It was my third time in Podgorica (formerly known as Titograd), but the first time that I was there in charge of my own agenda, as it were (my first visit in January 2002 was organised by the government, and my second in July 2006 by my field staff, back in the days when I had field staff). Our hotel was in the rather small Ottoman part of the city, near the clock tower and the mosques. Our business was all in the more modern district, which is a big rectilinear grid straddling the Morača river; it is oddly confusing, with both me and my colleague getting disoriented by the similar-looking streets. The shopping and restaurant section, along with some official buildings, takes up the southeastern half of the grid, on the eastern side of the river; the other half has some more official buildings along the far edge but is mainly occupied by the Morača gorge. The centre of Podgorica is buzzing, as you would expect of the capital of a newly independent country; the Balkan cafe culture is alive and well. No difficulty finding food or drink until well into the night.
It was my second time in Albania, after a conference there in April 2005. First time round I had rather bad luck with the food, but no complaints at all this time: our hotel was the International, on Scanderbeg Square, with breakfast and dinner on the balcony overlooking the monumental architecture (with the significant advantage that you cannot actually see the International Hotel itself). The sound of the muezzin comes at regular intervals from the Et'hem Bey mosque (though apparently this is pretty cosmetic, as nobody actually worships there, and the call to dawn prayers did not wake us as it usually does in Muslim countries - I suspect it doesn't in fact happen). Tirana is rather brimming with self-confidence; the Albanian economy has been growing massively, they just got invited to join NATO, and the nasty infighting which has characterised the political scene since the fall of Communism has died down, at least for the time being.
We drove between the two capitals, a distance of 160 km / 100 miles, the same as between Dublin and Belfast. The road on the Albanian side is very good from Shkodër down to Tirana, which is basically the southern two thirds of the route. In Tirana itself it is pretty bad - massive roadworks, which presumably will lead to some improvement. From Shkodër to Podgorica it is surprisingly empty of traffic for a major route between the capitals of two neighbouring countries. On our way down, we found ourselves negotiating with pigs and sheep that had wandered onto it. On the way back up again, in an even more graphic indicator of the traffic levels, we saw a tortoise crossing the road with no apparent concern (though how one could tell if a tortoise was worried, I am not sure). On the Montenegrin side in particular it is really twisty and narrow. Apparently there are plans to upgrade it over the next couple of years.
The Montenegrin coast is lovely as ever. I flew in on a direct flight from Brussels to Tivat airport, rented the car there and drove up to Podgorica; and dropped down to the coast again yesterday to see a friend who was staying there. It's much cheaper than the Croatian coast, and still relatively unspoilt. I found it very interesting, though, that the coastline was festooned with posters inviting you to buy your Montenegrin dream home - in Russian. I was told that 18% of foreign investment in Montenegro is from Russia, compared with 52% from the EU; I wonder how that compares with other countries?
Anyway, back home safely. Off to Belfast for 24 hours tomorrow; will be glad when this run of travel is over.