Gaudí or gaudy?
Gaudí or gaudy?
Get a Room
Our theme is love. Bildungsroman juice. Seasons come and seasons go. Late winter sunset over Barcelona. “We are at liberty,” as Cristina says in Woody Allen’s slick flick Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Sipping vermut mocktails coffee in Casanova Hotel’s Sky Bar is where it’s at. Some things are always in season. Life is what happens when you’re busy making fans. “Glory days,” as Suzy Knickerbocker might have said.
Grace is Grace
Stevan Milic, General Manager of the luxurious Portonovi resort in Herceg Novi, proclaims, “It’s a good life. The country is progressing. The economy is growing.” It’s impossible to disagree, lunching at Verige65, the restaurant with a view attached. Enjoying mozzarella and tomato, sushi tempura, shellfish platters, cheesecake and chocolate cake along with full bodied local Merlot from Savina Winery, we’re living our best lives, doing our bit to advance the country and support the economy.
Number 85 Piccadilly
Bookended by the Fox Club and the former In and Out Club (a shroud of scaffolding is due to be removed imminently to unveil the capital’s most hotly anticipated new hotel), Number 85 Piccadilly was also once a club. Sir Robert Taylor’s late 18th century New Grafton House was transformed into the Turf Club by John Norton in 1875. Loosely Italianate, a twin canted bay façade faced Green Park although the entrance was off Clarges Street. A recessed arch enjoyed parallel curvature with the fanlight over the doorway. A semicircle in a semicircle. The Turf Club was renowned for having 16 ducal members at one time. It was demolished in 1966.
The replacement building could have hardly been more different to its ornate predecessor. A disruptive 10 storey office block – bands of ribbon glazing interrupted by precast concrete panels – takes no architectural prisoners, no neighbourly nod, no design deference. It is what it is. Or rather it was what it was. The elevations at ground and mezzanine level, if not quite softened, have been innovatively refined. Design consultancy Lustedgreen has opened up the solid infilled areas between the structural bays and installed large format seamless glazing. Bronze fascia panels have been introduced between the two floors. The material is inspired by the Ritz Hotel along Piccadilly. The pattern is derived from the plane tree bark of Green Park. A rigidly controlled palette energises the robustness of the materiality both old and new.
All these external changes heralded the arrival of Hide, a restaurant celebrating the brilliance of young chef Ollie Dabbous. After five years running his hugely successful eponymous restaurant in Fitzrovia, Yevgeny Chichvarkin and Tatiana Fokina persuaded Ollie to head up their new venture. The Russian power pair also own Hedonism, a top end wine shop in Mayfair. The restaurant is spread over three floors – basement, ground and mezzanine – linked by a whirl of a wood staircase. The external reliance on materiality continues indoors. Rustic chic is the look with plenty of wood. Even the pen that comes with the bill is on brand. Wood. Brown dome pendant lights set in larger glass domes resemble broken eggshells. Semi-spheres in semi-spheres. Cast bronze filigree sun shades on the mezzanine windows are decorated with a leaf skeletal design. The ground floor is slightly sunken, giving guests a good view of passing Louboutins.
Ollie is full of energy, bounding up from the kitchen where he’s hard at it. “So good to see you again! I’m glad you came now as we’re really getting established! Hide is doing brilliantly!” If guests don’t fancy anything on the wood backed wine list, an order can be placed with Hedonism. Just 12 minutes later, a bottle of their finest – 6,500 wines and spirits to choose from – will arrive on guests’ tables. Brunch is soft shell crab tempura with Thai basil and green peppercorns. The crab, perched on a pebble, has been deconstructed then reconstructed. Kohlrabi, ripe pear, elderflower vinegar and perilla lies somewhere between liquid and solid. Cornish mackerel tartare and iced eucalyptus arrives steaming. It’s a shock to the senses to discover it’s a cold dish. Canelés cooked in beeswax, twisting textures, complete a wild and wonderful brunch.
