It’s summer and I’m on an impulsive trip to Montenegro. For three days, I wander through Biogradska Gora National Park, alone with my thoughts. As there are often no marked trails, I am hiking in the middle of nowhere, guided by instructions given by my hosts along the route and a few points on maps.me.
Every night, I sleep at a different mountain hut settlement belonging to a local family. A Katun, as they’re called. At the Katuns, people have a peculiar circle of life. People spend the coldest months at the bottom of mountains. Once the snow melts, families would move their whole livestock up the mountain to graze on highland grasses among a group of Katun mountain huts. During this time, the village grass is allowed to grow for winter use.
Back in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, I meet up with Brit Boone and Jovan Jovanovic from Meanderburg. They’ve provided me with all the information I needed to plan my hike and our interview immediately transforms into a cosy talk.
After years of back-and-forth travels to the Balkans, US-native Brit decided to make Montenegro his new home and build projects that bring good to the community. As the founder of Meanderbug, he cooperates with local communities to plan travel experiences that provide work opportunities where it has been lacking. Jovan is one of Meanderbug’s guides. He’s young, charming and full of energy. “The world needs more Jovans,” summarizes Brit.
I have just come back from my hut-to-hut hike in Biogradska Gora and must say: this has been unforgettable. But I think I’ve only scratched the surface. What did I just experience?
Brit: For three days, you’ve lived the Katun lifestyle. Katuns are more than mountain huts: they are the only indigenous Montenegrin architecture there is. They are places of both rest and work. Families often keep horses, cows and sheep as well as a vegetable garden. They make their own bread, cheese, milk and dried meat. And as hosts, they open up their home for you.
The katun is the beating heart of the old culture. They’re also in danger of extinction. The mountain villages are dying, as the younger generations leave to the bigger cities and the locals who stay, struggle to keep their lifestyles viable. They can no longer find sufficient income, maintain their villages and support their children. In these areas, it is unimaginable to start a business. There’s also a lack of representation: the government doesn’t even know exactly how many katuns there are in this country.
The katun is the beating heart of the Montenegrin north. They’re also in danger of extinction. The mountain villages are dying, as the younger generations leave to the bigger cities and the locals who stay, struggle to keep their lifestyles viable.
It’s hard to imagine these old ways to die out. But I’m guessing you have a plan.
Brit: By opening the katuns up for sustainable tourism, we are allowing them to hold onto their lifestyle and to continue living their dreams.
Jovan: Katuns that want to join our network, receive training in sustainability, invoicing and communication. We offer professional photography and host their katun as an accommodation on our platforms.
Brit: We’re also giving them a voice that reaches further than their valleys. The katuns have an oral culture. The boundaries of their lands are not recorded, nor is the ownership of the houses. Their relationships are based on ties and verbal agreements. When visiting, you don’t introduce yourself with your first name, but your last. It’s a game of trust: do I know where you’re from, do I know your family?
When transitioning into a written society with new laws, you suddenly notice all these problems of land rights and housing regulations. The tourism legislation is focused on coastal apartments, even directly copy-pasted from Croatia. The regulation on sewage, electricity and toilets doesn’t match the context of these katuns.
When visiting, you don’t introduce yourself with your first name, but your last. It’s a game of trust: do I know where you’re from, do I know your family?
Got it, you’re trying to save the katun way of life. How do you do this sustainably?
Brit: A lot of the current problems are very practical. They need toilets for their guests, so we can designed compost toilets suitable for this mountainous area. We talk about which types of electricity they’d need and investigate how that’d be possible. On some issues, we push back against the government’s regulations. Why would we bring water – and plumbing – to these areas when they have sources of the purest water all around them?
We noticed that the owners of the katuns are very welcoming all positive changes on their piece of land. Put even one foot outside of those lands, however, and they lose all interest. The government’s concern, they’d say. But by improving roads and trails, building communities and organize environmental clean ups, we safeguard the environment and allow travelers to connect more freely with the local culture.
Jovan: This is where we’re noticing a real shift. A lot of our partners ask us for sustainable solutions and see us as a reputable guide.The network of katuns also allows them to work together on services, where one family might provide lodging, another might provide horses and another might be their guide and translator.
Brit: The success of survival lies in the group.
By improving roads and trails, building communities and organize environmental clean ups, we safeguard the environment and allow travelers to connect more freely with the local culture.
I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but doesn’t the commercialisation also poses a risk for the katuns and the environment?
Brit: Certainly! Some parts of Montenegro already suffer from overtourism. The black lake in Durmitor national park has seen such a rise of day tourists that I don’t even visit it anymore. Noticing the monetary opportunities, developers proposed to build big resorts and even private properties – but the people resisted.
Jovan: It has been inspiring to see Montenegrins, especially the younger generation, protest to all these things that jeopardize our beautiful nature. At the same time, we still have a long way to go in making people see the importance of our protected areas. It’s hard to care about the national parks when you don’t visit them.
Brit: When trying to promote and develop sustainable tourism, it’s important to listen to the local knowledge and dreams – none of the owners wants resorts or hotels in that area – but also to improve the understanding of what nature lovers look for. They don’t want concrete boxes. They want small and homely places to rest, with navigable trails.
Jovan: Those trails also allow us to fully promote slow travels, where people can travel longer distances at a gentle speed. It creates less impact on the environment, allows you to fully absorb the experience and spreads the demands over a larger area.
With these trails, we promote slow travels, where people can travel longer distances at a gentle speed. It creates less impact on the environment and allowes you to fully absorb the experience
Meanderbug could be loosely translated to “having the urge to wander at random”. How does this apply to your personal lives?
Brit: The nature and the mountains are my calling. The days I spend in this city, Podgorica, are my least favorite days. But once I put on my hiking shoes, I come alive.
Jovan: My background is a typical Balkan mix: I was born in Serbia, lived in Bosnia when I was a kid and came to Montenegro when I was 6. We lived near the Montenegrin coast and we would always go play around in the fields an the woods. The outdoors were my habitat and for a while, the big-city American life that I saw in movies was my dream. But when I grew up, I started to see the potential in my surroundings. I really want to stay here and develop sustainable opportunities for the good of the people. The shores are developed – overdeveloped even – but there is so much more to this country. Brit once told me his goal is to never stop falling in love with Montenegro. I now try to live by these words.
We don’t want to fix everything. But we want to narrate a different story than the one everyone hears about Montenegro. This country is more than the over-the-top coast all those influencers boast about.
Looks like you took on a big challenge, guys.
Jovan: All the more reason to not search for a future abroad. If everyone starts moving out of the country, who will develop things further?
Brit: We don’t want to fix everything. But we want to narrate a different story than the one everyone hears about Montenegro. This country is more than the over-the-top coast all those influencers boast about. We want to do good while protecting the environment and allowing travelers to connect with local culture. My one tip for all travelers? Stay away from the cruises and the neon lights.