Postcards from Monetengro

“What belongs to others we do not want, but what is ours we will never surrender.” – Phrase inscribed over the entrance gate to the old city of Kotor

And rightly so, because Montenegro is the coessential Adriatic country that should never fail to impress: on one side, the mountain; on the other, the sea, and in between, little towns and villages are strewn like pearls alongside the picturesque Bay of Kotor. Such is the case with Perast, Kotor and Budva.
The first two are understandably UNESCO World Heritage Sites, while Budva, apart from its awesome beaches, is a city where the urban boom seems to encroach the old city from all directions.

Kotor, the most fascinating of the three, has over 4 kilometers of city walls and fortifications that, in big part, date back the Venetian rule and surround the whole city. The Medieval city is well preserved because –luckily- Montenegro did not suffer heavy bombardment like other ex-Yugoslavian countries (it became an independent country only in 2006).

The dramatic setting of Kotor against elevated mountains creates a perfect backdrop against which all the back streets and alleys seem to vanish into infinity. Add some medieval buildings, pleasant piazzas and great food, and you have just figured out the city’s winning Mediterranean formula.

Then comes Perast, a little gem of a town on the coast that seems to rise from the very waters of the Adriatic, with small colorful boars dancing along the miniature marina. A boat ride to the nearby Island of Our Lady of the Rock is more than just a pleasant voyage: it’s an obligatory visit for two reasons. First, to visit the church and to enjoy fantastic views of the nearby Island of St. George which –somehow- resembles Arnold Böcklin’s painting, The Island of Death. Second, to experience the devotion of the natives who actually built this artificial island using rocks and sunken ships to commemorate the discovery of an icon featuring the Virgin and Child.

One can go on and on, but the photos would do a better job showing the beauties of the Montenegrin urban and natural landscapes.


Copenhagen: A Weekend among the happy Danes

In addition to being the ‘coolest kid on the Nordic block’ as the Lonely Planet puts it, the Danes must be among the coolest people ever: friendly, helpful and cheerful. It comes as no surprise for what is regarded as ‘the world’s happiest nation’!
What makes the Danes happy? There is no one definitive answer, but there are parks and bikes everywhere! Modern design is at home, the urban landscape is fantastic, and the cuisine is as exquisite as you wallet could afford.

I decided to hit the big attractions right away, starting with the picture-perfect 17th century waterfront of Nyhavn, where tradition houses with colored facades stand shoulder by shoulder, casting their playful reflections on the dancing water of the canal. I went again in the afternoon, by sunset, and at night. This is how much I liked it. It gets even more interesting when you hop on a boar for a grand canal tour.

Copenhagen is home to Europe’s oldest attraction park (Tivoli), as well as Europe’s oldest functioning observatory (the Round Tower, 1642), something that makes perfect sense for country that produced the likes of Tycho Brahe and Nicholas Copernicus. The panoramic views from the Tower are lovely, but one can best experience the city on a bike or on foot: the Strædet Street, the Amagertorv Square and other streets and squares in the old town all make for a pleasant walk, while buildings and momuments like the Old Stock Exchange with its fantastic spire, the Amalienborg Palace, the Marble Church and the Gefion Fountain are all not to be missed.

Funny enough, the one thing that no one seems to miss in Copenhagen is the smallest attraction that there is: the Little Mermaid statue that sits further along the Langelinie Promenade. H. C. Anderson’s legacy is alive and so are the houses where he lived in Nyhavn.

Following a nap at the park in the shadow of the Rosenborg Castle, I walked to the nearby David Collection Museum which, surprisingly, houses one of the most extraordinary collections of Islamic Art in Europe, while at the Design Museum I came to understand why the Danes are so good with everything they design! Actually, the whole city is a living monument to the alchemy of harmony between old and modern architecture. In addition to the Black Pearl and the Opera House, the Blue Planet Aquarium is a great example of that modern architecture, and a site worth every penny / second of the visit.

Having quenched my thirst for exploration, I had to appease my appetite, and it so happened that we headed to Schonnemann, a legendary restaurant famous for serving delicious varieties of the Danish national dish: the open sandwich. For someone whose idea about Nordic food is limited to smoked salmon, lunch came as a complete and welcome surprise to my taste buds: boiled-at-sea Greenland shrimps come side by side with friend plaice and marinated herring, a seafood feast with a Danish twist.

It was time for something different: Freetown Christiania. This neighborhood, which claims autonomy, has become an epitome of alternative lifestyle and a barter economy laboratory (soft and hard drugs included). Ever since it appeared in the early 1970s. controversy has persisted regarding its model and its future. Walking around the makeshift shops and graffiti-laden houses, one quickly gets a feeling that, beyond the apparent chaos, some sort of order exists. One that obeys a different rhythm and a distinct logic. A walk up and down then off I went to Nyhavn again to catch my canal tour.

One bridge after another and tale after tale, Copenhagen is a great tale to tell and an even better tale to experience. The only anecdote from my stay was the debate that followed my lecture there (on Northern Renaissance Art) about the inclusion of Albrecht Durer in the lecture: to some of the attendees, he is not ‘Northern’ enough since he was born in ‘Southern Germany’! No comment.