Finding organic grocers in Europe, bio restaurants, cafes and bakeries, getting used to communicating through my shyness and language barriers with farmers, wandering local outdoor markets filled with tables spilling with edible colour grown by producers who may not be certified but still do not use sprays or chemical fertilizers, avoiding packaging, compensating for calories lost from all the walking with organic chocolate, … it is all becoming easier, routine, even fun.
Take a stroll through the town center, find the university and student areas, yoga studios, pockets of artist ateliers, and all you have to do is keep an eye out for that signature green adopted by most businesses who wish to advertise the availability of organic products within their premises. But, the farther south I go, moving into the Balkans, ‘green’ alternatives become less apparent and less readily available. My customary wanderings through new towns paired with Google searches are bringing up fewer and fewer results. The slimming pickings paired with a growing desire to see more than just the next city prompted me to search out an eco-tour company close to my next stop.
I am not a big fan of organized tours, nor do I buy into the eco holiday draw that aims to coax folks from one side of the planet onto a jumbo jet into a jeep through a jungle to a tent all in order to hike a mountain. But, I was running out of ideas, and my bag of my-family-doesn’t-use-sprays fruit and nuts was emptying fast.
Time to find a new way to spend my limited resources.
Defeatist and a bit desperate. This was my mindset when I first found Montenegro Eco Adventures, so I was all geared up to be disappointed for one reason or another. After checking their pricing to make sure I could actually afford to book a tour, I headed over to their ‘About Us’ menu, prepared for a quick read of a couple short paragraphs mentioning recycling and perhaps a commitment to use post consumer materials in their office.
What I found was so, so much more. Almost ‘too good to be true’ so much more. On their company values page they make statements that have this little greeny’s heart skipping several beats. Raising awareness, educating the public, environmental sustainability paired with social and economic responsibility, managing group size and rotating locations to reduce or avoid damage caused by large numbers of visitors, staff involvement as well as financial contributions to local initiatives … If they were true to their written word, this sounded like a gem of a company worthy of my hard earned cash.
Dangerously hopeful, fingers crossed that they were not closed during the off season, I typed out an email asking if it would be possible to put together a package mixing some sightseeing, culture, and an outdoor activity? A couple of emails and a short skype call later, Tamara helped me to choose the perfect itinerary for two full days of Montenegrin experiences.
I arrived at MEA’s Podgorica office fresh off the early morning bus from Kotor after the perfect day in the mountains. Buzzing with memories of an exquisite sunset paired with images of my first glimpses of inland Montenegro as the following sunrise painted the landscape pinks and oranges. I was pumped and primed.
Tamara greets me warmly, walks me through a bit of paperwork, assures me that I can safely leave my bag behind, and introduces me to Nikola, my guide for the two days. Off we go.
First stop Cetinje, the old capital, with a detour for a glimpse of Lake Skadar. I eventually learn that Nikola, along with having an extensive knowledge of his country’s history, is the main field researcher behind the ferreting and weeding of posers from the truly environmentally conscious and those willing to work towards a change. He shares with me details about MEA’s zero waste initiatives, revealing how he did not use to see the trash so liberally scattered across the face of his country. Now he cannot unsee it and hopes to open the eyes of his fellow Montenegrins.
He turns out to be the perfect guide, his demeanour casual and comfortable, cultural details pouring forth and painting an historical tapestry of Montenegro with a richness and passion which keeps me curious for more. After strolling through a museum, past historical landmarks, through a park elegant in its winter bareness, we drive from Cetinje into the hills towards the organic beekeeper’s home. I have been secretly salivating in anticipation of this next stop.
A tall man greets us, a bit shyly, but charming. He is not a salesman, not a practiced tour guide, he is a white collar worker who spends his spare time at home caring for bees. We walk past sleeping hives boxed in blue, white, yellow, and green.
I am led into a cozy cave of a room in the basement of his house. Past a line of hanging bouquets, drying flowers and herbs which bring to mind the bundles of colour my grandfather used to snip from his garden and leave suspended around our home. I settle into a chair, table laid out with a variety of bottles and jars the beekeeper begins to describe. Honey, of course, including a delicious looking dish of walnuts swimming in the dark nectar. But there is something unexpected. Several bottles of mead! A honey liquor that has been my undoing many a time in the past.
Plates are filled, mead is poured, an hour and a half of sumptuous culinary indulgence begins. I soon notice how our host’s eyes light up whenever given an opportunity to speak of his meads. With Nikola translating, I ask about the process, does he have a favourite? Without hesitating he gestures to the rectangular bottle, a liquor made with honey and green walnuts, touted to have medicinal benefits. He has been working on the subtleties of this one for a while and has finally found the right balance.
While describing the fermentation process he mentions pumpkin mead. Pumpkin mead? That is a new one for me. Berries, flowers, herbs, yes. But gourds? So, he pulls out a large glass jug from the back and displays it proudly.
He is not one for photos, but his smile is so wide I beg him to hold still long enough for a quick shot.
It is time to go, the beekeeper needs to get back to his daytime job. I thank him profusely for his time and hospitality, wishing I had room in my bag for a few bottles, wishing I was not such a light weight and not already tipsy for the first time since Paris after just a few delicate glasses of ambrosia.
We drive back to the office in Podgorica where Tamara is waiting with a smile. It was a great day, I assure her. Nikola helps me find my hostel, arranges a pick up time for the morning. Day one is done, and my opinion of guided tours has climbed up more than a few notches on my list of travel preferences. The shiny memories from the day before do not eclipse the new ones from today as I had originally feared.
Day two is horses and wine, thankfully in that order. Now that I think about it, that was probably done on purpose. =)