Portonovi + Boka Bay Montenegro
“Just as if I have returned to town from the most beautiful fairytale of my childhood.” Sophia Loren
The great Italian actress is a fan. Roughly the size of Northern Ireland but with less than a third its population, Montenegro is experiencing a long overdue tourism renaissance. This small country clinging to the edge of the Adriatic Sea in southeast Europe is set to enhance its luxury offer. Its tourism may date back to the 14th century when Sjora Roza boasted a tavern and café but it wasn’t until Montenegro regained independence in 2006 that it started securing travel destination status. Like Northern Ireland, you can only travel about 150 kilometres or so before driving into the sea or crossing a border. Unlike Northern Ireland, it averages 250 sunny days a year.
Where nature ends (five National Parks), architecture begins (three cultural Unesco World Heritage Sites). Durmitor National Park alone has 82 kilometres of canyon, 23 peaks over 2,300 metres, 18 glacial lakes and is home to 163 bird types and 1,500 flora species. It may have beaches stretching for nearly 300 kilometres, but Montenegro takes its name from the Italian for “Black Mountain”. Swim in the morning; ski in the afternoon.
Herceg Novi on Boka Bay is known as “The City of the Sun” and “The City of 100,000 Steps”. It’s both. Although “City” is pushing it for somewhere with 30,000 residents, the same population as Ballymena in Northern Ireland. The Nobel Prize Poet Laureate Ivo Andrić went further, describing it as a place of “eternal greenery, sun and promenades”. The setting is impossibly romantic: mimosa cloaked historic buildings cluster at the foot of Mount Orjen where it meets the coast. The walled Old Town, or Stari Grad, is an eclectic mix of architecture. Not surprising, considering Montenegro has belonged to six Empires – Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Venetian, Napoleonic and Austrian – followed by a stint in Yugoslavia before becoming the People’s Republic.
Now, Herceg Novi is set to expand. “Montenegro essence” is the strapline for the new waterside development Portonovi. It aims to capture on 26 hectares all that is great about the country. A destination within a destination. A microcosm of Montenegrin discernment. The site was a military base – 90 buildings from the 20th century were demolished. One very precious building was saved: a 16th chapel with rare 18th century frescoes. It is being carefully restored and returned to its original use. The Government is retaining the freehold of the whole site but went out to international tender for its redevelopment. Ahmet Erentok, Chairman of Azerbaijani company Azmont, who won the contract explains, “Portonovi is our largest investment outside the Azerbaijan.” It will total almost €1 billion (€960 million to be exact) when complete.
General Manager Stevan Milic relates, “Portonovi has two kilometres of coastline and a 238 berth marina. There will be 8,500 square metres retail space and a further 7,500 square metres of multifunctional floorspace. Amenities will include high fashion shops, jewellers, galleries, a gym, health club and Espace Chenot Spa. The first phase opening shortly will deliver 214 homes including 50 rental properties.” The average home is €1.6 million for 157 square metres of accommodation. Prices range from €600,000 for a one bed to €11 million for a six bed villa. The first One + Only Hotel in Europe with 10 branded villas will open next year. Its standard room will be 65 square metres. “Europe’s largest smallest room!” smiles Ahmet. The hotel will include two restaurants: Locatelli Italian and Tapa Saki Japanese. A sandy beach, tennis courts, water features and gardens will bind the built and natural environments together.
“Portonovi is typical Mediterranean style with lots of stone, timber pergolas and vivid colours,” Stevan points out. “It looks like it’s been here for ages! Other designs are completely different with lots of glass. But there’s a nice unity. Each group of homes has a pool and all the penthouses have their own rooftop infinity pools. The buildings only go up to a maximum five storeys and the slope of the site allows most properties to have sea views. Portonovi is a very high end resort of the type you can find in France or Italy.” Its Italian contractor and developer, Pizzarotti, are renowned for top end schemes in Monaco and New York. British architects Harper Downie add to the international talent collaboration. The cross border marina and helipad include passport control, customs and police. Tivat airport is just 15 minutes travel by boat. A VIP helicopter summer service from Dubrovnik adds to the luxury transport options.
