currency of its own; it used the Deutsche mark until the EU euro was introduced in 2002. Apparently, The EU is like, “Come ON, guys, you know that’s not really OK”, but they’re letting it slide since Montenegro is working toward EU admittance and it’d be slightly silly to make them change everything now only to change it back in four years.
I came to Budva, the ‘Miami of Montenegro’, during the first week of August for a little rest from wandering. This happened to coincide with the busiest week of the year in Budva. The first week of August is holiday time in much of Europe, and the coast of Montenegro is a very popular destination for Serbians, Bosnians and Russians. Every morning, the beaches are packed with vacationing and scantily-clad families, friends and couples. (Side Note: if you have body image issues, just come to Budva. Every single person is wearing next to nothing, and flaunting it: from skinny dads and fat grandpas wearing speedos to chubby teens and large grandmas wearing skimpy suits. It’s really quite remarkable and inspiring.)
If you’re well-prepared, bring a blanket or towel and your own umbrella and claim your space on the beach. If you’re not prepared and have an extra few euros with you, grab a beach chair–it’s yours for the day. Prices vary along the beach, but the most reasonable one I find is €3 for the chair and €3 for an umbrella. If there’s two of you, it’ll set you back €9 for 2 chairs and an umbrella. This set up is now yours ALL DAY.
Thirsty? Order a pivo (beer) or Fanta from a wandering bartender. Hungry? No worries, local vendors thread their way through the chairs, selling everything from fresh corn on the cob (with salt) to a pint of fresh blackberries to little colored bottles of liquid (I have no idea what is in them. Juice? Drugs? Suntan oil? Dolphin tears?) to fried doughballs filled with sweet custard.
There’s so much more to do than lie on the beach, though!
Like… um. OK. Nevermind. You don’t go to Budva to do more than lie on the beach and swim in the salty salty sea water.
If you’re in your early-mid 20’s, or young at heart/liver, the nightlife in Budva is also Miami-esque; Top Hill is one of the Mediterranean’s largest clubs and many summering bright young things party there nightly til the sun comes up.
If you’re in your early-mid 30’s, you read your book by the sea during the day, maybe indulging in a white wine spritzer or a mineral water, and take the occasional dip in the sea. Swimming in the Adriatic means licking salt crystals off your lips for hours. Nighttime is for making dinner, socializing with travelers on your hostel’s patio, and taking advantage of the air conditioning to get some writing/work done without dripping too much sweat on your Chromebook keyboard.
From what I could tell, Budva is separated into two parts; one part is the beach strand, lined with booth after booth of swimwear, shoes, sunglasses and souvenirs. Tour companies set up shop here, and row after row of ice cream and pizza stands dot the lane. The occasional juice stand happens, too (Vegans: if the Balkans are good for one amazing vegan tradition, it’s fresh juice stands. Hit them UP.).
Just past the avenue with everything under the sun for sale (literally) is row after row of restaurant. Just after the restaurant row lies the pebbled sand beaches, filled this time of year with beach chairs and sun-worshippers.
To the right of the main beaches is Budva’s Old Town. And though you feel like you’re stepping back in time when you walk through the Venetian walled streets, it’s more recent than you may think. Old Town was destroyed by earthquakes in 1979. It took 8 years to rebuild, and now looks good as old.
From an eating out-perspective, the Balkans are the worst for a traveling vegan. Budva is no exception. Pizza without cheese? Nope. (Not at the first place I tried, anyway.) Bread? Nope. Brushcetta? Nope.
But from a local seasonal produce perspective, it’s not too bad. Fresh figs and peaches are in season, and I’ve seen loads of aubergines (eggplant) and zucchini, and the weirdest-shaped oblong avocados. I bought a juicy ripe mango for breakfast one morning and found the spiciest little chili pepper the next afternoon. I’m most surprised by the milk selection–I see oat, soy, almond, even kamut milk. Way to go, Montenegro!
At the market, I keep it simple and buy pasta and red sauce, corn flakes and soy milk, and one day I branch out and buy a tin of red kidney beans, butter lettuce, tortillas and avocado.
I make an art form out of the burrito the next few days: press salted kidney beans mashed with sliced spicy pepper and avocado into a tortilla. Fold in half. Use the toast press to heat. Open, add chopped tomatoes and lettuce. Boom. Montenegrin Burrito. Surprisingly good.
For restaurant vegan options, I venture to Old Town the last two days I’m there so I can share my findings with you guys. Most restaurants along the beach and in Old Town offer a variation of this menu: 1 page seafood, 1 page pasta, 2 pages pizza, 15 pages meat. Several of these restaurants, when I inquire with the host, would be willing to offer pizza without cheese, or a basic Spaghetti Napoletana without parmesan.
I do find two places with authentic vegan options.
Budva Juice Bar
Vranjak 13, Old Town, Budva, Montenegro
This place feels like a miracle when I find it. The menu looks fresh and lively, they offer fresh juice (and fresh juice COCKTAILS, y’all), and I see actual salads listed.
I’m right about to go for the Mexican Chopped Salad with beans and corn when my eyes alight upon the Oriental Salad. Sold. So sold. Planning to order a fresh watermelon juice, my mouth accidentally says, “…and a glass of Prosecco, please.”
The salad is huge. I only finish half and take the rest home for dinner.
Budva Old Town
The following day, I walk into Old Town for one last lunch before my bus departs for Novi Sad. Though I’m on my way to Budva Juice, Shanghai Kitchen draws me in. I think,“If there’s a vegan option in Budva that I walk past, I’m not being a very responsible blogger.” Seriously. So I stop to examine the menu.
The waiter sees me and tries to hustle me to a table. I tell him I’m looking for vegan options.
“So, no meat, no egg, no cheese…”
He cuts me off.
“Yes, Yes, I know! Well, a little meat and milk sometimes, because,” and he gestures to the town around him,”but I am a vegetarian too!”
He’s excited to have someone with a similar diet, and so goes over every single that is vegan or can be made vegan. It’s a breath of fresh air, and reminds me of the restaurant owner in Novi Sad.
In the end, I order the basic vegetable fried rice and a side salad.
The fried rice is your typical oily fried rice with vegetables, but it’s a steal at €3 and with a little soy sauce and hot peppers, a satisfying lunch.
My waiter comes up to me as I’m eating and gives me this hat:
I fret while I finish my meal for the next 20 minutes about what to do. Do I thank him, take it, and leave it at the hostel? I don’t want to hurt his feelings. In the end, I thank him profusely and tell him I’m traveling and don’t have room for a hat in my backpack.
“It’s OK. I just want to show you respect. Vegetarian goodwill.” He smiles, and I walk away happy.
The vegan food is probably harder to track down here in Budva and in Novi Sad than in any other Eastern European country I’ve been in, but it’s honestly not too difficult. You may not get the best variety, but chances are you’ll find some special meals and meet some special people while looking.
Budva is a small town–the population for all but two months of the year is 10,000–that has seen a growth in tourism in the last five years. Montenegro as a country is something special. I have a feeling it will keep growing as it makes the necessary ecological and political changes to join the EU and as backpackers and travelers from around the world keep discovering the natural wonders and unique beaches of Montenegro.