Serpentine corniches snake round the coastline of Boka Bay. Verige 65 is an arrow shaped restaurant and bar built on a former parking lot at the bay’s narrowest point, 13 kilometres from Portonovi. The views are spectacular and constantly changing with the weather – Montenegro lives up to its “wild beauty” tagline – as the clouds and mountains merge and disentangle at a moment’s glance. Local tour guide Liset Kuhar calls the tiny islands in the middle of the bay in front of Verige 65 “our two little pearls”. She notes, “Our Lady of the Rocks was manmade in the 1400s. St George is a natural island with a Benedictine monastery dating from the 1100s.” Chardonnay served comes from Savina winery in nearby Herceg Novi.
Perast and Kotor are two Unesco World Heritage Sites close to Portonovi. Liset refers to Perast as “a little piece of Venice”. Bujović Palace is one of its many architectural gems. Designed by Venetian Giovanni Battista Fontana in 1694 for Vicko Bujović, Commander of the Town Fleet, the palace is what American philosopher Marilynne Robinson would call “an exploration of a glorious mind” set in stone. Liset continues, “Perast is a gorgeous baroque town built by seafaring noble families. Kotor is like Perast with stone walls and terracotta roofs. The town walls of Kotor date back to the ninth century.”
Over dinner in Porto, a traditional restaurant in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the Minister of Sustainable Development and Tourism Pavle Radulović acknowledges Montenegro isn’t very well known yet. “It’s a challenge; it’s an advantage. We’re trying to spread the tourist season which at present is concentrated from April to September. We’re diversifying the offer. We want the upper class of clientele to come to the Bay of Kotor. In Boka Bay in particular, we’re encouraging high end luxury tourism. We know how to cater for the needs of high net worth individuals. We’re not targeting the mass market in Boka Bay. We’ve different plans for other places. For example, we’re promoting Budva as a party town. DJ David Guetta played there recently. We want to elevate all levels of tourism.”
Pavle is in charge of the largest Government department which covers climate change, spatial planning and the environment in general. Ecology is written into its constitution. His broad remit of sustainable development and tourism is key to increasing national prosperity while keeping the country unspoiled. “We’ve opened over 50 hotels in the last two years,” he adds. “Tourism has grown to two million visitors in 2018 bringing €1 billion to the economy. But we’re very careful with growing our offer. We’re building a product. This is the place to visit; this is the place to live. We have the second deepest canyon in the world and one of the biggest natural reservoirs in Europe.”
Ahmet believes real luxury is “when you feel really comfortable, where you can be yourself in your own zone. Portonovi is a place to escape, to call up your friends and hang out for two or three days or longer. We could’ve invested anywhere but we chose Montenegro for the beauty of the country. The people are very hospitable, very committed, very friendly. Most importantly, I want Portonovi to be the number one project, the best place in Herceg Novi, the best place in Montenegro!” It’s difficult not to wax lyrical about Montenegro in winter, from the glimmering amber sun fading behind the onyx shaded clouds to the emerald green hills dotted with lemon quartz mimosa trees and alabaster alpine resorts reaching down to the golden speckled strands and clear sapphire waters. This country really is a jewel in the crown of the Adriatic Coast. As Marilynne Robinson would say, Montenegro exudes “a ravishing sense of the divine beauty manifest in Creation”. The great English poet was a fan.
The Pedagogy of the Impossible
“It’s a gorgeous baroque town. A little piece of Venice with very baroque stone walls and terracotta roofs.” Our tour guide is Liset Kuhar. “It was built by mostly seafaring and noble families. There are just 70 families live here.” Perast is below the peak of Sveti Ilija, facing across the Verige Strait to Verige 65 restaurant.
The loggia and balconies of Bujović Palace practically spill onto the serpentine coastal road. Built in 1694 by the Commander of the Town Fleet Vicko Bujović to the designs of Giovanni Battista Fontana, the palace is a pure Renaissance fantasy of architecture and setting and poetry. It faces Our Lady of the Rocks, a 1400s artificial islet in the Bay of Kotor.
“The coast of Montenegro is for the people. The first three metre span of water, sand or rock has to be accessible to the public unless businesses pay for up to 70 percent of its use. The other 30 percent has to be available for people to come with a towel to sunbathe on. This doesn’t apply to resorts.”
“Mussel farms in the sea are very popular because the limestone mountains filter the water. Mussels grow on the nets, the ropes, they grow anywhere! It takes one year to grow a full harvest. Steamed mussels with white wine are popular, the more wine the better! Add garlic, parsley and olive oil. Very easy and delicious!”
“Kotor coastal people have their own culture; it’s an independent area. A lot of words specific to the Bay of Kotor are very similar to the old Italian. They say ‘Adio’ for goodbye. The tradition of working at sea has been going for centuries. Real estate prices here are high.”
Portonovi – a chauffeur driven Italian and Libyan PR aided Forbes accompanied blacked out windowed Mercedes people carrier drive away from Perast – is more than a development. It’s a lifestyle. So now we’re listening to Portonovi Presents A Touch of Montenegro majestically ¬mixed by local maestros Darko Nićević and Srdan Bulatović. A mesmerising medley of waltzes and jigs, this classical goes trad album will have us dancing till dawn:
• Daybreak Yet to Come
• In the Field it Rais’d
• Slender Fir
• White Water Wavelets
• A Beautiful Shepherdess
• Ye Lassie
• Under the Hillside
The Whole Enchilada
On a rainy Friday morning the five star Hilton Crna Gora Hotel in Podgorica is all abuzz. Six foot plus male and female bodyguards are lingering in the lobby, cameramen are mingling with journalists in the corridor, before hey presto a cavalcade of black Mercedes pulls up under the porte-cochère. Glamour Montenegrin style. Turns out the Presidents of the countries that made up former Yugoslavia are at the Hilton for a press conference. Casual.
“Podgorica means ‘Under the Hill’ in English,” explains Adrijana Husić, Marketing and Communications Manager of Portonovi, a luxury coastal Montenegrin resort. “The capital lies on five rivers. In summer it can reach 45 degrees centigrade. Podgorica is in central Montenegro away from the sea. All the Government municipal and administration work is here. All the media are basically located here. The focal point of the Old Town is the 18th century clock tower. Behind the clock tower is Pod Volat grill, a popular meeting place for politicians. There are two mosques in the Old Town.” The historic houses are a mix of single and double height villas, many surrounded by head height trellis-like wire netting. Odd.
It’s a land of figs and honey. Montenegrins love to eat and who could blame them with such divine natural resources? It’s easy to mistake a starter for a main course when actually it’s an oversized amuse bouche. And why have one pudding when you can try a few? In Porto restaurant on Stanka Dragojevica, the clubby part of town, salt baked fish is cooked on an open fire in front of guests. What a beguiling spectacle. Unusual.
Ahmet Erentok, Chairman of Azmont Investments who are funding Portonovi, relates, “I have many houses and satellite homes throughout the world. I have a foundation in Washington. But this the place where I am most comfortable. I wake up to a view of the Adriatic from my bedroom. You can swim at 9am and then go skiing!” Pavle Radulović, Minister of Sustainable Development and Tourism, the largest Government department, concludes, “Montenegro is like a New Zealand 2.5 hours from London.” Different.
Feline Fine | Lavender’s Green
Our guide is the exquisite Liset Kuhar who is Peruvian by birth.
“Kotor was founded by the 4th Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, in the 10th century. The town walls, extending for 4.5 kilometres, were built between the 9th and the 14th centuries. The Fort of St John towers over the town.” A vertigo healing climb to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, 1518, is a life must.
“Kotor is the most important town on the coast of the Bay of Kotor.”
“The town is triangular in shape with north, south and west gateways. The most recent entrance was constructed in 1555; the oldest dates from the 1400s.” A wedge of beauty.
Christmas decorations – festoons, mistletoe and ribbons – hang from the stone architecture. It’s not Christmas though. “We love Christmas, Advent, the whole season here. The Mayor of Kotor declared he’d spent so much on Christmas decorations they were to stay up for several months!”
Most towns do not have nine palaces. Kotor is not like most towns. Buća Palace is 14th century. Drago Palace dates from the 14th to 17th century. Bizanti, Grunbonja and Pima are 17th century palaces. There are four 18th century palaces: Beskuća, Grgurina, Lombardie and Vrakjen.
Cats are everywhere, nonchalantly strolling the streets, curiously peering out of doorways, meticulously sprucing themselves on walls, vainly posing on pedestals, playfully jumping up steps.
We’re in love.
Pantheon of Pedigree | Lollardy
Flying into Belgrade on Serbian Airlines in the dead of night, the city appears in monochrome, a patchwork of bright quilted snow and dark velvety buildings and forestry. A special opening of the National Museum awaits. Founded in 1844, the museum started out as a preservation and research institution, helping define national identity. An emphasis on collecting would follow. The National Museum grew into a defining symbol of Serbian culture and society.
One of its greatest treasures is Miroslav’s Gospel. This is the oldest and rarest surviving illuminated parchment manuscript in Serbian Cyrillic. The Gospel was commissioned in the 1280s by Miroslav of Hum, a nobleman and brother of Stefan Nemanja, Grand Prince of Rascia. It is a compilation of handwritten texts for church readings throughout the year. The manuscript has 362 pages and contains 296 coloured ink illustrations. It was presented to King Alexander I of Serbia when he visited Hilandar Monastery in 1896. During the World Wars, Miroslav’s Gospel was hidden in bank vaults before being granted a forever home in the National Museum of Serbia.
History and Harmony
Adrijana Husić, Marketing Manager of Portonovi (a luxury resort in Herceg Novi), is a Podgorica resident. She explains, “King Nikola I Park is off Freedom Street. The land was gifted by the Azerbaijani Embassy at the beginning of the 20th century. Nikola was the last royal ruler of Montenegro. His initials in Montenegrin are on the park railings.” Upon independence in 2006, Montenegrin was proclaimed the national language. There were 30 letters in the alphabet but very excitingly a couple of years later two more letters were added. “Albanian surnames end with ‘ch’,” confirms Adrijana, “while Montenegrin surnames end with ‘ić’.”
The Universe’s Valhalla
It looks like a palace you would come across in Veneto, with lower wings stretching out from a central block. That’s not entirely coincidental. It may be located next to the medieval town of Herceg Novi in Montenegro, but the original block of Lazure Hotel is 18th century Venetian. We arrive at midnight looking fresh as first bloom mimosas after a two hour drive through the mountains from the capital Podgorica. It might be 12 o’clock but we’re greeted with a typically effusive Montenegrin welcome. And pizzas. And good Turkish filter coffee served with fresh honey.
The solidity of the building’s massing is hollowed out by courtyards; some open to the elements, others glazed over. Such extravagance of space. New apartments behind the original building have mountain views. A spa and fitness suite as well as yacht club and café will complete this alluring complex. Our first floor suite has views of the 221 berth marina, softly illuminated on this mild night. Montenegro is the new Monte Carlo.
Suite dreams are made of this: a sitting room with kitchen facilities (Smeg appliances naturally), bathroom, en suite and large – that extravagance of space reoccurring – double bedroom. So light, so airy, so spacious. So technologically advanced: a light around the bed comes on automatically when you place your feet on the floor. Lazure style is all about modern rustic. Think exposed stone walls and abstract paintings and lots and lots of white.
Next to a platter of petit fours on our coffee table a note reads, “On the behalf of the entire Lazure Hotel + Marina staff, we would like to take this opportunity to welcome you to our own ‘Place of Relocation’. Friendly smiles are contagious and courteous service is our standard. Enjoy your stay and share the experience!”
It wasn’t originally a palace but rather grand naval offices. The receptionist gives us a midnight tour. She explains all the original architecture had to be kept intact. Our tour highlight is the Chapel of St Rocco, Keeper of the Dead. It opens, surprisingly, right off the main lounge area. A fresco of St Rocco himself dominates the miniscule windowless room. And so to bed, only to waken up to views across the azure Kotor Bay to the snowy peaks of the Luštica Peninsula.
Tea for Two